Minister's Sermon - Sunday 7th April 2019
Rev Sue Keegan von Allmen
Rev Sue Keegan von AllmenChurch with Choices: Climate Change

Sunday 7th April 2019


We’ve sung songs of praise to God, who created creation good, fruitful, amazing. Yet every day, we hear stories of how creation is being changed, because of the way humans live. The fragile earth we live on is becoming ever-more fragile. Plant, insect, bird, fish and animal species are being wiped out. Some of the places humans used to live are no longer inhabitable. And the climate of the earth is being altered – perhaps forever. Because of the way we human beings, are living, and because of the things we refuse to change. Listen to this speech given by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres, in September last year.

If we’re to step away from the abyss, we all need to rise to the challenge before it’s too late, and that all includes us. From the youngest to the oldest. Listen to this message from of the youngest climate change leaders: Greta Thunberg.

Bible Study Part 1: Literary, historical and geographical background

What we’ll be exploring in this bible study is how the creation stories in Genesis have shaped our attitude to creation. These are challenging stories. Walter Brueggemann, Old Testament theologian and biblical scholar says, they’re “amongst the most important in Scripture… among the best known… And [yet] they are frequently the most misunderstood.” So, before I get to the stories, I want to offer some geographical, historical and literary background that help us unravel them. Then, after a short break for conversation, we’ll go onto the first creation story – which is from Genesis 1.1 – 2.4. And after another short break, the second creation story Genesis 2.4-3.24 ending with God’s covenant after the flood.

I’m sure I don’t need to say that the bible wasn’t written in one go and it wasn’t written in order from Genesis to Revelation. That it’s a collection of theological writings from different times and places. And the context in which it was written has affected the way it was written. In the Book of Genesis, biblical scholars have identified four strands, that comes from different periods of history. But we’re concerned with just two. The oldest, is known as J, or Yahwist. And the youngest, P, for Priestly. The theology, the origin and the purpose of each strand, is different. But what is common to both is that neither is intended to be a scientific description of creation. They are theological reflections that have deep human questions at their heart. The oldest, second creation story, comes from the Yahwist source. It originates in the time of the great kings David and Solomon, but because it also contains material critical of Solomon and later kings, we can assume it was written over a longer period of time. It was a time when Israel was flourishing, as they expanding into more fertile territory of the promised land, after wandering in the desert of the wilderness. Yet, things started to go wrong fairly quickly, because as humans became less dependent on God, we insist on our own autonomy. So, maybe it’s not surprising that it’s in the second creation story, that we find the story of the “so-called” fall. The first creation story comes from the Priestly source. From the time after Jerusalem was destroyed and God’s people and the religious leaders were exiled from the promised land. The issue that concerned them was the despair and hopelessness they felt at losing the land they believed God has given to them, their place of worship, and their homes.

So, that’s something about the history and sources, of each of the creation stories. I also want to say something about geography. I’m surprised I didn’t think about it before since my first degree was geography! But I discovered this when I was reading a book by Sean McDonagh, a Catholic priest and eco-theologian. He says that if we’re to understand the biblical perspectives on creation we also need to pay attention to the natural environment in which people lived. Most of the Middle east is barren and inhospitable. “In order to survive in the sparse mountains, barren deserts, steppes and narrow plains, human beings had to channel all their efforts into dominating, controlling and taming the natural world.” Where there was water, “generations wrestled with nature by draining swamps, designing irrigation canals and terracing hillsides… When compared with the lush, abundant vegetation of the tropics, or even the temperate lands of Europe, much of the Middle east is barren, difficult to work and not very fruitful.” The impact of this is seen in the region’s architecture as well as their scriptures. Thick, sturdy walls protected villages, towns and cities, not only from other people, but also from the chaos and uncertainty of the natural world. Gardens were protected by walls and tended with care, to be places of refreshment and rest, where humans were in control. Even so, “no matter how much effort… human beings could never hope to fully control… a storm, a flash flood, a drought, or a plague of locusts could overwhelm when they least expected it.” So, granaries in which food could be stored, were essential for survival. But more significantly for us, the impact of the environment is seen in the way the people who wrote the scriptures, thought about creation and God. They were keen to keep them separate, and to clearly separate God and human beings, from the rest of the natural world. And when I talk about the creation stories you’ll see that it’s true of both. Time to stop! For an opportunity to talk together.

How has the climate change affected the way you think about God?

Bible Study Part 2: First creation story

The Bible speaks of a loving, good creator, right from the beginning. Over and over again, comes the refrain, “And God saw that it was good.” (All bible quotes from NRSV) This is important in the light of what I said earlier, about the way the environment affected how the writers, felt about nature. The story is written so that we are absolutely sure that God is control of the chaos and the process of creation. It begins like this. “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.” God begins by separating. Light from dark, the seas from the sky, sea from land, night from day, the seasons from each other and so on. God is in control, yet the feeling that humans are at the mercy of the chaos of creation, is also present. God creates in an ordered way, and God sustains creation, by God’s power. But if God withdraws this power, then the chaos God has tamed, might easily reassert itself. So, the writers also insist that, “God has a powerful purpose for … creation. Creation is not a careless, casual or accidental matter.” The Hebrew word used for God’s creative activity, is only used of God, never of humans or animals. So, God’s creativity is different, and it binds God to what God has created. Brueggemann says that this binding isn’t explained and it can’t be analysed. It just is. “This text,” he says, “announces the deepest mystery: God will and will have a faithful relationship with the earth.” This was vitally important to the people of Israel when they were living in exile, because they were living alongside people who distinguished between, spirit and matter. People who saw spirit as good and matter as evil. This story of creation rejects that idea. Spirit and matter – everything – come under God’s influence and God’s care. God has bound God’s-self to it all.

For centuries, people have seen the climax of creation, as the creation of human beings. “Then God said, ‘Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.’ So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over… every living thing…’” There’s a lot that could be said about God creating humankind – about God and us - but I want to focus on the word “dominion.” Which is also translated “master,” “rule over,” “take charge,” “take authority,” “subdue,” and “conquer.” Psalm 8 echoes this. “…you have made human beings a little lower than God... You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet…” All these words carry a strong overtone of actively shaping the natural world in a way that is appropriate given the environment of the Middle East. But it has led human beings into an arrogant relationship with the earth. And I don’t believe it’s too big a claim to make, that the current ecological crisis, is rooted in the way this word has been interpreted. The view that humans are the pinnacle of creation. That we are unique in having any spiritual dimension so have nothing in common with the rest of creation. And that the rest of creation had no purpose, other than to serve human needs, has persisted among some Christian communities. And continues to contribute to the destruction of the environment. Yet this can be challenged from within the text.

The meaning of the Hebrew word translated “dominion” has to do with loving kindness and faithfulness. It contains within it an invitation to imitate God, to share in God’s work, as co-creator and sustainer of the non-human parts of creation. And the same intention can be found in Psalm 72 where the righteous king is to “defend the cause of the poor of the people, [and] give deliverance to the needy.” Maybe it’s no surprise, that in our time, as we’ve become increasingly aware of the impact of our actions, the word “dominion” has been replaced by “stewardship.” Humans are to be stewards of God’s creation. Alongside our increasing awareness that the way we’ve interpreted these verses, has contributed to the ecological crisis, there has also been a reassessment of where the climax of the first creation story is. Rather than it being in verses 26-28, it is now considered to be at the end of the story, and not in the middle! Instead of human beings being at the centre. God is! And we’re surprised by that?! Jurgen Moltmann, a German theologian, wrote this. “The crown of creation is not the human being; it is the sabbath. It is true that, as the image of God, the human being has a special position in creation. But we stand together with all the other earthly and heavenly beings in the same hymn of praise of God’s glory, and in the enjoyment of God’s sabbath pleasure over creation, as God saw that it was good.” But there is more, to this, because in insisting on rest, God was saying that all of creation – including humans, animals, plants, land - is not to be constantly exploited. Rest is as important for all of creation. Without it, chaos reasserts itself, and makes life meaningless for all. In the context of the despair and hopelessness of the exile, which is when it was written, and humans we trying to control their destiny this story of creation is hopeful. It expresses a theology of blessing. Goodness undergirds the whole of creation. Life is good. God loves the world God has created, it is what God intended, and God with not abandon it.

How do you respond to these thoughts about the first creation story in the Book of Genesis?

Bible Study Part 3: Second creation story

The second story if creation is more intimate. Instead of the cosmic reach of the first, it describes the creation of human beings from the earth, and ends with a crisis that leads to alienation. It is much more deeply rooted in the natural environment of the Middle East. To begin with, it’s set in a garden. After God formed the man from the clay, and breathed life into his nostrils, God planted a garden in Eden. Tradition speaks of the garden as paradise, a paradise shaped by the human beings, without unpredictable, hostile creatures. So lovely that God could be heard “walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze.” God’s involvement doesn’t end with God creating the humans. They are to till the garden, “and keep it,” and they can eat the fruit of every tree except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. What has come to be called “the fall” – when they eat the forbidden fruit - has come to be seen as the centre of this creation story. But Brueggemann suggests this idea is flawed, and that we need to use two principles, to guide our reading of it. The first is, that the Hebrew scriptures are not interested in abstract questions about sin, evil, death, or the fall. The Jewish community does not read the story like this. And this interpretation is rooted in Paul’s writing, which draws conclusions from this story that stretch its interpretation, and is compounded by some of the interpretations of Paul’s writings not being justified. The second principle, is that we focus on the purposes of God, and not on the human predicament. And that, is God’s call to humans to be God’s creatures, and to live in the world on God’s terms.

The principles he suggests we focus are in these three verses. “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it. And the Lord God commanded the man, ‘You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall die.’” Here there is a vocation, a permit, and a prohibition. Their vocation is to till and keep. The Hebrew words for till, or work, and keep have overtones of service, preserving and defending. God entrusts the garden to humans and God expects us to share in God’s work. Human beings are permitted to do everything – to eat of every tree. But they are prohibited from eating the fruit of one tree. Why isn’t explained. What counts is God’s authority and the expectation that they will obey. For Brueggemann, the vocation, permission and the prohibition God gives to humans in this story, is at the heart of the way God has created us to relate to God. But they need to be held together. Because when they’re not, we forget that it’s God’s desire that we might live in freedom, and share in God’s creativity, within limits. And I think it’s abundantly clear that at the root of our exploitation of creation and other human beings is an insistence on our freedom to do what we want and an unwillingness to live within limits. Chapter 3 tells the story of the man and the women’s disobedience. They refuse to observe the limits God has placed on them. They wish to control their own destiny, to “be like God, knowing good and evil.” This separates them from their easy-going relationship with God and leads to them being expelled from the garden. It also ruptures their relationship with nature. It is no longer fruitful, bountiful garden, but in an antagonistic, inhospitable environment. “…cursed is the ground… in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; …By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” The earth remains the source of life, but it is not abundant. “A person has to plan, organise and almost use military tactics to break the earth with the plough and transform it by the sweat if human labour in order to make it fruitful and responsive to human needs.”

These themes are developed in the chapters following the second creation story. They are extensions of it. And they use material that comes from both the P and J traditions. Soon, Cain kills Abel, and his punishment involves the earth which “will no longer yield its strength.” So, he will become “a fugitive, and a wanderer on the earth.” To me, it speaks of the over-use of soil, that leads to poverty and violence, and the migration of people whose land is no longer fruitful. The text continues to tell the story of human progress, until because of the way they live, God regrets ever having made human beings, and decides to punish them in a great flood. The connection between sin and environmental disaster, first made here, is repeated in other places in scripture. God is very human, but God is also just, and when God find a righteous man he is commanded to conserve nature by building an ark. After the flood, God’s renews the command made in the first creation story, but this time the covenant is entrusted to all creation and not just human beings. “God said to Noah and to his… ‘I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark.” The sign of the covenant is the rainbow, but that matters less, than the fact that the covenant is made with all creation. And human beings are placed – as they are in the second creation story – to be stewards of creation as one of the creatures created from the dust of the earth. Our lives, like theirs, are limited. But they are also blessed by God, and wherever God finds human goodness, God can use it – as God used Noah - to bring hope and healing to the whole earth.

How do you respond to these thoughts about the second creation story in the Book of Genesis?

Sue Keegan von Allmen

7th April 2018

Genesis Walter Brueggemann John Knox Press, 1982, p11, 14-15, 22, 36-8

The Greening of the Church Sean McDonagh, Geoffrey Chapman, 1990, p113, 114

Jurgen Moltmann God in Creation: A New theology of creation and the spirit 1985, 31