A sermon delivered to LaSalle Street Church on 3/21/21, revised for reading. You can watch the full service here, or watch only the sermon embedded below.
One night when I was a child I saw two images that permanently shaped my relationship to creation. I grew up in Houston in a family of hunters. A few times a year, the men in my family would load up their SUVs with rifles and camo and drive into the wilderness of West Texas to hunt deer, or dove, or pheasant. I never really took to hunting, but I went on a few of the trips, and on one particular night I remember all my uncles and cousins gathered together in a big garage. My dad gently took my arm and whispered, “I have something to show you.” He led me outside, and when I looked up I saw more stars than I’d ever seen in my life. Every direction, surrounding us: stars and planets and satellites. I felt queasy at the sight, as if I might suddenly fall off the planet and be lost into the expanse.
Only recently did I recall the other image from that night. My dad and I went back into the garage, and the reason we were gathered there that night was to field dress a deer. One of my uncles had successfully bagged a large buck, and that night the men worked meticulously and solemnly to harvest and preserve the meat. I felt queasy again. I had never seen an animal dissected so close. All the organs and skin and sinews. The sight was frightening and exhilarating as I learned how complex the systems inside our bodies are.
Whether my dad knew it or not, that night he was teaching me how our family understood our role in creation. He taught me wonder and awe, taking me outside to see the stars, as if to say, “Look at this! You feel overwhelmed, and that’s good! You cannot begin to understand how big the universe is, how small we are.” And then he taught me a different kind of reverence, taking me inside to show me how we handled this animal we had killed, that its body was wonderful and intricate, that we should feel the weight of eating and being sustained by something that had its own life.
This is the fifth week of Lent, and this is the third week of a series we’re calling “Unmute Yourself,” exploring our capacity as humans to speak and to be silent. We’re thinking about the different ways God might be calling us to make use of that capacity. Today I’m inviting us to consider how God might be calling us to unmute ourselves for the sake of creation. God created the world with speech, and God has chosen us to create and rule with God. But we haven’t always used our voices to carry out the purposes of God.
Genesis chapters 1 and 2 contain two vivid, imaginative descriptions of what it was like when God created everything. Genesis 2 portrays God sweating in a garden, watering the plants, using hands to dig up the soil, exhaling to breathe life into a clod of dirt shaped like a human. Genesis 1 portrays God as a ruler on a throne; the Almighty speaks, and the very power of that speech brings into existence things that did not exist: light and water and space and life.
Both of these stories tell us more about God than they tell us about what God made. They tell us that when God speaks, things happen. They tell us that the Author of Life is purposeful and deliberate. They tell us the Creator is intimately concerned with the material of created things.
Here’s some good news: These stories tell us that God made humans in the image of God and chose us to create and rule with God. At the end of Genesis 1—a passage you might recognize from Jonathan’s sermon last week—God tells the humans:
Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.(Genesis 1:28 NRSV)
The verbs matter. God tells the humans, “I want you to ‘subdue’ the earth and ‘have dominion’ over all the creatures.” There’s been considerable debate over the precise translation of those verbs, and you can understand why. If I entrust something valuable to you, it matters a lot if I ask you to “care for it,” or to “make use of it,” or to “subdue it,” or to “have dominion over it.”
It’s striking to me that God’s first grand commission for the humans involves their relationship to the natural world. Admittedly, things like money and temples didn’t exist yet. But I suspect this speaks to something profound and fundamental about why we’re here. It’s also surprising what God doesn’t say. The verbs aren’t “enjoy” the earth or even “explore” the earth—though I do think God wants us to enjoy and explore the planet. Here at the beginning, the relationship is dominion. We have a role to play. We have a job to do.
Fortunately this passage is not God’s final word to the people about how they are meant to exercise dominion over creation. Throughout the Old Testament, God is in the business of making covenants. One of the first covenants comes after the story of Noah and the great flood. Once the waters have receded, God invites Noah into a covenant. And then God says, in Genesis 9, “As for me, 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.” God makes a covenant with Noah and with all the other creatures. And God points to a rainbow and says, “Let’s use this rainbow to remember this covenant. Whenever you see a rainbow, remember this.”
We know what happens in the chapters that follow: God calls Abraham and, through his descendants, creates the nation of Israel. Genesis 15 says God points up at the sky and says, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them. So shall your descendants be.”
And God continues making covenants. God forms a covenant with Israel and provides a long list of laws to teach them how they ought to fulfill their role in their covenant with God. Maybe you’ve read the laws in Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy. They cover every sphere of life: our relationship to each other, our relationship to God, our life of worship, and of course, our relationship to creation. Laws about how to farm; laws about what to do with our bodies and the things our bodies produce; laws about how to eat and how to butcher. God does for the nation of Israel what my dad did for me on that hunting trip. Essentially, God tells the people, “This is who we are. Our identity is formed by our traditions and the way we live together.” It’s like God is saying, “It matters where your food comes from. It matters how you treat the land you’re using to farm. Even the way you care for your body—your hygiene!—matters.”
I think God is teaching the nation of Israel how they’re meant to carry out that first, initial calling to subdue and have dominion over creation. God knows that the way we handle the things that are under our power says a lot about who we think we are. Even more, they say a lot about who we think God is.
We, too, are constantly participating in creation with God. It’s amazing, isn’t it? God started everything with creation ex nihilo, that is, creating something from nothing. And now we’re constantly participating in creation with God. Think small: Each of us is constantly creating our own home. I’m talking literally about your house or apartment and the people who live there. Sometimes the things we build into our homes reflect the nature of God. We build forgiveness and hospitality and tradition. Sometimes what we build into our homes fails to reflect the nature of God. We build chaos and resentment and callousness. Either way, we’re constantly creating. We do this with our speech, and more broadly we do this through everything we create: how we treat each other, what we cook, how we express ourselves.
We’re constantly creating communities together. We’re creating our city, our state, our nation. We’re building on a foundation we inherited, of course, the works that others before us created and re-created.
And we are, all of us together, creating with God the planet on which we live. Again, think small: Your yard, your garden, your houseplants, your pets, the air around you, anything that God has entrusted to your care. We are constantly shaping the world around us.
It’s absolutely staggering what God has entrusted to us. It’s incredible.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that we are collectively failing to exercise that dominion well.
It’s hard to know where to start to describe the crisis we’re facing, whether to share statistics or predictions or images. I don’t think I have to describe to you how we’re failing—we’ve all seen the images and read the statistics. Instead I’ll let Nemonte Nenquimo describe the stakes. She’s an indigenous leader in the Amazon rainforest, and last October she published a short opinion piece in The Guardian that was staggering and remarkable. Here’s a short passage:
In each of our many hundreds of different languages across the Amazon, we have a word for you – the outsider, the stranger. …And it doesn’t need to be a bad word. But you have made it so. For us, the word has come to mean (and in a terrible way, your society has come to represent): the white man that knows too little for the power that he wields, and the damage that he causes…
I never had the chance to go to university, and become a doctor, or a lawyer, a politician, or a scientist. My elders are my teachers. The forest is my teacher. And I have learned enough (and I speak shoulder to shoulder with my Indigenous brothers and sisters across the world) to know that you have lost your way, and that you are in trouble (though you don’t fully understand it yet) and that your trouble is a threat to every form of life on Earth.
“You know too little the power that you wield, and the damage that you cause.” Do you hear it? She’s talking about dominion.
We’re not the only ones with voices. Romans 8 says all of creation is groaning—like a woman in labor—waiting for the redemption of all things. Can you hear all of creation groaning?
My guess is that most of the people hearing this sermon don’t need to be convinced that human activity has disastrously harmed the fragile, complex ecosystems that make our planet hospitable to human life. But maybe that’s not a fair assumption. Maybe you are skeptical of the science.
Here’s the sobering truth, though. Whether or not we believe the science on climate change, I think most of us genuinely struggle to believe that we actually have any power to make things better—which is really another way of saying we struggle to believe we’re actually complicit in making things worse.
Jonathan Safran Foer is a novelist who has written extensively on animal agriculture and climate change, and he published a book in 2019 called We Are the Weather: Saving the Planet Begins at Breakfast. He makes the case powerfully:
So-called climate change deniers reject the conclusion that 97 percent of climate scientists have reached: the planet is warming because of human activities. But what about those of us who say we accept the reality of human-caused climate change? We may not think the scientists are lying, but are we able to believe what they tell us? Such a belief would surely awaken us to the urgent ethical imperative attached to it, shake our collective conscience, and render us willing to make small sacrifices in the present to avoid cataclysmic ones in the future. Intellectually accepting the truth isn’t virtuous in and of itself. And it won’t save us.
I know I struggle to believe I have a part in all this. Frankly, it’s exhausting—it’s exhausting to try and conceive of a crisis so big and so intimidating without feeling completely overwhelmed and powerless. In the grand scheme of things, how much does it actually affect the future if I, my one little self, walk to the grocery store today instead of driving? When we’re facing a crisis this enormous, how much can it possibly help if I avoid eating meat today, or all week, or even for the rest of my life? How can it possibly matter?
I wonder if we struggle to believe the same thing about God. God says, “I created you in my image.” God says, “Fill the earth and subdue it.” God says, “Have dominion over the other living creatures.” Do we really believe God has entrusted so much to us? I don’t mean do we agree that it’s true on an intellectual level. I mean, do we believe it? Do we feel the weight of that imperative? Do we really believe that the decisions we make about what to eat, or how to travel, or where to shop, are part of what God has in mind when God calls us to participate in creating?
There’s a very live and crucial conversation happening about what’s actually most useful and effective in preventing climate catastrophe: Whether we should focus our efforts on government policies and corporate regulations, or whether what matters is the massive sum of individual actions, the actions you and I take every day. It’s an important conversation, and the truth is that the outlook is grim if we don’t implement some major, large-scale, policy-level changes in the ways we manage our resources.
But ultimately what we’re facing is a question about the scale of our dominions, isn’t it?
For some of us, the range of our dominion consists mostly of our household. For some of us the range of our dominion is much larger. Some people have dominion over large corporations; some people wield political power over entire cities or states or countries. So whose job is it?
For all kinds of reasons—including genuine fear and despair about the crisis we’re facing—many of us have essentially muted ourselves. God invites us to have dominion and to create with God, but we don’t want that power. Or we don’t accept it. I think some of us do want that power, but we want it only on our terms, only in service to our own needs and desires. We have decided it’s completely up to us to define what “dominion” means and how we exercise it.
We know what happens in the Genesis story. Soon after God entrusts the humans with dominion, they succumb to the temptation to wield their power outside the purposes and desires of God. And then things start to fracture—including their relationships to God and to each other, and crucially, their relationship to the creation that God entrusted to them. The Old Testament portrays the Israelites failing, time and time again, to honor their covenant with God, including the ways they acquire and use and distribute resources.
Listen, I know many of us—maybe most of us—are fighting other battles that feel more urgent than this. When you have two toddlers in your shopping cart at the grocery store, and you’re trying to keep them from melting down, it’s hard to spend 10 minutes carefully examining different bags of coffee to identify how they’re sourced. When your manager has a no-tolerance policy for tardiness, you may not be able to risk the possibility of train or bus delays getting you to work on time over the dependability of driving your own car. It’s hard to be too choosy about your produce if you only have one grocery store within walking distance of your home.
We all have different ranges of dominion, and we all have our own unique ranges of control. I’m not here to convince you what the best course of action is. I’m here to remind each of us, to remind myself, that God is deeply interested in the way we exercise our dominion over creation.
Can I be honest? This feels like bad timing for a sermon on climate and sustainability, doesn’t it? I’m here talking about an existential threat, one that feels huge and distant and looming, but one that also seems connected to so many of the tiny decisions we make all day long: what to eat, what to buy, how to get from one place to another. It’s bad timing because, of course, we’re still facing a different existential threat. This pandemic is another huge, looming crisis that affects every part of our daily lives.
Many people have pointed out that it feels like we have been living in a full year of Lent: a year of less, a year of abstaining, a year of loss. But we know that even in normal circumstances, Lent is a season of looking more plainly at our lives. What’s painful is that this self-reflection often leads to confession and repentance. When we pay closer attention, we notice ways that our lives don’t reflect an orientation toward God. But Lent ends with Easter. We remember that Jesus was resurrected, that death was defeated, and that our confession and repentance invites God’s grace and forgiveness.
In light of that, I think now is a really crucial time for an audit of how well we are exercising our dominion over the world God created.
So, yes, let’s unmute ourselves and make use of the creative capacity God has designated for each of us. We have two more weeks of Lent. I urge you to use some of that time to consider whether God is calling you to any repentance—which is just another way of saying change—in the way you exercise your dominion. I know it’s exhausting trying to keep up. Every week on Facebook someone shares a new list of good habits that help the climate and bad habits we previously thought were helpful but no longer are. It’s dizzying to know where to direct our energies.
The good news about LaSalle Street Church is that we have already demonstrated over the course of the last year that we are collectively capable of inconveniencing ourselves for the sake of the common good. I know this is true because you’re watching this sermon on YouTube rather than in person! We have made massive changes in our common life together for the sake of the common good. And we are each capable of inconveniencing ourselves for the sake of creation.
So maybe you start small. Start by getting curious about where your purchases come from. If you’re like me, you may have done more of your shopping online last year to avoid going to stores. It’s almost magical, right? You click a few buttons, and suddenly products arrive at your home, almost as if they were created ex nihilo, out of nothing. But of course they weren’t. So this week, get curious about anything you buy—groceries, clothing, anything else. Maybe you hear a nagging voice saying, “I don’t think you’re going to like what you find if you investigate the conditions under which that gadget was manufactured.” This is the right time to listen to that nagging voice. Listen to it, follow it, see where it leads.
Or maybe you feel ready for a larger kind of repentance. Maybe you feel your spirit preparing you for a bigger change. When it comes to personal action, experts tell us that three of the highest-impact actions we can take are: (1) living without a car, (2) flying less frequently, and (3) eating a plant-based diet. I visit my family in Texas a few times a year, either by car or plane. One of my family members works for a major airline. So I know when we talk about those specific actions, we’re talking about major kinds of life change, and there is plenty to consider.
Or maybe you feel powerless and exhausted. Lent is also the right time to recognize our dependence on God, and to ask God for help. So, go ahead and ask—ask God to help you see your corner of the world with new eyes. Ask God to restore your capacity to create and re-create with God. Ask God for what you need.
Do you want to know how God exercises dominion over creation? Look no further than Jesus. Colossians 1:15-16 tells us, “Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created.” Furthermore, in v. 20: “Through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Jesus is the means by which God repairs the fractures between humans and God and all created things. Not by grasping more power for himself, but by surrendering himself to the will of God.
Church, I am tired of living at war against the creation that God created me to rule. It was never meant to be a zero-sum game, our needs in competition with the needs of the redwoods, in competition with the needs of the sea turtles. Throughout the entire story of Scripture, we see glimpses of the kind of peace God invites us to—the possibility that our flourishing is intimately, physically, materially connected to the flourishing of creation.
Creation isn’t only groaning out for redemption. It’s also singing songs of praise. Luke 19 describes Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem—a story we’ll celebrate next week, on Palm Sunday. Some of the authorities try to silence the people who are calling out praises to Jesus, and Jesus says, “I tell you, if [they] were silent, the stones would shout out.” Can you hear that, too? Creation shouting out praise and gratitude to God?
More good news: God didn’t make a mistake when God entrusted all of this to us. And God didn’t leave us alone in our dominion. From time to time, God takes us outside to point at the stars and say, “You can’t count them, right? Hold onto your wonder.” At times God points to the creatures, the plants and animals, and says, “Feel the weight of your calling, your place in all this, the way creation is sustaining you. I have entrusted this to you.”
Don’t we want to exercise our dominion over creation in the way God exercises dominion over us? I think we do, and I believe we can, with God’s help. When we do—when we unmute ourselves and use the voices and creative capacities God has given us—we’re merely adding our voices to the chorus of the rocks, and the redwoods, and the sea turtles, singing together, “God is good, what God created is good, God is good.”