"The Relative Value of Animals... and the rest of God's Natural Creation"
A sermon based on Genesis 1:26-31 & Matthew 10:29-31 & 12:9-16
When we think of God as the Creator of all things -- from the first burst of light energy in Genesis, Chapter 1, to the creation of humanity as its crowning glory (in the text we heard this morning)… it makes us think about what it means to have “dominion” -- power over other parts of nature.
As I read it, God has the hope that we (human beings) would manage the affairs of earth with the same care as God showed in the beginning.
“God created humankind in God’s own image . . . male and female God created them. God blessed them, and said to them, ‘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.” (Gen. 1:27-28) : “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31)
The poet/priests who wrote Genesis point out that God has (apparently) made human beings “master” over God’s handwork. In Church we call that ‘stewardship’ -- care for the earth (care for its resources, care for the animals and the elements, care for the climate), care for the household of God, as though it were ours... but it isn’t.
The Psalmist (in Psalm 24, verse 1), reminds us that everything really belongs to God: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it; the world, and those who live in it.” All the makings for life itself were here before we humans arrived, and it will all outlast us -- if we tend it well. . . So far, you could say, we’re doing okay.
God blessed them and said to them: “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it...” The spread of humankind over the face of the globe -- six-or-seven billion strong! with no signs of abating -- has been an explosion of one species (ours) such that no part of the ecosystem is unaffected by human society. The oceans and the atmosphere, the polar ice caps and the tropical rain forests, all feel the impact of humans multiplying, and filling the earth, and subduing it.
It is by the grace of God that we enjoy “dominion” over the other creatures and systems on earth. It is not because we are inherently sovereign, nor because we have deserved a place of honor and power, nor that we have proven ourselves worthy of such a trust. No... God has simply trusted us to get it right: trusted us, that we will serve the whole of Creation with the same goodwill and parental concern that God the Creator has toward our living world.
Our “dominion” is to be exercised with responsibility because it is subject to accountability to God. According to Genesis, the world and all its inhabitants are given over to human management precisely at the point when the Creator judges everything to be ‘very good’ … and God rests. The interrelationships of organisms within their respective environments, as well as the relations between the species, is entirely harmonious and mutually beneficial. (In effect, God says: Well done! Let’s keep it that way.)
Everything up ’til this point has been the work of God, by divine word & investment of energy, evolving the universe into its present form. The completion of that 15-billion year cosmological drama is now in human hands. … “Are we up to it?”
According to the Bible, the blessed and sacred character of the living world (and the universe which brought it into being) is now in our hands to administer and to manage.
In my opinion, the fact that we are given dominion (free will to rule freely) over all the natural resources and creatures of earth is not a license to exploit nature but to manage it with utmost care for us and for our future generations. Each of us is a free agent, says Genesis, to act as God would act: utilizing dominion so that all may flourish!
If our stewardship of life (and all its resources) is to be patterned after God’s own creative design (and if our behavior is to be representative of God’s own desire for the well-being and flourishing of the world), what does that entail?
First, we are told to be “fruitful” -- even as God has been exuberantly fruitful in the profligate creativity that continues to evolve in complexity (and diversity and beauty) all around us.
God has given birth to the whole intricate cosmos, as a gift of grace & generosity which we enjoy. A Spirit of gratitude is in order (wouldn’t you say?)! We didn’t earn this marvelous wonder of night & day, earth & sky, colors & smells, breath & life & love. It’s all a gift, free & clear, with no strings attached, from God.
But gratitude is not enough. It’s important, but it doesn’t do anything. Feeling thankful is a first step in recognizing that we are recipients of unearned resources. And in all things, in every moment of life, we should be thankful... but it’s only the first step.
In exchange for being given God’s own Carte Blanche -- in exchange for the gift of our life and breath and daily bread -- God only asks that we be in relationship with the rest of nature with the same sort of style and attitude as God’s own. God asks that we relate to the world around us as though we were (in fact) God’s own image, God’s likeness, at work among them.
To be sure that human beings would be successful in that relationship, God has given us “dominion.” It is another gift of grace, with no strings attached, based upon the assumption (on God’s part) that we human beings will use our power wisely and well in order to accomplish God’s own design. As I said before: God has trusted us...
And (frankly) in that, perhaps, are the seeds of disaster.
You see, some folks think of “dominion” as an opportunity for exploitation -- the divine gift of human “power” over nature is taken to mean “domination.” The command to “fill the earth and subdue it” is understood to mean (by some) to “conquer it and control it.” (!) To see “dominion” as having “power-over” others is used to justify taking advantage of the disadvantaged.
Clearly the great Creator God (who is revealed in Hebrew Scripture and further revealed in the life of Jesus Christ) -- who loves what God has made -- does not intend “dominion” to play itself out in arrogance & plunder! It is designed to assist us in being “fruitful,” not being harmful; enabling us to be “creative” like God is creative & productive, not destructive.
I’d like us to consider redefining “dominion” away from having “power” over nature, to (instead) being plugged in to the power of nature (at its generating source): God. In other words, we are “empowered” by God to achieve God’s Dream… God’s will being done one earth (as it is I heaven); as it was in the beginning.
When we think of dominion as empowerment -- instead of as “having power over” -- it recognizes we are in a mutual responsibility with the world of Nature… a shared relationship. In my sermon title, I call it our “relative value”… like relatives! Kindred; colleagues in creation, with God as our ultimate source.
According to the Bible, we are drawing upon divine resources -- as well drawing upon as vast amounts of natural resources (fossil fuels & sunlight, and water & air, not to mention plants and minerals of every kind) -- in order to better the course of human evolution. Our task is to “better” the earthly environment for the future, not to foul it. To develop latent potentials in people, not to dismiss them, or worse, to delay or even destroy them.
If we take seriously the biblical word “steward” -- which meant a servant whose task was to manage the affairs of the owner, particularly feeding and tending... To be a steward is to be a caretaker of that which belongs to someone else, so that things may flourish and increase and gain in value (not lose value, nor waste it).
If we approach nature with appreciation for its grandeur and its life-giving ability -- it seems to me that an attitude of gratitude is the first step. (Be thankful for each day… for each breath… for each moment of meaning, or beauty, or novelty you encounter…) But the next step is to act in accordance with that feeling... and that means to accept our role as “stewards” -- knowing we live in a world that we do not own. We did not create it, God did. God owns it. “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it” said the Psalmist so long ago.
We are tenants in the household of God; visitors, passing through, with full welcome to enjoy what we find -- but not to destroy it -- nor to pretend that we are the owners of it. We are stewards -- “managers” at most.
Created by God in the image of God, and given the dominion of God, still leaves us as invited guests in the cosmos of God’s Creation. We “current residents” do not replace God.
To keep and to care for Creation, to till and to fill the earth, to be fruitful and to multiply... for this reason we have been empowered by God. For this reason God grants us dominion -- and freedom -- in order that we may function (as God does) in a growing, gardening, sort of way. We are designed to be co- creators with God. We are held accountable for the use (and the abuse) of all elements of nature.
For example, while we are permitted to eat animals (that covenant was articulated with Noah, under the arching rainbow), it is to be done under careful slaughter guidelines which treat the animal’s lifeblood with respect (kosher rules) -- breathing a prayer of thanks for the breath of life which is being taken from that creature in order to nourish our own. Hunters know this. Farmers know this. We are forbidden to destroy animals per se.
And, according to the Bible, we are not to abuse them. We cannot make them suffer. Bull-fighting, where the animal is tortured for entertainment (eventually dying from bloody spears and arrows); cock-fighting as a sport; the treatment of animals in preparation for a rodeo; even careless harvesting of sea creatures with drag-nets which destroys the surrounding coral reef and adjacent species, is anathema to the one who approaches nature with a biblical sense of “dominion”. It is not demonstrating “power-over” in order to subdue, but engaging nature with awe & reverence -- a sense of responsible steward- ship -- seeking fruitfulness, flourishing, in faithfulness to God.
I think it’s appropriate for us to spend some time taking stock of our relations with nature… to look at the “relative value” of all other creatures, plant and animal alike.
Summer is a good time to withdraw for a moment from the frantic pace and habitual use (and abuse) of God’s Creation, to say (first) with renewed appreciation: “Ah, yes. It is very good! Indeed. Thanks, God!” and (then), “now, let’s do what we can to keep it that way, OK?” May we be good & faithful stewards of life… of plant & animal, of gardening & watering, and of enjoying nature (which is to be valued as a near & dear relative of ours).
As I thought about this Heifer International Animal Fair day, a text from Jesus came to my mind: “I tell you,” he said in the Sermon on the Mount, “do not worry about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will wear. For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. Consider the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouses nor barns, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? (No.) If, then, you are not able to do so small a thing as that, why do you worry about the rest? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin. Yet, I tell you, even [King] Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.” (Luke 12:22-27)
Obviously, Jesus saw something of God’s nature revealed in the world of nature … in birds … in flowers in a field. We followers of Jesus should be looking at the broader context around us, as He did! … noticing the God-given natural resources of plant and animal -- seeing the world through Jesus’ eyes, recognizing the inherent value of your own body (the miracle that it is, the awesome capabilities it performs without so much as a single thought from you!).
As I see it, Jesus would want us to appreciate the intrinsic value of life itself as we pursue embodying God’s vision for the world.
The two short readings from Matthew’s Gospel also suggested the relative value of other species to that of the human. First: “are not two sparrows sold for one penny? And yet not one of them falls to the ground without God’s knowledge. … So, fear not, you are of more value than many sparrows.”
And, when the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law wanted to condemn Jesus for healing a man’s withered hand in the synagogue on the Sabbath day, he said to them: “What man of you, if he has one sheep, and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not lay hold of it and lift it out?” If they would do that for an animal, said Jesus, “of how much more value is a man than a sheep!” Yes, there is a relative value of humans over animals, but essentially we are all related in the end! If you would do a kindness to an animal -- a sheep, an ox, a sparrow… a pet… would you not extend the same courtesy to a person?
Jesus re-integrated the world of plants and animals -- of nature (God’s creation) -- into the theological and practical world of ancient Judaism. (At least, he tried! He was crucified, in part, for that valiant effort.)
Here we are some 2,000 years later still trying to sort out the “relative value” of the rest of nature as compared to the wants and needs of human-centered consumption.
For God’s sake, let’s get over it… and make it a point of our Christian faith to celebrate our inter-relatedness with all species on earth for the good and flourishing of all! If Genesis is to be believed, we hold the future flourishing of the earth itself -- and all its species -- in our human hands. May we use our God-given “dominion” well, in Jesus’ name.