Grace Presbyterian Church
April 19, 2020, Easter 2A (Earth Day Sunday)
New Hope for a Broken Planet
This Wednesday, April 22, marks the fiftieth anniversary of the observance of Earth Day, an occasion set aside for remembering the planet on which we live and more specifically remembering not to do it grievous harm with our pollution and general wastefulness. In 1970 pollution was finally gaining traction as an issue that more than just a few could or needed to be concerned about, and as a result the event gained traction and attention enough, well, to have lasted fifty years now.
However, Monday is also a round-number anniversary, and a less salutary one at that. Ten years ago, on April 20, 2010, an oil-drilling platform in the Gulf of Mexico off the Louisiana coast (given the lofty-sounding name “Deepwater Horizon”) exploded and caught fire. The explosion also resulted in a massive oil spill, still to this date the largest environmental disaster in American history, contaminating ocean and coastline not just as far as the Florida Panhandle, but all the way to Tampa Bay. Even today, ten years later, the effects of the spill are still present. A recent study of aquatic life in the Gulf of Mexico off Florida, just reported this week, found that every sample collected from aquatic life in the Gulf contained some trace of contamination due to oil, contamination likely to have injurious long-term effect on the various species of fish.[i]
One thing, though, about that study: while some of the fish studied, particularly from the north and central Gulf, showed contamination levels clearly attributed to Deepwater Horizon, others were probably contaminated from different causes. One such “hot spot” for contamination was in the area near Tampa Bay, and the oil contamination was found to be not from Deepwater Horizon, but ordinary usage and runoff from land and boat traffic. In other words, ordinary life was contaminating those fish.
How far we are from the call given to the first humans in today’s reading from Genesis. It is a creation story. I know, it’s not the one you expect when you hear “creation story” (it’s hard not to expect “in the beginning…”), but in every way this narrative in Genesis 2 is about creation being, well, created (it does continue beyond verse 19 to include the creation of the woman). It speaks of the heavens and the earth, it lays out the creation of that garden, and tells of how God formed man “from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” It will go on to describe the animals and birds all being created (from the ground, just as the man had been) and all of them being paraded before the man to be named.
But there’s a key verse it’s easy to overlook, and it is verse 15. The NRSV renders the command to the man in the garden as “to till it and keep it.” That’s not bad, and it’s better than a lot of translations. (The King James Version’s “dress it and keep it” are of pretty similar force.) Other translation combinations include “cultivate” and “take care of,” to “dress” and to “keep,” and other combinations of such words that do make sense in speaking of what to do with a garden. None of those, however, catch the full force of the Hebrew words used here. Those words, l’avdah ul’shamrah, would in any other context be best translated “to serve and preserve (it, i.e. the garden).”[ii]
For those conditioned by years of the “have dominion” and “subdue” language typically read in chapter one (and those themselves are at best incomplete renderings of the Hebrew), this most likely comes like a splash of cold water on the face. The earth is not ours to run rampant over or exploit to the hilt, as has far too often been human tendency.
If anything, our call is quite the opposite. To “serve” and to “preserve” is language that strongly suggests that our efforts should be far more directed towards the nurturing and enhancing of creation rather than its exploitation and extraction.
One idea that strongly supports such an understanding is that as our degradation of earth has worsened, it isn’t just the plants and animals that have suffered – humans have too. Even under pandemic conditions for example, coronavirus suffers in highly polluted areas suffer even more – not surprising when the virus affects the lungs so badly. Conversely, as major population areas have been shut down due to the pandemic, those areas have seen, for example, strikingly cleaner air and water conditions show up relatively quickly.
Strange to think of the Apostle Paul pointing to this interconnected quality of humanity and creation, but in Romans 8 you get Paul speaking not only of us humans, but all of creation waiting with eager longing; waiting to be set free from its bondage to “obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” We and creation together “groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the resurrection of our bodies.” It makes sense when you remember (as we often don’t) that we humans really are a part of creation, and not some separate entity apart from it.
In the time in which the church celebrates the Resurrection of Jesus that makes our lives even worth living, it is past time for us to give care for the creation in which that Resurrection, after all took place; for the creation in which our lives, our hopes, and our futures are inextricably bound; for the creation which we have from the beginning been called to keep, to protect, to care for, to serve and to preserve – and to give thought and prayer to how we might finally live up to that call.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Zachary T. Simpson, “USF researchers sampled more than 2000 fish in the Gulf of Mexico. They found oil in every one.” Tampa Bay Times 15 April 2020 (accessed 18 April 2020), https://www.tampabay.com/news/environment/2020/04/15/usf-researchers-sampled-more-than-2000-fish-in-the-gulf-of-mexico-they-found-oil-pollution-in-every-one/?trk_msg=EP8O2UQG3MJK5CU2FBTBS95DB4&trk_contact=MKJ3NR92BNJ26R436KMC00O62G&trk_sid=9O4GRSL9U4ETQ4KA9370O4983G&utm_email=C483D552D4F194793477E5747E&utm_source=The+Buzz&utm_medium=MG2_Newsletter&utm_term=oil+pollution+in+every+one&utm_campaign=times-daily-buzz
[ii] Patricia Tull, “Let’s Discuss Dominion,” Working Preacher, 19 April 2016 (accessed 18 April 2020), https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?post=4606