Readings: Ps 104, Matt 6:25-33
This is the fifth in our sermon series on creation and the environment and the fourth looking at Richard Bauckham’s book Bible and Ecology. The theme for today is “the community of creation – sharing the earth”.
Creation - solidarity & care
Veronica started this series with a look at the Genesis 2 creation story. She pointed out that the man is made from the dust of the ground – just as the birds and other animals are a few verses later. Humans and all the other creatures are made of the same stuff – they are all part of the “community of creation” that Bauckham talks about throughout the book. And humans are commissioned to cultivate and preserve the earth – not to cultivate it intensively till it gives way to dustbowl and desert but to cultivate it in such a way that it is also preserved.
Flood – violence, chaos, creation re-made, violence contained
Veronica then looked at the flood and memorably observed that one of the main symptoms of creation’s gradual descent into corruption and alienation from God was that it was full of violence.
Bauckham defines the Flood as a kind of ‘de-creation’, a return to chaos. But at the end of the story there is a ‘re-creation’ in the covenant that God makes with Noah and his descendants and, significantly, with ‘every living creature that is with you’.
Creation – tenants and fellow-fillers
Wayne also talked about the “community of creation” and pointed out that its not just humans who are encouraged to “fill the earth”. The sea creatures are encouraged to fill the seas and the birds to fill the earth. We have to bear that in mind when we interpret ideas like subduing the earth and having dominion over it – as well as remembering that the earth belongs to God and we are merely tenants.
Lesley looked at some passages from Job which remind us that we are simply a small part of God’s creation, a part about which God cares, no doubt, but part of the community of created beings, who are not less important. Our task is to respect them, to accept that God is working ultimately for our good (however painful and puzzling life may be at times) and join the divine resistance against the forces of chaos and destruction.
So, now for today’s passages. Let’s start with Psalm 104, one of my favourite psalms.
Humans & animals – dependence & empowerment
It is full of a sense of right-ness and order and plenty. Every creature including humans has its place in connection with God, and the earth. I love the picture of the young lions roaring for their food from God, depending on God to keep the universe going and provide food for them. Not that this is a passive dependence. The lions may roar as they seek their food from God but they don’t just lounge around waiting for some tasty prey to drop from the sky – they are busy out hunting all night, the birds are busy building their nests and the people are busy going out to work all day. There’s a lot of purposeful and fruitful activity and freedom here which Bauckham calls empowerment.
Generosity and exuberance
Another thing I love about this psalm is the generosity and plenty of it all. God gives humans not only bread but also wine and olive oil. And Leviathan (maybe an untamed monster or maybe a real animal perhaps a whale) is apparently there partly just for the fun of playing in the sea.
The psalm is full of good things in great variety and they all come from God. God gives different habitats & has different creatures in mind to occupy them. So for instance “the high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the coneys”, whatever they are. I think that’s important to hear in an age where human activity is destroying habitats directly by building on top of them or indirectly through climate change, pollution and so on. It challenges us to ask whether difficult-to-cultivate wildernesses are a technical challenge to be overcome by ingenious agriculture or development or are actually areas intended for other creatures to enjoy.
Animals subjects of their own lives
I guess some of you may be beginning to squirm as I drift towards anthropomorphism here. I admit that it is a huge temptation for me - for which I blame my father who made the most of my vivid imagination as a child to tease me into empathy for even inanimate objects - like a toy car limping along forlornly with a wheel missing.
But I call Bauckham to my defence! Bauckham does allow a little cautious anthropomorphism. It is, he says, the only way we can empathise at all with other conscious creatures. It’s not to say that it’s exactly the same for a dolphin to be excited or playful as it is for us – just that it’s reasonable to talk about a dolphin being excited or playful. So he suggests we can be a bit anthropomorphic so long as we still do our best to understand animals as animals and within their own world.
And I think a little cautious anthropomorphism will allow us to hear a message Bauckham sees here, that the animals in this psalm are all the “subjects of their own lives”. They are all busy being themselves and doing the things a bird or a lion or a Leviathan needs to do. And they relate directly to God, they don’t have to go through humans as a kind of dominion-wielding earth-subduing middle-man. God is at the centre here, with humans dependent on God just as the other creatures are. To use Bauckham’s terms, this is a theocentric vision, not an anthropocentric one. And God delights in all of creation – and the beauty of this psalm invites us to join God in appreciating and respecting our fellow creatures.
The specialness of humans?
But, you may be asking, aren’t we humans special in some way? Made in God’s image, don’t we have some special connection with God?
Well, in Psalm 104 there are only really two concessions to any kind of specialness for humans. One is the reference to cattle and crops which implicitly acknowledges that there are some animals and plants with which humans have a special relationship – which seems to be OK as God provides the plants for cultivation and the grass for the cattle. And the other is the very last verse we’re reminded that there are sinners & wicked people on the earth.
We may have another question as we read this psalm’s vision of a world where everything is working so well and every creature is apparently happy and well-fed. What do we make of this when we know full well that many people are NOT provided for, when in Haiti people weakened by years of not having enough to live on and months of post earthquake chaos are dying of cholera, or closer to home when failed asylum seekers in this country have to try to live on nothing?
That seems like a good point to turn to the words of Jesus in our Matthew passage.
In some ways we are very much in the same world here as we were in Psalm 104. The heavenly Father clothes the grass of the field with flowers and feeds the birds of the air.
What will we eat, what will we drink, what will we wear?
But Jesus knows his listeners are also wondering whether they will be clothed and fed. And for us too there may be real questions about how we will stay afloat financially, what will happen if we don’t find work or if we lose our jobs, how we will manage when we are too old to work and so on.
What does Jesus say to these worries? “If God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you?” At first sight we may think that Jesus is saying “humans are more important than the rest of creation so God will take care of us”. But, following Bauckham, I think what he is actually saying is “God takes care of all of creation, even the bits we hardly notice or worry about, and that includes us”. Jesus does say that we are of more value than the birds but that’s not the reason we are cared for. The heavenly Father cares for us because we are part of creation and God cares for all of creation.
Of course, the birds’ dependence on God’s care is much more obvious that ours. The birds have to forage afresh each day; human beings can gather what they’ve sown and reaped into barns and then pretty well forget about depending on God till they’ve emptied the barn and are back at the beginning of the sowing and reaping cycle again the following spring. Or in our case we can just pop out to shop in Sirwan or Morrisons – making it even easier to forget our dependence on God. But, whether we have a job or not, a cupboard full of food or an empty bank account, we are dependent on God’s provision just as the birds are.
What about those who aren’t clothed and fed?
Jesus’ clear assumption is that God will always meet the birds’ needs and ours. And some of us may have stories of how God has provided just what we needed just when we were at our most desperate. But we could list plenty of examples where that isn’t true, perhaps even moments in our own lives. Human activity, agriculture, climate change deprive birds and animals of what they need to survive and populations plummet or become extinct. Millions of people live without access to adequate food, clean water, sanitation, clothing & shelter. Richard Bauckham’s take on this is that Jesus is assuming that the people of his time are living according to the OT law which is designed to ensure that even the poorest have enough to eat, for instance by tithing and leaving food in the fields for gleaners to gather up. There is enough for everyone so long as people obey these commandments and don’t greedily seize it all for themselves.
So what does this mean for those of us who may have more than we need to survive?
Well, that’s where I’d like to come back to my title for today: “sharing the earth”. Sometimes for other people to have what they need may require some action on our part, whether directly or through campaigning and humanitarian organisations or by lobbying governments for better sharing internationally. And it may also require us to demand less from the earth ourselves so there is more left for all our fellow creatures, the birds and the animals and other humans. We may need to accept a slightly less comfortable but more generous lifestyle for the sake of sharing the earth with the rest of the community of creation.
So I think Psalm 104 and Matt 6 have a key point in common. They describe a community of creation which is abundant, diverse and beautiful. There is enough for every human and every creature as they all depend on a generous God and none takes more than they need. Sometimes we find this kind of vision in prophecies of God intervening to put everything right some time in the future. The challenge of these passages is that they expect this vision to work here and now.