Toorak Uniting Church

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Creation - Environment

Rev. Dr Robert Gallacher
28 September 2003, 10.15am

Social Justice Sunday - Attention is called to issues of race, but I don't have much that is new to say, so I have decided to look at some of the Biblical material that talks about the environment.

The obvious place to start a sermon on the environment is Genesis 1, but there are some preliminary things to say before we can hear this text.

1. It us about our attitude towards the creation and creator, not a moralistic or scientific handbook.
2. It is liturgical, a hymn of praise.
3. It was written late in the history of Israel long after Moses gave the law proclaiming the seven day week.
4. It picks up oral tradition - material developed around the camp fires when people discussed their attitudes to life. These texts are meant to start a discussion. When recited, the response was not "This is the word of the Lord", but something like "Now isn't life like that?" or "How does that affect you?" and then off they would go till bed time. It was better than the tele.

Actually, the comparison with tele is interesting because it helps you see the two sided nature of the conversation. The viewer is passive in front of the TV set. The voice now substitued for God comes undigested and unchallenged. But in the biblical tradition there is interaction. The understanding of creation is that God is calling human beings into relationship, and they are free to respond or rebel.

When they respond and co-operate, the creation flourishes and God and human take delight in each other as they both enjoy the world they bring into being together - the Sabbath, the song of praise.

When they rebel, the creation is destroyed, all the relationships break down, enmity turns to violence and warfare, there is famine and suffering, and chaos returns to the earth.

Isn't life like that? How does that affect you?

And God said, "Let there be light" How many of you, like me, have been brought up to hear those words as the command of an authoritarian God. "Let there be light!" Then this mechanistic God throws the switches and makes all the lights go on.

I've had several conversion experiences, and one took place in 1991 when I attended an Orthodox Eucharist during the WCC Assembly in Canberra. Gregoriou got up to preach. He is an Indian bishop in the Church of Mar Thoma, and was then one of the presidents of the WCC. Almost as an aside he said, "These words, of course, are a prayer". That's when the lights went on for me. Prayer! God prays worlds into being. It's gentle, not violent. Let there be.... nothing is forced. God gives permission for good things to happen. The creation has its own way of unfolding, and God works with it. Then there is a change when humans appear. They are addressed directly, and given a task. They, we, are to be co-creators, also bringing new worlds into being, through work and prayer, for both God and us to delight in, to rest in, to enjoy.

Today there is tension between conservationists and developers. Conservationists will appeal to the second creation story, in chapter two, where Adam and Eve are put into the garden, to till it and to keep it, and all their needs are met so long as they leave it alone. But as soon as they eat of the tree of knowledge of good and evil they break the relationship with God and each other and are thrown out. So today, if we use technology to destroy old growth forest we reduce oxygen, increase greenhouse gases, create global warming, change climate and create deserts. Just look after what we've got.

On the other hand the developers appeal to the first story, "God blessed them and said, Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it". So, today, there are still parts of the earth to fill and subdue and it is right that we turn this mangrove swamp into a tourist resort with golf courses and swimming pools and five star accommodation. Just get on with it.

Before you take sides, the text the conservationists appeal to is really all about rebellion as a fact of life. Sin has to be taken seriously. It is just not realistic to say we can live in the world without changing it. If you want to live in the world like the aborigines before white settlement, or the tribes people of the highlands of New Guinea, then you choose to live with infant mortality rates that are just unacceptable to us and reduce life expectance to about 50 at best, and to be helpless in the face of drought, pestilence and disaster.

But when you turn to the developers' text in Hebrew, it sounds like this: Peru urabu umalu. That's the blessing - multiply, fill the earth and subdue it. I'm tempted to give it a little emphasis pereuuu uuurabuuu uuumaluuu. It sounds like the spirit moving over the face of the waters to calm them and bring order out of chaos. These creation stories have several balances. God permits both conservation and development. God permits science and technology. God involves human beings in the process of bringing new worlds into being. What God does not do is dominate or force. God prays and lets things happen. Even when human beings rebel, become self centred and force their will selfishly, greedily upon the environment with disastrous results. God goes on gently calling for a different response - a response that shares in the creative process, delights in the result and praises God for what is.

I once had a piece of old Australian cedar that I wanted dressed. It had been a desk in a country schoolroom before consolidation. I took it to several commercial firms but no one would touch second hand timber for fear that a hidden nail might spoil their high tech equipment. Then I found an old man who had a workshop in his backyard. He picked up my piece of wood, and held as you would hold a small child, gently and with love. He delighted in it. It was a beautiful piece of wood. Then he cranked up the creaking machinery he had worked with for fifty years or more. Kicked aside a huge heap of shavings, turned a wheel here and another there, and let the wood feed through. It came out perfectly and we were both delighted. I don't know whether that man had ever read Genesis, but he understood it.

I once read Irving Stone's biography of Michelangelo "The Agony and the Ecstasy". To find the right piece of marble for a sculpture, Michelangelo would go to the stone pits at dawn to see how the crystals gleamed in the early light. Then when he worked on the stone, he did not bash with hammer and chisel to impose his will on it, but rather lifted the crystals out until he found the arm or leg he was looking for, and then he wrote a sonnet delighting in the process;

The sculptor's hand can only break the spell
to free the figures slumbering in the stone.

I used to think that the creation story was placed at the beginning of the bible because it is the beginning of history, but now I think it is there because this is the basic attitude from which all good things flow. It is the primary learning on which all issues of justice and love are based.

It enlightens your understanding of the trinity, for Christ has the heart of the father and displays it in the passion, and the Holy Spirit is that gentle creative power that is constant and forever seeks us out.

I had chosen some other texts to fill out this schema with emphases from the New Testament. They will have to wait for another day.

Just one more thought. I view the creation as something the creator has entrusted to our care, and at sometime we will give it back. I just hope that day isn't too close, as I would not like to be involved in returning to God the world as it is at present.

© Rev. Dr Robert Gallacher, 2003

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