Sermon: Having Dominion

Having Dominion
Sermon by The Rev. Lisa Caine
June 15, 2014
Genesis 1:1-2:4


You know that one of my oft repeated themes in preaching is the belief that it’s not all about us. And that is a hard sell to folks who read the creation story as one which leads from the lesser to the greater, culminating in the grand finale on day six –the creation of human beings.   If we had just a tiny bit of humility, however, it could just as easily be argued that the creation story moves from the greater to the lesser. After all, what could be more magnificent and awe-inspiring than imagining the separation of light from darkness or the dry land from the seas? Or the creation of vegetation of every kind? Or the establishment of the sun and moon and the seasons of the year; or the huge variety of sea creatures and birds, cattle, creeping things and wild animals! In that context, human beings seem like a last minute add on.

And, in fact, if you remember Carl Sagan’s famous example, that’s exactly what we are. He said if we could squeeze the creation of the cosmos into a single year, then the Big Bang happened on January 1. The sun and planets came into existence on September 10. And human beings arrived on the scene at ten minutes before midnight on December 31, to be greeted by a vast and grand welcoming committee of plants and trees, great sea monsters and creatures of the deep, every winged bird of every kind, and of course the cows who were made just before us.

And yet we, the youngest of creation, have been given, according to scripture, the great responsibility of having dominion over all these who are older than we are, who have been around a lot longer, and who have, you might think as much, if not greater right to be here than we do! The problem, of course, if with that word “dominion.” We have forgotten what it means. We have forgotten its theological roots, and narrowed and shrunk it down to mean simply authority, or power over the earth. And unfortunately, you know what we do when we are given power, it often goes to our heads; we tend to abuse it.

Some think our current ecological crisis is rooted in this word “dominion” and the false religious teaching that God, in giving us dominion over creation, has made us “superior to nature,” and that therefore we can use it or abuse it for whatever whim currently attracts our interest.[i] Christian ethicists have debated over the ways in which people of faith have turned this divine authorization into carte blanche to do whatever we want to do without concern for the “collateral damage.” We don’t have to ask a deer if it’s ok to clear cut its habitat so that we can have another place for human habitats. We don’t ask the trees either if they’re willing to give their lives so we can live there in place of them. We don’t have to ask the fish for permission to drain the pond they live in, nor must we gain approval of a hillside before we cut off its peaks because strip mining is such a convenient and cheap way to remove its interior for our use of the coal buried within it.

And it is that kind of thinking that has brought God’s creation, entrusted to our dominion, to the point of great risk from our assaults on the environment just because we can. Say the phrase “global warming” or “climate change” and see what response you get. Of course it depends on whom you are talking to. Even though a government document entitled “Climate change Impacts in the United States” concluded that “summers are longer and hotter and extended periods of unusual heat last longer than any living American has ever experienced,”[ii] there are those who continue to believe global warming is a hoax, a liberal plot to impose governmental restrictions on a free market economy, and a threat to our American way of life, by which they mean, of course, an oil, gas, and coal-based way of life.

Recently I watched a discussion on PBS between Bill Moyers and David Suzuki – someone whose name is perhaps more familiar to Dave and Rebecca than to others of us. Dr. Suzuki is a Canadian scientist and environmentalist, long time host of a TV program “The Nature of Things,” and who has given his career to educating and informing the public about environmental issues. He said he used to think that if he could have a conversation with CEOs whose companies were having a negative impact on the environment, there could be some change, some meeting of the minds if the facts were laid out. They’re certainly not stupid, he said; they just needed to know the facts.

But that was before he met the owner of a timber company who said trees weren’t worth anything until they were cut down and used. In other words money – economics — was the lens through which he saw the value of the forest. The CEO had a responsibility to make profits for the company’s shareholders and anything that threatened productivity and profitability was to be opposed. So sadly, it is not a matter of understanding the facts; it is a matter of what one values most.

It is interesting that the words ecology and economy both come from the same Greek root word, oikos, which means “household.” Ecology is concerned with the well-being of individual members of the household; economy is concerned with the use or purpose of each member of the household, and both are concerned with how each contributes to the well-being of the whole. These distinctions have been the subject of theological treatises since the time of Augustine as theologians valued all types of creatures intrinsically for their unique goodness and also valued them instrumentally for the sustenance they provide to others. But above all, they valued the entirety of the physical world and saw it as a sacrament of the divine wherein the invisible God can be experienced and some of God’s characteristics can be known through the visible.[iii] In more recent times, however, we have removed God from the natural world, and no longer see the holy residing in it, finding it now only to be a tool given to us to use as we will for our own benefit.

And if we keep on as we have been doing, that benefit will be short-term because we will have sacrificed long term viability for short term financial gain.   Or as Dr. Suzuki put it, it is fine to have a goose that lays golden eggs as long as we keep the goose healthy; but once we’ve killed the goose, there will be no more golden eggs! We have to re-discover that sense of “oikos” or household. And we must regain once again the sense of the holy that surrounds us, and in which we live, and move, and have our being. The poet and farmer Wendell Berry has written “To live we must daily break the body and shed the blood of creation. When we do this knowingly, lovingly, skillfully, reverently, it is a sacrament. When we do it ignorantly, greedily, clumsily, destructively, it is a desecration.”[iv]

Perhaps we can begin this process by re-thinking the word “dominion.” It comes from the Latin word “dominus” which is also the word for “Lord.” It is a word that is used for God. Now my bible says that “God is love,” and throughout scripture we find references to God’s love for humankind and for creation. God’s first covenant after the Great Flood was made with all creation, not just with Noah and the human survivors. The most famous, of course, is John 3:16 “God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten son.” Notice it says “world” not human beings! God so loved creation; God so loved the earth! And in 1John we read “God is love and those who abide in love abide in god and God abides in them.” So it makes sense then, that if God is Lord and God is love, then we who are created in God’s image are also to be lords of love in relationship to that over which God has given us dominion.

And when you love someone or something, you don’t use it, you don’t abuse it, you don’t exploit it for selfish gain; you don’t take everything it has to offer and then cast it aside without looking back, and you don’t think of it as your possession.

Psalm 24, that we read responsively in our greeting, says “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof,” it has been entrusted to us, but it is not ours. We may think we’re the pinnacle of creation, but we’re still creatures – part of creation and in its welfare rests our own. And the God who loves us, God’s human creatures, loves all creation with that same love. Scripture says the one sun God made was for all creation; it shines down on everyone and everything, no matter who or what or where they are. The same is true of the rain – everything and everyone is refreshed. That’s how it is with God’s creatures. We are here because God made us and loves us. Therefore we are all to live in the light of that love. And we human beings – we have a great responsibility, made in the divine image – we are here to love as God loves.[v]

Barbara Brown Taylor illustrates that lesson whimsically by retelling the creation story from the birds’ point of view. “If birds could write books,” she says, “then their story of creation would no doubt read quite differently from ours.” In the first place, they’d probably make quite a bit out of that wind of God that swept over the face of the waters in the beginning. Humans think of wind when it hits their faces, and messes up their hair. Birds, on the other hand, know what it’s like to be a part of the wind, moving with it.

If Birds were writing the creation story, sea creatures would still arrive on day five; “pelicans would insist on that. Plus, it makes sense to work up from the depths of the sea to the vaults of heaven, filling creation with creatures as you draw nearer and nearer to God. [With that plan], land animals would come next – mice, chipmunks, goats, humans, camels – things like that — earthbound creatures that could not get off the ground for more than a second or two without coming right back down again – hard – on all those feet.

“Flying squirrels were pretty advanced, mountain goats were so-so, but people – well. It was really kind of pitiful watching them try – jumping off rocks, flapping their arms. Sometimes when they slept, you could see their limbs twitching, as if they were dreaming of flight. None of this was their fault, of course. Bird mothers taught their children never to make fun of land creatures. ‘God made them that way,’ the mothers said, ‘the same way God made you. Now go outside and fly.’”

It was on day six, according to the sacred book read in bird church, that God created birds in God’s image – “in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them – sparrows, ravens, wood ducks, and hoopoes—whooping cranes, turtledoves, mockingbirds and indigo buntings—all of them different and yet all of them alike, with two eyes, one beak, and those two marvelous wings – their daily assurance that the were made in the image of their Creator.

“This was not just God’s gift to them. It was also God’s call—to look after the sea creatures and the land animals as God would look after them – especially the people, who seemed in particular need of help. Humans knew about God’s wings, at least. They were not entirely insensible to the order of creation. Sometimes when they read from their own book, you could hear this wisdom of theirs clear as a bell.

‘Guard me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings,’ they read from that book (Ps. 17:8). ‘Be merciful to me, O God . . . in the shadow of your wings I will take refuge . . .’ (Ps. 57:1). ‘How precious is your steadfast love O God! All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.’” (Ps. 36.7). [And even Jesus, the greatest of all human beings, some thought, lamented over their waywardness and compared his love for them to the love a mother hen for her brood, calling them to safety under her outspread wings.]

“Who could read such passages without understanding that God was a bird – the Great Bird – who had made everything that was and called it good but who had loved birds so much that God gave them wings? So of course, the birds were glad to do what they could – waking people up in the morning with sweet songs, thrilling human children with their aerobatics and pretending to like the gummy white bread the children fed them down by the lake. . . .

“Sometimes, under special order from God, the birds made bread deliveries of their own to humans in the wilderness. A few of them even volunteered to become food themselves, when a whole crowd of people wandering in the desert said they were dying of hunger. The quail gave their lives to feed them—but really, what else are you going to do when you are the only creatures in all of creation made in the image of God? You love as God loves, right? You love what God loves because that is what your life is for.”[vi]


[i] Barbara Brown Taylor, “the Dominion of Love,” Journal for Preachers, XXXI, 4, 2008, 26.

[ii] Quoted during Moyers & Co., PBS, May 10, 2014.

[iii] Jame Schaefer, “Valuing the Goodness of the Earth,” Center for Christian Ethics, 2012, 13-15.

[iv] The Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd, III, “The Star Thrower,” Washington National Cathedral, October 1, 2006.

[v] Taylor, 28.

[vi] Taylor, 24-25.