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anatomy of a sermon – lynne baab

Sermon: Staying Motivated in Caring for Creation
Scriptures: Genesis 1:26-31 and 2:15 (read earlier in the service)
Psalm 104:1-13
Comments from Lynne about this sermon: My husband and I attend Bethany Presbyterian Church in Seattle. (We lived in New Zealand from 2007 to 2017, so that’s why I write for the Kiwimade Preaching blog.) The senior minister at Bethany, Doug Kelly, asked me to preach a sermon on stewardship of creation in October 2017. He preached the other three sermons on stewardship in the series. He wanted me to use Genesis 1:26-31, which he also used for one of the other sermons.

So this was a topical sermon. I wanted to make it as expositional as I could, and I was happy with the depth of engagement with Genesis and Psalm 104 that I was able to achieve. Still, the sermon lacks one of the major characteristics of an expositional sermon – the structure of the sermon did not emerge from the passage(s). Instead, the structure emerged from some interviews I’d been doing about motivations for caring for creation.

I wanted to post this sermon on the Kiwimade Preaching blog to show that even when a sermon addresses a topic, and even when the structure of the sermon comes from something outside scripture, it is still possible to engage with biblical passage(s) in a way that attempts to honour the main themes in the passage(s). It is still possible to attempt to “linger in the text,” at least a little bit, which is a major characteristic of expositional preaching. I hope you felt I did that, at least to some extent.

 

Sermon

Will you pray with me? Creator God, you made such a beautiful universe, and you sustain everything with such care. Help us to be faithful stewards of this beautiful world you have made. Amen.

Many of you will know of John Stott, the English Anglican priest who wrote numerous books about the Christian life. You may not know that he was passionate about caring for creation. John Stott called Psalm 104 one of the earliest ecological documents we have. We have the privilege of reading from that early ecological document this morning.

[Ask congregation to stand and read Psalm 104:1-13 responsively, with me reading the odd numbered verses, while they read the even numbered verses.]

I love so many things about Psalm 104. Animals, plants, trees, hills, mountains, and streams are described with love. Maybe there’s no duck billed platypus mentioned [described earlier in the children’s sermon], but we can imagine that if it were, it would be described with affection. God’s care for what he made is so evident. The complete dependence of the creation on God is described so vividly.

C.S. Lewis referred to the writer of Psalm 104’s “gusto for nature.” That gusto for nature has always been my primary motivation for caring for creation. In this sermon I want to lay out four different motivations for caring for creation. Just so you don’t get worried about the timing as I go along, I’ll spend quite a bit of time on the first two motivations, and I’ll talk about the last two more briefly.

The first time nature spoke to me of something beyond myself was when we moved to Tacoma when I was 15. I fell in love with Mount Rainier. It spoke to me of something holy. At that point, I didn’t know who that was, but my heart was tugged. I became a committed Christian at 19, when I was a biology major at university.

A few months after I came to faith, a biology professor asked us to collect some green scum from a ditch, and we looked at it under a microscope. The algae was vivid green with beautiful geometric patterns. I remember my awe as I looked into the microscope, full of wonder at the beauty of what God had made.

I didn’t know Psalm 104 at the time, but the awe and wonder at what God made that I experienced in the biology lab parallels the words of the Psalm. God made something incredibly beautiful. I love God. So of course I want to take care of something God values so much.

It’s like when my daughter-in-law makes me a birthday card. Aki, my daughter-in-law, is one of the truly precious people in my life. She is so creative, and she makes me these gorgeous birthday cards. I love Aki, I love receiving something she took so much time making, so I treasure her cards. When I get a card from her, I display it on the mantle over the fireplace. Then, after a while, I put it on the bulletin board in my office. When the bulletin board gets too crowded, I put it in a box with all the other cards she’s given me. I open the box and look at the cards from time to time, marveling at her creativity.

I’ve tried to care for God’s creation over my lifespan. In the past few years I’ve gotten discouraged. It’s hard to know what to do at any given moment. How important is it for me to ride my bicycle to run this errand, versus taking the car? Which chemicals are okay to use in the garden? How important is organic food? There’s so much contradictory information out there about plastics, water, food, shelter, resource consumption, chemicals, and personal health.

In addition to the confusion, I am heartbroken that Christians disagree about global warming, whether it’s happening and what causes it. I long to see Christians speaking up for God’s beautiful earth in so many areas like chemicals, clean water, habitat for endangered animals, but instead it seems we’re stuck disagreeing about climate change instead of acting in areas everyone agrees about.

Because of my discouragement, I decided to talk to people who are motivated in caring for creation, and I’m going to tell you about three conversations I had.

I want to introduce you to my friends Bill and Daphne. They view their careers as a part of their call to be stewards of God’s creation. Daphne is a geologist who researches the history of the land, plants and animals. Bill is a conservation ecologist who does research for two different agencies.

Both Bill and Daphne were Christians when they chose their careers, but at first they didn’t see their work as connected to God’s call to steward creation. Both of them met other scientists who were Christians who helped them integrate their work with their faith.

When I told them that I was having trouble staying motivated in caring for creation, Bill said, We have to go back to Genesis and ask: what was the original intent of human creation? Gardening, making a home, to look after and shape and enjoy creation.

So for Bill, here’s another motivation for caring for creation. It dates back to our original purpose as humans.

Let’s look at little more closely at the parts of Genesis that was read earlier in the service. At the end of Genesis 1, on the sixth day of creation, God creates the animals first. Then God creates humans, the man and the woman. They are created in God’s image. Twice in the passage God says that humans will have dominion over creation. God also commands the humans to fill the earth and subdue it.

The first account of creation, which goes up to Genesis 2:4, mentions the creation of man and woman at the same time. In the second account of creation, when begins in the second half of Genesis 2:4, there’s a gap in time between the creation of the man and the woman. God puts the man in the garden and tells him to till and keep it.

There are four key words in these verses: dominion, subdue, till and keep. These are the words that lay out the command to Christians to steward the physical world that God made.

“Dominion” and “subdue” have been used in lots of ways, including a sense that nature is here for humans to exploit and plunder. I’m going to argue that we have to think carefully about “dominion.”  It means rule, like a king or queen, and there are two key passages about rulers in the Old Testament. Psalm 72 is a psalm honoring the coronation of Solomon as king, and praying that he would be just, righteous, caring for the poor, having pity on the weak, saving the oppressed. This is not a picture of a king who exploits or plunders.

The second significant passage on kingship and leadership comes from Ezekiel 34, where the leaders of Israel are compared to bad shepherds who have not fed the sheep, cared for the sick, strengthened the weak, and sought the lost sheep.

When there’s a word like dominion, which can be interpreted several ways, it’s important to think about it in the context of the whole Bible. God’s view of ruling and being a king, as presented in the Bible, is all about taking care of people. Taking care, not exploiting or plundering.

Taking care is the meaning that lies behind till and keep in Genesis 2:15. So we don’t really have to go to the Psalms and Ezekiel to understand that having dominion includes taking care of the earth and plants and animals. All we have to do is look at Genesis 1 and 2 together. Humans are called to have dominion over the created order by caring for it like a good king cares for his subjects. Humans are called to subdue the creation in order to be sure that it provides food for people. Humans are called to till and keep the earth so it will be fruitful, which includes all sorts of careful work with and for creation.

This is part of our call as humans, and it will be a challenge like all forms of obedience. Bill and Daphne were adamant about the rewards of obeying God in this area, as well as the cost.

So, that’s two motivations to care for creation, (1) because it’s beautiful and God made it and (2) because we are called to do it as a part of our original purpose at creation.

I’ll quote from Daphne, who said, “We’re going to be called into account for destroying the home we have been given.” Then I’ll quote from friend Denise. She said, “God gave the earth to us. We’re like spoiled children who take it for granted.”

A third motivation comes from Denise. Denise and I were leaders of our campus Christian group way back when I was 21. I haven’t seen her much in our adult lives, but I got to visit with her and her husband in July. Denise has a passion for garbage. Her dad used to take her to the landfill when she was a kid, and she saw how much gets wasted. They way we deal with rubbish and other things we don’t want can impact others, and that’s Denise’s primary motivation for caring for creation – to take care of people.

She used the example of kerosene (paraffin in the U.K.). Maybe I’ve got some kerosene I don’t want. If I pour it down the sink or put it in the toilet, it goes into the sewage. Even though the sewage is treated, not all of the kerosene will be removed. In her case, in a small inland town in California, it goes into a river. It compromises the water supply for others. Denise said, “We are getting sick from what we’re doing. To love our neighbor, we don’t throw our kerosene down the drain. We still live here.”

Denise teaches children with disabilities in an elementary school. When she started teaching, there wasn’t any recycling at her school. She helped get a recycling program established, and she loves to teach children about deal with garbage well. She leads field trips to the landfill to let children see the implications of how waste is dealt with.

Denise is motivated by caring for others. How we treat the earth has impact on others on a local and global scale. It is impossible to love God and our neighbor without thinking about how we care for creation. We till and tend this earth so all people can experience health and life. Denise’s motivation brings us right back to the Genesis passage.

I want to give you a fourth motivation for caring for the earth which comes from my friends Phil and Claire. They lead the A Rocha group in Dunedin. A Rocha is a Christian creation care group that was founded in 1983 by British people in Portugal. A Rocha is now active in 20 countries.

A Rocha ministries tend to be grounded at a specific place. The first A Rocha site is in Portugal, and currently there are sites in many different countries, including on the North Island.

When establishing the A Rocha group in Dunedin, Phil and Clair looked around for a place where the group could focus, and they found a Presbyterian conference center, Tirohanga, about a half hour from town, built at the bottom of a hill, with their property going up the hill. The A Rocha group has worked on that hillside, bringing in native plants and trying to restore the land.

Their pattern of work is fascinating. They commit one Saturday a month to the group, and they spend half those Saturdays working on their own project at the conference center. Alternate months, on Saturdays, they join with other conservation groups around town, such as a center for endangered species and a beach habitat group. They have built relationships with people in those other groups.

For Phil and Clair, staying motivated to care for creation is all about doing it together with others. With other Christians, and also with others outside the church who care for this beautiful world. God commanded Adam to till and tend the garden, and Phil and Clair would argue that command was never intended to be exercised alone, as individuals. They have experienced such joy in tending to native plants on a hillside in the company of others.

Another example of the relational component of creation care comes from a friend of mine, Janette. She’s a Presbyterian, and she has worked with her session, her presbytery and the national church in the area of creation care, and she’s currently working with her session to create an overture for the next General Assembly.

So, four motivations for caring for creation: God made and sustains a beautiful world, caring for creation is a part of our original purpose as humans, caring for the earth helps others, and caring for the earth helps us connect with others both inside and outside the church.

I’d love to say more about the how-to in caring for creation, but there’s plenty of information out there about that. I want to encourage you to think about what motivates you and what God is calling you to do in response to that motivation.

Today is World Communion Sunday. Christians all over the world will be celebrating communion and remembering that we are part of a worldwide church. Each communion service will have some sort of bread, made from a grain grown from a seed in the earth, nurtured by rain from God, tilled by humans. Each communion service around the world will have juice or wine from fruit tended by humans and nurtured by earth and water created by God.

We are dependent on the produce of this abundant earth. We live side by side with others who are impacted by our actions.

[Closing prayer]

2 Comments

  1. Helen Brereton says:

    Lynne, thank you for sharing this. I struggle with writing topical sermons – I prefer the protection of letting the text determine direction and application in a message so your post is a helpful encouragement.
    I also appreciated the way you cared for your listeners making it easier for them to receive your words – eg ‘ Just so you don’t get worried…’, ‘I want to give you a fourth…’
    Arohanui, Helen

    1. Lynne Baab says:

      Helen, thanks for your kind words. In New Zealand I did lots of guest preaching and well over half the time, the church requested a particular topic. So I had a lot of practice trying to let God speak through scriptures on a topic. Glad this was helpful.

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