Rev Frank’s June 14, 2014 sermon

June 14, 2014
Westmount Park United Church


For centuries the Christian Church has observed the Sunday after Pentecost as Trinity Sunday. That is why the gospel reading assigned to this week in the church year is the very end of Matthew’s gospel where Jesus tells his disciples to “Make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” [Matthew 28:19] In our worship today, nearly two thousand years later, we have had another blessed opportunity to carry out Jesus’ sacred commission as we baptized Mick’e in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, a fitting highlight for our worship on the eve of Trinity Sunday. But rather than preaching on the doctrine of the Trinity I would like to turn our attention to today’s Old Testament lesson.

In the creation myth of the first chapter of Genesis the culmination of all that God makes is humanity. Human beings are made in the “image” and “likeness” of God, and they are given “dominion” over all the other creatures of the land, sea and air. [Genesis 1:26] God says to human beings, both male and female, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” [Genesis 1:28] For centuries upon centuries after this story was first told the challenge which faced the various tribes and peoples of the earth was to survive by being fruitful, by propagating the race, and by taming and subduing what was at times a very hostile planet. In order to survive and flourish human beings had to exercise control over the other species which competed for survival along with humankind. For thousands and thousands of years human societies needed to be fruitful and multiply, to fill the earth and subdue it, and to exercise dominion over other creatures. But after all those thousands and thousands of years the human race has, in our time, entered into a whole new era in relationship to the earth and to all the other creatures which dwell in it. Suddenly what is needed for human society to survive and to thrive is not rigorous propagation of the race but the control of human populations which are too large and growing at uncontrolled rates. The forces of nature which seemed unconquerable and often hostile in the face of feeble human effort are now being radically altered by human activity, activity which has become a threat to land, sea and air. And the other creatures which inhabit the earth are now so much at the mercy of human beings that there is a daily threat that numerous endangered species will die off because of hunting and pollution and the loss of habitat.

According to the first chapter of Genesis human beings have been given a special place in creation. They have been placed in this world with both the power and the responsibility to exercise dominion over all who dwell in it. But the assignment which God has given human beings, to subdue and fill the earth, and to exercise dominion over the other creatures, has taken an entirely new twist in the present time. That power and responsibility is quite different now to what it has been for all the millennia of human civilization in times past.

Several years ago the National Parks system in Canada was celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of Banff Park, the first of Canada’s National Parks. At its inception Banff was just a small tract of land around a hot spring on the side of Sulphur Mountain. Today Banff Park comprises hundreds of acres of land, and, together with the other adjoining mountain parks, makes for a very vast territory of wilderness reserve. At the time of those centennial celebrations I heard a broadcast on the radio which was entitled “Islands of Civilization – Islands of Wilderness.” The point they were making in that programme was that at its beginning Banff Park was an island of civilization, carved out of a vast sea of wilderness, but now, one hundred years later, Banff and other such parks have become islands of wilderness in a vast sea of human habitation. Times have changed rapidly in Western Canada, from an age when the wilderness was huge and almost untamable to a time when the wilderness is fragile and in need of protection from the human beings who once were daunted by its awesome power.

The reason or the rationale for National Parks in Canada has changed in the past one hundred years and this change, in microcosm, is like the change that has come over the whole world in the last one hundred years, a change which profoundly affects the significance of the commission given to humanity by God in the first chapter of Genesis. Twenty five hundred years after this story of creation was written the command from God to human beings to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth has finally come to pass. That assignment has been completed, one might say, alas, rather excessively, for now over population threatens human society. At the same time humanity has learned to subdue and control the earth in many remarkable ways so that our “dominion” over the rest of creation is far far more extensive today than it was when this story first was told. For thousands and thousands of years the key to survival for human beings was being fruitful and filling the earth. Now the survival of both the human race and the rest of the creatures which God has placed under our care has become more and more dependent on the way in which we exercise our “dominion.” We have indeed filled the earth. We have, in many ways, subdued creation and controlled it to suit our purposes. We no longer need to “be fruitful and multiply” in the way that the ancients did. But the way in which we exercise our control over the rest of creation has become more and more critical.

Both the writer of the first chapter of Genesis and the writer of the eighth Psalm, which we read responsively, speak of the very special place human beings have in creation. In Genesis they are described as being made in the “image” and “likeness” of God [Genesis 1:26] while Psalm eight says that they are created just a little lower that God. [Psalm 8:5] Both these writers regard the human race as especially privileged, but this position of great privilege is also one of great responsibility. The first assignment is done, we have been fruitful and we have multiplied and filled the earth. Now we must pay particular heed to our next assignment, to exercise dominion, on God’s behalf, over the rest of creation. In our time, as never before in the history of the human race, it makes a very real difference just how well we perform as God’s stewards of the earth and of all who dwell in it. The world is no longer a vast and untamable wilderness that human civilization must beat back. The world is now a fragile and delicate place that human civilization threatens through over population and overuse and pollution of land, sea and air. Our dominion over the fish and the birds and the cattle and the wild animals and the creeping things is very real and must be taken very seriously.

The story of the human habitation of this planet which begins: “God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good,” [Genesis 1:31] can only have a happy ending if we take seriously the fact that we really have been given full responsibility to care for God’s good earth.