Sunday, May 30, 2010

Trinity Sunday

Psalm 8
1O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars that you have established;
4what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals* that you care for them?
5Yet you have made them a little lower than God,*
and crowned them with glory and honour.
6You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under their feet,
7all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
8the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9O Lord, our Sovereign,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

I spent March Break travelling back in time. The destination may have been Honduras, but we were really visiting the 60’s.

Honduras, it would seem, is unburdened by regulation. Remember littering? They have it. Remember a gang of kids riding in the back of a pick-up truck? Every day. Remember building a treehouse in the yard without the neighbour calling the city on you? In Honduras, there is no number to call.

We describe ourselves as a ‘developed nation’ as opposed to an ‘under-developed’ or ‘developing nation,’ but I think we have it all wrong. Canada is a regulated nation, and Honduras suffers no such burden.

When my brother needed a parking permit for the street, owing to the fact that his truck was too big to make it between the houses to the parking spot in the back, the city sent an inspector. The inspector came to the house, measured the truck and measured the gap between the houses, and said ‘yup, you can get that permit.’

At the risk of sounding like Rob Ford, or an editorial for the Toronto Sun, I say ‘really, a truck-house-gap inspector?’ Is that why I pay taxes?

In Honduras, they have no house numbers, and they have no street names. The post office just makes a guess. Your best bet, Anne Fowler told us, was to send packages to the “Muni,” the Centro Municipal, the town hall. And since everyone in town knows Anne, it would surely get to her.

And so it was during a raining day in the park back in March, picking up litter, I thought to myself, ‘I remember this.’ I remember those first anti-littering commercials in the 70’s, back when we naively thought caring for the earth meant refusing to throw you Styrofoam cup out the window at highway speeds.

And I remember begin told that throwing the old oil from my Mustang into the ditch was probably a bad idea, and I remember why I was being forced to buy unleaded gasoline, and I remember wondering if anything would kill bugs as well as DDT. Okay, I’m older than I look.

Was it a coincidence that we grew up in the Dominion of Canada and had a real sense that we had dominion over the earth? I guessing it was not. In a nation founded on exploiting natural resources, on beaver pelts and codfish, certainly the biblical notion of dominion would have some deep resonance. You might say it’s printed on our DNA.

Back in the winter, our Premier told an audience that Ontario had no future “pulling stuff out of the ground.” Then the backtracking began. I was like he offended some deep part of us, the part that sleeps soundly at night knowing that when everything else is gone, we’ll still have rocks and trees.

Just 28 verses into the Bible, about as near to the beginning as you can get, we read: “And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.”

Seems pretty clear. And it seemed pretty clear the to thinkers who divided the earthly realm from the heavenly realm and said ‘God in heaven and humans below,’ each tending to their realm the best way they know. The human way is defined by consumption: utilizing each resource until that resource is exhausted, and them moving on the next. God in heaven and humans below.

The neat divide that divorced our actions on earth from the realm above came to an abrupt end late in 1966, when an American Professor named Lynn White delivered a paper entitled "The Historical Roots of Our Ecologic Crisis.” In it, White argued that the idea of dominion found in the Bible made it easier for us to justify damaging the earth, and them he went a step further. White argued that Christian theology has made us superior to the rest of creation, which has no "soul" or "reason" and is therefore inferior.*

For those on the science side of the religion versus science debate, White’s work became one more reason to abandon faith. Belief in God, and the order God ordained, was at the root of an emerging crisis and the church could therefore be condemned as backward and harmful to the earth.

On the religion side of the same debate, there was much soul searching. If this was true, that indifference to nature was rooted in our theology, then we would need to quickly disown parts of our tradition to make it right. On Friday night, our Moderator, Mardi Tindal, described joining a United Church task force in the mid-70’s to look at faith and ecology, and an appropriate Christian response what was newly being seen as a crisis.

And through the years, in studies and action, the consistent message we have tried to give as a church is ‘we no longer imagine we have dominion over the earth, we are now stewards,’ and that caring for the earth is one more way that we are building the realm of God here on earth.

It is always nice to be reminded that we’re on the side of the angels. It is nice to be reminded that our denomination has spent 35 years thinking about things that have only become trendy in the last few years. And it’s tempting to be smug, confident that we are ahead of everyone else and just a little more enlightened.

But a problem remains. In this church that is sometimes too quick to say “we were wrong,’ we have left hanging that matter of Genesis 1 and Psalm 8. We still have dominion, God says, and simply rejecting scripture and saying we don’t doesn’t change the facts on the ground.

We still have dominion both as a scriptural problem and we still have dominion as an ecological problem. If you need proof that we still have dominion, look no further than the Gulf of Mexico. Three weeks ago I stood here and said 800,000 litres a day. Now they estimate up to 4 million litres a day. If they can put a man on the moon, surely they can stop an oil leak a mile below the surface of the sea.

So, since the ecological problem is beyond me to solve, I turn to the scriptural problem and how we can live with the dominion God gave us rather than denying it exists. Can we reclaim dominion and save ourselves at the same time?

The theologian Clinton McCann would have us read Psalm 8 with an eye to the structure of the poem. This is not unusual, as most poems depend on words and the form of the words to convey a message. In this case, the author of Psalm 8 reminded the reader the we have dominion over the earth, that we are ‘little less than angels,’ and that we are crowned with glory and honour. You might say the psalmist is restating much of Genesis 1, or reminding us of the beginning of creation in poetic form.

But the poet does something else. In verse first verse of the psalm and the last verse of the psalm, the author reminds us that God is sovereign, and God’s name is majestic in all the earth. Suddenly there is a tension here. To have dominion is sovereign, a notch below the angels, and in Psalm 8 God is sovereign over all the earth. Like trying to figure out who is Canada’s Head of State, it would seem that there is dominion confusion. Someone is sovereign over the earth, and we thought it was us.

Clinton McCann solves this by suggesting that we have ‘human dominion.’ Like a constitutional crisis, it takes Psalm 8 to clarify that we don’t have dominion such as God would have dominion, we have a form of dominion that McCann calls “derivative,” which is something else altogether.

To derive something is to receive it from somewhere else. A derivative is something that only has value because it’s source has value. We have dominion over the earth because it belongs to God, the God that is sovereign over all the earth.

In other words, we are franchisee over this franchise called earth. Someone might want to retreat at this point to the familiar language of steward, and there is plenty of biblical links to do it, but I think it might be more helpful to stay with the slightly more crass idea of a franchisee. Or, if we wish, we could say we operate under license to God, much in the way a franchise owner is under license to Tim’s or Wendy’s.

If you screw up, or your work is shoddy, or if you misrepresent the values of the franchise owner, you lose the franchise. You license is revoked, lawyers come, and you’re out on the street. Why does the mess in the Gulf feel like just such a moment? And God has given us freewill: which means freewill to fail, and the rules of this particular franchise is you get one chance with the earth and that’s the sum of it.

So where is the hope? Where is the end of the disaster and the point were we see a future worth having? The answer, once again, is in the psalm. We are little less than angels, the psalmist say, crowned with glory and honour. We have a form or derivative dominion, but we’re not simply frail beings struggling with human sin, we’re also little less than angels, blessed with the reflected light of God’s glory.

Abraham Lincoln spoke amid the shadow of war to appeal to “the better angels of our nature” to meet the crisis. And I think we find our selves the same place. Like Lincoln in 1861, we are on the edge of the abyss, and it will take the ‘better angels’ that God has made within us to meet this crisis. This means we do not meet it alone. God suffers with the earth and God sends the Spirit to prompt those better angels, the part of ourselves that can and will change, the part of ourselves that will step back from the abyss, the part of ourselves that will honour God with a renewed sense of dominion.

God is with us, we are not alone, we live in God’s world. Amen.



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