It’s Not All About Us (Ken Pennings) 10.1.17

Audio version

Scripture reading — Ps. 104:10-30

Prior to the 16th century, people conceived of the earth as the center of the universe. Then Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo introduced us to a whole new view of the cosmos. We’re now a space-age people.

We know today that in our single galaxy, which we call the Milky Way, there are 100 Billion stars of which our sun is one. The sun is not anywhere near the largest star in our galaxy. Indeed, some stars in our galaxy are bigger than the earth’s entire orbit around the sun including the sun. And our solar system isn’t even the center of our galaxy. We’re located about two thirds of the way out to the edge of the Milky Way. And beyond that, we’ve now become aware that there are between 100 Billion and 100 Trillion other galaxies. And our single galaxy is so large that if we could travel at the speed of light at 186,000 miles per second, it would take 100,000 years for us to go from one end of our galaxy to the other. The distances and expanses stagger us.

We know for a fact that the earth is NOT the center of the universe. So why this tendency for humans to think everything revolves around them?!

In 2010, Dr. Ken Stone, of Chicago Theological Seminary, taught a workshop called, “Eco-Justice and the Hebrew Bible.”

I traveled with Ken all over Wisconsin, and had the privilege of hearing his lectures four days in a row.

I was most fascinated how Ken used Psalm 104 as a way to frame our discussion of the creation accounts of Genesis 1 & 2.

Many of us, I included, might have read the creation accounts in Genesis 1 & 2 in a big hurry to get to the good part, the part about US!

You remember the stories in Genesis. God creates the heavens and the earth, including the dry land and seas, vegetation, the sun & moon, the fish, birds and animals.… and then, drum roll please…the stars of the show…HUMAN BEINGS!

Here they are, center stage, the pinnacle of God’s creation! And we read in Genesis how God has given human beings everything they could possibly want and need for their own flourishing. Might not that be the way we’ve read the story? How human beings are to dominate and subdue creation, which means of course, in the way might have understood it, that we can use and abuse the planet any way we darn well please. Right?

Some might read the creation accounts in Genesis from this anthropocentric, or human-centered, point of view.

And oh the damage and destruction of the planet which has been justified through such careless anthropocentric interpretations of Bible passages!

When Ken Stone walked us through Psalm 104, what we saw, quite frankly, surprised us. Humans were partnering right alongside, not over and above, the rest of creation. Then through that lens, we saw the same partnering going on in the more familiar nature texts of Genesis 1 & 2.

Through that lens, we see in Genesis 1:31 “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.” Often we read, “Now that the people are here, it’s very good.” But the sense is, “Now that everything is here, it’s very good, and not because of any utilitarian purpose, but simply because it exists.” Humans are part of the whole. And it is all very good

Ken helped us see many texts in the Hebrew Bible that deal with ecological and economic justice, including a startling verse in Ps. 36 – You save humans and animals alike (v. 6). In Hebrew Bible, God not only creates animals, but God saves or delivers animals also.

Dr. Stone pointed us to the strain of wisdom within ancient Israelite religion that urged human beings to know their place in God’s larger scheme of things. Through many of these texts, it’s like God is saying, “You there, homo sapiens, you who are walking on two legs rather than four, I’m concerned about all kinds of things, and not only you. The cosmos wasn’t set up to benefit humans exclusively.”

Here, the psalmist is in awe of the marvelous interplay of God and all of God’s creation. In this psalm, every raindrop, birds nest and prairie dog is as great a wonder as human beings.

Psalm 104:10-14 – Note that in this psalm, God provides food and water not just for humans, but for the birds and animals.

  1. 17-18 – The birds build their nests in the trees. The high mountains are home for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the coneys (rabbits or rodents). Everyone and everything has its place, its home.
  2. 21-23 – Interesting juxtaposition of lions and humans. God is equally concerned with both. At night the lions come out and roar for their prey. The sun comes up, the lions go into their dens, and the people come out and work till dark. There is a time and place for all creatures to do what they need to do.
  3. 25-27 – Yonder is the sea, the home for all kinds of living things, and there go the ships (as though humans are friendly visitors just passing through the habitat of the sea creatures).

And who else do we find in the sea (v. 26)? Leviathan, a Hebrew word often translated “sea monster.”

Now humans are generally terrified of sea monsters, but in this psalm God feeds scary sea monsters also!

And what else is God doing with Leviathan? (v. 26)? — sporting & playing with him. Leviathan is God’s rubber ducky.

God is caring for the critters we like and those we don’t like. Well what’s that about? It’s obviously NOT all about us!

(vv. 29-30) The word “ruah” translated “breath” in v. 29 is translated “spirit” in v. 30. God gives ruah to humans and animals. We have the same breath. We don’t often think of animals as having the spirit of God.

What is Ps. 104 saying about God? That God wants every fish, bird, animal and human to have a place to live and have plenty to drink and eat. Forests, rivers, sea creatures, birds and animals exist and have value in their own right. They are not simply there for human use.

Everyone has a place on earth except whom? V. 35 – sinners. What might sin mean in this context? Disrupting the balance of the created order, exploiting the environment, destroying the web of life.

What happens when we shave off the top of a mountain? What happens to the natural habitat of the mountain goats?

And what about over-fishing in our lakes, rivers and seas? What about spewing billions of gallons of crude oil into our ocean, even if it is an accident?

Modern agribusiness allows us to eat food at affordable prices, but at what cost to the environment?

In the last issue of Christian Century magazine (Sept. 27, 2017) is an article by Norman Wirzba who teaches theology and ecology at Duke Divinity School, called “Waking up to the Anthropocene.” He writes, “The transformation of an economy centered on the procurement of livelihood (as when people worked for the provision of personal and communal needs) to one centered on the purchase of commodities manufactured elsewhere (leads) increasingly to people being unable to understand themselves as inextricably entangled within ecosystems, sharing a common fate. Call it the unmooring of economic forms from ecological realities” (pg. 24).

If ever there was a time to reconnect economics with ecology, now is the time!

For forty years, I really didn’t have much interest in or concern for the environment. I didn’t litter. But I really didn’t care for the earth as part of Christian discipleship. Why not? Because any minute Jesus was going to return from heaven, rapture the church, take Christians out of this horrible mess, and create a new heaven and a new earth. Why worry about this earth if God is going to create a new one?

I cringe to think of the millions of Americans who still maintain this scary theology and are indifferent about the condition of Mother Earth.

In Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Shug is explaining to Celie her ideas about God:

God ain’t a he or a she, but an It.

But what do it look like? I ask.

Don’t look like nothing, she say. It ain’t a picture show. It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything, say Shug. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found It.

….One day when I was sitting quiet and feeling like a motherless child, which I was, it come to me: that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all. I knew that if I cut a tree, my arm would bleed. And I laughed and I cried and I run all round the house. I knew just what It was. In fact, when It happen, you can’t miss It.

We need that feeling of being part of everything, not separate at all.

Dr. Wirzba would agree with Shug: “From a strictly physiological point of view, there is no such thing as life alone or life separated from others. To exist is necessarily to be rooted and entangled within places with a multitude of (seen and unseen) others” (pg. 27).

We’re part of everything, not separate at all.

What is needed, not only for Christians, but for all people, is a change of heart and a new ethic, one that safeguards and celebrates the intrinsic goodness of all creation, and one that flows from an ever-deepening love that can feel and understand the pain and ecstasy of life in all its interrelatedness.

Or as Dr. Wirzba writes, “Our essential work is not liberation from places or from others. It is, rather, to learn the art of hospitality, which welcomes, nurtures, and releases others into the fullness of their lives, so that our presence contributes to the healing and flourishing of all” (pg. 27).

We’re part of everything, not separate at all. AMEN


Questions for Reflection:

Do you believe that you are part of everything, not separate at all? How does that belief affect how you live?

Imagine yourself partnering right alongside, not over and above, the rest of creation. What does that look like to you?

How would the world be different if human beings knew and respected their place in God’s larger scheme of things, where everyone and everything has its place, its home?

There is a time and place for all creatures to do what they need to do. In what ways might you live more confidently and serenely with the time and place given to you?

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