God's Creation and Ours


Rev. Dr. Joyce Antila Phipps

Old First Church

February 25, 2018


Texts: Gen 2:1-9; Psalm 8

       On Wednesday this past week we got a little taste of the spring soon to bloom about us.  The warm sun and even warmer temperature were unusual for February, a month we associate more with the rain that followed. But that one day made many of us smile with gratitude for the beauty of the day.

        Wednesday gave us in New Jersey another reason to be grateful. Our new governor signed a bill that requires us to join the U.S. Climate Alliance, a coalition of states dedi-cated to cutting carbon emissions in accordance with the Paris Climate Accord. More than ten years ago New Jersey passed the Global Warming Response Act with the goal of cutting carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and intermediate goals by 2020. However, mandatory limits were not set.

        Unfortunately, as we all know, the prior governor gutted what there was of that legislation and pulled us out of the tristate climate accord, blocked reports on green-house gas emissions, and diverted $300 million out of Clean Energy Funds and proposed to zero out the State Office on Climate Change and Energy.   Needless to say, with our 130 mile coastline New Jersey is particularly vulnerable to coastal storms. Even the Pine Barrens are suffering from the rising sea levels turning portions into “ghost forests.” God’s creation? No, ours.

        The Pine Barrens stretch across seven counties and comprise more than a million acres. Most of us have pro-bably never been there. But along numerous waterways, the Atlantic cedar is dying out and salt marshes are taking over due to the rising sea levels. And this all didn’t just happen because of Hurricane Sandy.

         The salt water has been mixing with the fresh causing brackish water to eat away at the cedars. Overdevelopment and the desire for its financial rewards are destroying much of the natural heritage given us by God. God may have given us dominion over creation, but we have really made a mess of it. But, I believe, it’s not too late to change.

        In order to change, we must begin by looking close to home. The Pine Barrens is the largest surviving open space on the Eastern seaboard between the Everglades in Florida and the northern forests of Maine. Ever increasing pressure to permit more development along Routes 70 and 206 near Hammonton threaten the ecosystem of the Pinelands.                   Suburban sprawl threatens the groundwater and the aquifers, and as fresh water pulls out, salt water comes in.

Overdevelopment in Monmouth County puts pressure on the Kirkwood Cohansey Aquifer system, which includes the very southern tip of the county but also which impacts all of Monmouth County in many significant ways. As God has given us these natural resources, our responsibility is to protect them, not simply abuse and destroy them for the sake of developers.

      The Psalmist also sings of the inherent dignity of human beings. Only a little lower than the gods – the correct translation, although most versions use the word “angels” – human beings are part of God’s creation, along with the moon and the stars. Who are we that God should care for us? An uncomfortable question, to say the very least since we like to think that we are the crowning achievement of God’s creation.

      In the second creation story, the one we read this morning, God reaches down and forms the first human out of the dust of the ground and breathes the breath of life into that creature. So indeed, we carry the breath of God’s life in us. The Psalmist sings that we have been crowned with glory and honor, with human dignity. Yet, we seem to respond to our fellow creatures as we have to the natural world given us by God.

       This past Tuesday at St. Paul’s Chapel next to the new World Trade Center I joined with clergy of all faiths – Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox, Jewish, and Muslim – to call for an end to the inhuman bombardment in Ghouta, an area of more than 400,000 persons to the east of Damascus. The Syrian Faith Initiative was established as a result of the Trinity Wall Street conference that I attended three weeks ago. At that conference, Dr. Zahir Sahloul, founder of Medglobal, an organization dedicated to bringing medical relief to neglected parts of the world, spoke about the humanitarian disaster unfolding in Ghouta.

      On Monday, Dr. Sahloul spoke with a doctor treating people wounded in that day’s bombing which killed more than 100; on Tuesday morning, his friend was killed as he was treating persons in one of seven hospitals bombed that same day. The United States has spoken up for a cease fire, for some form of humanitarian relief; the Russians vetoed the Security Council resolution on Thursday.

       Because, like the Psalmist, I believe in the inherent dignity of every human being, I do not give up hope that this carnage will cease. Vigils are important because they are part of bearing witness, something we are called to do. Most people that afternoon at 5 o’clock or so were more concerned that they might miss their trains or the subway than Syria, but as we stood on Broadway, we were able to get some to stop and listen and, perhaps, become more cognizant of the plight of Syrians bombed by a man who can only hold power through brute force.

      Only a little lower than the gods we are and with many of the foibles of those Canaanite deities that the Lord our God exhorted us to abandon. And when we look at the heavens, the moon and the stars, we realize that we are indeed ever so small but yet responsible for the creation around us.

      The Psalmist reminds us here of the sovereignty of God, and by implication of the fact that our first allegiance is to God, above any and all  other demands of nation, society, even those of family. This is difficult for us to acknowledge because of the way family and faith are conflated in our thinking.

       That conflation, of course, is largely due to the constant barrage of so-called “family values” touted by right wing propagandists who claim to speak for both evangelical and mainstream Christian churches in the United States. I suspect that the Reformers, not to mention early Christian writers, including Paul, would be appalled at some of the claims of “family values” made by such propagandists.

       The sovereignty of God and God’s creation of humanity speaks to the fact that it is God who gives intrinsic worth to human beings. In his poem “The Creation,” James Weldon Johnson portrays the image of God as lonely after having created the earth and “like a mammy, bending over her baby, kneeled down in the dust, toiling over a lump of clay” created a human being.

       Both the Genesis story and Johnson’s retelling of it portray God as a deity intimately involved with us, respond-ing to our cries of despair as we have read in some of the previous Psalms, being our strength and shield as we will hear in some of the Psalms that follow. The Genesis story is a metaphor for our relationship with God and serves as a ground for our belief in the intrinsic worth of all human beings, no matter who they are or from whence they came.

       When we deny humanity to any one person or group of persons we deny the sovereignty of God. And because God’s creation of humanity is inextricably linked to God’s creation of the world around us as well, when we do not care for the world, we are guilty of the same sin. And, yes, sin is the word to use.

        We don’t really like the word sin because it conjures up all kinds of images we would rather avoid, such as guilt. For when we sin against each other and the world around us, we do sin against God. As the Psalmist says, we have been given dominion over the works of God’s hand: all sheep and oxen, the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the sea.” The very fact that we have been given such dominion means, of course, that we are responsible for all these creatures put into our hands.

        Returning to the Pinelands, we have been given the responsibility of caring for this resource and that creates obligations. In 2016 and 2017 ex-governor Christie not only stacked the Pinelands Commission with pro-pipeline hench-men but he tried to remove Ed Lloyd, the director of the Environmental Law Clinic at Columbia University, who has been a stalwart against encroachment since 2002. Fortun-ately, the State Senate put a stop to that.

        New Jersey Natural Gas and South Jersey Gas are pushing to build their pipelines right through the heart of this fragile ecosystem. Armed with industrial wealth, they have taken this fight to the courts. There’s little difference between that proposed degradation of the Pinelands and the JCP&L proposal for the giant towers along the NJ Transit railroad line.  Such proposals are based on little more than the money that will be gained through more and more development that will destroy the natural habitat. And it’s our responsibility to God to stop all that.

        The inherent dignity of human beings and the environ-ment go hand in hand as is clear from the Psalmist who praises God for the earth as well as the heavens. As we read these words we are reminded of our responsibility to the God who created us and the world around us, even those annoying bugs happily breeding on the front windows in Fellowship Hall.

        Let us pray: How magnificent is your creation, O Holy One who has given us the breath of your life. May we always respond to your world as you would have us do. In the name of him who spoke of the lilies of the field, even Christ Jesus our Lord, Amen.