"His Majesties Ancient Colony"

Sunday sermon from June 16, 2013
Texts: Matthew 20:20-28, Genesis 1:24-31
Preached by the Rev. Matt Gaventa

Two Sundays ago, when we began this summer-long voyage through the opening chapters of Genesis, we read and talked about the foundational principles of creation, the purposes of God even before the dawn of the first day. Then, last week, when we read through the days of God's creative acts, we talked about the ways in which God's ongoing creation happens even here and now. Which is to say that we first spoke about the distant past of creation, and then creation in our present day and age. So this Sunday, much like being at the second intermission of A Christmas Carol, you know what's going to happen now: we've got to have a visit from the ghost of creation yet to come; we've got to talk about the future, the future of creation.

Now, it seems lately that, whenever Christians talk about the future, they're inevitably talking about some kind of fire-and-brimstone-fueled vision of the End of Days. But there's another end of the Christian spectrum, wherein talking about the "future of creation" has much less to do with a rapture-style apocalypse and much more to do with the long-term impact of our current ecological crisis. Whether you believe it or not, I'm sure you know this version of the story. After generations of breakneck industrialization, human society has reached the point where the hidden costs of our industry have begun to assert themselves. Over the past century average global temperatures have increased by about .8 degrees Celsius. The 2009 Copenhagen Accord, drafted at least in principle by the United States and signed on to by almost every major industrialized nation, asserts the growing consensus that anything greater than a two degree increase would be effectively irreversible, a number we are now poised to blow through with barely a notice. Whether it happens in ten years, twenty-five, or fifty, we are approaching an invisible line in the geological sand. Which means that, on one hand, we can acknowledge that ecologically-driven Christian conversation about the "future of creation" is no less accustomed to watching the clock than its more fiery, brimstone-y counterpart. But on the other hand, with scientific consensus bearing down upon us, as we gather this morning in the fresh air and with the beauty of Creation beaming down upon us, we have to acknowledge that the future of the very thing we are doing is in jeopardy. And just as we asked where God was before the first day of creation, and where God is in the ongoing present of creation, we have now to ask where God is as we count down the clock on creation's future.

In the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that I started to considered myself an "environmentalist" when I first began to learn what the term meant. I have vague memories of putting together one of those three-panel middle school project boards about the impact of greenhouse gases on the ozone layer. I remember having to use the word ChloroFluoroCarbon but nothing about what that term actually means. I've purchased more than my fair share of locally-sourced, organic, heirloom, artisinal what have you. But it is neither my job nor my intent to preach at you today about environmental best practices. It is my job, however, to interpret scripture in light of the environmental conversation that surrounds us. And while Christian debates about an apocalyptic future tend to revolve around interpretation of the book of Revelation, debates about our environmental and climatological future tend to revolve around the verses we read this morning, from the sixth day of creation. "Then God said, "Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth."

Let them have dominion. Does God really mean for us to be the masters of creation? During the 19th-century heyday of accelerated industrialization, this exact verse, the so-called dominion mandate, was often cited as justification for the technological subjugation of the earth. Has God made creation simply as a pool of resources for our advancement? It's hard to imagine a word in scripture whose interpretation has greater current global consequence. There's an ethical question here: what are we to do with the gifts we've been given; how are we who were made on the sixth day supposed to behave ourselves in the presence of all the things made beforehand? But there's also a theological question: if this earth really is our dominion; if God has really given it to us to do with as we see fit, then where will God be on the day we cross the invisible line in the sand? The ethical question is whether we can and should save the planet. The theological question is whether God will nonetheless save us.

Somewhere along the line, probably about the time I was doing tri-panel projects on greenhouse gases for science class, an english teacher taught me about the four major kinds of stories. There's man vs. man, your classic tango between hero and villain. There's man vs. society, which in my imagination always resembles something from the end of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. There's man vs. nature, inevitably introduced by reference to something by Jack London. And of course there's man vs. self: Hamlet, locked into his own personal torture, its effects spread halfway across Denmark. And I hope you understand that I take my gender language directly from some long-ago middle school classroom. I have no doubts that man vs. woman is another entirely valid and entirely universal kind of story. But I want to suggest this morning that we have been telling the story of the dominion mandate, and, by association, the story of the current ecological crisis, using each of those four classical types, and with no shortage of controversy. First, of course, when the mandate is taken as a rationale for environmental subjugation, we can tell a very simple story of man vs. nature; one pictures the story of John Henry fighting against the mountain, the refrains of railroad and progress urging him on. Second, and somewhat more complicated, is the naturalist backlash against the dominion mandate and against the entire notion of human distinctiveness. If we are out to save the planet and not subjugate it, then logically our enemy must be those on the side of technology and industry. It's the definition of a man vs. man conflict. In my lifetime the political and legal arenas have seen no end of arguments: conservationists on one side trying to save the planet; industrialists on the other trying to save the humans. In my lifetime it seems that fewer and fewer of those conversations get very far at all.

The temptation, then, is to frame environmental stewardship as a matter of personal choice -- that is, to take the third option and write the story as a story of man vs. society. I can't get Washington to rethink fuel economy standards, but at least I bought my Hybrid! I can't get industrial farms to back off of genetically modified foods, but at least I can buy local! I can't change the system, but at least I can create a kind of cloud of green-friendliness that follows me around. I can buy my way into a feeling of environmental self-satisfaction, and that's good enough for me. The problem, of course, is that we end up pitting ourselves against society when society itself is the thing at stake. The problem is that rejecting the concept of dominion in favor of all-natural consumerism ignores our ethical obligation to the rest of the global community. Our population has come to close to outstripping the natural yield of the planet. I love a good farmer's market. I really do. I say this with great affection. But people at farmer's markets claiming that what the world needs is for everybody to shop at farmer's markets simply don't understand the numbers. The Los Angeles Times this week reported on a study comparing Indian farmers who had planted natural cotton with those who had planted a variety genetically modified to stave off infestation. This is an area of the world where entire populations routinely flirt with famine. But the farmers who planted the modified cotton consumed on average 18% more calories every day, drastically reducing their likelihood of being labeled "Food Insecure" by the World Health Organization.

Of course the economic interests behind genetic modification have not always acted charitably. But the point nonetheless stands: going all-natural is a luxury afforded only to the very few. If we're serious about issues of economic justice, poverty, starvation; if we're serious about our ethical obligation to one another and to our survival as a species, then I think we have to stop pretending that "all-natural" is a panacea. After all, the real story here isn't that we're destroying the planet. The real story is that we're destroying ourselves. Really, this is classic man vs. self kind of material. Ten, twenty-five, fifty years from now. The planet will be just fine. The planet will recover. Over a long enough time horizon, ecologies will adapt and species will evolve and the planet will continue. But long before then, we will have destroyed ourselves: through starvation, or through war over scarce resources, or through disease brought about by subhuman conditions. The problem isn't that we've failed to locally-source our produce. The problem is that we have locally-sourced our sense of mutual obligation.

This is the problem of dominion; it's the problem of our relationship with this piece of scripture. Having dug ourselves such a sizable hole preaching a Gospel of human distinctiveness and the God-given right of subjugation, we're now in the process of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. But let me suggest that we instead seek to recover our call to dominion by considering it in its context. "Let us make humankind in our image ... and let them have dominion..." Ancient Israel is no stranger to the concept of images of gods. Throughout the Ancient Near East, kingdoms would regularly be littered with statues and busts of their current monarchs, even and often revered as deities. These statues had some provisional power, maybe a kind of custodianship; really, they functioned as reminders of the proper source of regional authority. It's a marked contrast with the practice we find in Israel itself, where statues or other images of God were strictly forbidden by the third commandment. Instead in the language of Genesis Israel reinterprets the practices of its neighbors in the most radical way: by claiming that God has endowed humanity with this provisional custodianship of creation. It's not ultimate authority; quite the opposite: it's designed as a reminder of where ultimate authority properly resides. Israel understood that its ability to exercise dominion was tied to its recognition of the values and principles and authority of the one who was actually in charge.

Of course, for Christians, the relationship between image and dominion has to be shaped by our understanding of what the dominion of Jesus Christ actually entails. In today's reading from Matthew, Jesus offers a telling response to several disciples who are clamoring for positions of honor in Christ's Kingdom. He reminds them, as he reminds us, of the model of servant-leadership found consistently throughout the New Testament. For Christians, to have dominion as images of God is to exercise that custodianship as servants: servants of creation, servants of humanity, servants of one another, and primarily as servants of the values of peace and justice and human dignity that bleed off of every page of the Gospel. It means that our relationship with the future of creation is not simply about our relationship with nature; no, more than that -- as images of the God who fed the hungry and healed the sick, as images of the God who spoke for the voiceless and welcomed the outcast, as images of the God who gave his life as a ransom for many - as images of this particular God, our servant dominion extends not just across the face of the planet but across the faces of every one of its inhabitants. Which means that the question is not whether or not we can save the planet. The question is whether or not we can save ourselves, every one of us, together.

And the answer is yes, we can - with God's help. As much as the language of dominion gives us the ethical imperative to be responsible for one another, it also gives us theological grounds for hope. It reminds us that we are not finally the ones in charge, but mere images - that the custodianship we serve is trivial compared to the power and might and Providence of the one who created all things. I don't have science for this part. I don't have numbers, either. But I do have faith in this double-edged sword called dominion. In one direction, it cuts through all of our nonchalance, all of our self-centered idolatry, all of the excuses we've made to ourselves for why we haven't fought harder for the future of this Creation. Standing out here in the beautiful light of a Virginia morning, it is entirely possible that the very thing we are doing is in jeopardy, not because we have exercised our dominion but because we have failed rightly to do so. But the other side of the blade is just as sharp, and it cuts through isolation and desperation; it cuts through hopelessness and fear; it cuts through that creeping sense that this is all somehow inevitable; it is a reminder of the power of God who is the Lord of Creation and made us in His image. One edge makes clear just how massive is the task before us. The other reminds us that we do not face it alone.

One final story. In 1649, just as the Virginia colony was really getting up and running, England broke out into Civil War. Parliamentarians executed King Charles I and forced his son into exile, and the country was led without a monarch. Nevertheless, in protest of the actions of the insurgents, the governor of the Virginia Colony issued a statement proclaiming the exiled Prince Charles as rightful King, which then prompted England to send an armed fleet to the Virginia shoreline to demand its surrender. All of which is background to the following legend: that in 1660, when the monarchy was restored and Prince Charles was named King Charles II, that he thanked the Virginia colony by proclaiming it his faithful old dominion. While England had many colonies, the crown only counted as dominions England, Scotland, Ireland, and, strangely enough, France. It was a term of honor, one that carried no increased degree of self-sufficiency; if anything, the latter was true, such that Virginia being a dominion of the crown only increased the King's authority even on this side of the pond. But it was nonetheless a statement of value, of distinctive value, of recognition for Virgina's steadfast loyalty, and Virginians took to it quite amicably. It's hard to know exactly how quickly the phrase took root, but suffice to say that in a 1700 letter to the King, the state General Assembly referred to Virginia as "his majesties ancient colony and dominion."

Now obviously history gets in the way of this metaphor pretty quickly. But it's fair to say that we've been carrying that word around so long that we forgot where it came from, and what it stands for. It's not about our authority and our autonomy. It's not about our rights of subjugation. At the end of the day, it's not even principally about any kind of ethical responsibility. Rather, at its theological core, it means that we are called to proclaim the right Lordship of the King - the King of Creation. It means that our hopes are ultimately and always in the hands of the one who reigns from above. And it means that we serve with pleasure the entirety of this most ancient colony, which is the whole household of God. Amen.