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Living with the Gift of Responsibility

July 08, 2012

Bible Reading

The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord.

Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.

(Genesis 18:17-27, 31-33)

About the middle of the festival Jesus went up into the temple and began to teach. The Jews were astonished at it, saying, “How does this man have such learning, when he has never been taught?” Then Jesus answered them, “My teaching is not mine but his who sent me. Anyone who resolves to do the will of God will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own. Those who speak on their own seek their own glory; but the one who seeks the glory of him who sent him is true, and there is nothing false in him.”

(John 7:14-18)


When I was in college, I took a class in field ecology. We took a field trip one weekend to a place called Calamus Swamp, about forty miles south of Columbus, Ohio, to observe some of the unique environmental dynamics there. Calamus Swamp was a glacial lake, we were told, which is a rarity in southern Ohio, where the glaciers only lightly danced across the land. Now that I have moved to Minnesota, I have discovered the real reason glacial lakes are rare in Ohio: Minnesota has been hoarding them!

In an effort to learn more about my adopted state, I not only spent some time at the science museum with exhibits that explain why Minnesota is the way it is, but I also borrowed a few books on the subject from the library out in Plymouth. One particular book, Minnesota’s Natural Heritage by John R. Tester, is proving very educational. It highlights all of Minnesota’s major biomes—coniferous forests, deciduous forests, tall-grass prairies, and wetlands— and the wildlife we can expect to find there. I recommend it not only to someone moving into the state, but also to those who have lived here all their lives and might not fully understand the richness in their own backyard. It seems to me that nature is one of the things Minnesota does very well, and I’ve been impressed by the effort I’ve seen that goes into making sure the nature stays natural.

One of my favorite cartoons shows an angelic cleaning lady standing amid the stars with a feather duster. She’s ready to clean the planet Earth, suspended there in front of her. God walks by and says, “Oh, don’t touch that one. I’m trying to teach them something about responsibility.”

Looking at some of the environmental challenges we’ve created for ourselves, it doesn’t seem that as a species we have, in fact, learned responsibility. Now, I know this world has no shortage of people who are willing to jump up on a soapbox and inform everybody else that we need to pay more attention to the environment. I tend to be one of those people, but this isn’t going to be one of those sermons. I’m not going to subject you to a message that you’ve undoubtedly heard many times over, and that most of you probably agree with. Instead, I’d like to share with you part of the introduction of a book that I’ve come to value quite highly for its message and its clarity of expression. The author begins by admitting:

It is already too late to save our planet from harm. Too much has happened already: farms have been turned into deserts, forests have been clear-cut to wasteland, lakes have been poisoned, the air is filled with harmful gases. It is even too late to save ourselves from the effects of other harmful processes, for they have already been set in motion, and will inevitably take their course. The global temperature will rise. The ozone layer will continue to fray. Pollution will sicken or kill more and more living creatures. All those things have already gone so far that they must now inevitably get worse before they can get better.

The only choice left to us is to decide how much worse we are willing to let things get.

We still have time, however, to save, or restore, a large part of the gentle and benevolent environment that has made our lives possible. We can’t, however, do it easily. We can’t do it at all without at the same time making considerable social, economic, and political changes to our world. These changes go far beyond anything we can accomplish as individuals, and to describe why these large-scale changes are necessary, what they must be, and how we can make them happen is what this book is about.

(Frederik Pohl, Our Angry Earth (New York: Tor), pp ix-x)

The author is trying to inspire in us a sense of stewardship toward the planet. We talk about stewardship quite a bit in the context of our church, and we have realized that if we do not take care of our church, it will cease to function. When it does function efficiently, everyone will be nourished who is part of its community. The same is very much true of this planet Earth. We only have to go up a few miles to see that there’s just a thin layer on the surface of the planet in which all of its life exists. That thin, onion-skin biosphere has to feed, clothe, and shelter 6.5 billion human beings, plus many, many times that number of non-human individuals that call the earth their home. Unfortunately, we’ve proven that we can damage that biosphere much more rapidly than it can heal itself. When there is a disruption in our environment, we suffer. When we take care of the planet, all life is nourished. So you see, in many ways, environmental stewardship is not that different from church stewardship. Both come from the same place within a person—that deep place where covenants are made. Both are responsibilities that we accept and embrace and that enlighten us in the doing of them.

But, more than that, environmental responsibility is a gift that God offers us. You see, out of all the lifeforms that grace this planet, only humans can function as its caretakers. Only humans have the right combination of gifts to function in that capacity—to understand how an ecological system works and how all of its parts interrelate—to be able to devise means of regulating our environment for the sake of equilibrium. It is part of our purpose in this world.

It’s as though God the Eternal Parent has sent us to study in the great university called the Natural World. We need to learn all that we can, but also get a job as a caretaker to help pay for our education and “build character.” As many of us have already discovered, sometimes a job can teach us more about life than classes can. So when we elect to be environmentally responsible, we learn more about what it is to be human. What greater gift can there be than an opportunity to discover our selves?

As the author correctly points out, there is much we need to change in order to lessen harm to the environment, and one person can only do so much. One person needn’t feel responsible for producing a huge result. We are all responsible for doing our part. As the story in the book of Genesis reveals, just a few people can make a big difference in the fate of an environment. Margaret Mead once wrote, “It is not only true that a few concerned people, working together and out of compassion, can turn the world around—in fact, such an effort is the only thing that ever has.” Amen.


   There is no plant in the ground but tells of your
beauty, O Christ.
There is no creature on the earth, there is no life in
the sea, but proclaims your goodness.
There is no bird on the wing, there is no star in the
sky, but is full of your blessing.
Lighten my understanding of your presence all
around, O Christ;
Kindle my will to care for Creation.
- J. Philip Newell

Rev. Eric Hoffman