Saturday, June 25, 2011

Worshiping Molech

Proper 8A

Genesis 22:1-14; Romans 6:12-23

Molech was an Ammonite deity who was thought to require child sacrifice. This week's lesson from Genesis (Genesis 22:1-14) about Abraham taking Isaac up the mountain because he has heard God tell him to offer Isaac as a burnt offering reminds us of Molech, first in the nature of the command Abraham hears, and then in the moment when God says, “Do not lay your hand on the boy”, revealing God to be very different from Molech and the other lesser gods.

It’s worth noticing that the same week our Old Testament lesson brings Molech to mind, we had news about the environment that once again told about the perils we and our children face in the fairly near future.

There was the summary report from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) which brought grim news about the deterioration of marine ecosystems. The report predicts that unless a massive effort is made to address the environmental stressors on the ocean, there will be a mass extinction of marine life sometime during this century. This is not good news for us, for our children, or for our children’s children, The same sorts of stressors affect the non-marine environment; these combined with the effects of the tragedy unfolding in our oceans do have and will have a profound effect on the world in which we and our children and grandchildren are living out our lives.

An article in Saturday’s New Zealand Herald, Toxic tide mankind’s next great threat, quotes a recent UN environmental program report known as Yearbook for 2011 describing plastics “lost” in the oceans as “the world’s new toxic time-bomb”. It seems that plastics floating in the ocean accumulate and concentrate chemicals we don’t want entering the food chain, such as PCBs and DDT. And as plastic photo-degrades, it eventually breaks into individual molecules of plastic that, invisible as they are, enter the food chain very easily.

These reports provide further evidence for what we already knew from looking at other forms of pollution and at climate change, its effects, and our failure to address the issue: we have chosen to sacrifice the lives of our children and our children’s children in the names of various gods -- gods of convenience and money and laziness and all sorts of sin -- gods too numerous to mention. These gods are today’s equivalent of Molech, deities that are not the true god but whom we mistakenly believe have so much power that we will sacrifice our children to them.

In this week’s lesson from Romans (Romans 6:12-23), St. Paul tells us “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Our understanding is that God offers us the gift of true life, ours for the taking, and that when we turn our back on that gift and instead choose to sin, putting all these lesser gods before our relationship with the Living God, the result of that is always death.

This understanding raises questions that should puzzle and disturb us more than the question of how Abraham could ever have set out in obedience to offer his son Isaac as a sacrifice. Given a God who offers us the good gift of eternal life -- life at its deepest levels -- why do we ever choose anything other than God’s freely given gift? Why is it so hard for us to choose life for ourselves and our children? Why do we give everything in the world precedence over ensuring that we leave our children a planet that can sustain human life? Why do we sacrifice our children and our children’s children to these lesser gods?

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Habakkuk Response

Mass Extinction in the Ocean

This week brought a report from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) that was labeled “shocking”. The shock value was at least as much about the rate at which marine ecosystems are deteriorating as it was about the specific observations and predictions. For those who follow these things, many elements of the report are not news, but the gravity of it all becomes more obvious with the timeline described and with consideration of the way these various elements interact with one another. The conclusion about the risk to both marine life and human life if we stay on our current course is grave: “the world's ocean is at high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history.

According to the report, the greatest stress on the ocean is global warming with its twin effects of warming the temperature of the ocean and causing ocean acidification. Dr. Alex Rogers, the scientific director of IPSO who says “when the oceans go down, it’s game over”, talks about the main problems we are looking at with the oceans and some possible solutions:

“I find it very difficult to tell people what a scary situation we’re in at the moment,” says Professor Chris Reid of the Marine Institute, University of Plymouth. “The oceans are changing in a huge way, and I’m particularly worried for my grandchildren.” Here’s the rest of what he says about the speed of the changes that are occurring:

Even though care was taken in the report to talk about possible solutions to this crisis, the report was very discouraging given the political realities of today’s world that make it highly unlikely that these solutions will be implemented in time to ward off mass extinctions in the ocean and the attendant effects on the rest of the world, including human life.

I read something else this week, an interview from Christianity Today called The Joyful Environmentalists: Eugene Peterson and Peter Harris. In it, Peter Harris talks about the difference between their work – work done “in response to who God is” -- and the work of secular environmentalists. Noting that environmentalists who believe they’ll be able to save the planet may easily get “exhausted and disillusioned and depressed”, Harris goes on to say:

If, on the other hand, you do what you do because you believe it pleases the living God, who is the Creator and whose handiwork this is, your perspective is very different. I don't think there is any guarantee we will save the planet. I don't think the Bible gives us much reassurance about that. But I do believe it gives God tremendous pleasure when his people do what they were created to do, which is care for what he made.

The idea of doing what we can to care for the earth out of a joyful response to the Creator resonates with the verses near the end of Habakkuk. Though the crops have failed and the livestock is gone, says Habakkuk, “yet I will rejoice in Lord; I will exult in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:17-18). The Habakkuk response suggests a spiritual path to help us avoid despair and do the work of creation care as well as we possibly can in the difficult years ahead.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Dominion, Trinity Sunday, and Father's Day

Yours are the heavens; the earth also is yours; you laid the foundations of the world and all that is in it. (Psalm 89:11)

(Monday) This morning’s Psalm with its reminder that all of creation -- the heavens, the earth, and the sea -- belong to God echoed the account of creation from the first chapter of Genesis (Genesis 1:1-2:4a) that we read as one of our Trinity Sunday lessons.

While yesterday was Trinity Sunday on the liturgical calendar, most Americans thought of it as Father’s Day. I don’t know how many times around Father’s Day this year I heard people say something to the effect that there’s a big difference between being a biological father and actually being a man who acts like a dad, who cares for and protects and teaches and loves a child, whether his own biological offspring or another child: “Anyone can be a father, but it takes someone special to be a dad.” That Father’s Day thought came to mind when I was listening to Verse 28, “the dominion passage”, in yesterday’s reading. This is the verse that says that after the creation of humankind, God said to them: “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Some people have taken the command to have dominion over other living things as permission to do whatever we want with the resources God has given us, to simply dominate other living things, while others look at having dominion as caring responsibly for other living things and the resources that support life. Those who support the latter interpretation look at this passage in the context of all of Scripture instead of in isolation. Passages such as today’s Psalm that remind us that creation ultimately belongs to God, not us, provide some of the context for the responsible care interpretation. The command in Genesis 2:15 to “till and keep” the garden also points to this latter interpretation. In his book For the Beauty of the Earth Steven Bouma-Prediger suggests that Genesis 1:28 and 2:15 taken together call us to be “earthkeepers”.

The distinction between dominion as domination and dominion as responsible care is parallel to the distinction between fatherhood as a purely biological matter and fatherhood as standing in a certain healthy relationship to a child. The fact of being a parent, of having authority over a child, doesn’t mean that it’s okay to treat that child any way we please. We expect good fathers and mothers to nurture their children, to protect them and teach them and certainly to love them. Having authority over God’s other creatures doesn’t mean that it’s okay to treat other living things and the resources that support their lives (and ours) any way we please. With that authority from God comes an expectation that we will care for creation, protect and tend and keep creation, and love God’s creation.

Anyone can be a member of the species homo sapiens, but it takes someone special to be an earthkeeper.