The following lecture was given by His Grace Bishop DAVID at the General Conference of the Yukon Presbytery of the Presbyterian Church, USA, held in Wasilla, Alaska on Saturday, March 1, 2014. In connection with His Grace's involvement in PLUME, (the Judicatory Board in Anchorage, Alaska), responding to the EPA report on the proposed Pebble Mine. The adverse impact of the the proposed mine on the subsistence lifestyle of Native Alaskan's has become a major catalyst in the proclamation of the Orthodox Church's understanding of mankind's responsibility to care and preserve the very environment which sustains us.
Today, I would like to give you three references that should help you to understand what we in the Orthodox Church feel is our responsibility for care of the earth. It is a position that The Church has held for centuries, it is indicated in the teachings of some of the earliest Church Fathers, and in light of the recent attention given the environment, it has again taken a prominent position in the discussion of our call to be good Stewards of all we are given to care for, our churches, our families, our neighbors and our environment.
In the book of Genesis, after God had finished creating everything, He spoke to man and said, And God blessed them. And 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 heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” [Gen. 1:28] Now there will be some who will point to the “subdue” as the primary directive of this verse, and believe that God implied for man to be conquerors of this new creation. According to Strong’s, the word [kavash] translated as subdue, has the connotation we would expect, in fact it even implies “take under bondage” as if the earth is meant to serve our every whim.
But the first word of command in the verse is the word “fill”, again with a standard connotation to many that would imply a progenitor and his progeny occupying space on the earth. The problem is that this is not the most accurate understanding of the word in this case. The Hebrew word [male] means “to consecrate, to fill the hand”, an indication that man was given a responsibility to take this creation and do something with it that would dedicate it back to God. Adam was put in charge because of his likeness, his God-like image that no other creature in creation, not even the angels, were capable of doing.
This is the first and, if you will, prime directive that God gave to man. In our theology, we are so caught up in the transgression of the eating of the forbidden tree, we forget the only other command that man was given by his Creator; that of being responsible for and caring for, all the earth and all its inhabitants. The command not to eat does not come for some twenty more verses, and considering there were no divisions of Scripture until a much later time, I believe it makes this an even more significant point. The command to consecrate comes in the first creation story, the command to not eat comes in the second one. In both versions of the Creation Story, Adam is given the deciding and primary role, this earth was created for him to care for, to be a good steward of, and to make progress towards his role in relation to his creator. The fall would change almost all of that, and yes, I said almost all, but not all. This brings us to our second Scripture reference, Psalms.
In Psalm 104, a description of the purpose of all creation, we find verse 28 referencing man in this way, “Man goes out to his work and to his labor until the evening.” What is his work and his labor? Is this merely a reference to the fact that he has to work so he can have something to eat? Is it a veiled reference to the fall and man’s hard labor to make the ground yield for him, as compared to the fact that God provides for all other creatures in the Psalm? I suppose it could be, but let us look at it in a little greater detail. The phrase “his work” uses the Hebrew word [po’al], also a a reference to a deed, an acquisition (as of treasure); his labor uses the Hebrew word [abodah], a service (of God). So let us try to rephrase this verse and couch it in more terms to benefit our creation Theology, so now we should say, “Man goes to his deed, his treasured acquisition that God gave him, he goes to his service to God, his work of caring, until the evening.” Does this help us understand our relationship to the environment a little better? I hope so, and now to top it all off, here is the capstone, the paradigm of Grace for good environmental Stewardship, the words of Christ, Himself.
When our Lord went to be Baptized by John in the Jordan, John looks at him bewildered and asks this question, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” [Matt. 3:14] “But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented.” [Matt. 3:15] This is a most curious phrase without our previous discussion, is it not? We need to separate the phrase “fulfill all righteousness into two parts. The first part, fulfill, is a translation of the Greek word [plearoo], and again we find ourselves looking for a fuller meaning to this word. In this case, we should be thinking in terms of “to bring to realization” or “to render full”. After the fall, we were left incomplete in many ways, as the Scriptures indicate. Crops would not grow without labor, animals developed antagonistic natures, the earth itself would buckle and heave at random, and the elements themselves could bring destruction and ruin to the work of man’s labor for his sustenance.
The second part of that phrase, “all righteousness” is perhaps the easiest to understand. This is to say, if we understand what righteousness is. What does this word actually mean? Can we agree on a common meaning? Its Greek word is [dikaiosynē] meaning, “state of him who is as he ought to be”. Too often we tend to underestimate the power of a word, or we get so accustomed to thinking about a word in a certain way that the power of its real meaning can become lost. We are always looking towards the lofty and high divine meaning of a word or phrase without realizing that it may have a more connected meaning to our own selves, and this is definitely one of those times.
Let’s try to re-state our Lord’s intention with this passage and say it in a more comprehensive way, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting for you and I, John, to realization the fact that by doing this we will make possible for all mankind to return to a state as he ought to be, the way he was before his transgression.” That is what the Theophany of our Lord has done for us, his descending into the waters of Baptism rejuvenates the water so that all who follow Him into those waters can return to the state He intended them to be in for his created purpose of being enough like God to do the work he was intended to do, to care for, and to consecrate to God, His creation.
You may ask what proof do I have to say I’m right about this? That is a fair question, and again, we will find the answer in Holy Scripture. Everyone knows John 3:16, or at least we think we do (there’s another understanding of this verse we don’t have time to go into now, maybe if I’m invited back, I’ll speak to it), but what about the verse that follows it? What about John 3:17? For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” It may be assumed that the reference for world is simply the inhabitants of the world, but I think not. Here, the word for world is the Greek word [Cosmos], so the intention should be clear to all of us, God did not send His son to condemn his creation, He sent Him to save His creation. And God gave man the responsibility of continuing that Cosmic Salvation through his Sacramental interaction with his Creator. The Orthodox Church has taken this responsibility very seriously, it is why every year, on the Feast of Christ’s Theophany, His Baptism, we consecrate and sanctify water to use for blessing our homes, the rivers we use and receive our life from, our vehicles, and anything else we use made from God’s creation itself.
So it is imperative that we continue to be the caretakers and guardians of God’s creation, it is for this reason that He created us. The only question that remains is of our own Stewardship, shall we be good stewards, like those who the earth as a Sacred gift of God? Or shall we be as those who see the earth and its resources as existing for our own passionate, greedy self-satisfactions?