Stewardship, V: Our Planet
Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? —Job 38:4
A long time ago, the word ‘Stewardship’, a meaningful and integral component of the Christian vocabulary, somehow got handcuffed to money. ‘Stewardship’ became a synonym for ‘fund-raising’. So this fall at Kenilworth Union, Jo and Katie and I are going to unbind the concept from money and restore it to its originally expansive meaning.
A couple of weeks ago, I told you that at thesaurus.com, synonyms for ‘steward’ include ‘custodian’, ‘waiter’, and ‘flight attendant’, but it’s much larger than that. We are all stewards in more ways than we know, even in our professional lives.
If you are a teacher, you are a steward of other people’s children. If you are a doctor or nurse, you are a steward of your patients’ thriving. If you are an investment advisor, you are a steward of your clients’ portfolios. Even if you are a CEO or Managing Director of a large public corporation, you serve as a steward of the institution for your shareholders.
Today we think about caring for our home. You see what’s going on in that poignant poem from the Book of Job, right? For the first 37 chapters of the sprawling book that bears his name, Job has been complaining about God’s management of the universe.
Shakespeare has Hamlet say, “When troubles come, they come not single spies, but in battalions.” Job has battalions of troubles. Multiple times in manifold ways, Job says to God, “What the hell is going on here, God? I am in hell.”
And by chapter 38, Job has exhausted God’s patience. God has had enough, and God rushes aggressively at Job out of a whirlwind. “Gird up your loins like a man,” says God to Job. “You think it’s easy running this place? You think it’s like managing a Costco? “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Who shut in the sea with doors and said, ‘Thus far shall you come and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stopped’? Can you hunt prey for the lions and satisfy their hunger? Do you give the horse its strength, and clothe its neck with mane?”
What I love about this passage is the way God exults in God’s handiwork. God is very proud of the vast, inscrutable, near-infinitude of nature. God thinks the kaleidoscope of color and symphony of sound and miscellany of shapes and quilt of textures and zoo of leaping, flying, diving, burrowing, scurrying life is a masterpiece, and God is right about that, isn’t she?
“This is all mine,” says God to Job, “this whole furred, finned, feathered, four-footed, floral-ed, fauna-ed menagerie of leptons, lichens, leeches, lilies, lavender, lilacs, locusts, lions, Labradors, and Lutherans. Cherish it, and help me run it, inasmuch as you can. At least care for the small corner of earth I’ve put you in charge of.”
How are we doing? Let’s talk about hope, good news, and what we can do. The temptation is to talk about how much trouble our home is in. But the media have taken care of that for us in this calendar year. Those of us who love the natural world don’t even want to turn on the evening news or consult a newspaper.
You already know that the earth has lost half of its wild animals since 1970, including three billion birds in North America and common pollinators like bees, bats, and butterflies, without which we do not eat. Period.
You already know that one million of the two million known animal species are on the verge of extinction. Here’s an irony that I love. Wolverines long ago disappeared from the state of Michigan; and in a warmer world, Ohio buckeyes will no longer grow in Ohio; they will soon migrate to Ann Arbor.
You already know that half of the world’s coral reefs are dead.
You already know that Glacier National Park is called Glacier National Park because in 1850 there were 150 glaciers there; 39 are left; those might disappear by 2030.
You already know about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is twice the size of Texas.
Enough of that. Where’s the hope? What’s the good news? What can we do?
Did you know that 15% of the world’s land mass and 7% of the world’s oceans are protected in sanctuary, including the entire Serengeti and the Florida Keys? I thought that was pretty good.
It’s true that there are only 700 wild tigers left in the world, and 30,000 blue whales, down from a peak of 300,000 before they were hunted almost to extinction, but wherever these animals are protected, they snap back. Nature is amazingly resilient.
The Endangered Species Act is a near-miracle of public policy. Since 1973 it has prevented the extinction of the bald eagle, the grizzly, the American alligator, the gray whale, the peregrine falcon, the brown pelican, the Florida Manatee, and the gray wolf.
California, Hawaii, and 200 counties and municipalities have banned disposable plastic bags or placed a fee on them; soon this ban will be comprehensive. It should not be lost on us that California and Hawaii are ocean states, proximate to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
I was driving with a friend the other day and we passed a Starbucks, and he said, “Let’s stop and get a coffee.” I said “Okay!” He said, “Do you have travel mugs with you?” I said, “No.” He said, “Never mind. I’m never using one of these wax-coated, single-use paper cups again. They can’t be recycled. I’d rather go without.” He’s also replaced paper towels with cloth at his house. No more, he says.
We flew to Scotland last week. We were in the air for 16 hours. Nothing will bring back the three square meters of arctic ice that jet fuel melted, but I purchased a carbon offset which will fund projects countering harmful emissions.
The Amazon is burning because of increasing global beef consumption. Cattle ranchers burn the forest to add grazing lands. But every day the food industry, including Smithfield and Tyson, add more and more plant-based food products to your grocery-store shelves. It’s better for you, and it’s better for our common home. It’s a great time to be alive, and it’ll only get better.
You can vote for politicians who care about your grandchildren. You’ve heard of The Golden Rule. Now there is something called Golden Rule 2.0. Our church’s mission statement is “Love God above all, and your neighbor as yourself.” That’s a version of The Golden Rule. Golden Rule 2.0 says that your neighbors include your unborn grandchildren, down to the third and fourth generations, even the seventh. That’s the ancient Iroquois philosophy: in every decision you make today, you are thinking about its impact on your descendants to the seventh generation.
Will any or even all of this make the tiniest sliver of difference in halting global warming, rising seas, or species extinction? Of course not. It’s too small, too local, too private. But when was that ever the criterion by which we make decisions between right and wrong? It’s not smallness but rightness that determine the actions we make and the habits we shape.
You know what Gandalf says to Denethor in The Lord of the Rings: “All worthy things in peril as the world now stands, these are my care, for I too am a steward. Did you not know?” All worthy things in peril as the world now stands, these are our care, for we too are stewards.
In that passage from Job I read a few moments ago, I love the pride God takes in God’s handiwork. “Job, where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Isn’t it stunning, Job? Isn’t it beautiful?”
I’ll bet even God was surprised by what turned up. God takes creation’s simplest molecular constituents—carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and oxygen—and bends them into loops and links them together into chains of acids and twists the chain into a double helix of prolific possibilities that must have shocked even God Godself.
“Job, where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Did you shut in the sea with doors? Did you cut a channel for the torrents of rain? Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion? Did you give the horse his strength, and clothe its neck with mane?”
No, you weren’t there. But now you are. Here you are. My partner. My steward. Help me protect it. Make it flourish. It’s the only home you’ll ever have.
William Shakespeare, Hamlet, IV, iv.
J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1955), vol. 3, The Return of the King, pp. 788-789.