Sermon: A Hermeneutic of Love

A Hermeneutic of Love
September 30, 2018
A Sermon for The Eliot Church of Newton, UCC
Audio Recording, Including Liturgist’s Reading:
Genesis 1:26-28  (translation: The Inclusive Bible)

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, to be like us. Let them be stewards of the fish in the sea, of the birds of the air, the cattle, the wild animals, and everything that crawls on the ground.” Humankind was created as God’s reflection; in the divine image God created them, female and male God made them. God blessed them and said, “Bear fruit, increase your numbers, and fill the earth – and be responsible for it! Watch over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things on the earth.”

Mark 10:42-45 (translation: New Revised Standard Version)
Jesus said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.  For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.’

Prayer

Sermon

Words matter.  Translations matter.

And hermeneutics – the lens we deliberately use to interpret sacred texts – matter.
And so, today, on a day focused on our care for creation in the face of climate change, I want to begin by talking about the words of the creation narrative in Genesis 1:26-27.

The translation we read this morning, the Inclusive Bible, reads: “in the divine image God created them, female and male God made them.”

The New Revised Standard Version that we read most Sundays says, “God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them.”

The translations familiar enough that we can recite them out loud gender God from the very first verses of our sacred text, and even an inclusive translation divides humanity into a binary of male and female. Implied in this verse at least is that the manner in which humanity is formed in God’s image is the manner of gender. Austen Hartke, a theologian who is transgender, breaks this open. “I’ve…concluded that this verse does not discredit other sexes or genders, any more than the verse about the separation of day from night rejects the existence of dawn and dusk.” Hartke takes the concept of the image of God back to John Wesley: “Wesley preached that people were made in God’s natural image….in God’s political image….and in God’s moral image (‘in righteousness and true holiness’ and ‘full of love’).”[1]

If we are made in God’s moral image, then we are made in the image of Love.  In the words of Barbara Brown Taylor on this same text, we are “made in the image of the First Lover, the Divine One….if that is true,
that we have been put here to live in that image,
then the only dominion we can possibly exercise is the dominion of love….we are here to love as God loves.”[2]

Of course, ‘dominion’ is the other translation from this Genesis text that trips us up.

If the way in which we categorize the earliest people matters to humanity today, so also matters the way we interpret God’s first instruction to them.

The Inclusive Bible Translation we heard today says, “‘Let them be stewards’…’Bear fruit, increase your numbers, and fill the earth – and be responsible for it! Watch over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things on the earth.”

More familiar translations say: (NRSV)
“‘let them have dominion…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.’

Dominion over….

~~~

I have to turn to the Gospel now, because I’m going to use Jesus’ words to James and John to form my hermeneutic, my interpretive lens, for Genesis 1.

“Jesus said to them, ‘You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it overthem, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you.”

Jesus is responding to James and John, who have made a request of their teacher. Jesus has announced his imminent death at the hands of the powers and principalities. James and John have responded by asking to sit in the fancy chairs. They have asked for a special place at Jesus’ side. They are asking for dominion, for control, for power over. Jesus’ response is to lovingly, carefully say once again: real power is the power of love and of service. Because Jesus interprets everything through love.

Jesus defines a hermeneutic of love and service. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” Jesus rejects dominion and domination.

These two concepts have defined power among us for a couple thousand years. When Christianity went from offering a countercultural narrative of resistance to empire, to being the religion of empire, our hermeneutic shifted from one of love and service to one of dominion.  And it has mattered for our relationship to people, animals, and the earth ever since. Some scientists call the era that we are in the Anthropocene, because of the profound impact of humanity upon the earth. In this era, the dominion of humans over the earth has taken root.  Melanie Harris, an ecowomanist theologian, draws connections and parallels between the treatment of the earth and the treatment of black women’s bodies. The logic of the domination of black women’s bodies is the same logic of domination of the earth.[3]

In this moment, in the face of

  • Climate change
  • The destruction of brown bodies
  • The tolerance of violence against women

We face a choice. Continuing in the Anthropocene, choosing to double down on a hermeneutic of dominion means this: Hierarchy is justified, the subjugation of people and creation is justified, unequal power and privilege is justified. Dominating and subduing the earth sounds like holy mandate.

The alternative vision starts from a hermeneutic of love. Love, in the image of the Divine Lover, is our calling. Mutuality, respect and dignity is justified. Equity and justice are lived out. The last are first and the most vulnerable are the priority. Service to the earth and all its creatures, humility in the presence of all our brothers and sisters is our mandate.

We are at a moment of existential crisis, in terms of climate change.  Hurricanes Maria, Irene, Sandy, Florence – Typhoons Haiyan, Bopha, Mangkhut – the Carr wildfire. These catastrophes have wiped out communities and have made clear that climate change is real, is here, and is already disproportionately impacting the most vulnerable people. There is no reasonable doubt that climate change is caused by human actions, human choices, human consumption. I say to you: on its deepest level, climate change is caused by a human hermeneutic of dominion over.

How then, can we human beings address climate change? How will be serve our brothers and sisters, our children and grandchildren, our neighbors around the world? How will we adapt to live in a changed climate?

This week I came across a piece on carbon capture and storage. This is one potentially very effective strategy to draw already released carbon out of the atmosphere. It’s emblematic of one approach to climate change, what I would call a technical approach. And I want you to hear me clearly: we have to do these things. We have to pursue technical approaches. We are past the point of prevention through lowering our carbon footprint. Scientific approaches to reversing climate change are crucial.

And yet, I worry that they come from the same hermeneutic of dominion. A human-centered model of control. Human beings have figured out how to control and consume the earth’s resources; this has caused ecological destruction but could also be the solution to climate change, continuing the cycle of lordship over people and the planet. But, the tools of the master’s house will never dismantle the master’s house.  (Audre Lorde)[4]

Here is something. People of privilege and wealth will be fine. We will always find high enough ground to stake our claim. But will we reflect the moral image of God, from that hill?

One of the most troubling ways I imagine our future is this.

We are James and John, and we get what we’ve asked for.

We are seated at the right and left of Jesus, in the fancy chairs.
And our view is of a crucified Christ, and a crucified earth.

But what if the way we adapt to climate change is more radical? What if our adaptation is grounded in transformation to a hermeneutic of love? What if the first step is that we deliberately decenter ourselves? We come down from the hill and out of the fancy chairs. We center the voices of, and honor the stories of, and follow the call of, indigenous water protectors; children suing for their very futures; women whose bodies have been violated, refugees scattered around the world. We recognize the value of every form of life; we see the dignity of every person as a reflection of God’s image. We serve and sacrifice in order to renew and restore creation, in order to protect our neighbors and our children.

“Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.”

Amen.

[1] Austen Hartke, “God’s Unclassified World: Nonbinary Gender and the Beauty of Creation,” Christian Century: April 25, 2018.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Dominion of Love: Genesis 1:24-31; Matthew 5:43-48”  Sermon preached at Columbia Theological Seminary in 2007.  Published in Journal for Preachers.

[3] Melanie L. Harris, Ecowomanism: African  American Women and Earth-Honoring Faiths. (Maryknowl, New York: Orbis,  2017).  22;  151.

[4]Audre Lorde. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110- 114. 2007

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