Today is Mother’s Day, a day when we lift up and celebrate the nurturing care that “A Mother” offers to her child. I happen to be “A Mother,” so to speak, so I understand this nurturing role that we all recognize as a good thing: the love and support that encourages children to explore new things and to continue trying and experimenting with ways of being in the world as they grow into the adults that they are most capable of becoming. My children are still experimenting…, heck, so am I, for that matter! But we want to acknowledge this role in life and its importance in our evolutionary journey. So, for all of you who are Mothers out there, and, as Eric likes to say, for those who were born of a Mother, and take seriously this role of nurturing each other in this journey, we salute your contribution of nurture that helps the whole of creation become what it is most capable of being. Enjoy this “Nurturing Day” that we celebrate together.
When we celebrate “nurture” in our living together, we recognize it as a quality that we all have within us as a part of the natural being of who we are. It is not the exclusive quality or role of “Mothers,” and how much we recognize this quality within us, or to what extent we offer it to others in creation with us, varies, greatly. Even “the other” to whom we offer this quality covers a wide range: Farmers nurture and tend their fields, Teachers nurture and support their students, Breeders nurture and tend their flocks or the animals for whom they have been given responsibility, Doctors, Nurses and other healthcare professionals care for their patients, and Ministers nurture and love the people and communities they have been given to love. And, since we are all ministers to each other, that pretty much includes us all. When we take time to intentionally look for this quality of nurture in the world around us, we can see it in every direction we turn. And, just as nurturing is not just a thing Mothers do, neither is it something that is exclusive to humanity as a species: creatures of the sea, land, and air, all nurture their young, their mates, and their communities, just as we humans do, so living out this nurture in the world is a quality that is at the very essence of all creation, and on days like today, we set aside specific time to intentionally recognize the value of nurturing in our living together with all of creation, and celebrate that part that is good in all things.
Paying attention to the core essence of who we are in creation is exactly what we want to talk about today concerning this “Image of God” we hear from our scripture. In verse 27, Genesis tells us: “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” John Philip Newell, in The Book of Creation, explains, “To say that we are made in the image of the divine is to say that what is deepest in us is of God.”
Throughout our exploration of these creation texts in Genesis we have been lifting up how God is at the essence of everything that lives and moves and has its being in creation, and as such, each created thing then stands as a “theophany,” a revelation of God, in creation. So everywhere we look, every interaction or experience we have with creation, tells us something not only about the creation itself, but also tells us about the very nature of God.
With the creation of humanity in day six, we recognize that we too stand as a “theophany” in creation. As the image of God, we are the creatures who are called to “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.” (verse 28)
During the second reading of our Lectio Divina, when we asked you to identify a word or phrase that stood out for you, how many of you identified the word “dominion” or “subdue?” These words tend to stick out for many of us because they seem to be so at odds with our Christian understandings of stewardship, charity, and, well, nurturing, right? How can a God, who we understand to have lovingly created all creation “good” ask us to be God’s image in the world by using it for our own selfish interests and benefits?
In the original Hebrew from Genesis 1, the word translated as “subdue” is כּבשׁ kâbash, and it signifies the action of conquering or, perhaps more politely, taming, as a farmer might tame a wild field in order to make it suitable for cultivating crops. This idea is not so very disturbing in this tamer concept. Subdue, we can live with, right? But now we look to the word translated as “dominion.” This word is רָדָה radah and most literally, it means “to rule” in the sense of treading down, subjugating, or prevailing against. Radah appears nine times in the Old Testament, almost always in reference to military action or political authority.
In researching these words in Hebrew, I found several opinions of how this word “dominion” might be translated into English. Hebrew Scholar Robert Chisholm proposes a nuanced understanding of radah as “harnessing the potential of, to use for one’s benefit.” Poet Robert Alter, from the University of California at Berkeley, translated radah in 1996 as ‘hold sway’, which some have expanded further, suggesting that radah means “that point higher up on the root of a plant, where its strength is centered,” helping the plant stay firmly in the ground when the winds come and threaten to uproot it.
But most of the scholarship I read about this tends to agree with Ernest Klein, who, in his 1987 Etymological Dictionary of Hebrew for Readers of English, defines the word radah as meaning, ‘to tread, to rule, have dominion, dominate’. It is this idea of “domination” rather than “dominion” that might be causing any uneasiness we may feel about this text.
Lee Canipe, a Baptist Pastor in NC, wrote an article in 2010 for a journal called Christian Ethics Today which suggested that in order to address the text with integrity, we should not be searching for a definition of dominion that fits our sensibilities of who we want God to be, but rather to ask the question of how God “rules” or has “dominion” so that we might, as God’s image in the world, “rule” over creation in the same manner. Pastor Canipe suggests we look to Psalm 72, because the use of radah in verse 8 is the only time it is used in the Old Testament to describe God or God’s activity:
“May God have dominion (radah) from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth.” The psalmist then proceeds to describe the nature of God’s rule: “For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper. He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy. From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight” (72:12-14).
Pastor Canipe proposes that “When used in connection with God, the potentially violent connotations of radah suggest instead a more generous sort of kingship. God, the psalmist writes, does not exploit or dominate or consume recklessly. God does not use power to hurt, but rather to heal. God values what cannot be replaced. God works to preserve life, not to destroy it.” In other words, God nurtures.
This understanding of humanity’s call to preserve life speaks to the Celtic understanding of how all creation yearns to connect to the Creator, and the essence of the Creator in all things. We are called be the caretakers, “the nurturers” of creation, supporting the flow of creation as God intended it to be. It is this role we live into as the fullness of our humanity, the Image of God we were created to be. John Philip Newell suggests that “the extent to which we fail to reflect the image of God in our lives is the extent to which we have become less than truly human,” meaning that our true selves are often distorted and we forget that dominion as an activity of God is to care for creation. It is in our falseness that we see dominion’s more violent nature, justifying our exploitation of creation for our own benefits.
Redemption in Celtic Spirituality is about recovering the treasure that our essence is of God, thus allowing us to recognize God in all things, and transforming our tendency toward exploitation into a sacred reverence and respect for all creation and our role within it. For Christians, that redemption is rooted in God’s activity through the Spirit in the person of Christ. Newell says “In Christ, we are shown that we are born of God , bearers of the eternal wisdom and beauty that were conceived with us in our Mother’s womb… Deeper than the failings of our lives is the blessing of our nature. It is to that blessedness that we are called to be re-connected.”
Within this understanding of redemption, Christ is no less human than we are, but rather is the one true human, who liberates us by showing God’s Self and our true self. Christ on the cross reveals to us the Love of God embedded in the essence of all that is, and empowers us to drop the falseness through which we see our relationship to creation, allowing us to respond to life in the same love in which we were created. Living into this understanding means that we, as humans, cannot blame our failures, or falseness, on being “only human,” but rather it is in not claiming our full humanity that we fail.
Responding to life in love through nurture and care for creation as we are called means actively participating with God in the world. Nurturing is not a passive quality but rather is intentional, and even pro-active at times, often being expressed through the advocacy for “the other.” In addition to celebrating the nurturing care of humanity today, we also celebrate with the United Church of Christ in its national campaign “Mission 4/1 Earth.” In our foyer after the service you will encounter several displays engaging conversation surrounding earth care alternatives such as solar power, wind power, discussions concerning the Keystone Pipeline Project, and what Connie Eberhart is calling “multi-modes of transportation.” Please check out the displays and see how you can be participating throughout the Omaha community.