Sermon: Dominion

September 9, 2018
Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost
Season of Creation: Humanity Sunday
Genesis 1:26-28, Mark 7:24-37

There once lived an exceedingly arrogant man. Well, truthfully, there have been a lot of arrogant men living over time. You can probably think of one or two… hundred… if you give yourself a minute.

We’ll call this arrogant man Primus, just because it’s easier if he has a name and I can’t think of anyone I know named Primus. Anyway, in addition to his arrogance he had some supporting evidence for his arrogance. By that I mean that he had great wealth, and he used it to influence people and obtain what he wanted. He had great social influence, so that if he imagined a thing, it usually happened. And he had great political power, so that when he said, “Go!” they went.

One day, as Primus looked out over the land he ruled, two of his servants watched him as he sighed contentedly. One asked, with admiration dripping from his voice, “What’s the difference between Primus and God?”

The other replied, “Primus thinks he’s God, but God doesn’t think she’s Primus.”

That second servant was fired, of course.

Unfortunately, that’s the way I usually think that human beings exercise “dominion.” We look at the world and imagine what we want it to look like. Then we act to make it look that way. We plan the approach, we calculate the resources needed, we gather them together, we organize the workers, and then we make it happen.

That’s a pretty effective approach if the idea is to get things done. That’s how bridges span gulches, and how breakwaters protect ports. It’s how airplanes carry people across the ocean, and it’s how races get won and houses get built and food gets cooked and children get taught. Imagine what we want the world to look like. Act to make it look that way.

“Fill the earth and subdue it.”

There is, however, a missing step. It is: how might my actions affect others? How might my actions affect other aspects of Creation?

This is not the same thing as coming up with the plan and gathering the resources and organizing the team. This is the environmental impact question: What happens to the forest if I remove these trees? What happens to the creatures who live here? Do they have another place to go? What about the water? Will I contaminate it? Are there creatures, even people, downstream who might be affected?

Will this change the place not just for me and my time, but for generations to come?

I know these questions frustrate people, ever since they became part of our legal framework. I would guess that the government agencies that prompt the most complaints would be those that issue building permits and those that review environmental impact. Sometimes the complaints come from those trying to create something. Sometimes the complaints come from those who might be affected.

It makes me wonder what the primordial Chaos thought of God’s acts of an orderly creation. Given the amount of chaos about, I would guess there was some accommodation.

It’s worth looking at how the ancient authors of Genesis conceived God’s exercise of dominion as demonstrated in Creation. We saw in last week’s reading that, in general, God simply spoke and things happened – something civil engineers can only look at with envy. On three of the six days of Creation, however, God involved elements that had already been created. On the third day, God directed the earth to put forth vegetation. On the fifth day, God directed the sea to produce fish and the air to produce birds. On the sixth day, God directed the land to produce animals.

God exercised power in partnership with things that had already been made: partnership with earth, and sea, and sky. That’s how God does dominion.

People mostly seem to miss that point.

Jesus didn’t, of course. James and John had asked to be second- and third-in-command (I wonder whether they’d worked out who was going to be which between them) when Jesus came into his glory. That’s what had the other ten angry at them at the beginning of this passage. Jesus seized the opportunity to redefine power and dominion for 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.”

Dominion comes not through domination, but through service. Power comes not through self-seeking, but through compassion. Authority comes not through tyranny, but through mercy.

My, my. People do miss that point.

Walter Brueggemann writes (in Genesis, Interpretation Bible Commentary, John Knox Press, 1982), “In Jesus Christ, we are offered a new discernment of who God is and of who humankind is called to be. The striking feature of Jesus is that he did not look after his own interests but always after the interests of others. That is an echo of God’s act of creation.”

It is a dominion of service. Power of compassion. Authority of mercy.

It is a dominion that asks: How might my actions affect others? How might my actions affect other aspects of Creation? Or as H. Richard Niebuhr put it (in The Responsible Self, Harper & Row, 1963), “To whom or what am I responsible and in what community of interaction am I myself?” Ultimately, he said the community in which we live and in which we are responsible is the realm of God.

That’s a lot to consider.

And it is never wrong to consider it all.

As frustrating as planning and zoning are, as frustrating as building codes and sewage requirements are, as frustrating as environmental impact statements and cultural impact questions are: they are the questions we must ask and answer if we are to exercise dominion as God exercises dominion, as Jesus exercises dominion, as the Holy Spirit exercises dominion. They are the questions we must ask if we are to exercise dominion as we have been summoned, rather than as we wish.

We have the raw power to do so much in the world, and to the world. We see it on these islands more starkly than they do elsewhere. Last January’s mistaken missile warning reminded us of humanity’s ability to render the planet uninhabitable if we choose. Each king tide we see the truth of rising sea levels. A changing climate is seeding and strengthening more and more powerful tropical storms.

We’re not the only ones who can see it. On the west coast of North America, all the way to Canada, fire season has grown longer and longer. In 2016, the US Department of Agriculture reported that fire season was 78 days longer in 2015 than it had been in 1970. Firefighters will likely battle blazes until November or even December.

More than 18,000 marched in Paris yesterday to remind political leaders that we need to consider the impact we human make on our planet and its climate. Tens of thousands more marched across the US.

They might not use these words, but they are calling for a Biblical dominion, for a dominion that serves, for a power used for compassion, for an authority of mercy.

Let us also serve. Let us act from compassion. Let us extend ourselves in mercy. For our families. For our neighbors. For our island. For our people. For our planet home.


Listen to the Recorded Sermon

Is it identical? No. Is it close? Yes! Closer than usual, even.

The image is a painting of the Emperor Jimmu, the first Emperor of Japan, and a conqueror. The painting is by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892). Public domain,

Categories Sermons | Tags: , , | Posted on September 9, 2018

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