by Sarah Raven
I was taken aback when I recently posted a comment on Facebook about being a steward over the earth and a fellow Christian remarked that I was trying to redefine “stewardship”. Stewardship as a concept often comes up in our churches and people offer a variety of definitions for this term. One might hear a sermon about being a “good steward of God’s creation” in church on Sunday and the theme of said sermon could be about environmental protection, loving one another, or perhaps more often; tithing. A steward could be an employee on a ship, train or plane, someone who is the financial advisor for an estate, or the person appointed to care for an entire household. Simply put, to be a steward means to take care of what has been entrusted to us. When talking about sustainability and our collective responsibility to the environment, I do not believe that it is a stretch to talk about stewardship. As Roman Catholic priest Fr. Robert Sirico points out in his forward to Environmental Stewardship in the Judeo-Christian Tradition, the creation account found in Genesis reflects the nature of the relationship between humanity and God’s creation.
Genesis presents a radically different picture of how the world is put together. In this account, God is the source of all values-in truth, he is the source of everything, calling it into being out of nothing by his powerful word. Man is part of this order essentially and, what is more, by the virtue of his created nature is placed at the head of creation at its steward. Yet this stewardship can never be arbitrary or anthropocentric, as the old canard goes, for this notion implies that man rules creation in God’s stead and must do so according to his divine will (Sirico, R. 2007).
Father Sirico’s assertion begs the question, “If humans are only to look after God’s creation according to God’s divine will, how can we discern the will of God with respect to our environment?”
If you expected that I would attempt to answer that question, you are giving me far too much credit! After talking to Fr. Robert Hendrickson (Missioner of Ascension Church, Curate at Christ Church New Haven) I realized that if we believe that money, plants, and animals are entrusted in our care, then we must have responsibility for the milk we consume that comes from animals. If we are responsible for the milk, then we must be responsible for the used container. Now, holding the container we face a commonplace yet critical choice. The fact that we often do not see this as a critical choice reflects our inability to seriously wrestle with the question of divine will and our environment.
I would argue that the divine will as described in Genesis urges us to ensure a sustainable environment for all life on the planet and future generations. Stewardship and sustainability are intimately connected in the life of the church. We are urged to bring a percentage of our financial trust back to God during annual stewardship campaigns. Simultaneously, we should be thinking about our organic trust, the very planet on which we live, breathe, and take our last breath.
As humans across the globe are increasingly flocking to urban centers, urban stewardship is on the hearts and minds of many. But how do we Christians who live in cities and inner cities, connect our story to a text filled with agrarian and pastoral images? How do we encourage urban sustainability or remain confident that it is within God’s will, when the bible is replete with stories of cities being damned, cursed, or utterly destroyed? I think the answer to this, lies in humanity itself. In our society there is an economy of worth that is too often applied to the value of human beings. How much a person can contribute to society by working and paying taxes is counted, measured, and categorized. We often find people in urban environments being discounted. Every once in a while a “rags to riches” story catches the American imagination where a once downtrodden individual has some undiscovered talent and becomes “valuable” overnight. We know that these children of God were always valuable, always precious in God’s sight. Priceless in fact, because each one of us bears the imago dei, and reflects God’s very image wherever we go. As Father David Cobb asserted, the promise of the carpenter from lowly birth who became our king and savior, is that even when humans mistake the true value of what we see; God, in the person of Christ knows our true worth.
People are sometimes over-looked as we walk briskly on our way to work; rarely pausing to acknowledge one another. It is no surprise then that plants, animals, and inanimate things often get tossed about it our cities as if they have little value. When I worked in downtown New Haven I would often walk to work instead of taking the bus. On one of these wayfaring voyages, I stopped for a second by a trash can on the sidewalk and noticed a bright-copper contraption sitting on the very top of the bin. I picked it up by the hook on its apex and immediately was drawn to this odd double-helix shaped piece of metal refuse. When I looked at this rescued item, I did not see a piece of garbage; I saw a world of possibilities. My first thought was to turn it into a wind-chime, then I thought I might keep it as it was and just patch up the few spots of rust. I proudly walked to work having hooked my shiny discovery on the outside of my coat pocket. It was not long until I generated inquisitive stares and even shouts from people I passed.
“What is that thing?”
“What are you going to do with that?”
I was both amused and confused as to why my simple act of municipal waste defiance was causing such a stir. By the time I arrived at work I had made the decision to give my found treasure away to the administrative assistant.
“This is awesome!” She proclaimed. “It goes perfectly with my new lamp!”
I did not realize it that day, but this simple act of recycling that brightened my co-worker’s day, would help to solidify my determination to listen even closer to God’s still small voice, and to take very seriously the call to urban stewardship.
Sarah Raven is program director of GARLiC and graduated from the Iliff School of Theology in 2011, with a concentration in Anglican Studies. After graduating from Iliff, Sarah moved to the Hill neighborhood in New Haven and completed an internship with Christ Church at St. Hilda’s House and is now a member of the Ascension House intentional community.