How Do We Rest from Dominion?

Rev. Seth Patterson
April 21, 2024, Earth Sunday

Scripture: Genesis 1:27–2:3

Happy Earth Sunday, friends! It is a joy to be here with you as we convene in loving community to focus on our earth home and the climate and environmental justice work that we have been called to participate in. What a gift it is to be here together! I was listening to a song this morning with the lyric: “We could get better—Because we’re not dead yet.”[1] It is with that lifegiving reminder that we begin some questions about dominion and rest.

Rest is a spiritual practice. Beth preached here about this counter-cultural and sometimes counter-intuitive practice last July. I highly recommend going back to that message as a reminder of how life can be found in rest. Beth highlighted the work of Tricia Hersey, founder of the Nap Ministry and author of Rest is Resistance. She quotes Hersey saying, “Rest makes us more human. It brings us back to our human-ness. To be connected to who and what we truly are is at the heart of our rest movement…Rest is a portal. Silence is a pillow. Sabbath our lifeline. Pausing our compass. Go get your healing. Be disruptive. Push back. Slow down. Take a nap.”

Just as it is imperative for us to rest our bodies, minds, and hearts, we can also participate in the resting of the earth. Just as we do not need to constantly be active in our lives, we do not need to constantly use the earth’s resources. So, I suggest that we allow a small but brief rest from our usage of electricity for lighting in this room for the duration of this sermon. Slats, please turn off the lights. I invite you at home to turn off your lights as well. Let’s give it a little rest.

Our scripture reading this morning comes from the very beginning of the book we now call the Bible. Genesis 1. The first of two very different creation stories, this is the one that talks of creation in a series of days (“And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” Etc.) We will focus here on the sixth day, the day that we two-legged humans were introduced into the story. Let us take a deep breath together as we open our eyes, ears and hearts to this story from our spiritual ancestors.

So God created humankind in the image of God, created them male and female. God blessed them and said, “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.” God said, “See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so. God saw everything that was made, and indeed, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Dominion. We were given dominion over this earth. All of us humans, together, in collaboration with one another and with God were given dominion over all the earth. That’s a pretty big task!

And then immediately following this sixth day, on the seventh, we come to our imperative of rest.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all their multitude. And on the seventh day God finished the work that had been done, and rested on the seventh day from all the work. So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that was done in creation.

In this story, humans were created, handed dominion, and then given the hallowedness of rest in quick succession. This may feel like a tension of responsibilities—domain and rest—but like many tensions it may present itself instead as a gift and an opening to healing and restoration.

First, we must get our arms around this dominion idea. Much ink and argument has been spent on this one single word. Like much of our Biblical tradition, even moments of perceived clarity can be opened to interpretation and questions nestled in the ‘how.’ OK, we are given dominion, but how do we do that? Oftentimes, in more progressive theological circles like ours, this concept of dominion is seen in softer light and interpreted less about being domineering and more in nurturing, care-taking, companionship, etc. Our dominion can be seen as gentle and cultivated, in concert with the rest of creation. Unfortunately, that is not necessarily what the original Hebrew word means. The Hebrew word translated as ‘dominion’ is radah meaning to rule, reign, to have dominion, to dominate, prevail or subdue. Those are strong words. Even if you look at languages related to Hebrew, you find similar concepts. Other Semitic corollaries mean chastise (Arabic) or tread/trample (Syriac). This doesn’t mean that we need to act in domination, but neither can we pretend that dominion, with all the attached questions, isn’t what the story presents.

It is especially important today to remember that this single word has given so much justification to environmental abuse and economic earthly extraction. Centuries of injustice have created dire consequences for us and our children and grandchildren. If we are told in our sacred texts that we have dominion over everything, then we have often taken this as reason to exploit everything. Despite its many lovely qualities, this one story, this one word, has been used to justify so much destruction.

Dominion does indeed have economic advantages though. Most (all?) of our extraction is for profit. The earth and its non-human life have been simplified to commodification and profit, unwilling partners in economic practices that have historically and continue to diminish the rest for only our gain. And then in postures of control, we expand the concept further. The concept of dominion, that I have the right to control and have power over all aspects of something else, is foundational to the institution of American-style chattel slavery and all the racism born from it, the abuse of the most vulnerable, Patriarchy, hetero-normativity, and other ways of trying to limit another human being’s autonomy. While dominion may be a gift from God to all of humanity in this one story, the impact has often been one of hurt, abuse, extraction and control.

And yet before we dismiss this entirely as being bad, we should remember that this is still a gift from God. There may still be ways to reclaim dominion as healthful and hopeful, healing and restorative.

Just as we need to rest our own selves for our own healing, we must participate in the resting of the earth for its healing. For just as we have been given dominion over the earth, we also have dominion over our own selves. We are not separate from the earth, but part of it, made of the same material, every atom in our body once having been part of another piece of earthliness. If our dominion over our own selves compels rest for healing, then our dominion over the earth also compels rest for healing. The spiritual practice of Tricia Hersey’s Nap Ministry can be the same spiritual practice of Earth Day. The body, whether it is individual or worldly, must rest. We must give pause to our usage of resources. We must do this because it is our dominion—our responsibility—to participate in the spiritual practices of rest.

We are resting the lights this morning. You could rightly argue that this is a symbolic exercise more than an impactful one. That is true—and maybe shortsighted. If we rest the lights for this moment today, we can do it again other times. If the hundreds of us here today all practiced rest in our own electricity usage we may begin to pay attention to other times and places where lights can be rested. Just because we can have the lights on, doesn’t mean we need to. And just because one action will not solve a problem by itself, doesn’t mean that it isn’t worth doing. We can remember a piece of wisdom from our Jewish siblings: “It is not up to you to finish the task, but you are also not free to avoid it.”[2]

The invitation now is to begin a spiritual practice of resting both our own bodies and the body of the world. We practice using less electricity, less water, less fuel, less meat, less plastic. Resting our consumption when it isn’t needed. Just because someone has extracted something from the earth, doesn’t mean we must use it. Just because someone else abuses their share of dominion, doesn’t mean we need to join them. For we are all humans, we are all made of the materials of the earth, and we all share this dominion together.

Dominion is a responsibility that requires us to find healing, to do restorative work, to stop the abuse and ceaseless extraction. Our responsibility of dominion requires us to practice rest. Our responsibility of dominion requires us to detach at times, to release our tight grip, to let go. The tension between rest and dominion is that to have dominion requires us to let go of control and to practice rest is a way of reclaiming authority over. Remember: “Rest makes us more human. It brings us back to our human-ness.”

[9 a.m.—Ok, we can turn the lights back on now.]

To have dominion doesn’t mean that we must dominate. To have a spiritual practice of rest doesn’t mean we must do it perfectly. Both rest and dominion need to be done with love; it is love that takes that tension and brings us to healing and restoration. It is love that allows us to change our habits and embrace a spiritual practice of rest for all living things. May our love open our eyes and our open eyes see clearly. May our clarity change our habits and in place of those habits a spiritual practice can bloom, a practice of rest for all that we have dominion over, the worldly body and our own. May it be so and may we do it together.

[1]Frank Turner, “Get Better,” from the album Positive Songs for Negative People

[2]From Pirkei Avot (Ethics of our Fathers), chapter 2:16: “(Rabbi Tarfon) used to say . . . It is not up to you to finish the task, but you are also not free to avoid it.”

9 a.m. service

11 a.m. service

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