Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  Amen.  Today is the first week in our 5-week series on Christian stewardship titled “Managing God’s Gifts.”  I realize that when many people hear the word “stewardship” they immediately think about money.  Now while stewardship certainly includes our offerings and tithes to the Lord’s work in the local church, stewardship is about so much more than just money.  Stewardship, simply put, is caring for somebody else’s property entrusted to you for management.

The Psalmist declares, “The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof…” (Ps. 24:1a, ESV).  Everything belongs to God, including our time, money, energy, work, other people, our very life, and even the earth itself.  In our human arrogance, we have a tendency to sound an awful lot like the seagulls in the Disney movie, Finding Nemo.  Whenever they saw a fish, the seagulls squawked, “Mine!  Mine!  Mine!” in perfect unison and ad nauseam.  “Mine!  Mine!  Mine!” is also the cry of the human heart, prone as we are to coveting, which is idolatry (Col. 3:5).

Yet as Christians, we recognize that we are not really owners of anything we “have.”  We are merely managers: stewards of God’s gifts, which is why our 2016 stewardship series is titled “Managing God’s Gifts.”  From out the outset, I want to make clear that I fully realize how uncomfortable any discussion of stewardship can be for people.  We want to claim what’s “ours,” and it can be difficult to be told that we need to surrender to God both our control and possession of things.  Other people may think that stewardship is a silly or unimportant thing to talk about in church.  But nothing could be farther from the truth!  Throughout the Gospels, Jesus speaks over and over again about managers and stewardship, especially in his parables, such as the Parable of the Dishonest Manager, the Parable of the Talents, and the Parable of the Minas (cf. Matt. 25:14ff; Luke 12:42; 16:1ff; 19:11ff).  The Apostle Peter writes, “As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pet. 4:10).  Stewardship is an important part of the Christian life—right up there with all those other “ships” we like to talk about.  Worship, fellowship, and stewardship all go together.

This week we kick off the series with our responsibility to manage God’s gift of creation.  Creation might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about stewardship.  Yet we must include the earth as one of God’s gifts to be managed properly, along with other people, time, money, and the Gospel.

There are two different errors that we can make in regard to how we think about creation.  The first impulse is to turn the earth into an idol that we worship.  The second is to treat the earth merely as a resource to be exploited for our benefit.  Neither of these approaches give glory to God.

In human beings there has always been an old, pagan impulse to turn creation into an idol, to serve the creature rather than the Creator, and to exchange “the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Rom. 1:23).  In the ancient world, there was a tendency for the pagan peoples to enshrine their gods in beautiful, natural settings – “on every high hill and under every green tree,” in the words of the prophets (cp. Jer. 2:20).  There are even vestiges of this old practice in the way that we refer to creation as Mother Nature.  God is our Father, but the earth is not her mother.  The earth did not create us or give birth to us.  God is our Creator.

By the way, our pagan impulse is also evident by how many Christians spend their weekends in the mountains, hiking, fishing, and camping, instead of attending public worship in church as a family. Such individuals may claim that they are “communing with God” through nature, but in fact, you cannot commune with God except where he has promised to be: in his Word and Sacraments. You cannot have communion with God apart from Holy Communion and the preaching of the Gospel.  It’s good to get away and enjoy the great outdoors and the splendor of God’s creation.  But the creation is a poor substitute for time with the Creator himself.

The modern environmental movement is the modern continuation of earth goddess worship.  While it is good stewardship to recycle and “go green” now and then, the environmental movement is often extreme in its characterization of humanity as some kind of horrible parasite.  Some environmentalists openly speak of the supposed unsustainability of the earth and suggest that population control by governments is the only way to rescue the planet from people.  They disregard God’s promise to Noah: “While the earth remains, seedtime and harvest, cold and heat, summer and winter, day and night, shall not cease” (Gen. 8:22).

Unfortunately, many of the same people who want to “save the whales” and hug trees are vehement in their support of abortion and forced sterilization as means to limit population growth—this despite God’s blessing, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth…” (Gen. 1:28).  Environmentalists care if some little titmouse goes extinct but could not care less about the extermination of the unborn.  God cares about the birds and bees, but people will always be more important.  Man is God’s crowning achievement.  Jesus says you are of “much more value… than the birds” (Luke 12:24).

Beware, however, lest we allow Jesus’ words to become license to do whatever we wish to the earth.  In the beginning, God commanded Adam and Eve to “subdue [the earth] and have dominion over it” (Gen. 1:28).  Yet we misapply these words if we understand them to mean that we have a right to strip mine the earth of minerals, clear-cut all the forests, and pollute the water and air with our emissions and agricultural runoff.  God loves all his creatures.  He cares for the roaring lion and the little sparrow (Ps. 104:21; Luke 12:6).  The Psalmist says, “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season.  You open your hand, you satisfy the desire of every living thing” (Ps. 145:15-16).  So, as human beings, we should be ashamed of the damage we have caused to the planet, including the extinction of species, the creation of nuclear waste, and floating masses of garbage adrift at sea.  These are not signs of man’s dominion; rather they are signs our fall into sin.  The ground is cursed because of us, subject to futility, death, and decay (Gen. 3:17-19; Rom. 8:20-22).  Rather than rightful reign, we have wrought ruination on the earth.

Not so in the beginning!  When God first made man, he put Adam in the Garden of Eden “to work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15).  “Keep” is sh’mar in Hebrew.  Shamar also means “guard” and “protect” (cf. Neh. 12:25; Ps. 121:7).  God created Adam to guard and protect the garden, to work the earth and help it flourish.  In the beginning, Adam enjoyed a special relationship with the entire creation. Every green plan was given to him for food and ripe for the picking whenever his appetite desired (Gen. 1:30). He also enjoyed command and trust of the animals, naming each and every one of them is the Lord brought them to him without fear (Gen. 2:19-20). Not until Adam and Eve sinned did the ground yield thorns and thistles and a fear fell upon the animals. God made man in his image so that our first parents could mirror God’s creative will to the rest of the creation.  Dominion meant service, not slavery.

Of course, we don’t know what that looks like anymore. We live in a world marked by death and destruction, famine, disease, extinction, and mutation. We carry death in our bodies, and everything we touch withers and fades.

But God in Christ Jesus is doing a new thing (Isa. 43:19). The resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the sign that a new creation is already breaking into this world. As Jesus declares in Revelation 21, “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5).  In the beginning, “God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31).  On the Last Day, it will be good again, when Christ returns and re-creates a new heaven and a new earth (Rev. 21:1).

Already Jesus reaffirms the goodness of God’s creation through his own incarnation in human flesh. When he walked the earth, he healed diseases, calmed the stormy seas, and fed thousands by multiplying the loaves and fishes.  And through his Word and Sacraments, he uses creation as the very means of grace, forgiving our sins through words printed on paper, water poured out in Baptism, and bread and wine shared in the Lord’s Supper.  Indeed, as Paul writes, “Everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4-5).

God made us his creatures through birth.  Now through rebirth of water and the Word, he remakes us as new creatures.  “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.  The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor. 5:17).  God does new things with new people.  New creatures are not bound to do everything in the old, sinful ways of idolatry and destruction.  The one who forgives our sins and lives in us is the Jesus who makes everything new, including a new me and a new you.  How wonderful it is that he entrusts the stewardship of creation—the management of the earth—to forgiven sinners like us.  To him be the glory forever!  Amen.