Scripture - Psalm 8
Sermon Preached by Gregory Knox Jones
Sunday, March 23, 2014
When he was a boy, John remembers watching his dad till the ground for the garden he planted each spring. His father would spend all day working the soil, then plant seeds in carefully laid out rows. He strung lines for the peas and set out stakes for the tomatoes. In the coming weeks his father would pull out the hose and water the garden. Every few days he would yank up intruders. Within a couple of months, his father's garden was producing a bountiful array of vegetables that his father would harvest and the family would enjoy for dinner.
Then, the spring he turned 12, he watched his father go through this annual ritual of preparing the soil and planting seeds. And after everything was planted, John's father called him over and said, "This is yours to take care of now."
John was both excited, "All mine to take care of!" And frightened, "All mine to take care of?"1
Sandy remembers the day her mother handed her a small wrapped present. When she opened it, she could not believe what she was seeing. The beautiful necklace her mother wore on special occasions. Her mother had received it from her mother. Sandy's mom smiled at her and said, "This is yours now. I know you will take care of it." Such a special family heirloom. Such a great responsibility.
This morning's text is a cousin of Genesis 1. Psalm 8 is an eloquent hymn of praise that begins and ends with the identical line: "O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" Everything else the psalm asserts is framed by the proclamation that God is Creator of all that is.
Immediately following this opening line, the writer makes it clear that God's handiwork is not limited to earth. In the next breath, the psalmist declares: "You have set your glory above the heavens." Today, we would say, "You have displayed your glory throughout the cosmos."
Have you ever been away from the lights of the city and stretched out on your back staring at the night sky? One night when I was young, my dad suggested I count the stars. Not able to resist the challenge, I began counting. "One, two, three, four...No, this isn't going to work. Two, four, six, eight...Nope. Five, ten, fifteen, twenty. Wow, too many stars to count!"
I felt amazed, but I also felt something else - tiny in the grand scheme of things.
If you have ever felt small and insignificant, then perhaps you can identify with the writer of this psalm as he attempts to articulate his astonishment. Despite the incomprehensible grandeur of the universe, God not only takes note of human beings, but gives us a vaulted status. The psalmist writes, "When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?" And then comes the line that ought to haunt us. "Yet you have made (humans) a little lower than God."
The language in The Message translation of the Bible is not as elevated, but it prompts captivating images. These verses in The Message read: "I look up at your macro-skies, dark and enormous, your handmade sky-jewelry, moon and stars mounted in their settings. Then I look at my micro-self and wonder, Why do you bother with us? Why take a second look our way?" Then, the verse that prompts his incredulity: "Yet we have so narrowly missed being gods."
How could that be? When you ponder the heartache we have caused one another, the violence we perpetrate, our scheming, prejudice, greed, vindictiveness, how could the psalmist ever claim that we are just "a little lower than God?" Such hubris!
Just "a little lower than God?" It is certainly not the result of our virtue, so how could he make such a claim? We garner a clue in the next verse when the psalmist echoes the Genesis creation story. He says God has given us "dominion over God's handiwork and put all things under our feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea."
Why are we given royal status? Perhaps it is because God has given us the gifts of consciousness, freedom and power. We have the ability to think, reason and decide, and we have the freedom to utilize our power. The question is: How will we exercise such authority?
Some take it as license to do whatever they please with the natural world. For thousands of years the population of the earth was miniscule in comparison to the enormous wilderness. People could do whatever they wanted and not worry about harmful effects. So what if you cut down a few hundred trees? There is an endless reserve. So what if the soil erodes and the top soil washes away? Just move to another spot.
But over the past 150 years, the population has swelled to such proportions and our technology has become so potent, that we now recognize the deep-rooted destruction we can inflict. Scientists who observe the eco-system - what makes it flourish and what endangers it - are alarmed at the havoc we are wreaking. Human beings do indeed have the freedom and power to exercise dominion over the earth, but it is not intended to be a dominion that manages in the style of a Vladimir Putin who seizes, manipulates and dictates. Rather, it is to be a dominion that takes seriously what it means to be created in the image of God.
What does it mean to be created in the image of God? We look at the one person who gives us our best portrait of divinity - Jesus of Nazareth. And as Mark 10:45 reminds us, the dominion he exercises is not of one who came to be served, but to serve. As stewards of creation, our focus should not be only on self-satisfaction and personal benefit, but on serving the common good. And the common good is not restricted to human beings. We must take into account the entire creation, for God says, "This is all yours now. Take care of it."
Yet before we puff out our chests at being given dominion over God's handiwork, we should hear from the prominent Harvard scientist, E. O. Wilson. He says, that if "the human species were suddenly to disappear, the earth would flourish; whereas, if the ant species disappeared there would be catastrophe."2 There's a real boost for our egos!
Modern science has shown impressive results. We have a much better grasp of the natural laws of the universe and this has led to marvelous discoveries - how to generate electricity, create aircraft, cure diseases. However, modern science prompted a materialist philosophy that drains the universe of its sacred dimension. The scientific method, based solely on the physical realm, has led to an economic philosophy that views the natural world as merely a resource for human consumption. Many view the earth as a chest of treasures, to be used solely for our benefit. That is a very different view of the world than the one we find in Scripture. The Scriptural view is that the cosmos is created by God and is very good in itself. Human beings are to benefit from the natural world, but we are also responsible for its well-being and continuation.
Theologian Bruce Sanguin was leading a workshop when a local indigenous chief said to him, "What your people call natural resources, our people call kin." They do not view God's creation as objects that are distinctly separate from human beings, but rather as relatives to which they are connected as one world family. They have not stripped God's creation of its sacred dimension. And far from being a primitive view of the universe, it is in line with what modern physics has discovered about the sub-atomic world: every particle is connected with every other particle in the universe.
If we stubbornly insist on thinking of the world as a storehouse of separate, unrelated components, the planet is at risk. Sanguine writes, "There is overwhelming scientific evidence that we are at a tipping point. Species extinction is accelerating, global warming is melting the polar icecaps at a rate that exceeds all scientific predictions, and our air, water, and soil are rapidly becoming a toxic soup that is ending up in our own bodies."3
What is going to happen to us and to the creatures of the earth and to the planet itself, if we - all seven billion of us - do not learn to live in harmony with each other and the natural world?
God has given us the freedom to build up or to break down, to develop or to destroy, to enhance or to erase. It is a daunting responsibility, a breathtaking assignment, but surely we dare not leave it to those who see the world as little more than a collection of commodities to exploit.
God gives us dominion so that we can both enjoy and care for God's creation, so that our children, nieces and nephews and their children, will have the same opportunities.
It is vital to the survival of our amazing blue planet that we recover the understanding of the cosmos as God's creation that is very good, and that praising God and conveying our gratitude to God is expressed not with mere words, but with the way we care for God's handiwork. God has incredible expectations of us. God expects us to become partners in creating and caring for what is created. In saying we are to have dominion, God is saying "Here, this is yours, now. I know you will take care of it."
Each of us can deepen our spiritual lives and draw closer to God by gazing in wonder at the stars in the night sky, by pausing to notice the elegant beauty of flowers that are beginning to push their way up through the soil, by taking the time to watch the amazing aerial acrobatics of birds as they dart to and fro, by simply sitting and breathing and being attentive to this great gift of earth. We desperately need to recover a spirituality of wonder, awe and reverence by allowing ourselves to be astonished by God's creation.
As you leave church today, take in the sky. Check out the green shoots emerging from God's automatic earth. Inspect the trees that are on the verge of being transformed. Strive to be fully awake to God's enchanting handiwork.
The more Albert Einstein discovered about the universe, the more in awe of it he became. He said, "There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as if everything is."
Prayers of the People ~ Randall T. Clayton
O Lord our God, "Majestic" is your name. You formed the earth and created all the plants, animals and people upon its face. You gave us rainy days, winter snows, and summer sun. You gave us food to eat, land that would let crops grow and water to quench our thirst. You made rolling plains, mountains, oceans, lakes and rivers. And so, majestic and mighty creator, we praise your name, offering thanksgiving for gifts great and small. You created us from the dust of the earth, and blew your spirit of life into our bodies. This day we ask that you create in us a new heart for your mission, a new will to serve you, a new desire to discern your call, and a new understanding of how we might be the people you call us to become. We ask that you help this congregation to continue to be a beacon of your peace and witness to the redemption we have in you. We lift up to you those who serve on the associate pastor nominating committee during this interim time. As they seek to discern the skills and gifts needed by the next associate, we ask that you guide and direct their work. We also pray this day for all of the leaders of this congregation. May they be renewed by your Spirit, strengthened by your hope, and find wisdom beyond measure.
You have given us dominion of all, and commanded us to till and keep your creation. And yet, litter lies upon our highways, the air is filled with carcinogens, and clean water is not always available. O God, help us to do what needs to be done to keep your creation so that generations to come may experience the blessings we have known. The peaceable kingdom you created by your hands knows warfare, strife, and division. Where we have learned to put our trust in guns and bombs, help us to put our trust in you instead. Where disputes are solved by violence, give a vision of the power of love. Where there is physical pain or mental anguish, create new hope. Where relationships are ending or jobs evaporating, provide a vision for new possibilities. Where there is sadness and grief, bring peace and even joy.
Majestic One, as we journey through the season of Lent, we recall the ways we have turned our backs on you, and we remember the love you have shown to us in our Savior Jesus Christ. Give us the courage to follow in his footsteps to spread your word and share your love with those near and far. And as we do, we remember the prayer which he taught saying, "Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread; and forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors; and lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen."
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