Sunday, October 10, 1999

Sermon Preached by
The Rev. Dr. Andrew Stirling
On Thanksgiving Sunday, October 10, 1999
at Timothy Eaton Memorial Church
TEXT: Psalm 8

It never ceases to amaze me how magnificent the Psalms are. Not only magnificent in their poetry, in the grandeur and rhythm of the language ? probably unequalled by any religious literature known to humanity, but the way in which the Psalms can actually pierce the soul; how the Psalms can reach right down into the depths of our experience and speak to us like nothing else. I know at times when I read the Psalms, I find the language and ideas of another era and another time, sometimes the Psalmist seems particularly aggravated with his enemies and wants to destroy them, sometimes he speaks in glowing terms about himself and he seems particularly eager in his piety. Yet throughout it all, there is the wonder and splendour of God's word speaking through the psalmist.

Never has this more notable, than a few years ago when I received a telephone call from a member of my congregation who was a social worker. It was almost unseemly for a social worker to seek the guidance of clergy, but in this case she felt it was a necessity. She asked me to go and visit a young woman whose two children belonged to the Head Start programme in our congregation and because she had heard of me through that programme, she felt that I was the appropriate person to go and make the visit. The social worker said that she had done everything within her bounds to help her physically, financially and in every other way possible in her own domain, but she felt that at the heart of this woman's need there was a spiritual need and a spiritual question. So I went to visit this lady with some fear and trepidation and I walked into a very run-down three-storey apartment building just south of the Ottawa River and north of my church, in a poor part of the city. As I walked in the door I was greeted by a woman who must have looked twice her actual age. Her face seemed almost emaciated, her eyes were dark, there was a glaze over them, almost expressionless. This was a woman who was tired. This was a woman who was frightened, who probably the night before had suffered abuse at the hands of a visitor. As I walked into her small apartment, sitting at a table in the back room were her two children. As we sat down she pulled out her cigarettes and her instant coffee and it seemed as if her whole world revolved around how long she could wait and keep those cigarettes going and how long she could wait between cups of coffee, these two seemed to stimulate her and depress her at the same time. She asked me if I would like a coffee and I said that I would and went to the refrigerator to get some milk and as I opened the door there was just one litre and a number of tins of ”˜Boost'. As I returned to the table and we sat together it was evident from our conversation that the Boost was the thing she lived on because all the money that she had, had to go to her children whom she wanted to be nourished.

After we'd gone through the normal pleasantries, she finally got to the real reason why she wanted me there. I have to omit all the expletives for the sake of the sermon except she said, “I don't want any fancy language. When I ask you this question don't mess about with the answer, I need a straight answer and I need it now!” There was a pleading and a longing in her voice. As my heart pounded at the thought of what was going to be asked, she finally said, “Reverend Stirling, I need to know one thing. Does God love me?”

I do not know what yearning was in her voice and I do not know why the desperation was so great at that moment that she needed to have an answer. My mind went back at that very instant to the Psalm that was read this morning from the King James Version. There is a line that means the whole of humanity and it says, “What is man that thou art mindful of him?” Here was a woman who was feeling insignificant, frightened and needed to hear verbally, through my voice, that yes, she did have value. Yes, her life did have purpose. But everything around her was so dark and gloomy; she needed to know what thousands of people need to hear day in and day out: does God love me? And I said, “Yes!”

I said, “Yes” precisely because the answer to the question that the psalmist asked, to put it in the vernacular of today, “Does God give a hoot?” Does God really, really care in the depths of God's soul for us? The answer is a resounding and an absolute YES.

There are many times in our lives when we feel insignificant. It doesn't always have to be in the form of poverty, like that woman. As I have been watching the rugby games in the World Cup on television the last few days, my mind went back to a time when I was a school boy in England and they would often select players from the playing field and there would be two captains who would call out the names of whoever they wanted on their team. I stood there waiting anxiously for my name to be called and after thirty names were called and two teams filled, I realised that I, a solitary individual, was standing there as the thirty-first man. Nobody called my name, except in the end when someone said, “In case somebody gets injured we need a substitute.” One of the captains pointed to the other and said, “Why don't you take Tubby then; he'll help you.” I felt as insignificant as the England rugby team felt playing the New Zealanders yesterday!

Sometimes we are cruel with one another and we make each other feel insignificant. We do ask the question when we do, What is man that thou art mindful of him? Sometimes we're simply in awe of the nature of the creation that is around us. Sometimes we feel insignificant before the grandeur of all that the Lord has created.

A few years ago, I was afforded the opportunity of flying from Calgary to Vancouver. It was a singular moment, for the plane was virtually empty and one of the hostesses came forward and asked me it I would like to go into First Class. Of course I took the seat in First Class and by the way, I made the most of it. I ate ten packets of peanuts, all the diet Coke that I could get, every little nook and cranny and those lovely little mints that I've always envied. I ate them all. As my stomach filled and I played James Taylor on my headphones, I sat by the window as we flew over the Rocky Mountains. It was a crystal clear morning, not a cloud in the sky. There through the summer heat haze was Mount Robson with a slight amount of snow still on the cap, with the light from the sun shining on it. I couldn't help but think, like the psalmist, way above the earth: What is man that thou art mindful of him? So insignificant and yet the psalmist takes a different approach. The psalmist looks at this and starts with the glory of God. O God, our God, how great is your majesty in all the earth.

Just yesterday, in a parking lot, I met a member of our congregation who is about to embark on a world tour and who is probably listening on the radio this morning. He talked so wonderfully about what he wants to see and that it will be a spiritual thing to see this wonderful world that God has made. Then he said one phrase that stuck with me: He said, “Isn't this beautifully made?” The Apostle Paul, in writing to the Romans said that we human beings are without excuse. Anyone who says there is no God has clearly never opened their eyes to the glory and wonder that is around. How can we, as Canadians, not get on our knees this Thanksgiving ? when you think of the pounding waters on Vancouver Island and the wonderful Rockies and the magnificent prairies and the lakes of central Canada and you think of the wonderful fishing in Atlantic Canada (that we need to preserve and share) and you think of the wonderful glory of nature that is in this land? Of all the people on earth, we should say, “O Lord, your greatness is seen in all of creation!”

Then the psalmist talks about the heavens. He must have cast his eyes upward when he said, “Look at the heavens; there too you see the glory of God. In the voice of babes and children, the smallest and most vulnerable of us all, there the praises of the Lord are to be sung. In the highest and in the lowest, in the greatest and in the least, there the glory of God shines.” Then there is a very unusual phrase, one that has bothered me for a long time. It says that God somehow is safe from God's enemies. Finally an Old Testament professor explained to me that in the thinking of his time after the exile, the people of Israel believed that the earth was closed with sort of a canopy that went over the earth and that God created the canopy and made order of where there was chaos and beyond the canopy were the Leviathans of chaos and danger. So the psalmist is saying, “God, you are to be trusted. You can protect us. We can believe in your word and your word is true. O God, our God, your greatness is seen in all creation.” Then he says to look at the stars in the sky. Look and see those.

Some years ago, on returning to South Africa for the first time, I spent a while in the town of Stellenbosch with some good friends who owned a farm and who for years had been in opposition to apartheid. As Marial and I came out of the place where we were sitting, it was two in the morning and exceedingly hot, we couldn't sleep. There was a bright sky. The southern African sky is spectacular. It is like the prairie sky; it's big. It was as if the firmament was all around us and you could snatch one of the stars and pull it down and put it in your lap. I couldn't again help but think of the psalmist: Your glory God is seen in all the earth! But the psalmist doesn't stop there; in this great hymn of praise the psalmist also speaks of the dignity of humanity. He says that despite all the greatness that is around us God still thinks about us. God still cares for us. What is man that you are mindful of him? Why do you care for us?

There are always sceptics like Nietzche who said, “What is it? Is man a blunder of God or God a blunder of man?” There will always be the cynics. All those people who downplay human existence as if it's not important, that life is cheap, that it's trivialised, that you and I and that woman in that room who was all alone with her two children, really don't count. We're only part of some evolving material process. But the psalmist says, “No! The answer to the question What is man that thou art mindful of him? is that we are just a little lower than God. Flawed? Yes. Sinful? Yes. Imperfect? Yes. But nevertheless made in the image of God. We have been crowned with glory and we have been given a unique place on this earth and sometimes when we're feeling insignificant and are wondering whether or not our lives have any meaning, we need to remember Psalm 8, over and over again. Then the psalmist uses a most controversial phrase: And we have been given dominion over all the birds of the air and all the sheep and land. Many people worry over that because they think that dominion means sole control, or the abuse thereof. But it doesn't. For the psalmist, the dominion we have been given is a gift of grace; it is like a coronation where a monarch not only has privileges but a monarch has responsibilities. When we are given dominion, it is dominion as a gift of grace; not to use and abuse as we see fit, but to use wisely. You can see that whether or not there is an argument about dominion, the fact of the matter is that what we do as human beings affects all of creation. How we use what God has entrusted to us will determine whether or not the birds of the air continue to fly and the fish of the sea continue to prosper. So we do have some dominion but it is always under the grace of God, always accountable to what God has given.

There is one final thing: it is actually not implicit in the text but it certainly is implicit in the book of Hebrews. The writer of Hebrews says, “You know, the ultimate crowning sign that God is mindful of us, is no one else other than Jesus Christ our Lord.” In some ways the writer of Hebrews plays loose with the language of the Psalms, and many times New Testament writers do that, but they're inspired by the spirit. Sometimes we play loose with words ourselves, so we shouldn't stand in judgement over the writer of Hebrews too much. One English professor of mine used to try and illustrate how we often confuse words and to do so he would use a humorous illustration so we wouldn't forget. I've never forgotten this and I realise now the power of words and how they can mean one thing or the other. The story goes like this: A panda bear goes into a restaurant and as he sits and orders his meal he eats and when finished eating he gets out, pulls a gun out of his pouch and shoots nearly all the people in the restaurant. The Panda bear then walks out. One of the people left says to the proprietor, “doesn't this disturb you? Doesn't this worry you?” He says, “By no means. In the dictionary it says ”˜Panda Bear: eats shoots and leaves.'” Words do have meaning in one context and another meaning in another. The writer of Hebrews is absolutely convinced that the fulfilment of the Psalm, the fulfilment of all of God's desires for humanity is found in Jesus of Nazareth. If people feel insignificant and feel at a loss or feel guilty or feel they're in poverty or pain and they ask the question, What is man that thou art mindful of him? the answer always to such a person is: Look at Jesus of Nazareth, God with us. If there is an affirmation that we are loved, his name is Jesus of Nazareth.

So my friends, this Thanksgiving, for we who have much or sometimes we who feel small, when we ask the question What is man that thou art mindful of him? we gaze on Christ and say, you think of man, you care for humanity. O God, our God, your glory is seen in all the earth. Amen.