God’s biggest mistake?
Sunday, October 8, 2017 - 11:00 to 12:00
I was ready, and had prepared what I considered to be a traditional Thanksgiving sermon today. I was going to open my sermon with a story about a grandmother who was having the grandchildren and family stay with her, and the Sunday before, she put five dollars in the offertory plate, but the week after they left, she put twenty five dollars in the offertory plate.
I was going to talk about the health virtues of pumpkin pie with copious amounts of cream, and then I thought, no, this is not a Sunday for a traditional sermon about plants and family and pie; this is a Sunday for some deep thought and reflection.
I was inspired by reading Anton Chekhov’s Gooseberry. Chekhov is never what one would call light reading on a sunny day, but he wrote this, and I think it is timely:
Behind the door of every contented, happy man, there ought to be someone standing with a little hammer and continually reminding him with a knock that there are unhappy people. That however happy he may be, life will sooner or later show him its claws and trouble will come to him – illness, poverty, losses – and then no one will see or hear him, just as now he neither sees nor hears others.
This is, in many ways, a Thanksgiving piece by Chekhov, because it reminds us there are those who have not. That we hear the voice of praise and adoration, but often do not understand the depths that others face. What Chekhov is doing is reminding us of the human condition. And if there was a time when we as a society needs to reflect on where we are as human beings it is now. It is a moment like this, when we need to ask ourselves honestly and sincerely, where do we belong with this incredible universe that God has made?
I say this primarily in response to the events of last weekend and a few days before. I don’t think there’s any of us who hasn’t at some point, questioned our place within the universe as human beings after the terrible slaughter in Las Vegas. Or indeed, with the terrible events that occurred in Edmonton a few days before, which somehow were hardly alluded to by the media.
We have all seen with our own eyes what I call the banality of evil, to quote Hannah Arendt: “That depravity of the human soul that desires to take the lives of others, to do it openly, and to do it publicly, and to do it violently.” We have seen the lowest a human being can go, and we say, where are we in this universe?
Likewise we have seen the most incredible compassion, and profound self-sacrifice. We have seen people throwing themselves on top of children or neighbours or complete strangers; we have seen people burst through doors, not knowing if gunfire would greet them, but doing so because they felt it is the right thing to do. We have seen courage, we have seen compassion, we have seen sacrifice, not to mention all the horrendous horrors that people in the medical profession must have seen. It causes us to ask, “Lord, where is our place within this universe? Where are we in relation to You, and where are we in relation to one another?”
I know those are dramatic events, but they're dramatic events that get us thinking about Thanksgiving in a much more profound way than simply saying, thank you for the good earth that we have around us. It goes much deeper, it goes to our very existence, to our very soul as human beings. And nothing drives this home more than Psalm 8.
Psalm 8 is preceded by seven psalms, all of woe and lament, grief and sorrow. They are, let’s face it, depressing. Then we come to Psalm 8, and it’s as if David has an outburst of ecstasy and joy. This is a psalm of praise – “How majestic are your works in all the earth,” writes David. The woes have ended; here is a man full of praise, extolling the majesty and the glory of God. He does so knowing the majesty of this God is before all the heavens. He talks about the glory of the heavens, and then about the simple things, such as the praise of children. He talks about the majesty of the universe, but also those foes he’s faced and silenced. God has been in the midst of it all.
God is great and God is good, and he reminds us of these things: that before the awesome power of God, we praise, we acknowledge the majesty, we lift God on high and we give God the glory. It is spectacular. There is no psalm that exists that lifts us higher, none that buoys our soul, none that makes us feel more thankful. Yet there is within this psalm, something much deeper than that. This isn't a glib thanksgiving, this isn't an innocuous and inane sense of happiness before God; he deals with some of the key issues that we face even today, namely the meaninglessness and the meaningfulness of human life.
Having already extolled God, he then asks that most poignant rhetorical question, “What are we human beings that you give thought to us, us humans, that you care for us?” I still like the King James version. It might be a little more exclusive in its language, but it’s so much more poetic: “What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that you care for him?”
This question – this rhetorical question – is posed in contrast to the glories of the heavens, and the majesty of the earth. He looks at the sky and he says, “What are we that you are mindful of us in the midst of all of this? Are we not insignificant dots on the landscape of creation? Why would you even think of us and be mindful of us, let alone care for us?”
The vision of the world that the ancients had was that of a canopy. They believed that there was a fixed world, unmoving. They saw the waters below and the sky above, all the stars in the skies were fixed in place, the moon and the sun and the stars, the heavens was like a dome, and there was nothing beyond the dome except God. David says, from a moment of insignificance, “What are we that you are mindful of us?”
Some have suggested that ancient view of the world just doesn’t work for us today. I would suggest the exact opposite is true. I would say in the day and age where we recognise that there are solar systems, that the universe expands, that there are galaxies way beyond the galaxies that we can even imagine. In fact, the awesomeness of the universe and the nature of that which is around our little earth, makes us even less significant in comparison. If ever there was a generation knowing what we know, that says, “What is man that Thou art mindful of us,” it is our generation, for we seem so minute, and in this world of ever-expanding numbers and continued growth of humanity, an individual person feels even more insignificant, like a speck of dust in the greatness of history.
It would be very easy for us to conclude from this question, that God is not mindful of us, that God does not care for us. We are here, and just like these seeds on this incredible cornucopia; and we’re gone. Here today, gone tomorrow. Vulnerable, inconsequential, meaningless.
The great sociology writer, Emile Durkheim, really one of the founders of modern sociology, wrote a book many, many years ago on suicide. He did so, of course, before all the research into why people decide to take their own life. He was looking at it as a social phenomenon, and he said that there is a characteristic of many people who take their own life. He called it anomie. Anomie literally means a sense of meaninglessness, of namelessness, even of homelessness on this earth. So much so that those that feel this anomie, no longer feel that they have any meaning or purpose in the world, and therefore it is easy for them to be self-destructive and to be destructive of others, to have the capacity for evil when you feel that there is no meaning and no purpose in your life.
This is exactly what I think some people feel when there is this sense of meaninglessness in life. They feel that there is nothing more to this life than the pain or the difficulty or the struggle. There are those, unfortunately, who feel that way, who have no sense of compassion or empathy for others and have no real empathy or compassion for themselves. They feel that somehow even the great Creator of the universe has given up on them and they have no place within this universe, and they ask: “Where is the meaning in my life?”
This last week, I suppose in response to everything that occurred in Las Vegas, I recalled the words of Barack Obama on December 12, 2012 at the vigil after the children had been killed at Sandy Hook. I think it was his greatest speech. It began with Scripture, but it went on as follows:
Why are we here? What gives our life meaning? What gives our acts purpose? We know our time on this Earth is fleeting. We know that we will each have our share of pleasure and pain; that even after we chase after some earthly goal, whether it's wealth or power or fame, or just simple comfort, we will, in some fashion, fall short of what we had hoped. We know that no matter how good our intentions, we will all stumble sometimes, in some way. We will make mistakes, we will experience hardships. And even when we're trying to do the right thing, we know that much of our time will be spent groping through the darkness, so often unable to discern God's heavenly plans. There is only one thing we can be sure of, and that is love.
Where do we find our meaning? You could interpret what the psalmist said as kind of an insouciant approach of God – God doesn’t care – or you could read on because he says, “You have made us a little lower than the stars; you have made us a little lower than the angels; you have crowned us with glory. You have made us your vice regent.”
Human beings are given this most incredible capacity and to have under us the earth, above us the birds of the sky and beneath us the fish of the sea. We have been given this most phenomenal and powerful gift of being vice regents of God. Yet, even when I hear that, I still am not satisfied with this psalm. As Christian, I feel that the Psalm is inadequate and so I turn to the life of Jesus to make sense of the true value of the human person. Even though the Psalms were written hundreds of years before Jesus I want to look back at them through the lens of Jesus’ ministry.
When I look at the New Testament, I see not only that we are crowned with glory, not only we are vice regents, to use that language, but we are also profoundly children of God right from the beginning. Where do we see that? Where do we see the world in God’s hands? We see it in Jesus Christ. It was he who said we are more valuable than the sparrows. God sees us, we’re more valuable than the sheep, and even one lamb that would stray out of a hundred, is still worth seeking. The Good Shepherd and the lost lamb is worthy of God’s concern.
If ever there was a statement about the value of a human life, it is the value of God himself coming and saying, in person, in Christ, “I will go and seek and save that which is lost. I will find that which is the least and bring it home. I will reach out to that.” And in the case of the One who said this, to bear a cross of suffering for the whole world.
We do not need to look far for meaningfulness for the human condition. We look to the incarnation and there we see the ultimate Vice Regent. But there is one other contrast and it’s the contrast between our power and our responsibility. There is a word that is used in this text that has become problematic in our era. It is the word “dominion” that humanity will have dominion. We’ve looked at this before, but it’s worth repeating. I’ve looked through the Hebrew as deeply as I can, and I cannot find another word to replace it. It’s in virtually all the translations.
Dominion, as evidenced also in the book of Genesis, not only here in the book of Psalms, is not the equivalent of domination – it is not. Maybe it’s because I have heard this text quoted by First Nations theologians, who have reminded us that dominion does not – and is not equivalent to dominate, rather to recognise the very power that we have.
Be under no illusion, human beings as a group and as individuals, are very powerful. We often shy away from recognising it; we’d rather not acknowledge it, certainly in front of storms and hurricanes and earthquakes, we feel that it is diminished, but believe you me, my friends, we are powerful. We have the power to destroy the Earth, we have the power to make and recreate, we have the power to sacrifice for the sake of others. We have the power to destroy at will; we have the power to love unconditionally, and we have the power to denigrate and divide. We have the power of words, which can heal or can hurt; we have the power of physical gestures, we have the power of societies and groups who, when they come together, can do the most profound good, and at the same time, the most profound ill. We have the power to pick up a gun and shoot people indiscriminately, we have the power to operate on people and save their lives. We have dominion, whether we want it or not. It’s a truth, it is by virtue of where we are. But that dominion requires something – a recognition that it has been given, and that there is a Creator, and indeed an entire creation to whom we are ultimately accountable.
Dominion does not mean licence, dominion means love. Dominion does not mean unbridled power, it means impassioned concern, and that is where we are. In this world when we wonder if we have meaning or purpose, in some senses it becomes moot, because what matters is what we do with what we have been given, and how we are stewards of it. When I look around and see how blessed we are in this creation, and what we as human beings have been given, it’s obvious to say, along with the psalmist, “Why do you even give us a thought?” Yet it is to everything else that we should give a thought.
I read a beautiful story about a man called Eddie, a captain who flew a B17 bomber in World War II, and in 1942 was flying over the South Pacific. Following a message that he received from General McArthur, he realised they were running out of fuel. Eddie didn’t know what to do, so he did everything in his power to land the craft in the sea, and he did so. The fuselage collapsed, he and some of the men on board survived. They made a boat out of some of the fuselage, and for eight days they bobbed up and down in the sun and the churning sea of the South Pacific. They had no idea how long they were going to live, but one of them said, “I think it’s time that we just gave a thanksgiving prayer and left ourselves in God’s hands, because we might not be around for much longer.”
And so Eddie led them in a prayer. A day later, thirsty, hungry, emaciated and weak, a seagull landed on his head. Sudden all the other men realised: Food! They all fed on it. Then used the intestines of the seagull as fish bait to survive. They had poultry and then they had fish. They waited for a few days, having survived on the gift of this bird, and finally a ship came by and rescued them.
In 1973 there was an old man standing on a pier in South Florida, as he had done every single Friday for twenty years. He had a bucket of shrimp in his hands, feeding the seagulls that were almost eating out of his hand. People thought he was a crazy old coot – what’s he doing? Every Friday, no matter what, there he was. Asked why he did this, he said, “Once a seagull gave its life for me. The only way I can thank God for the gift of that, is to feed seagulls until I die.”
The old man, of course, was Eddie, the pilot. He understood our place in this universe. He understood what gratitude means. He understood the meaning of thankfulness. He knew the value of his own life and that it had been spared, but he knew that it was to God and the things that God had made, for which he should be thankful.
This day, for all those who look at the meaninglessness of life and wonder, “Who am I that you give thought to me?” Or in a world that seems so callous and cold at times and wonder, “What is the meaning and purpose of us on this earth?” The psalmist answers, “We have been made just a little lower than the stars and a little lower than the angels, but we are made in the image of God. Thank you, Lord, thank you. Amen.