“Who Are We and Why Are We Here?”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

June 15, 2014 – First Sunday after Pentecost

Scripture:  Psalm 8

 

Photo by James Wheeler.

Photo by James Wheeler.

Do you know that feeling? The feeling of being outside on a clear night, under a fathomless sky and numberless stars?

Maybe it’s summertime, and you’re lying on your back on soft grass beside the dying embers of a campfire, with your eyes open as wide as you can keep them, trying to catch a glimpse of every shooting star as the Perseid meteor shower cascades across the sky.

Maybe it’s wintertime, and you’re standing in a moonlit clearing, with the snow creaking under your boots and the cold air freezing in your nostrils as you gaze at Orion and the Pleiades and Cassiopeia.

Photo by ShutterFotos.

Photo by ShutterFotos.

Whatever the season, whatever the temperature, whatever the constellations overhead—do you know that feeling, the feeling of being outside on a clear night, under a fathomless sky and numberless stars?

There’s something about that sense of perspective that brings out the philosopher in us. There’s something about that sense of scale that summons big questions to mind. There’s something about coming face to face with the vastness of the universe, being confronted with how infinitesimally small we are, that causes us to wonder who we are, and why we’re here, and what the point of it all really is, and whether we matter even a bit in such a wide and wild world.

Do you know that feeling?

The psalmist knew that feeling. That sense of perspective and scale, that bent toward nighttime philosophy—that feeling was very familiar to the psalmist. Could you hear it as Leilani read for us a moment ago? O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! 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?

Olinguito

Olinguito (Ecuador).  Photo by Mark Gurney.

We humans are, in fact, very small indeed. We are but one species out of perhaps 10 million on the earth. New species are constantly being discovered—more than 18,000 in the last year alone. Scientists at the International Institute for Species Exploration recently published a top ten list, choosing their favorite new species from the past year. It includes such amazing creatures as the olinguito, a raccoon-like mammal that lives high in the cloud forest of the Andes mountains; and the ANDRILL Anemone, which lives on the underside of sea ice in Antarctica; and a bright orange fungus from Tunisia, named for a prince in the Dutch royal family; and a flowering tree from Thailand; and a gecko from Australia that camouflages perfectly with the rocks and trees in which it makes its home; and a teeny-tiny shrimp from California, just an eighth of an inch long; and a wasp from Costa Rica so small that it looks like a speck of dust unless you put it under a microscope; and so many more.

ANDRILL Anemone (Antarctica).  Photo by SCINI.

ANDRILL Anemone (Antarctica). Photo by SCINI.

We are but one species out of perhaps 10 million… One planet, one solar system, one star out of perhaps 300 billion in our galaxy… One galaxy out of many hundreds of billions in the universe… We humans are very small indeed.

When I look at your heavens, says the psalmist, 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? Even 2,500 years ago, long before we knew about Andean olinguitos and Antarctic sea anemones and Australian geckos, the psalmist looked at the world around him and felt that sense of perspective, that sense of scale, that sense of humanity’s tininess and the universe’s grandeur.

Orange Penicillium (Tunisia).  Photo by Cobus M. Visagie and Jan Dijksterhuis.

Orange Penicillium (Tunisia).  Photo by Cobus M. Visagie and Jan Dijksterhuis.

But the psalm doesn’t end there. It doesn’t end with smallness, with insignificance. It goes on. And what comes next is the hinge of the psalm, the turning point of the whole poem. It’s one tiny word, just a single letter tacked on as a prefix in the original Hebrew. “Yet.”

Yet you have made [humanity] a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. We are small in the face of the universe’s vastness—yet we are not inconsequential. We are one species in 10 million—yet we are not unimportant. We are not God, that is for sure—yet we are crowned with glory and honor. We are here for a reason, called to a purpose holy and high. And here’s what the psalm says that it is.

It says we are to have dominion over the works of God’s hands—over the animals of the field, the birds of the air, the fish of the sea.

Kaweesak's Dragon Tree (Thailand).  Photo by Paul Wilkin.

Kaweesak’s Dragon Tree (Thailand).  Photo by Paul Wilkin.

This word, “dominion,” has gotten Christians into a lot of trouble over the years. It has been interpreted to mean that we have a divine right to rule over the earth and its inhabitants in whatever way we please—to exploit the planet without regard for the consequences of our actions. It has been interpreted to mean that we humans are the most valuable species on earth, the crown of all creation, and that therefore the welfare of other species is somehow less important than our own. It led pioneers on the western American frontier to slaughter bison by the millions. It led sheep farmers here in New England to drive the wolves from the land by any means necessary. It continues to lead us to clear-cut rain forests for palm oil plantations, and to tear up landscapes to extract the resources below, and to consume resources and produce emissions at an unsustainable rate, a rate that will have a profound impact on generations to come.

Leaf-tailed Gecko (Australia).  Photo by Conrad Hoskin.

Leaf-tailed Gecko (Australia).  Photo by Conrad Hoskin.

But this kind of “dominion” is not what the psalmist meant. This is not what God meant. We have misinterpreted the text; we have confused “dominion” with “domination.” But domination is never what God intends.

We are God’s cherished children, beloved and blessed—but we are not God’s only children. We are here for a reason, called to a purpose holy and high—and that reason is not to satisfy our own desires no matter what the cost. We are here on earth with one vocation: to have dominion over the works of God’s hands—which is to say, we are here to be caretakers of this planet and all of its inhabitants.

Skeleton Shrimp (California).  Photo by SINC.

Skeleton Shrimp (California).  Photo by SINC.

What would it mean if we made choices about the cars we drive, the food we eat, the products we purchase, the ways we heat and cool and light our homes, the policies for which we advocate—what would happen if we made all these decisions as though our foremost motivation, our primary concern, was not our own convenience, but the welfare of our planet? What would it mean if we thought of ourselves, first and foremost, as caretakers, as stewards entrusted with a valuable and vulnerable treasure? What would we do differently? How would that change our lives? How would it change our world? How would it change our hearts?

Tinkerbell Fairyfly (Costa Rica).  Photo by Jennifer Read.

Tinkerbell Fairyfly (Costa Rica).  Photo by Jennifer Read.

You have given them dominion over the works of your hands, sings the psalmist. Dominion, not domination, for domination is never what God intends. And here’s the thing about dominion. The model for our relationship with our planet, our dominion over creation, is nothing less than God’s relationship with us, God’s dominion over us—a relationship of nurture and care, shelter and protection, guidance and mercy and self-sacrificing love.

Who are we mortals that God should care about us? We are but a tiny speck in the vastness of the universe, but an insignificant blip in the course of time—and yet, and yet God cares anyway, cares so much that God would go to any length to reach us, to reconcile with us. And the epitome of this care, the example we are called to follow, is nothing less than the cross—because God knew, and wanted us to know, too, that the most powerful force in all creation is not force at all, but love.

And that model of loving dominion, the example God has set for us in Jesus, applies not only to our relationship with the rest of creation. That model of loving dominion, the example God has set for us in Jesus, guides us in our care for one another, too. As his followers, we seek to care for the welfare of our sisters and brothers, not just our own, and to work for the good of the whole community, even when it is not simple or easy or convenient. For we seek to love one another, and to love our planet, with all that we have and all that we are—which is to say, as God first loved us.

Do you know that feeling? That feeling of being loved so deeply, so powerfully, so undeservedly and unconditionally, that it’s almost like your heart is too big for your chest, almost like your blood is warmer than usual, almost like your nerves are extra-tingly, almost like the power of God’s Spirit is filling you to the point of bursting? O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!

That is the feeling of God’s dominion—the dominion that embraces us, the dominion that empowers us, the dominion that commissions us to embrace one another and all of creation. That is the power of God’s love—the love that is the strongest force in the entire universe, the love that animates everything, from microscope to telescope, from mold to meteors, from shrimp to shooting stars and beyond. That is the covenant we share, the tie that binds us together as a family of faith, the Body of Christ, the servant people of our servant Lord.

And for that, I say, Thanks be to God.