This sermon was delivered at Cobleskill United Methodist Church on October 3rd, 2021 ,the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost , by Pastor Anna Blinn Cole
October 3, 2021
Nineteenth Sunday after the Pentecost
1 O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens. 2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; 4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals[a] that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God,[b] and crowned them with glory and honor. 6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet, 7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9 O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
It’s probably about time for another Catalpa Tree sermon illustration, don’t you think? I feel like this is a regular installment in my sermons since I became your pastor two years ago because in my mind you can never have too many stories about this tree that feels like its part of our church family. This week I was standing at the kitchen window washing dishes looking out into the canopy of the tree, as I often do, and I noticed little flashes of movement everywhere. Upon closer look, each little flash of movement was a small little bird that I later figured out was a goldfinch. A whole flock of them were flying in between the branches. At first it just looked like they were hopping from branch to branch just for fun. But when I studied them longer it became clear that they were flying up to the individual long bean-pod like things that hang from the tree in the fall and picking out bits of food. This little flock has been here for about a week on a stop from their summer home in southern Canada to their winter home in eastern Mexico.
So why did I lead with that story?
First of all, it’s just cool, right? This tree never ceases to amaze me and now to see that it gives sustenance to a flock of migrating birds for one week during the fall is pretty amazing.
Second of all, we just read a scripture lesson that lists out different parts of the natural world including birds of the air and the whole point of the scripture is to put ourselves as human beings into perspective with all that God has created.
I remember the first time I really spent time studying Psalm 8. I was in seminary in a class called “The Bible and the Care of Creation” and we went studied the way in which God lifts up all of the earth as holy and sacred throughout the Bible. But we spent extra time on Psalm 8 because it’s tricky. Throughout much of our heritage as Bible-reading people, Psalm 8 has been interpreted as being a Bible verse about human privilege and domination.
The psalm is about humans in relation to God. It starts by praising God’s majesty. To gain perspective on how big and transcendent God is, the Psalmist looks up and notices the sky. “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?”
Compared to a solar system of suns and moons and constellations, who are we humans? What’s our role in God’s big majestic world?
The Psalmist continues, “Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet.”
So on one hand, we’re tiny little specks of dust in a vast expanse of universe, and on the other hand we rank right below God when it comes to our worth and our value in the grand scheme of things. What a contradiction! We are at one time humbled and undone by the vastness of a twinkling night sky, and yet we are also recognized by God as partners and co-creators. We are ourselves a piece of the creation, and a powerful piece, because we have the capacity to either do great harm to our fellow universe inhabitants or to take great care.
And so for a long, long time Psalm 8 has been read in such a way that magnifies the importance of humans at the expense of the rest of creation. That word dominion … “you have been given dominion over the works of God’s hands” has allowed humans to justify a lot of exploitative actions. Christians, in the name of God, have pronounced their own dominion over other humans as justified by God. Christians, in the name of God, have lopped the tops off of mountains in order to profit from the natural resources therein. How quickly we can be to take a verse from the Bible and use it to prop up our own selfishness and greed.
In that same seminary class we reoriented ourselves to Psalm 8 and what else it could be saying to humans besides a blank check for exploitation.
At its heart, Psalm 8 is a statement of trust. The Psalmist trusts God implicitly and the Psalmist also recognizes that God trusts humans. This is a God who trusts that humans will keep each other, and the sheep, and the oxen, and the birds and the fish, safe and guarded. Instead of reading Psalm 8 as permission to exploit, we can read it as God seeing in us the capacity for responsibility. Yes, this sets us apart from the rest of creation. But it doesn’t make us better. It doesn’t mean that we’re smarter than a flock of goldfinch that knows instinctively how to get from Canada to Mexico and where all the good snacks are along the way; It sets us apart as those who have been called by God for the purpose of stewardship. God has given us the gift of responsibility.
I think Psalm 8 is a psalm for our times. Think about all the ways we devalue human life and the natural world. Think of the ways we devalue ourselves when we are quick to fail at something. The beautiful poetry of this Psalm is that it holds two contradictory truths: we are at once surrounded by mountains and oceans and constellations and flocks of birds that make us realize we are not at the center of this incredible creation. And at the same time, we are ourselves a valuable and integral part of how all of that beautiful and awe-inspiring creation is held together.
God has entrusted us with a responsibility to care of that which God has called good and sacred. And it’s that responsibility that must reorient us from a life of selfishness and greed. A life propped up by the devaluation of everything around us so that our life is better.
We haven’t always had a good track record for how we’ve lived up to this responsibility, but each of us gets the opportunity to answer for our own actions and each day is a new day. Each day is a chance to reorient. How will you take this one precious life you’ve been given to notice the way God has invested value into part of creation around you, from the smallest bird to the darkest night sky. How will you take this one precious life you’ve been given to fulfill the responsibility God has put on your shoulders to be the one who keeps adding value to world, not taking.
Let us take a few moments of silent prayer to recognize our place in the world of things and to confess to God the ways in which we could be better stewards.
Let us pray.
For the mountains we’ve destroyed;
For the water we’ve neglected;
For the trash we’ve multiplied;
For the neighbors we’ve ignored;
For the natural resources we’ve used in the blink of an eye to make our life just a little bit easier;
For the communities of humans we’ve undervalued and underprivileged.
For the corners we’ve cut to make life easier.
O God, we cannot do everything; but we can do more than we have; we can do something.
O God, help us claim the wisdom and responsibility you first saw in us.
Help us be the people you created us to be.