Scriptures: Psalm 8, Genesis 1 As we begin our sermon studies of the Psalms, we need to take a moment to settle in and prepare to listen. The Psalms are poetry, and I don’t know about you, but I often find it difficult to slow down enough in my mind, body, and spirit to really enjoy poetry. Ours is prose-filled world, and we are bombarded with rapid-fire information in bullet-point sound-bites. Poems are often dense with imagery, wordplay, and meaning, and though they may have few words, it takes time to receive them fully. Poems mean do more than communicate information. Often they express an experience in such a way that the reader or listener is drawn into that experience.
The Book of Psalms is an amazing gift of scripture, rich with poetry and hymns meant to draw us into an experience of worship, helping us become available to receive anew God’s purpose, presence and power in our lives. Here we have 150 pieces of literature which encompass just about every mood or disposition human beings can experience. Many of them have been used for thousands of years—even before they were all gathered together in this Psalter—to voice the praise, petition and protest of our ancestors in the faith. To read and experience the Psalms again is to be joined to a congregation of all those who have gone before us, and by entering their reflection and prayer, we ourselves become available to new awareness and adoration of God.
Now, we have a beautiful sanctuary, but this particular Psalm might be best received under the sanctuary of stars and moon or in the thick of a wooded place surrounded by birdsong. So, we are going to take some silence, and I invite you to close your eyes and imagine yourself in your favorite outdoor space. See in your mind’s eye the sights of that place, hear the sounds of the wind or the water, smell the damp earth or sand, and feel in your body what it’s like to receive that place again…here we go…(moments of silence, and then read Psalm 8). Would anyone like to share a brief description of where you were in your memory as you heard the Psalm? …thank you.
I was at Menucha, a retreat center on the Columbia River Gorge, when I first entered this Psalm this week. I had just been on a walk which led me to an overlook, where I could see the great river flowing onward through layers of misty green ridges receding into the distance. All around me were mossy trees and thick green undergrowth, wonderful huge ferns and flowers that grow on the rainy side of the Cascades. I could hear birdsong and the wind. I could also hear—and if I leaned in enough, see—the constant hum of vehicles speeding along the I-84 corridor, and at regular intervals, airplanes roared overhead. Sometimes the birdsong was all but muted in the roaring hurry of the human world.
It was a place of intersections: the hazy heavens above, the rain-refreshed earth below, animals going about their daily tasks, plants stretching up toward the sun, and me, a human being, consciously taking in that panorama, reflecting on its beauty, aware that its current state has been defined and shaped by all kinds of human decisions and activities.
I think the Psalmist wants to draw us into just such an awareness of the vast and various intersections of God, humanity, and the whole of creation. And the first thing we are called to do there is simply marvel at the wonder of being alive. It’s so easy to get caught up in a list of things to do each day that we can lose sight of this basic, wondrous truth. How often do you wake up in the morning aware of how amazing a gift it truly is, just to be alive, to be a human being in this intricately created world?
But then the Psalmist takes it further, not only marveling at our existence in a creation but also pondering the particular honor of human beings within creation. The Psalmist imagines God handcrafting the heavens, placing moon and stars with careful fingers. Isn’t it a wonder that the majestic God who did that not only chose to make human beings, but continuously remembers and cares for us? Perhaps yet more awe-provoking is the intricate web of relationships in which God has placed human beings. God not only chose to create us, earthbound bearers of God’s image, but God also gave us a purpose within that creation.
The Psalmist, like the Genesis account, remarks that God gave human beings “dominion” over the animals, birds, and sea creatures. Now, the trouble with that word, “dominion” is that sounds so much like the word “domination.” These are related words, both having to do with influence over something or someone else. But the kind of authority God has given human beings to influence the ongoing reality of creation is intended to be quite different than we have often understood.
Lynn White, an historian, wrote an article in 1967 in which he pointed to traditional Christian ideas of “the divine right of dominion” as the roots of the ecological crisis. Based on these texts, White said, people have viewed themselves as ‘superior to nature, contemptuous of it, willing to use it for our slightest whim.’ Another author called this attitude “despotism.” [i]
A lot has changed in our world since 1967. Churches like ours have sought to teach human stewardship of nature rather than domination. Yet as the ecological crisis continues and is perhaps accelerated by climate change, I believe we must continue to reorient ourselves to a different relationship with God and God’s creation than we may have been taught in our culture. We must be engaged in the continual repentance of study and action toward a more ecologically just and sustainable human way of life.
The key to understanding God’s plan in giving human beings dominion can be seen in the framing verses of this Psalm. “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” As creatures made in God’s image, to understand how humans are meant to exercise dominion over the animals, birds, and fish, we must look to how God exercises dominion over us. How does God exercise sovereignty? From the creation accounts, we have a picture of a careful, orderly Maker in a gracious and joyous process, creating the world day-by-day. At the end of each day’s creative work, God declares the creation “good.” Humans come into being on the sixth day, and along with the animals with whom we share the planet, we are given plants to eat. Then, God looks at everything God has created and “indeed, it was very good.” So on the seventh day, God rested. It was the first Sabbath, an act of restraint and trust that what is “very good” is enough.
Psalm 8 gives us another curious picture of God. Verse 2 reads, “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark…to silence the enemy and the avenger.” This verse seemed kind of out-of-place to me, until I read Eugene Petersen’s version of it in The Message: “Nursing infants gurgle choruses about you; toddlers shout the songs/ That drown out enemy talk, and silence atheist babble.”[ii] I think this verse points to a characteristic of God, God’s predilection for using what seems most weak and vulnerable resisting the powers of chaos, violence, and sin in our world.
I doubt the Psalmist had an inkling of him, but one particular infant comes to mind. An infant who became a man whose life, death, and resurrection revealed the incredible extent of God’s strength in weakness. Of course I’m talking about Jesus, the fully human, fully divine One, in whom we see the character of God, and what it means for human beings to shine forth that image. Jesus is the ultimate example of what it means to exercise dominion in the image of God. As we read in Philippians 2, “though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death on a cross.”
Our professor Bill Greenway suggested that Jesus Christ shows us the posture of human beings exercising such dominion: Not a strong-armed posture of triumph, but an utterly gracious bow of humility before all beings less powerful than us. That’s what God does in Jesus Christ, and that is what we are called to do as we relate to one another and all other creatures on this earth. We exercise Christ-like dominion as we give up domination and humbly seek obedience to God’s purposes in the ongoing creation.
In our time, marked by the ongoing escalation of the economy of consumption, I believe we best live into our purpose as human beings, those creatures at the intersection of heaven and earth, and we best exercise our dominion, by learning the ways of restraint and “enough.” Like God who rested on the seventh day, we are not only called to rest ourselves, but to work towards conditions in this world that allow our fellow human beings, creatures, and the earth itself to find rest. It can be an incredibly counter-cultural thing to just stop something we are accustomed to doing and with gratitude and trust say, “I have enough!” But we can begin to do so in little ways that can have great impact.
Gordon Hempton is an acoustic ecologist and the founder of the One Square Inch of Silence project. This project is dedicated to preserving one square inch in Olympic National Park, one of the few remaining places in the United States where “natural silence,” free of human-made intrusions, can be experienced. The idea is that by preserving just one small inch of the natural soundscape, large areas of the park will actually be impacted. Noting that, “Silence is not the absence of something, but the presence of everything,”[iii] Hempton makes us aware that our voluntary restraint can make space for the fullness of creation to flourish. I’d like to close by allowing us to hear the soundscape of that One Square Inch as Hempton has recorded it. As you listen, I hope you become aware again of the spaciousness and wonder, the gift and the responsibility, of the place God has made for human beings within the vast scope of the glory of Creation. (Listen briefly to the soundscape…) Amen.
[i] Lynn White, quoted from the 1967 Science article by Barbara Brown Taylor in “The Dominion of Love,” essay in The Green Bible, San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 2008, I-88.