The Eighteenth Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 22B)
4 October 2009
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Andrew C. Blume
Almighty and everlasting God, who art always more ready to hear than we to pray, and art wont to give more than either we desire or deserve: Pour down upon us the abundance of thy mercy, forgiving us those things whereof our conscience is afraid, and giving us those good things which we are not worthy to ask, but through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord; who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Above Emerson Hall, the historic home of the Philosophy Department in Harvard Yard, are inscribed the words from Psalm 8 quoted by the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, “What is man that thou art mindful of him, or the son of man, that thou visitist him?” I always wondered what that quotation meant to the men who erected that building. To those of us who ran our dogs in the little quadrangle just beneath those words, it became a bit of a joke. We imagined that the inscription was intended for those frolicking canines: the ages asking our pet dogs, “what is man that thou art mindful of him?”
Of course the Psalmist and author of the Epistle to the Hebrews were pondering the question of why God, the one who created all that is, whose power and reach are infinite and unbounded, should care so much for humankind, a humanity insignificant in the face of the vastness of the created order, insignificant before God? On this Sunday when, by liturgical coincidence we hear these words and in the afternoon turn our minds and prayers to concern and love for the animals—the dogs and cats and birds and all the other creatures—who share our lives and this planet with us, the about-turn in the meaning of the passage contemplated at the dog run carries special weight. What is humanity that the entire world should be mindful of us? Why are we allowed to exercise such power over creation and why should the forces of nature be mindful of us?
Indeed, one of the best places to look is in this morning’s passage from Genesis, one of the two accounts we find there of the Creation. We need not take these stories literally—either as a “scientific” explanation for the world’s origins or as words taken out of their original context—to find profound truth in them. These stories are tell us the profound truth that humans are not meant to live alone, out of relationship with each other (hence the words we hear as being about marriage), or out of relationship with the rest of the created order. We exist to be in relationship with God, other humans, and with the world God has made.
Over the centuries, this passage has been used for all kinds of purposes without really explaining what it means in the context of God’s work as a whole—the dynamic work of the living God who calls us to love him and each other. For me, today, the most destructive interpretation has been the fundamental misunderstanding of the notion of humans having dominion over creation. Dominion, of course, means lordship and usually—except when the Lord is a charming, English T.V. detective—we think of the lord as a cruel despot with absolute control over people and his environment, seeking only his own self-interest. Such a view of dominion has led to the idea that the earth is here for us to use as we please. Consequently we have witnessed the destruction of the environment in many places, the extinction of many species of animals and plants, and our physical, emotional, and spiritual separation from the beautiful world that God has created and in which he delights.
The God we know from the stories about his relationship with humankind that we read in Scripture, whom we know from the world’s encounter with God in Christ, and from our own encounters with the Living God in the love we give and receive, teach us that God is no lord like the one we might first image. God is the Lord who looked at the world, having made it, and said that it was very good. God is the Lord who was handed over to men and was crucified and looked at the world again, this time from the vantage point of the Cross, and in his resurrection still affirmed his love for what he had made. God is the Lord who knits us together in relationship with him for the propagation of more and more love even in the face of hatred and violence. God’s lordship, then, is our pattern.
The Genesis story speaks of the world being given over to humans not to dominate it, use it for our own ends,(1) but to care for it, tend it, to be, in the words of the philosopher Charles Hartshorne, “conscious trustees for cosmic ends.” Being made in God’s image we, unlike other creatures, have the conscious freedom to choose whether or not we will accept our trusteeship and accept our mission in the cosmos to care for the world we have been given. Unfortunately, part of not being God, part of being created, finite, and fallible is that we are not always our best selves and, indeed, have a tendency to seek our own self interest. This is what theologians have called “original sin” and this marks our separation from the God who made us in his image. Nonetheless God still calls us to his service, still calls us into relationship with him and all creation, still calls us to be—with his help—our best selves as we exercise our trusteeship of the world. This is how we contribute to the life of God.
What, then, is man that thou art mindful of him, O Lord? What are we that
thou makest [us] to have dominion of the works of thy hands; * and thou hast put all
things in subjection under [our] feet?” God made the world and gave it to all of his
creatures. God made us—the most complex of creatures, the most self-conscious of
creatures, the freest creatures—not to lord our powers over others, not to exploit
them, but so that in tending creation, in caring for it, we can show our love for God,
the one who made it. This afternoon we will celebrate our annual service of the
blessing of the animals. We will gather in this church as a motley assembly of humans,
dogs, cats, birds, and others. We will sing songs of praise to God, say prayers that
recognise God’s gifts to us in creation, and ask for God’s blessing upon those creatures
who are already held and blessed by him. In doing this, we will remind ourselves of
our place in creation as the most powerful and yet most fallible of creatures, with
immeasurable ability to both destroy God’s creation and to care for it. We will say to
each other that we need to be connected with one another, with those other animals
with which we share our lives, and with all the earth in order for us to be fully in
relationship with God.
Andrew Charles Blume+
[George Bell, Bishop of Chichester], 3 October 2006
(1) Charles Hartshorne, “Foundations for a Humane Ethics: What Human Beings Have in
Common with Other Higher Animals,” On the Fifth Day: Animal Rights and Human Ethics, ed. by Richard
Knowles Morris and Michael W. Fox (Washington, DC: Acropolis, 1978), 168.
©2009 Andrew Charles Blume