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Knowing Our Place

A sermon on Psalm 104:24 by Revd Dr Keith Clements

O Lord how manifold are your works!
In wisdom you have made them all;
the earth is full of your creatures. Psalm 104:24. 

There’s a great celebration going on in the bird-watching world just now. A new bird has arrived on the scene – well, of course not really “arrived” but it’s only just been discovered, in the Andean mountains of Columbia in Central America. As with every species it’s been given a scientific Latin name, Atlapetes latinuchus yariguierum. An awfully long and cumbersome name for such a little and brightly coloured bird, but at least in English it’s to be known as the Yariguies Brush-Finch. So we could almost revise what the psalmist says in praising God “The earth is even fuller of your creatures than we realised!”

Even without the news of that discovery last week, as a keen bird-watcher I’ve already had good cause to echo the psalmists’ words these two months I’ve been here in Australia. About 80 species have been added to my tally. And how spectacular some of the sights have been: that evening Margaret and I were on the shore on Philip Island, and the sky grew dark with thousands upon thousands of Muttonbirds, those shearwaters that navigate themselves from here right up the Pacific Ocean to Alaska and back. And then the drama of the Little Penguins coming out of the water, marshalling themselves into parties of a dozen or so and finally summoning up the courage to march up the beach to their nesting grounds. And so much else. Victoria really is the place where the words ring true: Lord, how manifold are your works! Out in the bush, where fires have raged we’ve seen the new green life springing out of the blackened bark of the gum trees, and we’ve made first-hand acquaintance with kangaroos and wallabies and wombats. And finally, we did the other evening find possums in Curtain Square, though we gather that some of you would be glad to see the back of them from your gardens.

That fine writer Katherine Mansfield didn’t have a faith. How poignant, that one day she was sitting by a small lake up in the French Alps, writing to a friend. “It’s so beautiful here”, she said, “it makes one want to say thank-you – if there was anyone to say thank-you to.” For the psalmist, the sheer abundance and diversity of creation and life is cause for joy and praise at the wisdom of God who is the source of it all. Water and dry land, day and night, sun and moon, grass growing for cattle, bread and wine and oil for human use, water flowing in streams for wild asses to drink and provide vegetation for birds to sing among the branches, the sea abounding with creatures small and great. There’s so much to wonder at, in the way so many things are different yet they all hang together, each has a purpose within the whole “Nothing is made for itself alone, but each is made for another, so that the needs of all are fully met”, as one commentator says. Our modern scientific knowledge hasn’t really made the psalm out of date. If anything we now realise even more how much there is to wonder at on earth and in the universe as a whole. If you know Bill Bryson’s best-selling paperback, modestly titled A Short History of Nearly Everything, you’ll have got a sense of how amazing is the world revealed to us by scientific discovery – and paradoxically, as more is revealed, how much more we don’t know. Says Bill Bryson: “We are astoundingly, sumptuously, radiantly ignorant of life beneath the seas. Even the most substantial ocean creatures are remarkably little known to us – including the most mighty of them all, the great blue whale – perhaps the psalmist’s “Leviathan”- . . . [T]he most gargantuan beast the Earth has yet produced, bigger even than the most cumbrous dinosaurs. Yet the lives of blue whales are largely a mystery to us.”

And what science does know about our creation is often just baffling. For eight years till recently I lived in Geneva, Switzerland, home to many international organizations. Among them is CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Straddling the border between Switzerland and France, CERN has a huge underground circular tunnel several kilometres across, where scientists do extraordinary experiments on the behaviour of the tiniest subatomic particles hitherto discovered. One experiment a few years ago concerned what are called photons, tiny particles that are always found in pairs. When one particle is made to spin in a certain way, its partner always compensates by spinning in the opposite direction. But what scientists in Geneva also found, is that when the particles are zapped away from each other, the same thing happens even when they are 12 kilometres apart. Scaling up the size and distance, it’s as if you had a billiard ball here in Melbourne and another in Jerusalem behaving in this way. I asked a friend of ours who’s one of the top physicists at CERN how this was to be explained. He just smiled and shook his head.

The diversity-yet-togetherness of our world is indeed amazing. To faith, it’s a manifestation of what the Bible calls God’s wisdom. Wisdom for the Hebrew writers has a double meaning. On the one had it’s a feature of God, seen in the beauty, the diversity-in-togetherness of creation. On the other hand it’s what we humans need to live in the world as we should: the guide to good and right living. Wisdom isn’t knowledge of everything that could possibly be known – no one could ever be wise enough in that sense. Neither is it that somewhat cynical understanding of wisdom, as when we say of someone, “Oh, he is a ‘wise guy'”, or a “smart Alec” – someone who prides himself or herself on how to outwit others and work the system to their own selfish ends. Wisdom in the Bible combines insight into the way things are in God’s world, with practical sense on how we should behave in that world before God.

Wisdom isn’t knowing everything about the whole scheme of things. Only God knows that. Wisdom is rather knowing our place in the whole scheme, the wonderfully diverse-yet-altogether creation. True wisdom is knowing our place within creation and within the purposes of God. It’s what’s expressed in the American Shaker song: “‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free,/’Tis a gift to be just where you oughter be.” The psalmist certainly puts us in our place, in just one verse of the psalm, where in the middle of this great picture of earth and sky and living creatures, sun and rain, as we read of the moon marking the seasons, the sun knowing its time for setting, of night when all the animals of the forest come creeping out, of the rising of the sun when they withdraw to their dens and (verse 23): “people go out to their work and to their labour until the evening.” How modest a description of the human place in the great chain of being! Yet how realistic as well. Like everything else in creation we have our allotted place and time and season. We have our work to do – until the evening, the evening of each day and then of our life on earth. Then we like all other life-forms need to rest and sleep. We are not round-the-clock managers of creation; only God is that, God who keeps us, who neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121:4). “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?” even that most wise person Job is asked by God. Our place as human beings is within creation, not outside and above it like God is.

One of the greatest Christian minds of the 20th century was the Swiss theologian Karl Barth. The horrors of the First World War had brought home to many people just how naïve and superficial were the modern beliefs in human goodness and progress. It was Barth who recalled Christian thought back to the Bible’s message of the greatness and majesty of God, the “wholly other” God whose judgment lays human pride low but whose grace sets us free and raises us up. An American I know was in Barth’s seminar in Basel that day in October 1957, when the world was taken by surprise at the news of the sputnik: the Soviets had sent the first satellite into orbit round the earth. No longer science fiction – mankind was going into space! A new age of conquest and discovery! In the middle of the seminar in Basel a reporter burst in with this news and wanted to know from Professor Barth what this meant for theology, that man was now reaching to the heavens? Barth simply took another puff of his pipe, smiled, and said, “He’ll still be creature!” Still be creature – however far we travel and however much we discover, whatever marvels we may be able to achieve reproducing creation in our laboratories: we’ll still be creature, along with the other creatures.

Yes, we are special creatures. We read in Genesis chapter 1 of God giving humankind “dominion” over the fish of the sea, the birds of the air and all living creatures. But dominion doesn’t mean “domination” in the way domination is so often practised in our world, of people lording it over others and doing what they like with them and grabbing whatever they can for themselves. We are made “in God’s image”, made to reflect what God is like, made to express God’s care and love for and joy in his creation. That is our place, and to know it and act accordingly is our wisdom. We hardly need reminding these days of how we are having to pay the price for treating the earth as if it was simply ours to do what we like with, its soil, its rivers, its seas, its forests and life-forms. Maybe a long drought as here in Australia, as with shortages in other parts of the world too, is a heaven-sent lesson in the need to take more care of our environment. But in the long run a bit of hardship by itself is not going to bring about that radical change of heart that is needed. It’s not going to cure the selfishness that at the end of the day only asks, “What’s the maximum damage the environment can sustain?” Rather we need a mind and a heart that asks, “How best do we treasure this precious gift of creation and life in all their abundance and diversity?” As the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said: “The earth remains our mother, just as God remains our Father, and our mother will only lay in the Father’s arms those who remain true to her. Earth and its distress – that is the Christian’s Song of Songs.”

It’s our place to be within, and part of, creation and to love it as God loves it. It’s when we have the wrong idea of our place that everything else starts to go wrong. In our gospel reading from Mark we have heard an argument about “place.” James and John want to make advance bookings for the places of glory and honour, one on each side of Jesus when he reigns in power. Those are the places they think they deserve. But Jesus is on his way to his cross and the only guarantee he can give is that if they follow him they will drink his cup of suffering and share his baptism of death. The rest of the disciples are angry with James and John, probably because they’d got in first with their request. They’re all after power and status, they’re all hankering after domination. This prompts Jesus to say just how different, how revolutionary different, is his way compared with their way, his community compared with society as they know it, God’s kingdom in contrast to the empires of this world that are so greatly admired and so terribly feared. From Alexander the Great to Caesar Augustus, from the great emperors to the petty little officials, people lord it over others and tyrannise them, manipulate them, exploit them. “But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served not to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.” Jesus knew his place. As our reading from Hebrews says, however we understand Jesus being divine Son of God this did not excuse him all that being creature means, all that being human entails, frailty and pain and death. Even he learned obedience through what he suffered. Jesus knew his own place, and with our eyes on him we shall be kept in ours too: the place of humble gratitude for being amidst all God’s wonderful creation; the place where we serve, and are glad to serve, set free from the lust to dominate others, the domination that in fact imprisons our souls as much as it hurts others. It’s the place where in love we learn to be ready to stand with others in their place of need.

That bright little bird newly discovered in the Andes, the Yariguies Brush-Finch, was given its name for a special reason. It’s actually a tragic reason. In the 16th century came the Spanish Conquistadores to Central America. Much of what the land and people of the region suffered was terrible, as the conquerors plundered the silver and gold, and enslaved, raped and slaughtered. It was domination at its worst. The Yariguies were a tribe living in the Andes who, so the story goes, rather than submit to such conquest and terror committed mass suicide. So this little bird is gifted, or burdened, with a name to remind us of people who suffered at the hands of others; others who did not know their place, their place alongside others, their place within ‘s creation, their place under God rather than places of power and glory either side of God. Thereby it can also remind us of what’s happened similarly in North America, in Africa, in Europe especially last century, and in Australia. Thereby it can remind us of our place as followers of Jesus, to be a conscience on behalf of others.

As we approach our Lord’s Table, we hear Jesus saying, “It shall not be so among you. . .” Here is where domination is replaced by service of one another, the love of power by the power of love. Here is where the sins of domination, including those we commit ourselves, meet the forgiving love of the suffering servant. We come not pretending to be angels, but very human, very creaturely. And as very human, very creaturely, we are drawn by grace into creation as God wants it to be: abundant, living and life-giving, connecting in joy and love. Here we bring those gifts of creation lifted up by the psalmist, wine to gladden the heart and bread to strengthen the heart, gifts that stand for all that God creates and that human hands have made. Here we bring ourselves, people who stand for all those who work from morning till evening each day. By grace the gifts become Christ to us, and we become Christ to one another and to creation. Here is where we learn our wisdom, our place and purpose within God’s abundant and manifold creation. Here we exclaim with renewed understanding, and joy and praise: “O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures . . . Bless the Lord, O my soul. Praise the Lord!”Amen


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