Sermon preached May 30, 2010
Texts: Psalm 8, Proverbs 8:1-4, John 16:12-15
I enjoy Peanuts – yes, the food, but also the cartoons. The comic strips are often a rich source of theological insight, and they make me smile. Nice combination. As a for instance, there was the time Linus was sharing with Charlie Brown. My dad and I got into a theological argument last night. He was looking at my report card, and wondering why I was the only one in my class who didn’t get an “A” in spelling. I said, “Isn’t it wonderful how each of us on this earth was created just a little bit different?” That’s when we got into the theological argument.
On another occasion, Charlie Brown is talking with Linus’ sister, Lucy, in a conversation that has an echo of Psalm 8. Charlie, looking out at a starlit sky – looking at the heavens, the work of God’s fingers, the moon and the stars: You know what I think? I think there must be a tiny star out there that is my star. And as I am alone here on earth among millions of people that tiny star is out there alone among millions and millions of stars! Does that make any sense, Lucy? Do you think it means anything? Lucy: Certainly… It means you’re cracking up Charlie Brown!
Of course there is the night time self-talk of Charlie Brown we already read in our invitation to worship. Sometimes I lie awake at night, and I ask, “Does anyone remember me?” Then a voice comes to me out of the dark that says, “Sure, Frank, we remember you.”
Who are we? What is our relationship to creation, to the cosmos, to those stars that light up the night sky? Are we alone? Will anyone remember us?
These are religious and theological questions – ancient yet ever new. The writer of Psalm 8 certainly pondered such questions. Considering the grandeur of God and the awesomeness of the heavens at night, the psalmist wonders, “What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” Then the writers wonder turns from the heavens within. “Yet you have made them [me] a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.” That’s us! We are the crown of creation! (Jefferson Airplane, “Crown of Creation” – 30 seconds)
We are the crown of creation. The other texts read this morning testify, in their own way, to this same truth. Wisdom calls to us, meaning we are capable of hearing wisdom’s voice. The Spirit will come to us, Jesus says. We are capable of being people in whom the Spirit of God dwells. Human beings have remarkable and wonderful and mysterious capacities for creativity, imagination, intelligence, empathy, compassion.
Art Linkletter died this week at age 97. He was born the same year as my grandmother. Sometimes I ponder all that has happened in their life time: wide use of the telephones to cell phones, radio broadcasts bringing news of the world closer to television bringing pictures of the world into our homes, personal computers, portable music from records to CDs to Mp3s, ice boxes to refrigerators, the vast expansion of the use of automobiles. Think of the creativity, energy and imagination represented in all these inventions.
We are not only creative and inventive people, we have an enormous capacity for empathy, compassion and care – even to the point of sacrificing ourselves for others. In 1347, King Edward III of England laid siege to the French town of Calais. Philip VI of France ordered the city to hold out, but Philip was unable to end the siege. Starving, the people of Calais sought terms of surrender. Edward told the city that he would spare most of them if six top leaders would surrender to him. He wanted them to come out of the city nearly naked, with nooses around their necks carrying the keys to the city and castle. Pierre, one of the cities wealthiest men, was the first to volunteer. Five others soon followed. These men assumed that they would be executed. So impressive is this story that centuries later the French sculptor Auguste Rodin memorialized it in his work, “The Burghers of Calais” (1889). By the way, the story has a happier ending – the Queen of England prevailed upon her husband to spare the six.
Human beings are creative, imaginative, energetic. We are able to empathize, to care, to live with compassion, to sacrifice for others. The story of Calais is an archetypal story that has been repeated in our own history. Memorial Day, which we remember this weekend, is meant as a commemoration of persons who have given their lives in service to our country. We stand in deep appreciation for their sacrifice.
Human beings have remarkable and wonderful and mysterious capacities for creativity, imagination, intelligence, empathy, compassion. Yet if we are honest with ourselves, we need also to admit that we keep the voice of wisdom crying in the streets without listening to her. We resist the Spirit’s work in our lives. We use our capacities for creativity and imagination and inventiveness to do harm rather than good. We can take good ideas and turn them in destructive ways.
Individualism, individual autonomy, individual responsibility – these are all wonderful ideas and they are an important part of the character of our country. Since our beginning we have sought to be a nation where a person could make their own way, where a fresh start was always possible. These are good things. But has a good idea begun to run amok? Are we becoming, in the words of Mark Lilla, professor of humanities at Columbia University, a nation of “petulant individuals convinced that they can do anything themselves if only they are left alone”? Lilla expresses concern about an attitude he observes has grown quite pronounced in our country over the past fifty years – “a blanket distrust of institutions and an astonishing – and unwarranted – confidence in the self.” (New York Review, May 27, 2010) Human beings have a treacherous capacity to overuse a good idea until it becomes harmful. Loyalty, when it excludes constructive criticism becomes stifling. Self-sacrifice can become self-destruction. Rugged individualism can become selfish disregard for the common good and a denigration of our common life.
We can take good ideas and twist them in harmful ways. Humans also have a tendency to use their creativity to hide or minimize the potential harmfulness of their activities. In light of the massive oil spill we are contending with in the Gulf of Mexico we should be asking ourselves if we have willfully turned away from the potential harm our insatiable appetite for oil might create in the world. Did BP executives turn away from the potential harm that might be caused by skimping on maintenance in order to sweeten the short-term bottom line?
The oil spilling into the Gulf and the circumstances surrounding it are also evidence of another human failing, use of our creativity and intelligence to put blame someplace else. It remains to be seen how BP will finally respond to this spill. Some indications are that they will, indeed, accept full responsibility, but the signals have been mixed. Initially blame was being cast elsewhere, on contractors and the like. We use our creativity and intelligence to evade responsibility sometime.
Most detrimental of all is the human capacity to use its incredible talents in the creation of outright evil. The most glaring example of this is the Holocaust. Human creativity and ingenuity were harnessed for no other purpose than the destruction of human life. “Mass murder carried out through state-of-the-art industrial methods was a unique innovation of the Nazi regime” Gideon Greif, The Holocaust Encyclopedia, 227).
What are human beings that you, O God, are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Human beings have remarkable and wonderful and mysterious capacities for creativity, imagination, intelligence, empathy, compassion. Human beings can use some of these same gifts of creativity, imagination and intelligence for destruction, harm, devastation. We can be intentionally obtuse and actively evil. We can turn from the voice of wisdom and the movement of the Spirit.
I think we need Christian faith to remind us of both our best and our worst. If we see only our worst, we become discouraged and defensive and cynical. If we see only our best, we may be blind to the places where we might fall. We need to listen to the voice of wisdom and the truth of the Spirit. When we do, we know that we matter. The voice that calls in the night does not forget our name. When we listen to wisdom and the Spirit, we know that we are the crown of creation. In all creation only humans have the deep self-reflective capacity to consider who we are and what we are doing. When we listen to wisdom and the voice of the Spirit, we also know that as the crown of creation, we can wreck havoc on each other and on creation, and we need to be mindful and watchful. We need Christian faith to be reminded of who we are, and to be encouraged to choose Spirit, to choose wisdom, to choose compassion, to choose goodness, to choose kindness, to choose justice, to choose peace, to choose love.
Wislawa Szymborska is an Eastern European poet, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize in literature. In one of her poems she captures beautifully the wonder, mystery, beauty, and complexity of being human. I think I shared this not long ago, but I think it is worth repeating – “In Praise of Self-Deprecation” or “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself.”
The buzzard has nothing to fault himself with.
Scruples are alien to the black panther.
Piranhas do not doubt the rightness of their actions.
The rattlesnake approves of himself without reservations.
The self-critical jackal does not exist.
The locust, alligator, trichina, horsefly
live as they live and are glad of it.
The killer-whale’s heart weighs one hundred kilos
but in other respects it is light.
There is nothing more animal-like
than a clear conscience
on the third planet of the sun.
What are human beings that you, O God, are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? Human beings have remarkable and wonderful and mysterious capacities for creativity, imagination, intelligence, empathy, compassion. Human beings can use some of these same gifts of creativity, imagination and intelligence for destruction, harm, devastation. We can be intentionally obtuse and actively evil. We can turn from the voice of wisdom and the movement of the Spirit. But in all, we can know ourselves at our best and at our worst – we are the crown of creation in that, and we are invited to choose life, to choose wisdom, to choose Spirit, to choose justice, to choose compassion, to choose love. Amen.
Jefferson Airplane, "Crown of Creation"
The Burghers of Calais