Monday, June 13, 2016

Who Am I?

Who Am I?
Psalm 8[1]
The question of the meaning of human life is one that has been raised in various ways throughout history. On Christmas eve, 1968, it was brought to the forefront by the famous picture of the “earthrise” over the moon taken by the astronauts of Apollo 8.[2] For the first time the human family saw the earth from a vantage point other than our own. That image created a whole new approach to the meaning of human life, because it showed how small a planet we live on in comparison with the vastness of space. The question, “Who am I?” took on a different implication for many who saw this as evidence of our insignificance.
Now images of the earth taken from space are commonplace. And the Hubble telescope has brought us even more images of the vastness of the universe. But since this was the first time human beings had seen the earth as a small planet in the vast ocean of space, it made a huge impact. And yet, as striking as that image was, it wasn’t the first time that individuals had noticed that our human existence can seem rather unimportant in the scheme of things. When you look at the sweep of human history—empires and nations rising and falling over the centuries—or when you simply take the time to look up at the night sky, it can easily provoke us to ask, “Who am I?”
In fact, the psalmist who wrote our lesson for today reflects on that very question. Like anyone else, the psalmist apparently was moved by the vastness of the night sky to wonder about our place in all of that.[3] He asks, “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?” (Ps. 8:3-4). It’s a common experience to feel a sense of awe when you see the beauty of a clear night that seems so full of stars. And it’s common to wonder at our place in the universe when we feel that sense of awe.
But there are several ways in which the question “Who am I?” is framed in a unique manner by the Scripture lesson. First, the wonder at our place in a universe that can seem overwhelmingly immense is framed by an affirmation that it is our God who rules over all of it.[4] At the beginning and the end of his reflections, the psalmist affirms, “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” (Ps. 8:1, 9). The question begins and ends with the affirmation that God is the one who reigns over all creation. While God’s great majesty may lead us to wonder at our place in things, at the same time, because we are God’s creatures, our lives are by definition endowed with significance.
The second way in which the psalmist frames the question “Who am I?” is by placing it in the context of God’s care for all people. Notice that the psalmist doesn’t simply ask “What are human beings?” Rather, he asks, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them” (Ps. 8:4).[5] Literally, the psalmist wonders why God “remembers” and “visits” mortals. The acts of “remembering” and “visiting” sum up God’s works on behalf of his people Israel throughout the Hebrew Bible. God continually made them the object of his attention and care. But the psalmist extends that care to include all humankind. Again, the thought that God pays attention to and cares for every human being is one that we may might find so amazing that it’s hard to believe. But the psalmist insists it’s a vital part of the answer to the question, “Who am I?”
The third way in which the Psalmist frames this question is by affirming the dignity of all human beings as partners in caring for God’s treasured creation.[6] He says it this way, “You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet” (Ps. 8:6).[7] It seems clear that the psalmist is reflecting here on the description of humanity as a part of God’s creation in Genesis chapter one. Unfortunately, however, the ideas of “ruling” (Gen. 1:26) or having “dominion” (Ps. 8:6) over creation have been misconstrued.[8] The idea is not that this world and all that is in it is ours to do with as we please. The idea is that we are called to be partners with God in the ongoing project of creation. We mortals have been entrusted with that which is most dear to God’s heart!
There are many ways we could approach the question “Who am I?” We could approach it functionally, based on what we do. We could approach it philosophically, or from the perspective of psychology. And those approaches have important lessons to teach us. But from the perspective of the psalmist, one cannot fully answer the question of the meaning of our lives apart from the God who created us and who reigns over all things.[9] Photos like the “earthrise” can make us think that we are alone in a vast and empty universe. But the Psalmist begs to differ. We are not left here on our own, but rather we are the objects of God’s continual attention and care.
We are not mortals who live out our short lives with no significance, but rather we are partners in God’s ongoing project of creation. That has a lot to say about who God is: not a God who is distant and absent, but a Creator who takes great delight in every aspect of creation. We see that in Jesus our Savior, and in the work of the Spirit. But it also has a lot to say about who we are: we are an important part of God’s project. All 7 billion of us are beloved and cared for by the God who is beyond the vast universe. However we answer the question “Who am I?” we cannot leave that out of the equation. God loves us all, and that's a very important part of answering the question, "Who am I?"

[1] ©2016 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 5/22/2016 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] See the photo on NASA’s web site: . The caption reads: “Apollo 8, the first manned mission to the moon, entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, Dec. 24, 1968. That evening, the astronauts-Commander Frank Borman, Command Module Pilot Jim Lovell, and Lunar Module Pilot William Anders-held a live broadcast from lunar orbit, in which they showed pictures of the Earth and moon as seen from their spacecraft. Said Lovell, ‘The vast loneliness is awe-inspiring and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.’”
[3] Cf. James L. Mays, Psalms, 66, where he says that Psalm 8 “reports the wondering reflection that arises when a mortal looks at the heavenly bodies as a result of the Lord’s creation and control” and it “marvels at the attention and importance that God gives to the human being in such a universe.”
[4] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 34: “Because ‘the Lord reigns,’ human beings may and must praise in wonder and joy, pray in dependence and gratitude, and practice the piety of trust and obedience.” Cf. also J. Clinton McCann, Jr, “The Book Of Psalms” New Interpreters Bible IV:711: “the proclamation of God’s reign frames the psalm.”
[5] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 67-68: “The Psalm does not frame the question absolutely and ask, ‘What is man?’ The question is qualified: ‘What is the human being that you, Lord, remember and visit them?’ ‘Remember’ and ‘visit’ are biblical verbs used to speak of the divine response to human finitude and fallibility, the necessary attention God pays to mortals.” He continues, (ibid., 68): ““The psalmist knows about that mortal existence as an Israelite, a member of the covenant people. But his question is not about Israel alone; it is about the entire race. He believes and assumes that God remembers and visits every human, that Israel’s experience with God is the truth about God’s way with all.”
[6] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 69: “The administration of the Lord’s reign in the world extends beyond a messianic king and covenant people to include humanity as a whole. Everybody is involved in the kingdom of God.” Cf. McCann, “The Book Of Psalms” NIB IV:712: “God and humans are partners in the care of creation, because God has made the risky choice to share God’s power!”
[7] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 69, “In the psalm’s world of thought, kingship had an ideal and normative dimension. Dominion involved a pattern of responsibility. Glory belonged to the ruler, but the ruling was to be for the benefit of the ruled….” From that perspective, he interprets the “dominion” given to humankind by saying, “Human beings are to use their power over creatures in a way that serves the purposes and practices of their own sovereign.”
[8] Cf. Mays, Psalms, 70, where he says that in our world “Dominion has become domination; rule has become ruin; subordination in the divine purpose has become subjection to human sinfulness.” Cf. McCann, “The Book Of Psalms” NIB IV: “Apart from the limits of God’s sovereign will, the exercise of dominion is in danger of becoming simply human autonomy, or self-rule. … In other words, dominion without the recognition of God’s claim on us and on the earth becomes domination. To leave God out of the partnership invites disaster.”
[9] Cf. McCann, “The Book Of Psalms” NIB IV:711, where he says that “the character of God’s sovereignty cannot be understood apart from the knowledge that God does choose to be ‘mindful’ and to ‘care for’ humanity; the identity of humanity cannot be understood apart from this relationship with God.”

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