Crowned With Glory and Honor
On Friday morning, as I was procrastinating about writing this sermon, a funny coincidence happened (or maybe a nudge from God to just start writing!) The Arts section of the New York Times was on the top of the newspaper pile on the kitchen table and its lead article was a review of a new movie based on… the Book of Job! The main character’s name isn’t Job; it’s Larry, Larry Gopnik, and he’s living in Minnesota in 1967, teaching physics, when his life falls completely apart, even though he’s a totally great guy about whom not a negative word could be said. The movie is called, “A Serious Guy,” and it is by the Coen brothers. I wonder if Larry, like his biblical counterpart, will reject the idea that being a good person is any kind of protection from the awful things of life. This is a serious challenge to the whole idea of the prosperity gospel, to name one contemporary theological movement. Job, and maybe Larry, will have nothing to do with the idea that God blesses good and faithful people with all the material and relational goodies that make most people happy, while God curses bad people with losses and heartbreaks of every kind. If this were the case, wouldn’t humankind get its act together very quickly so we could start enjoying the yachts, the blissful marriages to gorgeous people, and the multiple multi-million dollar homes we all are supposed to want? I don’t know about the Coen brothers’ movie, but the Book of Job isn’t about suffering, it’s about faith, and the persistence of faith in the midst of the struggles that come to every human life.
The scholars who have assembled the lectionary, the schedule of biblical readings for the church year, for today have placed the beginning of Job’s story alongside lovely Psalm 8. I wonder what these texts have – together – to say to us about the human being – what they have to say to us about us, about who we are. Some have read the beginning of Job and decided that humanity must mean very little to God – just look at God’s nonchalant handing over of Job’s welfare to Satan. “You can do anything to him but kill him.” Great! We as individuals aren’t the beloved of God; we’re pawns, fodder for proving some holy point or another. God blithely hands our welfare over to the devil. I happen not to be in this camp. I remind myself that Satan is not the devil in this text, but the adversary, or as one biblical scholar puts it, God’s prosecuting attorney. Mark Twain once wrote, “But who prays for Satan? Who, in eighteen centuries, has had the common humanity to pray for the one sinner who needed it most?” With all due respect to old Sam Clemens, Satan is not in the role of sinner here, but the one who tests God for accuracy. Satan is testing God’s assertion that Job is blameless and upright. Job has faith in God, but God has faith in Job, and Job proves himself worthy of it. It is not the case that God cares nothing for Job’s welfare; rather, God cares for him infinitely.
So who are we, humanity? In Genesis, we read that God makes everything in the universe and, category by category, calls it good. Then God makes human beings and calls us very good. Perhaps God considers us the best thing in all creation. Creation and the universe were the obsession of our own Albert Einstein, in both scientific and spiritual ways. He was not exactly traditional in his religious perspectives, but he was so claimed by wonder over all that is known and not yet known. He looked up at a dark night sky choking with stars and asked what amazing force could have put each one in their magnificent place. And he thought about humanity in relationship to those stars – who are we, with all the complexity of our thoughts and feelings, our nuances of mind, our capacity to love – who are we , who stand on this huge ball of dirt and rock we call Earth? There are now billions of us, from so many cultures and religions, and each of us from time to time stands near our house or hut and looks up into the night sky and says, “WOW!” Who are we in comparison to all that? Much more humble, but no less special. Einstein once said, “There are only two ways to live… one is as though nothing is a miracle… the other is as if everything is.” Einstein understood the wonder of just living, of being alive, of being “very good” in a universe that God has made and declared lovely. The whole created order is miracle, and so are we in it, simple humanity, royally messing up every day and yet – we aremiracle – living and loving, seeing the handiwork of the Creator in the tomato in the garden, in Venus shining in the night sky, in the humble face of our neighbor. Everything is miracle, especially those sitting next to us today, or on the train, or peering from the pages of our newspapers – humanity, everywhere.
The Psalmist has done it, too – has looked up into the night sky and felt a wonder so tremendous he had to tell God, “You are amazing!” He writes, “I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established.” Imagine God fashioning a billion little stars (little from Earth’s vantage point) at the end of fingertips, then placing each one in exactly the right place in the cosmos. How could the creator of a billion stars and of Earth’s massive sphere take any notice of us humans, scrambling across Earth’s surface, exhilarated one moment and hurting the next, invested in (even obsessed with) our petty gains and losses, our disappointments, our self-involved boredom. Yet, says the Psalmist, God has made us a little lower than God’s own self, or as some translations say, than the angels, and has crowned us with glory and honor. What would all our human societies look like, I wonder, if we viewed every person as crowned with glory and honor by none other than God Almighty? How about the people who live in the steaming garbage dumps of Manila and Guatemala City, and who forage through the trash for the most basic of subsistence livings? God has made them only a little lower than the angels. What have we made of them that they have no alternative to such a life?
The Psalmist identifies our position as little less than divine, in our having been given dominion over creation. Creation is an ongoing work, and project, and gift of God, and we humans are given some authority in it. Critics of environmental degradation have noted for decades that biblical approval for human dominion has created a theological license amongst Christians particularly to trash the planet. I think this is awfully simplistic, while I also lament environmental degradation and its tremendous threats, which must never have been the hope of our creator God. I appreciate the definition of dominion that is provided by Psalm 72. There we read that “dominion” means to “defend the cause of the poor” (v. 4), and to bring “abundance” (v. 16), “righteousness” (v. 7) and “peace” (v. 7) to all. Now that is God-like dominion, the faithful work of all of us, only a little lower than the angels.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet made his way into last week’s sermon, and I find myself thinking of him again now. “What a piece of work is a man,” he says in a play within the play to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, “how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving, how express and admirable in action, how like an angel in apprehension, how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals…” In fact, the animal with dominion over the others! Humanity does not please Hamlet – neither mankind nor womankind – because of his sadness, and yet, even when he wonders if he should go on living, he does not lose his wonder at the miracle of being human.
The 13th–14th century mystic Meister Eckhart wrote, “The seed of God is in us. Given an intelligent and hard-working farmer, it will thrive and grow up to God, whose seed it is; and accordingly its fruits will be God-nature. Pear seeds grow into pear trees, nut seeds into nut trees, and God-seed into God.” We humans, then, have the very aspect of the divine within us. If we nurture that, we may grow more into the very form of God. The Bible tells us that we are made in the image of God – we are imago dei. What is it about us that is in the divine image? Is it our noses? Is it the hands with which we fashion many things, although not stars? Or is it our capacity to reason, and to love, even to love unto death? Is it our compassion or mercy, all so very imperfectly manifested in our day-to-day lives? Is it our capacity to look at the starry sky and wonder? To look at it and understand that there is so much we don’t understand? Is it our ability, unlike any other conscious animal in creation, to be in relationship with God? We know that God is. When unspeakable loss happens to us, as it did to Job, we, like him, may persevere in the relationship, expend ourselves in trying to understand, and hold on until some knowledge or reckoning comes. We persevere in our relationship with God, we who see miracles everywhere, we who have faith in God, and who believe that God has faith in us.
Fred Gaiser, “Psalm 8” www.workingpreacher.org, Oct. 4, 2009.
Karl Jacobson, “Job 1:1. 2:1-10” www.workingpreacher.org, Oct. 4, 2009.