Higher Than Ants
Psalm 8 (NRSV)
1 O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.
2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.
3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established;
4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?
5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,
7 all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, 8 the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
9 O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
Every year around Valentine’s Day, I hear ads on the radio for a company that will sell you a star so you can name it after your beloved. Have you ever heard any of those ads? I went to one of their websites this week and found out that the starting price for a star naming kit is something like 50 bucks.
Alas, I am sorry to report that like many other beautiful things in life, you cannot buy a star for love or money. The tracking and cataloging of stars is controlled by the International Astronomical Union, the recognized authority in the scientific community for naming things like stars and celestial bodies. And the International Astronomical Union stopped naming stars back in 1922. Today, stars are not named, but catalogued by number according to their positions in the sky. Even a little piece of the night sky cannot named or sold. At least not yet.
One of the other things we cannot buy is the kind of night sky that the writer of Psalm 8 saw when he looked up. The starry sky described in Psalm 8 is available only to people in rural parts of Africa and Asia – people who do not have much in material things and infrastructure but have a much better view of the night sky than you and I have from our perch in America. I know some of you have seen extraordinary night skies in places like Malawi, but the rest of us have to get out of populated areas or squint through a telescope to see even a tiny percentage of the stars in the sky.
I remember spending New Year’s Eve on the beach a couple years ago and I can still recall my heart-pounding awe as we sat on the sand, listening to the roar of the sea in the darkness, and looking up at the night sky just crammed with stars. Even that sky was nothing compared to the heavenly display people in the undeveloped world see every single night. We may have comfortable well-lit homes and perfectly paved, well-lit roads in our part of the world, but I think we have lost some of our connection to the wonder of God’s creation.
People even in the most remote corner of our planet only receive a tiny glimpse of the existing universe. Thanks to images provided by the Hubble Space Telescope, scientists estimate that there are at least 176 billion galaxies in the universe. And each one of those galaxies contains 200-400 billion stars. So that’s at least 176 billion galaxies times 200 billion stars. I’m not doing that math because the number of galaxies, the number of stars – and these are only the ones we’ve been able to see so far – is beyond awesome. Billions and billions of stars. Why so many stars and galaxies? Why couldn’t God stop at a million? Two million? One billion even? Why this extravagance? It boggles the mind.
So we might indeed share a little of the awe and wonder of the psalmist as he stares up into a night sky and feels his smallness underneath the weight of God’s abundant creativity. This ancient poet, even without the benefit of a telescope and certainly without the knowledge that there are a trillion or more stars up in the sky, can look up and be reminded that one human being is pretty small potatoes compared to the vastness of the universe:
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?
I heard a speaker in Nashville last week echo the question of this psalm: “What are human beings?” She said, “For the first time in human history, we do not have a real definition of what it is to be a human being.”For many centuries, humanity distinguished itself as different from the rest of creation by virtue of our ability to think. But in the 20th century, biological science established that there are other animals who can also think – animals can remember, anticipate, mourn, learn, problem-solve and even use complex language. And as we begin to understand more and more about the human brain, we realize how much of our understanding of who we are is controlled not by consciousness but by chemistry; our sense of self resides in whatever chemical wash bathes our neurons and brain synapses.
I know this all sounds like pretty academic stuff, right? Billions of stars. Billions of brain synapses. Why waste our time pondering why there are so many stars beyond our view, or what it is that makes humans a little lower than angels but a little higher than a dolphin or a chimpanzee?
But I think that the poet who wrote Psalm 8 is engaging in exactly that kind of cosmic questioning. He looks up at a night sky and he is absolutely blown away by the idea that there is so much he will never know beyond the simple truth that God is majestic and glorious.
And in many ways, we do not know much more than the writer of this psalm. Even with all our scientific knowledge, we cannot add much to this meditation on the inexplicable wonder of a creation that goes infinitely on and on and on. We cannot explain what makes us uniquely human any better than we can explain God’s lavish creativity that continues, at this very moment, to empower the multiplication of stars and galaxies beyond our comprehension and even our imagination.
Today is Trinity Sunday, the only feast day in the Christian calendar that does not celebrate a biblical event or person, but rather a “doctrine.” And doctrine is one of those unfortunate words that sound kind of cold and distant and unapproachable. Which can make doctrine not only a tricky thing to preach, but also a real stumbling block for anyone who is doing their best to understand how it is that God can be one in three persons, blessed Trinity.
But I think that the Doctrine of the Trinity is a terrific example of how poets and philosophers and theologians approach unapproachable mysteries like the vastness of the universe or the intricacies of a human soul. Science and philosophy and theology can only take us so far until we find ourselves gaping in wonder at what we cannot know.
And that is what happened in the early church when they hit a theological wall in thinking through the biblical words – God, Father, Son, Holy Spirit. The doctrine of the Trinity came about because the early church needed, desperately, to stop fighting with each other about Jesus, and begin to understand how God revealed God through Jesus. What came out of those negotiations was a humanly imperfect but faithful description of how God can be experienced by human beings in relationship with God and with one another, through the power of the Holy Spirit and the reality of the resurrected Christ. It was, simply put, the best that the early church could do.
And it didn’t help matters much that Jesus himself didn’t give a whole lot of thought to the problem of the triune God. At no point in the gospels did Jesus stop to explain the intricate dance between Father, Son and Spirit. It would have been easier if Jesus had done that, but instead, Jesus said, as we heard in the gospel reading this morning: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now” (Jn 16:12).
So what was it that Jesus followers weren’t ready to hear? What is God holding back from us? Why can’t we hear the rest of the story?
Barbara Brown Taylor used a phrase in a recent lecture – “We need to allow God a certain amount of privacy.” Which is a very good way of saying that God is more transcendent and more mysterious than we can possibly imagine or our doctrines can possibly contain. But even as we dwell in the mystery of God’s sheer otherness, we cannot toss out our doctrines, as imperfect as they are, because they invite us into God’s creative, transforming work. The Trinity affirms that God is, indeed, mindful of human beings. The triune God cares for us, and longs to be intimately involved in the life of all humans who are made a little lower than God out of not much more than star dust. And as if the sheer gift of life isn’t quite enough to fill you and me and the whole family of humanity with unending awe and gratitude, we and all of our fellow mud creatures are crowned with glory and honor.
We don’t know everything and we never will. And together with our never-ending curiosity about what everything means, we have an equally strong impulse to keep God at a distance. We do want to allow God some privacy, maybe because we hope God will give us exactly the same thing. Maybe we want to give God some space, because we really cannot bear to hear the whole truth about God. Or the whole truth about ourselves.
Maybe the ancient Hebrews really were onto something. You can discern this tension between the eminence and intimacy of God throughout the Hebrew scriptures. Listen to what ancient person had to say about being in the eye line of YHWH:
“What are human beings, that you make so much of them, that you set your mind on them, visit them every morning, test them every moment? Will you not look away from me for a while, let me alone until I swallow my spittle? If I sin, what do I do to you, you watcher of humanity? Why have you made me your target? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity? For now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be” (Job 17:17-21).
Job had grown weary of God’s obsessive attention for humanity and wanted nothing more than escape from God’s steady, ceaseless gaze. And who could blame him? The ancients knew full well the otherness of God because they remembered what happened when Moses encounters the Divine Spark burning in the desert wilderness. Moses said: “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
God replies: “I am who I am. …Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I am has sent me to you.’”…‘The Lord,the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.
“I am who I am.” That is who God says God is. “Ehyeh aser ehyeh” in the Hebrew. Which literally means: “I will be what I will be.” “I am who I am.”
When we have lost our ability to be in awe of “I am who I am,” we have Psalm 8 to remind us that the creator of billions of stars and billions of people is still coming close to us, while still remaining the wholly other and holy one of Israel. Our doctrinal habit of nailing down the “whys” and the “hows” and the “whats” of the divine will never come close to disclosing the fullness of God. So while we do not discard the doctrines, neither do we allow them to hold our imaginations hostage.
I thought about all of this last week as Tom and I spent a sunny hour or so hanging out on George Jackson’s back porch. We were delighted to find him enjoying a tall glass of iced coffee and gazing out at his garden that used to be the domain of his wife, Ollie.
Now, I do not know very much about gardening. Ok, that’s not really true. I know nothing about gardening. But I inherited a very nice garden when we bought our house and there are two flowers in my front yard that have absolutely thrived despite my benign neglect. The lilies of the valley are still going great guns. And the other flower that is doing really, really well are the peonies. They are crazy beautiful and I love them because I do not have to do a thing for them. They just grow.
George also has peonies in his garden. And as we were chatting, I observed that they seemed just on the verge of blooming and he said, yes that is true. The ants are doing a really good job and the flowers should be appearing any day now.
Ants?? I was intrigued and looked a little more closely at the peony buds. Yes, there did appear to be a quite a few big fat black ants having a lovely time on the still-closed buds. George told me that there is sweet nectar on the flower buds that the ants are crazy about. Once the ants have done their thing in eating all that good stuff, the peonies open up and bloom.
I was absolutely delighted by this information. Because I am an ignoramus about flowers, I had no idea that peonies depended upon the hearty appetite of ants in order to burst open in the late spring. Ask Tom – I was giddy about this simple yet profound interaction between ant and flower. I even took pictures.
When I got back to my office, I committed the fatal human error of not leaving mystery alone. I sat down to my computer and typed into the Google: “Peonies and ants.”
You can guess the rest. Turns out that George and I were both deceived by a common old wives tale. While it’s true that there is a substance on peony buds that attracts ants, the peonies will bloom whether the ants show up or not. So while the ants are fed by the peonies, the peonies do not need the ants in order to bloom and, in fact, if you’re not careful when you bring cut peonies into your house, you can probably count on an indoor ant infestation.
I didn’t want to know that truth. I was happier when I was in George’s backyard, in awe of the interdependence between ant and flower, and marveling at God’s creative hand in putting bug and bud together. I could not bear the cold, hard fact.
We may have dominion over the works of God’s hands on earth, but we do not have control of God or how God will choose to reveal God’s self. We cannot buy a star or fathom the universe or even really understand the mystery of the triune God. But Jesus said the Spirit of truth will come, in its own time, in its own way, and in a billion different ways, and declare to us what it means to be human– a little lower than angels, a little higher than an ant, and wrapped in the mystery and jaw-dropping awe of God’s care and mindfulness. And in this season of Pentecost, in this small moment, that’s all I need to know.
Thanks be to God. Amen.