Sermon: What are human beings that you are mindful of them?
Preached on 10th October 2010
by The Reverend Canon Rosalind Brown
The choristers may have noticed that you sang a verse in Psalm 144 this morning which appears in another Psalm – Psalm 8. The psalmist asks a question, ‘Lord, what is man, that thou hast such respect until him, or the son of man, that thou so regardest him?’ or, in the translation in Psalm 8, ‘what is man that thou are mindful of him, and the son of man that thou visitest him?’ The very observant among you may have noticed that the answer given is different in the two psalms. In Psalm 8 the psalmist has begun by wondering at the cosmic works of God – the heavens and all the works of God’s fingers – a wonderful bit of imagery that echoes Genesis 2 where God gets his hands into the soil to make creation of animal and plant life happen. And in that context the answer to the question ‘what is man that you are mindful of him?’ which we could paraphrase as ‘why do you bother with humans?’ is that humans are little lower than the angels and crowned with glory and honour. Humans are immensely valuable to God. But in Psalm 144 where the same question is asked in the context of what God has done for humans – the psalmist begins by blessing God for helping him to train for battle and helping him to defeat my enemies – then the answer is that humans are really ‘a thing of nought’ and that our time passes away like a shadow. In other words, the psalmist seems less sure why God should take note of humans and goes on to pray that God will show his cosmic power ‘bow the heavens and come down, cast forth thy lightening’. Then, recognising his fragility, he prays for God to save him from people who speak lies and can’t be trusted.
Are these two answers to the same question, ‘what is man?’ ‘what are human beings?’– that we are the pinnacle of creation and not much at all – both possible?
First we should note that for both psalmists the answer to what we humans are is couched very firmly in terms of God’s cosmic power to create and control the heavens: we are both little lower than the angels and a thing of nought or, as another translation puts it, we are like a breath, our days like a passing shadow. Biblically, humans are both the peak of God’s good creation – we are created in God’s image and it was as a human that God was born in our world – but also finite and ephemeral, like dust. At funerals we hear those powerful works, ‘earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ but always in the context of what follows immediately: the affirmation of our sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ. This human being, made of dust and ashes, is so precious in God’s sight that we have a sure and certain hope of resurrection to life in God’s presence. And, as we know from our own experiences, we are capable of great holiness and great sinfulness. To know ourselves truly, we have to know and acknowledge ourselves in all these ways.
I was struck, when reading the two bible passages set for today, by the contrast between them. In Nehemiah, we have the story – albeit told from a biased perspective – of the cunning and deliberate attempts by people who opposed what Nehemiah was doing in rebuilding the walls of Jerusalem to undermine his work, indeed perhaps to ambush him and kill him. I have to admit that, even given the malice of the opposition, I struggle at times as we read through Ezra and Nehemiah with some of their supreme confidence that what they are doing is so right that anyone who opposes them is wrong. Their writings are in the same mould as the book of Joshua which told the story of the conquest of the Promised Land centuries earlier with the same bravado about the rightness of campaign and thus the justification for wiping out entire settlements. In fact, in that instance archaeologists now suggest that the conquest was not so absolute and that the newcomers – the people of Israel, co-existed with the exiting occupants far more than the book of Joshua allows. And a separate strand in the bible is that of the prophetic voices who railed against the people of God for their callousness towards the poor and needy, the orphans and widows, the aliens and refugees in their midst. We have to hold that strand of responsibilities in creative tension with the mentality of overweening confidence in our rights.
Lest we think that that was then, and it’s different now, we have only to recall the dreadful history of the crusades in the early middle ages, the Nazi expansion in Europe, or listen to the news today to realise that human nature doesn’t change. For example, in the same territory with which the books of Joshua and Nehemiah are concerned, we see that same attitude of mutual wilful destruction of other people’s property rearing its head again today in the disputes over the West Bank settlements. I’m not saying that conflict over land is straightforward or easily resolved but it does bring out the worst in us and, if we ask ourselves what it is to be human, today’s reading face us with our ability as humans to plan violence against one another and to justify our actions in our own sight.
In that context of our ability to be over-confident in the rightness of our actions, there is a fascinating line right at the end of the Nehemiah reading which has some bearing on the psalminst’s question of what it is to know ourselves as human. Despite the opposition, Nehemiah has finished rebuilding the wall which had been destroyed years earlier when a conquering army razed Jerusalem to the ground. We have to acknowledge it was a phenomenal achievement by Nehemiah. When it is done he says, ‘when our enemies heard of it, all the nations around us were afraid and fell greatly in their own esteem; for they perceived that this work had been accomplished with the help of our God.’ ‘They fell greatly in their own esteem’ – their perception of what it is to be human took a battering, they were literally dis-illusioned. There are echoes here of Jesus’ parable about the guest who is invited to a feast and seats himself at a high table, only to be embarrassed in front of everyone when the host comes along with a more senior guest and asks the man to move to a more lowly seat. If we think too highly of ourselves we will be in for a sober shock sooner or later. So we need to heed the psalmist when he exclaims ‘O Lord, what are human beings that you regard them, or mortals that you think of them? They are like a breath; their days are like a passing shadow.’
But that doesn’t mean we have to go to the other extreme and go round beating our breasts and proclaiming ourselves ‘ever so umble’ like Uriah Heep. It is no excuse for being a doormat for others to walk over. That is as much a denial of our humanity as having an over-inflated opinion of ourselves. After all, Jesus taught us to love our neighbour as we love ourselves, which means that we do need to love ourselves because we are made in the image of God and thus worthy of being loved. So we must have a right opinion of ourselves, not substituting one false idea for another.
And that’s where the contrast between the Nehemiah reading and the extract from Jesus’ words to his disciples which we heard from John’s gospel is so noticeable.
Jesus is speaking to his disciples just before his betrayal, arrest and death. John presents this long discourse as his last words to his friends, probably drawing together words Jesus had spoken on several occasions. Like Nehemiah, Jesus is facing the malice of his opponents in their determination to silence him. His disciples are naturally confused and afraid – we can hear it in their questions and comments which punctuate the discourse and also in the reassurances that Jesus tries to give them. He calls them friends, he commands them to love one another, to go and bear fruit – he has just been using the imagery of the vine bearing fruit – and promises to send the Holy Spirit, whom he calls the Advocate, the Helper, to them. What does it mean to Jesus to be human? It is to be loved by God, to have the potential to love God, to enjoy human friendship and be able to be the friends of God incarnate, to have insight into what God is doing in the world. What is it to the psalmist to be human? ‘You have made us a little lower than God and crowned us with glory and honour. You have given us dominion over the works of your hands. O Lord, our sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!’
We cannot take one truth without the other. We are dust and crowned with glory and honour; we are capable of unspeakable action and bitter malice against one another and we are capable of friendship with God, to the extent that God incarnate, Jesus Christ, sought out the friendship of those fallible disciples who could get it all so gloriously right and so horribly wrong. So when we fail to live up to our own estimate of ourselves, when we make a mistake and blame ourselves for it to the extent of losing confidence in ourselves or worrying ourselves awake all night at our failure, when others criticise us and we take it so personally that we are paralysed, it is time to remember that we may need to fall a little in our own esteem but that does not mean we are worthless in God’s sight. So we may need to remind ourselves of the psalmist’s wondering and astounded assertion, ‘What are humans? You have made them little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honour, you have given them dominion over the works of your hands.’
Shakespeare puts it wonderfully into Hamlet’s mouth,
‘What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! 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. And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?’
Or, as Jesus put it to his disciples who had tried their best, had had their glorious moments but also their times of utter failure, and were to have more of both before the story was ended, ‘You are my friends if you do what I command you. You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last.’
What are humans? We are fallible friends of God called to bear fruit in the world. What a vocation.
Nehemiah 6:1-16, John 15:12-end, Psalm 144