Psalm 8: O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.
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?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!
One day last week, I let our family’s chickens out of their coop to wander around the yard. Later in the day, I discovered a teeny-tiny chipmunk running around inside their coop. Even though the door was wide open, this youngster was running in every other direction trying to find its way out. Not wanting to put my chickens back into a confined area with this little baby for fear they would peck it to death, I tried to encourage the chipmunk to leave. It ran up into the upper level of the coop, first snuggling behind the warming light, then hiding under the wooden sides where it could cling to the wire mesh without being seen. I grabbed a stick, and got it out from behind the light bulb and back at least to ground level where there was enormous space for it to escape. But it still ran around inside the coop, clearly terrified of the new space it had wandered into.
I gave up – I figured it was as afraid of me as much as anything. I went to the grocery store, but when I got home, the poor little creature was still there. I talked to it – alternately comforting, cajoling, and admittedly yelling at it for its stupidity – and continued to use the stick to try to sweep it out the door. Finally, after I can’t imagine how much collective time it had been, the baby chipmunk raced out of the coop. I was so relieved.
Then a hawk appeared in the sky above. As this cute little creature fled into the underbrush, I realized it would in all likelihood soon be devoured, despite all my efforts. It would meet its demise one way or another.
Because that’s how creation works. Bad things happen to cute animals.
During this lovely season of spring, there’s new birth all around us – species are procreating everywhere! About a year ago, The Boston Globe featured an article about how the exploding deer population in Eastern Massachusetts had reached “a concerning density,” according to MassWildlife, which is responsible for the conservation of wildlife in the Commonwealth. MassWildlife then campaigned to increase the number of hunters, the number of female deer they could take, and, in particular, their access to land to hunt.
But encouraging humans to go out and hunt deer can be controversial. In situations like this, animal rights groups protest, saying that if a herd is too large, animals will naturally reproduce less. Some also suggest sterilization, a feeding ban or a relocation of the animals.
Emotions run high whenever someone implies that animals have to die.
And while a worship service is neither the time nor the place to recommend a certain policy for controlling animal overpopulation, this issue does raise the question of how we humans relate to nature. We need to look at what it means to have dominion over animals, to be good stewards of creation, and to live responsibly in the midst of a world that’s wild and free.
Psalm 8 is a good place to start. This hymn of praise isn’t only a proclamation of the power of God, but also an affirmation of the dignified status of human beings. “O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” it begins, celebrating God’s magnificent work as the Creator of heaven and earth. “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?”
This psalm reminds us that the Creator of an infinite universe has chosen to be “mindful” of us and to care for us. This perspective also sets an example for how we’re supposed to treat the planet entrusted to our care. When the psalmist says to God, “You have given [people] dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,” the writer clearly isn’t envisioning any ABUSE of creation by the people of the world. Instead, we’re asked to be mindful of other creatures and to care for them.
So, are cute creatures meant to die? Yes. In fact, young creatures die at a phenomenal rate. Sea turtle hatchlings, once they even make it to the water, are consumed by seabirds and fish, with estimates ranging from one in 1,000 to one in 10,000 surviving to adulthood. The common frog can lay between 3,000 to 6,000 eggs each birthing cycle with only one in every 50 making it to tadpole-hood. The survival rate of yellow-pine baby chipmunks is about 30 percent.
Young animals’ dying is just a part of the great circle of life. Humans aren’t always the cause.
But this doesn’t mean that we’re off the hook. As creatures made “a little lower than God” and given dominion over the work of God’s hands, we still have a responsibility to be good stewards of the world that God’s given us.
This means that our involvement in the world should be based on respect for the natural order that God’s created – to preserve the balance of species in our ecosystem, allowing both predators and prey to play the roles that God’s given them. Even though life and death in the wild isn’t always pretty, there are patterns and purposes in animal behavior that we have to work to protect.
Unfortunately, the word “dominion” has been used as a license to destroy creation. Dominion doesn’t mean domination. We’ve hunted and fished, deforested and mined with insensitivity, so often putting our selfish pleasures and desires ahead of concern for the environment. We’ve focused on HUMAN habitats instead of NATURAL habitats, and in the process destroyed vegetation, polluted water and contaminated the air. But when we express our sense of dominion so thoughtlessly, the home we eventually destroy isn’t only the animals’ – it’s our own.
God calls us to join in being the stewards of all creation. We’re called as partners in the care of our planet.
What if the primary purpose of the universe is to be an infinite display of God’s artistry? What if the world’s vastness is intended to dwarf us and magnify our Creator? What if the reaches of the cosmos are meant to remind us that God is bigger than our small perspectives? Remember that iconic earthrise photo taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts who became the first humans to witness the Earth rising above the moon’s barren surface? Talk about perspective!
In 1969, one of the first acts performed on Apollo 11 after landing on the moon was a celebration of Communion by astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who was an elder in his Presbyterian Church. Aldrin described the moment: “I reached into my personal preference kit and pulled out two small packages which had been specially prepared at my request. One contained a small amount of wine, the other a small wafer. With them and a small chalice from the kit, I took communion on the moon.” He then read the following words: “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?”
Later in his life, he wrote that he’d come to wonder if he’d done the right thing by celebrating a Christian ritual in space. “We had come to space in the name of all mankind—be they Christians, Jews, Muslims, animists, agnostics, or atheists,” he wrote. “But at the time I could think of no better way to acknowledge the Apollo 11 experience than by giving thanks to God.”
As we gather at this Communion table today, may be celebrate both the presence of Jesus Christ among us mortals, and the infinite and boundless majesty of God our Creator. Amen.