Sunday, October 07, 2012

Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going? (J. Barry Vaughn, Oct. 7, 2012)

Who are we? Why are we here?  Where are we going? These are the fundamental questions that we all ask. When sleep simply will not come, and we lie wide awake in our beds…when we get out of our cities, away from the traffic and the street lights and stare up at the stars… when we look out from the top of a high mountain into the valley beneath… or when our ship sails far from shore and we look at the vastness of the ocean, these questions come to us.


Three writers epitomize the modern world’s answer to these questions: Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and Karl Marx.


Although Darwin lost his faith, he retained a profound reverence for the beauty and mystery of nature. So although Darwin himself might not have put it this way, Darwinists would answer our three questions this way: We are predatory animals, the combination of enlarged brains and carnivorous appetites, who have been more successful than most animals in reproducing and feeding ourselves.


Freud would say that we are motivated by unconscious motives that are most irrational. Some of our motivations are inherited from our parents and other ancestors. Some of our motives are pure appetite, and reason tries to adjudicate among these conflicting motivations.


Marx would say that we are the unconscious agents of history that will realize itself through us whether we like it or not, that economic forces beyond our control move us about like pawns.


But there is another conversation and other answers to these questions.


You have often heard me said that we are part of a great conversation. None of us has ever prayed alone or read the Bible alone. Our prayers are part of the prayers of the saints that are always rising to God’s heavenly court. And whenever we read the Bible, we read it in conversation with every minister, Sunday School teacher, or Bible study leader that we have ever heard.


Today’s readings add several voices to that conversation.


The Psalmist tells us:


When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, *
the moon and the stars you have set in their courses,


What is man that you should be mindful of him? *
the son of man that you should seek him out?


You have made him but little lower than the angels; *
you adorn him with glory and honor;


You give him mastery over the works of your hands; *
you put all things under his feet:


And according to the author of Genesis:


The LORD God said, "It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner."


Then, the author of Hebrews: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…”


Mark’s gospel is also part of the conversation, but I will return to Mark.


What answers do these three authors gives to the questions: Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?


The Psalmist tells us that we are powerful but finite. God made us “lower than the angels,” but adorned “with glory and honor.” We have mastery over the works” of God’s hands and God has “put all things under his feet.”


In other words, the psalmist answers our questions in a vertical way. Our status, our dignity, is primarily dependent on our relationship with God. If you will, we are part of a divine chain of command, a celestial flow chart, or as the ancients expressed it, the great chain of being. First God, then the heavenly beings, then human beings, then animals.


But notice that the psalmist does not ask the question in the abstract. She does not way “Who are we?” She says, “What is man that you should be mindful of him?” IN other words, the psalmist askes some ONE this question. Specifically, she asks God.


Genesis also adds a voice to our conversation.


God said, “Let there be light and there was light… God said let the earth bring forth living things… God made the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night…”


The first chapter of Genesis is a litany. God speaks… and the invisible chorus sings, “It is good… it is good… it is very good.”


But at last we are told that something was NOT good – It is NOT good for man to be alone.


To our questions – Who are we? Why are here? Where are we going? – Genesis answers us horizontally: Humans are social creatures. Humans are a we, not an I. It is not good for us to be alone.


The author of the letter to the Hebrews also speaks:


“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son…”


Who are we? We are beings addressed by God. God does not merely speak to us, God does not just send us messengers. God sends his Son, his heir, the very agent of creation itself.


Finally, the gospel of Mark speaks:


Some Pharisees asked Jesus, "Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?...Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal and to divorce her." And Jesus replied, “What God has joined together, let no one separate…. Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery."


At first glance, Mark does not seem to be addressing our three questions, but I think there is an implied answer.


First, let me observe that this is one of Jesus’ so-called “hard sayings.” In Mark, Jesus prohibits all divorce. Period. This is not just hard for us. It was also hard for the early church. Mark was the first gospel written. A few years later, Matthew’s gospel was written and records Jesus’ teaching on divorce differently. In Matthew, Jesus says, “Whoever divorces his wife, except for unchastity, and marries another commits adultery.”


In other words, the Spirit guided the early church to a broader understanding of divorce. And I believe the Spirit continues to guide us.


But think again of our questions  - who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?


The answer implied in Jesus’ teaching on divorce is also a horizontal answer to our questions. We exist in a network of mutual obligation. We have responsibilities to others and they have responsibilities to us.


In Mark, Jesus was answering the question about divorce in a way that was favorable to women. In his time, a divorced woman would likely have no way to protect herself and no one to protect her, so the prohibition of divorce was Jesus way of standing up and speaking out for the rights of women.


We live in a culture that does not want to hear the Bible’s answers to these questions.


Our culture wants to reduce us to individual social atoms floating in a vacuum. Culture wants to tell us that all of our relationships are voluntary, that we do not have obligations to others, obligations that we cannot shirk or can only shirk at our peril.


And above all our culture does not want us to believe that we are addressed by a voice from beyond, a voice that says, “You did not create yourselves. You have obligations beyond yourself to others.”


When Harvard University built Emerson Hall in 1900 and named it after distinguished Harvard grad Ralph Waldo Emerson, they asked the faculty for a suitable inscription for the building. The faculty suggested, “Man is the measure of all things,” but Pres. Eliot chose instead, “What is man that thou art mindful of him?”


This question, the psalmist’s question, “What is man…” is not asked in a vacuum. It begins and ends with a word of praise. “O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name…” That is the King James’ translation. I can’t stand the way it is translated in our prayer books, “O Lord, our governor, how excellent is thy name…” because I do not know any governors who have excellent names.


But what I am saying and what I think the psalmist is saying is that the only way to ask and answer these questions correctly is to do so in the context of worship.


Who are we? Why are we here? Where are we going?


To ask and answer these questions well, we must begin and end with the worship of God.


O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth.