How big do you feel today?
That’s not a rather rude personal question about whether you should have eaten that second doughnut … It’s just a recognition that some days we can feel really quite grown up, in control, capable, and on other days we can feel as if there is really no way we are equal to the challenges life throws at us - like ants in the pathway of a herd of elephants.
The person who wrote Psalm 8 was having one of those growing and shrinking moments as he contemplated the vastness of the world around him, and became aware of his own place within it. This ancient poem is probably at least 2500 years old, but it can still communicate as vividly to us as when it was first written. In fact, bearing in mind the huge advances in our scientific knowledge it is perhaps even more relevant now than it was then.
The ancient Israelites assumed that the cosmos consisted of the earth as a sort of flat plate across the middle of a sphere. The dome of heaven arched over it, studded with sun, moon and stars, and a shadowy underworld was below it. Outside that sphere was water, which leaked into the world through the windows in the heavens and rose up in springs and oceans. Beyond the waters was the domain of God. But though it was big, but it was nothing like the size of the universe astronomers contemplate now. Arguments rage over how big it is, and whether it has any end at all, but everyone agrees that it is quite mind-bogglingly huge. At the other end of the scale we are now aware of tiny subatomic particles – quarks and Higgs Bosons and the like - which even a hundred years ago were unthought of. And all the time we are learning to see further out into space, and further down into the structure of atoms.
To give us some ideas of scale that we now know about, did you know that you could fit a million earths into our sun and still have room left over? It is over a million times bigger. Did you know that to get to the nearest star to us in the fastest space ship we now have would take over 10,000 years? And that is just the very nearest star; our next door neighbour. My husband, who is a physics teacher, tells me that the biggest thing we know about, the universe itself, is 10 to the power of 40 bigger than the smallest thing. If you are as numerically challenged as I am that might not mean too much to you, so perhaps we need to get some idea of what that number looks like. [Unfold numbers printed on long sheet - 1 with 40 noughts after it - it looks like this 10000000000000000000000000000000000000000]…. And that is just the things we know about. The universe could be infinitely big, or there could be an infinite number of other universes for all we know…
When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have ordained, what are mortals, that you should be mindful of them; mere human beings, that you should seek them out? says the Psalmist.
Amen to that…!
When we think of these sort of immense distances, immense sizes, it is no wonder that we feel overawed and overwhelmed, completely insignificant.
That isn’t the end of the story, or the end of the Psalm.
However small we sometimes feel, we aren’t actually at the bottom of this scale, right down at the tiny end. Philip tells me that we are almost half-way up. See that 0 with the blue stars around us – that’s us. While the universe may seem unimaginably big to us, we are unimaginably big in comparison to much of the rest of creation. And we are by no means powerless. In fact, we have a power that is in some ways apparently unique. As far as we know at the moment, we are the only being in the universe that can make truly conscious, free choices about how it treats the rest of that universe, the only being that can think about what it is doing, philosophize about it and make moral judgements. The sun has no option but to shine. The oceans have no choice about battering the shore line. Non-human animals don’t sit about pondering and discussing ethical dilemmas. Sure, some of them may have more powers of communication, reasoning and learning than we have suspected, but it is only us who seem to be inclined really to wonder about ourselves and our place in the universe. It is a human trait. Volcanos are destructive because they are volcanos. When people are destructive, it is because they choose to be, and they can, equally choose to be creative, caring and loving, even if it doesn’t seem to be in their own interests.
As the Psalmist put it, we look up into the heavens and think that surely we are beneath God’s notice, utterly insignificant. But actually that’s not the case; not only does God notice us- something which Jesus reminds us of in our Gospel reading - but he has also entrusted us with power over many of the other creatures he has made – the cattle, the oxen, the fish in the sea…power we can use for good or ill.
The Bible often uses the sort of language of dominion that we see here, and there has been a tendency to feel a bit embarrassed by that, as if it is an invitation to lord it over the rest of creation. Certainly in the past it has been used to justify the indiscriminate exploitation of the Earth’s resources, the ill-treatment of other animals, and of people too. But it’s no good us pretending that we don’t have power, because we do. We may not be Masters of the Universe, able to do everything, but we can really make a difference not only in small, but also in big ways. We are learning, perhaps too little and too late, that we are having a real impact even on something as vast as the climate, and we are realising that we need, urgently, to take seriously that power. This year the Arctic icecap shrank to its smallest extent in modern history, and scientists are increasingly sure that is because of the greenhouse gases we are pumping into the atmosphere – it is not just a natural variation. That shrinking icecap is likely to have all sorts of effects on the sea temperatures around the world, and that will affect ocean currents, the winds that blow over the oceans, the moisture they pick up, and the patterns of rainfall in lands far from the Arctic… These sort of changes are already being felt, and are having a profound impact on the most vulnerable people in the world, those who don’t have our buffer zones of money in the bank or insurance policies against disaster.
That’s why I am glad to see that many of the Poverty and Hope projects that our harvest collection will go to support have a very definite focus not just on alleviating individual poverty, but on restoring and sustaining the ecosystems on which those individuals and communities depend. So, there is a project in Sudan which enables local people to pass on sound agricultural techniques to others. These include things like planting trees which prevent soil and water run-off. It’s simple, but it works. Or there is a community association in the Dominican Republic learning to make its own organic fertiliser rather than depending on expensive artificial fertiliser made in oil-hungry factories. Or the ultimate in recycling, a scheme in Cambodia helping people to turn the dung from their pigs into biogas for cooking and lighting. I don’t know how it works, but apparently it does, and presumably it doesn’t smell as bad as you might think it would! Certainly the families who have started using this are great fans. One woman, a shopkeeper, says it has transformed her family’s life. She can keep her little shop open later, she no longer has to spend hours each day looking for firewood and their home is free of the unhealthy wood smoke that used to choke them. Her daughter can see to do her school work in the evenings… and the pig dung no longer has to be disposed of! Success all round. It is a small thing, in many ways, but that family’s life has been changed completely by the ingenuity of those who designed the simple engineering it relies on, and the donations of those who funded it – people who had never met those who benefitted and perhaps never will. That’s an example of using the power and responsibility that comes with being human in the way God intended us to.
Harvest time is always a time for thanksgiving; thanksgiving for the glories of creation, for the immensity of the universe, for the turning seasons, produced by the circling of planets and stars, for the whole great interdependent web of life, from the smallest sub-atomic particle to worms and whales and worlds beyond our world. But it is a reminder too of the skill and compassion which are God’s gifts to us, gifts we are called on to use generously and with care. We are not simply insignificant, mindless cogs in a vast machine but creatures made in God’s image, reflecting his nature, capable of love which can change the lives of others, love which can enrich and sustain them. The best harvest thanksgiving we can make is to do just that.