May 26, 2013 | The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
May 26, 2013
Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5
“This Grace in Which We Stand”
One cloudless night in 1889, Vincent Van Gogh looked out the window of his sanitarium room in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, France, and saw a night sky so packed full of stars, and wonder, and beauty, and cosmic power that the next day, when there was enough light to do so, he painted from memory a picture that has become one of his best known, The Starry Night. The moon and stars are like bursts of fireworks on a dark blue background. The artist used oil paints to mimic the sensation of vibration, movement, swirling interconnection between one heavenly outburst and its neighbors. He saw in the heavens a kind of movement like cresting waves. He saw a higher universe of activity, beauty, life, importance, hovering over the self-involved busyness of humans on earth, and the slumbering, lightless town below of Saint Rémy. He left in his painting a testimony to his awe and wonder of the 99.99 g ∞ (infinite 9’s) percent of the universe that is not within the scope of human control or understanding. He looked up one night, he let the sight blow his mind, and in the morning he reached for his brushes.
Several thousand years earlier, the same thing had happened to another young man, a writer remembered in the Jewish and Christian traditions as the Psalmist David, the shepherd-become-king. He looked up into the night sky, was blown away, and reached for his ink and pen. “Oh, my God!” He wrote, “You are so amazing! Just look at your glorious works floating above the earth we humans call home. I am at a loss for words to describe it; I am at a loss for words to describe you. I am at a loss for words about why, in the face of all that you are and all that you have made, that you think human beings, puny as we are, are worth your time. I can’t believe how beautiful and powerful and glory-filled is all that surrounds me. I can’t believe that you, who made it all, should know or remember my name. I, and we, are so small. Why, when there is so much greater in your Creation, would you pay a moment’s notice to me? How could we persons, inhabitants of such a tiny spot in the cosmos, so inconsequential, also be loved so infinitely? Why, when there is so much that is greater than humanity, would you place your divine image in lowly us of all things? In the presence of your whole glorious cosmos, why do you even think of us?”
Indeed, the glimpses we get of the universality of the universe, the brief, numinous, understandings we realize about the tiny beauty of human lives in the midst of all that is, can make us feel very small. The humility contained therein can be a helpful corrective - how often do we humans look at all that is around us and proclaim: MINE! We misinterpret “dominion” as “possession” rather than “sacred trust.” We don’t understand ourselves as having responsibility for what is around us, but rather rapacious, capacious, control.
I appreciate the conclusion drawn by one biblical scholar [James McIntyre] to the whole of Psalm 8 - he says that the human response was and remains “Thank You! Wow! Help Me!” Yes it is! Thank you God, for grace upon grace in every element of the natural and supernatural world around me. Wow - it is full of a wonder beyond all my comprehension. When I glimpse how massive is the universe, I understand how little I know. And help me - O my God, I know so little, I live out a fraction of the faith response that I mean to, and I am afflicted by real challenges that consume my life and truly scare me. Thank you! Wow! Help me! Yes indeed.
Now let’s move ahead many centuries from the Psalmist David and place ourselves midway between him and the painter Vincent of 1889. In about the year 55 of the Common Era is Paul, writing to the Christian community in Rome. He testifies in his own beautiful way to, as he puts it, “this grace in which we stand.” This grace in which we stand - we do, we all do, in the glory of the world that God has created, from the starry skies above that captivate us as much as they did David, Vincent, Galileo, Holst, Melville, endless artists and scientists and humble star-gazers, right down to the mysteries of the human heart, the deepest, most interior mirror of the blazing stars above. This grace in which we stand - stand and glorify, stand and adore, stand and question, stand and suffer. We stand in the midst of grace and do these things simultaneously, as Paul knew all too well.
To the Romans and to us, he issues the reminder that we are justified by faith, and that through Christ, we have obtained this grace in which we stand. From this grace, we stand to look upward into the heavens in wonder. From the standing point of this grace, we also look around and within us, and so often the view is one of suffering. Paul doesn’t deny that he knows that the believers in Rome and throughout times and places are afflicted with sufferings. Sometimes we look up to God’s glorious heavens from a place of blessing, and sometimes from a sanitarium. But we never leave a standing place of grace - not if we are justified by our faith, having peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Standing in grace, we do not simply endure our sufferings but boast in them.
The word “boast” to us suggests bragging and gloating, which is not the right translation of Paul’s word. He tells us to rejoice, to glory, to exult in our sufferings. We are not to lord them over others but to hold them up to the Lord - to journey through the fire of our suffering in such a way as to make it an opportunity for spiritual growth. Suffering doesn’t have to be time and energy that are wasted. God and Christ are present to redeem it always if we will go through it prayerfully and patiently, making it produce the fruits of endurance, character, and hope, each quality making the next one possible.
We know how much suffering can teach us. Paul tells us to be intentional about that. We don’t ask for suffering but when it comes we are to accept it as an opportunity to grow in and through faith, to mirror this grace in which we stand. Pain, if we will let it, can bring a clarity of perspective, ethics, values, priorities, growing our discipleship. I think back a handful of years to a student whose heart was broken when a dating relationship that she had hoped would be life-long was ended by the other. She told me that while she was grateful that her heart was healing, she hoped that she would not lose the insights that her suffering had taught her. She felt that it had made her more compassionate and empathetic, more aware of the suffering of others, more aware of tiny daily details, both beautiful and ugly. She was actually more alive, and in all things more attentive to God. Suffering does expand the hearts that cleave to God, and through that process of expansion, work the redemption of that very suffering.
In the end is a hope, says Paul, that does not disappoint us. Our faith is our bedrock, come what may. How many people find their bedrock in other things: wealth, professional achievement, social identities and status, romantic achievement, exercise regimens, but it is the hope in the glory of God that can never fail us, disappoint us, shame us, despite any and every affliction or oppression.
From our two glorious texts for the day, I find two particular shared pieces of instruction. The first is an invitation to replace all our anxieties and fastidious life planning with simple wonder. Look up, say David and Paul, and see the Creator’s work; look within and see the Creator still at work. It is good to be a responsible person, but never let it crowd out, mechanize, routinize, the awe—never let the “help me” overwhelm the “thank you” and the “Wow!” God will always come to your aid, so let go of that anxiety and live in the wonder and gratitude of wow! You will be in a much better place to hear and see God’s movement and help.
And second, the text invites us to live our lives as a very instrument of praise to God - whatever becomes or befalls us. Suffering comes to every person - it is no excuse not to make your life an instrument of praise, it is the very vehicle for it. Whether you are a painter, a shepherd, a writer, a student – anything - make your life an instrument of praise to God. This grace in which we are always standing is always the perfect place from which to do it.
Feasting on the Word, Year C ,Vol. 3, ed. D.L. Bartlett and B.B. Taylor, (Louisville: WJK Press, 2010), pp. 32-43