As Preached by: Ronald W. Botts - August 5, 2001

A Sense of Place

Psalm 8; Romans 12:9-8

Imagine yourself standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon. Its vast crater extends before you as far as you can see. The colors and shapes in this vista are as varied as one can imagine. It is a strange beauty, but an undeniable one nonetheless. The view here is like no other, anywhere. It is such splendor that it is hard to communicate to someone who has not been here. Words can never fully describe what your eyes can see.

The distance from the North Rim to the South Rim is 14 miles. But if you want to drive there, it will take you 215 miles around the east end of the canyon; and that's only about a third of the distance if you were to go the west rout and over Hoover Dam. Now there is one other way to get across, and that's by a trail going across the floor of the canyon between those facing rims. You can cross there in two days by muleback if you are adventuresome.

Not too much has changed about the Grand Canyon from the time in 1939 when newspaper columnist Ernie Pyle was out there. He, too, heard about the mule trip, and though he was skeptical, he made a few inquiries.

No, it isn't scary, he said. Of course, there are stretches where you look straight down for a thousand feet. But the trail is eight feet wide and you couldn't push a mule off with a locomotive.

My great worry, confessed Pyle, was not over the mule's staying on the trail, but about my staying on the mule.

Whether you're up to that trip or not, the scenery is hard to imagine; then it's equally as hard to forget. Photographs give you a feel for it, but never an accurate portrayal. It is more immense than a camera can capture with only a single view at a time. It has a depth so real that a two-dimensional print can't even begin to bring it to life.

You can't be there and not feel a sense of awe and wonder. Not surprisingly, almost everyone reports experiencing the same thing upon that first view. And that is one of feeling so small, so insignificant in the presence of this natural wonder.

Niagara Falls is another one of the places that engenders such feelings. It's really three separate falls American, Horseshoe, and Bridal Veil and almost a million gallons of water a second from the Niagara River flows over them. The water drops from a height equal to a 20-story building and the surging flow has a tremendous power to it. You can see it and you can hear it. Mist fills the air everywhere in the proximity of the falls.

One of the earliest Europeans to view this spectacular sight was a French priest by the name of Louis Hennepin in 1678. Fr. Hennepin is reported to have fallen to his knees in prayer and to have said, The universe does not afford its parallel. How many Native Americans for a thousand years before that had been likewise moved, but history unfortunately leaves us no record. Yet it's safe to say, being human, that they must have been similarly affected by this great and wonderful beauty. People today are likewise impressed.

Imagine now a night, in your backyard, or a time when you went camping, or sometime from your past. It's a clear night, a still night, and there are thousands of stars in the sky. They blink and they twinkle and they form themselves into patterns that remind us of familiar objects like a dipper, for example. Some stars are brighter that others, and the moon outshines them all. When you look up you just can't fathom the distances involved and the actual size of those tiny points of light. When you stop long enough to think about what you see, it makes you wonder, to consider your place in all this vastness.

That was certainly the experience of the author of our psalm for this morning, who also looked up at the sky. He said, O Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth! When I look at the heavens, the works 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 crowned 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.... O Lord, how great is your name in all the world.

The Grand Canyon and Niagara Falls I've been there and seen those magnificent spots first hand. And I'll bet many of you also have seen at least one or both of those places yourselves. And who hasn't looked up at the nighttime sky? We've seen things that we can just barely begin to comprehend. And our relationship to such vast spectacles is like a single grain of sand to the beach. We feel our insignificance in the face of all this. The psalmist reminds us that the feeling isn't new. It has been the human experience for as long as we have been upon the earth.

This ancient writer he or she captures a most universal experience and puts it into words. It is the question of Who am I set in the grander scale and addressed to God: What are human beings that you even think of them, mere mortals that you care for them?

Lord, he says, we feel so tiny in comparison to the entirety of this world of your creation. We're just a small part of the total. We who think so much of ourselves are humbled now when we realize our true proportion to the whole. And the entire earth is, in turn, but a speck in the universe. And you, God , are greater than the whole of what you have created. We humans are but nothing in this entire scheme, and I am just a single fraction of all those who live on the face of this earth. And yet you say that you know me. I am a mere nothing, but your love for me makes me something. It makes me someone because I known to you. You made me and you claim me.

The psalmist reminds us, too, that God has entrusted the primary care of this world to the human family. By our uniqueness to think and act as self-conscious beings, we are to have sovereignty over all other creatures. Yet, with that honor comes responsibility. We are to preside over God's earth and not something of the world and not against them. We are caretakers and not owners.

In all this God gives us purpose, a sense of place within life; but it is purpose and place always in relationship to our Creator. Without that sense of attachment we would be adrift on the sea of life. We have no identity when we only look to ourselves. It is God, and God alone who gives us a sense of place, and with that, a sense of worth.

In our other Scripture reading for this morning, Paul reminds us that to have a sense of place doesn't mean that we stand alone. We are part of a human fabric woven together and it is God we honor when we honor each other. Let love be genuine, Paul says. Love one another with mutual affection. Contribute to the needs of others; extend hospitality to strangers. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Live in harmony with one another. Don't consider yourself somehow superior to others. Don't repay a wrong deed with another, but consider what is noble in the sight of all. So far as it depends on you, he concludes, live peaceably with all.

Sometimes we get so caught up with the mundane things of life that our vision of what is greater gets cluttered, to the point that our vision of what is greater gets cluttered, to the point that we just can't see any more. We lose sight of the trust placed in us for the care of this world. We lose sight of others as our brother and sisters in the larger human family. We lose sight of the lord as our starting point and our ending point and everything in between.

Isn't that part of the reason we come here today, to remember who we are individually and to remember who we are as a people linked together? And here, too, we recognize and celebrate this particular community we know as First Congregational. It is our faith family and a primary connecting place for those who would walk the way of Jesus together.

Like any human family it is a place where we have a chair waiting for us around the table. We're known here and we're missed here when we're absent one from the other. Here we grow in our faith and understanding of Christ's way, and we nurture our children along the same path. We also reach out and welcome others to join with us in this amazing Christian journey.

Being a part of this church helps us to realize our sense of place within the vastness of God's world and it gives us a home where we are loved and where we can discover and develop our ministries to others. We all have something to contribute to the whole and we all have benefits to claim. This particular congregation is alive and creative and generous. I am grateful to be part of it and to now assume a pastoral role in it's life.

From the beginning of time to it's end, from the height of skies to the depths of the oceans, from the tiny microbe to the incredible beings that we are God is Creator and God is our Sustainer. Each of us matters and each of us has been given a place. From that assurance we can develop to our full potential and we can make our unique contribution to the realization of God's Kingdom on earth.

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