Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
A month or so ago we did an exercise together where we read a different psalm several times through and noticed the phrases that caught our attention. I suggested writing your phrases down or repeating them often enough that they’d begin to travel around with you, those pocket-sized words from the Lord, and you may have heard some additional candidates this morning for that spiritual practice. Among my own favorite images in Psalm 104 are the phrase about God being “wrapped in light as with a garment,” (v. 2), the line about God creating a great sea creature, Leviathan, to “sport” or play in the water (v. 26), and this reminder that the songs we sing together in worship are at their best when they play on repeat in our hearts and on our tongues between Sundays: “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live.” (v. 33)
But the phrase that’s stuck with me above all others this week is one that’s so simple, and so convicting, all at once: “the earth is full of your creatures.” (Psalm 104:24) “The earth is full of your creatures.” From the first page of Genesis through the entirety of Scripture we’ve been taught that God made all of it: “the trees of the Lord” (Psalm 104:16) and the clouds that are God’s chariot (Psalm 104:3); the wild goats (Psalm 104:18), the young lions (Psalm 104:21), and those mysterious “coneys” in verse 18 of today’s psalm (a word I had to look up; I found references to everything from rabbits to badgers in translations of a rare Hebrew word, shephanim). Not to mention the “creeping things innumerable” in the seas which add to the manifold works of God. (Psalm 104:24-25)
God as artist and owner. “The earth is full of your creatures,” Lord. (v. 24) or as we read in another psalm, “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it.” (Psalm 24:1) Surely all of this should teach us a measure of humility. As we heard God asking Job earlier this summer: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4) “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow” (Job 38:22) or “prescribed bounds” for the seas? (Job 38:10) “Is it by your wisdom that the hawk soars?” (Job 39:26) “Can you send forth lightning” (Job 38:35) or “give the horse its might?” (Job 39:19)
It’s one of the most basic doctrines of the Judeo-Christian-Muslim faith traditions. Certainly, those of us who’ve spent a lifetime in the Church have heard it since we were little ones, and I bet we sing about it at least a few times every Sunday. It’s at the core of our identity as people of faith to know ourselves – and everyone, and everything – to be made, owned, and sustained by God. Science can teach us an extraordinary amount about the what’s and how’s of the world around us, but we rely on Scripture to introduce us to the Who, the One stands behind it all. Indeed, “the earth is full of your creatures,” O Lord. We have learned and we believe and proclaim it to be true.
But we don’t always act like it’s true, do we?
We act like the earth belongs to us, its resources entirely ours to use or misuse or use up. How else could I justify the many things I end up doing over the course of a week that burn fossil fuels and waste water and add garbage to the landfill?
And with a handful of exceptions (like those dogs of a thousand dog parks I mentioned at children’s time), we often act like the non-human creatures who share this planet with us are mere extras – props, objects, property, entirely dispensable and disposable. How else could we justify the cruelties of factory farming or polluting the oceans with plastic and the ground with toxic chemicals? How else could we justify selfish human celebrations that end up burning down millions of acres of West Coast animal habitats (in addition to endangering human life), or carbon emissions that have global warming killing off sea creatures by the billions? It seems to me sins like these require us to forget “the earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it.” (Psalm 24:1)
Too often, even our fellow human creatures have been treated as dispensable, disposed of like so many commodities or cast-offs, destroyed as nuisances and nemeses. How else could anyone justify enslavement or concentration camps? How else could our nation persistently, over centuries, uphold racist laws and pardon acts of brutality that convey Black lives don’t matter? Or design internment camps and implement exclusion acts that convey Asian lives don’t matter? Or create immigration policies and condone racist and Islamophobic rhetoric that conveys Brown lives don’t matter? How else could we accustom ourselves to sexual violence and domestic violence and gun violence being as sickeningly common as they are? Even the current political polarization in our country tempts us to demonize and dehumanize whole categories of people who disagree with us. Sins like these, too, stem from forgetting “the earth is full of [God’s] creatures,” (Psalm 104:24), every single person made equally in the image of God. (Genesis 1:27)
“The earth is full of your creatures,” O Lord.
“The earth is full of your creatures.”
The cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50:10), the polar bears on a thousand ice caps, the 137 species that go extinct every day in God’s rainforests.
“The earth is full of your creatures.” The people here in this room and on our Zoom call today along with the residents of a thousand tent cities, the inmates in a thousand prisons, Native children looking back at us from a thousand haunting Indian boarding school photographs. The work of God’s hands, God’s masterpieces and God’s beloved children, each one. Rabbi Joshua ben Levi long ago suggested a procession of angels walks in front of every human being, shouting “Make way for the image of God! Make way for the image of God!”
In another creation text, Psalm 33, we read: “The Lord looks down from heaven; he sees all humankind. From where he sits enthroned he watches all the inhabitants of the earth … and observes all their deeds.” In other words, the artist and owner of it all sees what’s happening to the world God made. Sees what we’re doing to one another. See what I mean about a short biblical phrase being so simple, and so convicting, all at once? “The earth is full of your creatures,” Lord. “The earth is full of your creatures.” (Psalm 104:24)
It’s a lot, I know. And I’m sorry if this felt like a sneak attack today. Here we were reading a beautiful, uplifting psalm of creation and suddenly we’re talking about some of our world’s biggest problems. It’s where the text led me (at the Holy Spirit’s prompting, I hope), and it’s my job to tell you where I feel the Spirit and the text leading me each week as best I can. Still… time for a deep breath, I think. Time to remember our limits. And that it isn’t all up to us. And that anything we could ever do would only be with God’s help.
To that end, let’s return to the beginning of Psalm 104 for a moment to help us remember who’s in charge: “Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind.” (Psalm 104:1-3)
It's never a bad time to focus on the majesty of God’s creation, but I hope these summer months, especially, have offered you some opportunities to really notice and delight in it. The wildflowers in a thousand meadows, the mountains from a thousand viewpoints, the sunlight catching the water from a thousand angles. As we notice, and give thanks, I hope we’ll feel newly motivated to do everything in our power to preserve this magnificent earth and protect its divinely created plant and animal life.
And, of course, it’s never a bad time to focus on the needs of God’s human creatures – “the time is always right to do what is right,” as the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said – but the last few weeks have surely rekindled our desire to do what is right. Priceless masterpieces created by God, God’s precious children – those are the faces on a thousand airplanes taking off from Afghanistan, and the faces of those left behind. Those are the people in a thousand homes, and far more, reduced to rubble around the nation of Haiti. Can you hear the angels walking in front of each one? “Make way for the image of God!”
As we recommit ourselves to doing what we can, I’m grateful there are other foundational principles we repeat together regularly around here too. Truths like: our “help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth.” (Psalm 121:2) Thank God we don’t have to do it on our own. Truths like: God’s mercies are “new every morning.” (Lamentations 3:22-23) Thank God we get to begin again – over and over and over again – when we know we’ve gotten it wrong.
Every single day the God who made us offers us a fresh start, full of new chances to remember that the earth is full of God’s creatures. (Psalm 104:24) From “the cattle on a thousand hills” (Psalm 50:10) to beautiful humans, created in God’s image in a thousand different ways – hurting in a thousand different ways, yes – but also gifted by God with the ability to care for one another in a thousand different ways.
“The earth is full of [God’s] creatures.” (Psalm 104:24) Full! Far too many for us to engage with directly, but that also means plenty to choose from. Let’s be sure to choose one. One of God’s beautiful, beloved creatures, or one cause on behalf of God’s creatures, to which we can offer our heart and our hands, our financial resources, our energy, our skills.
“The earth is full of [God’s] creatures.”
Every day we’re given another chance to use the gifts God’s given us to help care for our fellow residents of this planet.
“The earth is full of [God’s] creatures.”
Every day, new opportunities to remember that foundational truth, to act like we believe it, to get it right. Thanks be to God.
 In this morning’s children’s time, I used as my jumping off point Psalm 50:10 and the phrase “the cattle on a thousand hills” to talk about all of the animals on earth belonging to God (e.g. the squirrels in a thousand trees, the hummingbirds on a thousand flowers, the bears in a thousand forests…) and our responsibility to care for our fellow creatures as an act of devotion to God.
 From Deuteronomy Rabbah 4:4 (a rabbinic commentary on the book of Deuteronomy)