The RDA of Awe — Rev Stacy Swain (click on title for audio)

Isaiah 6:1-8, John 3:1-17

On my ride home the other day, a bumper sticker on the car in front of me caught my eye.

You know how I love a good bumper sticker. There are a lot of bad bumper stickers out there that really are a waste of time to read. But a good bumper sticker is a thing of linguistic beauty. A good bumper sticker has to have wit, but it also has to have challenge.

A good bumper sticker should be like those good prophets of old, lifting up what is against what should be and demanding accountability for the difference.

And this bumper sticker I saw was a good bumper sticker. The top of the bumper sticker had the word HUMANKIND written out in bold block letters and then underneath it in cursive it said “Be both.” It was taking us to task. “HumanKind, Be Both” it demanded, calling out the harsh reality that we are not being both human and kind and that by not being both we are not being who we are to be!

The human part, we are good at. Ever since that bite of the apple, we have been using our reason and our will to remarkable ends. OK we have done some really terrible stuff as well but there have also been astonishing accomplishments. But being human, also means that we have this innate tendency towards self-absorption. Our natural instinct is towards me and mine. Prioritizing our own needs over the needs of others.

We know how to be human really well. But Kind? That is much harder for us. Being kind is the counter to our human impulse towards self absorption. It requires stepping out of the center of our universe, and prioritizing the needs of another. It is hard to resist the gravitational pull of selfishness. It is hard to be both human and kind. It is hard to raise our consciousness from a “me” and “mine” mentality to an “us” and “ours.” It is hard to move from self-absorption to being absorbed by kindness.


Earlier this week, Mark forwarded me an article in the NY Times entitled “Why do we experience awe.” It was an article that really got me thinking about all of this – about how to be both human and kind.

The article was written by psychologists Paul Piff assistant professor of psychology and social behavior at the University of California, Irvine and Dacher Keltner who is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley. In it they speak of their recent research on what effect our capacity to experience awe has on us, a capacity that sets humans a part from animals. What they found is that those who regularly experience awe are more likely to be — kind. They write “In the great balancing act of our social lives, between the gratification of self-interest and a concern for others, fleeting experiences of awe redefine the self in terms of the collective, and orient our actions toward the needs of those around us.”

Reporting on one of their experiments they say that out of 1500 individuals interviewed, those who experienced awe on a regular basis were 40 percent more generous than those who were “Awe-Deprived[1]

They go on to make this provocative claim. They say “We believe that awe deprivation has had a hand in a broad societal shift that has been widely observed over the past 50 years: People have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected to others. To reverse this trend, we suggest that people insist on experiencing more everyday awe, to actively seek out what gives them goose bumps, be it in looking at trees, night skies, patterns of wind on water.”

Are we suffering from awe deprivation? Are we getting our Recommended Daily Allowance of Awe? Is awe deficiency compromising our capacity to be kind our capacity to be HUMANKIND?

I was so intrigued by this article, by this recent research and could not believe that until these two professors delved into it, we all may have been missing just how vital experiences of awe are.

And then I opened the Bibles and was stunned to see that we find that passages Jon read for us today are actually two contrasting case studies in awe. Awe, it turns out, is well known by the biblical writers.

Awe, it turns out, is one of the most effective interventions that God uses with humanity.

When Job is so self-absorbed with his own suffering what does God do? He takes Job on a magic carpet tour of the universe[2] that was so awe inspiring that when Job finally touches down on terra firma again, he no longer can find words of complaint.

Or here in the passage from Isaiah. Could it be that Isaiah’s experience of the awe is what gives voice to his “Here I am, Send me!” Is his ability to lift up out of himself and respond to God’s query a direct response to the tremendous experience of awe that he just had.

And could it be that what poor Nicodemus from our Gospel of John this morning is suffering from profound awe deficiency? Is that what keeps his mind clouded and his senses dulled?

I have often wondered by Jesus engaged in so many miracles. Why did he feed the five thousand, walk on water, heal the sick and raise the dead? Could it be that all of the amazing acts of power that Jesus engaged was done to awaken awe in those around him, awe that would lift them out of the smallness of their living and into the expansive oneness of living with God and for each other?

As people of faith, we want to do justice and love kindness and walk humbly with our God. As people of faith we want to give God the gift of fully being the people God created us to be, people fully alive both human and kind. But we often struggle with how to do so. We cannot simply will ourselves into being the people we would like to be. But maybe we can learn from Isaiah. Maybe we can learn from Professor Piff and Keltner. Maybe we can seek out awe.

Maybe we can take the time to be startled by a burning bush, a summer sunset, a great piece of music, the feel of the cool breeze at the end of a hot day. If the Biblical witness is onto something, if the recent research is to be believed, our encounters of awe, our encounters with God complete us. They enable us to be both human and kind. They enable us to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.

So let’s make an experiment of ourselves this summer. Let’s do some research. In addition to whatever vitamin supplements we may take every morning, let’s be intentional about our RDA of awe. Perhaps then we too will hear the words of Isaiah o our lips, “Hear I am Lord, send me”. Perhaps the we too will be like those prophets of old or even like a too bumper sticker of today call us out and lifting us up to be HUMANKIND for the well being of all. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1]Paul Piff and Dacher Keltner. “Why do we experience awe?”

[2] A Greg Mobley-ism. Greg Mobley is Professor of Hebrew Scripture at Andover Newton Theological School.