Proper 19

September 17, 2006
See Also: 
Reading 1: 
Proverbs 1:20-33
Reading 2: 
Psalm 19
Reading 3: 
James 3:1-12
Reading 4: 
Mark 8:27-38
By Rick Marshall

Discussing the Text:

The poetic power of Psalm 19 shines brightly in the constellation of poetry collected in the psalms. The language, especially of verses 7-10, is imprinted deeply in my imagination. I still have a vivid memory from my youth of a old preacher reading this text aloud and savoring the last words with such luscious delight, almost smacking his lips when he spoke the words “sweeter than honey and drippings of the honeycomb.” I can still taste his delight. At that moment, I knew what it meant to “taste” the word of the Lord. It struck me at the time, and even more so today, that if I, as a preacher, can get to the sweet spot in any given text, then I and the listeners of a sermon could taste the word of the Lord. When I think about preaching, that might very well be my ultimate goal, as a preacher and a Christian: to taste God. The words are beautiful; they make me want to cry, they have such power. They make me cry in the same way as when I remember the taste of a loved one, in intimacy and closeness. We share the very essence of who we are, our bodies and souls. I just ate a peach for breakfast. It was swollen with sweetness and was at the tipping point of perfection. Ah, the sweet spot! Maybe that’s where we all want to be in life, that sweet spot where life is vivid and deep, the juices of life run wildly through our imaginations, and we are lit up with the  power of the present moment of experience. Wow! You can talk all you want about a peach, but talking is not tasting. And you can talk all you want about love and life, but talking is not loving or living. I believe there is a place beyond words, sentimentalism, romance and yearning, where there is the actual experience of fullness of life in the moment. The problem is not finding that moment, because moments come to us in inevitable succession. The problem is giving ourselves time to breathe into the moment, to sit with it so that we experience the full expansiveness of the presence of life, and the depth of God’s love and caring that actually surrounds us at each moment of our lives. The language of the psalm is evocative; it is meant to trigger expansive feelings that stretch out to the hills and clouds and stars, smacking our lips, knowing that God is the Creator!

Psalm 19 says that all of creation is telling us about this God. It’s telling us in a different kind of language, another form of speech, even beyond metaphor. Yet, there are no words and no speech involved in this language; it is the language of the very presence of something rather than nothing, the presence of beauty and order and the vividness of life itself. It is the very presence of God, displayed through nature, that is the recognition of the glory of God and the divine creative power in life.

Then the cadence and comprehensiveness of verses 7 - 10, ending in the honeycomb image, offers a poetic balance to the nature images of the first set of verses. God is not only Creator, but embodies the very structural qualities that make a good life possible: God’s law is good and is meant to give life. It can be trusted.

Proverbs is bothered by the fact that we can’t hear this language or see what nature is telling us about God. Wisdom is crying in the streets, speaking forth loudly. It’s part prophetic voice, part lament, speaking one of the simplest messages. Why are you so stupid not to listen to God? Wisdom is shocked at the stupidity; she cries: what’s going on with you?

James speaks of the tongue and the power of language. It is warning about the power of language to destroy. “The tongue is a fire.” The text is a powerful contrast when held next to Psalm 19. In one we se the language of God and its power to create. In the other we see the language of human beings and its power to destroy.

We will not consider the Mark text this week.

Process Theology and the Text:

The issue of power is at the center of the texts and is one of the defining issues of process theology. The term the Bible often uses is “The World,” which refers to the way the world is rigged in favor of the rich and against the poor, socially, economically, religiously--in every way possible. The kind of power that supports “The World” is coercive power, the ability and will to manipulate people and systems to gain advantage for a person or a group at the expense of others.  The Bible is generally very critical of “The World.” Jesus’ teachings critique, undermine and offer an alternative to “The World.” The alternative to worldly coercive power is persuasive power. The Bible implies such words as love, agape, respect, common good, well-being to describe a world based on persuasive power. Religion often adopts coercive power and defines the divine nature in these terms, which is a fatal theological mistake. This is how the church can become supportive of --or captive to-- “The World” rather than an alternative to it.

Preaching the Text:

Traditionally, much of Christianity has accepted the ancient three-story universe--heaven, earth, hell--and the dichotomy between natural and supernatural, or this world, and the world beyond. It is a worldview that persists in some circles. Further claims have been made that it is only through the Bible (i.e. the Word) that the true divine nature is revealed. Christian theology has had a tendency to value the hereafter at the expense of this world. In fact, some have seen this world as a vale of tears, something to be endured, a place of suffering, even sin and evil. There is nothing about this world that would teach us anything about the divine nature; it is best to pass through this world as quickly as possible, while going on to the next world is blessed. Of course, science has gone well beyond the three-story universe and has re-visioned nature in such a way that the three-story universe makes no literal sense, nor does the idea of the supernatural, if it means a world outside of nature, or above it. Christians must be creative in their thinking about God and the world, and nature and the Bible are two primary sources for this creative quest.

There are parts of the Bible which hold up the natural world as the prime evidence of the divine nature. Psalm 19 is an example, but so is much of Jesus’ teaching. In fact, much of the Bible values this world as a place of beauty which speaks of God. Process theology has taken this voice of the Bible very seriously. Nature can tell us much about God. In fact, nature is a primary source of information and insight to the divine nature. John Cobb Jr. wrote an important book early in his career called A Christian Natural Theology. A. N. Whitehead develops his view of the world by looking at the world and describing how the world works. So the psalm text would be completely in tune with a process perspective, as would much of the Bible.

Preaching and the Texts:

It would be effective for the preacher to focus on the texts from Psalms and Proverbs. The sermon could focus on what the natural world tells us about the divine nature. Psalm 19 would be the primary text in this case. The sermon could reflect the poetic tone of the text. How to make the sermon poetic in nature would be the task before the preacher.

Various images could be described in such a way as to evoke the mystery and pleasures of beauty. A simple guided meditation to take people to their place of beauty and mystery would help in this goal. I have a place to go to in my imagination when I need to find my way back to peace and calm. It is a real place, a beautiful place. It is a spot on the Santiam River near Salem, Oregon, where I grew up and spent many years fishing with my father. The river tumbles out of the Cascade mountains, cutting a jagged path from the snow fields of the high altitudes eventually down to the large and slow moving Willamette River which moves to the even mightier Columbia River and then to the ocean. The place in my imagination is where the river, in its rush down the mountains, is forced to go through a narrow gap in large, rounded rocks: a cataract. The sound  of it is thunderous; you have to yell to be heard. After the tumult of the gap, the water pours into a deep, calm, pool between high, mossy rocks. Eddies curl under the surface and break the water as if a large animal were moving through it. The effervescence of  a million tiny bubbles hisses to the surface. I sit high over it, looking into what seems like a bottomless pool, easily imagining Jesus and the fishermen. There, somewhere hidden under the surface, are fish, food, sustenance. Also, the Johannine story of the woman at the well comes to mind. It is a place of beauty and depth, which communicates something to me beyond words.

There is an immediacy about experiencing the “life” of the place that moves me beyond the mind, beyond any desire of ego, to a deeper connection with whatever power is in it: the power of the divine. Once the preacher and listeners are focused on the power of this place, then questions call attention to themselves. What does the power of this place say about God’s power? How am I connected to the power behind this place? If beauty is so important a category to describe the divine, is there any better way to describe God than through the beauty of nature? What other qualities about God are evoked by nature? Other questions will come. It’s tempting to get philosophical and try to “explain” beauty. But we must be careful with the mind’s agenda which is to draw us away from life or to control it by trying to understand it. But I think it’s best to stay focused on the imagination, and on what moves us deeply.

The goal of the sermon would be to evoke a sense of the concrete immediacy of God’s presence in life, displayed in nature and consummated for us in the full experience of the present moment. In other words, the goal of the sermon is to move everyone to a place where they can taste God.

If the preacher wants to focus on the James text, a warning is necessary. Such a sermon could easily slip into moralisms and platitudes about language. Pettiness is waiting at the door of this text, waiting to slip in unawares and contaminate the sermon with warning. In this case, the moralistic attitude would actually epitomize the warning of the text that language can be destructive.

Children and the Text:

Bring several things that have been made by human hands. Talk about each item and describe it, whether it’s beautiful, etc. What does this tell us about the person who made it? Describe the relationship between what has been made and the maker. Ask the children what they like to make. If they could, what would they like to create? Talk then about nature and its beauty. Ask the children if they have been to any famous place of natural beauty. Talk about what this natural beauty says about who God is.

Rick Marshall is co-pastor of Brea Congregational Church United Church of Christ in Brea, California, a church he has served for 24 years. He has contributed many resources to the Process & Faith website, including A Process-Relational Guide to Grief, Death, and Funerals.