Well, the Presbytery meeting was excellent--just one question. Now on to the candidate weekend, which involves preaching three services. The church is doing the "Season of Creation" series and I somehow got the "glory of the skies" week--Psalm 19.1-6. Here's the first round of the sermon. I'm a little worried about never moving to the words or Word, but the text doesn't and I'm having a hard time justifying that as an explicit leap. However, this is a smart and intuitive (and pretty progressive) congregation so I doubt I need to make everything obvious, but still.....anyway, without further ado, the sermon. Comments coveted before Saturday at 5pm Central time!
(sermon edited yet again--this sermon has had more editing and work than possibly ANY I've ever preached...Enjoy the new version...)
RCLPC 16/17 September 2006
The heavens are telling the glory of God;
and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words, their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.
In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy,
and like a strong man runs its course with joy.
Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat.
Have you ever seen a sunset that just took your breath away? How about a sunrise? I see more sunsets than sunrises, since I’m not much of a morning person, but the few sunrises I’ve seen have really been spectacular. Two of my most memorable sunrises were seen from the top of Mt. Sinai, which I have had the privilege of climbing twice, both times in the middle of the night. We literally began climbing at 2 in the morning, when it was as dark as dark can be. We wound our way up by a trail and then by stairs, sometimes with flashlights and sometimes simply by the light of the moon and stars. The moon and stars, actually, are part of what made the sunrise so memorable. As we walked I was able to look up at the sky and I discovered that, for the first time in my life, I was in a place so dark that I could see the Milky Way. I stared and stared—I almost tripped—because the sky was so full of stars I could hardly even believe my eyes. In fact, it was a strange paradox. I could see all these stars because it was so dark, but there were so many stars that it wasn’t really dark at all—there were millions of points of light glowing down on all of us. By the time everyone got to the top of the mountain, the horizon was lightening and the stars dimming. I remember tipping my head back as far as it would go, trying to take in all those stars before they disappeared from view. And as the stars disappeared and the sun began its daily trek, incredible color exploded across the horizon. Everything from indigo to orange, from purple to yellow, from pink to white. As the sun came up, we were able to see more of the land around us. My group arrived during the night, and climbed in the night, so this was our first glimpse of the Sinai. Huge stone mountains and valleys emerged from the blackness into rich reds and oranges before turning into the usual brown color we expect from rocks. In those moments, it was as if an artist was frantically flinging as many colors onto a canvas as possible, trying to color the world as only a creator can see it.
Many of us have had moments like these—maybe not in so exotic a locale, maybe not in quite the same dramatic way, but we’ve had them. We’ve seen beautiful sunsets, incredible rainbows, strange and wonderful clouds, light streaming through windows or through rain. And many of us have been known to exclaim “This just has to be God!” My first morning on top of Mt. Sinai the traditional doxology was started by a bunch of nuns, and many of us joined in—in probably 12 different languages. Looking at creation—especially at the vast expanse of sky and space—leads many people to the affirmation that God is a great Creator and artist and continues to be at work. Creation is one of the most common places for people to meet God these days. Many in my generation would not say they first encountered God in church, but rather that they encountered God in nature. Some of them do end up in the church, but just as many end up out in the woods or the mountains, looking around to see what God has to say to them today.
The psalmist is definitely one who has met God in creation. He tells us that the heavens, the firmament, the day, the night, the sun…all are busily proclaiming the glory of God and the work God has done. The sky—in its vastness, in its simultaneous emptiness and fullness, in its colors and its darkness and its light, shows us a little something of God—God’s glory, God’s creativity, God’s handiwork. Even the day and the night pour out speech and knowledge.
Interestingly, the psalm says that day and night have no speech, no words, no voice to be heard…and yet their voice goes out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world. It’s strange to think of day and night having no voice, since there is almost nowhere without sound. Every day and every night is filled with some kind of sound, no matter where you are. Even in the Sinai desert, there were sounds—camels, insects, wind. Here there are birds, there are trees rustling in the breeze, there are crickets and chickens and cows and people and machines. Days and nights are full of sounds, both natural and man-made. And these sounds are a part of creation, a part of the chorus that proclaims the glory of God. Granted, the sky, sun and stars themselves may not be making the noises, exactly, but there’s definitely sound. But not words, not human speech, not something we can understand in our language.
I wonder if that isn’t exactly as it should be—if maybe God planned for all creation to be shouting Glory in a way that we can’t put into words. After all, the world is much bigger and much more mysterious than we would like to think, the universe even more so, and God is even bigger and more mysterious than that. We humans are prone to putting things in little boxes, using lots of precise words, and defining everything as neatly as possible. But here we have something so grand, so incredible, so glorious that human words are useless. The day and night, the sky and stars and sun, they have it right. They are busily proclaiming God’s glory with voices we can’t hear or understand, and yet are heard through the whole world, to the very ends of the earth.
In spite of the utter uselessness of human language for talking about God, it’s likely that you’ll hear a lot of words from me. I think that might be a common affliction among preachers! You’ve heard the cliché about words: a picture is worth a thousand of them. Well, my average sermon is about 2,000 words. And it’s true that all those words don’t do justice even to just one picture of the sunrise I described to you earlier, and that picture doesn’t do justice to the actual sunrise. In the same way, no matter how many words I might use to try to describe God, or no matter how many words we might say together to express praise and give glory, we just can’t do justice to the real thing. There is something so indescribable, something so mysterious about God and the handiwork of God that we just can’t use words. All we can do is look, and marvel, and be in awe.
Now, normally when I find myself in a situation where words just won’t work, I find myself humming, and one of the songs I often hum is the one we’re about to sing together. There is a saying that “whoever sings prays twice” and I think that’s true. I can’t express much about God with my own words, but somehow with both words and music it’s a little easier. It’s still inadequate, for sure, but something about music just takes it to the next level for me. Creation uses sounds and colors and music. Some traditions use speaking in tongues. We aren’t really into tongues, but we can do sound and color and music, we can use art and song and dance...things that give us the chance to breathe and move and praise with the world around us. And we should also not underestimate the power of sheer awe: of just being in the presence of God with no trappings—no witty dialogue, no pretense, no understanding, just being.
We find ourselves in the presence of God in all kinds of places—in the valley, on the mountaintop, in the forest, in the church, in the car, with our families, and lots of other places. It’s important to be in those places. But we don’t get to just stay there. We don’t get to just sit around looking at sunsets all the time and marveling at God’s creation. Yes, we must marvel, but then we must go out and proclaim God’s glory. I think one of the best ways we can do that is with our lives, not just with our words. The heavens are telling the glory of God in their very being—just by existing and doing what they do, the heavens are busily shouting their praises. In the same way, how we act, the things we do, the way we treat people and the earth—these are ways that we can move beyond our limited language and proclaim the glory of God to the whole world. One of my favorite quotes is attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Proclaim the gospel at all times,” he says. “Use words if necessary.” St. Francis spent a lot of time out in nature, and I think he got it. Loving action can reach to the end of the world, with a voice louder than any words.
Don’t get me wrong—I love words. I love reading and writing, I love listening to and telling stories. I hope to hear each of your stories, and hope you will get to know mine. But I also know that no matter how hard I try, words are just not going to work for everything. A lot of the time, it’s important that we just be with God together. There are times when wordless love pours out from God and through us. There will also be times we find ourselves together doing both mundane and memorable things—and we will do them with love and those actions will speak the gospel to us and to others, even if we never talk about more than the weather. In our being and our doing, we can and will proclaim the love and glory of God together, just as the Creation does.
Just like the heavens and the day and night, we were created to tell the glory of a God who is beyond our language, beyond our understanding, beyond us—and yet who knows us and loves us more than words can express. Proclaim that gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.
(NW: pray) Amen.