Sunday, March 4, 2018
Third Sunday in Lent Year B
Contemplate God's Glory
Holy One, Creator of the stars and seas, your steadfast love is shown to every living thing; your word calls forth countless worlds and souls; your law revives and refreshes. Forgive our misuse of your gifts, that we mat be transformed by your wisdom to manifest for others the mercy of our crucified and risen Lord. Amen.
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 God has set a tent for the sun,
which comes out like a beloved from a wedding canopy,
and like a strong athlete 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.
The law of God is perfect, reviving the soul;
the decrees of God are sure, making wise the simple;
the precepts of God are right, rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of God is clear, enlightening the eyes;
the fear of God is pure, enduring forever;
the ordinances of God are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
Moreover by them is your servant warned;
in keeping them there is great reward.
But who can detect their errors?
Clear me from hidden faults.
Keep back your servant also from the insolent;
do not let them have dominion over me.
Then I shall be blameless,
and innocent of great transgression.
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you, O God, my rock and my redeemer.
All readings for this Sunday:
1 Corinthians 1:18-25
- How does nature speak to you of the glory of God?
- How do you respond to the word "law"?
- Have you ever had to defend your faith?
- How do you think wonder and repentance go together in Lent?
- Does speaking of our "hidden faults" make a post-modern person uncomfortable? Why or why not?
by Kate Matthews
Many years ago, when I had much more free time, I had the great experience of reading Will Durant's entire series, The Story of Civilization (actually, it took me many years to read it). To be honest, I can't recall much from those eleven very big books, but there are several passages that remain vivid in my memory even now, and this week's reading, Psalm 19, reminds me of one of them. In The Age of Louis XIV (Volume VIII in the series), Durant writes at length about Blaise Pascal, the 17th century writer whom he considers "the most brilliant defender of religion in all the Age of Reason."
It must have been really tough to speak of faith in an "Age of Reason," when everyone around you was feeling their intellectual oats, so to speak, throwing over the old patterns of thought and the lens through which they viewed their existence, more than a little like us today! Pascal didn't shrink from the challenge, but he was no dry theologian, either: he was more like a poet, and a defender of religion who wrestled with it all the while. I like that in a writer, especially one writing about faith.
Reading two books
Today's psalm feels like two meditations in one: the first on nature's magnificent witness to God's awesome power and glory, and the second suddenly bringing the focus down, from the farthest reaches of space to the law, if not printed on a page, then living in the human heart, given by God and guiding the life of the community of faith. However abrupt the transition, the two meditations are closely related, perhaps even two sides of the same coin, for many people of faith.
There are those who say that there are two "books," Scripture and nature, and we need to "read" both. Here Celtic spirituality is particularly helpful, in fact, it's where I first heard of the "two book" approach to listening for the still-speaking God. Philip Newell's beautiful work, The Book of Creation: An Introduction to Celtic Spirituality, is an excellent way to approach creation as a book that speaks to us of God.
A meditation on God's glory
With open minds and eager hearts, then, we read Pascal's marvelous meditation on the vastness of outer space, where our psalm begins, and listen for nature singing of God's handiwork: "Nature entire in her full and lofty majesty...let [us] regard that blazing light, placed like an eternal lamp to illuminate the world; let the earth appear to [us] but a point within the vast circuit which that star describes; and let [us] marvel that this immense circumference is itself but a speck from the viewpoint of the stars that move in the firmament."
Pascal challenges us to use our imagination, then, for all that is beyond our ability to see, for "this visible world is but an imperceptible element in the great bosom of nature," which is "an infinite sphere whose center is everywhere, and whose circumference is nowhere. This is the most perceivable feature of the almightiness of God, so that our imagination loses itself in this thought" (from Pascal's Pensees, quoted in Durant's The Age of Louis XIV, Volume VIII in The Story of Civilization).
Infinity and anxiety
Getting lost in our imaginings is not always a pleasant or reassuring thing, of course. Even Pascal admits that "The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me" (emphasis added). That was one line that has remained with me all these years. But so has his exquisite reflection on the polar opposite of the vastness of space, as Durant conveys it: Pascal, he says, pondered "another infinity--the infinitely small....Our reason wavers perplexed and appalled between the infinitely vast and the infinitely minute."
It is as if we live suspended between these two overwhelming realities, and in both cases, we feel so small and perhaps so...disorganized and aimless in the circumference of our own lives. Pascal shares our anxiety, and hopes that such a deep awareness will inspire humility in us as we "contemplate these marvels in silence" rather than "explore them with presumption" (Pensees, in Durant's The Age of Louis XIV, Volume VIII in The Story of Civilization). That last line is a cautionary one to us today, in the age of science!
How beautifully the psalmist speaks of creation telling, singing, crying out, proclaiming, bursting with God's inexpressible goodness and glory. No, there may no be words as such, but the "voice" of the heavens, of all creation, goes forth, "through all the earth" and "to the end of the world," and, we assume, far beyond, telling of God's majesty and glory. No words, but much joy, and the warm sun that no one can escape or avoid (indeed, we cannot live without it!) participates in that joy, running its course like an exuberant runner or an ecstatic bridegroom.
From outer space to the law within
And then, all of sudden, our focus draws in to the law of God, Torah: the decrees, precepts, commandments and ordinances of God, who has given them not as burden or taskmaster but as gift, perfect, life-giving, wise, simple, right, clear, enlightening and enduring. All these good things, and more, bringing us into a harmony with all the grandeur above and around us, from the immense but orderly courses of the sun and moon and stars to the infinitesimal and unfathomable minuteness of the atom and its inner workings.
There is order in all this, and glory and goodness, the psalmist sings, and our own lives participate in that glory and goodness, especially when we find our place and rhythm within the order God provides. Rather than fear or guilt, we feel amazement at how all this unfolds in the grand and sweeping vision of the Creator God.
A clear instruction
Thousands of years ago, the psalmist wrote about us as if they knew us, the inner workings of our hearts and minds and spirits, whether or not we admit to our "hidden faults," whether or not we are "insolent," or longing for blamelessness. The instruction of this songwriter is clear, and Lent is an excellent time to meditate upon it, asking God to keep us traveling on the right path, acknowledging who we are and to Whom we belong, and holding fast to the ways of God.
What then would our lives look like, lived this way? We live in an age, long after Pascal, that chafes at what we perceive to be limitations and curbs rather than freedom itself. We like to speak of grace, but we don't think about its effects so much (especially the uncomfortable or inconvenient ones). Yet that may be just the thing about which the psalmist sings, finding the law "life-giving," Dianne Bergant writes, "and not restrictive, ennobling and not demeaning. Reverence for the law seems to promise the best that life has to offer."
Law and grace, both
Still, the whole subject of law provokes mixed reactions, especially from us Christians. When we speak about salvation and grace, we often look back to the early arguments about the law, especially in the writings of Paul (the Pharisee, as we recall). Charles Wiley suggests that "Psalm 19 cries out for an account of law that can hold together Paul's expression in Romans 7 that the law 'held us captive" and the affirmation in Psalm 19 that the law is 'sweeter than honey'."
Wiley describes the three ways the early Reformer, John Calvin, described the law: as mirror, fence, and guide. The first reflects back and judges a person, and tells the cold, hard truth as it does; the second makes some kind of order possible in society, restraining bad human behavior; and the third, most important one, provides a guide for our living: "for those who have been called to salvation, the law is a gift, a guide to know how to live life as a Christian."
A path to deeper spiritual growth
For the preacher who wants to encourage a congregation in its Lenten reflections, Psalm 19 suggests an entry point into deeper spiritual growth that may be unexpected in Lent, the season of repentance and self-denial: Thomas Edward McGrath suggests that we add wonder to our Lenten discipline. We are growing numb to the notion of "a billion" of anything, now that hundreds of billions of dollars are in the nightly news, every night.
But a dollar is not a galaxy of stars: "Can the human mind," McGrath asks, "imagine billions of galaxies? How much is a 'billion'? If you planted a thousand tulip bulbs each day from the day Jesus was born until today, you would still need to plant 1,000 bulbs every day for the next 750 years to reach one billion." (This may not be a good thing to think about too much while watching the evening news these days, considering things like the national debt, or how many hundreds of billions are spent on armaments. We have come to the point of speaking about "trillions"!)
Living in two universes
In a sense, we live in two "universes," the one with stars and infinite spaces, and the one down here on earth, the one that needs its own kind of order, God's law, which brings, McGrath writes, "order to the otherwise chaotic moral universe of human existence, no less than God's governance brings order to the heavens...the majestic realities of outer space may prepare us to encounter the majestic realities of inner space."
McGrath suggests that a preacher might unpack just one phrase, such as "enlightens the eyes," connecting it to the story of Jesus and the lawyer who asked about the law, and about who his neighbor was, the lawyer who needed to have his own eyes opened by the story Jesus told.
Repentance, wonder, awe
Wonder and awe do indeed provide a very different path in Lent, unexpected in a season associated with repentance and doing without. Do we hear the song of creation, the proclamation of the sun and stars? Do we join, at least with our hearts, in the song of praise, wordless but full of power?
Susan Marie Smith claims that nothing will stop nature from praising God: "Each sparrow is counted--and according to Psalm 19, even if humanity forgets the source of life and all good gifts, creation itself does not forget....the ironic hope is that deep in our own destruction, were we to prevent one another and other creatures from honoring God's longing for companionship, nonetheless, in the brilliant sun, racing across the heaven, making day and night--with neither chirp nor hum nor growl nor speech--God's glory would still be proclaimed, and God's word would still be imparted to the end of the world."
Does meditating on creation help you to see God's law as beautiful?
A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) along with reflections on the other lectionary texts, at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (email@example.com) retired in 2016 after serving as the dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You're invited to share your reflections on this text in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection:
Albert Einstein, 20th century
"It is entirely possible that behind the perception of our senses, worlds are hidden of which we are unaware."
Howard Thurman, 20th century
"We must try to look out at the world through quiet eyes."
Jack Kornfield, 20th century
"Those who are awake live in a state of constant amazement."
Francis of Assisi, 13th century
"Be praised, my Lord, through all your creatures, especially through my lord Brother Sun, who brings the day; and you give light through him....
Praise be you, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the stars, in heaven you formed them clear and precious and beautiful."
S. Lewis, 20th century
"I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for joy."
Meister Eckhart, 14th century
"God is not found in the soul by adding anything but by subtracting."
Cecil B. DeMille, 20th century
"God gave us free agency, and then gave us the commandments to keep us free."
Arthur Schopenhauer, 19th century
"Compassion is the basis of morality."
Martin Luther King Jr., The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr., 20th century
"I became convinced that noncooperation with evil is as much a moral obligation as is cooperation with good."
Jonathan Sacks, 21st century
"We should challenge the relativism that tells us there is no right or wrong, when every instinct of our mind knows it is not so, and is a mere excuse to allow us to indulge in what we believe we can get away with. A world without values quickly becomes a world without value."
The Dalai Lama, 21st century
"Today, more than ever before, life must be characterized by a sense of Universal responsibility, not only nation to nation and human to human, but also human to other forms of life."
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