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Abyss, Mystery and Wonder

Message for July 5, 2020

Text: Psalm 135

In a couple weeks we will be celebrating an online “Worship Through Music Sunday,” and one feature of that celebration will be a Charles Wesley songfest. You may remember that Charles was the brother of John Wesley, also served as a priest in the Church of England like his brother, was influential in the Methodist movement, and was the composer of thousands of hymns. One of those is “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” When I was a Lutheran, I loved this hymn, but when I became a Methodist minister, I stopped choosing this one very regularly, because I have a fondness for the Lutheran choice of tune as opposed to the one in the Methodist hymnal. I looked it up, and there are actually six different tunes with which Wesley’s words have been paired in various publications.

Whatever the tune, the last words of the hymn come to my mind as fitting for this worship series, and this week in particular: “lost in wonder, love, and praise.”

Psalm 135 will be recognized, by those who took the recent Wednesday morning course with Denise Dombkowski Hopkins, as a typical “psalm of praise.” There is a form to these psalms: they begin with a call to praise, they then give the reason for the praise, and then they repeat the call to praise. This psalm begins and ends with the word “Hallelujah!” which means, in Hebrew, “Praise YHWH!” — YHWH (shown in the video with the Hebrew letters yod, he, waw, he — YHWH) is the “proper name” of God, as given in the story of Moses encountering God in the burning bush. In Hebrew Bibles, these consonants are combined with the vowels for the word adonai, which means “the LORD.” The reason for this convention is so that the Jewish reader will not speak the proper name of God, but instead substitute this more generic name and thus not take the Lord’s name in vain. From a misinterpretation of this combination we get the word Jehovah. (In many English Bible translations, you see “the LORD” with small capitals in all those places where YHWH appears in the original Hebrew text.)

And it appears a lot in this Psalm, with a waterfall chorus at the end, calling different groups of believers to “bless YHWH.”

(Show onscreen v. 13 “YHWH, your name stands forever”)

How interesting it is, that this Psalm urges such effusive praise to the name of the One whose name the Hebrew people did not speak — that’s kind of odd, huh?

But they didn’t speak that name, perhaps not only because they wished not to “take the name of the Lord in vain” (i.e. not to break the commandment), but because how can one really contain God? How can one describe God? Even God’s name is illusive — YHWH, a form of the verb “to be,” often translated “I AM what I AM” but maybe more accurately translated “I will be what I will be.” The name can’t be pinned down, and God can’t be pinned down.

Several years ago a couple came visiting one of the churches I was serving, and they decided, after just one or two visits, to attend a “get acquainted” session I was offering after the evening worship celebration. There was a time for “Q&A,” and they expressed their interest in learning about the meanings of all the colors and the symbols used on the various wall hangings and altar cloths they had seen in Christian churches they had visited. It was not a question that I had regularly encountered among people attending worship for the first time — and I think it actually gave me some information about their religious background. You see, I think they were trying to decipher what they thought was some kind of a “code.” They wanted to get a handle on this God they wished to encounter.

Some people imagine that if you can get the rules down, the formulas right, and say the correct things, you can somehow unlock a doorway, gain access to God’s power. I believe it is similar to the very ancient notion of learning and uttering the name — of one’s adversary, or of the god of one’s adversary.  You read about this in some folk tales, and it’s found in some stories in the Bible, too. 

I’ve already mentioned Moses. When God told him to go to Egypt and tell the Pharoah, “Let my enslaved people go,” Moses wasn’t just concerned about the Pharoah’s response. He didn’t think the Israelites were going to accept him as a leader. This is why he asked for God’s name; maybe he would gain some of God’s power, some of God’s clout, if he came with that “magic bullet” in his pocket. But God would have none of that; “I will be what I will be,” God replies; “that’s my name” — and this story carried a lesson for God’s people: God is more than any name, more than anything we can imagine. Dr. Wendy Farley says, “God is more than my thoughts about God.” And God desires us to be in a living, growing, ever-transforming relationship with God.

Contrast with the idols decried by the psalmist — figures with human or animal forms, with eyes “that can’t see” and ears “that can’t hear,” that are made of elements that will eventually disintegrate. The psalmist pokes fun at those who worship such statues: they will pass away just as surely as the carved figures will, because their gods — unlike Yahweh — don’t care; they are lifeless, they are just human made objects. They aren’t worthy of praise.

But what is the point in reading this? Why bother with it?

Farley says, “A core awareness of the Hebrew Bible is the awareness of idolatry.”

We have this tendency to associate idolatry with practices that are totally foreign to us, excusing the very real ways in which we put other things before God — things like financial security, status, the gaining of possessions or power, selfish habits, or even family. We can even make our thoughts about God, our belief statements, our form of worship, or our way of interpreting the Bible into idols (that probably needs some further unpacking, so if you want to talk more about that, give me a call). The thing is, God won’t be nailed down. God won’t be put into a box. God has a way of blowing the lid off of things and reshuffling the way we look at our neatly constructed world — and when this happens, God is still there, ready to bring us along for the ride, calling us to deeper awareness and to risk-taking service in the cause of justice and re-creation.

Dr. Farley says, “faith is courage” in the midst of such radical re-orientation.  When we discover that the world is not what we thought it was, and that God is more than what we thought, she admits, that can be very painful. However, “If you’re in a space of ‘I don’t know who God is; I feel lost,’ that’s okay.” Faith says, “God can hold me in my lostness until I don’t feel so lost. And in this lostness, I am learning much, much more about who God is.”

To properly praise God is to be struck by awe.

Since taking an online course called “The Science of Happiness,” through UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center, I’ve continued to read about their studies on the experience of awe and how it expands our notion of time. In one study, researchers contrived to manufacture an experience of awe in their subjects by prompting them to look up in a grove of redwood trees, for example. The researchers then used actors who posed as strangers in need of help, to encounter the subjects and see how they would react. What they discovered is that people who are awestruck stop being in a hurry… and it makes them more generous, more likely to stop and help, more likely to listen to and live out their better values.

Dr. Farley writes, “Our images of the divine are reflected in how we treat others. “ The genuineness of our love for God is measured in how well we love our neighbors, especially, as the scripture puts it, “the widow, the orphan and the stranger “ — that is, the most vulnerable ones in our midst. In our current context, those neighbors include those who skin color is different from our own, those whose gender identity is not what is labelled “the norm,” the immigrant, the one who is struggling financially, those who are disenfranchised by the structures of power and privilege. 

Many stories hitting the news these days may be blowing the lid off your conceptions about how the world works, and what God is doing. In all this, may you come to trust God instead of your beliefs about God. May contemplative practice, and praise of this “God that is bigger,” lead you to that trust, so that you might follow faithfully into the unknown, without fear, and with good courage. Amen.