LESSONS IN LIVING
Bringing AGAPE to Life Series
I. A - Artist
A St. Andrew’s Sermon
Delivered by Dr. Jim Rigby
October 26, 2008
Editor’s note: At St. Andrew’s, we have laid out the programs of the church according to an AGAPE formula (AGAPE is the Greek word for love) in an effort to have a balanced approach as we carry out the church’s mission.
Just a word about our scripture passage: I know that it seems to some of you that I’m just
making things up as I go in sermons, because when you look at a passage in English, it’s
sometimes very, very different than it is in the original language. And I think, in particular, the gift that I have to give you – so that you don’t have to learn Hebrew and
Greek – are those kind of bridges to the text. You don’t need somebody to tell you how
to think, you don’t need somebody to explain the obvious meanings of a passage, but to have someone who can help to go deeper into the cultural underpinnings of the text, it seems to me, is very helpful.
This passage today is very reflective of something that I think is incredibly important, and that is the four letters that you see in the passage – YHWH – that is the divine
name, …and you can’t say it. You have some translations, for instance, the Jerusalem translation has that spelled out, but the point of it is that those four letters are the consonants of the verb “to be.” And in Hebrew, you can’t tell which tense it’s in. Is it past, present, or future? You can’t tell if it’s a male or female…a “it,” a “he,” “she,” “they.” And I believe that’s the point of it - that this is the Word that was heard at the
burning bush. I believe that what Moses was experiencing is the “ground of being,” the “root of being.” If our idea of God doesn’t get us to that, I think there’s a problem. The word “God”, the word “Lord,” that we [here at St. Andrew’s try to] avoid [using] because it’s masculine, are all kind of pointing to this mystical word. And what would happen is,
they would put those words in there, so that you would say something other than this, but think of this.
So, Alice, [our lay reader] is going to read this and change that to “God” or to “The Holy
One” or “The Sacred One.” You can use different words for it, but the point is to realize it’s a very different religion when you realize it’s talking about the very ground of your experience.
The scripture reading today is Psalm 150, a psalm of praise:
Praise the Holy One, praise God in the sanctuary.
Praise God in the heavens. Praise for God’s mighty deeds.
Praise for God’s excellent greatness.
Praise God with trumpet sound. Praise God with harp and lyre.
Praise God with timbrel and dancing.
Praise God with stringed instruments and pipes.
Praise God with loud cymbals. Praise God with resounding cymbals.
Let everything that has breath praise the Sacred One.
Praise the Holy One.
When I was in confirmation class – which is what we call that training period when
you’re a teenager and we brainwash the children. At least, that was sort of what it was. You’re asked questions and then given the right answer, and if you could parrot those properly, then you could be a good member of the church. The idea was that you would be given these phrases, these questions, and then, if you could say the right answer, then what you believed was appropriate. One of the answers that was given was to the question, “what is the purpose of a human being?” And what I was told that John Calvin said was, “the purpose of a human being is to worship God.” Now, that’s not really all that Calvin said. He also said “to enjoy God forever.” But my teacher was a real good Calvinist, and there was no enjoyment to it. So, I asked the question to myself, “what kind of a God would create people just so we would worship?” Have you ever thought
about that kind of insecurity, or low self esteem, that you would create a Universe to grovel before you? I don’t know, but it just seemed to me that there might be more to it than that.
I was also told that this Being that I was supposed to praise was an invisible person - that I would have a personal relationship with this invisible person, and that would take me through my life. Now it did take me through childhood and I know that many people here are comfortable with that image and I think that’s great. But I also know that there’s
an ocean of people in this country who have a problem with the idea of talking to and having a relationship with somebody who isn’t talking back on the other end. And I know
you can say “oh, the wind blew the bottle over to point in that direction, so I must be
supposed to go in that direction.” But a loving God wouldn’t leave us in the lurch like that, it seems to me. So, I’m never trying to take away symbols that are working for you. But, if it’s not working, I think our passage today points to something that’s very, very helpful.
The Divine Name is, I think, one of the most important truths that’s there, and in the Hebrew, you see it from the beginning of Genesis all the way through the Jewish scriptures – all over the place. But if you asked a thousand Christians, maybe one or two would even know what it is. This is the mystical experience that Moses had before the burning bush. “Who are you?” There’s an answer there, but it’s not like “My name is Joe.” It’s the verb “to be” said in a way that Moses is experiencing this personally but it opens him to everything else, too.
Moses is seeing a burning bush, but it may have actually just been an ordinary bush. He may have been seeing that bush at a depth where he saw the energy in it and the life in it, and the fact that it was coming from the “Ground of Being” itself. And it may have been that mystical perception that led him to know what ethics is – that web of life. But it was
hearing the silence through the noise. It was seeing the invisible through the senses. Sensing that everything we see comes from that which we don’t see that I think is the very heart of this.
Now here’s our problem: if you were raised in a traditional church, the teachings that
may have been given you about God keep you from ever getting to this mystical. Because what you’re supposed to believe in is this invisible person. You’re supposed to keep talking and hope something happens back. Again, if it’s working for you, I’m not trying to take that away. But, for an artist, for a mystic, there has to be more, and the problem, I believe, is that people who have that personal, concrete idea of God won’t let mystics alone – won’t let artists alone, because when people want to go deeper, what the
church has said through the ages is “don’t you dare! Don’t you dare go deeper than our package. Don’t you dare find another way of talking about the unspeakable Name, because we’ve given you the official version of the unspeakable Name.” Isn’t that strange that we’re told not to say the Name, and yet you can’t become a member of the church if you don’t say their version or our version of the Name? And so, we have ideas
of God that make us fight with one another, because when I know what God looks like
and you know what God looks like, and it’s different, what happens next?
Very often people hear this call to this depth as having the crutch being pulled away, and falling down and losing the personal. I want to suggest that it’s just the opposite. If, as
an adult, you’ve lost that personal relationship, I want you to know that in the space of the person sitting next to you, that same personal intelligence and love is right there. I want to tell you that when you go out into a forest and feel a web of connectedness there, that you’re just simply going deeper into the love that you were taught as a child.
The word “to praise” is also very important. It means to shine out of something. Glorify also means that, and so it includes the idea of flattery, and I’m sure that means a lot to
God. (I don’t know how many of you saw the Monty Python film. I won’t say the names, because it’s not really appropriate, but I will quote it. This is a scene where the child is in religious school and the priest gets up to do a prayer. He says, “Let us praise God: O
God, you are so big, so absolutely huge. Gosh, we’re all really impressed down here. Forgive us, O God for this dreadful toadying and bare-faced flattery. But you are so strong and well, just so super, fantastic. Amen.” That’s Python 3:16)
The idea that we’re these small, little-bitty critters praising our Maker doesn’t hold up to
a lot of thought, does it? If this thing is so much greater than we are, then why does it need our flattery? But, if we are shining out of it, if we are emanating out of it, then we must recognize that if we are to be who we truly are. If we are expressions of that, then what we’re really talking about through prayers and songs, through whatever we do…dancing, we’re expressing the ground of our own being.
Now, I don’t find mysticism a lonely place. There’s a wonderful hymn we’re going to finish up with. It’s called “Ode to Joy,” which is an expression if you’ve ever read St. Francis where he had the sense of a symphony going on and every being is a part of that, is an instrument in that orchestra, and is an expression of God, a personal expression of God – that God hasn’t abandoned us…that God is manifest to those who have eyes to see
and ears to hear in those around us.
“All your works with joy surround you, heaven and earth reflect your rays.
Stars and planets sing around you, center of unbroken praise…
-that it is possible to look at every being from flowers, ants, people, as words of God. What good is it to come here and hear a beautiful sermon if you don’t leave here and hear
wisdom all around you? Have you ever thought of that? What good is it to come here and here the best anthem in the world if you leave here and you can’t hear the music that surrounds you in this coming week?
So, there’s a type of music that’s very interesting in Tibet, where – you know the word
“ohm” - that kind of vibration sound? It’s a way of realizing that life is vibration. But in this particular band, to keep that from being escapist, they’re singing “ohm,” but they’re
also hitting pie pans and cymbals, and they’re playing these God-awful horns, and at
times, you feel like you’re in traffic, but you hear “ohm” beneath it all.
We have not heard the Divine Name unless we can hear it on IH35. Scary, isn’t it?
We’ve not heard it until we can hear it in the crickets, in the mosquito…vibration – some
we like, some we don’t like, but we don’t want to tear ourselves out of the web.
Art is a way of expressing and also just stopping before beauty. And part of it is some of you have a gift of music or art, painting or dance, and that’s a gift for the rest of us appreciating the beauty that somebody else brings to the community. If we’re all talking and nobody’s listening, that’s a problem.
They talk about fine art. Fine art does not mean it’s just in a museum. It’s sort of an understanding of art that goes beyond usefulness and utility. Have you ever seen a Venus de Milo lampstand - where somebody will take a fine piece of art and use it for something useful? Like a Mona Lisa bottle opener? You know there’s something wrong.
I get that same feeling when I hear Christian music on the radio. Some of you may agree or not, but when I go around the dial and I get to the Christian station, I can tell [what it is] just from the quality drop. You know if you’re tuned to a Christian station because everything’s a little “ajangle.” And you know that you’re watching a televangelist from a
certain level of insincerity, without even knowing what’s being said. When we talk about
art as though it only comes in certain forms – when we say something like Christian
jewelry. If you’re wearing a cross, you don’t have to cover it up. There’s nothing wrong with it, but that’s not the art that’s being talked about. Because your jewelry doesn’t feed the hungry. Your jewelry doesn’t feed the poor. Your jewelry doesn’t feed your soul. It
may be a symbol of that which does. Any art you have – gardening counts, picking up a
Dixie cup from the front lawn because it will make the place more beautiful, stopping and
enjoying the drawing a child does. Do you remember when you were a child, what that meant? These are things that go beyond the beautiful and into the sacred.
The teacher Ram Dass had a story that I thought was always great. He would study these states of consciousness and then he would go around and talk, and of course, most people couldn’t follow a lot of what he was saying. He was at this place and there was this “little old lady” he called her - (I would never use those words) - she was sitting there, nodding and understanding everything he was saying. [He thought,] “Oh my gosh, she must have traveled or something.” So he took it deeper and as he went deeper, she was nodding and smiling and understanding. Afterwards, he went straight to her and said, “where did you learn this…what is your practice?” She said, “honey, I knit.” Now, think
about the meaning of that. When you garden, when you sing, when you listen, something is happening that is sacred and the Divine Name is a recognition of that.
Now, in the psalm, Psalm 150, it talks about celebrating it out under the stars. But then, it talks about doing it in a sanctuary, and this is very hard for Americans. We believe that we can be as close to God under a tree, out in the forest, as with each other. And it’s true – you can have a sense of the sacredness of beauty out in the woods, but let me challenge you with the possibility that that’s not really worship. That worship is when we share
that awe with each other. Have you ever been before something really beautiful – the
Grand Canyon, an ocean, the stars, and be moved deeply but nobody else was there, and you felt sad? Have you ever had that experience? We worship because we need to share that awe with others. We cannot go deeply into that awe just by ourselves – not like we
can with each other. Yes, the prayers are superficial compared to the depth we’re really talking about. But isn’t it better to have superficial words than no words at all? The
songs are bare reflections of the song we’re really hearing, but isn’t it better to share something than nothing?
So, in the Psalm, you see a transformation. It moves from that idea of saying praise to an invisible friend to something much deeper, which is sharing the awe that gives you life with other beings, and seeing a burning bush in each other, and knowing that we are not alone – that we’ve not been abandoned by our Maker – that instead we live through a
feast, through a symphony, through an orchestra.
So, when we are in the woods and we see something that is art – there’s no question, and
it’s even sacred art, when we’re moved beyond the sense to see something transcendent there, but it only becomes worship when we share it with another.
…Field and forest, vale and mountain, flowery meadow, ocean, too.
Chanting bird and flowing fountain call us to rejoice in You.”
We worship, not because God needs an audience, but because we need to share the awe that we’re alive at all, and to celebrate life together.
Transcribed and edited by a member of the St. Andrew’s Sermon Transcription Project.
Sermon Series: Bringing AGAPE to Life
I. A – Artist ( Psalm 150) October 26, 2008
II. G – Guardian (Genesis 6:9-22) November 2, 2008 III. A – Ambassador (II Corinthians 5:16-21) November 9, 2008 IV. P - Pastor (Matthew 25:31-46) November 16, 2008 V. E – Educator (Romans 12:1-2) November 23, 2008
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