Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, May 15, 2016.
Taken from Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-32
Let’s begin with a little mental exercise this morning. I think it will be fun. I’m going to rattle off a list of names in no particular order. Your job will be to identify what they all have in common.
It’s a list of names that I’ve just pulled off the top of my head that I know. It’s by no means exhaustive. The other thing I need to say is that all these names are western and northern. There are vast swaths of other cultures that I’ve omitted, but that’s out of my own ignorance, of other cultures, O.K.? It shows the limits of my own education, and my own failings of intellectual curiosity.
So, if you’ve got some names from Asian culture or Middle Eastern or African or one of the Americas other than North America, by all means, plug those names in…it’s still work.
So, with that upfront mea culpa, here we go. What do all these names have in common?
Monet…Georgia O’Keefe…Erma Bombeck…John Steinbeck…
Pearl Jam…Hank Williams…Louis Sullivan…Roy Orbison…God…
Gregory Hines…Merle Haggard…Nina Simone…Sam Maloof…
Thelonius Monk…Jesus of Nazareth…Jesus the Christ…
Alice in Chains…Degas…Andy Warhol
That’s round one; are you getting the idea? What do all these folks have in common? A few more, and then I’ll quit.
Duke Ellington…Frank Sinatra…Janis Joplin…Frank Lloyd Wright…
John Williams…Patsy Cline…Christopher Wren…Earl Warren…
Antonia Scalia…The Artic Monkeys…God…Grandma Moses…
Jack White…Joni Mitchell…The Holy Spirit…
Thomas Jefferson…Merle Haggard…I.M. Pei…Mary Cassatt…
O.K., I’ll stop now. So, all these names, plus the names you’ve thought of, what do all of these folks have in common?
They have in common at least this: each one discovered his or her own way of seeing life. From the mash up of experiences and perceptions and distortions and genius that made them, they in turn crafted for themselves a unique perspective on the world. They each found a medium which they mastered—painting, music, the law, clay, wood, words, dance, their own bodies. They used that medium to get what they saw within themselves out into the world so the rest of us could see it.
We know their names because they helped enough of us to see what we ourselves could not see, of life, especially of this bit of life called humanity.
The fancy word for expressing one’s personal way of seeing is “aesthetic”: each of these, had his or her own aesthetic. As I said, aesthetic is a fancy word. It’s not a word we’re prone to use much in church. In fact, we may be kind of suspicious of such words and the people who use them. So, let’s acknowledge that suspicion up front.
The second suspicion to acknowledge is that among those many names I named, there were a few that seemed out of place. You know the Sesame Street song, “One of These Things (is Not Like the Others)”?
One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn’t belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song? 1
Among all those other names, I dropped in these names, in this order: “God”, “Jesus of Nazareth”, “Jesus the Christ”, “God”, “The Holy Spirit”. For the purposes of this list, are these names not like the others?
Does God have a unique perspective about life which is God’s own? Has God masterfully made use of a medium to get that perspective on life out where the rest of us can see it, especially that little bit of life called humanity? So, couldn’t we say, God has an aesthetic? If so, what is God’s aesthetic?
From what our reading in Proverbs says, God’s aesthetic seems to be Wisdom. But this is no wisdom of the “stitch in time saves nine” variety of wisdom. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be.” “The early bird catches the worm.” “What goes up must come down.” “Let sleeping dogs lie.” “Don’t be surprised if you lie down with dogs, you’ll get up with fleas”
There is wisdom in such sayings. Maybe they’re sort of like droplets of water sprayed up off the surface of Wisdom’s ocean. But the sayings are mere surface.
The writer, here in Proverbs chapter 8, is reflecting upon creation and sees something beneath the surface. He sees a liveliness beyond the obvious. There is evidence of what he can only describe by the one word, “delight”. It seems as though the Maker took great delight in the making of this world. More than that, it’s as if the Maker actually infused delight into the media of creation: the stars, the sun, the way the sun plays across the horizon, delight contained from within the largest mountains down to the mere “bits of soil” as verses 25-26 put it.
But, what makes it so lively is this, says this sage: it’s as though creation itself is responding with its own delight offered back to the Maker. It’s as if there’s a grand duet of delight being sung between unseen partners…a dance…perhaps even a romance.
This writer is no idiot. He knows as well as anyone, dirt is dirt, rock is rock. The same wind that blows his hair askew atop his head is the same wind that moves the trees and shrubs that sit firmly rooted in the soil.
He knows, Water is water. It’s necessary for life, be it vegetable or animal; it’s wet. He knows that too much water can ruin the farmer’s work just as easily as too little water. He knows the water distorts the light somehow.
Yet, there’s more at work. There is laughter in the dirt, the rock, the wind, and the water. There is joy, as though shared between old friends, or perhaps it is love, after all?
The writer, here in the verses of chapter 8, somehow has to capture what he perceives God showing him, what he experiences so vividly yet which lie beyond mere touch, or fragrance; beyond the majesty of sights and sounds and the flavors of the stuff of this world. For him, it is as though a far greater sage, a woman, were calling out through creation itself, inviting him to hear and understand her story, so he can tell her story to others.
Her story of how it is that she has come from before time and place ever were, to be here, now, in his own time and place, speaking to him. He names her Wisdom
“In beginning,” you know, says she, “the Lord created me….at the first, before beginning even with the earth.” There were no depths of the sea, nor mountains; no horizon was in sight, because there were no heavens to separate what was above from what was below; there was no up or down: “First,” she says, “the Lord created me.”
“So,” says Wisdom, “there I was beside him, to begin, like a master crafter, and I was the Maker’s daily delight. And I, rejoicing always before him, rejoiced in the Maker’s world as together we brought it life, especially delighting in the children of our making, the human race.”
“Now, my children, listen to me…,” Lady Wisdom says, in verse 32. Have we forgotten how to listen to Wisdom in creation? Does Wisdom’s song fall wasted, misunderstood, mislaid and finally lost to us, like some great work of art tucked away in the attic of an abandoned house or a lyric composition, or a play-write’s drama that sits idle in the drawer of a piece of furniture, an unwanted heirloom that no family member cared to take?
Should we even be taking time in a Christian worship service to speak of something so spiritual in creation itself? Isn’t this all just a bunch of “woo-woo”? Is “woo-woo” a term you’re familiar with? “Woo-woo” is a derogatory term, defined this way:
adj. concerned with emotions, mysticism, or spiritualism; other than rational or scientific; mysterious; new agey.2
Now, there’s the curse of death in Christian circles, to term something as “new agey”. That’s right! By golly, we want a rational faith; we want a scientific faith, not a “woo-woo” faith!
As I was first going through the lectionary suggestions for this Sunday and read this, Proverbs chapter 8, almost immediately there popped into my head the refrain from the 1970 song, “Woodstock”, the rock version by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young. Surely you know the refrain to “Woodstock”? Let’s sing it, why don’t we?
We are stardust/Billion-year-old carbon/
We are golden/Caught in the devil’s bargain/
And we’ve got to get ourselves/
Back to the garden. 3
I guess we might call that “woo-wooey”, too, if it weren’t for the Bible references to the Devil and the Garden of Eden and then the scientific references Joni Mitchell put in there when she wrote the lyrics.
I’m all for us Christians knowing at least something about the science of how this creation in which we live came about and continues. We need it. A solid, scientific understanding of the Universe is, literally, what keeps our faith from turning into one big mess of “woo-woo”, whether it’s New Agey woo-woo over here or the Tim LaHaye “Left Behind” woo-woo over there!
Because creation is the backdrop for all kinds of good Christian theology, from Genesis, to Proverbs, to John’s Gospel, throughout the writings of the Apostle Paul and ending up in the Book of Revelation. Good, solid theology and Christian practice is grounded in creation. It behooves us to understand it.
I strongly recommend to you Bill Bryson’s book, A Short History of the Universe. There are all kinds of scientists who’ve tried to write books for the general reader, and they fail miserably at it. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Bill Nye the Science Guy do a pretty good job, but, for my money, you can’t beat Bill Bryson’s book.
What you’ll learn is that, in fact, Joni Mitchell got it right: we are stardust, billion-year-old carbon and other stuff that burst out of a nothingness some 13.8 billion years ago. All of the energy, all of the elements of matter, out of which we are made, popped out as if from nothing, per scientists who know what they’re talking about.
Lawrence Krauss is a physicist who knows what he’s talking about. He tried to explain all this for the general reader in his book, A Universe Out of Nothing: Why There is Something Rather than Nothing. I’ve attempted to read it, and I have to say, “sorry, Larry, but I’m not sure you know any actual ‘general readers’.” So, start with Bill Bryson.
If we want to have a sound theology and a right practice of our faith, we need to learn something of the medium in which God chose to work. Because, it is through this medium of matter and energy that God worked out God’s own unique aesthetic, of which the sage of Proverb testifies.
It is our calling to continue to testify of God’s delight in this, God’s, creation; it is our calling to help this creation, especially its human family, to voice its delight back to God.
Theologian Matthew Fox argues vigorously that we Christians have become so obsessed with the idea of “original sin” that we’ve completely forgotten about the “original blessing” in creation.4
You know, I often wonder this: why was it, when Jesus walked into a bar-room full of tax collectors, or when Jesus walked past a street corner where gathered prostitutes, or whenever Jesus came into the sightline of any other groups of people whom the religious termed unclean and unfit for God, why was it they so welcomed Jesus, rabbi that he was?
Was it that in the presence of Jesus, they felt in their souls this primordial delight of the Creator now looking them in the face? Is that why they flocked after Jesus and hung on his words and welcomed Jesus to their tables?
Do you know what it is to experience judgement, shaming, perhaps deserved condemnation, to experience it all so much so that you start living your life to fit that rejection? Or, you live your life in such deep fear of that judgment that you bind yourself up: rigid, buttoned down, excelling at becoming like those whose judgement you seek to prevent?
And, then, you come into the presence of someone who seems to actually welcome you, who delights in you, who embraces you? Well, then, that’s who you’re going to follow, that’s the group to whom you will pledge your fidelity come what may.
Jesus’ ministry was a ministry of delight. Jesus called forth the innate delight which the Maker infused within creation itself. The first generations of Christians quickly seized upon this picture of Lady Wisdom in Proverbs 8 and saw there attributes of Jesus. The Apostle Paul knew these ancient writings as well as anyone. Paul wove the theme of creation and re-creation as he sought to explain the death and the resurrection of Jesus.
The sage of Proverbs introduces this wisdom collection with this person, Lady Wisdom. In a very similar way, the Gospel of John introduces the ministry of Jesus with this Prologue read for us earlier of the Living Word of God, who was before creation and through whom came creation and for whom all was created. Jesus, the Living Aesthetic of God.
Among all those names with which we began, there should be your name and mine. God calls us to see with God’s own way of seeing, to express God’s aesthetic through the medium of our lives. God calls us to embrace this world of rock and soil, of wind and water, and most of all, this human race, with God’s delight in it all, and then to help all, flawed though they be, to find delight in God, their Maker and their Redeemer. We see that way most fully in Jesus the Christ.
We are stardust, plus, the Holy Presence of God’s Delight, who would sing through our voices and live through our bodies, this deep, deep Wisdom of creation.
2Robert T. Carroll, http://skepdic.com/woowoo.html
4 Matthew Fox, Original Blessing: A Primer on Creation Spirituality, (NY: Tarcher/Putnam, 2000)