May 10, 2015

Church of Peace, United Church of Christ

Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield

Psalm 139:1-18

Creativity Rising: Playing Devil’s Advocate

One of my favorite seminary classes combined studying the stories in the Bible with basics of theatre. We did this exercise in which one group would look at the Bible story, choose an image from the scene (like taking a picture of the action) then they would create a tableau with their bodies, holding different positions, frozen in time.

Say it was the story of the man whose younger son finally came home after squandering his inheritance. Say it was the moment of reunion. You might have one person playing the father falling down in joy; one person might be the surprised younger son; maybe the older son would be off at a distance. You get the idea.

Next, the second group would look at this human tableau, and these people would position their bodies in the empty spaces in between. Then the first group would step away, and this second group would have created a whole new human tableau in the negative space. Some people might be laying on the floor or bent back funny. Now the first group would look at this new tableau and see if they could identify any connection to the Bible story.

It’s a lot like one of those drawings of two faces, where you can flip the same picture upside down or right side up and see a funny face looking at you either way.

In our tableau exercise, we were actually flipping the whole process. The first time, the group starts with the Bible story, then chooses a scene in the story, then positions their bodies to portray that moment. The second time, the group begins by positioning their bodies in the empty space, then the group studies the tableau and finally asks, what does this have to do with the story? Maybe nothing. Or maybe there’s a flash and a flicker in common we didn’t notice before…

If this sounds like a stretchy and strange way to read the Bible, it absolutely is. What’s to stop us from just making things up? Taking an idea or an image and flipping it upside down does not guarantee that new meaning will emerge. It might just be an upside down face looking at you… How will you know unless you look?

Seems to me, this exercise of reversal is important in any creative process. It’s the work of playing devil’s advocate in a discussion. Maybe it’s an unpopular opinion, maybe it’s an opinion you don’t necessarily hold yourself, but when we get up and bend our back funny and look at it from this angle, our thinking becomes a little more stretchy and strange. We give extra oxygen to the part of our brain that asks, “What if?” Look at the story upside down, new possibilities are given energy.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus takes up this work of reversal, but not as a brainteaser or classroom exercise. It is a serious ethical question that goes, What if the ruling systems of the day were turned upside down? What if God brings down the powerful from their thrones and lifts up the lowly? What if the poor are blessed, and the children are welcomed, and the homeless and hungry get invited to the banquet?

Our scripture this morning is not from Luke. It’s Psalm one-thirty-nine, sung centuries before Jesus and his wild vision of God’s kingdom come to earth, and even here there is an energy of reversal.

Reading through this poem, you’ll find it flings you around. First we fly up to heaven, then we plunge down to make our bed in Sheol. We are knit together in our mother’s womb, but may God kill all the wicked. This is the kind of Psalm that’ll give you whiplash!

And this is the kind of Psalm that dares you to get up, and run around, and look at the scene from the back. Flip it upside down just for a second; there might be a flash and a flicker in common we didn’t notice before.

To begin with, Psalm one-thirty-nine ends with section of cursing. (We didn’t hear that part read out loud in church.) “O that you would kill the wicked O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me… Do I not loathe those who rise up against you? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies. Search me, O God, and know my heart…”

What kind of prayer is this? Even worse, earlier the Psalmist says to the LORD, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” I am so great, and those wicked ones are awful. Won’t you kill them, O God… is one way this prayer could sound. It sure looks that way, right side up on the page.

The thing is, when you flip hate speech upside down, it uncovers the fear. There’s always fear hidden under hate. What if the Psalmist isn’t cruel, what if she’s really afraid? The last two verses go like this, “Search me O God, know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked in me…” because this hatred I feel toward the wicked, I harbor toward myself.

What if the ending of the song isn’t about them over there? What if it’s really about me? Kill me, God, if I am wicked. Because maybe I am. And God I am so afraid.

Now that’s a prayer you can trust. It is dreadful and terrifying, but maybe this cursing doesn’t end with an exclamation point. Maybe it ends with a question mark? Is there any wicked in me O God?

Now the middle part of the song might hold the answer: “God it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made…”

Recently there was an article in the Huffington Post about this Bible verse appearing on posters for different issues. The writer observed this is the verse lifted up by a community that speaks out against abortion. And this is the verse lifted up by a community that supports equality for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people.

“I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made,” words lovingly lettered on poster board and held up for the cameras. Unborn children fearfully and wonderfully made in their mother’s womb. Transgender persons fearfully and wonderfully made! You could guess there’s not always a lot of crossover between these communities, one leans to the right, the other leans to the left. But this verse might be a flash and a flicker we have in common. [1]

If you already know you are fearfully and wonderfully made, it might seem like a triumphant proclamation printed right side up on the page. That’s fine. It’s even worth singing. But what if this section is more than a proclamation about ourselves, what if this is exactly the truth we need to share with each other?  Because not everybody knows. Not everybody knows their bodies were intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Not everybody believes our very being is crafted by love. God knows, we don’t even remember.

If you’re keeping track, the last part of the song isn’t about them, it’s about me. It sounds like hate speech when it could be a plea for mercy. This middle section isn’t just about me, it’s about you. It sounds like a triumphant proclamation, but it could be a word of blessing. Imagine the protest with the poster that reads, “You are fearfully and wonderfully made!”

Now the first part of the song isn’t so much about them, or me, or you. It’s about the activity of God who goes with us all the way, like it or not: “You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. You search out my path and my lying down… You hem me in behind and before…”

There is good reason to struggle with this first section! I used to read this out loud to eighth graders and their parents on the first day of confirmation as a blessing for God going with us on the journey. I remember the moms smiling wistfully. I remember the kids looking annoyed. Maybe this scripture is comforting, or maybe it’s creepy. Maybe it’s smothering and suffocating -like there’s no where you can run to get a break from the LORD.

Or maybe that is exactly how this song is liberating, because it dares us to run, to get up and go put ourselves in another position, get off the main road and go through the back alleys, turn things around and go look at the LORD through the eyes of a fourteen year old, or a four year old, or a person you can’t stand.

Friends, I believe this is our call as the church. We are a people uniquely positioned to help each other see from different perspectives, to play devil’s advocate and ask those unreasonable “What ifs?” Can you imagine looking through the eyes of a person who challenges your most deeply held beliefs? What does the world even look like to them? That is a question we can consider together.

These days, we don’t sit and lament, if only we had more young people in the church. The question we’re asking is, how can we bring the mission of our church to young people in this community? We’re not looking at the numbers saying, we must pay our own bills first, then we can help those in need. Other way around: We’re here to help those in need.

The more we go out and look from different perspectives, the more we understand, we don’t have to agree. Now when we go out and look from the other side, when we flip the options upside down, we not only see new meaning, what we see is each other. In the flash and the flicker we see how we can trust each other.

And you know, we have nothing to lose! There is no place we can run to, no hell we can hide in, no idea so controversial, or offensive, or unpopular that makes us unfindable by the LORD. God, you have searched me and known me… Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence…

I come to the end, I wake up, I am still with you. Amen.


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