September 4, 2016
Church of Peace, UCC
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31
Rev. Mariah Marlin-Warfield
What Are We Singing?
(seventh in the series “I’ve Always Wanted to Know”)
(note: the opening hymn is “How Great Thou Art;” the hymn of response is “O Mighty God” a different version of the same hymn)
“I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
Then sings my soul, my savior God to thee,
How great thou art. How great thou art.
Then sings my soul, my savior God to thee,
How great thou art. How great thou art.”
If you happened to grow up in the church, chances are, this is a hymn you have sung before. There’s something so intuitively compelling, so exquisitely powerful, about a song you have known forever. Music makes a mystical imprint on our being, so whether or not you think of yourself as a musical person, you know the old hymns can awaken your singing. It’s like they have laid a claim on your soul.
Or maybe it’s like the time you were moving into student housing at grad school. Here you are with your parents hauling boxes up the stairs in the ugliest concrete building, in an unfamiliar city where you can’t even find the grocery store. There’s a part of you that wonders whether this was all a mistake, whether you’ll really be able to live here.
Then down in the hall in another apartment, you hear somebody playing the violin. But not anybody. You hear a child playing the violin. But not any song. You hear a child struggling with the same Bach Minuet you struggled to learn and played in recital. And now you know, this is your home.
Music teaches us who we are and what it means to be home. You’ve got to love the old hymns for this.
Of course, “How Great Thou Art” isn’t any old hymn. It’s a song of praise for the power and glory of creation so the word “art” nearly takes on a double meaning. It’s the old fashioned way of saying “how great you are” yet we’re not entirely wrong to hear, “God how great is your artwork in creation.”
When it comes to God’s creation, it’s not all roses and rainbows. There’s a certain fierceness hidden inside the comfort. Like the maybe the ocean could turn wild and swallow the land. Like maybe seeing the stars could lead to a danger we haven’t yet imagined, then after the danger, the resurrection we haven’t imagined.
It’s easy to romanticize the biblical stories of creation. Remember the pleasure of watching life come to life; remember God beholding what was made and seeing how it is good. And it’s also hard work. And it’s also a little scary. Ask anyone who has ever created anything, anyone who sat down with a blank page trying to write a paragraph, anyone who threw a slab of clay on the wheel hoping it lands in the center.
Creation is a dance between comfort and challenge, between pleasure and worry. The American artist Chuck Close is famous for saying this about the creative process, “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and get to work.” Which is both sobering and reassuring since you can’t force inspiration to make an appearance.
Of course, ask anybody who’s ever made anything, eventually, you’ve got to have both. Creating takes the breath of life and the hard work of our hands. It’s the same thing when it comes to talking to God. Prayer is hard work and inspiration; it’s a comfort and a challenge and it’s more than that too… Because God is more.
Today we conclude our summer sermon series with a popular pair of questions. Somebody rightly asks, “If God is the Father and the Son and Jesus is the Son of God, where does the ‘She’ fit in?” On a related note, “Why have the words to the hymns been changed?” Thank you for these questions.
I have come to believe that God is greater than my ability to comprehend. I might be able to say something true about God, but nothing I say could capture the fullness of all that is God. I can call God Holy Spirit, or Mother of Life, or Maker of Mystery and Mercy, but no name will ever be enough. What I know of God is that I will never know all of God. God is always more…
This means you might know something of God that I don’t know; I might know something of God that you don’t know, and the more we share these perspectives, the deeper we grow in our relationship with God.
This also means that when human people talk to God or about God, even the people in the Bible, the best we can do is speak in metaphor. God is the Author of Creation, the King of Glory, Immanuel who comes to be with us, Our Father Who Art in Heaven. All of these are true. All of these are metaphors.
Many familiar metaphors for God are masculine. The Trinity includes the Father and the Son. Other male names for God are “King” and “Lord.” It doesn’t mean God is exclusively male just because we’ve grown accustomed to talking to him that way. There are names and metaphors for God that are feminine; you can even find these in the Bible. This doesn’t mean God is exclusively female. It means we’re able to talk to her that way. We can pray to Them, or It, or You Who are Divine. And if this makes us uncomfortable, really, that’s okay.
Our scripture this morning comes from the book of Proverbs. Hear how this Bible passage lingers in the pleasure of imagining wisdom as a woman who partners with God in creating the world. “When God established the heavens I was there” says Wisdom. “When God made firm the skies above and established the fountains of the deep…When God marked out the foundations of the earth, I was beside him, like a master worker, like a darling child, I was a daily delight rejoicing before God” (8:27-30).
I love the energy and the complexity of this poetry. Wisdom is not one thing like God’s Girl Friday. Wisdom is the muse for the LORD who makes the world, and a master worker, and a darling child. Wisdom is the one who speaks. She stands at the gate and cries out to all who live.
And so it is that Bible scholars have noticed a connection between the Wisdom of God and the Logos, the Word of God. The Word of God is part of the Trinity. If this wisdom is female, then part of God is female. Now in response to the question, “In describing God, where does the ‘She’ come from?” this passage from Proverbs is one answer. “But that’s just poetry!” we might say. Exactly. It’s all poetry; that’s what we’ve got; that’s how we know God.
Recently, Pastor Katherine shared with me a book by J. Ruth Gendler that personifies common human qualities. Hear how Gendler describes Wisdom: “Wisdom wears an indigo jacket. She takes long walks in the purple hills at twilight, pausing to meditate at an old temple at the crossroads… Wisdom has a quiet mind. She likes to think about the edges where things spill into each other and become their opposites… Sometimes her eyes go out to the thing she is looking at, and sometimes the thing she is looking at enters through her eyes.”
Those edges where things spill into each other and become their opposites… This reminds me of that soft edge where comfort turns into challenge, where challenge turns into exhilaration.
Friends, the problem is not really the question of whether or not God is female, whether or not any part of God is feminine. That’s a not a bad debate to have, but I suspect the more important problem is that having so many metaphors for God challenges how we’ve always thought of God. So who it is that we’re praying to, anyway?
If you find yourself feeling uncomfortable praying to God our Mother, or God Divine Master, or God the Breath of Life, honor that discomfort. Bless that discomfort. This is the struggle that enlarges our faith. Whatever you typically call God, I encourage you to try out a new name. If you usually pray to our Heavenly Father, try praying to the Source of Love or the Author of Creation. It will be weird at first! But after that, after that impulse to spit it out, after that, see whether your faith is changing.
Speaking of change, twenty-one years ago, the United Church of Christ published the New Century Hymnal which includes contemporary hymns along with new versions of traditional hymns. This means that people who have come to church their whole lives now feel like first-time visitors. This means we have to pay attention to the words, and just what are we singing anyway? I used to know this song! Why would they go and change the words… It’s like coming home only to find that home is not the same anymore.
Of course, the real problem with this changing of words is it means we can’t trust the comforts of our faith to be there for us when we need them. So I need to tell you. The truth is we can’t trust the comforts of our faith to be there for us when we need them.
What we can do is trust God to be there. This strange unfamiliarity that comes from the changing church is real and it is a struggle. Notice this struggle, bless this struggle, then stay with it all the way to the other side.
If you do that we will see, comfort turns into challenge; there’s no getting around it. But then challenge turns into the music of creation, the pleasure of the stars, the possibility we never would have found if we stayed home. Praise to the LORD our God who is so much more. More than the name we usually call her. More than the song we learned from our grandparents.
Now the day breaks and God comes right into the room where you’re sleeping and wakes you up saying, “Come on, join in my wisdom and whimsy, we’ve got a whole world to make together.” You feel the breath come into your bones, and your eyes adjust to the light. The praise of life fills your being! And you hear yourself say to the LORD, “Okay, now what are we singing?” Exactly. Amen.
 words by Stuart K. Hine
 Gendler, J. Ruth. The Book of Qualities. Harper Perennial: New York, 1988. page 16.