July 19, 2015 – Sweeter than honey

Pentecost 8   July 19, 2015   (Mark 6:30-34, Ephesians 2:13-22) Psalm 19

Sweeter than honey

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In days of old when someone said: The heavens are telling the glory of God… Those who heard would be likely to say in reply: and the firmament proclaims his handiwork….

Now we live in another era, a time of much knowledge. We’ve unlocked the mysteries of the atom; mapped distant reaches of the starry cosmos…This week we’ve seen close-up pictures from chilly planet Pluto…Just around the corner, relatively speaking, in our own small solar system. With the most powerful telescopes we can see far beyond the bounds of the Milky Way, and detect the presence of planets in far-off universes… Now we communicate at warp speed. Now we know so very much… And….

Now it’s no longer just us and the Russians, England and France… No longer just India, Pakistan, China… Israel… Now any country with a little plutonium can have it’s own weapons of mass destruction… Anyone can look up the recipes on-line. So much knowledge and such unfettered power has been gained and claimed… And…

So much real understanding has been lost along the way. We have such vast knowledge… With, it seems, so little wisdom…

People of old didn’t know nearly as many things as we know now… But they knew the heavens are telling the glory of God… They knew God knows all the stars in the heavens by name (as Isaiah 40 and Psalm 147 alike tell us). They knew God gave the rainbow sign after the flood in the first book of the bible… and the rainbow sign again in scripture’s last book… They knew the heavens are telling the glory of God…

Just as assuredly our ancestors also knew… that God who made the heavens and the earth, the seas and all that fills them; God who made us in the image of God… Just as certainly made the Law of God… The Torah, the teaching of God – for revival of souls and giving of wisdom – for rejoicing of hearts and clarifying of vision. God gave his Sacred Teachings, full of the pure fear-awe-and-wonder of God. All God’s holy ordinances, true and righteous, more to be desired than gold, even much fine gold… Sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.

CS Lewis calls Psalm 19 “the greatest poem in the psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” In his book Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis says (perhaps just a bit optimistically): “Most readers will remember it’s structure; six verses about Nature, five about the Law, and four of personal prayer.” Then he puzzles at some length – wondering – how can the law be sweeter than honey? ‘I can understand,’ he says (I’m paraphrasing), ‘how we can say the law is good and true and holy… But – sweeter than honey? Is Leviticus really that lovely? Can Deuteronomy revive our souls?’

Lewis was of an older-generation of scholars – not in a great hurry to make every point faster than a speeding freight train. He understood the power of building his case slowly, deliberatively, peppered with many small but useful observations. But in due time he does answer his question, saying now of the psalmist (quote): “First he thinks of the sky; how, day after day, the pageantry we see there shows us the splendor of its Creator. Then he thinks of the sun, the bridal joyousness of its rising, the unimaginable speed of its daily voyage from east to west….The key phrase on which the whole poem depends is: “there is nothing hid from the heat thereof”… “It pierces everywhere with its strong, clean ardour….Then at once, in verse 7 he is talking about something else, which hardly seems to him something else, because it is so like the all-piercing, all-detecting sunshine. The law is “undefiled”, the law gives light, it is clean and everlasting, it is “sweet”….(End of quote.)

So, yes. God’s law is sweeter than honey… If we can taste and see, we shall know it is good and sweet. And of course there is law and there is law…

Rabbi Hillel (born some 60 years before Jesus) said “I can say the whole law standing on one foot. Do not do to others as you would not have done to you. This is the whole law. All the rest is commentary…” Jesus paraphrases Hillel’s saying in his sermon on the mount. And Jesus says he has not come to abolish the law and prophets but to fulfill them.

And there is law… And there is law… In the letter to the Ephesians we’ve read today we hear that Christ “has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances…” In Romans Paul says the law is good and holy, but it’s main function is to convict us of sin and teach us our dependence on God’s grace. In Galatians Paul says the law is our tutor, but law can also enslave us – yet at the same time in the same letter he says the whole law is summed up in the one commandment to love our neighbor as our self. This is a bit like our psalm today saying “there is no speech nor are there words, their voice is not heard. Yet their voice goes out to all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” There is law… and there is law…

The bible generally assumes we’re able to hear the word of God in context. Which takes effort to be sure… But when we try, we can usually hear, so to speak, the tone of voice in which God speaks, shouts, or whispers. God speaks sometimes (with or without words) like the wild raging storms of winter. Other times like the gentle breeze of Spring. In days of old we didn’t expect God to explain everything…or say exactly the same thing every day.

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I’ve been remembering Fred Tuttle, a retired Vermont dairy farmer, who late in life starred in a locally-produced low-budget movie, Man With a Plan. In the movie, Fred, having just sold his cows, and needing a project (and a little cash to support the farm wouldn’t hurt…) decides to run for Congress… as founding member of The Regressive Party.

Which also reminds me of how I often felt, working with dairy farmers in the late ‘80’s into the mid-‘90’s… Milk prices were disastrously low and looking to go lower… Thanks to progress – de-regulation of the milk market – cows bred to produce more and more milk – farms made hyper-efficient with more and more expensive technology. Monsanto was pushing it’s bio-engineered bovine growth hormone – inject your cows, they’ll produce yet more milk – making prices go lower still. Corporations and politicians were pushing the GATT and NAFTA trade treaties to make it easier to import milk powder from New Zealand, making milk prices even lower. Our group, Rural Vermont, was like the Regressive Party. Calling for milk prices comparable to fifty years earlier – wanting bovine growth hormone banned and GATT and NAFTA rejected. We were against progress.

As was Fred Tuttle. When Vermont public tv wouldn’t run the movie, Man with a Plan, the film maker, a part-time sheep farmer, John O’Brien, persuaded Fred to run for the US Senate. The platform was regressive change. The announced candidate in the Republican primary that year had just moved from Massachusetts. He’d loaned his campaign $227,000 of his own money; most of which he spent. Fred Tuttle budgeted $251, a dollar for each town in the state. In the one debate he stuck to local issues. “How many teats on a holstein?,” he asked. “Six,” his opponent guessed. Wrong answer. Hardly ever leaving his own front porch, receiving only one pac contribution – from a local Cub Scout pack, $16 and some change – Fred won the primary – 55 to 45 percent. A virtual landslide.

Having made his point, and (as I recall) having his movie screened more than once on Vermont tv – Fred endorsed the incumbent in the general election, saying he never really wanted to go to Washington. Like the best bishops of the early church, who also ran away when offered the job… It all probably goes to show… Regressive isn’t a bad word…if we’re talking about going back to what matters most… What matters much more than gold, even much fine gold…

Which is again part of what I hear Psalm 19 speaking today – with the voice of God declaring the unity of God’s revelation – in nature – in the sacred teachings of God – and in the practice of prayer.

We study God’s word to hear what God is saying. We study the sacred text because it holds for us words of life, full of wisdom, power and love. And the more we study the bible the more we come to realize – scripture doesn’t reveal its true sweetness through a flat, one-dimensional reading…

The language of the bible – especially evident in the psalms – is poetry and music – praise and prayer – lament and rejoicing. The name of the book of Psalms in Hebrew is “Praises,” or “Hymns,” or “Songs of Praises,” depending on translation. And learning from the bible requires not just study of its words, essential as that is – but also the persistent practice of prayer, singing of praises, and active serving of the God we meet in scripture. Teaching us, again and again what matters…

We study God’s revelation in nature much the same way. Looking not only to science, which can teach us many things – but looking and listening even more to the heavens – which are still telling the glory of God…

The revelation of God in creation was foundational doctrine for our ancestors in Christ. Read again all the Psalms, Proverbs, and Isaiah…Note all the nature references there… Notice how sublimely God’s glory is made visible in God’s word and in God’s work in creation. From the tree of life and rivers of life in the garden in the beginning… to trees of life on both sides of the river of life in the last book of the bible… The word of God and God’s creation together transmit God’s blessings in perfect harmony…

So – sing again the timeless hymns of Isaac Watts. (We’ll close with one today.) Read the inspired poetry of John Milton. (We’ll sing one of his poems today also.) Read the ‘Space Trilogy’ novels and Narnia children’s stories of CS Lewis. Hear the glorious praise therein for God’s magnificent work in creation…

And notice again – trees and hills that sing together in joy – floods clapping hands – fields exulting… Images that come to us straight from the word of God in the psalms…

And all the revelation of creation – all the revelation of all the word of God – together lead us deeper, ever deeper into praise and prayer… and recovery… of what matters most…

The heavens are telling the glory of God… and the firmament proclaims his handiwork...

So may the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be joined with heaven and nature, and all the saints of heaven…in joyful harmony.

Amen.