The EPISCOPAL CHURCH of ST. JAMES the LESS
A Farewell to Summer
William Blake, the Sun at his Eastern Gate We had a wonderful start to our year last Sunday, Banner Sunday, and if you weren’t here then, welcome back. There are a lot of new faces, a lot of new people to get to know. And I want to welcome back anyone who was visiting with us last week for the first time. This is a great church to be a part of. If you can believe it, it is still summer, technically. Fall officially begins in exactly one week, September 23. Making this our last summer Sunday together. It doesn’t feel that way, and our Scripture readings at this time of the year definitely take a turn toward the more serious. But for those of us not quite ready to move on yet, there’s this holdout, Psalm 19, one of the most exuberant, joyous psalms in our Bible, widely considered one of the best. Anglican theologian C.S. Lewis considered it the best of all 150 psalms. He called it “the greatest poem in the Psalter and one of the greatest lyrics in the world.” Beethoven, Bach and Haydn have all set it to music. The first two verses of this Psalm are the basis for one of the movements in Haydn’s Creation Oratorio: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.”
The choir will be singing that as today’s offertory anthem. There’s also an adaptation of it in our hymnal. It is one of the few hymns that has been in every single revision of the hymnal for almost 400 years. This is a Psalm that deserves all these accolades. What many love best about it is its picture of creation: teeming with life, chatty, full of personality. This isn’t the fierce face of nature that we’re seeing down south right now, but the gentler side. “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament shows his handiwork.” The firmament, sometimes translated dome, or just sky, refers to the ancient belief that there was a dome covering the earth that would periodically open up and let in the rain. There’s a firmament in Genesis chapter 1. It’s a name that makes you take the sky seriously. It’s not just vapor and gas, but a firmament, a substantive thing. A dome.
Creation in this Psalm doesn’t seem to be in any way concerned that there are no human beings around. On the contrary. “One day tells its tale to another,” and “one night imparts knowledge to another.” My kids, 7 and 3, share a bedroom, and this verse where the days and nights talk to each other each night and each morning reminds me of their chatter between themselves after we say goodnight and close the door. It’s magical to hear them, their own words, their own life, apart from us. I almost wonder if the person who wrote this Psalm knew what that was like. Nature talks. Its elements, “although they have no words or language, their sound has gone out into all the lands, their message to the ends of the earth.” One of the debates around the revision of our current prayer book (it’s scheduled to be revised by the year 2030. The last one was 1979) is its depiction of nature and our relationship to it.
For example, one of the Eucharistic prayers declares us the “rulers of creation.” I doubt that will be in the next version. So much has happened since the last revision, so many discoveries made. We now know nature can talk. Birds communicate more than we used to think. Dolphins speak to one another. I just read a piece in the paper where parrots barter tokens for food. How arrogant we’ve been not to think nature has a life and language apart from us. Even this Psalmist knew that when he wrote, more than 2000 years ago. He saves the best part about creation for last, his description of the sun. “In the deep, [God] has set a pavilion for the sun; it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber; it rejoices like a champion to run its course.” Of course we now know the sun doesn’t sleep in its pavilion each night. It keeps blazing, as we on the earth run our course around it. Still, I like this intimate picture of God setting up a tent for the sun, maybe turning down the sheets (I’m thinking this is a princely, middle Eastern tent). And then of the strong, youthful sun strutting each morning, doing a little victory dance like a groom on the day of his wedding. “It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens and runs about to the end of it again.” There might be, behind this verse, an ancient hymn to the sun that this Psalm writer took and set within the framework of his own beliefs. The Psalms often appropriate bits and pieces of other religions.
These authors were well read, and ecumenical. And in the case of whoever wrote this Psalm, clearly in love with life, and creation. He (or she) respected it deeply. So much so that he imagines it without us. And it isn’t suffering for our absence. After all that, we come into the picture. The Law of the Lord is perfect and revives the soul. The law of the Lord brings light to the eyes. Now, in the second half of the Psalm, we’re in the human realm, with its laws and commandments and customs – made more beautiful by the Psalmist with this comparison of them to the natural world. But the Psalm isn’t quite the same after we come in, and you almost wonder if it’s all downhill from there. Are we the rulers of creation? Were we made at the climax of it, or was it just another day for God when we were formed from the dust? The Bible answers this both ways. Maybe we shouldn’t know which it is. I believe it was Ash Wednesday two years ago that I you the story of a rabbi who kept two pieces of paper in his pocket; on one, he had written “remember that you are dust” and on the other “you are but a little lower than the angels.” Then he would pull the one or the other out of his pocket depending on which he needed: a little humbling, or a little confidence. In the same way, there are the two parts of Psalm 19 to remind us of this strange yet comforting paradox of our relation to God: We’re not that important. We are entirely important. Amen.