A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy K. Hammer, February 3, 2019
(With a tribute to poet Mary Oliver)
Exodus 15:19-21 GNT
Readings from Mary Oliver – “Why I Wake Early” and “Trying to Be Thoughtful in the First Brights of Dawn”
Have you ever considered just how important religious poetry is to life and faith? It would be difficult to imagine the Bible without poetry. As writer Debra Dean Murphy states in Christian Century magazine, “For theology and liturgy, poetry has always mattered.” If we were to extract all the pages of the Old Testament, or Hebrew Bible, that were in their original form poetry, we would be left with just a fraction of the Bible we have come to know and love, including the most beloved passages in the Bible. Now, I did not sit down and calculate the percentage of pages in the Bible that are arranged in poetic form. But Professor Mark E. Wenger, of Columbia International University, did. Professor Wenger states that over 8,600 verses of the Bible are poetry, or about 27% of the Bible overall. Of those 8,600 verses, about 8,200 are in the Hebrew Scriptures, or the Old Testament, which means that about 35% of the Old Testament is poetry. Sixteen books of the Old Testament are entirely or predominantly in poetic form.
If we were to extract all the poetic writings in the Old Testament, then there would be no more Psalms, Proverbs, or Ecclesiastes. They would be gone, including the beloved “The Lord is my shepherd,” and “I will lift up my eyes unto the hills” psalms, as well as the “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” passage. Also gone would be the books of Job, the Song of Songs, and the Lamentations of Jeremiah; some pages from Genesis and Judges; and much of the beloved material from the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, Amos, and others.
The short poetic passage I read earlier from Exodus that celebrates the Israelites’ victory over the armies of Pharoah, the Song of Miriam, is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, passage in the Bible. And curiously enough, it is attributed to a woman, the sister of Moses. But the passage indicates that from the earliest days of recorded Hebrew history, they were expressing their faith and theology in poetic form.
When we turn to the New Testament, we find that some 5% or 395 verses of the New Testament are poetry. If we were to extract the poetic passages from the New Testament, gone would be the Beatitudes, the Song of Mary (“my soul magnifies the Lord”), and Jesus’ inaugural sermon text in Luke.
If we did not have the poetry of the scriptures, not only would we miss the poetic beauty and cadence of the Bible’s poetry, but we would be deprived of the spirituality and deep theological teachings contained within them as well. Humanly speaking, some of the poetry of the Bible touches on the deepest of human emotions such as love, passion, jealously, rage, and forgiveness. Spiritually speaking, the beloved poetry of the Bible provides us with assurance, comfort, and hope. And theologically speaking, the beloved poetry of the Bible includes some of the deepest theological insights and some of the most pressing theological questions posed by humankind.
So the importance of the poetic spirituality and theology to be found in the Bible cannot be overstated. In short, the beloved poetry of the Bible is what makes the Bible what it is. As I said in the beginning, it would be difficult to imagine the Bible without the beloved poetry that makes the Bible what it is.
With all of that having been said, in a similar vein of thought, it would be difficult to imagine contemporary American poetry without Mary Oliver. Over the course of the past 50 years, Oliver changed the poetic landscape of America with her unconventional poetry which has touched the hearts and lives of millions, including yours truly. In case you haven’t already heard, Mary Oliver died on January 17 at the age of 83 from lymphoma. Writing in The Washington Post, Maggie Smith referred to Oliver as “arguably America’s most beloved best-selling poet.” Oliver’s collection, American Primitive, won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry in 1984. And her New and Selected Poems (1992) won the National Book Award. Over the years, Oliver produced over 30 books of poetry.
Even though Oliver was not a theologian or even what one might call a “church person,” her poems often touch on theological themes and she addresses such religious ideas as grace, prayer, God, Holy Communion, and what happens after death. As Debra Dean Murphy put it, as quoted in the Christian Century magazine, through her poetry Oliver encourages “a deeply theological vision of the world.” NPR stated that “she channels the voice of somebody who it seems might possibly have access to God. I think her work does give a sense of someone who is in tune with the deepest mysteries of the universe.” And religious naturalist Matthew Fox writes that Oliver “was a profound creation centered mystic who awakens us all to the healing powers of nature.”
Indeed, Oliver won the hearts of many because so many of her poems link spirituality and nature. In other words, Oliver experienced God in the natural world, creatures, and places that would never occur to most of the world. An example is Oliver’s poem, “On Traveling to Beautiful Places”:
“Every day I’m still looking for God
and I’m still finding him everywhere,
in the dust, in the flowerbeds.
Certainly in the oceans,
in the islands that lay in the distance
continents of ice, countries of sand
each with its own set of creatures
and God, by whatever name.”
And in her poem, “Song of the Builders,” she relates:
“On a summer morning
I sat down
on a hillside
to think about God –
a worthy pastime.”
And she goes on to relate how she found spiritual inspiration in a cricket going about its work.
In “I Wake Close to Morning” Oliver asks:
“Why do people keep asking to see
God’s identity papers
when the darkness opening into morning
is more than enough?”
Oliver also had a lot to offer regarding prayer, of which she says in the poem “Whistling Swans”:
“Do you bow your head when you pray or do you look
up into that blue space?
Take your choice, prayers fly from all directions.
And don’t worry about what language you use,
God no doubt understands them all.”
In the poem titled “Praying” she advises:
“. . . just
pay attention, then patch
a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway
into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.”
And from her poem, “On Thy Wondrous Works I Will Meditate,”
“Every morning I want to kneel down on the golden
cloth of the sand and say
some kind of musical thanks for
the world that is happening again – another day –
from the shawl of wind coming out of the
west to the firm green
flesh of the melon lately sliced open and eaten. . .”
And then in what is probably her most famous poem, “The Summer Day”:
“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.”
Mary Oliver teaches us the importance of being observant, in the moment, mindful –
“It is what I was born for –
to look, to listen,
To lose myself
inside this soft world –
to instruct myself over and over
in joy, . . .’ (“Mindful”)
“How important it is to walk along, not in haste but slowly, looking at everything . . .
To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” (“Yes! No!”)
“Attention is the beginning of devotion.” (“Upstream”)
Oliver has much to say about death and the afterlife, and some of her poems are now used by Hospice Chaplains at the end of life and often quoted at funerals and memorials services. One of the most comforting quotes about death is when she observes:
isn’t darkness, after all,
but so much light
wrapping itself around us –
as soft as feathers –“ (“White Owl Flies Into and Out of the Field”)
Well, there is so much more that might be said about Mary Oliver, if we but had the time. Connie Green, whom some of you know, has taught a three or four session ORICL class on the poetry of Mary Oliver. But probably Oliver’s most poignant lines, also from the poem “The Summer Day,” have spoken to, and in many cases continue to haunt, millions:
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
Matthew Fox, in his tribute to Mary Oliver, relates how that two years ago he heard her address a full auditorium, holding everyone’s attention for two hours. Fox relates, “Her last words were addressed ‘to the young people’ . . . to whom she wanted to leave ‘everything I have learned about life after 83 years.’ Three things: 1. Pay attention. 2. Be astonished. 3. Share your astonishment.” That is what Mary Oliver did for 50 years in her role as a poet. And that is at least part of what religious poetry as found in the Bible does as well: It calls us to pay attention, to be astonished, and to share or express our astonishment through gratitude, thanks, and praise. It was so for Mary Oliver. May it be so for us. Amen.