“King James at 400” by Mark W. Harris
March 20, 2011 – First Parish of Watertown, MA
Call to Worship – from “The Word” by John Lennon and Paul McCartney
Say the word and you’ll be free
Say the word and be like me
Say the word I’m thinking of
Have you heard the word is love?
It’s so fine, It’s sunshine
It’s the word, love
In the beginning I misunderstood
But now I’ve got it, the word is good
Give the word a chance to say
That the word is just the way
It’s the word I’m thinking of
And the only word is love
“In My Defense” by Ian Frazier from The New Yorker
“Psalms” by John Hollander from Congregation, ed. by David Rosenberg
For a long time there was only one psalm. I can still hear the tones of my father’s voice identifying a puzzling string of utterances: That’s the twenty-third psalm,” stressed just like that. . . It would be some years before I could put together the cadences of the English Bible (the King James Version or KJV), . . with what went on in synagogues. . . .
For a modern reader, the language of the KJV is inherently poetic primarily because of the relationship between its high, condensed diction and the impenetrability of so much of its language, caused by semantic change since the early seventeenth century. I suppose that a poetic childhood consists in misunderstanding a good bit of what one hears and sees, in being too reticent to ask for the solution to puzzles and meaning which adults must know are silly, and in then resorting to one’s own private versions of what was meant. . . . The child in the American joke who innocently deforms Psalm 23’s penultimate verse, assuring her adult listeners that “Surely good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me all the days of my life,” will only learn with “a later reason,” as Wallace Stevens called it, that she was getting something more profoundly right about the line, the psalm, and poetry in general than any of her correctly parroting schoolmates. For the “mistake” personifies the “goodness and mercy.” – Good Mrs. Murphy following the child about like a beneficent nurse is a more viable, powerful homiletic reconstruction of what had otherwise faded into abstraction than any primer’s glossing. . . . [She turned]mechanical allegory into poetic truth. Losing, in mature literacy, the ability to make such mistakes can mean being deaf and blind to the power of even the KJV text, let alone that of the Hebrew. . . . Thus in Psalm 85 “Mercy and truth are met together; righteous and peace have kissed each other” (KJV), the state of affairs being described . . . points up sharply what is wrong with the present relation of the paired concerns in each case: mercy and truth do not, in fact, meet together. Nor do righteousness and peace – in our lives, each is usually achieve at the expense of the other or the other’s terrain. They are zealous warriors against their particular enemies. But in their zeal they must necessarily compromise their fellow active virtues, revelations of truth frequently being merciless, acts of mercy involving the comfort of falsehood, peace being attained only at the expense of some wrong being righted, and the righting of wrongs requiring strife. Not getting the equivalent of the “good Mrs. Murphy” out of these lines is not getting the poet’s moral point, namely that when “glory may dwell in our land” then virtue will not conflict, but that they do now, and not to notice this is moral torpor.
Sermon – “King James at 400” by Mark W. Harris
Does anyone remember the old movie 1,000,000 years BC? The movie was terrible, but it featured Racquel Welch dodging dinosaurs and cavemen in this furry bikini obviously made from some very small mammal. A poster from that movie became every college male’s fantasy. It sold like hotcakes, and soon appeared on countless walls of dormitory rooms across the nation.. My freshman roommate had one, and so I had to contemplate that body all year long. No wonder I had trouble studying. And the roommate went to the library to study. He couldn’t take it. The movie recreated a world that never existed, that is, not beautiful women in my room, but rather human beings hotly pursued by large carnivorous beasts called dinosaurs. Those of you who were here last week heard me make reference to the rejection of the fundamentalist church of my childhood, partly based on its inability to reconcile an Adam and Eve creation story with the scientific evidence of the evolutionary development of reptiles and mammals. Like the Ian Frazier reading you heard, if Adam and Eve truly had “dominion” over creation, why weren’t they riding around Eden on some triceratops? Frazier, tongue in cheek, suggests that God neither wrote the Bible, checked his facts, or perhaps didn’t even read it. He concludes he cannot believe in a God who is so sloppy and disrespectful.
Because of experiences such as this Unitarian Universalists often struggle with the role of the Bible in their own lives. Like me, some liberals may wonder about the worth of the Bible, or even reject it, based on narrow minded interpretations they learned in their youth. Others may conclude that it is merely some old book that has no relevance to our modern minds. We forget that the Bible is part history, and part myth, and if we reject it because it does not conform to modern science, then we may miss all of its poetry and meaning because our only understanding of truth is different, but just as literal as those fundamentalists. Today I am asking us to pause and remember the importance of the King James Bible, which was published four hundred years ago this year.
I don’t know how many of you still read the Bible as a kind of inspirational discipline or prayer guide. I find it fascinating to learn the history, and try to understand what the authors may have meant, but ultimately I love the old stories and the poetry the most. Sure the bloody, vengeful God can be a problem, as is true of the endless laws of Leviticus, and then there is Paul and his misogynist ideas about women. Granted there are a few things to ignore, or reinterpret. Yet it is good to remind ourselves that the King James version of the Bible was revolutionary
In the beginning was the word on the page, and the word says God created the heavens and earth, which was deemed good. But we sometimes forget that for well over a thousand years the word of God was in Hebrew and Greek only. It belonged to an exclusive club, and most people had no idea what the Bible actually said. When a heretic was brought before a church inquisition, the central question was, “do you know any part of the scriptures in your own tongue?” The institution and its priests wanted to be able to interpret the scriptures for everyone. It was illegal to translate the Bible. If you were given the opportunity to understand these passages yourself without the authority telling you what they said, then you might begin to believe false truths about God. The Protestant Reformation shattered this conception. Increasingly, the Bible was printed in the regular non-academic language for each person to read and interpret for themselves.
Many of us learned in school that the Protestant Reformation occurred because of the invention of the printing press. This does not appear to be true. Printing had existed in Asia for hundreds of years, and after its arrival in Europe in the 1400’s it was used by the Catholic church for items that sold well. This did not include the Bible. Remember Guteneberg’s famous Bible? It was printed in an edition of 180 copies, and he died bankrupt and disappointed. My books sell better than that. Do you know what sold well? One single Catholic monastery printed 200,000 certificates, papal indulgences suitable for framing, where people could print in and declare their sin free name. And it was those indulgences, that selling of free passes to heaven that inflamed Martin Luther. It was corruption that started the Reformation. But its huge success was made possible by printing. The words of the Bible became relevant now that they were printed in the language of the people. Every person who could read at all could now question authority, and think for him or herself. Democracy seemed inevitable. King James I, the man responsible for giving us the great English Bible sealed the fate of his own monarchy by giving people the word for each of them to interpret.
There were English Bibles prior to the King James version. Bu the King James became and remains the gold standard. It was the work of 54 scholars who floated down the Thames to Hampton Court Palace in 1604 to avoid an outbreak of the plague that had occurred in London. You can still make that journey by boat to this royal residence that Henry VIII seized from Cardinal Wolsey in the early days of the English Reformation, and now it was the scene of the final ascendancy of the state church. Here royalty and subject, Anglican and Puritan did battle, and somehow produced a work of simple beauty and power that gave us everyday expressions that still roll off the tongue like labor of love, and root of all evil.. It was to be a Bible for everyone. While James saw himself as God’s delegate on earth, he wanted to use this instrument to unify his divided kingdom. Peace and divine right were casualties of this effort, but the enduring gift it gave us was the greatest gift of prose in the English language.
This Bible was meant for everyone, and I have felt its power. It is personally meaningful. One thing the translators did was removed distance from the idea of the divine. Things like service, sight, face, and light that people could experience were markers and symbols of the divine. For example, in the creation story, while other Bibles had translated a passage about the darkness on the surface of the deep, and God’s spirit hovering over that surface, the King James version says darkness was on the face of the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. We can see that God is reflected in those waters. The universe, from the moment of its creation, is both human and divine. This is especially critical for Unitarian Universalists who are a people who find the holy in relationship. And as the Reformation unfolded, there were scholars and others who believed the texts revealed a more human Jesus, and a more loving God.
For me that spirit of the divine that is most markedly personal is found in the Psalms, poems and prayers that reach out from the heart. King James, who fancied himself a scholar and a poet, and especially loved the Psalms, made his own translation. Many of the passages are familiar phrases to us, written on our minds from constant usage, “out of the mouth of babes and sucklings (8), on the wings of a dove (55), and they that go down to the sea in ships” (107). But it is more than familiarity, it is what becomes engrained in the soul that continues to provide meaning and comfort in whatever circumstances we find ourselves.
Like John Hollander says of his father’s voice in our reading, for a long time there was only one psalm for me, and it is the 23rd. While I spoke last week of rejecting the theology of my childhood church, what I did not say is that that church gave me an engraving on my heart that goes beyond a literal interpretation of passages. The 23rd Psalm is one of those Biblical nuggets that children in my day memorized. While this may have been for public display of children’s skills, or even to win Bibles and books, what it produced was a familiarity with enduring passages such as this and the Sermon on the Mount that made them available to me to call upon in an hour of need. While I may want to suppress the passage from John 3:16 that I called up last week, there is no desire to do so here. When I was a chaplain I recited the Psalm to people, and it was there on my lips as my mother lay dying. Our last student intern Mark Caggiano, as you may remember, had troubled with periods of silence. When leading worship, I suggested he do what I do, that during the quiet time he recite silently Psalm 23 and the Lord’s Prayer. They were familiar to him, and meaningful, as evidenced by the fact that he serves a UU Christian church.
But of course it is more than the familiar, and some may have trouble with the medieval and patriarchal word Lord. One can always use God, or even the familiar Thou art my shepherd, and then we gain entre to a psalm that provides the courage to live. “Yeah though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.” All of us walk through the valley of the shadow. We worry about what hangs over our heads, and we say to ourselves am I going to get through this? Do I have the strength? Somehow this tells us that we can walk through this trial right now. We will not stay here, but rather will see the other side. The Psalm conveys that there is a presence walking beside us, that goodness and mercy follow us. Some may interpret this to mean God, but for others the enduring power of love is present, as the joke reminds us, that abstract “goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life” is in the form of “surely good Mrs. Murphy shall follow me,” Despite the hardships we endure, real people are there, trailing after us, and ready to hold us up when we fall. I believe Psalm 23 get us through. through moral ambiguity such as feasting with enemies, until our cups are overflowing even as the shadows fall.
With hymn #283 we sang a version of Psalm 19. Joseph Addison makes the psalmist’s connection between the starry heavens above and the moral law within – the firmament shows God’s handiwork.” I think it makes this connection to remind us no God is going to be there to rescue us in difficult circumstances, but that we need to call upon the divine within each of us. The psalmist declares, “There is no speech, nor language, their voice is not heard., yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” When we wake in the night, and can’t get back to sleep, we often ponder the problems that beset us. No power taps us on the shoulder as we wait in the dark, but increasingly as morning approaches, we come to know what we will do. We may be able to see more clearly that there is a right way to do something. This may be the time when we resolve to speak to someone who has hurt us, where we find the courage to be honest and forthright. It is this calling in us, that still voice calling us back to integrity of purpose. The Psalmists knew that God did not literally speak, but that we can find our own inner voice of courage and power to move forward.
The psalmist reminds us first that we are not alone, and second that a spirit of life dwells within each of us. King James knew that here in this most urgently personal and present book of the Bible, we could find enduring meaning. Finally, Psalm 39 tell us “make me know mine end, and the measure of my days.” This is the psalm that says life is fleeting, and age means nothing. We cannot count our days. At a moment’s notice earthquakes rumble to life, and waves strike from the ocean’s depth. Nature happens. Illnesses are diagnosed and accidents occur. I occasionally have a brief flash of the day we left London a few years back. I was about to step into the street, and a car whizzed by at that moment. We can miss getting crushed by just that much, a split second decision. Everything in our lives is so much governed by chance, and it is a present reminder that the end of our days will arrive. And so here we stop and linger to savor life – see the people sitting next to you, and watch that crocus struggling to live outside your door. Take that walk today, tell of your love for another, and not wonder where the years went and wish they were back, but live now. Now is the time to celebrate the return of life in you. As the Psalmist said, Let us learn to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom (Psalm 90).
Spoken Meditation – Psalm 23
The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters. He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Yea, thou I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me. Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Closing Words – from The People, Yes by Carl Sandburg
“And the king wanted an inscription
good for a thousand years and after
that to the end of the world?”
“Yes, precisely so.”
“Something so true and awful that no
matter what happened it would stand?”
“Yes, exactly that.”
“Something no matter who spit on it or
laughed at it there it would stand
and nothing would change it?”
“Yes, that was what the king ordered
his wise men to write.”
“And what did they write?”
“Five words: THIS TOO SHALL PASS AWAY.”