Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
“Phrases have lives of their own,” says Marilyn Chandler McEntyre. “They are little compositions that suggest and invoke and invite… ‘Fourscore and seven years ago’ recalls a whole era, triggers a constellation of feelings, and evokes an image of [Abraham] Lincoln. ‘Inherit the earth’ carries the weight of promise, the rhythm of the Beatitudes, and a vision of Jesus on a hillside” as he preached his Sermon on the Mount.
McEntyre highlights “the wisdom of the ancient Benedictine practice of lectio divina or ‘holy reading’ … in focusing … on a ‘word or phrase’ that summons us to attention. Learning to notice what we notice … pausing where we sense a slight beckoning, allowing associations to emerge around the phrase that stopped us” – all of this “is an act of faith that the Spirit will meet us there. There is,” she says, “a gift to be received wherever we are stopped and summoned” as we read Scripture.
McEntyre has published some of the specific biblical phrases that have stopped and summoned her in this way. But more instructive than anyone else’s list, I think, is to apply the strategy itself and notice what we notice, each one of us for ourselves.
The Psalter offers fertile ground for this kind of exercise. Poetry is all about the careful use of words, so it’s no wonder we can find phrases from the Psalms sticking with us. In fact, I’m guessing many of you already have psalm phrases lodged deep in your memory banks even if you’ve never made a concerted effort to learn them. Simply from reciting calls to worship over the years you’ll have internalized phrases like “make a joyful noise to the Lord” (Psalm 100:1) and “sing to the Lord a new song” (Psalm 98:1). Even if you’re newer to church, this summer you’ve been learning phrases straight out of Psalm 136 courtesy of Rob’s new offertory song: “to him who alone does all great wonders,” (Psalm 136:4) “who by his understanding made the heavens” (Psalm 136:5). We sang the first verse of Psalm 42 earlier today: “as a deer pants for water, so my soul longs for you, O God,” and a quick scan of our full repertoire of worship music would reveal hundreds of other phrases from the psalms as well. You may know more of them than you think you do.
Some of you know I have a degree in Old Testament or Hebrew Bible and I lean into that sometimes in my preaching. We look into the historical-cultural background of various texts we read together, for instance, and occasionally do word studies from the original Hebrew and that kind of thing. We certainly want to do our best to understand the Scriptures, using the resources at our disposal to do so.
Sometimes, though, and especially more recently when it comes to the Psalms, I’ve been giving the more analytical side of my brain permission to take a step back. Instead of studying, sometimes I simply notice. I notice where I find my eye lingering, and I don’t force myself to finish reading a long chunk of text as if it’s an assignment I need to complete. I don’t worry about looking up the historical background of every verse, but instead immerse myself in a short phrase. Reading it over and over silently, or saying it aloud, or writing it down somewhere I’ll see it often. The payoff is that more of these psalm phrases start to travel around with me so they can come to mind and speak to my spirit at opportune times.
I selected Psalm 65 for today because, while it may or may not be a psalm you’re familiar with, I’m hoping it will supply you with at least one new phrase that will linger with you. To that end, we’re going to partner together in our reflection on Scripture today as I allow you some time to simply read through this text silently a few times to see what catches your eye. I’ll then read the text aloud again since sometimes a turn of phrase will catch our attention through our ears rather than our eyes.
But to start, kindly turn your attention to Psalm 65 – either in your order of worship email or in your Bible - and read it through silently on your own. Are there words or phrases here that catch your attention? No need to force anything. Simply notice what you notice and allow yourself to wonder for a moment if there’s a gift to be received in that noticing. Is there a travel-sized truth here you might wish to carry around with you this week?
1 Praise is due to you,
O God, in Zion;
and to you shall vows be performed,
2 O you who answer prayer!
To you all flesh shall come.
3 When deeds of iniquity overwhelm us,
you forgive our transgressions.
4 Happy are those whom you choose and bring near
to live in your courts.
We shall be satisfied with the goodness of your house,
your holy temple.
5 By awesome deeds you answer us with deliverance,
O God of our salvation;
you are the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas.
6 By your[a] strength you established the mountains;
you are girded with might.
7 You silence the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples.
8 Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
9 You visit the earth and water it,
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
10 You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
11 You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
12 The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
13 the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.
As a final step, because it can be meaningful to know where God’s Spirit is catching the attention of our fellow worshippers, too, I’ll invite you to type into the chat a phrase from this psalm that spoke to your heart today. Let’s share those with one another…
Thanks be to God for the gift of these holy words. May they linger with you, travel with you, and speak to you often of the presence and power of God. Amen.
 Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, What’s in a Phrase? Pausing Where Scripture Gives You Pause, p. ix.
 McEntyre, p. x.