August 15, 2021 – Rev. Beckie Sweet
TODAY is a day of celebration! As a congregation, we gather for special events that allow us to rejoice in the ministry God has called us to here at St. Paul’s U.M.C. And, following the example of Christ, we are also a family of faith that sees the sacred in the ordinary. We should be excited and exuberant as we see God at work in places we have been and the people we have met this past week. Every day can be a day of celebration as we see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and experience the abundance of God’s blessings!
Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart, in the company of the upright, in the congregation. (Psalm 111:1, NRSV)
Imagine, if you will, an old stone church with wooden pews and stained glass windows that tell the stories of faith: the Ascension of Christ; Jesus knocking at the door; Jesus welcoming the children; Jesus finding the one lost lamb…
Imagine too, the church has finally cooled down in the midst of summer. Children squirm in the pews. A woman searches her purse for a pen and a checkbook; a man flips through pages in the hymnal. Teenagers whisper in the balcony. An elderly one props a cane on the window ledge and sits with hands folded and eyes raised to heaven as the music begins.
Then a lay reader stands and calls the congregation to worship: Praise the Lord! Great are the works of the Lord! Let us worship God. Then, with all his heart, he sings:
A is for Abundant grace;
B is for the Birth of Christ.
C means you are Called to serve.
D is for Disciples’ praise. . . .
(I don’t know this song and couldn’t find it anywhere. If you are familiar with it, please share it with me later!!)
Psalm 111, the first verse of which I have been quoting today, is an alphabet song. Each line begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet! In fact, some scholars call this psalm the ABC’s of Theology! A psalm is an ancient hymn of faith. THIS psalm is not only a hymn of praise, but also a way of teaching the basics, the ABC’s of faith.
Psalm 111 is a hymn glorifying God for faithfulness, holiness, righteousness, and justice. This is a day of celebration! The psalmist sings about God’s work in the lives of God’s chosen people. God redeems the people from slavery in Egypt, feeds them in the wilderness, establishes a covenant with them on the high hills of Sinai, and blesses them so that they are a blessing to all the nations. These verses map out a fly-over of the history of God’s interactions with God’s creation, sweeping through all of time and space to remind the community gathered of all that God has done. This psalm tells the whole story of the people of God, which means it tells our story, too. Notice that the psalmist praises God in present tense.
- God provides food for those who fear God – with quail and manna in the desert, but also with bread, fruit, cassaroles, and pizza.
- God is ever mindful of the covenant ~ the one made at Sinai; the one made through Christ ~ established forever and ever.
History defines God’s activity now. So, the psalm sings praises for God past, present, and future! In faith, we are connected with believers in every time and place, throughout the ages. How can I keep from Praising?
The psalmist is also concerned with what it means to be God’s chosen people. Great are the works of the Lord,sings the psalmist, studied by all who delight in them. And those Christ followers who study the works and teachings of Jesus during his earthly ministry, will not be surprised by the connection between this psalm and the healings and miracles through which Jesus pointed to the love, compassion, and authority of God. Throughout the scriptures we are called to notice and name God, so that we are better able to observe the big picture of who God is. Sometimes we take our clues from the text. Today’s text as paraphrased by Nan C. Merrill names God as: Beloved, Creator of Wonder, Great Builder, Teacher, Love, Voice, Holy One…. We recognize these wonders in the character of God when we ask ourselves, “where have you seen God today?” Did you see God in the eyes of the person whose gaze you captured as we shared the love and peace of Christ? Was there a kind word in the welcome you received upon your arrival? Did the young person who crossed your path on the sidewalk look up with anticipation, fear, joy, or wonder? And in pondering ways in which God speaks to us through others, and is known to us by many names, How Can We Keep from Praising? Thomas Parker says, “Those who revere God live in a larger world, because they allow themselves to be open to something greater, something better, that lies deeply within even the most ordinary experiences. A life of thanksgiving and [praise] is ‘living large!’”
The psalmist has prepared us for living a life praising God due to an understanding of God’s abiding presence with and within us. Our songs of praise bind us together in powerful ways with our gratitude revealing what we have in common.
In 2017, Danish TV Channel 2 produced a powerful commercial about community titled “All That We Share.” Hopefully I can describe this well for you! The stage is set in a large room with boxes outlined in a U-shape on the floor, each box large enough for 10 or more people to stand within them. The narrator begins by stating, “It’s easy to put people in boxes.” And people who obviously have much in common enter to stand in their assigned boxes. He continues to describe the members of each box: “There’s us & them, the high earners & those just getting by, those we trust & those we try to avoid, there are the newcomers & those who have always been here, those from the countryside & those who’ve never seen a cow, the religious & the self-confident.” It seemed obvious that the members of each box had little in common with those in other boxes. They each looked quite dower and somewhat suspicious of the others in the room.
But then the leader asks those who would respond affirmatively to a couple of questions to step forward. The first group: those identified as the class clown. Smiling, some individuals came forward from each box, grinned with a mischievous grin and nodded at one another, and formed a new group. Then the leader asked anyone who was a step-parent to come forward. Again, individuals from different boxes stepped out with a look of understanding for one another. And then as other affinity groups step forward, the narrator reminds the viewers that suddenly there is just US, rather than us & them. There are those who love to dance, have been bullied or have bullied others, those who are in love, and those who feel lonely, those who are bi-sexual, and those who acknowledge the courage of others, those who have found the meaning of life, and those who have saved others. And the commercial concludes, “And then there’s all of us, and all that we share,” as the individuals from every box greet one another with joy and in happiness.
“How Can I Keep from Praising?” Every time those individuals stepped outside of their boxes, they were joyously praising a new-found connection. Where there was clapping or signs of acceptance or reassurance, a knowing look, or even just a moment of acknowledgement for that which we cannot understand about each other, there was gratitude for the good company they were in. In those moments of naming all that we share, we might also hear the voice of the Psalmist giving thanks to God for what connects us ~ that we are all beloved children of God!
In her book on prayer, writer Anne LaMott argues that there are only three types of prayer: “Help!” “Thanks,” and “Wow!” In speaking about thanksgiving, she, too, talks about the importance of it being a fully embodied act just as the Psalm expresses. She writes: “Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior . . . You breathe in gratitude, and you breathe it out, too. Once you learn how to do that, then you can bear someone who is unbearable.”
So, then, PRAISE & GRATITUDE stem from an understanding of grace, and brings us to a sense of community; “from the package of self-obsessed madness to a spiritual awakening.” And it leads us to act accordingly. Our Praise goes from being words on our lips to the words of our lives.
How can I keep from praising? Let’s keep the focus of our lives on Praising the God of abundant blessing! For we are among the people of God! This IS a day of CELEBRATION! Hallelujah! Amen.