Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Stumbling across the finish line

I'm ... so ... tired.

(No, I'm going to resist the urge to crack a Blazing Saddles quote here.  Really.)

I am in the midst of my final chemotherapy treatment.  Yesterday was transfusion day, a three-hour session (down from four the previous sessions) wherein most of the chemo drugs are pumped into me.  The final act of that day is a pump being attached to the port in my upper chest, containing a drug called     Fluorouracil (I had to look at the pump to remind myself of that), which pumps into me over forty-six hours.  About twenty-four hours or so from now, that will be removed.  And with that, hopefully, chemotherapy will be over.


I am not exactly bursting across the finish line with tremendous vigor and vim.  I can't say that anything hurts, really, but I have an absolute lack of energy.  And this being the last treatment, and the effects of these drugs being cumulative, the fatigue factor has kicked in hardest now.

I can't imagine things getting worse, but they easily could have been.  My every-other-week treatment regime was interrupted back in April for my trip to Kansas for candidacy status.  Were this the final of eight consecutive biweekly treatments I might not be out of bed.  (I had to take a nap in the middle of writing this paragraph, to give you an idea.)

In The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis has his senior devil Screwtape advise his hapless nephew junior tempter Wormwood that fatigue itself is not enough to cause a soul to slip over into temptation; rather, the unexpected demand upon the already fatigued soul that is far more likely to be the tipping point.  Further, Screwtape adds that "fatigue can produce extreme gentleness, and quiet of mind, and even something like vision."  I know I've snapped enough times at the former provocation, but gentleness, quiet of mind, and vision seem in short supply.

I do, at least, have a better clue to the difference between fatigue and laziness.  There is a lot around here that not only do I need  to be doing, but want to be doing as well.  The moment I try to get up and work on it, though, I can feel my body collapsing.  I'm not above stretches of laziness; hopefully in the future I'll be more aware of when i'm really tired and when I'm just being lazy, and be able to address it more appropriately.

This will pass, I know.  It might be well into next week, but it will pass.  Of course therein lies one of the reasons mental quiet is absent now; what follows is nothing but a period of waiting.  At some point I'll have to have another colonoscopy or endoscopic ultrasound to see if anything is left of that damned cancer.  Until then, mental quiet is not really going to happen.

Right now I'm just tired.  And in less than twenty-four hours the pump comes off, and in a few days to a week my fingers won't tingle when I touch something cold (and I'll be able to enjoy some ice cream). I have an appointment with the oncologist on July 15, at which time presumably the scope will be scheduled.  My energy hopefully will be able to recover, although the summertime heat won't help with that.  Sometime in August I'll know if perhaps this battle is done (for now -- I'm not naive enough to think I won't be a cancer risk for the rest of my life), if August 2012-2013 is going to be my "cancer year," or if there's more garbage yet to come.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Sermon: Listen to the Silence

Second sermon in the books.  Make of it what you will.

23 June 2013
Ashland Presbyterian Church
1 Kings 19:1-16

Listen to the Silence

One of my favorite books of all time is Ray Bradbury’s novel Fahrenheit 451.  In this world of the not-so-distant future where firemen are employed for burning books instead of putting out fires, one fireman, Guy Montag, finds himself enthralled by the books he’s supposed to burn.
Possibly my favorite scene in the novel occurs as Montag is on his way, via futuristic subway train, to the home of an eccentric secret book collector, Faber, to show him his latest find.  On the ride Montag, convinced he’ll have to give up his find (which happens to be a Bible), sets out to try to memorize the book, or as much as possible, before the book is taken from him.  His efforts to commit “consider the lilies of the field” to memory, however, are continually thwarted by the train’s sound system, blaring a particularly nonsensical and annoying ad for toothpaste.  Montag is finally driven to an eruption of frustration, screaming “Lilies!” at the speaker system to the amazement of the shocked and frightened passengers on the train.
Later, at Faber’s, he shows the curious old man the Bible, and after running his fingers longingly over the book and reading through several passages, Faber finally asks Montag, “why are you doing this?”  At his wit’s end and not even understanding himself, Montag finally answers, “Nobody listens anymore.” 
Failure to listen, or perhaps inability to listen, is hardly limited to media-distracted characters in futuristic novels.  Our own scriptures are full of examples of individuals who don’t seem to be able to hear what God or any human being is trying to tell them.  Jesus frequently is driven to cry out “Anyone who has ears, listen!” to his sometimes-distracted and confused audiences.  The story of Jonah features a character who hears God’s command to preach to the city of Nineveh all too clearly, but is rabidly unwilling to listen to that call.  And in today’s scripture, inability (or unwillingness?  It’s hard to tell sometimes) – the failure to listen, as opposed to simply hearing – befalls one of the great heroes of the Old Testament, the prophet Elijah.
By any account it would seem Elijah is on a serious winning streak.  He prophesies a drought in Israel – to the face of King Ahab, no less – and a drought settles in over the land.  He performs a miracle to provide a widow and her son an endless supply of meal and oil, and raises the son from the dead to boot.  He wins a spectacular contest against four hundred and fifty prophets of the foreign idol Baal, calling down fire from heaven to consume an offering where the Baal prophets had failed.  He decrees the end of the drought, and rain returns to the land. 
Yet one little threat from the queen, the devious importer of deities Jezebel, and Elijah becomes unhinged.  The prophet who had performed such deeds of power is reduced to a scared little boy, running away in the face of a threat. 
He runs away all the way to the mountain called Horeb, better known in Israelite history as Sinai.  He runs all the way to the mountain of God, legendary in Israelite history as the mountain where Moses communed with God and received the Law. 
At this point I’d be better served by sitting down for a moment and playing the appropriate section from Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah.  The rushing mighty wind, the earthquake, the fire; all of these were tokens of the past, of God’s encounters with Moses on this very same mountain.  Yet this time, the text is at pains to tell us, the Lord was not in the wind, the earthquake, the fire. 
What follows next is most commonly known as a “still small voice,” as translated in the King James Version of the scriptures.  The Hebrew words are not that easy to translate; it could be a “sheer silence,” as the NRSV says, or it could also be translated as “the sound of a breath,” or a Simon & Garfunkel fan could even get away with translating it as a “sound of silence.”  Whatever it was, it was so arresting, so striking, so different from the display just before that Elijah was drawn from his hiding place, out onto the side of the mountain itself, where God asks Elijah a question that God has already asked once, a question that has as much of accusation about it as inquiry:  “What are you doing here, Elijah?”
Somehow, after that magnificent, awesome, display, after the wind and earthquake and fire and then the silent sound that somehow revealed God in ways the wind and earthquake and fire did not, after the tumultuous events that brought Elijah to the very mountain where Moses stood before God and received the Law; after all of this, somehow, some way, Elijah Did.  Not.  Get It.
He parrots back the same answer he gave the first time God asked the question:  “I have been very zealous for the Lord, the God of hosts; for the Israelites have forsaken your covenant, thrown down your altars, and killed your prophets with the sword.  I alone am left, and they are seeking my life, to take it away.” 
Certainly a very pious-sounding answer.  Sounds a little like the psalmist in today’s reading, demanding that the Lord “Vindicate me … and defend my cause” and questioning why he was abandoned.  But perhaps we ought to retrace Elijah’s steps, his activity since first appearing in the seventeenth chapter of 1 Kings.  Is Elijah’s complaint valid, or is it possible that Elijah was missing something?
We first encounter Elijah proclaiming to King Ahab that a drought was about to settle upon the land.  Immediately God provides a hiding place for Elijah, with water to drink and ravens to bring him food.  When the water dries up God sends Elijah to the home of a widow, where the last bits of meal and oil miraculously persevere and provide for the widow and her son, and where Elijah performs the miracle of raising that son from the dead.  Next Elijah again confronts Ahab, in the contest with the prophets of Baal; Elijah calls down fire from heaven to consume an offering, and has the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal killed.  This act brings about the threat from Jezebel that sends Elijah on the run.  But first, Elijah announces the end of the drought; with the Baal prophets vanquished and the people repentant, the rain is on the way, says the prophet.  And one last detail; as Ahab returns, 18:46 tells us that Elijah ran all the way, ahead of the chariot. 
That’s a lot of stress, a lot of pressure, a lot exertion both emotional and physical.  And not, in today’s lingo, a lot of self-care. 
For that matter, just what has been the relationship between Elijah and God in all this?  God directs Elijah to his hiding place, and then to the widow’s home.  From there we get, when you break it down, an awful lot of Elijah telling God what to do – raise the widow’s son from the dead; send fire from heaven; and, in verse four of today’s chapter, let me die – “it is enough; now, O Lord, take away my life.”  At Mount Horeb God engages in the most dramatic and striking attempt to communicate with one of his own since Moses’s adventures on that same mountain, and Elijah Still. Does. Not. Get It.
For Elijah the consequences of his failure to listen in the silence are sharp; no less than the end of his prophetic career resides in God’s words.  Elijah is to go out and anoint, among others, his own successor Elisha.  Elijah still has a couple of good moments left, but in effect his days as a prophet are numbered.  His rather vain imagining that “I alone am left” also comes in for sharp rebuke; The Lord points to a large number in Israel who have not gone after the worship of Baal, contrary to Elijah’s complaint. 
Even in the doing of good, we can go wrong.  If we learned anything from Jephthah last week, hopefully we noticed that being “moved by the Spirit of the Lord” doesn’t keep anyone from saying foolish things and making horrible promises.  Here, God’s anointed prophet nonetheless behaves in ways damaging and wearying to himself even in doing the Lord’s work.  His zealousness for God not only doesn’t protect him from the consequences of his own rashness. 
In the end God has to remind Elijah who is really in control.  After providing fire from heaven at Elijah’s beckoning, God reminds Elijah on Horeb that the fire (or the wind or the earthquake) is no guarantee of God’s voice.  God will not be restricted to the old ways of speaking to God’s people.  Wind and earthquake and fire might have been signs of God’s presence and God’s word in the past, but that is no guarantee God will speak through those now.  To hear God, Elijah has to listen to the silence, and somehow he can’t do it.  Unlike Ray Bradbury’s befuddled book-loving fireman Montag crying out to escape from the noise, Elijah seems unable to break away from the spectacular and awe-inspiring to find his way to meaning in the “sheer silence” of God. 
Where does this noise come from in our lives?  We certainly know pressure from work, pressure from family responsibilities, pressure from trying to keep up with bills and take care of others and ourselves, and maybe even pressure from the work of the church, teaching a class or singing in the choir or serving on a committee or spending an evening serving for CARITAS, or any number of other worthy and needed tasks in the life of the church.  We are concerned, and rightly so, that the praise we sing to God in here and the worship we offer to God in here are reflected in the ways our church or we as individual members of it live in our town and participate in the life of our broader church.  And yet, we must – must – find some way to clear the clutter and silence the chatter that keeps us from hearing from God.
The pastor and author Frederick Buechner points out that this endeavor is not even the same thing as prayer.  Buechner writes:
What deadens us most to God's presence within us, I think, is the inner dialogue that we are continuously engaged in with ourselves, the endless chatter of human thought. I suspect that there is nothing more crucial to true spiritual comfort, … than being able from time to time to stop that chatter including the chatter of spoken prayer. If we choose to seek the silence of the holy place, or to open ourselves to its seeking, I think there is no surer way than by keeping silent.[i]

Oh, how difficult a task that is!  Women, you need to sign up for that retreat this fall!  Men, you need to demand one!  As hard as it is, finding that time is so essential for one’s spiritual health and relationship with God.  If the lack of it was enough to bring trouble to one of the most revered figures of the Old Testament, how can we really think we can live without it? 
Jesus demonstrates this need again and again in the Gospels, sending the disciples into town or off on a boat or somewhere else in order to have that time of silence, of quiet, of listening for God in the silence or quiet. 
This time of silence with God is not necessarily about dramatic revelations or earth-shaking commandments.  The silence may well be just that; the silence may hold no words at all.  Still, to be present in that quiet, that retreat from the noise and clutter of the world, is to hold open the opportunity for the presence of God to comfort us or to change us. 
One of the songs of a singer/songwriter named Bruce Cockburn contains the following lines:
Sometimes you can hear His Spirit whispering to you
But if God stays silent, what else can you do, except
Listen to the silence; if you ever did you’d surely see
That God won’t be reduced to an ideology[ii]

Indeed we humans are rather proficient at reducing God to an ideology, or a weapon with which to bash our enemies, or a “get out of Hell free” card.  We fail to listen, and our God increasingly starts to look and sound like a projection of our own preferences and attitudes.  We fail to listen, and we lose touch with the source of our strength, the One whose love and grace towards us are the only reason we can hope to be or to do … well, anything.  We fail to listen and we flounder and sink, our own strength betraying us. 
God speaks in many ways – in scripture, in worship, in music, and maybe even in fire and earthquake and wind, and yes, in silence.  Our challenge is to hear, which sometimes requires us to step away, to step out into the sheer silence, and listen.  God give us the strength to find and hear that sheer silence that it may teach us and refresh us and renew us for God’s work out in the noise of the world.

Hymns: “Ye servants of God, your Master proclaim” (PH #477); “O Savior, in this quiet place” (PH #390); “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah” (PH #281)

[i] From Telling Secrets.
[ii] “Gospel of Bondage,” from the album Big Circumstance.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The trouble with Baby Jesus

I got provoked today.  It was probably inevitable after a couple of travel days for two different required meetings, with the inevitable fatigue that was to follow.  Anyway, the provocation can be found within this column, which also provides an appropriately tart response.  (You should go look at it now, or else this post won't make any sense, since I aim to keep it short and go to bed.  I'll be here when you get back, I promise.)

As if somehow Jesus needs our protection.  Sheesh.

I get baffled at this.  Exactly how is it that Christ is damaged if someone fails to say "Merry Christmas" at that time of year, or if a contest devoted to repeated acts of violence and mental maiming, i.e. a football game, is not inaugurated with a prayer?  Do you really think even the most virulent Christ-hater one could imagine could do anything more harmful than pee his or her pants if confronted with Christ In All His Glory?

And if this is all a cover for a few self-described Christians of a particular stripe to nurse grudges over their own hurt feelings, I am not sure a charge of blasphemy is not warranted against them.

I'm beginning to wonder if the problem is one of exactly which Christ is being "worshipped" in these cases.

There are some strains of the church where only a few images or portrayals of Christ are really in play in that tradition at any given time.  Let's face it, we're never going to comprehend Christ In All His Mystery at any point this side of the bar, but sometimes churches or denominations or particular traditions embrace an even more limited array of options for acknowledging who Jesus was and is.  The butt-kicking warrior-ish Second Coming Christ gets a lot of play in some traditions, for example.  The Gloriously Risen Christ is always good around Easter.  The Crucified Christ...well, the God-talk is always good for a few "Christ died for your sins" iterations, but sometimes one gets the impression that some segments of the church are kind of ashamed of the Savior on the Cross.  (Or maybe it's just that the megachurches get so backed up at Easter that they're already having Easter services on Good Friday.)

And of course Baby Jesus rules from sometime in November through December 25 or so.

And I wonder if the problem is that in many cases, Baby Jesus is never allowed to grow up.

Think about it.  Favorite Christmas carols tend to be full of images of the child, images of a particularly romanticized sort.  I've sort of mocked the "Away in a manger" line in which "Little lord Jesus, no crying he makes" before.  The child is sleeping, the child is sweet, the child is tender, the child is gentle, so on and so on.  (Martin Luther tried to do better in the chorale Von Himmel Hoch, but how often do you sing that around Christmas?  Put your hands down, Lutherans.)  We spend a good solid month or more drilling that image into our heads.  OF COURSE it's going to linger subconsciously in our minds. That little baby boy needs our protection!!!

OK, maybe that cheap bit of psychoanalysis was over the top.  But I do suspect that a large swath of the Christian population is not really progressed beyond Baby Jesus in their conception of the Savior Of All Humanity.  It's not hard to see that many are distinctly uncomfortable with The Jesus Between Manger and Cross.  You know, the one who hung out with smelly poor people and degenerate tax collectors and ne'er-do-well fishermen, the one who touched sick people, the one who gave away food to crowds that probably didn't deserve it...or even the one who said really uncomfortable things like "love your enemies, bless those that curse you..." or "the gate is wide, that leads to eternal destruction, and many are they that find it," or other such unpleasant thoughts.

And, to flog another horse that I've flogged before, a properly observed Advent would go a long way towards correcting this seeming hangup in corners of the modern church.  Four weeks of prophets and pictures of what God's world really ought to look like might just help avert some of that infantilization of Jesus that seems to linger in some minds.  But of course, for so many churches, Advent is a one-week lip-service thing before we're off on that round of sentimentalized Christmas carols for the whole month of December, and as any musician can tell you, folks are going to remember the hymns a lot more than they remember even your best sermons.

So here we sit, in a country where a substantial chunk of those who are loudest about calling themselves Christians are somehow convinced that either Jesus will be destroyed if people don't say "Merry Christmas" x  number of times between Thanksgiving and Christmas, or that their wounded pride and their shame at no longer dominating the culture is an excuse to engage in political manipulation and exploitation of Christ to score cheap points on their enemies, which I'm pretty sure is blasphemy.  And more people end up hungry and homeless in the bargain, and this gets called God's work.  And Jesus, the Jesus Who Is All Of Those Things And A Whole Lot More, weeps.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Sermon: Where praise ultimately leads us

So today was the day for my first sermon of my summer internship.  Make of it what you will.  I should also acknowledge that while what is below is mostly what got preached, I did do perhaps an unusual bit of off-the-cuff editing and rephrasing that may not be reflected below.

Charles S. Freeman
Ashland Presbyterian Church
June 9, 2013 (Ordinary 10C)
Psalm 146; Luke 7:11-17

Where Praise Ultimately Leads Us

Thank you for your help in reading today’s scripture, both congregation and choir.  I hope this will serve to remind us that the psalms we read in scripture were far more than words on a page to the Israelites; this was the stuff of worship in the Temple, particularly for those who returned from the exile period, whether in the mouth of priest or people or choir, the Psalms were a virtual compilation of the emotional experiences of Israel – praise, rejoicing, lamentation, anger, despair, confusion; all of these and more are found in the Psalms, and these were regularly and insistently words of worship.  Hold on to that thought, particularly when we get toward the end of the sermon.
It was almost nine years ago when my career, or what I assumed would be my lifelong career, began at a small evangelical college in south Florida.  As a music history teacher I knew that at such a small school I’d be required to teach something outside of that area of expertise, and was relieved when that turned out to be an occasional class in church music.  I at least had a degree in that, even if I hadn’t worked in it for years. 
What I discovered, though, was that my knowledge of the contemporary scene was severely lacking.  I knew that “contemporary” worship was a thing, but I certainly had not been plunged into it to the degree that it seemed to pervade the area around West Palm Beach.  My awareness of my ignorance was only deepened by the influx of students who, being so immersed in modern traditions of “praise and worship,” didn’t even know a basic Protestant hymn like “A mighty fortress is our God.” 
Ultimately I felt I had to do some research, which took me to the largest contemporary-style megachurch in the area.  Even before the event got started, my eyes registered shock at what I saw: a bandstand set up for something like the pit orchestra at a Broadway musical, and a platform (no pulpit) decked out to resemble a football field, complete with yard markers and a fake set of goalposts at one end.  It turned out that the pastor was a friend and confidant of Bobby Bowden, still the football coach at Florida State then and kind of a big deal.  This pastor had written a book on the “life lessons of football” gleaned from that experience, and was in the midst of a series of sermons drawn from that book. 
Aside from the visual shock and the alien (to me) experience of the service, though, one nagging problem stayed with me from that experience.  Both before and during the event the service was referred to as one of “praise and worship.”  This sounded odd to me.  Are those two really separable? If you’re going to speak of them separately, what does it mean to isolate “praise” as a separable event unto itself?  Then, what is the result of “praise,” or what should be the result?
The question didn’t go away in the intervening years, even as I moved from that school and wasn’t teaching church music anymore.  Naturally, this new vocation has revived that question with particular urgency, as I am preparing to be, among many other things, a leader of worship.  “Praise” might be a scary word for folks in a denomination that has, to be honest, sometimes earned the unpleasant nickname “frozen chosen,” but we need to know what it means and where the act of praise will lead us as a church.
The Psalms have a lot to say on the subject.  Indeed, large chunks of that book consist of psalms dedicated to praise, including the final five psalms in the collection, each beginning with the exclamation “hallelu ya,” most simply translated as “praise Yahweh.”  In today’s psalm, the first of that final five, the exclamation of praise leads the psalmist to places that our modern ears might not expect.   
It turns out that this praise of which the psalmist speaks is something far more than a bunch of words.  It comes from not the mind or even the heart, but the soul.  In the period in which the psalmist is writing, the “soul” is that place deep within, what we might call our “innermost being” or “the deepest part of me,” if you’re writing a pop song.  The soul was the innermost essence of one’s person.  Praise comes from deep within, in other words, and simply cannot be frivolous.
It is also without end, as the psalmist declares; “as long as I live,” “all my life long” – repeated for emphasis, no less.  Clearly, to the psalmist, praise is a deep and profound thing, not at all to be taken lightly.
At this point the psalmist takes what seems a curious turn.  From this expression of the profundity of praise, we are suddenly confronted with a warning about the fallibility of mortals and their mortal plans.  Indeed, for the next seven verses, what opened as a psalm of praise suddenly becomes at least a couple of different psalms.  First is this curious, but clearly important statement, a warning not to trust the doings of “princes” – we can substitute “leaders” here – who are, after all, as mortal and fallible as the rest of us.  Even the best of leaders is ultimately mortal; even their very best laid plans perish with them. 
From this bit of wisdom, the kind of line that sounds more like Proverbs than Psalms, we move to the heart of the psalm; an acclamation of the Lord, the One who is indeed worthy of our praise and trust.  The previous thought, the one about not trusting leaders or mortals, is completed by the declaration that happiness (or blessedness, or contentment, depending on how you read the Hebrew) is the lot of the one whose trust is in the Lord instead of those failing human mortals. 
What follows initially is something of a formula; the attributes of God in language borrowed from the writings of lawgivers and prophets.  Speaking of the Lord ‘who made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them’ is using language that goes all the way back to Exodus.  The psalmist invokes some of the most ancient language about God in the possession of the Israelites to begin the process of naming the praiseworthy attributes of God. 
Quickly, though, the language about God the creator gives way to something else.  The litany of God’s praiseworthy attributes shifts from God’s act of creation to God’s action among creation – action that is couched in the language of Israel’s prophets.  From Isaiah to Amos to Micah to Ezekiel, the prophets of Israel and Judah spoke unswervingly of God as a God who demanded justice.  The prophets condemned kings who denied justice to their people; they condemned priests and other religious rulers who did not live up to the commands of God’s justice. 
But ‘justice’ here is not merely a legal concept.  The psalmist expands the ongoing action of God into an extensive litany of God’s actions in favor of those who are somehow burdened or oppressed by society.  The hungry are fed; prisoners are freed; the blind receive sight; the bowed down are lifted up; the righteous are loved; the strangers and orphans and widows are lifted up.  The prophets use this language over and over again – Isaiah, Malachi, Micah and more – but the history of the Hebrew people also evokes this defense and support of the downtrodden.  We could have read the story of Elijah and the widow, the one with the oil and meal about to run out; God directs Elijah to go to that widow’s home, where he not only guarantees that the oil and meal do not run out, but brings the widow’s son back to life when he passes away.  The story we did hear, from Luke’s account of Jesus’s raising of a widow’s dead son, gives us one small example of how this concern for the widow – a frequent representative of the oppressed or downtrodden in the scriptures – continues to resonate in the ongoing history of Israel.  Here, the psalmist has taken this language drawn from history and prophets and made it an ongoing declaration in the worshiping life of the people of Israel and Judah. 
The psalm wraps with a warning that the ways of the wicked are put to rout, and returns for a final exclamation of praise to the Lord. 
What may look like a digression on the surface turns out to be a spectacular and very challenging claim about what it means to say “praise the Lord.”  Let’s take stock for just a moment: praise comes from the deepest part of us, for the whole duration of our lives.  To say “praise the Lord” is to declare that we humans, no matter how worthy or well-intentioned, are just not worthy of that praise – we’re too fallible or too mortal for it.  Only the Lord is worthy of that praise, and only trust in that Lord can content the human soul.  We praise the Lord because of what the Lord has done, whether in creation of all that is or in God’s ongoing and insistent defense of those whom the world consistently puts down or kicks around. 
Now, remember how this sermon began, with the Psalm presented with music and with everybody participating in its recitation.  This psalm, like others, was part of the worship of Israel.  For a nation that was constantly threatened and besieged by its neighbors, to say “praise the Lord” as part of worship was no small thing—it was to refuse to say “praise to the emperor” or “praise to the king” of those bullying neighbors or even to your own king.  It was to refuse to say “praise to” any human, ruler or otherwise, who dared claim power or authority as their own.  It was to refuse to say “praise to” anyone who would oppress the orphan, exploit the widow, refuse welcome to the stranger in the land, deny food to the hungry.  It was to reserve praise, finally, to the only One whose reign was unlimited by human mortality, and to refuse praise to any would-be princes who, no matter their grand claims to deserve praise, would in the end be every bit as mortal as the prince that came before.  As the biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann puts it, “Israel cannot praise Yawheh very long without embracing the core agenda of well-being for God’s beloved creatures.”[i]
OK, that’s all fine and good for ancient Israel, but what about us?  Is this psalm any less challenging and maybe even dangerous for us here in twenty-first century Ashland, Virginia, than for them? 
Can we, with a gubernatorial campaign bearing down on us, claim to be free of would-be leaders making grand demands for our praise and affection?
Cane we, living in some of the most beautiful country around, claim to be independent of the One who created all of that beauty we so admire and cherish?
Can we, living in twenty-first century America, claim to have solved all of the problems of homelessness and hunger, children without parents and overflowing prisons, people—children of God—living in horrifying abuse, neglect, poverty, degradation?
Clearly this church does not shy away from facing the needs of the world.  Only this week a number of our members took a turn providing meals for women served by CARITAS, women without homes or jobs, many having suffered abuse in the past.  Many bring food, as we can see just to my right, for those who otherwise would be without.  We as a church or as individuals may yet find more needs in the community around us that we, small church that we are, might be able to step up and help fill.  Our cry of “praise the Lord” in this sanctuary thus takes on feet and hands, moving out and reaching out to comfort and uplift those for whom the Lord consistently declares divine favor.  This is not merely a good thing; it is a necessary thing, if our praise is to be anything other than empty, pointless prattle.
Walter Brueggemann concludes his study of Psalm 146 with this comment:
Behind human management lies liberated imagination.  Behind memo lies poetry.  Behind money stands mouth.  In its praise, the church is big-mouthed.  This company of singers must find its mouth and its voice, and then put its money (I would add “and its hands and feet”) where its mouth is.[ii] 

We say “praise the Lord.”  We sing “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty.”  Let it never be said of us that our praise remains trapped in this sanctuary, never getting outside these doors to do any good in the world.  Let it never be said that our praise is just noise, divorced from action.  Let it always be said that when it comes to knowing what praising the Lord really means, when it comes to loving and serving the unloved and abused and neglected, those whom God insists on loving as his own and demanding that we share that love as well – let it always be said that we put our money, our hands, and our feet where our God-praising mouth is.
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.

Hymns (PH): Praise ye the Lord, the Almighty (482); As those of old their firstfruits brought (414); We all are one in mission (435); also, the psalm was read with refrain according to the setting at 254.

[i] Walter Brueggemann, “Praise & the Psalms: A Politics of Glad Abandonment,” Part II, The Hymn 43:4 (October 1992), 16.
[ii] Ibid.