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.

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