Friday, April 22, 2016

A Chorus of Praise – Sermon for Easter 5C

Psalm 148   Laudate Dominum  (From the Book of Common Prayer)

1       Hallelujah!
Praise the Lord from the heavens; *
     praise him in the heights.

2       Praise him, all you angels of his; *
     praise him, all his host.

3       Praise him, sun and moon; *
     praise him, all you shining stars.
4       Praise him, heaven of heavens, *
     and you waters above the heavens.

5       Let them praise the Name of the Lord; *
     for he commanded, and they were created.

6       He made them stand fast for ever and ever; *
     he gave them a law which shall not pass away.

7       Praise the Lord from the earth, *
     you sea‑monsters and all deeps;

8       Fire and hail, snow and fog, *
     tempestuous wind, doing his will;

9       Mountains and all hills, *
     fruit trees and all cedars;

10     Wild beasts and all cattle, *
     creeping things and wingèd birds;

11     Kings of the earth and all peoples, *
     princes and all rulers of the world;

12     Young men and maidens, *
     old and young together.

13     Let them praise the Name of the Lord, *
     for his Name only is exalted,
     his splendor is over earth and heaven.

14     He has raised up strength for his people
and praise for all his loyal servants, *
     the children of Israel, a people who are near him.


I would like to begin by sharing an experience from my time as a staff Chaplain at Ohio State University Hospitals.  One late night, I received a call to meet a family at the hospital emergency room.  The circumstances were particularly tragic; a young woman had been the victim of a random shooting and was in critical condition. And so upon arriving, I sat with the family for several hours waiting for news; listening as the parents and siblings shared their grief, trials and even a few happy memories.  After a little while other family began to arrive and there was one aunt in particular who immediately began to admonish the parents for not having enough faith.  I cringed and struggled as this very well meaning woman went on and on and on about how we as Christians are supposed to praise God in all circumstances.

I will come back to this.

This morning I would like to focus on Psalm 148, which is the Psalm appointed for today, the fifth Sunday after Easter.  The Book of Psalms is a collection of songs, or song texts.  There are many different types of songs in this collection, including songs of lament, abandonment and anger; songs of wisdom; songs which recount God’s saving works through history; and songs of celebration and praise.  Our Psalm for today is a song of praise.  In fact, Psalm 148 is part of a set of Psalms – numbers 146 through 150, which together form a doxology or a final glorious song of praise to the great book of Psalms.  Each of these five Psalms begins with an exclamation – a joyous shout:  Halleluiah! This literally means “Praise be to Yahweh,” or Praise the Lord!  And then proceeds with a chorus of praise.

And who is to join this chorus of praise?  Well Psalm 148 actually specifies that there should be two choirs.  In music appreciation we would call this a “polychoral” work.  Choir # 1 consists of the angelic host, the sun, the moon, the shining stars, and even all of heaven itself.  Choir # 2 is a to include the sea-monsters from the deep, fire, hail, snow, fog, tempestuous wind, the mountains, hills, fruit trees, cedars, wild beasts, cattle, creeping things, birds, kings and princes and rulers, and all people, men and women, young and old.  Now that is quite a chorus!

In short, all of creation is to join the chorus of praise.  In the creation account in the 1st chapter of Genesis after each day, God surveys His work of creation and declares it is good.  And so, all of this Good Creation is to join the polychoral song of praise to God!

OK, so it is clear who is called to praise – it is also clear from the Psalm that praise is to be the primary calling of all creation.  All the heavens, plants, creatures and you and me are all called to make praise the first and foremost priority of our lives.   We are to praise God in everything we do and in every circumstance.

But how?  How are we to do this?  What about those times when we don’t feel like praise?  Or when the circumstances are filled with loss and despair, like the situation I began this sermon with.  How can we praise God then – in those circumstances?  We need to look closer at this question of how exactly do we praise God?

A few years ago, while I was serving St. John’s Lutheran Church, I attended a worship conference on alternative musical resources for worship.  The first scheduled event was an evening concert presented by the Maranatha! Praise band, which was out of Nashville.  The music was very upbeat, filled with praise and celebrations.  But early on I noticed a few people in the audience starting to raise their hands and wave them about as if they were trying to get the band’s attention.  My initial reaction was to think, “gee, I really don’t think they are going to take questions in the middle of a concert.”  And then it dawned on me: that they weren’t raising their hands to ask question, but as an expression of praise.

This is a valid way of expressing praise.  Raising our hands, singing, shouting, dancing, all has its place.  But that is not the whole story.  I think in our society, were often religious dialogue and expression is dictated by one or two traditions, we have developed the idea that this is how you have to praise God; that praise also requires faith and thanksgiving and joy.   And that praise isn’t possible without these things.  Well, that is simply not true.  That is one valid expression of praise.  But not even the most important or common one.

Remember, people make up only a tiny part of the choir.  How do the sea-monsters, the cattle, the wild beasts and the wingéd birds fulfill their obligation to praise God?  How do the tempestuous winds and the mountains manage their polychoral parts in the choir?  “The problem we have in understanding praise is that we are accustomed to seeing praise as a special offering – a prayer or a song or certain behaviors or attitudes.  We relegate praise to a certain time and place… But the praise of the Lord in this psalm is more than what happens at a special time or place. Verse 6 is a clue to what is understood by praise in the psalm.  ‘The Lord established the heavenly (and earthly) things forever, and fixed their purpose and place in creation.’ In other words the stormy wind fulfils its task of praise by being a stormy wind. All creatures praise the Lord by being the creatures the Lord made them. This is true also of the Lord’s people*… “  We are joining in the chorus of praise as we go about living our lives as faithfully as we can.  We don’t have to be in a certain frame of mind.  We just have to go about living our lives in way that are faithful to our calling.  In the case of the family I spoke of earlier, the appropriate and natural expressing of grief, sorrow, fear and anger, were an expression of praise.  This is what the Aunt didn’t understand.  That by giving full voice to sorrow, grief, even anger – this is praise – this is being faithful!  In fact, I would go so far as to say that to deny these natural expressions and emotions, which are a natural part of life, would display a lack of faith.  We praise God most faithfully when we accept who we are and the wonderful gift of being fully human.

One final thought.  Today is Rogation Sunday, which is when we focus on the natural environment and God’s glorious creation.  Psalm 148 is explicitly clear that we are fellow choir members with all of God’s natural world, who, also in order to fulfill their calling to praise, must be allowed to be what they were created to be as well.  In as much as we are called to cherish who God wants us to be, so also we must cherish all dimensions of God’s creation so that together we can all join in the glorious polychoral song of praise to God.

* Exegetical article  The Old Testament Readings: Weekly Comments on the Revised Common Lectionary, Howard Wallace Audrey Schindler, Morag Logan, Paul Tonson, Lorraine Parkinson, Theological Hall of the Uniting Church, Melbourne, Australia.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Easter 2016 - Listen! God is Calling! - Luke 24/Acts 10

It had been a difficult few days and as a result the disciples had fled for their lives and Peter had had to lie and claim he didn’t know Jesus in order to save his skin.  But somehow they were able to find each other and so they huddled together afraid and uncertain.  Now what? What’s next?  What do we do now? All their hopes and dreams had been dashed.  Maybe they should just go back to their old lives.  But in fact, not all the disciples had come together in the safe house.  In Luke there are two distinct groups of Jesus’ followers – there are the disciples of Jesus, the students which is one large group of both men and women; and then there the apostles, the sent ones, the original12 (now 11) who had been Jesus’ inner core group and who had been chosen for a specific purpose – that is they are the ones sent to proclaim the Kingdom of God come into the world in Jesus, the Messiah.  But now that was all over.  It didn’t matter anymore.  So these 11 apostles are now fearfully hiding behind locked doors.  And others of the disciples had begun to disperse.  Luke tells us of two of that group who had decided to leave it all behind and head out of Jerusalem and possibly return to their old lives.  And so, they left the city and they took the road to the village of Emmaus.
But on Sunday strange things began to happen.  The women disciples returned to the safe house in the morning and announced that “Jesus is Risen” and that an angel had met them at the empty tomb. “Nonsense” thought the disciples.  And then those two disciples who had left and taken the road to Emmaus suddenly appeared back in Jerusalem with the news that not only had they heard that Jesus is risen, but, they had actually met him!  He had joined them on their way and they had recognized him when he broke the bread with them at supper.
Jesus is Risen!  Could it be true?!  Jesus had told them he would rise again on the third day, but they had not believed him!  Actually they hadn’t really believed or expected that he would be crucified either. But resurrection!?!  That would change everything! And what would that mean for them and their lives? Well it would mean that the powers of oppression, the powers of violence, the powers of fear – all the powers that came together in order to crucify Jesus have been defeated! It would even mean that the powers of darkness and death have also been defeated!  It would mean that the Kingdom of God is affirmed and that God’s love for all of humanity is confirmed!  And it would mean that the sent ones, the Apostles AND the disciples – of all ages - have work to do – and still have a mission to accomplish.  And that mission: to proclaim – Jesus is Risen!
Now, I want to make sure at this point that we understand what this word “proclaim” means for the Gospel writers.  When we use that word I think for the most part it means to us to preach, to announce, to use words to declare something important – for example – we say, “preachers are called to proclaim the Gospel” which means they give sermons and talk about Jesus! But this is only a part of what the word “proclaim” means in the Gospel context.  When the Gospel writer Luke and other NT authors use the word “Proclaim” it brings with it an imperative for actions and deeds to go along with the words.  In other words, it is not enough to simply talk about and announce with words that God has brought “good news to the poor, release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind.”  With these words must also come action in order to put these words into effect and to reach out in order to provide for the poor, to do everything that is possible to release captives from whatever it is they are captive to, and to touch and provide sight to the blind.  The words of proclamation must include actions that work towards the realization of the words.  And so when we proclaim that Jesus is risen from death, these are not just words to which we can all nod in agreement; these are not just words that make us feel warm and comfortable and happy; these are not just words that affirm us own attitudes and preconceptions, rather, these words also bring with them a call for us to review and to reject our old attitudes and prejudices, they call into question the comfortable tenets of faith that allow us to keep Jesus at arms length and keep us from enacting our faith! When we proclaim the Gospel that Jesus is Risen we are rejecting fear and violence and stating a commitment to get to the Gospel work reaching out and loving and caring for others in Jesus’ name.
And it certainly had this effect on the disciples.  The proclamation that Jesus is risen changed the lives of the apostles and the disciples forever.  And the book of Acts tells the story of what difference this proclamation made in the lives of these men and women.  Throughout Acts, one story after the next shows us how the boundaries are constantly being pushed and broken, and how comfort zones are being invaded and changed as the disciples and apostles seek to live the proclamation of Jesus’ resurrection.  This proclamation of “Jesus is risen” brings with it a new reality; things are not at all the way they were before; things are no longer the way they are “supposed” to be.  Philip, for example, finds himself proclaiming the Gospel of Jesus crucified and risen to an Ethiopian eunuch of all people; Stephen finds himself proclaiming this Gospel by serving the poor and hungry and lonely and ill and is stoned to death for his work; and Peter, in our Acts text for today, finds himself in the home of a Roman Centurion, who not only wants to be baptized but expects Peter to eat with him, which was something that observant Jews simply didn’t do.  And not only that but the meal is to include all kinds of things that are forbidden and impure. But God makes it clear to Peter that when you proclaim that “Jesus is Risen” it has consequences and means that things are going to be different; that relationships will be different; and that life now will be characterized solely and completely by love, acceptance, compassion and humility.  “Surely I now see that God shows no partiality,” says Peter.  God’s love extends to all – even beyond the phony boundaries and categories that we have set up and continue to set up to keep ourselves apart.
Jesus is risen!  So, what does this mean for you? What difference does this mean for your life?  For your priorities and attitudes, for your relationships, for the way you spend your time, for the way to care for others, and how much patience and compassion you show to those who are in need. Jesus is Risen - that means we are never to give in to fear or hate or violence; and that loving our neighbor is our primary calling!  In fact, loving our neighbor is non-negotiable for those who proclaim Jesus is risen – no matter how uncomfortable, how unpopular, how counter-cultural, or how politically incorrect.  Jesus calls upon us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves – this is what it means to be a follower of Jesus; this is what it means to be a Christian!  So, what does that look like for you? 
Jesus is Risen!  He is Risen indeed! So What ultimately is the meaning of Easter? The great New Testament scholar N.T. Wright answers this question in his book “Surprised by Hope.” He writes, The Gospels and the New Testament are clear – “Easter has a very this-worldly present-age meaning: Jesus is raised, so he is the Messiah, and therefore he is the world’s true Lord; Jesus is raised, so God’s new creation has begun – and we, his followers have a job to do! Jesus is raised, so we must act as his heralds, announcing his Lordship to the entire world, and making his kingdom come on earth – through words and actions!

Jesus is Risen!  He is Risen indeed! – Time to get to work!
Banner made by Rodney Rolfing with the stand by Marvin Gielow for Peace Lutheran Church, Steeleville, IL.