Tag Archives: Gratitude

Life with God: The Book of Psalms – Week 5 – Sunday, June 28, 2015

Sunday’s Reading:
Psalm 40:1-10

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Two weeks ago, when we explored the psalms of lament, I mentioned that it is sometimes possible to look back on our experiences of hardship and recognize the hand of God working to bring deliverance and healing and comfort. Today, we turn to the psalms of thanksgiving, a group of psalms that is precisely about the discernment of God’s power and presence in our lives. In Psalm 40, our text for today, the psalmist calls to mind a time that he was in need of God’s rescue, in need of divine intervention to save him from the hands of his enemies. In response to that need, God stoops down to pick the psalmist up, drawing him out of the pit, freeing him from the deepest muck and mire, and setting his feet upon a sturdy rock. The psalm of thanksgiving is a response to that deliverance, a song that declares God’s goodness and care for those who call upon God in time of trouble, a song that invites others to reflect on the times that they, too, had experienced God’s salvation.

That last characteristic of thanksgiving, the language of invitation, is particularly important, because it speaks to something that we’ve likely all experienced at one time or another: the contagious nature of gratitude. Think, for instance, about the well-loved ritual of sitting around the table on the fourth Thursday in November and taking turns sharing about those people and things for which we’re grateful. Sure, in some cases the fact that everyone can bring something up is due to the social pressure of not wanting to seem ungrateful. But more often than not, I think that the act of hearing others express their gratitude unlocks something in us. It tunes our hearts and minds to see the gifts and blessings that, perhaps, we’ve taken for granted. The language of thanksgiving blossoms and flourishes when it is expressed, and gratitude follows gratitude in a way that is really something to behold.

I’m convinced that this is the reason the psalmist goes out of his way to tell God of his refusal to keep the story of his deliverance to himself. Look again at the last couple of verses of this morning’s reading:

I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;
     see, I have not restrained my lips,
          as you know, O LORD.
I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
     I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
          I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.
(Psa 40:9-10 NRS)

The psalmist knows that keeping his gratitude to himself does very little. He understands that his story will inspire trust and gratitude in others, that it will draw the entire congregation together in remembering God’s steadfast love and faithfulness, that those who are experiencing hardship and struggle can take heart in knowing that others have been brought through their times of trouble.

Brothers and sisters, gratitude – especially gratitude that is rightly directed to God – is a powerful thing. As I reflected on the idea of thanksgiving, I was struck by the convergence between the power of gratitude and the history that accompanied the composition of today’s closing hymn, a hymn that Doug and I selected six weeks ago with no idea of the deep resonance that it would hold today.  “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written by the poet James Weldon Johnson in 1899, and set to music and performed for the first time as a song in 1900 on the occasion of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. The poem is a poignant expression of thanksgiving for the end of slavery in the United States and the progress that had been made toward liberation and equality during the era of Reconstruction following the end of the Civil War. It is a text that looks back over the difficult history of slavery and oppression with frank realism. It is a text that surveys the present with gratitude for distance that the African-American community has come. It is a text that looks with hope to the future, recognizing that the work of liberation is far from done, while also trusting that, as Martin Luther King, Jr., would say in later years, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” Like Psalm 40, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a testament to the power of gratitude to inspire a community, to uplift a people who were experiencing hardship, to help people to see beyond their present circumstances by means of a persistent hope that better days were coming. Like Psalm 40, these words, once addressed to a particular community, now inspire others to give thanks for God’s provision of care in the past and of strength to meet the challenges of the present and future. Before we sing these words later in the service, I’d like to read them aloud, the way they were originally intended, as a way of helping us hear and appreciate them anew:

Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring,
ring with the harmonies of liberty.
Let our rejoicing rise high as the list’ning skies,
let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us;
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod, bitter the chast’ning rod
felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet
come to the place for which our parents sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered;
we have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
thou who hast by thy might led us into the light,
keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee;
lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee;
shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand,
true to our God, true to our native land.
(Hymn #841, Evangelical Lutheran Worship)

In a similar way, many Lutheran Christians have drawn strength from the words of gratitude contained in perhaps our most famous and well-loved hymn: “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”. Martin Luther’s paraphrase of Psalm 46 is another song that speaks powerfully of gratitude for God’s deliverance, and it is a song that has sustained generations of the faithful – Lutheran and non-Lutheran alike:

A mighty fortress is our God, a sword and shield victorious;|
he breaks the cruel oppressor’s rod and wins salvation glorious.
The old satanic foe has sworn to work us woe!
With craft and dreadful might he arms himself to fight.
On earth he has no equal.

No strength of ours can match his might! We would be lost, rejected.
But now a champion comes to fight, whom God himself elected.
You ask who this may be? The Lord of hosts is he!
Christ Jesus, mighty Lord, God’s only son, adored.
He holds the field victorious.

Though hordes of devils fill the land all threat’ning to devour us,
we tremble not, unmoved we stand. They cannot overpower us.
Let this world’s tyrant rage; in battle we’ll engage!
His might is doomed to fail; God’s judgment must prevail!
One little word subdues him. 

God’s word forever shall abide, no thanks to foes who fear it;
for God himself fights by our side with weapons of the Spirit.
Were they to take our house, goods, honor, child, or spouse,
though life be wrenched away, they cannot win the day.
The kingdom’s ours forever!
(Hymn #504, Evangelical Lutheran Worship, ©1978 Lutheran Book of Worship, admin. Augsburg Fortress)

Brothers and sisters, today we rejoice in God’s deliverance, and in those songs of thanksgiving and trust that allow us to remember how God has sustained us in times of trouble and brought us to a new day of hope. This week, may the language of gratitude blossom in our own hearts, that we might call to mind the bountiful gifts of grace and favor that are ours in Christ. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Crucifixion (Good Friday) – April 3, 2015

Friday’s Readings:
Complementary Text: Psalm 22
Preaching Text: Matthew 27:27-61

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

We gather again this night to hear the story of our Lord’s final hours. We hear of his brutal torture by the whole cohort of Roman soldiers, possibly as many as six hundred strong.  We hear of the mockery to which they subjected him when they clothed him in crude military dress, gave him a crown of thorns and a limp reed for a scepter, and knelt before him while parodying the greeting that rang in the emperor’s ears wherever he went: Hail! Hail! Hail, king of the Jews! We hear the derision from those who passed by, using his own words and his position of utter powerlessness to ridicule him. He saved others! He cannot save himself! He is the king of Israel? Come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him! We hear his last words from the cross before he gave up his spirit: Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? My God, my God, why have you abandoned me? We hear of the tremors that rent the earth, the temple curtain, and the disbelief of those who had nailed him to the tree. We hear of his burial in a brand new tomb, and of the women who kept watch over his grave until the guards arrived.

Whether you’re hearing this story for the first time or rehearing it for the hundredth time, it is a truly remarkable narrative. Matthew includes so many little details that give us pause and help us to find something new and powerful in the tale, like the fact that Simon Peter – the chief disciple who recognized Jesus as the Christ and vowed never to leave him – is nowhere to be found, and so the one who was called to pick up the cross and follow Jesus is replaced by a stranger with the same name. Or the fact that Jesus was crucified between two bandits who may have been Galilean revolutionaries from the same gang of rebels as Barabbas, the one who was released by Pontius Pilate at the urging of the religious authorities and the crowds who gathered for Jesus’ trial. If that’s the case, then Jesus, the Son of God the Father was likely crucified in the place of Jesus Barabbas, whose name also means “Son of the Father”. Or this strange scene, recorded only in Matthew, of the graves of the faithful dead being opened, so that God’s power over death might be shown forth by their sharing in Christ’s resurrection on the third day.

On its own, this is an incredibly moving story, both in its broad sweep and in those seemingly small details that open up new worlds of meaning. But as Martin Luther and Dietrich Bonhoeffer and other important theologians in our tradition have stressed throughout the years, what makes this story even more compelling is the act of pondering what it means for you and me and for the world. Earlier in this Gospel, Jesus lays out his mission, his purpose for being born among us, living among us, and dying at our hands: The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Matthew 20:28, NRSV). The goal of Jesus’ life and death and resurrection was not to be glorified for his own sake, to be remembered as a powerful preacher and teacher and healer, but so that our relationship with God, broken by our human propensity to live for ourselves, to injure and demean others, and to ignore our Creator, might be renewed and restored. The events of this day happened for you and for me, a thought that surely inspires profound and heartfelt gratitude in each of us.

But what happened on the God-forsaken hill called Golgotha outside the city walls was even bigger than you and me. Paul later writes that in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself. (2 Corinthians 5:19) The Lord who taught his disciples of God’s care for the lilies of the field and the birds of the air hung on the cross to restore the whole creation to God – everything that has ever been made, that exists now, and that will ever exist.

This is love, brothers and sisters; love so deep, so wide, so high, that it encompasses all things, seen and unseen. We gather this night to remember the cost of that love, and to give thanks for the amazing grace that has found us all in Jesus and kept us in communion with God the Father. We gather to pray for God’s grace to continue to come to us, to inspire us to acts of greater love and service to others, and to make the light of the Gospel known throughout the world. In closing this evening’s reflection, I’d like to leave you with these words, part of a fifth-century hymn about Christ’s life, death, and rising for us:

Because for our sake you tasted gall, may the Enemy’s bitterness be killed in us.
Because for our sake you drank sour wine, may what is weak in us be strengthened.
Because for our sake you were spat upon, may we be bathed in the dew of immortality.
Because for our sake you were struck with a rod, may we receive shelter in the last.
Because for our sake you accepted a crown of thorns, may we that love you be crowned with garlands that never can fade.
Because for our sake you were wrapped in a shroud, may we be clothed in your all-enfolding strength.
Because you were laid in the new grave and the tomb, may we receive renewal of body and soul.
Because you rose and returned to life, may we be brought to life again.
[Early Christian Prayers, ed. A. Hamman, trans. by W. Mitchell (Longmans, Green, and Co.: 1961)]

Amen.

Swords into Plowshares – Sunday, November 16, 2014 (NL Week 11)

Sunday’s Readings:
Complementary Text: Matthew 5:14
Preaching Text: Isaiah 36:1-3, 13-20; 37:1-7; 2:1-4

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

This week our journey through the Scriptures brings us to the book of Isaiah, probably the most important of the prophetic books of the Old Testament. Isaiah, like the rest of the prophets, was called to speak the word of the Lord to people who faced an uncertain future. Last week, we heard from Micah, who warned God’s people about the internal problems that tore at the fabric of society and threatened to bring judgment upon the nation. Today, Isaiah speaks to people harried by an external threat: Assyria, which at that point in history was the most powerful empire on earth and which had its eyes set on the small nation of Judah. We pick up the story with the Assyrian army stationed outside Jerusalem and their commanding officer Rab-Shakeh taunting the people of the city in their own language: Do not let your king Hezekiah, deceive you, and don’t think your God will save you! Sennacherib, the great king of Assyria, will conquer your city! Hezekiah is distressed, but he sends for a word from the prophet Isaiah, who reassures him: Don’t be afraid because of the words that you have heard, with which the servants of the king of Assyria have reviled me! To a people in fear, the prophet brings a word of comfort and peace, calming the hearts and minds of a war-weary nation.

Brothers and sisters, the world we live in at present can often be a scary place in its own right. There is plenty to occupy our attention, to cause us to worry about the events that are swirling around us locally, nationally, and globally. What makes matters worse is that there are far too many people who relish the role of the Rab-Shakeh in today’s reading, who make their living sowing the seeds of fear and division. Abroad, our nation and our allies face threats from the so-called “Islamic State”, whose actions in recent months have not only demonstrated that there is nothing “Islamic” about them, but have also represented the very definition of terrorism. That they are a very small group of people operating in a relatively small area of the world has not stopped them (and, unfortunately, our media) from magnifying the practical threat they pose. At the same time, the fear occasioned in our country by the outbreak of the Ebola virus in West Africa has in some cases led to responses that border on the absurd: look, for example, to a school district in Connecticut which recently banned a student from school after her family traveled to Nigeria to attend a wedding, despite the fact that Nigeria is over 1,000 miles away from the nearest country affected by the virus. I don’t mean to suggest, of course, that neither of these situations is worthy of a response. Both have led to loss of life and suffering on a broad scale, and there is certainly much that we can do as a nation to address these and other problems that face our global community. But when those responses are provoked by irrational fear rather than initiated by sober reflection and intentional action, they have the potential to cause great harm to us and to others.

There’s a reason, I think, that so many of the encounters between human and divine recorded in Scripture begin with the words, “Do not be afraid.” Ever since Adam and Eve made the choice to trust the word of the serpent rather than God’s word, human existence has been characterized by fear and mistrust. Many of the institutions that human beings have created are necessary because of those realities; in fact, I challenge you to name one human institution that is not firmly rooted in our need to protect one group of individuals from another. But this is not God’s desire for us or for our world. The vision of Isaiah we heard after the story of Sennacharib and Hezekiah is a vision of a shared destiny for all the nations of the world, a vision that tells of an end to fear and division and mistrust and enmity between people:

In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; and all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:1-4, NRSV)

This is not a naïve vision or a pie-in-the-sky prediction. The word of the Lord that came to Isaiah was a word spoken in the midst of hardship for God’s people, with the threat of violence looming over the nation. It is a word that has persisted, a promise that has endured even as the people who first heard it experienced centuries of persecution and pain. It is a word that cuts through the fear which so often threatens to overwhelm us. It is a beacon of hope, not only for the people of Israel, but also for the church that has been grafted on to that people through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.

This weekend, alongside this latest step along our journey through Scripture, we also gather to give thanks for the ministries carried out by the Women of the ELCA. So often we ground our thanksgiving in the faithfulness that God has shown us in the past, and we are certainly called to that sort of gratitude in response to God’s gracious providence. I’d like to suggest, however, that there is another, equally compelling reason for us to give thanks: namely, the hope that sustains us in the face of scarcity and fear. One of the great gifts of this faith is the vision of a world renewed and restored, the promise of a world that is no longer defined by what we lack, but by the wholeness that is God’s will for our world. We are called to be grateful not simply because of what God has already done for us, but because God has given us a glimpse of the world that is yet to be and invited us to participate in it today. And so we give thanks for our sisters in Christ who carry out such incredible ministry with and for us. We give thanks for the blessings and graces that God has poured out upon us in Jesus Christ. But let us also give thanks for the hopeful vision that sustains us in the face of our fears, for the word of the Lord that declares that we don’t need to be afraid, and for the promise of peace that frees us to give as Christ first gave to us. May that vision, that word, and that promise carry us as we go out into a fearful world and seek to walk in the Lord’s paths today and always. Thanks be to God. Amen.

*Note: I am indebted this week to the reflection by Dr. Amy Oden at Working Preacher. For more of her thoughts on this week’s text, click here.