Tag Archives: Praise

Crucifixion of Our Lord (Good Friday) – March 25, 2016

Friday’s Reading:
Mark 15:16-39

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

My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
     I groan in prayer, but help seems far away.
My God, I cry out during the day, but you do not answer,
     and during the night my prayers do not let up.
You are holy; you sit as king
     receiving the praises of Israel.
In you our ancestors trusted;
     they trusted in you and you rescued them.
To you they cried out, and they were saved;
     in you they trusted and they were not disappointed.
But I am a worm, not a man;
     people insult me and despise me.
All who see me taunt me;
     they mock me and shake their heads.
They say, “Commit yourself to the Lord! Let the Lord rescue him!
     Let the Lord deliver him, for he delights in him.”
Yes, you are the one who brought me out from the womb
     and made me feel secure on my mother’s breasts.
10 I have been dependent on you since birth;
     from the time I came out of my mother’s womb you have been my God.
11 Do not remain far away from me,
     for trouble is near and I have no one to help me.
12 Many bulls surround me;
     powerful bulls of Bashan hem me in.
13 They open their mouths to devour me
     like a roaring lion that rips its prey.
14 My strength drains away like water;
     all my bones are dislocated;
my heart is like wax;
     it melts away inside me.
15 The roof of my mouth is as dry as a piece of pottery;
     my tongue sticks to my gums.
     You set me in the dust of death.
16 Yes, wild dogs surround me—
     a gang of evil men crowd around me;
     like a lion they pin my hands and feet.
17 I can count all my bones;
     my enemies are gloating over me in triumph.
18 They are dividing up my clothes among themselves;
     they are rolling dice for my garments.
19 But you, O Lord, do not remain far away!
     You are my source of strength! Hurry and help me!
20 Deliver me from the sword!
     Save my life from the claws of the wild dogs!
21 Rescue me from the mouth of the lion,
     and from the horns of the wild oxen!
(Psalm 22:1-21, NRSV)

When I was growing up, it happened like clockwork. Every year on Good Friday, we gathered in a dimly lit church that seemed to get darker by the minute, and at some point during the service we read these words. I’d been around enough to know why we read the first verse of Psalm 22 – that was Jesus talking from the cross, as Mark records in this evening’s gospel reading – but why the rest of this? To be honest, as much as I have always loved Holy Week Psalm 22 was by far my least favorite part of any service. My blood ran cold at the agony in those words, at the pain I knew was behind them, and, as I always heard them in my mind coming from the mouth of Jesus, they always made me sad. I think my parents knew – or maybe they felt it too. The silence that shrouded the end of that service always lasted until we got back home, until we could get out of our Sunday best – and, at least in my mind – strip away the guilt that came from imagining Jesus’ suffering.

It occurs to me now that we were missing a big part of the picture whenever we recited this Psalm, because we always stopped at verse 21. I didn’t realize that at the time, even when I’d read ahead a bit on my own until the jarring change of tone stopped me in my tracks and sent me scurrying back to the uncomfortable but familiar language of those first verses. As much as I disliked it, this was how Good Friday was supposed to be. Melancholy, sadness, and guilt were the order of the day.

There’s a place for those emotions to be sure, but I’ve come to realize that there’s room for a wider range of emotions than just these. Yes, there is sorrow on this night when we remember how Christ suffered for our sake and for the sake of our world. But there is also comfort in the knowledge that his suffering and death were not meaningless. The abandonment and pain experienced by Christ is a mirror for all the grief and loss that you and I and the rest of humanity have experienced, are experiencing now, and will continue to experience. Because Christ suffered, God knows what it means to suffer. Because Christ was lonely, God knows the pain of loneliness. Because Christ died, death is no longer foreign to God. Perhaps most importantly, the cross of Christ does not represent the end of God’s life with us, but the beginning of our life in God. That’s why Psalm 22 doesn’t end in verse 21, but continues:

You have answered me!
     22 I will declare your name to my countrymen!
     In the middle of the assembly I will praise you!
23 You loyal followers of the Lord, praise him!
     All you descendants of Jacob, honor him!
     All you descendants of Israel, stand in awe of him!
24 For he did not despise or detest the suffering of the oppressed;
     he did not ignore him;
     when he cried out to him, he responded.
25 You are the reason I offer praise in the great assembly;
     I will fulfill my promises before the Lord’s loyal followers.
26 Let the oppressed eat and be filled!
     Let those who seek his help praise the Lord!
     May you live forever!
27 Let all the people of the earth acknowledge the Lord and turn to him!
     Let all the nations worship you!
28 For the Lord is king and rules over the nations.
29 All of the thriving people of the earth will join the celebration and worship;
     all those who are descending into the grave will bow before him,
including those who cannot preserve their lives.
30 A whole generation will serve him;
     they will tell the next generation about the sovereign Lord.
31 They will come and tell about his saving deeds;
     they will tell a future generation what he has accomplished.
(Psalm 22:22-31, NRSV)

This is the good news of Good Friday, brothers and sisters: that in Christ’s suffering our suffering is known to God, that because of Christ’s faithfulness the news of God’s faithfulness will be spread abroad, that through Christ’s dying and rising all things will be brought from death to life. And so, brothers and sisters, even as we call to mind the sorrow and suffering of our Lord, we can sing of the glorious battle that Christ has fought and won, and look with longing to the day of resurrection that is dawning on the horizon. May it be so among us. Amen.

*Note: We are currently experiencing problems with our audio recording equipment; as a result, we are unable to post sermon audio at this time. Please bear with us as we work to resolve these problems. Thank you for your patience.*

The Book of Hebrews: Week 4 – August 30, 2015

Sunday’s Reading:
Hebrews 9:1-14

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

If it’s true – as I mentioned earlier in this series, and as I and many other interpreters of Hebrews believe – that this book of Scripture is more like a sermon than a letter, then the text before us this morning represents one of the threads of a sort of “sermon-within-a-sermon” woven into the central portion of Hebrews. We find ourselves in the middle of an extended riff on the theme we picked up last week – the identity of Jesus as our great high priest – and, to tell you the truth, this particular section can be pretty treacherous for us if we’re not careful.

The writer of Hebrews walks a tight line throughout the entire book, and everyone who reads it must walk the same line. On the one hand, a lot of ink is spent making the case for a continuity between the coming of Jesus and the experience of God’s chosen people in the centuries preceding his birth. With this emphasis, the arrival of Jesus is not a radical departure from God’s work throughout the centuries, but an extension of that work to a new people, a people who had previously not known God – namely, us, the nations, the Gentiles. On the other hand, as last week’s sermon made clear, the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus do represent something new and different and transformative. The ministry of Jesus before the Father is unlike the ministry of other priests because it was and is carried out by the Son of God, the Word who became flesh, who experienced humanity in all its glorious and gut-wrenching fullness, and who remained obedient to God’s will so that he might make a perfect offering for our sake and for the sake of the world.

What makes this tightrope walk so treacherous is what happens when we lose our balance in our attempt to more easily digest the relationship between the “Old Testament” or “First Covenant” and the “New Testament” or “New Covenant”. If we forget the roots of our faith in the First Covenant, we are in danger of committing one of the church’s most besetting and damaging sins – the sin of supercessionism, the idea that the coming of Jesus resulted in the negation of God’s promises to Israel. This idea has been echoed throughout the centuries by some of Christianity’s most important theologians, including Martin Luther, with devastating consequences for our Jewish brothers and sisters throughout the world and throughout history. By the same token, if we too easily collapse Judaism and Christianity into one another, we are in danger of practicing a faith that is a poorer, shallower version of both, and we weaken the strength of the appeal that the writer of Hebrews is making to us.

So, for example, if we read the first part of this morning’s text, the verses concerning “earthly worship”, and we see it as an indictment of the worship conducted by the people of Israel in the “tent” or “tabernacle” that they carried with them on their wilderness journey, we could easily assume that this section of the text doesn’t apply to us. That would be a mistake, for we Christians are just as likely to fall into the trap of focusing on externals and missing out on the encounter with God that is the intention of proper worship. When the writer of Hebrews says that his description of tabernacle worship is a symbol of the present time (Hebrews 9:9a, NRSV), he means to expand our vision and remind us that the limitations of earthly worship are not unique to the experience of people long ago or far away. Indeed, we face the same potential problem as the people of Israel did: allowing the trappings of worship to become ends in themselves.

At their best, the earthly sanctuaries we construct represent windows to the Divine. They contain symbols and signs that point beyond themselves to a reality beyond our reason and our senses. We could spend hours unpacking the images and objects that fill this holy space, drawing out their significance, revealing something of the nature of God or the content of the story that continues to unfold around us, but as the writer of Hebrews says in verse five of this morning’s reading, of these things we cannot speak now in detail. (Hebrews 9:5b, NRSV)

That’s because in the end our earthly worship is a mere reflection of the worship of heaven, led by our great high priest, who offered himself as a perfect sacrifice to re-forge the connection between God and humanity that had been broken by our pride and arrogance and short-sightedness – in short, by the power of Sin that made us strangers to one another and to God. That reality is vital to our understanding of proper worship, because it is so different from the way that we so often speak about the experience of worship. In truth, what happens when we gather is not about us and what we offer to God as much as it is about what Christ offers to God on our behalf and what we receive from God for the sake of Christ: grace, mercy, forgiveness, strength, and renewed life. Hebrews provides us with a stark picture of this reality through the language of sacrifice and blood, language that may sound strange to our ears but which captures the cost that God has incurred in pursuit of a wayward people who still think that we can make ourselves holy by what we do and say.

Brothers and sisters, the writer of Hebrews has given us a word that we sorely need to hear today. May this passage remind us of the gratitude we owe to Christ, who has opened the heavenly sanctuary so that our earthly worship might reach the ears of our mighty God. May we continue to offer our praises to God, not to earn favor with our creator, but to express our thanks for the ministry of Christ to us and for us, a ministry that cost us his life and made new life possible for all who call upon him. Finally, may we strive to be humble as we reflect on our own worship, and celebrate with thanks all those who glorify the living God with their lips and their lives. Amen.

Life with God: The Book of Psalms – Week 6 – July 5, 2015

Sunday’s Reading:
Psalm 146

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

We, the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, ensure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
(Preamble to the Constitution of the United States of America, adopted Sept. 17, 1778)

This weekend, our nation pauses to commemorate the declaration of our independence from the British crown. It is a day for celebration, a day to give thanks for the opportunity to live and work and grow and play and seek our fortunes as citizens of these United States. It is common on this day for us to wax poetic about the greatness of our nation, to declare loudly for all to hear that we are proud to be Americans, to deck the halls with red, white, and blue and rejoice in the ideals upon which this Union was founded: Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

So why, on the occasion of celebrating our independence, would I think it necessary to read from the preamble to the Constitution, which wasn’t adopted until twelve years after the Declaration? Well, in truth, I think the words I read above, the words that introduce and explain the reason for adopting our system of government, provide a necessary corrective for our expressions of patriotism and love of nation. The framers of the Constitution recognized that our founding was simply a first step, and that the continued formation of our nation would require diligence and hard work. In adopting the Constitution, they endeavored only to make our Union “more perfect,” not “perfect” once for all. There are scholarly disputes about the extent to which the framers were informed by Christian faith, but all of them – orthodox Christian or not – seemed to enter into their work with a profound realism about human nature, about our fallibility and short-sightedness and recklessness. That realism is shared by the psalmist, and it is perhaps the enduring image that we can take away from Psalm 146 this morning.

This psalm is, as the theme for today indicates, a psalm of praise, a song that invites us to declare the wonder and majesty of God. We’ve talked before about the importance of praising God, about the necessity of looking beyond ourselves to the one who created us and sustains us. Notice how quickly the psalm turns from praising God to issuing this stark warning about human beings and human institutions:

Do not put your trust in princes,
     in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
     on that very day their plans perish.
(Psalm 146:3-4 NRSV)

The people of Israel had heard the warnings of their prophets; they knew all too well the failings of human authority. The psalmist is not content to allow his people to reflect on God’s power and presence without being absolutely certain that Israel understood the surpassing greatness and justice and righteousness of God. That God, of course, is a God who does not exercise authority and power merely for God’s own glory. No, the God revealed in Scripture, the God we have come to know more fully through Jesus Christ, is a God whose power is exercised precisely for the good of the other, for the good of the marginalized, for the good of the vulnerable and despised. In the psalmist’s day, that included people on a familiar and oft-repeated list: the oppressed, the hungry, and the captive; the blind and the lame; the stranger, the orphan, and the widow. In our own day, we might come up with our own list of people who find themselves on the outside looking in: the poor, the hungry, and the ex-convict; those suffering from mental illnesses, or addictions, or diseases like HIV/AIDS; the immigrant or the racial “minority”. The witness of the psalms – indeed, of all the Scriptures – is that our God is concerned with the plight of those who are deprived of their dignity and worth by human authorities and human institutions. As Christians, we too are called to be concerned with the ways in which our society – formally and informally – signals to these groups that they are less important, that their lives don’t matter as much as ours, that they somehow do not share in the image of God that all of us bear by virtue of our having been created by God. As Americans, we do well to remember the words of our founders, who understood that human government is always a work in progress, and that to be a government of, by, and for the people is to understand that, at best, we will forever be striving for a “more perfect Union”.

As we enter the 240th year of our Independence as a nation, our Christian faith and the legacy of our founders suggest that we must do more than celebrate. We must also recommit ourselves to the ideals upon which our faith and our nation are supposed to be built. In his moving eulogy at the funeral of the Rev. Clementa Pinckney, the pastor of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston who was killed along with eight fellow church members in a racially-motivated massacre last month, the president reflected on the grace that has been poured out upon our nation – in language very similar to that found in our closing hymn, “O Beautiful for Spacious Skies”. He talked of the great gift of grace that has not failed us despite our history of not living up to our highest ideals. He shared his belief that we are now living in a moment in which we have been graced again with the opportunity for renewed understanding, for renewed commitment to our governing principles, for renewed attention to the problems of poverty and hunger and prejudice that continue to plague us as a people. I share that optimism and that belief, but I base it, not in the power of human authority or institutions, but in the power of God, who reigns forever, to transform us by grace, to strengthen what President Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature,” and to call us once again to affirm that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” are the inalienable right of all people.

Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us lift our voices to praise our good and gracious God. Let us pray that God would, in the words of our closing hymn, “shed his grace on [us],” “refine our gold,” and “mend [our] every flaw,” both as God’s people and as citizens of these United States. Let us pray that God would continue to mold our hearts and minds into the image of Christ, so that we might be the kind of people God has called us to be through the Gospel. Finally, let us pray that we might marry our love of country with a fervent love of liberty and justice for all, and that we might be willing to do the work that is necessary to make that statement a reality for all of our brothers and sisters and fellow Americans. Amen and amen.

Life with God: The Book of Psalms – Week 2 – Sunday, June 7

Sunday’s Reading:
Psalm 113

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

 Last week we began our six-week-long series on the Psalms by looking at how these songs help us to orient ourselves to a particular way of looking at the world. In Psalm 1 we were invited to see life as a choice between two paths – the path of the righteous, which leads to blessing, and the path of the wicked, which leads to destruction – and we reflected on some of the pitfalls of following that logic, specifically our tendency to equate suffering with unfaithfulness. We’ll see as our series continues that the psalmist will challenge that easy equation repeatedly throughout the collection.

This morning, we move from the so-called wisdom or instructional psalms – of which Psalm 1 is undoubtedly a part – to the psalms of praise, specifically focusing on Psalm 113. Expressions of praise were particularly important for the people of Israel who first composed these songs. In fact, the centrality of praise is reflected in the Hebrew name of this collection. The Hebrew language has a word – mizmor – which is roughly equivalent to our English word “psalm”. You might, then, expect this book to be called Sefer Mizmorim, which would literally mean “Book of Psalms”, in Hebrew, but you would be wrong. To this day, the collection of songs we call the Psalms is referred to in Hebrew as the Tehillim, or “Praises”.* What makes this fact significant is that it tells us something about the focus of these songs. There are many different kinds of Psalms, and yet this whole collection is unified by the fact that it says is addressed to and expresses deeply-held convictions about this God – the God who claimed Israel and promised to be with them (and us) – and that it encourages us to honor God for no other reason than that God is worthy of being honored and adored. In fact, that’s really what praise is all about: giving glory and honor to God simply for being God.

I don’t know about you, but if I’m honest with myself, that’s not always a significant focus of my prayer life. I often find myself making requests of God, or thanking God for something that has happened to me or someone I love, but I don’t often find that my prayers are offered up simply because God is worthy of my praise. Psalm 113 then, helps us to recapture this important aspect of the life of prayer. Gratitude and petition are undoubtedly important, but they must always be balanced by prayer that expresses wonder or awe at simply being invited to share life with the creator of the heavens and the earth. So we turn to Psalm 113, which begins with this unabashed language of praise:

Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord! Praise the name of the Lord!

Blessed be the name of the Lord from this time forth and for evermore.

From the rising of the son to its setting the name of the Lord is to be praised.

The Lord is high above the nations and his glory above the heavens.

Who is like the Lord our God, who is seated on high

who looks far down on the heavens and the earth?

(Psalm 113:1-6, NRSV)

It is only after these beautiful expressions of praise that the psalmist moves on to reflect on what kind of God we are being invited to praise, and in that move we find something that should still give us pause:

He raises the poor from the dust, and lifts the needy from the ash heap.

to make them sit with princes, with the princes of his people.

He gives the barren woman a home, making her the joyous mother of children. Praise the Lord!

(Psalm 113:7-9, NRSV)

This is a truly remarkable claim, isn’t it? There’s something incredible, after all, about the assertion that the God who rules high over the nations, and whose name is praised from east to west, is also the God who cares intimately about the fate of the lowly, the marginalized, those who are pushed aside by the powerful and influential of this world. As Christians, of course, we can’t help but recognize in this psalm an echo of the life of Jesus, the one who literally embodied God’s care and concern for us and for the creation in his being born among us, suffering and dying for our sake, and rising again so that we might be raised up ourselves. It seems fitting, then, that there is a very tangible connection between Psalm 113 and one of the defining events of Jesus’ life. On the night of his betrayal, following Jesus’ last meal with his disciples, the Gospel of Matthew tells us that Jesus and the Twelve sang a hymn as they left dinner and went toward the Mount of Olives to pray. The “hymns” that they were likely singing on the journey that would lead to Jesus’ betrayal and arrest were a selection of Psalms, known collectively as the “Hallel” or praise psalms, and the first of those Hallel psalms is, in fact, Psalm 113.

It might seem like a small thing, but I think there’s something powerful about hearing these words on the lips of Jesus and his disciples as they walked into a trap that would lead to his death. Knowing exactly what was going to happen to him, Jesus was still able to lift his voice to praise God and to express his conviction about God’s care and concern for those who are brought low by the world. We may not enjoy the intimacy with God that Jesus did, and yet we do well to recognize that these words of praise, these words that acknowledge God’s majesty and glory, can – and often do – transcend our circumstances. At the same time, these words aren’t spoken in a vacuum. So it is that the same Jesus who praised God as he approached the Mount of Olives would soon lift his voice in lament, using the kind of lament-filled language that we’ll look at more in depth next week.

For now, brothers and sisters, perhaps it is enough simply to acknowledge that the language of praise is an important part of the life of faith. As we honor God with our lips, we call to mind one of the vital truths of human existence – that for all of our creativity and power and strength and influence over the affairs of this world, we are not the creator. To be human is to be created in God’s image, and to acknowledge God as the one who has made our lives possible. This week, then, let us endeavor to praise God “from the rising of the sun to its setting”, confident that the one who hears our praise will also hear us in our time of need. Glory be to God! Amen.

*This insight appears, among other places, in the introduction to Robert Alter’s profound translation of The Book of Psalms, W.W. Norton and Co. (New York: 2007), xx.