February 4, God is gracious

Today’s Psalm, says OT scholar Walter Brueggemann, is one which moves away from concreteness of Israel’s faith to a more general, universalizing theme.  (the Message of the Psalms, p.163).

It starts with language of praise.

In today’s version it opens with a hearty, “Praise the Lord.”

In Eugene Peterson’s version he brings it down to a single word, “Hallelujah!”

This Psalm of praise has concrete, action words like gracious, builds up, gathers, heals, binds, gives and lifts up, but does not include the typical “I am the one who brought you out of the land of Egypt”, or “the one who fed you in the wilderness”.

It is not linked to a specific, or identifiable act in history.

And yet it is a holistic psalm, as Kathleen Norris describes all Psalms, insisting that the mundane and the holy are inextricably linked.

They are both there.

In the first half God is gatherer and healer, giving names to the stars and lifting the downtrodden, and in the second half God is care-taker of the earth and all that is on the earth, right down to the grass growing on the hills and the cry of the young, hungry ravens.

The community of faith when the Psalm was composed may be far removed from the events that gave rise to this Psalm but the overarching themes are clear:  God’s graciousness is abundant and a song of praise is fitting.

And so that is what the Psalmist does, and begins with the exclamation, “Praise the Lord.

How good it is to sing praises to our God.”

Now, we are a singing congregation, we have our expressions of praise and gratitude,….

but it’s rare to hear “Praise the Lord!” from most of us – at least in public worship.

We are generally not, “Praise the Lord!” kind of a people on a Sunday morning.

We are a thankful people, a grateful people, but “Praise the Lord!”…

That’s for another population; for another church.

We are Brethren, Anabaptists at heart and such ecstatic utterance does not roll off the tongue with ease, or at least not without first looking around the room.

“Thank God” somehow sounds better…doesn’t it?

Or “O thank God” to be more precise.

In our striving to make the world a more open place – gathering the outcasts,

….a more healing place – binding up the wounds,

…..a more just place – lifting up the downtrodden….

         We are not likely to belt out a “praise the Lord”.

In such striving, we are grateful and pleased, even relieved when something actually turns out well, when good news shows up and we may whisper with some sense of relief or hope or even gratitude, “O thank God.”

Skepticism of such exclamations of praise, especially when offered without context, without grounding, is more our impulse.

We like context.

and openness.

and transformation.

and equality.

and justice being done.

We not only like them, we promote them, work for them, organize our lives around them, print them each week in our bulletin.

We may like the intent of this psalm, but broad, sweeping claims are usually open to skepticism, even criticism, for if we shout ‘Praise the Lord” it needs to be grounded in the mundane, in reality, in some identifiable, verifiable action, or better yet, accomplishment.

Otherwise it’s just pie in the sky, groundless, empty claims…..right?

And though this Psalm contains general themes, it is pointed in a particular direction.

God is gracious and a song of praise is fitting.

Because somewhere along the way,

God does gather the outcasts;

God does heal the broken-hearted;

God binds up their wounds;

God gives names to the stars,

and is abundant in power and has understanding beyond measure.

God lifts up the downtrodden,

Prepares rain for the earth, makes grass grow on the hills;

gives food to the animals

and the vulnerable young ravens when they cry.

It concludes with this counterweight:

“God’s delight is not in the strength of the horse,

         nor is God’s pleasure in the speed of the runner.”

Wait….What?

Is there something wrong with being the strongest?

Is there a problem with being the fastest?

Having the best GPA? 

Or the fastest keyboardist?

I like winning;  do you like winning?   I would like having the lowest handicap;

Who doesn’t like lifting the conference trophy; who on the basketball team hasn’t dreamed of swishing the winning the basket or dunking over the opponent to close out the game?

I like being with and learning from, those who are the smartest, the strongest, the most capable.

Is the psalmist speaking against the very things many of us reach for?

The very persons we encourage our daughters and sons to become?

Persons who will eventually head up committees and campaigns and boards and maybe even elected office?

 

This week Debbie and I watched David Letterman’s interview with former President Barak Obama.

They were having some fun together, bantering about being on the back side of their success.

And these are two dripping with what generally would be considered success.

One a late-night talk show host; arguably one of the most successful over a number of decades;

One who just might wear the mantle of ‘late night elder statesman.’  And he has a big old beard to help fulfill the role.

The other the first African-American President in a culture still struggling with its history – what many have come to call “America’s original sin.”

An election many of us never would have dreamed could have happened in our lifetime.

The interview was fun to watch.

They were clearly comfortable with one another, candid at times, some friendly ribbing and a little revealing about what life is like now that the daily spotlight and daunting responsibility has dimmed.

In the midst of the interview, which seemed more like a conversation, the camera would cut to Letterman talking with Congressman John Lewis as they walked the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma Alabama.

During part of that conversation footage was shown from the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery.

The attempted march from Selma to Montgomery, which was to dramatize the desire to register to vote.

The footage showed a much younger John Lewis on the front line dressed in his light colored trench coat.

On his back was a small pack with an apple, an orange, toothpaste and toothbrush, and two books, not much for a 50-mile walk.

But his intent wasn’t a little food to sustain him on what was supposed to be a 50-mile walk to Montgomery, AL.

When planning the march, he told Letterman, he was convinced they would be arrested and the fruit snack and two books would get him through some of the jail time.

And that prediction came true: they never got across the bridge on the first attempt.

They were beaten back, with Lewis sustaining a serious head injury from a state trooper’s night stick.

He confessed to Letterman that when they were crossing the bridge in Selma, quote, “I thought I was going to die.  Yet there was something, some force, pushing us on.

 

 

Sometimes you have to be inspired, and lifted up.

What I call the spirit of history.

We were taught not to be afraid.  To be determined.  To be orderly, disciplined and abide by the philosophy of nonviolence.” Unquote (John Lewis, with David Letterman; My next guest needs no introduction)

He found his way back to the church where they began the march and then the next thing he knew he was in the hospital being treated for his injury.

Then Letterman asked the congressman this question:

Symbolically, when the March was completed successfully, what is on the other side of the bridge?

And the congressman answered:

The vote.  Barak Obama.

If it hadn’t been for the March from Selma to Montgomery, probably no Barak Obama as President of the United States.

And in those words there was genuine humility and steadfastness.

No empty promises, or shallow commitments or blind justifications.

No jealousy, no ego, no fear, which are the easy things to get to…aren’t they?  Too easy.

Fear is as pervasive as the air we breathe;

Ego rises up and threatens isolation;

Jealousy stifles graciousness of spirit;

Even when we can’t name them; we know them when they are there;

We feel them rise up within us making us unsettled.

And they change our view of the world and our place in it.

Skepticism turns to suspicion;

And suspicion leads to entrenchment, and stuck-ness, and judgments based in fear and before too long graciousness has left altogether, and our lives and the world around us become fractured.

Instead the psalmist sees a community, and a world, willing to trust an enduring hope and steadfast love, for the psalmist sees the world whole, with a deep, abiding steadiness at the heart of things.

The conversation with Congressman Lewis contained this tone.

Both the former President and the former talk-show host admitted they were lucky; they agreed they had some skill and ability; but mostly they were lucky.

One was lucky to be standing on the shoulders of those who went before him;

Lucky to have been metaphorically ‘carried across that bridge.’

Lucky to have those marchers carry America across that bridge.

The other, lucky simply because he was born into privilege, which was followed by a confession.

When Congressman Lewis and the others who started across the bridge in the struggle for the vote were facing down the clubs, and the dogs, and the tear gas, the pre-talk-show-host-college-student was headed to Florida to get on a boat to go to the Bahamas to, in his words, “spend the entire week s-faced.”

He confessed, “Why wasn’t I there.  Why wasn’t I in Alabama?  Why wasn’t I aware?  I have been nothing but lucky.  I should have been there; I should have been there.”

Good question:  Why wasn’t I aware?  I have been nothing but lucky!?! 

He answered his own question didn’t he.

I should have been there.

Most judgment is self-judgment, isn’t it?

What would have been the gracious response to Letterman’s confession?

What would be the honest and gracious, truthful and kind response?

“Yes you should have been?”  or, “oh, don’t worry about it.  Just water under the bridge.” (no pun intended)

Or, “You’re not alone.  Numerous other people should have been there.”

“We would have welcomed you.”

Or maybe instead of all that, and harkening back to last week:

It sounds like you are now more aware; your heart is fuller.

What does this whole-heartedness look like going forward from here?

 

I’d like to think if John Lewis was answering that question for Dave Letterman he might have said something like, “You’re there now.  Telling the story. And from this point forward you will forever see the world differently, your place in it differently, you can use your privilege, your place in life not for personal gain, but for the common good.”

And if Letterman was a man of faith, he might have replied, “Praise the Lord.

How good it is to sing praises to our God; for God is gracious and a song of praise is fitting.”  (O thank God!)

That may have given Letterman the unexpected kindness, the release from his own self-judgment to move forward with graciousness in his own heart.

At this stage of his life, he might consider this Carrie Newcomer lyric,

And one day when my life is through; I’m what I am not what I do.”

         (Carrie Newcomer, Leaves don’t drop)

And that’s grace, isn’t it?  Graciousness of spirit?

Being given unexpected kindness that is restoring and healing.

His question, “Why wasn’t I there” was his judgment on himself.

He didn’t need any more from President Obama or John Lewis.

He had become aware, and a heart of stone was being transformed into flesh.

Something he carried for a very long time, could be set down.

And that is the grace he can give to himself.

Because who else can set it down for him?

 

It’s been nearly 3 months since you received a letter from me.

Those of you on the back side of such announcements may remember all the thoughts that ran through your mind leading up to making such a decision.

Maybe you too had a few sleepless nights thinking of who to talk with and when, how to craft just the right letter, saying enough but not too much; being honest and capturing the essence of this time together; this relationship.

But more than that, what ran through my mind the most was wondering about the variety of responses.

Maybe a few “Praise the Lord’s” would be heard…. (I get that; I’m not that naïve!).

I also thought, what would surprise and disappointment and sadness and all the various emotions, look and sound like?

What kind of energy would they carry?

Like some of you, I’d never done this before.

Like others of you, you know exactly what I’m talking about.

And as the days have turned into weeks and now months, in all of it you have been overwhelmingly gracious.

The unexpected kindnesses, the words of congratulations, the genuine expressions of joy and delight have been restoring and healing.

What else is there to say, but,

Praise the Lord!

How good it is to sing praises to our God;

For God is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.

Yes, how good it is; how very good it is.  May it be so.  Amen.

 

Benediction:

 

This week let graciousness have its way with you.

Release what is holding you from being who you are,

and move forward with your whole heart.

Praise be to God for this gift beyond measure.  Amen.

 

February 4, 2018

God is gracious

Jim Chinworth, Pastor