Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Stewards of Self & Substance

A Sermon by Greg Ledbetter preached on November 11, 2007
24th Sunday after Pentecost/Year C

Sermon Text: Psalm 145

What is it that would cause you to break spontaneously into song? Are you like that at all? Have you ever camped in the mountains and woken up just as the sun is beginning to paint the sky and the surrounding peaks and you crawl from your tent, stand straight, fill your lungs with pure mountain air and channeling Gordon MacRae, you suddenly belt out: “Oh what a beautiful morning, Oh what a beautiful day …”.

A beautiful fall morning can inspire as well … and if not a song, exactly, coming face to face suddenly with a spectacular blaze of crimson and orange and yellow can set everything inside of me a-jangling. Jan and I like to stroll with the dogs in a nearby park where crepe myrtles and scarlet maples put on a display that can leave us literally stammering.

One of our number here sent my family and me a seasonal greeting card the other day … inside was a handwritten note in the card that described the view from her living room window. The writer of the note exulted over the way the sun was lighting up the lower branches of a fall-colored Raywood ash … “red, gold, green, and orange shades of leaves with pots of chrysanthemums below reflecting all the same colors as the ash. “It is really NEAT!” said the writer of the note. “That is how I also praise God and feel so blessed to live here.”

Perhaps latent within us all is the impulse to praise God for the beauty of creation … mountain mornings, sunsets at the ocean, the unique beauty of changing seasons … the impulse to spontaneously voice our thanks links us to the psalmists whose great prayers of thanksgiving and praise have moved people of like heart and mind and spirit for thousands of years.
Psalm 148: Is a psalm of praise for God’s Universal Glory

1Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise God in the heights!
2Praise God, all God’s angels;
praise God, all God’s host!

3Praise God, sun and moon;
praise God, all you shining stars!
4Praise God, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!

7Praise the Lord from the earth,
you sea monsters and all deeps,
8fire and hail, snow and frost,
stormy wind fulfilling God’s command!

9Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
10Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds!

11Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all rulers of the earth!
12Young men and women alike,
old and young together!

13Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for God’s name alone is exalted;
God’s glory is above earth and heaven.
14God has raised up a horn for God’s people,
praise for all God’s faithful,
for the people of Israel who are close to God.
Praise the Lord!
The psalmists were the praying, singing poets and composers of sacred verse and song in the worship of Ancient Israel. Onto parchments and skins they would scratch out the words that would guide the congregation of old in their worship of God.

When we worshiped at Congregation B’nai Tikvah recently and shared in their musical Shabbat, it felt to me closer to how I imagine the worship of Israel was in the time of the psalmists … closer certainly than the propensity of modern Christian worshipers to praise God with loud clanging electric guitars and PowerPoint. To be fair, there are Jewish congregations who also employ all the modern gadgetry in their worship … Christians do not have the corner on liturgical “kitchiness”.

There is a snippet from traditional Christian liturgies that is calling to me, just now … a snippet that many of you grew up praying every week, every time you worshiped. Just saying the opening words will trigger an automatic response in many of us. But as you respond in a moment, be especially mindful of the third phrase … the third response. And emphasize, if you can, the third word of that third phrase. I think you’ll understand when you get there:
The Lord be with you // and also with you.

Lift up your hearts. // We lift them to the Lord.

Let us give thanks to the Lord our God // It is right to give God thanks and praise.
It is indeed right and good to give you thanks and praise, almighty God … continues the familiar Eucharistic prayer.

This is entirely consistent with the praying sentiments of the psalmists … it is RIGHT and GOOD to give God thanks and praise. The psalms of praise exhort the people of God to give thanks to God, to sing praise to God, to bless God’s holy name.

It’s a little bit like Halloween where candy-laden fairy-princesses and pirates and ghouls traipse up the walk, offer you the choice of their trick or your treat … and then, on the occasions that they silently turn away from your door there is often a voice that speaks from the surrounding darkness:“Don’t forget to say ‘thank you’.” At which the little ghoul turns back and says: “Thank you!”.

It is indeed right and good to give almighty God thanks and praise.

Of all the things that moved the psalmists to voice their praise, it was, perhaps, God’s very goodness and God’s activity within history that moved them most of all. Praise for God’s mighty acts and God’s mighty works was at the heart of Israel’s praise of God. Israel understood God to be profoundly intermingled with human history and Israel’s history, profoundly intermingled with the doings of creation that God so deeply loved.

To sing praise to God’s mighty works and mighty deeds was to acknowledge God’s loving activity that ranged from the outer reaches of the cosmos to the inner reaches of every heart.

This joyful psalm that we sang together this morning praises God’s reign over the world. God has created a world of wonder and acted powerfully to save Israel. The psalmist says that faithful people declare to the next generation the wonderful works of God. The God of creation and history is a God of justice, hearing the cry of those who are oppressed and saving them. God watches over all. It is not only Israel who will be saved, but “all flesh” will come to know God’s greatness. This is the God who we follow as disciples, working to bring about God’s reign of justice and peace.

There is, in the psalms, a profound linkage between the “praise-worthiness” of God and God’s fiercely loving pro-activity on behalf of the weak and the poor and the oppressed. Those who would presume to offer their praise to God OR to lead God’s people in praising God would do well to remember this linkage, to remember, God’s bias on behalf of those denied access to the earth’s bountiful table of provision as our friend Ken Sehested has put it in our hearing so many times.

But … is it possible to praise God too much? Or to praise God wrongly? Is it possible for our praise—our worship—to become a hindrance to our wider responsibilities as God’s children and disciples of Jesus?

Apparently old prophet Amos thought so. To hear Amos describe the liturgical landscape of his day, you get the sense that the worship of Israel had pretty much reached its zenith. The simple spontaneous praise of God and God’s good works had evolved into a whole minor industry of worship … it’s kind of like some of these made for TV worship services that you can stumble across when channel-surfing. If only you could channel the preacher’s allowance for clothing, jewelry and hair-gel into a charitable cause.

Amos’ feelings about the worship of Israel as he observed and experienced it could be described as “less than charitable”.

Amos says:

21I hate, I despise your festivals,
and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.
22Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,
I will not accept them;
and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals
I will not look upon.
23Take away from me the noise of your songs;
I will not listen to the melody of your harps.
24But let justice roll down like waters,
and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.
And reading the gospels you get the sense that Jesus is no less critical of Israel’s worship industry in his day, turning over the money changers tables and driving the worship merchants from the temple.

The prophet Amos speaks so loudly, so stridently that reverberations of his ancient prophetic tirade can still be heard today. And it serves as a reminder that prayer and praise separated from compassionate activity and pursuit of justice obstructs God’s work and thwarts God’s intentions for the human family.

Of all the sermons preached on the subject, I’m not aware of any more powerful than that preached by Isaiah, the prophet. In the 58th chapter, the prophet distinguishes between false and true worship.

Isaiah 58: False and True Worship

58Shout out, do not hold back!
Lift up your voice like a trumpet!
Announce to my people their rebellion,
to the house of Jacob their sins.
2Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practised righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgements,
they delight to draw near to God.
3‘Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast-day,
and oppress all your workers.
4Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight
and to strike with a wicked fist.
Such fasting as you do today
will not make your voice heard on high.
5Is such the fast that I choose,
a day to humble oneself?
Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush,
and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?
Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

6Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?
7Is it not to share your bread with the hungry,
and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover them,
and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
8Then your light shall break forth like the dawn,
and your healing shall spring up quickly;
your vindicator* shall go before you,
the glory of the Lord shall be your rearguard.
9Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;
you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
10if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
11The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
12Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

13If you refrain from trampling the sabbath,
from pursuing your own interests on my holy day;
if you call the sabbath a delight
and the holy day of the Lord honourable;
if you honour it, not going your own ways,
serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs;*
14then you shall take delight in the Lord,
and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth;
I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
[Preacher’s note: “At this point, I spoke away from the script for several minutes about two modern figures who are living out Isaiah’s vision: Dr. Paul Farmer (featured in Tracy Kidder’s “Mountains Beyond Mountains”) and Greg Mortenson (in his own account, “Three Cups of Tea”)].


People of Shell Ridge Church: If, upon, rising, we are moved to sing “Oh what a beautiful morning …”, let us likewise be moved to labor on behalf of those who awake to hunger … to violence … to oppressive conditions … to despair … to war.

If, when we gather to worship, we are moved while singing “How Great Thou Art” and “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”, let us ground our praise and ground our adoration of God in re-committing ourselves to serve God’s creation, God’s family, our neighbors and friends throughout this good earth.

In the Stewardship of our selves and our substance, our persons and our plenty, and in the larger scheme of life, witness, worship and work: there is no higher praise to God that we can offer than the nearly wordless praise of:
loving … giving … and serving.


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