Sunday, July 8, 2018

Sermon - O My Soul

CALL TO WORSHIP – We are focused today on praise. I am not one who usually makes a point of suggesting you take notes during my sermons. I know some of you do, and that’s great if it helps you. Today, however, I want to encourage you to keep a pen and a piece of paper handy.  I am going to reference a number of scriptures, and we do not have time to look them all up during the sermon, but some of you may want to make a list so you can read later today or during the week.  It is a way to let God continue to speak to you.

Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of Heaven and earth…” [Matthew 11:25]. And Jesus said, “I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters, in the assembly I will sing your praises.” [Hebrews 2:12]  Jesus said, “Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your father in heaven.” [Matthew 5:16] And of course, Jesus taught us to begin our prayers with the greatest of praise: “Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” [Matthew 6:9]
The song Debra will play for our offertory, Matt Redman’s “10,000 Reasons,” includes these lyrics:
You're rich in love and You're slow to anger. Your name is great and Your heart is kind. For all Your goodness, I will keep on singing ten thousand reasons for my heart to find. And on that day when my strength is failing, the end draws near and my time has come, still, my soul will sing Your praise unending. Ten thousand years and then forevermore. Sing like never before, O my soul. I'll worship Your holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, O my soul. [Matt Redman, “10,000 Reasons,” 2011]

So let there be praise!  Let there be joy in hearts.  Sing to the Lord.  Give Him the glory! 
Glorify the Lord with me.
Praise the Lord, my soul; all my inmost being, praise his holy name. Praise the Lord, my soul, and forget not all his benefits—who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, who satisfies your desires with good things so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s. The Lord works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed. He made known his ways to Moses, his deeds to the people of Israel: The Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love. He will not always accuse, nor will he harbor his anger forever; he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust. The life of mortals is like grass, they flourish like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more. But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children—with those who keep his covenant and remember to obey his precepts. The Lord has established his throne in heaven, and his kingdom rules over all. Praise the Lord, you his angels, you mighty ones who do his bidding, who obey his word. Praise the Lord, all his heavenly hosts, you his servants who do his will. Praise the Lord, all his works everywhere in his dominion. Praise the Lord, my soul.

(You can hear the sermon from this point forward here.)

Praise the Lord, o my soul!
We praise God because of who He is and what He does. – Creator, Savor, Sustainer. He redeems our life from the pit. He saves us from our sins. Great is the Lord, and worthy to be praised.           
We praise God because of what He will do. He will not treat us as our sins deserve. From everlasting to everlasting, He will love us. He has established His throne, and there will be no more death or mourning or pain.  He will wipe every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more night.  Great is the Lord, and worthy to be praised. Praise the Lord, o my soul!

If you were listening to contemporary Christian music in the 80s, then these words may be familiar to you:

When you feel the urge within you to submit to earthly fears, don't let the faith you’re standing in seem to disappear. Praise the Lord. He can work through those who praise Him. Praise the Lord, for our God inhabits praise. Praise the Lord, for the chains that seem to bind you serve only to remind you that they drop powerless behind you when you praise Him. [Brown Bannister and Mike Hudson, “Praise the Lord,” 1979] 
In words we read together, the Psalmist tells us, “How good it is to sing praises to God. How pleasant and fitting to praise Him!” [Psalm 147:1] Perhaps the Psalmist is not demanding that we praise so much as modeling praise for us; not saying “(You must) Praise the Lord” but rather (much as we would in many a worship service) “Praise the Lord!”, reminding us how good it is to praise God.
  Many translations of the 103rd Psalm, including the King James Version that Judy just sang, use the term “Bless the Lord.” John Piper says, “to bless God means to recognize his great richness, strength, and gracious bounty and to express our gratitude and delight in seeing and experiencing it.”           [] Psalm 100 tells us to “enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise.  Give thanks to Him and bless His name!” [Psalm 100:4]
Scripture’s praises are not second-rate words of affirmation but extravagant and selfless recognition and proclamation of the preeminence of the Creator, the power of the Sustainer, the love of the Redeemer, and the faithfulness of the One who walks with us day by day.
 But there is more here. There is no period after “Bless the Lord.”  The Psalmist is calling from his very core. The words are “Bless the Lord, o my soul!”
 Actor Chris Pratt, the lovable Star Lord from “Guardians of the Galaxy” and Andy from “Parks and Recreation” who is apparently a relatively new Christian, made headlines a couple of weeks ago. Speaking to – of all audiences - an MTV awards show, Pratt talked about the reality of God. He ended this way: “… grace was paid for with somebody else’s blood. Do not forget it. Don’t take it for granted.”  Early in the speech, he said this: “You have a soul. Be careful with it.” []
Somehow, it is news in the secular world to acknowledge that we have souls, that there is a part of us separate from the physical and the mental, a part that makes us who we are and lives on after us, something we need to be careful with.
Two weeks ago, I worshiped in a tiny American Baptist Church in Brooklin, Maine. The special music was presented by a woman from the congregation who sang six stanzas, a cappella, of “Amazing Grace.” For the last time through, she used only two words: “Praise God.” It was not the most beautiful music I ever heard. She was far from the most talented. But she sang from her soul, and the congregation was moved. The Lord was in that place.
Psalm 103 exemplifies praise from our souls. You have a soul.  Be careful with it. Use it for the eternal. Bless the Lord, o my soul!

 Praise is rarely the sermon topic. Praise is almost always included in worship services, but it tends to be kind of the warmup act.  We sing a hymn like “To God be the Glory” or “How Great Thou Art,” and then we read a Psalm before we get on to the meat of the service. Here at Trinity River Church, we begin worship each week with the call “Glorify the Lord with me. Let us exalt His name together.” Then we praise as we conclude our offering, singing the Doxology or the Gloria Patri or, today, the first verse of the 103rd Psalm. I am not condemning that practice – starting or ending our worship services with praise is worthy and valuable.  My only point is that praise is often used in our worship as a place of beginning or conclusion rather than as the focus.
Praise has been in the news this week. A potential Supreme Court nominee is being criticized because she belongs to a group called People of Praise. Some in the media and the political world are immediately suspicious of her membership in this parachurch organization. I don’t know enough about that group to take a position one way or the other, but I have noticed with interest how the group’s name alone has raised concern.
In the modern American church, “praise and worship” has become a euphemism for a certain style of church music. In Europe, “praise” music is loud and boisterous, while “worship” music is contemplative and mellow. We have taken much of the meaning from the word “praise” by turning it into an adjective to delineate a particular character of worship service or musical type.
The Bible uses praise as a noun and as a verb, an active verb.
On our vacation last week, I had a long discussion with my adult children, already mature Christians, about praise. They agreed that praise is not about responding to a command but rather is a part of the Christian lifestyle. There is a danger here: we can act out of habit, out of guilt, out of obligation, even out of self-interest, and suddenly our obedience and our discipleship are no longer acts of praise. Helping others and following the Golden Rule are acts of praise when they stem from a recognition of the greatness and goodness of God. They proclaim that God is worthy of our attention every moment of our life. My son pointed me to these lyrics from the group Casting Crowns:

Empty hands held high: such small sacrifice. If not joined with my life, I sing in vain. May the words I say and the things I do make my lifesong sing to You.… I want to sign Your name to the end of this day, knowing that my heart was true…. Let my lifesong sing to You “Hallelujah.” [Mark Hall, “Lifesong,” 2005] 
Praise becomes difficult when our life’s song is not sung to God but is merely our routine, and we double down on that hazard when we do not reserve time for praise for its own sake. When praise is the daily response of our lives to the Lord, we look to add intentional dedicated times of expressed praise, to honor and proclaim the overwhelming holiness and salvation of God with no other aim in sight.
The 103rd Psalm is exactly that, written in overwhelmed response to God. Bless the Lord, O my soul!
  • ·         He redeems us from the pit into which we have fallen or, so often, flung ourselves.
  •  ·         He crowns us with love and compassion of which we are so profoundly unworthy.
  •  ·         He renews us so that we rise with figurative eagles’ wings, as we did at the height of our strength when we were young and strong and most eager.
  •  ·         He is slow to anger and abounds in mercy.

The enduring image from this Psalm is the idea of forgiven sins’ being separated from us “as far as the east is from the west.” The Message paraphrases this verse “as far as sunrise is from sunset.” The point is clear, the poetry is inspiring, and the meaning is life-changing: God has acted to remove us completely from what would kill us. When we are having a bad day, or a bad year, it can be hard to see the healing and satisfaction provided by God. This Psalm springs from an eternal perspective, for while it may take experience and hindsight for us to understand, God is good all the time. This is the message of our souls. Bless the Lord, o my soul!

And yet, praise can be difficult for many of us. True praise is unnatural because we are self-centered beings. Praise requires us to humble ourselves, but not in the same way we bow and kneel in prayer to show that we know our place so that God will hear and grant our petition. Praising God requires us to look outside ourselves, to bow our souls, to kneel our wills. True praise requires acknowledging the Other, to get ourselves out of the way. 
Sometimes, praise is hard because the words sound too familiar or somehow juvenile. We hear “praise the Lord” and tune it out. In our everyday parlance we have reduced the concept of “praise” to a pat on the back, an encouraging yell to a seven-year-old at an almost-meaningless soccer game, or even a teaching tool for a pet. We have cheapened the idea of praise and thus find it not worthwhile when we address the Father. Our inner voice whispers, “there they go again,” and something inside us decides to check out until something more important happens. If that is you, please humor me for the rest of this sermon and stay with us – God may have some scripture that convinces you differently.
Praise is trying for some of you because it makes you self-conscious. You are at ease talking about what God has done for you, telling others your testimony; but aiming your high-sounding words and thoughts to God for the purpose, the sole purpose, of His glory makes you uncomfortable. Talking to others about God when the story is not about you but rather is pointing out the majesty and greatness of the Father is off-putting to some.
Praise is challenging because we know that God is perfect and complete and does not need our words. We have somewhere heard something about God’s inhabiting our praise [Psalm 22:3, KJV], but we don’t know what that means. How can our praise be important to Almighty God?  Is He so conceited that He needs to hear our exalting words?  It may surprise you that this precise question troubled the great C.S. Lewis when he was a new Christian. In his Reflections on the Psalms, Lewis explains how he found an answer:

The world rings with praise — lovers praising their mistresses, readers praising their favorite poet, walkers praising the countryside …. [T]he humblest, and at the same time most balanced and capacious minds, praised most, while the cranks, misfits, and malcontents praised least… [J]ust as men spontaneously praise whatever they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: “Isn’t she lovely?  Wasn’t it glorious?  Don’t you think that magnificent?”  The Psalmists, in telling everyone to praise God, are doing what all men do when they speak of what they care about…. I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment….  It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.  It is frustrating to have discovered a new author and not to be able to tell anyone how good he is; to come suddenly, at the turn of the road, upon some mountain valley of unexpected grandeur and then to have to keep silent because the people with you care for it no more than for a tin can in the ditch…  The worthier the object, the more intense this delight would be…. The Scotch catechism says that man’s chief end is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.”  But we shall then know that these are the same thing. Fully to enjoy is to glorify.  In commanding us to glorify Him, God is inviting us to enjoy Him. [C.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms, 1958, pp. 95-98] 
Praise sometimes gets lost in the shuffle when we are caught up in the daily: how we feel, what the bank balance shows, what is going on in politics; then we don’t lift up our eyes, and praise gets forgotten in the grind. When we wake up and realize that all our dreams have not come true, that life is harder now than it used to be, that “happily ever after” does not mean what it did when we were just starting out – then praise can be hard.
You may praise Jesus the Savior easily, yet the evil and suffering in the world make it hard to understand how to praise God the Father. Of course, praise may be toughest when you are hurting, when you don’t understand, when bad things are happening, when your suffering just continues, when in your heart of hearts you don’t really think God has done much to deserve your praise lately.
Nevertheless, there is this Psalm: Bless the Lord, o my Soul.

The writer of Hebrews calls for us to offer a “sacrifice of praise.” [Hebrews 13:15] Struggling congregations and loyal patrons built mighty cathedrals in the Middle Ages not to satisfy some selfish need of God’s but rather to praise One much greater than the builders. The widow’s tiny offering was extravagant in no one’s eyes but her own…and those of Jesus, who commended the sacrificial gift offered personally to Him. [Luke 21:3]
Praise takes different forms for different people. And frankly, it can be hard for each to understand the other. If you enter “praising God images” into your Google search engine, the first forty-six photos you will see will be people with their arms outstretched toward heaven. Raising holy hands is a Biblical concept [Psalm 28:2; 1 Timothy 2:8]; but I do not praise that way, and I don’t get much out of the idea. You might see nothing spiritual in the building of a cathedral, but one of my best friends joined his church primarily because of the architecture. The story of the widow’s mite may not speak to you of praise, but the person sitting next to you may praise God most personally from her checkbook.  There is the church member for whom music – whether in the form of hymn or instrument or solo – is nice and soothing and maybe entertaining but not important from a worship standpoint as he waits for the sermon. That church member does not really understand or appreciate the next, for whom music is the primary form of praise, for whom music expresses what a sermon never will. And so, too, this second church member really does not understand the former, cannot comprehend how music does not speak to all of us the same way.  I will be quick to admit that I fail to appreciate dance as a worship form. If I am in a service where someone is dancing as a means of praise, I can appreciate the talent, but it makes no difference to me as a part of a worship service. On the other hand, I am moved by sung praise and instrumental praise; by well written praise; by inspired visual art; by drama; and by much spoken praise in prayer, sermon, and testimony. While it is hard for me to understand, there are church members who feel about music, about written praise, or about spoken praise the way I feel about dance and hand-raising.
And then, of course, those groups subdivide.  You may be one who is moved by musical praise, so long as it is the right kind of music. The Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Elevation Worship and Sandy Patty and Hillsong United and the Fisk Jubilee Singers and the Hee Haw Gospel Quartet and the Centurymen may not all speak to the same people. We have sung a variety of hymns today: “Praise to the Lord, the Almighty,” a 17th Century hymn of the German Reformed church; “The Majesty and Glory of Your Name,” a hymn arrangement of one of the most successful American protestant choral anthems of the late twentieth century; “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing,” a British hymn from Charles Wesley written during the Great Awakening; and “How Great Is Our God,” a recent hit by a forty-something contemporary Christian megastar from down the road in VanZandt County. I have quoted from the Imperials in 1979 and Casting Crowns a decade ago and Matt Redman from this decade. We will conclude this service with a popular chorus of the forties. I may be the only person in the room who likes all of that music, and that is my point. Similarly, spoken praise may be the language of David in the Psalms, a sonnet of Spenser, the poetry of Edna St. Vincent Millay, a Jim Pannell sermon, or Jerry Clower’s exclamation of “Ain’t God good!” Appreciating one does not mean you appreciate them all.
God appreciates it all. God looks at the heart and revels in our joyful noise.

Scripture’s praise is moving. In 2 Samuel 22, David is quoted: “I will call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised.  So shall I be saved from my enemies. The Lord lives! Praise be to the Rock of my salvation!” [2 Samuel 22:4, 47] Despite all the tragedy that has happened to him and the evil that he has caused, David’s victories have stemmed from the power and provision of God. David knows that he lives only because God lives.
How shall we be saved? It is not through our own ability; nor is it through being good, for we cannot be good enough. We shall be saved through the Lord God, the Rock of our salvation. We call upon the Lord, who is worthy to be praised. So shall we be saved. This is the lesson of David and the song of our soul.  Bless the Lord, o my soul!

Praise is found throughout the Psalms, Samuel, Isaiah, the letters of Paul, and elsewhere, like the praise of Zechariah, father of John the Baptist, that Freddie read to begin our service of praise today. Moses’s song after the parting of the Red Sea in Exodus 15 is similar in form, and these verses from Deuteronomy 32, just before the death of Moses, are intended as a vehicle for generations to come to praise God. Moses says:
I will proclaim the name of the Lord. Oh, praise the greatness of our God! He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he. [Deuteronomy 32: 3-4]

The story of God’s work with His people and His forgiveness of their bad choices is the story on which we depend. Praise the Lord, o my soul!

In 1 Chronicles 16, David speaks majestically of the exploits and character of God. David knows the power of history, and so he reminds us to “remember the wonders He has done, His miracles, and the judgments He has pronounced.” [1 Chronicles 16:12] David knows the awesomeness of creation, so he instructs the people to watch and listen as “the heavens resound” and “the sea resounds” and “the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord.” [1 Chronicles 16:31-33] David knows the throne of God in the world, so he demands that his subjects “declare His glory among the nations, His marvelous deeds among all peoples, for great is the Lord and most worthy of praise.” [1 Chronicles 16:24-25]

Another Old Testament lesson about praise is found in 1 Chronicles 23. In ancient Israel, those who held the position of Levite had wide-ranging duties as assistants to the priests, from room custodians to unleavened bread preparers. The Levites had another task. In this chapter, we learn that they were “to stand every morning to thank and praise the Lord.” And then they were to do the same every evening. [1 Chronicles 23:30]
Think about the constancy of this praise. Every morning. Every evening. Good days and bad. Whether the Levites felt like it or not, they had to stand to praise God. And then do it again at night. Like clockwork. Rain or shine. Like the sentry who walks a prescribed beat at the Tomb of the Unknowns, the Levite took his place and fulfilled his duty.
Regular, disciplined praise – even when we do not feel grateful or think we have much to praise God about – is good for our soul. That inner, eternal part that makes us who we are needs the consistent, patterned, unmistakable practice of praising eternal God. You have a soul.  Be careful with it.
In the long run, our praise must come voluntarily. Sometimes, however, especially on days when our Bible study is tedious and prayer is hard to conjure and our ability to fight temptation is waning, the self-control of regular praise may be the only way to press on. Some days, we just need to be Levites.

Another great Old Testament story about praise comes from 2 Chronicles 20. Facing the attacking Moabites and Ammonites, Jerusalem’s King Jehoshaphat prays, and the Spirit of God tells him that he will not have to fight, that he should stand tall and see the mighty arm of God. King Jehoshaphat appoints men to sing, “Praise ye the Lord. His mercy endures forever and ever” as the attackers rush forward to surprising and swift and total defeat. The victory for Judah is so great that it takes them three days to haul off the spoils. [2 Chronicles 20:18-25]
This is not a story that should be read as a tactical guide for modern warfare. God makes no promise that every military skirmish can be won by laying down weapons and singing. What this story teaches is this: As we face each conflict of life, we must recognize that God has a way out for us if we choose to follow it, no matter how unlikely His way may appear. And the One who provides that way out is worthy of praise.
Building an ark mystifies a man who has never seen rain. Throwing your rod on the floor in front of Pharaoh is a foolish idea. Marching around Jericho blowing trumpets hardly seems to be the recipe for success. Pouring water on altars is not Elijah’s first choice for getting a fire to start. And singing praise instead of fighting is counter-intuitive to the soldier-king.
Battles will come. Stand firm.  Praise ye the Lord. His mercy endures forever and ever. Bless the Lord, o my soul!

The New Testament amplifies this idea for us. The reaction of the people to the miracles of Jesus or just to His showing up time and again is praise. After Jesus’s ascension, the disciples, according to the last verse of the Gospel of Luke, “stayed continually at the Temple, praising God.” [Luke 24:53] In the second chapter of Acts, from which Jim preached just a few weeks ago, we learn what is characteristic of the early, growing church:
Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God…. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. [Acts 2:46-47]

Paul describes God as the “one to be praised forever” [2 Corinthians 11:31] and speaks repeatedly of God’s work through Jesus having the purpose of “bringing praise to His glory.” [Ephesians 1:6, 14] 1 Peter 1:3 exhorts us: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” [1 Peter 1:3] In the next chapter, Peter reminds us that we are “a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession” precisely so that we may “declare the praises of Him who brought [us] out of darkness into wonderful light.” [1 Peter 2:9] And, of course, scripture ends with Revelation, where we read this in chapter 5:
Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying: “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever! [Revelation 5:12-13]

So finally, we come to the Psalms. I cannot possibly do justice to the multitude of praise Psalms, but let me reference a few.
Psalm 8.  When I consider the heavens, what is man that you are mindful of him? We cannot comprehend God, but we, like the Psalmist, can praise Him.
Psalm 34. God is greater than we. God is better than we. God is higher and stronger and smarter and more powerful than we.  Taste and see that the Lord is good.  [Psalm 34:8]
Psalm 89 starts with elation: “I will sing of the Lord’s great love forever.” [Psalm 89:1] Like all human emotions, this one wanes. Within a few verses, in the very same Psalm, the Psalmist asks, “How long, Lord? Will you hide yourself forever?” [Psalm 89:46] Despite circumstance and confusion and anger toward God, he nevertheless writes, “Praise be to the Lord forever! Amen and amen.” [Psalm 89:52]
Psalm 108 comes when David is on top of the world, when his authority is unquestioned, when all Judah honors him. The very next Psalm, on the other hand, grows out of his anguish when wicked and deceitful enemies are getting the better of him. He lashes out with words that are nothing more than desperate, emotional cries from the pit of despair, a place where we have all been. In both these Psalms, whether from victory or despondency, in the first verse of Psalm 108 and the last thought of Psalm 109, David praises God. [Psalm 108:1; Psalm 109:30]
The Book of Psalms ends with a rush. Praise, and more praise, and more praise. After all is said and done, after the complaints of bitterness, the songs of wonder, and prayers for forgiveness have been uttered and sung and offered, what is left is praise. We have read from Psalms 146, 147, and 148 in this service. Psalm 149 begins and ends with “Praise the Lord.” [Psalm 149:1,9] The last Psalm, Psalm 150, is printed for you to read as Debra plays us out. (Not now – wait till then to read it!)
There is a time for weeping, a time for inquiry, a time for honest introspection, a time to debate and consider and wonder. But we must not stay there. Our souls need to praise. Do you move past your honest questions to praising God? Do you weep by the waters of Babylon but then find a tambourine? Do you stand in amazement at the honor God has given you and then move on to the sounding trumpet and the harp? There must be a time to put away your demands and your tears and your contemplations, to stand with David and proclaim, “I will praise you, Lord, with all my heart…. I will bow down toward your holy temple and will praise your name for your unfailing love and your faithfulness.” [Psalm 138:1-2]
Even our witness, which is of course an act of praise, must take a back seat to our expressed praise, at least for a time. The first and greatest commandment is that we love our God with all our heart and all our soul and all our strength, and those who best share the gospel will tell you they do so when their own tank is full, when they are in right relationship with God, when they have taken a Sabbath time to praise the rock of their salvation.
 Ultimately, the Bible does not choose for us how to praise, does not tell us which is better: music or spoken praise. There is no scripture to define whether building cathedrals is better praise than a chant or a musical or a Taizé hour of contemplation, no Biblical favoritism between Amy Grant and Chris Tomlin and George Beverly Shea. The Psalmist does not end with a definition of praise; the Psalms end with a repeated call to praise.  Your praise may sound different from that of your neighbors, hence the need for a harp for one and cymbals for another. Our church will likely never use this trap set over here, but there are five congregations who praise God in this room, each in our own way. One person may praise with dancing while another praises in humble silence.
 The method is not the point. The tone of our hearts directed to our audience of one is the point.
Mercy calls for praise.
Forgiveness calls for praise.
Grace calls for praise.
It is the song of our souls.
Praise the Lord.
Bless the Lord, o my soul!
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Regardless of what kind of praise works for you, we must all praise with the instrument we have – whether that is a piano or a wallet or a song or a hammer or a speech or a guitar or a didgeridoo or a typewriter or a dance. We praise everywhere we are, working out our life’s song moment by moment. Our souls cry out as deep calls to deep, and the Psalmist ends with praise upon praise upon praise.
            Practice praise. It will not come easily. It may not come at all when you first start. Take your time. Repeat. Work at it. Again. God is worth it. The praise of God is the language of your soul and the key to the growing church.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Peace and quiet

If you have wondered if there are still places like this, there are.  At least one. This week, I can testify that Stonington, Maine is like this. Two motels, three restaurants (the "nice" one is only open a few nights a week) and a lobster roll/ice cream stand in town.  Two other restaurants on the "outskirts." Three churches, a couple of grocery stores, an auto supply, one t-shirt shop, one dry goods store, one hardware store, three or four local art galleries, and, of all things, an opera house (they are showing the latest "Star Wars" installment on the weekends).
Stonington is the largest lobster port in Maine. Lobstering, stone cutting, and timber are the local businesses. 

What the place is really about, of course, is beauty and rest.  What the previous generation would have called "peace and quiet." The five of us are on vacation here, and, with rare exception, we have not turned on a TV, not watched a show on Netflix, not checked the news. We have heard little of whatever is keeping the talking heads busy these days. I did hear a sermon on Sunday (in a little American Baptist Church with about 25 other worshipers) about the immigration situation, but otherwise, I have not followed the issues and not been caught up in the cacophony that drills into us night after night.

If you drive an hour and fifteen minutes or so, then the comparatively-busy town of Bar Harbor, gateway to the fabulous Acadia National Park, awaits. There are tourists there, lots of them (compared to the half dozen or so - other that us - here in Stonington) to see the true beauty that is worth its own trip.
We have had conversation about what it would be like to live in a town like this full-time. The consensus seems to be that it would be hard, that we would miss the "excitement" and the "things to do" that the life we are used to offers.  That is probably right.
But this view from my window as I type is compelling. For a week, it has been about family, about rest, about rejuvenation. Lots of games.  Lots of music. Laughter and conversation. The biggest debate seems to be about whether to go to dinner at a place that requires us to wear something nicer than long-sleeve t-shirts.

I, for one, need this. I go pretty hard, and I enjoy going pretty hard. I have lots going on, and that is on purpose. I am not complaining. But I need the break. I need to see creation - oceans or mountains or both - sometimes. I like "sightseeing" travel as well, and there is much to be gained from history and art and viewing places in the world about which I have heard but have never seen.

But, for this week, this has been just what I need.  Peace and quiet.

Places like this really exist, and that is comforting to me. Maybe I'll come back.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Sermon - Keep Your Eye on the Ball

You can hear the audio of this sermon here.

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”  “Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” - Luke 10:38-42

The late actor Jack Palance was known for playing villains in movies of the fifties, most notably “Panic in the Streets,” “Sudden Fear,” and especially “Shane.” He worked steadily and was well-known, but he did not win his first and only Academy Award until more than a generation later, when he played the inscrutable Curly in the Billy Crystal movie “City Slickers” in 1991.  Palance is remembered for doing one-armed pushups on stage during the Oscar ceremony at the age of 73, and his character Curly is remembered primarily for a particular exchange he has with Crystal’s character, whom I shall always remember because his name is Mitch Robbins.  Curly says to Mitch: “Do you know what the secret of life is?” and then he holds up one finger and says: “This.”  Mitch responds: “Your finger?”  Curly says: “One thing. Just one thing. You stick to that…” Robbins asks: “But, what is the ‘one thing’?”  Curly smiles and says: “That's what you have to find out.”
Gary Keller, the co-founder of Keller Williams Realtors, has written a best seller about the real estate business called The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results.  That book has some helpful thoughts and some catchy chapter headings like “Unlocking the Possibilities within You,” but I find this criticism of the book by Kirkus Review insightful:
Keller … leads readers up to the edge, then abjures specifics…. “If today your company doesn’t know what its ONE Thing is, then the company’s ONE Thing is to find out.” Yet the nub is elusive; “here’s how you get to the answer” is in short supply. So much is circular, tautological, or disconnected. [The book has some] encouraging bones of advice worth gnawing on, but absent substantial meat to sink your teeth into. []

That’s the problem, isn’t it?  It is easy for us to grab onto pop psychology that tells us that the secret of life is to find the “one thing.”  But then you start asking what the “one thing” is, and you get lots of answers, and most of them are not very satisfying.  James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, said that “the one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing.” [Brown, James, The Godfather of Soul: An Autobiography,] Dave Barry, one of the funniest and often cleverest guys around, remarks that “The one thing that unites all human beings, regardless of age, gender, religion or ethnic background, is that we all believe we are above-average drivers.” [Barry, Dave, Dave Barry Turns Fifty, 6245.Dave_Barry]

What is the “One Thing?”  What is that priority, that focus, that singular emphasis that gives us the golden key to the secret of life?
Well, this is a church service, and I am a preacher, and it is Sunday, so you know I am going to say the answer is some version of “Jesus” or “God” or “Christianity” or “church and Bible study and discipleship and prayer and service and ministry and fellowship and evangelism and worship...” You see the problem, right?  The “one thing” spirals into many things, all good, all worthy, all churchy-sounding, all tinged with bits and pieces of the gospel. Before long, our answer begins to include worship style, church growth, koinonia, hospitality to strangers, meeting the needs of church members, providing cultural relevance, intense study of theology, raising money, day care, aerobics, divorce recovery, caregiver assistance, youth choir, marriage counseling, job placement, Christmas crafts, racquetball, senior adult cafeteria clubs, and men’s prayer breakfast.
Our scripture passage from Luke is about Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus (who by the way makes no appearance in this story).  Martha is the queen of hospitality.  The way Luke tells this story, Martha opens her home and then gets about the business of making preparations.  It is not hard for any of us to imagine her cooking and cleaning and setting the table and dusting and fluffing the throw pillows.  All the while, Mary is sitting at Jesus’s feet.  We can let our imaginations run as to why – Is Mary lazy?  Does she have a crush on Jesus? Is she mad at Martha?  But if we read carefully, Luke tells us exactly what Mary is doing: she is listening to Jesus.
  Martha, who is doing all the work and is, Luke tells us, distracted by that work, rolls her eyes and complains that Jesus is not telling Mary to help, and Jesus demurs.  His answer is piercing: “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – indeed only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” [Luke 10:41-42]
We all know Martha. She is mentioned only three times in the New Testament, but those three stories make her personality quite clear to us. We all know a Martha or two in our own lives. You may well be a Martha.  She is concerned about the details, sometimes to the point of distraction. This is not a bad thing – I just think she is a worrier, someone who wants everything to be perfect.
In the story of the death and raising of Lazarus in John 11, Martha cannot wait for Jesus but runs out to meet Him on the road, grief-stricken and wondering why Jesus did not show up in time to save her brother. Be sure not to disparage Martha: she is a true believer who understands – maybe better than Mary does – what Jesus is all about. Martha tells Jesus that she knows that her brother will rise on the last day, and it is to Martha that Jesus chooses to say these great words: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live.” Martha responds that she believes that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of God, who is come into this world.” [John 11:24-27] Martha gets it. She is no villain in this story.
 When Jesus commands Lazarus to come forth from the tomb, Martha is the one thinking about the logistics, the practical implications. Jesus calls for the stone to be rolled away, and it is Martha who runs for the Febreze, reminding Jesus that it is going to stink. [John 11:39]
The other time we see Martha is in the next chapter, John 12, where Jesus is reclining at a banquet and Mary anoints his feet with perfume and wipes them with her hair.  What is Martha up to while Mary is doing her anointing?  Why, she is serving the meal of course. She is the consummate hostess. [John 12:1-3]
Back to today’s scripture… It is important that Jesus does not condemn Martha or tell her that what she is doing is bad. Preparations must be made – after all, Jesus needs to eat and have clean sheets.  Hospitality is a gift of the Spirit, [Romans 12:13, 1 Peter 4:9] and by exercising it, some have entertained angels unawares. [Hebrews 13:2] Nothing Martha is doing is wrong.
All the same, Mary’s choice is better.  Just as He tells Judas to leave Mary alone when she is anointing His feet, [John 12:4-8] Jesus now  gently tells the distracted Martha that Mary has opted wisely.  Many things are on Martha’s mind, and she is multitasking with the best of them. I believe that Jesus appreciates her work. Still, few things are needed, and, really, only One Thing is necessary, and Mary has made that superior choice.

In the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John, the once-blind man is cross-examined by the Pharisees.  Who was this healer? How did He do it? Why did He defile the Sabbath? What do your parents have to say about it? He’s a sinner, right? Like many of us, this healed man has gotten in over his head into matters that are both religious and political in nature, and he cannot swim. He reaches desperately for stability, for a handhold, for something that he knows is right. And suddenly, he has it. He needs only One Thing.  The gospel makes it easy for us to picture the chaotic spectacle around this now-seeing man, summoned to the religious high court to defend both himself and Jesus. It is pandemonium. Lawyers and pharisees and onlookers are talking at the same time, trying to be heard over each other, almost forgetting the witness, the star of the show, the man who was blind just yesterday. In that moment, the man remembers the One Thing. He stands up a little straighter, takes a deep breath, and notices the sudden silence that has fallen over the crowd, now hushed as if by tacit agreement to hear what he has to offer. He looks them in the eye and says: “I don’t know the answers to all your questions. I cannot tell you if He is a sinner. But One Thing I know. I was blind but now I see.” [John 9:25]

The rich young ruler kept all the commandments, followed all the rules, did everything a good religious God-fearing man did. [Mark 10:19-20] But he nonetheless knew a couple of things: he knew that he had not arrived, that he had not figured out how to gain eternal life; and he knew that he recognized in this Jesus someone who had the answer. [Mark 10:17] So, he went to the source and asked the question, and Jesus told him straight out: “One Thing you lack.” [Mark 10:21]
The rich man – Mark just calls him “a man;” it is Matthew who tells us that he is young and Luke who tells us he is a ruler; all three of them tell us that he was rich – needs the One Thing, and he does not know what it is. Jesus says to him, “Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” [Luke 18:22, Matthew 19:21, Mark 10:21] All three synoptic gospels record it exactly the same way.  Jesus says the man lacks One Thing, and then He gives him two instructions – (1) sell it all and (2) follow me. 
Many people misinterpret Jesus here. The One Thing is not selling all you have.  The One Thing is following Jesus.  There is nobody else whom Jesus tells to sell everything, so impoverished altruism cannot be the universal command; but Jesus invites everyone to follow Him.  To this man, Jesus says “sell what you have” because for this man, possessions are the stumbling block to following.  We know this on account of all three gospel writers’ record that the man went away sad because he had great wealth. [Mark 10:22] For you and me, Jesus’s message might be “One thing you lack. Give up your computer and follow me,” or “Change jobs and follow me,” or “Give up trying to solve all your spouse’s problems and follow me,” or “Move to Mozambique and follow me,” or “Join this church and follow me.” To somebody here, Jesus may well say “Sell all you have and follow me.” The common denominator, the One Thing, is to follow Jesus. The rich young ruler finally understands the One Thing, but he tragically refuses it because of what stands in the way for him, what the One Thing requires.
Paul tells the Philippians that he has not yet arrived at his goal, but One Thing he does – he presses on to the high calling of Jesus, to win the prize. He wants to know Christ. [Philippians 3:10-14]

David writes in Psalm 27 that the Lord is his light and his salvation, that there is nothing to fear, but the Psalm is not yet complete: he still has One Thing to ask. He wants to dwell with the Lord, to look upon God, to seek Him in the temple. [Psalm 27:1,4]

Don Guthrie, pastor of First Baptist San Antonio, tells a story with which most – if not all - of us can relate, a story of sitting in the bleachers at a Little League game.  For me, the story resonates not just as a fan but as a parent and as a coach and even, way back, as a player. Don talks about one of those phrases you hear at Little League games from coaches encouraging youngsters who are just learning the game and who are, by and large, scared to death.  The pitch comes in, and they don’t swing, and the umpire helpfully calls the pitch a ball. Shew. You did not let a strike go by. The coach yells out “Good eye. Good eye.”
The next pitch, the batter swings and misses, and the always encouraging coach advises the batter to “keep your eye on the ball.”
Even if you never played an inning or attended one Little League game, you know what the coach means.  We need to have a good eye. We need to focus, to watch the ball.  If it is too far inside or outside the strike zone, or too high or too low, a batter with a good eye will let it go, will take the pitch, will be happy to accept a base on balls and walk to first base if the pitcher lets him. If the pitch is a strike, you are supposed to swing and hit it, and to do that, you have to keep your eye on the ball. You cannot hit a speeding spheroid with a cylindrical stick without complete concentration. You have to watch the ball, unfailingly, unceasingly, without blinking or distraction.
In the middle of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: “The eye is the lamp of the body. If therefore your eye is good, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness.” [Matthew 6:22-23] That word that the NIV renders as “good” is also translated, depending on your version, “sound,” “clear,” or “healthy.”  Jesus is coaching us to have a good eye. What we see – where we focus, how we look at the world, what catches our vision – brings either light or darkness to our life. We need a good eye.
Jesus’s word here is really communicating something more nuanced than simply “good.”  The Greek word is haplous (ἁπλοῦς), which literally means “unfolded” or “unwoven” or “unbraided.” Perhaps the best depiction of haplous is “single.” Our eye is not to be on countless things, multitasking frantically as we weave many different ideas together, focusing on and distracted by fourteen things at once. You know what it is to braid hair, to take several different strands and intertwine them into a single plaited pigtail.  Jesus says that we need to be unbraided, unwoven, single-minded. We need to have a good eye. We need to keep our eye on the ball.
This is the same advice the Bible has been giving us since ancient times. It is the third chapter of Proverbs that tells us to trust in the Lord with all our heart. To acknowledge Him in all our ways. [Proverbs 3:4-5]
Why? What is the point? Rick Warren is quoted as saying: “Living in light of eternity changes your priorities. This is the warmup act.  This is the get-ready stage. This is the dress rehearsal before the real act begins”. [] We focus on the one who created the world and holds eternity in His hand, the only one who can beat the system because He designed the system, the only one who loves us with an everlasting love.
That is the message Jesus gives Martha. What you are doing is important and helpful, but Mary has made a better choice by devoting herself to the presence and words of her Lord.
So … if we want to keep our eye on the ball … taking all the scripture together … what is the “One Thing?” For Mary, it is sitting at the feet of the Master. For the healed man, it is being touched by Jesus so that he once was blind but now sees. For the rich young ruler, it is the single-minded choice to get rid of all hindrance and follow Jesus. For David, it is seeking God, viewing Him, and dwelling with Him. For Paul, it is knowing Christ, pressing on to the high calling.
The One Thing is our relationship with Jesus Christ. Listening, following, seeing, being healed, dwelling, knowing.

Here is what it is not:
Jesus does not tell Martha that the better choice is service and busyness. The blind man does not proclaim that the One Thing is arguing with the Pharisees, answering all their questions with carefully worded dogma. For the rich ruler, the One Thing is not robotic obedience to the commandments or financing an orphanage and a soup kitchen – things he clearly could have done with no problem. For David, it is not writing Psalms and commanding the armies of Israel. And for Paul, it is not preaching and writing the epistles. It is not even founding new churches, whether in Thessalonica or on Sunday afternoons in a borrowed sanctuary in Fort Worth.
Now, stay with me. All of those things are critical Christian duties and actions. Jesus absolutely calls us to serve, to be hospitable, to go about our tasks with efficiency and goodwill. His kingdom is increased by our knowledge of theology and our willingness to engage in debate when the time is right. He commands our obedience and absolutely needs our dollars – and if you are not giving what you should to this church, consider yourself prodded – to further the gospel and help the needy. The people of God need leadership and strength. And of course, we need preachers and scripture and guidance. You know that I think that starting a new church is a high call. I am not saying, because Jesus does not say, that any of those things is unimportant.
But they are not the One Thing. They are not the driving force, the raison d’etre, that which sustains. They are not “I once was blind but now I see.” They are byproducts. They are the marks of our relationship with Jesus Christ and God the Father. When you focus on the effect rather than the cause, on the byproduct rather than the source, on the activity rather than the relationship you are doomed to a life of mediocrity, of running in circles, of missing what the Holy Spirit has for us all. It is too easy to let the good get in the way of the best. As Curly says, the secret of life is finding the One Thing.
There is a whole lot to playing Little League baseball. You have to learn to field, to catch the ball and throw the ball, to run the bases. There is strategy. You must know the signs. You learn the right way to put on the uniform. But no matter how good a fielder and a baserunner you may be, you have to be able to hit. If you don’t have a good eye, you won’t be around very long.  If you do not keep your eye on the ball, you won’t be in the lineup.
If any of you is a golfer, you know you can have the newest golf bag, the most expensive titanium Big Bertha available, the prettiest swing, and the most fashionable plus-fours and Polo shirts; none of that matters if you don’t keep your eye on the ball. The ball is not even moving, but you will never hit it if you don’t focus on it.
Everything else – the service, the giving, the leadership, all of it - is possible when you have a good eye. First things first. But when you try to fold it all in at once, to braid it together, you lose focus. You are worried and upset about many things, and you do not make the better choice.

Have you listened to yourself sing this morning? The One Thing means that our faith has found its resting place in the life and death of Jesus Christ. That is enough for all of us. The One Thing means that what we live for is to stand in the presence of Jesus, and when we are there, when we experience that relationship most clearly, it is amazing. The One Thing is Christ alone, our cornerstone where our hope is found. The One Thing means that Jesus is our all in all.
I remember a Sunday School lesson from the summer after the 7th Grade.  Believe it or not, that is true. I don’t know what kind of church nerd that makes me, but I remember a Sunday School lesson from 1978. At least I remember the teacher and the title and the main illustration.  Mr. Jim Askew taught this lesson just before we were to promote to the 8th grade, which means it was right after my best friend Chris joined our church. Perhaps that is why I remember this lesson.  Anyway, the title of the lesson was “Tuning in to God’s Frequency.” The illustration was of a radio. Today, we all have digital dials on our radios – if I want to find 103.3 ESPN radio, I can tune to that exact channel with precision.  Not so when I was in the 7th grade, and let’s be honest, not so when most of you were in the 7th grade. We had analog radio dials, those annoying horizontal lists of numbers and dashes and occasional vertical lines, with the red pointer moving behind them. On a radio with an analog dial, the tuning knob made the pointer move relative to the dial to indicate frequency. Meanwhile, inside the radio, something called a variable capacitor was turning on its shaft.
As you turned the knob, signals from certain stations would get clearer and then fainter. Static was your companion and your enemy. On the AM dial, as you drove your car searching for the voice of Jack Buck from KMOX in St. Louis, you would try to land right on 1120, but if you were me in Nashville, you had to be very precise, or the signal would not come in. Even a 50,000-watt clear channel required exact tuning. On the FM dial, your music would fade in and out depending on how precisely that pointer was tuned.
Some of you know that orchestras always tune to the oboe. Of all the instruments, the oboe holds its tone the best. Professionals will tell you the oboe has rigid pitch so long as it has a good reed and a musician playing it with a great ear. I have heard and read oboists who disagree about this, but most say that the oboe is not particularly susceptible to heat and cold and dampness.  Whatever its level of sensitivity, it has the least mechanical variation in pitch of all the orchestra. Its pitch is controlled by the oboist’s embouchure and technique, but the instrument itself, for all practical purposes, does not have to be tuned in the same way a violin or a piano or a French horn or a snare drum does. When you go to the symphony, what you hear just before the concert begins is the principal first oboe playing an A, and then all the other instruments adjusting to match. Everyone tunes to the oboe.
Our life is like that. The One Thing does not move. Just as KMOX is always at 1120, Jesus is constant. We always know where and how to find Him. We have scripture. We have this church. We have our experience of having found Him before. Jesus is the oboe – He sets the pitch, and we tune to Him. If we play out of key, it is not the oboe’s fault. The hackneyed phrase is true – If you are not feeling close to God, guess who moved?
Our problem is not Mitch Robbins’s problem. We know what the One Thing is. Our problem is that we have tuned to the wrong instruments – maybe to the louder, showier ones like the trumpets or the timpani. We have adjusted our radio knob too far away, perhaps even to the wrong station. Our pointer is heading somewhere else, and that means that the message of Christ is fading out, overcome by distance and static and the messages coming from other places on the dial. The One Thing has not changed, but we are not tuned to it. We have not kept our eye on the ball.
When we tune in to God’s frequency – when we move our life closer and closer to Jesus, reading scripture and praying and serving and worshiping and pressing on to an intimate relationship with Him – we find that His word comes to us so much more clearly. We see His face and understand His will with so much more certainty, and the competing noises and the static and the other messages become fainter and fainter. In other words, when we keep our eye on the ball and align ourselves more and more closely with Christ, then the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.
One Thing: our relationship with Jesus Christ. One Thing that gives life to many things. We should of course follow the call of Christ and of the church and serve and give and proclaim, but the One Thing comes first.
·         Hospitality and service and preparation and making sure that somebody brings the air freshener are important, and they need to happen, but they are not the One Thing; they are not listening to the words of the Master.
·         Being able to answer questions about the theological underpinnings of who Jesus is and how He can do what He does and how His work interplays with the religious system is interesting and important, but it is not the One Thing; it is not the touch of Jesus that takes away our blindness.
·         Giving to the poor is crucial and necessary, but it is not the One Thing; following Jesus comes first.
·         Boldly stating “Whom shall I fear?” and leading God’s people to victory are inspiring, but they are not the One Thing; they are not dwelling with the Lord.
·         Missionary journeys and inspired writing help the cause of Christ in multiple ways, and we should all emulate the passion of Paul, but even those are not the One Thing; they come only after and because we know Christ.
Martha, Martha. You are worried and upset about many things, but indeed, only One Thing is necessary.
One Thing I know: I once was blind, but now I see.
One Thing you lack: follow me.
One Thing I desire: to dwell in the house of the lord.
Not that I have already attained, or am already perfected; but I press on, that I may lay hold of that for which Christ Jesus has also laid hold of me. I do not count myself to have apprehended; but One Thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind and reaching forward to those things which are ahead, I press toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. [Philippians 3:10-14]
Good eye.  Good eye.