August 24, 2014 DUET WITH THE MILKY WAY (Psalm 148)

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A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens

Old South Church in Boston figured out how to solve their financial challenges: they sold one of their Bay Psalm Books for multi-millions of dollars. It was printed in Cambridge in 1640, the first book printed in this country. Think of that! The very first book printed in this land was a hymnbook! With tongue and lungs, those old Puritans sang their praises to God.

I

I mention that sale today, not because I think this church should rummage around in its archives and find something valuable to sell. I mention it because we read one of the last psalms in the Bible today—Psalm 148. There are only 150 psalms in the Bible, and the last five of those psalms serve as a kind of exclamation point to the whole collection.

When you look at the entire collection of psalms, you notice that just about every kind of emotion is expressed: thanksgiving, lament, complaints, anger, joy, love, passion, the whole long list of emotions that are part of the human experience. That is the reason the psalms are always relevant.
But the last five psalms begin and end with one Hebrew word translated in our Bibles as Praise the Lord! That one word is Hallelujah! The first and last word in each of the last five psalms is Hallelujah. That makes ten Hallelujahs at the end of the collection of psalms: but then Psalm 150, the last of the collections, adds ten more! So when we read Psalm 148, we are in the middle of the original “Hallelujah Chorus!”

But there is something unusual about Psalm 148 that makes it distinctive among all the psalms. It is what I am calling a duet with the Milky Way. That is to say, the first half of the psalm calls on all the heavenly creatures to praise the Lord, and the second half of the psalm calls on earthly creatures to praise the Lord.

Now I am going somewhere contemporary with this, so please stay with me! This heavenly part of the praise fest includes angels, the heavenly armies, the sun, the moon, the stars, and what the ancient writer calls the waters above the heavens, reflecting the ancient belief that the sky was actually a giant dome set down upon a flat earth, and rain came when God opened the windows of heaven to let the waters above the heavens fall on the flat earth.

II

So the first half of the psalm is a call for all the heavenly creatures to praise the Lord. Now what does that have to do with us, especially when you consider the ancient view of a flat earth? Look deeper into that culture, and you discover that calling on all the heavens to praise the Lord was quite revolutionary! The poet names the sun, the moon, the stars, the angels, the whole heavenly host, and says, Let them praise the name of the Lord…. He was living in a culture of nature worshippers, people who believed that the sun, the moon, the stars, the angels, the whole heavenly host, WERE gods. They were not created by one God; they were gods themselves to be worshipped. Here was a writer with the audacity to say that all of these heavenly beings were created by one God and were to praise the Lord.

This writer, however, doesn’t just leave it there; he gives a reason for their praise. And this is where the psalm becomes contemporary. Look closely at this writer’s audacity. After listing all those heavenly bodies, he says this: Let them praise the name of the Lord, for he commanded and they were created. He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

Living in a world full of people who believed that these heavenly bodies were themselves gods who controlled their lives, this audacious writer was saying that the God of Israel made them and set bounds around them. Suddenly these heavenly bodies become creatures of God, not gods themselves!
If you think we are beyond what some would consider superstitious nature worship, consider the contemporary worship of deities that we call by other names. Often those gods end in the suffix “ism.” Consider the grotesque bloodbath we are witnessing in Iraq and Syria under the banner of religious extremism. We are stunned by the brutality and persecution of anyone who does not fall down and worship the extremism of ISIS.

There are, of course, many other “isms” that we fall down and worship: there is consumerism, capitalism, materialism, nationalism, chauvinism, racism, determinism, and on and on. These “isms” are like stars in the sky: some people are ready to fall down and worship them!

This psalm reminds us that God has set bounds on all these “isms.” Not one of them is the ultimate truth, the final answer, the one thing of eternal value. God has fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed. That is the reason people with vastly different political or ideological positions can worship together. We all recognize that there are boundaries to our ideologies. And above those boundaries is our God who made us all and who loves us all.

III

The heavenly bodies are one part of this great duet. The other part is a list of earthly things: let them, too, praise the Lord. He lists them: sea monsters, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy winds, mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, wild animals, cattle, creeping things, and birds. They all should praise the Lord, he says.

Then he finally reaches the level of human beings: kings, princes, rulers, men and women, old and young together. Let them praise the name of the Lord, he writes. Why should all these people praise the Lord? The writer gives a reason: He has raised up a horn for his people!
What in the world is that about? A horn? In the Old Testament, the horn of an ox or a ram was a symbol of strength and power. For the psalmist to say that God has raised up a horn for his people means that in the face of death and destruction, grief and chaos, blood and terror, God will not be cowed! God has set bounds on the worship of extremism and fanaticism. To embrace this psalm is to stand with fellow citizens and say, “God is greater than hatred.” When you see black and white citizens standing arm in arm in the name of peace in Ferguson, MO, you are seeing God raising up a horn for his people!

IV

There is one final thing to say about this duet with the Milky Way: it is ONE chorus. The praise of this God is not confined to one religion, one nation, one race. It is a chorus of praise from all peoples, all things, both seen and unseen, animate and inanimate. It is an image of all of the creation this writer could imagine praising God.

If this two-part harmony sung by the heavenly beings on the one hand and the earthly beings on the other hand seems a little odd to you in our scientific world; if it seems perhaps a little weird, even; consider this: we sing about this duet every Christmas in one of our favorite Christmas carols. We hear it each year in church and in shopping malls, and it is possible we have missed its meaning.

Consider the words written by Isaac Watts:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her king;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n and nature sing,
And heav’n, and heav’n and nature sing.

Watts was thinking big. Heaven and nature are joining together in a two-part harmony of joyful praise! To make sure that everybody gets the point, he repeats “heav’n and nature” three times, even having the tenors and basses echo it in a refrain.

V

When we gather for worship and sing our praises to this God, we are joining a great chorus that transcends earth, transcends time, even transcends our imaginations. God is doing something amazing in this world, and we will not allow the nightly news of chaos and destruction, brutality and heartache to cover up God’s goodness. Sun and stars, dogwoods and dandelions, beetles and baboons, snips and snails and puppy dog tails, the earth and all its creatures—all join in the chorus.

And we will not stop singing, for God’s strength is here in our voices joined in praise.

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August 17, 2014 SOUL BLESSING (Psalm 103)

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In spite of the fact that we are witnessing daily news of an unfolding rescue of suffering people on Mount Sinjar in Iraq, a tragic example of what can happen when religious liberty is abandoned, it still remains true that mountaintops are also places of beauty and inspiration.
On mountaintops, especially those mountains where we can see great distances, we sense not only the beauty but also the grandeur of this earth. Many of us have had soul-stirring experiences as we viewed God’s good earth from the vantage point of a mountaintop.

I

When I ponder Psalm 103, I feel like I am standing at the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park on a clear summer day. There is no direction you can look where the view is not breathtakingly beautiful. To the east is the sea and the islands; to the west are mountain ranges. The sky merges with the sea, and if you are there at sunrise, you are the first to see it in the country. There is no place quite like it. That is the nature of Psalm 103. There is no way to do it justice.

But we can take in a few of the sights from this mountain peak of a psalm, and plan to return for another visit on another day. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. The writer of this psalm is talking to himself! Do you think it is weird to talk to yourself? I hope not, because I find myself talking to myself a lot, especially when I’m driving! However, I do find it a little weird when I am walking down a sidewalk and someone is talking on the phone using one of those hands-free earpieces. I still look around for the person he is talking to!

This psalm writer is talking to himself, reminding himself out loud that even if others fail or falter, his life should bless the Lord. Let others complain or condemn or bellyache, but you bless! Let others spend their time blessing themselves or their achievements or their possessions, but you bless the Lord. And all that is within me, bless his holy name. Half-hearted, indifferent, lukewarm, apathetic praises are not good enough; this writer is telling himself to love the Lord with heart, soul, mind and strength. He is reminding himself to offer God nothing less than the best, the utmost, the finest praise and thanks that he is capable of giving.

I am happy for people to come to worship however they are dressed. Glad to have you! But it bothers me when church leaders are told that in order to attract young people, we must start being hip! We have to wear jeans and a sweatshirt in the pulpit. We have to speak to God in our prayers like God is nothing more than a friend, a sidekick, a buddy.

The writer of Psalm 103 would not think of God in this way. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. God’s name is holy, and when we approach God in worship, we are engaged in holy business. We do not want to offer God sloppy, careless, slipshod worship. We present to God the best we have! We want the sanctuary clean and sparkling. We do not apologize for dressing as if this hour is special! It is holy! It is different from other activities. One of my childhood memories is the ritual of shining shoes on Saturday night. We wanted our shoes looking good for Sunday. That ritual quietly taught us children that Sunday was special, different from other days.

II

OK—that is looking one direction from this mountaintop of a psalm. Let’s turn now and look in another direction, knowing that we are leaving out much of this psalm for another occasion. Let us look to the middle of this psalm (vv. 15ff.) to find words that we often hear at a funeral; words that make us think that this psalm-writer had some years on him, had some experience under his belt. He had lived long enough to see many of his loved ones and friends die. He knew the pain of grief. So he concludes: As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.

The life that begins in a mother’s loving arms, moves through childhood and adolescence, through school and first job, through years of strength and usefulness, and finally through years of physical decline—it all goes so fast. Ask anyone born before World War II if life has gone fast and you will likely get the same answer: “I can’t believe how fast it has gone!” This writer knew that feeling. Our lives are like flowers, he says, they flourish for a time, and then they are gone.

The cosmetic industry is devoted to fighting that decline, as is the plastic surgery industry. There is a billboard that I pass every time I drive from Worcester to Providence. It has a before and after picture of a woman who had surgery on the loose skin of her neck. The caption says, “Love your neck again!” We try to stretch out that youthful energy and that youthful look for as long as we can!

But as the song written by Pete Seeger asks, “Where have all the flowers gone? Gone to the graveyard, every one.” Within these very walls, in these very pews and in this very pulpit, there were people of energy and ideas, growth, complexity, and beauty. But now, how many of their names do we know? Oh, I suppose Stan Lemons knows many of their names, but most of us know only a handful of names. They flourished here, like flowers of the field, but now the place knows them no more.

Does the church have anything helpful to say to those who are struck with how quickly it all goes? Oh, I know that there are some churches that are so sure about the nature of life after death that they can describe the heavenly architecture in detail. I once had funerals for two sisters who died only a few months apart. When the first sister died, the living sister wanted to make sure that I read the scripture from John 14 when Jesus says, In my father’s house are many mansions (King James Version). I was happy to use that text, but I made the mistake of reading it from the NRSV: In my father’s house are many dwelling places…. That living sister was not happy! She wanted her sister to be in a mansion, not a mere dwelling place! When the second sister died, you can be sure that I read it from the KJV!

What can we say to the issue of how fleeting life seems to be? One popular answer is found in Shakespeare. He has Macbeth give the hopeless answer: Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. What a depressing view of life! Yet that is the view of much of our culture.
But there is another view, a view that is expressed by the writer of Psalm 103. It is a view that accepts the reality of how quickly life flies by, but also a deep faith that life does signify something important, that in all the sound and fury of our days there is significance. Consider the reality of Psalm 103: As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. So far that could be very depressing! But read on: But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him…who keep his covenant….

A tale told by an idiot—that is the hopeless, Godless option. But the church gladly proclaims the other option: that out beyond the horizon in the distance, that horizon that we call death, there is the everlasting love of God. And when we cross that horizon, we do not cross into nothingness, but into the presence of that loving God. Our life here is not a tale told by an idiot. It has meaning because we are part of a moving, generational drama of a people who pledge to live the way of Christ in this place in our time. Future generations may not remember our names or have any idea what we looked like or how we sounded, but we all play a part in this moving drama of God’s people.

The approaching end of summer reminds us that we are all like grass, like the flowers of the field. The wind will pass over us, and we will soon be gone—every one of us. But it’s all right! Why? Because the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting…. Someday, no one will know that we worshipped here today, no one will know what we thought or how we behaved or who we loved, but God will know. From everlasting to everlasting, God will know. So we look out at the vast sea with its horizon in the distance, and we see, not dread, but beauty, and we say: Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name.

III

Every generation in this church has had members who rested on this promise, who knew that even though their names would someday be forgotten by the generations to come, they were precious to God and would someday be called home to be with God. One of those members whose name has been largely forgotten is Patience Borden, whose epitaph describes her as “a free woman of colour and humble disciple of Jesus. She gave to the First Baptist Church in this town of which she was a member 230 dollars as a fund for the relief of the poor of color of that church.”

She died in 1811. Her name is not known, but her life continues to bless us, for she lived to bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Within a few generations, our names may not be known, but we too will bless future generations by our faithfulness today. To speak to your own soul this way is to bless not only God, but future generations who will worship here: Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.

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August 10, 2014 ARTICULATING THE ABSENCE OF GOD (Psalm 22)

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This “summer of psalms” is quickly drawing to a close. After today, we only have two more. Next Sunday we will consider Psalm 103 (Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits.) Then on August 24 we will conclude with Psalm 148, a great eruption of praise at the end of the book of Psalms.

I

Today we are focusing on Psalm 22, whose opening words were quoted by Jesus on the cross: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? I imagine at the end of that awful day some Roman statistician reported the number of crucifixions to the newspapers in Rome. And people received the news the way we receive the number of deaths reported to us on our news channels. We hear these numbers casually. We even call them “casualties.” These numbers tell us the scale of the tragedy, but not the depth. The depth comes in the emotional trauma of the loved ones whose desolate cries echo the opening words of Psalm 22: My God, my God, why…? If you have ever been there, or if perhaps you are there today, this psalm is for you.

If we had a choir in the summer, I would have asked Steve to have them sing the section of Handel’s Messiah that has a tenor singing, All they that see him laugh him to scorn: they shoot out their lips, and shake their heads. Then the chorus, representing the unruly crowd having their obscene fun at a public execution, taunt Jesus on the cross: they sing, He trusted in God that he would deliver him, and every time the choir reaches the word deliver, the second syllable goes up an interval and the last syllable goes down an interval, so that when they sing deliver him, it has the effect of a blow in the belly.

This is not our favorite part of Messiah. If we were to poll this congregation, the favorite part would likely be the Hallelujah Chorus. For some people, coming to worship feels like being surrounded by others who seem to be singing the Hallelujah Chorus, when in reality they are deep down singing He trusted in God they he would deliver him, and they don’t feel delivered! Let it be said clearly that if nothing else, the church must be honest. There are times when we feel more like Psalm 22 than like Psalm 23! And this section of Handel’s Messiah draws its inspiration from Psalm 22: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.

Then for twenty-one verses of this psalm we get a lament from someone who is really feeling abandoned by God. If you assume that the Bible is full of sweet and pious statements, just read this psalm and say hello to reality: this writer is virtually castigating God for being AWOL! In you our ancestors trusted…to you they cried, shouts the writer, and they were delivered. You did it for them back in the good ol’ days, why don’t you come to me now? The first twenty-one verses of this psalm are virtually a dressing down of the Almighty. It is an articulation of God’s absence.

Now is that any way to speak to God? The answer of scripture is YES! This writer of Psalm 22 is articulating the absence of God, and this psalm has been recited or sung in temple and synagogue and church from that time on. It has been pondered by innumerable people in the privacy of their rooms.

It has struck me this week that even the compilers of the Psalter—those who edited these psalms and put them into the order in which we find them—seem to be conspiring in the very way they ordered them. The psalm immediately preceding Psalm 22 is a triumphant celebration of a king’s victory. The psalm immediately following is Psalm 23, which begins The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. It is that greatly loved and incomparable psalm assuring God’s presence and care. And there, as if surrounded by those singing the Hallelujah Chorus, is the lone survivor crying out, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

II

If that situation resonates with you this morning; if you feel like the singer of this psalm surrounded by those who seem to be singing the Hallelujah Chorus, then I have some things to say to you.

The first and foremost is that you are not alone. In this place, on this day, at this hour, you are welcome to articulate your sense of desolation from God. If you can’t find the words to articulate it, then try these words on for size. They just may fit!

I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast; my mouth is dried up like a
potsherd; and my tongue sticks to my jaws; you lay me in the dust of death.

Whoever the original writer of this psalm was, he was doubtless not the first to utter such words. They have been either articulate or inarticulate upon the lips of countless millions of perplexed and suffering people as the years have come and gone. Who among us has gotten very far into life without having had this fearful cry wrung from our heart? This is a question that has literally sobbed its way through the centuries. It is as old as humanity. It is as new as the pain of any broken heart. My God, my God, why…

Then there is another crucial thing to say: God is not angry at you for articulating your questions, your perplexities, even your frustrations toward God. How do we know? Because it is clear that when Jesus quoted these same words, God was not angry at Jesus. The sense of forsakenness on the part of Jesus was not due to the anger of God. The cross of Christ is not a symbol of God’s anger; it is a symbol of just how far God’s love is willing to go! The perplexity and pain therefore that wrung this cry from Jesus was certainly not born out of any anger or displeasure on the part of God toward Jesus.

What can we offer baffled people today who stand face to face with this sense of abandonment? What can we say to those who face veils through they cannot see, and doors to which they find no key? Well, we have this at least: we can offer a Christ who has walked that road and who is, therefore, able to enter into full sympathy with us. We can be sure that our Christ is not angry because we question. After all, he himself cried out, Why?

III

The articulation of the absence of God in Psalm 22 lasts for twenty-one verses. Who knows how long that was in time? Maybe twenty-one years! It can last a long time. But through all the perplexity and desolation of those twenty-one verses, God is still described as MY God. Then, at long last, in verse 21 comes the breakthrough after all that desolate time:

From the horns of the wild oxen you have rescued me. I will tell of your name to my brothers and sisters. In the midst of the congregation I will praise you.

Do you notice that in all of this time of perplexity, all the time when the writer feels abandoned by God and can articulate only the absence of God, he is still within the congregation! He is still a part of the worshipping community! So that when the breakthrough finally comes, the first thing he does is bear witness to it among those who have stood by him, loved him, and supported him through the crisis.

IV

Here is a promise: there will come a time when you will sing the Hallelujah Chorus. But for some of you, that time is not now. At this moment, all you can do is to articulate the absence of God. But do I need to remind you that when Jesus remembered in his agony the first verse of this psalm and cried out in his native Aramaic, Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani? meaning My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? God was never closer to him than at that moment!

Maybe one reason you are in this worshipping community this morning is to hear that assurance. God has not forsaken you; God is nearer to you now than you think! It is only a small step between the articulation of my God, my God, why have you forsaken me in Psalm 22 to the articulation of the care of God in Psalm 23: The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.

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August 3, 2014 “Poetry in a Prosaic World” (Psalm 95)

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When Robert Pinsky was Poet Laureate for the United States he inaugurated the Favorite Poem Project. He had a hunch that contrary to popular belief, hosts of ordinary people in America loved poetry, or at least had a poem that really meant something to them. Sure enough, during the one-year open call for submissions, over 18,000 Americans volunteered to share their favorite poems. They ranged from ages 5 to 97, came from every state, from diverse occupations, and had different education and backgrounds.

I

I mention this to highlight the obvious fact that the psalms are poetry, not prose.Scan any modern translation of the Bible and you can immediately see what parts of the Bible are poetry. Most of the poetry is found in the prophets and the psalms. By any reckoning, those two parts of the OT are the most powerful. In the prophets we have those marvelous images of justice rolling down like waters, of the lion lying down with the lamb, of swords being beaten into plowshares.It is in the poetry of the OT that we hear: In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. This language gave people hope and encouragement.

When I speak of the language of poetry, I am not trying to be an English professor. I am not trying to teach about the technical aspects of ancient Hebrew poetic parallelism, or anything about the length and nature of Hebrew strophes. I am talking about language that moves and jumps and surprises, language that evokes images and opens up new worlds and creates fresh possibilities that stretch our imaginations. Good religion is never literalistic; it is poetic!

When we open the Bible, especially to the psalms, we are entering a poetic world. That means that we are entering a world that is not embarrassed by strong emotions or by irrational images. It is a world that sometimes scrambles metaphors, hurls images like major league fastballs, stretches our imaginations, and knocks down the walls of our prosaic world in which most of us are trapped. We cannot afford to be limited to the flat world of techno-speak, a world that is as flat as the sound of a computer voice.

Consider a person contemplating the presence of God’s spirit. Let’s just imagine that this is a woman standing on the beach in the early morning hours three thousand years ago. Like us, she is trying to wrap her mind around the reality of God. She looks out at the Mediterranean Sea, and of course as a person of her time, she thinks the earth is flat, and therefore the horizon she sees must be the place where the sea ends and she wonders what is on the other side of that line we call the horizon. She looks to the east and she sees the sun rising. She stands there, contemplating her life and her inevitable death. She wonders about God and her place in God’s universe.Here is what comes out of her mouth:

Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there.

Then she looks at the rising sun and as a person of her time she thinks of the sun like a bright bird flying through the sky and finally diving into the waters at the farthest point in the west. And here is what comes out of her mouth:

If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea; even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

This is not stale prose; it is exciting poetic imagery! This is the language of worship. It is intended to challenge our prosaic world that assumes that things must remain the way they are.It is a language, in other words, that calls us to enter a world of faith.

II

That is the reason Psalm 95 begins with an invitation to come, to come together in worship. The reason the early Baptists called this place a meetinghouse is that they understood that in coming together for worship we enter another world, a world of hope that counters the prosaic reality of their lives during the week.It is a world of transforming poetic language that is not just for individuals, or for some rarefied cadre of religious elite.It is for all of us, for all of us can equally participate in this poetic drama of worship: O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!

A prosaic world looks at that invitation and concludes that it is talking about singing to a rock! What is this? A pet rock? Do we sing to a rock? That is prosaic literalism. To participate in the psalms, we must let go of such literalism and experience the meaning of this metaphor. All through the psalms, God is compared to a rock and a fortress. That was the best and strongest human defense system they knew: a stone fortress.It was the equivalent to the missile defense system that Israel calls the “Iron Dome.”

This language is a religious and a political statement: God is greater than the best human defense system that we can devise. We are coming together to recognize that we have a power greater than we can devise and an allegiance greater than politics. And we are giving thanks for it.

III

This psalm has an abrupt interruption in the midst of verse 7. Probably in its original use the joyful singing of the people was interrupted by a priest who gives a warning: O that today you would listen to his voice! It is a warning that appropriately comes with any act of worship. We cannot afford to get so caught up in thanksgiving for the goodness of God that we forget the call to justice and compassion. The priest throws cold water on their celebration. He reminds them that acts of justice and mercy are part of any act of thanksgiving. The divorcing of worship and compassionate justice turns poetic language into a sham.

The prophets were particularly sensitive to this. Listen to the prophetic message: When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you, even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. That is Isaiah (1: 15-17). The prophet Amos (5: 24) is even more succinct: Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

IV

Eucharist. But our thanksgiving is always shallow without the word of warning: O that today you would listen to his voice. Who’s voice?

Listen to the voice of Jesus. We love to hear, Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. We love to hear, I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty. We affirm those precious promises in the Lord’s Supper.

But we also hear the warning: Do you love me?…then feed my sheep. We hear the poetic echoes of Jesus saying, I was hungry, and you gave me food. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothing. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.

The loving promises and the challenging call to compassionate justice are Siamese twins, joined at the chest. They beat with the same passionate, poetic heart. They are the complementary companions of our joyful feast of God’s love.

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July 27, 2014 “Heading for the Hills” (Psalm 121)

Psalm 121

1I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help?

2 My help cometh from the Lord, which made heaven and earth.

3 He will not suffer thy foot to be moved: he that keepeth thee will not slumber.

4 Behold, he that keepeth Israel shall neither slumber nor sleep.

5 The Lord is thy keeper: the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.

6 The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.

7 The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.

8 The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in from this time forth, and even for evermore.

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July 20, 2014 “Still Faithful After All These Years” (Psalm 137)

A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens

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Until his death from a stroke last year, author Will Campbell wrote in a log cabin behind his house in Mt. Joliet, TN. On the wall of his study in that cabin was a sign that read, “Thank you for not cussin’.”

There could never be a sign on the Bible that says, “Thank you for not cussin’,” because the Bible has a lot of cussin’ in it! I know that may come as a surprise for some, but it is true! Just don’t mistake real cussin’ with slang or mere scatological language. Real cussin’ is a very important part of the Bible. I’m sure this needs further explanation.

I

Cursing is the flip side of blessing, and both are rooted in religion. When I use the oldest blessing in the Bible at the end of a service—the one that begins, The Lord bless you and keep you—the flip side of that would be something like this: “The Lord curse you and abandon you.” One is a benediction, and the other is a malediction. The Bible has both!

Now we can go a step further. The Bible may be considered a divine book, but it is also a very human book. It is full of human emotion. And what is more human than rage associated with tragedy? That rage is expressed in the Bible in the form of curses often centered around one of the great defining events in Jewish history: the fall of Jerusalem in the sixth century before Christ. It was a bloody, bitter, cruel military devastation. The book of Lamentations opens with a poetic description of the immense destruction:

How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces has become a vassal.

It was a shattering of faith! It raised all kinds of questions about God and about their perceived place as the chosen people. It literally shook them to the core, and they would spend centuries sorting out what it all meant.

In the midst of their grief and bitterness over such a defeat, we have a body of literature within the Bible which can only be described as cursing. Many of the psalms are classified as cursing psalms. They lament the fall of Jerusalem, and they call for vengeance on those who perpetrated such cruelty.

Psalm 137 is perhaps the most familiar of such cursing psalms. Its opening lines are sublime in their heart-breaking beauty: By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. The psalm goes on to describe their bitterness when their captors begged them to sing for us one of the songs of Zion! It was turning their grief into a minstrel show; it was turning something holy into entertainment! They just couldn’t do it. They would rather hang up their harps for good than to entertain their enemies with their sacred songs.

By the end of the psalm the bitter rage rises to the surface. The author’s anger is directed first toward the land of Edom: Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations! Edom was a neighbor, located just south of Jerusalem. The people of Edom sided with the Babylonians in destroying Jerusalem! The sense of betrayal the Israelites felt lasted for hundreds of years.

Then the writer’s seething hatred toward Babylon erupts. His fury is so great that he creates a back-handed curse in the form of a blessing on those who would wreak vengeance on Babylon by brutally killing their children, presumably the same way the Israelite children were killed.

O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!

So ends the curse, and so ends the psalm! It may still be rather shocking that such as this is in scripture! But remember: there is no sign on the Bible that says, “Thank you for not cussin’!”

II

Let’s think together about this. It is no accident that we begin every worship service with a hymn of praise. Why do we do that? Don’t we all recognize that sometimes we enter the service with anything but praise in our hearts? Don’t we all know that sometimes we enter this place with our own version of Psalm 137? You may come into the sanctuary today thinking, “By the rivers of worry—there I sat down and wept.” “By the rivers of misunderstanding and estrangement—there I sat down and wept.” We all have our own version. Someone else might say, “By the rivers of loneliness or anxiety or credit card bills or red ink—there I sat down and wept.”

See where I’m headed here? We all enter this sanctuary from time to time with anything but praise in our hearts. Yet we always begin with praise. Why? The answer is simple—sometimes we sing praise to God, not because of, but in spite of! That is the beginning of an adequate faith. It is the praise of God in spite of all that we have been facing.

The title of this sermon is a spin-off from the old Paul Simon song entitled “Still Crazy After All These Years,” in which he sang about picking up the thread of a relationship that had once been strong, and then time and distance had separated them. He runs into his old flame on the street one night, and they share a beer together, talk of old times, and then part ways again. Then he concludes, “Still crazy after all these years, still crazy after all these years.” We are left to wonder exactly what he means. Was she still crazy after all these years? Or was it he? Or was it his feelings that were still crazy? We don’t know.

But in this sermon I am talking about faithfulness—“…still faithful after all these years.” I am talking about an adequate faith that is still there even when we sit down by the rivers of time and weep, even when our anger and rage rises to the surface and we strike out at life or even those around us. I am talking about faith when we feel like cussin’.

III

To read a psalm like this is to be reminded that faithfulness has no illusions. It is unshockable. We are not thrown off balance by some respected minister who runs off with his secretary; our faith is not shattered because of some priest abusing children. Sad and outraged…but our faith is not shattered!

Mature faith is not shocked because goodness is not always rewarded the way we think it should be. Our faith does not stumble over leukemia attacking an innocent child, or a drunk running his car up on a sidewalk and killing pedestrians. In short, our faith in God is not dependent on our escaping the inevitable disappointments and tragedies of life! An adequate faith is one that is not surprised by the potholes. Like New England roads in the spring thaw, they are just part of the journey.

Now we can go a step further and actually find inspiration in a cursing psalm like this. An adequate faith is not afraid of expressing our disappointments and even anger within the community of faith. Let’s get out of our minds that church is all back-slapping and hugs. As Dan Ivins would say, “Here we agree differently!” A mature community of faith is willing to deal with both our feelings of cursing as well as blessing.

Oh yes, one more thing. An adequate faith knows that bad things really do happen to the best of people. Marriages fail among the finest of people; germs pay no attention to church attendance; broken promises are not just for the bad guys. But does that mean that God has left us? An adequate faith knows better.

Two women were overheard in the checkout line at the grocery store. One of them, admiring the other woman’s grey hair, said, “I don’t know you, but I’ve been admiring the color of your hair. I’d give anything in the world to have hair that color. I know this is a personal question, but would you tell me what you put on it?” There was a pause, and the second woman said, “Honey, I don’t put anything on my hair. It turned this color almost overnight. We had a child to die suddenly and my husband got sick and lingered and then he died. Things were just hard then and it just happened! My hair turned this color grey.” And then she said, “Honey, you can’t get this out of a bottle!”

There are some things you can’t buy over the counter or get out of a bottle! God comes to the hard places, the unfair places, and the difficult places of our lives, even if we feel alone, even when we find ourselves cussin’ the world!

IV

What if in today’s worship, you laid all your deep-down resentment and anger over some past event before God? What if you heard the words of Jesus, Come unto me, all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest, rest from the anger that is debilitating, the resentment that is demeaning, and rest from the visions of revenge that seem delicious.

If you today could lay those burdens down like rocks on a cairn, you would finally be free to move ahead in your life. You could once again take your harp from the willows of time and sing the songs of Zion. In the ever-contemporary words of the prophet Isaiah, you would this day go out in joy, and be led back in peace (Isaiah 55: 12).

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July 13, 2014 “When Faith Meets Fragile” (Psalm 46)

Psalm 46

1 God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. 2 Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, 3 though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. “Selah” 4 There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. 5 God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day. 6 Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. 7 The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. “Selah” 8 Come and see the works of the LORD, the desolations he has brought on the earth. 9 He makes wars cease to the ends of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear, he burns the shields with fire. 10 “Be still, and know that I am God; I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth.” 11 The LORD Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. “Selah”

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July 6, 2014 “With Hearts and Hands and Voices” (Psalm 100)

Psalm 100

1 Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth.
2 Worship the Lord with gladness; come before Him with joyful songs.
3 Know that the Lord is God. It is He who made us, and we are His;
we are His people, the sheep of His pasture.
4 Enter His gates with thanksgiving and His courts with praise;
give thanks to Him and praise His name.
5 For the Lord is good and His love endures forever;
His faithfulness continues through all generations.

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Sunday, June 29, 2014 “A Psalm for Transitions” (Psalm 23)

Rev. Thomas McKibbens, preaching

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June 22, 2014 “Wrestling with God” (Genesis 28:10-17, 32:22-32)

Linda Bausserman, preaching

I thought I would venture into the OT today and explore part of Jacob’s story. It covers something over 10 chapters. But today I just want us to focus on the two encounters between Jacob and God. To start, let me just give an over view of his life. Sometimes these OT characters begin to run together or we look at one particular aspect of the story and it’s hard to put it into context in the bigger picture of the person’s life. The story actually starts with Abraham, whom God promised would be the father of a nation with thousands of descendants. Isaac was his son and Jacob and Esau were his grandsons. They were twins and their rivalry began in the womb. Esau was born first and Jacob was born holding on to his heel. Esau grew to be the active, outdoors man and Jacob the quieter son. Both would have grown up hearing the stories of Abraham’s life and of God’s promises to him. Both would have known the importance of their family and the privilege and responsibility of the first born. However, it would appear that Jacob took it all more seriously and understood its significance better than Esau; for Jacob manipulated Esau into giving up his birthright. Esau came in one day exhausted and hungry after hunting. Jacob offered him some stew in exchange for his birthright and Esau agreed after complaining that his birthright didn’t matter since he was dying of hunger anyway. Then, at his mother’s instigation, Jacob tricked his father into giving him the blessing as well. Esau was furious when he found out and threatened to kill Jacob after Isaac had died. So Jacob was sent off to his uncle until the situation cooled down. He heads out with nothing, frightened for his life and this is where the first scripture which Ken read takes place. God appears to Jacob in a dream and tells him he will be the carrier of the covenant with Abraham and promises to be with him and protect him. Upon awakening the next morning Jacob recognizes that he is on holy ground and dedicates the spot. Then he heads on to his Uncle Laban. There he falls in love with Rachel and agrees to work for Laban 7 years to earn the privilege of marrying her. Laban tricks him (Jacob gets a taste of his own medicine!) and the morning after the wedding Jacob discovers that instead of Rachel he is married to Rachel’s older sister Leah. The nights must have been pretty dark there! He agrees to work another 7 years to marry Rachel. Once they are married he stays on with Laban and both he and Laban prosper. When Rachel finally bears a son (his twelfth) he decides to return home. He and Laban wrangle about the terms of his departure (more trickery and chicanery), but eventually God tells Jacob to leave and he does. On the way back home his fear of Esau returns. He sends forward gifts to Esau and his messengers return saying that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. Jacob, feeling guilty, assumes they are coming to kill him. So he separates his party into two groups so that if one is attacked the other can escape. He then sends everyone forward while he remains behind. Again he is alone and frightened in the night desert and this is where the scripture read by Elsa occurs. This time he is visited by God who wrestles with him until dawn. God touches his leg throwing his hip out of joint but Jacob won’t let go until he is given a blessing. He gets a new name, Israel, as well as a blessing and again God’s promise to be with him. The next day he heads home and is greeted enthusiastically by Esau, who apparently holds no grudges. This is a thin sketch of the story. I would encourage you to read it – it is only 10 chapters and includes a beautiful romance as well as lots of intrigue. But for today I want to focus on these two encounters with God which Elsa and Ken read to us.

Now I have to tell you up front that I have had a problem with this story, especially these two encounters. What’s more I don’t have an answer to my questions. So you’re not going to get a sermon today where everything is tied up neat and tidy at the end. And worse, I don’t even feel guilty about it. Hear this quote from Richard Rohr, “The Bible illuminates your human experience through struggling with it. It is an invitation into the struggle itself; you are supposed to be bothered by some of the texts. Human beings come to consciousness by struggle and most especially struggle with God and sacred texts. We remain largely unconscious if we avoid all conflicts, dilemmas, paradoxes, inconsistencies, or contradictions.” And, he says, “The Bible is a book filled with conflicts and paradoxes.” So struggle with me a little. Here’s my question. Jacob leaves home in disgrace, having tricked his brother into giving up his birthright and then deceiving and lying to his father, pretty sleazy behavior. Then he has a dream in which God promises to give him and his descendants the land he is standing on, to be with him, to protect him wherever he goes, and to bring him back to this land. He has clearly done wrong by his brother and father but in his dream there is no accusation, and no judgment. Instead he is encouraged and given promises. This is already puzzling – not what one expects from the Old Testament God of judgment. The encounter on the return trip is quite different and just as puzzling. Jacob has worked for Laban many years, despite being deceived. He seemed to be trying to do his best; but when he nears his homeland and is again frightened and alone in the night, God comes and wrestles him. I’m sorry but it just seems that God got it backwards. When Jacob has done wrong, God is comforting and helpful; but years later, after he has been working hard but is equally in need of comfort, God wrestles him? Leaves him with a limp for the rest of his life? Well, it just didn’t make sense to me. But, since God obviously does not do things backwards, it suggests that maybe I am the one who needs to do some struggling to try to understand what is going on here.

When he left home, Jacob was clearly in need of God’s comfort and encouragement though he certainly didn’t deserve it. He was obviously in the wrong. Jacob and his mother, Rebecca, were ambitious and were pushing against God’s timetable. God had told Rebecca that Jacob would be the more powerful son but Rebecca couldn’t wait or didn’t trust God enough to wait for God to make it happen. Sometimes we have to wait for God’s grace. But when God wills something, it happens. God says in Isaiah 55:10-11, “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return there until they have watered the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.” Once God makes a promise, it happens. One can see why Jacob is more suited to the birthright and blessing than Esau, who really had no interest in carrying on the covenant. Jacob’s problem is that he resorted to deceit to obtain it. Despite all this, God comes to him in a dream and, after identifying himself as the God of Abraham, he promises to give him the land, to keep him safe and bring him back to the land. God says he will not leave him until all this is accomplished. Jacob realizes the significance of the dream. “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!” The next line in the text is “And, he was afraid.” Why was he afraid? He had just been given this wonderful promise. We have talked before about how when one confronts God one sees oneself. I think Jacob saw that what he had done was wrong and felt guilt and fear. So he made a vow saying, ‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in the way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothing to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God, and this stone, which I have set up for a pillar, shall be God’s house; and of all that you give me I will surely give one tenth to you.” He’s still pretty gutsy, adding specific wants to God’s promise, but he does recognize his indebtedness to God and promises to give back a tithe. Perhaps Jacob needed the encouragement to continue his journey. He was after all young, had probably never been away from home before and was probably lacking in confidence. Or, maybe he needed to know that despite being sent away, he would still be the one to carry out the family destiny. Maybe he needed to be reassured that though he was weak and had failed, his relationship with God was still intact. In any event he proceeded to his Uncle where he stayed until God told him to return. So Jacob had had a continuing relationship with God and was obedient to God’s commands.

When he returns he is a wealthy man. He has two wives and their two handmaids with whom he has fathered 12 sons, who will become the patriarchs of the 12 tribes of Israel. However, emotionally he is not far from where he was when he left. He is still guilty and fearful. He divides up his retinue hoping that half of his people, animals and goods can be saved. And then he prays. “God of my grandfather Abraham and God of my father Isaac, O Lord who said to me, ‘Return to your country and to your kindred, and I will do you good,’ I am not worthy of the least of all the steadfast love and all the faithfulness that you have shown to your servant, for with only my staff I crossed this Jordan; and now I have become two companies. Deliver me, please, from the hand of my brother, from the hand of Esau, for I am afraid of him; he may come and kill us all, the mothers with the children. Yet you have said, ‘I will surely do you good, and make your offspring as the sand of the sea, which cannot be counted because of their number.’” Jacob is humble in that he admits that he is undeserving but then comes on pretty strong in reminding God what had been promised him. ‘You promised me countless offspring and now I am afraid that my children will all be killed. You told me to come back and said that You will do me good. I have obeyed and returned but now I am afraid.” So he admits his indebtedness and his fears to God and he begs God to make good on his promise. He sends everyone off and again finds himself alone in the night. This time a man wrestles him. Jacob puts up a good fight and the man dislocates his hip. The man tells him to let go but Jacob insists that the man give him a blessing first. He asks Jacobs name and gives him a new name, Israel, which means contends with God or prevails against God. When Jacob asks the man’s name he doesn’t answer but does bless Jacob and Jacob comes to realize that the man is God. Jacob says, “I have seen God face to face and yet my life is preserved.” It has been suggested that this encounter is to strip Jacob of his pride in his accomplishments. He has been made weak and his limp will be a constant reminder of God’s strength and his dependence on God. It may be that God was displeased that Jacob was frightened even though God had promised a return in peace. Since all the other promises had been kept, Jacob should have trusted that he would return safely. A point has been made about the fact that he didn’t let go even after his hip was dislocated. If he thought he was being wrestled because of his sin, then holding on may have been his way of begging for forgiveness. God told him “you shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.” God told him why his name was changed but he did not tell him, nor us, why he wrestled him in the first place. However, this experience moved Jacob beyond the usual perception of power as wealth or authority over others, to a new spiritual depth and spiritual power, which only comes by encounters with God.

The fact that I don’t fully understand what was going on doesn’t take away from the story for me. I don’t expect always to understand God’s actions. God is way too vast and mysterious for me to try to understand. And, isn’t that what faith is about, following without always understanding everything. That isn’t to say, however, that we shouldn’t study and try to understand. We grow to know God better when we do.

If you look at the shape of this story, does it remind you of a New Testament story? Two sons, the younger leaves for a far country, leaving an angry older brother, and returns many years later. The outline is like the story of the prodigal son. There are obvious differences. Jacob left home with nothing and came back wealthy and the opposite was true of the prodigal son. Also, Esau welcomed Jacob home but the prodigal son’s older brother was still angry although his father welcomed him enthusiastically and lovingly. There are many stories of leaving and returning home. Moses was away living the life of a shepherd for many years before returning to Egypt to free his people. Even Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness before beginning his ministry. This is still a topic of stories today. There is something about getting away for a time that allows us to see our situation, who we are and what our values are more clearly. For Jacob being away was a time of maturing, learning to work for what he got and learning patience.

Another important lesson from this story is that God uses whoever and whatever is needed to get the job done. We often think that a person must be perfect or at least special to be used by God. Since none of us is perfect, isn’t it a good thing that God is willing to use flawed people! Again and again, God chooses ordinary and even flawed people to do his work. For example, God chose Moses, who had killed a man, to deliver his people from bondage in Egypt and Isaiah, “a man of unclean lips,” to be a prophet. And Jesus chose simple fishermen for disciples. Yet we think that God cannot use us. We are not deserving enough or not educated enough or not strong enough or not energetic enough. Or, the all-time favorite, we don’t have time enough. Jacob, for all his faults and fears, said yes to God. Perhaps we don’t need to understand the reasons for God’s actions to see that God was faithful to Jacob and Jacob in turn was obedient and faithful to God. And the result? A nation grew out of that covenant of faith. So the story of Jacob demonstrates for us God’s faithfulness. And the story of the prodigal son shows us God’s love. Why then should we be afraid? If we can grow to trust God’s faithfulness and love, then our fears can be turned into hope.

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