September 7, 2014 RESTIVE IN THE EMPIRE

Exodus 12: 1-14
A Communion Meditation by Thomas R. McKibbens

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Who is this YHWH? sneers the god-king Pharaoh. Most scholars believe that the voice was that of Rameses II, who reigned midway through the 13th century B.C. These are the first recorded words of the Pharaoh in the book of Exodus, but they are a kind of recurring refrain, not only for this Pharaoh, but for all of us to this very day!


Who is this YHWH? is the recurring question of all religion, and it is THE recurring question of modern history. In the Middle Ages, the Crusaders asked, “Who is this God?” and they concluded that this was solely a Christian God who wanted all non-Christians to be put to the sword. In the 20th century Hitler asked, “Who is this God?” and concluded that this was a fair-skinned God of Aryans only. All others, especially Jews, were to be eliminated.

Thirteen years ago this week, a group of fundamentalist Muslims hijacked three planes asking the question, “Who is this God?” and concluding that this God is only for radical Muslim fundamentalists like them. All others should be killed or at least convert to their radicalized, politicized, violent deviation of an historic religion that has for many centuries lived peaceably with Christians and Jews. And now, thirteen years later, their brutal ideological offspring are beheading journalists under the delusion that God approves such savagery. So once again, the world is asking, “Who is this God?”

The search for the answer has taken us on a journey of multiple and sometimes conflicting conclusions. Phil Robertson, one of the stars of Duck Dynasty, declares that he believes God has one answer to the threat of ISIS: “…either convert them or kill them,” he says. His is a tit-for-tat God, a “my God is bigger than your God” approach.

Then some have concluded that religion itself is the problem, not a solution, given the fact that so much violence over the centuries has come in the name of religion. That charge conveniently ignores the violence stemming from non-religious issues such as race or land or treasure, but this is not the time to debate contemporary atheism.

For others, the question of “Who is this God?” has deepened their faith, even if that faith is more sober. For all of us, the atrocities we have witnessed both on 9/11 and in recent days have raised feelings of deep emotion and understandable anger, and we struggle along with others while we maintain and work hard on our own faith. Each year’s anniversary of 9/11 is sobering, and we would not want to conduct worship on the Sunday before that date without recognizing and offering our prayers for those who still suffer from the memories of terrible day.


So Pharaoh’s question to Moses turns out to be a contemporary, recurring, habitual inquiry. Who is this God? When you read the story of the life of Moses, we might be tempted to ask, “Why ask Moses? He had just met this God himself! It was back there beyond the wilderness, back on that holy mountain, that he had heard a voice coming out of the vision of a burning bush. That voice called on him to do something both politically and personally dangerous: to go back to Egypt and demand that the slave system on which their high standard of living had been constructed should be abolished!

Moses asked the Voice from the bush the same basic question that Pharaoh would later ask of him. Here is the way Moses worded it: If I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is his name?” what shall I say to them?
And the answer that comes out of the burning bush constitutes one of the great mysteries of the Bible…of the human race. God tells Moses his name all right, and it is an unpronounceable word: YHWH! Four consonants! But ancient Hebrew was written without vowels. Vowel subscripts were only added to Hebrew script in the Middle Ages. By then the name of God had become so sacred that it was never uttered. Faithful Jews avoided speaking the name of God by substituting the word Adonai, meaning “the Lord,” in the text of the Bible whenever they came to the word YHWH. So, after such a long succession of centuries we have lost any certain knowledge of the way the name of God would have been pronounced even if they were willing to pronounce it!

We do know that YHWH is a form of the verb “to be.” God’s essence, in other words, is not a noun, but a verb. God is not a thing: God is being itself. All other beings come from God. But a more precise translation of the word could be, I am who I am. In other words, “Moses, my name is none of your business. I am not one of your household gods that you take along for good luck. I am not an icon, a rabbit’s foot, an amulet, a wishbone, a horseshoe, or a lucky charm. I am not a dashboard Jesus. Don’t try to control me by giving me a name.”

But of all the ideas about the meaning of God’s name, I am most fascinated by the thought of Thomas Cahill, who wrote The Gifts of the Jews. He suggests that we try to say the consonants without resort to the vowels. YHWH—when you try to say those consonants without using vowels, you find yourself just breathing in, then out. In this pronunciation of YHWH, God becomes the breath of life!

Who is this YHWH? says Pharaoh. Answer: this God is the source of the breath of life for all people. It is with this God that you are dealing! This is not the god of partisan politics. We do not come to church for a rehearsal of the political maneuverings that attempt to put God on the side of whatever candidate they are promoting. When we come to church we are dealing with the God who spoke from a vision of a burning bush to Moses long centuries ago, the God who gave us the breath of life and called us to this place, and the God who will still be God when political elections are long forgotten and the United States of America is a blip on the screen of history. This is the God who was, who is, and who forever will be, the God who is the judge of all our politics, and we will not shrink our worship to fit any narrow political, social, or even religious ideology!


The story of Moses and the first Passover is a story of a people who were restless for freedom in the empire of ancient Egypt. The story of Jesus and the early church is also a story of a people restless for freedom in another empire. They lived in a cookie-cutter world: it was conform or die. Jesus compared their restlessness to new wine in an old wineskin. Others compared it to the rush of a mighty wind.

They were restless in the Roman Empire, and Jesus died a cruel death when he refused to conform. Others followed, and many of them died for their restlessness. Yet by the second generation the Apostle Paul could write to the church in the very heart of the Roman imperium: Be not conformed to this world! This God, this YHWH, always calls for freedom and justice, and this God is greater than the shape of whatever imperial restrictions on faith that any Roman emperor could proclaim. Be not conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. They were restive in the empire of Rome!

When we worship in this place we are worshipping in the very epicenter of the American experience of religious non-conformity. That little band of early Baptists in 1638 was called every name in the book by the Puritan Empire of New England. “Scabs to be contended against,” sneered Urion Oaks, the second President of Harvard College. He was referring to Baptists, and was surely facing south and thinking of that crowd of Baptists down in Providence. We Baptists may have been scabs, but what he failed to see is that the purpose of a scab is to protect a wound and let it heal! Those early Baptists did just that—they protected the jagged wound of religious coercion until it healed into the jewel of religious liberty that this nation eventually proclaimed in the First Amendment!


And now, we are the inheritors of that jewel of freedom, thanks in large part to those who worshipped on this very spot and within these sacred walls. They, like us, heard the words, This is my body…this is my blood. And they, like us, took that bite of bread and that sip of wine and knew that their faith in Christ set them free from the conforming religious strangulation of any empire. For freedom Christ has set us free! insisted the Apostle Paul.

Christian faith is always about a people who are restless with the worship of any god lesser than the liberating God seen so clearly in the life, death, resurrection, and present Spirit of Jesus Christ. To follow Jesus means to be continually restive in the face of injustice, but continually free in being transformed into God’s people for this time and place.

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August 31, 2014 ORDINARY PEOPLE…ORDINARY THINGS (Exodus 3: 1-15)

Exodus 3: 1-15
A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
August 31, 2014

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If there were no such thing as a Labor Day, the church might very well invent a liturgical day to honor labor. By that I am not talking about wages or working conditions, although those are important. What the church has to say about labor can be summed up in one word: vocation. As the origin of that word implies, it has to do with a sense of call, a summons from outside of ourselves, a feeling that you did not choose this work as much as you were chosen for it. If your income-producing job coincides with your vocation, then you are fortunate indeed.


Few contemporary accounts of vocation are more moving than that of James Foley, the journalist whose savage execution in Syria has broken our hearts. Coming from a devout Catholic faith in Rochester, New Hampshire, he had already endured one kidnapping in Syria in 2011 when he was held for 44 days before being released. When he determined to return to Syria to report what was happening, he told his family that he felt compelled to go back. His friend Sarah Fang, who taught with him in Teach for America, is quoted as saying, “His sense of integrity has always meant devoting himself entirely to his work.”

Clearly, he felt called by a higher power to his work. His integrity and his courage honor his profession of journalism, and his sense of calling honors his profession of Christian faith. He is not the first, nor will he be the last, who suffers by following a sense of call. When his death was first reported, I could not help but think of the words of Martin Luther’s famous hymn:

Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also;
The body they may kill: God’s truth abideth still;
His kingdom is forever.

James Foley stands in a long line of honorable and courageous people who felt that God was calling them to do something important.

We have heard read today the familiar and ancient story of the call of Moses. Even those in our culture who practice no religion at all are at least vaguely familiar with the story of Moses and the burning bush. Knowing what we do about the early life of Moses, we would all agree that Moses would not have been voted “Most Likely to Be Called by God!” He was, in fact, a white collar criminal, a fugitive from the law, on the run in Midian, trying to stay one step ahead of the sheriff. He had committed murder in Egypt, fled the land, found a wife, and was given a job by his father-in-law that would keep him on the backside of nowhere, which was a perfect place for anyone on the run. The scripture seems to emphasize just how far away he was: …he led his flock beyond the wilderness, it says. Not just to the wilderness or in the wilderness, but BEYOND the wilderness, the better to hide from the law.

It is just at this point that I want to recognize the fact that the call of God came to this man, not in temple or shrine or palace or classroom. It came in a lonely, desolate place on the backside of nowhere. And it came to a lonely, desolate man who must have been wondering if his life would ever amount to anything. The importance of this reality cannot be overestimated, for that is the way God seems so often to work!

So there he is in the middle of nowhere, and the story gets interesting: There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.

Is the story implying that if Moses had not turned aside, then God would not have spoken to him? What if he had chosen to walk on by as though he had seen such things a million times before? It could happen! We do it all the time! We are terribly busy; no time to stop; we have schedules to keep; we’ll come back later, we say. We keep walking.

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God,
But only he who sees takes off his shoes;
The rest sit round and pluck blackberries.

That was Elizabeth Barrett Browning in the 19th century.

Every year at this time there are hosts of people who move into this community for school or a job. Some feel lonely and anxious. It can be overwhelming! They do not expect to see a burning bush! They may see this meeting house and wonder if they should turn aside, but they conclude that religion is just mumbo-jumbo about God, and the last thing they expect would be a life-changing encounter with the divine.

But Moses turned aside! And God spoke to him out of that vision of a burning bush! St Catherine Monastery in Egypt claims to be the very place where Moses saw the burning bush. They even have the Chapel of the Burning Bush, with the reputed bush itself, a rare species of the rose family called Rubus Sanctus.
But I have good news for you! You don’t have to go to Mount Sinai or St. Catherine Monastery to encounter the same God who called Moses! You can keep trudging through your wilderness, keep every appointment, return every call, attend every committee meeting, pour over every report, meet every deadline, fill out every required form, create a new vision statement, answer every email, type every report, do your exercises, eat the right foods, get a good night’s sleep, feed the cat, walk the dog, and fulfill every item on your job description, and still miss your calling! There comes a moment when you must stop and turn aside.


That is what worship is all about. Worship is a time to slow down long enough to see the burning bush, to hear the voice calling, and recognize what is holy in this life. It allows us a safe place to hear the voice calling us from our contemporary burning bush!

What do we find when we turn aside? We find a God who is not consumed and will not be silent. I don’t think God was silent when God led the Hebrew midwives, Shiphrah and Puah, to ignore the command of the King to kill every boy baby. I don’t think God was silent when the mother of Moses hid her baby for three months, and finally decided to make a little papyrus basket that would float, and place it among the reeds in the river where she knew the daughter of Pharaoh bathed. I don’t think God was quiet when Miriam, the sister of Moses, watched until the princess found the little basket with the baby Moses in it and offered to find someone to nurse the child. God was not silent; God was still calling people!

The sound of the god-kings of Egypt, like Ramases II, the great pyramid builder, seemed to be the only voice heard by most people. They would bow and scrape before the voice of the Pharaoh, and oppression of the poor slaves would continue it seemed forever. But in the Bible, there is never any question about whose side God is on in the historical equation of master and slave, oppressor and oppressed. God is freedom to the bound, comfort for the bruised, reproof for the tyrant, and strength for the weak.

And God will not stay silent. God is a burning fire that will not be consumed by tyrants in any palace. When God says to Moses, I have observed the misery of my people…I have heard their cry, we are hearing a universal truth. God always observes the misery and hears the cry, including yours! The question is never whose side is God on, but whose side we are on!


This brings us back to that issue of vocation on this Labor Day weekend. A genuine sense of calling may be one of the most counter-cultural things the church can proclaim in our world. The ideology of our time is that we can live an uncalled life, a life spent doing work that is totally channeled toward meeting our own needs and fulfilling our own desires. Self-fulfillment is our culture’s mantra.

But biblical faith in general, and Christian faith in particular, provides an alternative to the autonomous life. That alternative is vocation, a life called by God to live in community as part of God’s people. The model for Christians is the call of Jesus, whose summons came to ordinary people busy about ordinary things.

If any want to become my followers, he said, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. The precise meaning of that call is different for each of us, but what is clear is that the call of Jesus is meant to be lived out in community. It is not an individualistic ethic of the solitary “I.” It is “we,” living in community as God’s people, calling out our various gifts, enabling ordinary people in ordinary places to do extraordinary things.
Some of us in this room heard that call years ago, perhaps in a church or around a campfire or alone in our room. And we responded by quietly saying,

Wherever he leads I’ll go, wherever he leads I’ll go;
I’ll follow my Christ who loves me so.
Wherever he leads I’ll go.

Now that same Christ has led us together in this place, in this community, to be God’s people. This may be the very time that God has been waiting for you to turn aside, to be in God’s presence and listen for God’s voice calling you.

It is significant, I think, that all through the Bible God’s name is attached to the names of people. God says to Moses, I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. God’s name is always attached to human names: God is also the God of Sarah, Rebekah, Leah and Rachel, the God of Mary Magdalene and Sojourner Truth; the God of Roger Williams and James Manning and Isaac Backus and Samuel Stillman and Thomas Baldwin and Francis Wayland. God has a very long name! And there is always a blank space for you to add your own name, and by this name God will be known forever.


Ordinary people doing ordinary things in ordinary places…that is where God’s extraordinary presence burns to this day, and that is where God’s voice still calls us to do extraordinary things.

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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 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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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)

Hear the sermon.

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.


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?


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?


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.


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 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.


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.


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.


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.


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’!”


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’.


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!


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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