Pastor Lisa Horst Clark
March 3, 2019
Praise the Lord!
Praise God in God’s sanctuary;
praise God in God’s mighty firmament!
Praise God for God’s mighty deeds;
praise God according to God’s surpassing greatness!
Praise God with trumpet sound;
praise God with lute and harp!
Praise God with tambourine and dance;
praise God with strings and pipe!
Praise God with clanging cymbals;
praise God with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!
Psalms of Praise
I want you to think of a moment in your life when your heart was just overwhelming, when you were facing a beauty you couldn’t believe and your heart opened up in wonder at the Holy One that had fingerprints there. I want you to think of that time when disaster felt near but instead the car swerved and the tests came back negative and you got a glimpse of how close it is at what could be lost and wasn’t. And you found yourself repeating, “Thank God, thank God” in a song that just came out of your heart. I want you to think of a time when you saw a miracle, when a certain conflict was averted, when a heart was changed, when a sobriety was found. I want you to think of a time when the tides changed and when remarkably justice became nearer instead of further away. I want you to think of a time when goodness prevailed, when a way was made out of no way, when all of a sudden you had a resurrection story to share of when lost was found, where the impossible was possible, when you could not believe what God could do. I want you to picture that moment in your mind when you happen to have a pen and paper, or if even better you happen to have at your disposal a choir that is ready to give that moment its proper musical soundtrack. Because that is the moment that Psalm 150 was written for; that is the moment we are ready to lift up. It is a moment of praise, a mixture of gratitude and awe and wonder, a moment of praise when you are glorifying in who God is and how remarkable we get a glimpse of it.
So, first let’s start with a definition of what we mean by praise. We often use the word “praise” to mean someone in power telling someone who doesn’t have it that they did a good job. So parents praise their children, or teachers praise their students or supervisors praise their employees. Praise used in this way is a word meant to affirm someone else that they are doing well and maybe even might do better, used to guide behavior. And praise, when it’s used in a different format, when it is done perhaps by the one with less power for one who has more, sometimes it feels a hair manipulative, like someone is trying to curry favor and depending upon the one receiving it making you wonder why exactly King Lear needs such adoring accolades. And so, since it’s the same word, you may hear “Praise God” and wonder, is that really something God needs, like a king in perpetual need of ego strokes from us minions. Rev. Emily Heath writes in her book Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity that we do not glorify God because God needs our glory, and we do not do it because God needs fame, God is not a celebrity in need of a good publicist, although frankly God could use some new ones.
Instead, I want you to picture this word “praise” as a new verb, praise as meaning to glorify, to worship, an action of love and relationship where we delight in who God is and in some way in our being, in our actions, in our singing, in our prayer, praises God, glorifies God. In the mainline progressive church we have a hesitancy around praise and that’s in part because we define ourselves in the negative against an evangelical theology and worship style. Who are we? We aren’t a church where they sing big emotive choruses of praise to God with a phrase repeated over and over. But what is the downside of this? Firstly, aesthetics are not ethics. If we like or dislike a certain musical instrument, it doesn’t actually make it immoral, although I do have some thoughts about bagpipes. And this is actually something I love about this church and our community together, as we have developed our once-a-month alternative service and we found ways to make music that felt authentic to us and it is a joy that we can be one church that worships in multiple ways with a generosity of spirit. And I might also say this: we might have a discomfort around praise music that repeats over and over, partially because it invites us into emotional experience. Depending upon where our lives of faith may have led or just the experience in the wider church, there is a fear that if we do not keep our analytical minds on at every moment that we might miss the ways the church can be used for harm.
Howard Wallace, through the Theological Hall of the Uniting Church in Melbourne, Australia, writes of concern of the use of this psalm in particular that we read today. “Psalm 150 is an extreme example of praise. Although it invites us to explore new opportunities for the praise of God, however there is a danger in the use of this psalm. It is the psalm most open to abuse. It is pure summons of praise with little reason and then only generally expressed. This psalm could be used in any context where the Lord is preached as a tyrannical God to those where justice and care of the poor is paramount.” So what is it that we see in this dangerous psalm? It says, “Praise God” over and over and over. It doesn’t focus on the why, but the who. “Praise God in the Holy Temple,” “Praise God in the firmament of power,” “Praise God for every mighty act,” “Praise God for excellent greatness,” “Praise God with a blast of the ram’s horn,” “Praise God with lyre and harp,” “Praise God with tambourine and dance, with strings and pipes,” “Praise God with resounding cymbals, with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that has breath praise God.”
Thomas Long writes that this psalm is an eschatological breakthrough, an anticipation of those rare moments of ecstatic experience in which the superabundance of God’s glory overflows and floods the hearts of worshippers who are lost in wonder, love and praise. It’s the exclamation point, the final psalm of a book of 150, after 150 psalms of God in hope and in lament and in anger and in trust and the end of every human emotion you can name, it ends with exuberant praise. And if we have a distrust of praise, the cost is also a distrust of joy as we lose some of the fruits, the experiences of joy that connect us back to God and relationships.
I want you to think of any relationship in your life, a friend, a parent, a spouse, a family member, and try to imagine if that relationship was purely intellectual, where you thought about them and did things for them. So imagine, for example, you had a child in your care and you performed acts of service, you cooked things, you cleaned up, you read all the books on child rearing, enough that you were an expert, and you made sure that that child was clothed and fed but you didn’t delight in who they were and you didn’t have play or joy. You could have obligation and duty and many other good things but you would completely miss relationship: you would be completely missing love. And it would also, for the record, make caring for that child very hard, a constant act of will, a constant act of obligation, if you didn’t combine that with moments of delight and of joy. For caring for a parent, or a friend, or a spouse, you don’t just do it with your head and your hands, but you need that spark and appreciation of who they are in their uniqueness and their being.
I think about us in the progressive church, about the things we are very good at. Book studies comes to mind as we are very good at bringing our thought and intellect and learning to the work of faith, and I am so proud to claim my membership in this church in the work of service as we seek to show love to neighbors. I also know that journey is long and to make it we need to be fed, we need to survive, not just to nibble but to feast on the goodness of God to have strength for the journey but as well to have joy for the journey and have hope for the journey and have connection and love and a lightness of our steps. As I think of the E. E. Cummings poem, “I thank you, God, for this most amazing day and for the leaping, greenly spirits of trees and the blue true dream of sky and for everything which is natural and which is infinite and which is yes.” This praise is a way of being in relationship, of who we are and to say, “Yes, I’m one of the seven billion humans currently living on a tiny rock, sitting on a sun which is one but a drop in a hundred billion galaxies.” And so what is the proper response to me, who is small, to this God of the universe? The response is, “Wow, awe and wonder.” For this same God is the God we claim called forth humanity and freed God’s people from captivity in Egypt and has called us again and again to follow the ways of life and who came to earth to show us the way of love and show us the ways that love may lead. And our reaction to this is to say, “Look at who God is. Look at what God has done.” And if we are going back to Psalm 150, it’s not just why we praise but how, the instruments we use. I don’t actually have a lyre to play, or a harp. I have this life of mine: my life, my love, the work of my hands, my mind and learning, my calls of service, my friendships. And what would it mean to use these for the glory of God, make these the instruments of my praise? To praise God through meetings and e-mails, cards and casseroles, to praise God with prayer and the provisions we can give away, to praise God through love, to praise God through service, to feel within each of these not just the obligation but the joy that I am reflecting back in part the grace that has been given to me, to let everything that breathes praise God and so in that way to let every breath praise God, to be infused with the joy that God is with a delight. And so I get to practice with joy and feel that movement of love and feel that movement even in those times when the car doesn’t swerve and the doctor faces the test results with news that is dire and the stone that is in front of the tomb seems heavy and solid and unmoving. But if I have had this practice, perhaps even here I can sing a song of praise in my soul, for I will know in my heart the joy that even here God is, even here God is good, that weeping may endure the night but joy cometh in the morning.
Eugene Peterson wrote on these last five psalms like this, “This is not a word of praise that is slapped onto whatever mess we are in at the moment. This crafted conclusion of the psalms tells us that our prayers are going to end in praise and also that at time will take a while. It may take years, decades even, before certain prayers arrive at hallelujahs. And not every prayer is capped off with praise. In fact most prayers, if the Psalter is a true guide, are not. But prayer, a praying life, becomes praise. Prayer is always reaching towards praise and will finally arrive there. If we persist in prayer and laugh and cry and doubt and believe and struggle and dance and then struggle again, then surely we will end up at Psalm 150 on our feet applauding ‘encore.’”
And so it is, with our prayers of praise on our hearts, that we come to this table, this feast that promises to us that God is good and that God meets us here, a moment of our souls meeting the goodness of God.
So on the night he was to be betrayed Jesus said, “Take and eat; this is my body which is broken for you. Take and eat, all of you, in remembrance of me.” And in the same way Jesus took the cup and gave it to them saying, “This is the cup of the new covenant sealed in my blood. As often as you drink of it, do so in remembrance of me.”
And so it is, as we remember that feast, as we remember Christ who met them in resurrection glory on the road and as we wait in anticipation of the feast to come, we come with joy to this table. Come and be filled. Come and know the love of God that meets us even here, with more than enough. Hallelujah.
Will you be with me in a spirit of prayer? Holy God, we thank you that you meet us here. How remarkable that we are in your presence, that you consider us, that you love us, that we get to reflect that love in the world. Teach us your ways of joy, oh God, that we might praise you in all we do. In Jesus name we pray, Amen.
© Copyright. Lisa Horst Clark. 2019. All rights reserved.