On August 30th, we were delighted to welcome Ingrid Brown, a candidate for ordained ministry in the United Church as our guest preacher. Ingrid finished our series, "Psalms and the Life of Faith" with this sermon on Psalm 146.
St. George's United Church
August 30, 2015
"Praise and Trust"
by Ingrid Brown
Would you pray with me?
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts serve to bring us closer to you in thought word and deed. Amen.
I wanted to first thank you for having me here – My family recently moved to the valley from the lower mainland and it was nice to have one familiar family here – Ryan and I were in seminary together – he finished much faster than me! But I knew who I could call to help in our discernment to move and we have been very welcomed by their whole family.
The psalms. I love the psalms, I feel like they make space for everyone no matter where they are in their walk with God. I think one of the things that strikes me the most about the psalms is no matter the despair or delight, the lamentation or praise expressed through them, the psalmist is always always clear that God is, even if there is a feeling of a lost connection.
I was very excited to hear that Ryan was doing a series on the psalms – I think too often they are overlooked in the lectionary, in favour of a Gospel or Epistle reading that has some good drama and teaching, lots of layers of understanding and meaning. And hey, don’t get me wrong, as a preacher I love to study historical context and dissect the text to understand what it meant then and what it means for us now. But maybe that is also irresponsible. Not that we shouldn’t study and understand the Gospels together in new and fabulous ways, but we cannot leave out the parts that are less thrilling, less familiar, that seems less juicy on the surface.
Now, let me tell you, I haven’t always loved the psalms. In fact, the older testament went rarely unopened until seminary. It was in the safety of my classroom, surrounded by peers and led by a Hebrew Scholar – a Presbyterian who loves the OT, that I began to unpack its stories, learn the history, wrestle with the texts, and fall in love with the rhythmic way it shares the struggle and joy and sorrow of being a human in relationship with God.
So, I get excited when preachers choose to share that love, those teachings with their congregations. I was doubly excited when I found out who was opening the series – the Rev. Dr. Jason Bayasee, my preaching professor for the Fall! I noticed too the Psalms that Ryan had chosen took us through a bit of a journey – an introduction of sorts, lament and despair, reconciliation, and then today, praise.
Great! I thought, he has given me the praise week. No problemo. And I sat down to read and reflect, and reread and reflect, and I thought, I've got about five minutes of a sermon here in my brain, what to do. So I waited, and listened, and prayed and listened. You see, I think that most of us have had those moments, those moments, however brief or fleeting, of just pure YES! For God. An illness overcome, a mountain climbed, a child in your arms. A touch of gratitude on our hearts that causes us to mouth thank you even if we aren’t entirely sure who we are directing it towards. And so, I spent some time remembering the times I have given great thanks to God – one was just last week, kayaking around Sandy Island with my six year old daughter Ella, I gave thanks, great great thanks.
But then, I got to thinking about the word praise. We praise a child for good grades, we praise a dog for its obedience, we praise a chef for a good meal – there is a radio station in Vancouver, Praise FM, Praise is a genre of pop culture Christian music. What does it mean? I think too often we minimize the meaning of the word by diluting it, overusing it, perhaps misusing it. So, it was by this time, I knew that I had strayed too far from the text in my preparations, so back to the scriptures I went.
Ancient Hebrew is a phenomenal language, with words that are so much more definitive than English. There are 7 words for praise in Ancient Hebrew, all with different and distinct meanings. Halal (hal-ale), is the one used here, which is the root of the familiar hallelujah which actually means to shine, to boast, show, to rave, to be clamorously foolish. Isn't that fabulous? Clamorously foolish. Have you ever felt clamorously foolish for God? This is the verb the psalmist uses in the opening of this, the first of the concluding five hallelujah psalms. The psalmist writes, Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord, Oh my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long. Now, in this translation, it reads I will praise the Lord as long as I live and all my life long. But, just like praise, there is a different way to understand that. The Hebrew preposition in both phrases can mean “in, during, through, or by means of”, which implies that the way one lives one’s life itself is an act of praise. That living out God’s values of truth, justice, and responsiveness to those in need is in fact an act of praise. That we praise God through the way we live out our lives. So we can re-understand those first verses as, “Yes! God! I am so on fire for you I am going to live for you! My life will be an expression of the goodness that you are! Yes God!” Clamorously foolish. It kind of changes the way that we read those lines – well first of all, you may forever picture this crazy preacher making a fool out of herself, good. But I think too often we read a praise psalm with a similar tone as a lament; as though it require solemnity. Do you remember that big news story years ago when Tom Cruise was so excited about falling in love with what is now his ex-wife Katie Holmes, that he jumped up and down on Oprah’s couch? Praise.
Ok, look at that, I was worried I didn’t have sermon fodder and I've just spent the last five minutes talking about the first word. I guess you’re in for a long one, second word...just kidding.
Lets move into the next stanza of the hymn – the psalmist writes, 3 Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help. 4 When their breath departs, they return to the earth; on that very day their plans perish. We shift into the topic of human leaders – or nobles. The psalmist states what we have all seen in action, that even the best public officials, teachers, business leaders, social workers, are limited in what they can do to help those who are in trouble, not because they are evil, but because they are human. Fallible. They can disappoint. When they die or leave office, their plans often die too. This is not to say that I don’t think that you should vote soon, in fact, I think this might be one of the most important times to get out and vote, but rather, not to expect that they are going to do the work that is Gods. Or rather, the work that is God’s, in partnership with us.
So the psalmist urges us not to place our trust in humans, but, using the Message translation,
Instead, get help from the God of Jacob,
put your hope in God and know real blessing!
God made sky and soil,
sea and all the fish in it.
God always does what God says—
God defends the wronged,
God feeds the hungry.
God frees prisoners—
God gives sight to the blind,
God lifts up the fallen.
God loves good people, protects strangers,
takes the side of orphans and widows,
but makes short work of the wicked.
Creation, restoration, and care giving mark God’s character – God is always at work! First of all God creates – all that is is inhabited by God and undergirded by God. Then specifically, where are the markers of God’s special attention? The wronged, the hungry, the imprisoned. A better word than wronged is exploited – God brings justice to those who have been economically, socially, or sexually abused for another’s advantage. The verb here for the execution of justice has the same root as the word for creation earlier in this little piece – to root is making, linking the making of creation with the making of justice, they are interrelated. Parallel to that is God’s continued making of justice in the feeding of the hungry. Food justice. The freeing of the prisoner; incarcerative justice.
We then have these two simple lines of text: God gives sight to the blind, God lifts up the fallen. Another translation states: opens the eyes of the blind and lifts up those who are bowed down. I am always cautious, when preaching on something written pre-Jesus to read Christ into a passage – I think that it can take away from the richness of what the text meant – I will forever read the old testament into the new, but rarely the other way. SO proceeding with caution, I couldn’t help but think of Jesus ministry – of God at work through Jesus – in the opening of the blind persons eyes, and the lifting up of the fallen. Jesus ministry, God’s ministry in our world, is about the reconciliation of brokenness to wholeness, of life without God to life lived in and with the Spirit. I don't think of a blind man when I read this psalm, I think of a man blind to the beauty of creation, blind to beauty. When I think of the fallen, I think of our brother and sisters dying on the streets of addictions, poverty. I have seen God at work in those spaces. I have seen a 71 year old man, divorced three times, come to understand that he is loved by God simply because he is, and how that opened and continues to open his eyes. I have seen so many women, hopeless, addicted, dying, turn to God and receive relief, to be lifted up and into the beautiful life that is life with God.
Psalm 146 isn’t about praise in the way that we understand it in English, it is about the Hal-el. The overflowing of our hearts because of the vision and possibly the experience of healing, restoration, and wholeness. It is living in a broken world where injustice, anger, resentment are all around, and we are assured that life with God is so incredible that we just can’t hold it in, it is so incredible that we just have to live clamorously foolish. It is foolish by our cultural standards to buy food using the money that we earned at our jobs to donate to the foodbank, feeding a family that we don’t even know. To care enough about the environment – creation – to radically change the way that we live our lives. It is foolish to welcome a stranger and show them love and mercy, patience and tolerance. It is the way that we live out our expression of praise in our lives – through our lives, by means of our lives. That our very lives become our greatest act of praise.
C. S. Lewis, in his Reflections on the Psalms, notices that when we praise something we value immensely, we often invite others to join in on the praise. How often do we say things like, “Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t that gorgeous? Don’t you think that is magnificent?” When our psalmist urges us to Praise God! It is not a directive but an invitation. And that, in fact, it is in the praises of that which we deem most valuable, most important, that the experience of it is complete. That we cannot fully experience God without praise. We cannot fully praise God without working towards wholeness. May we understand that to be so, and lean into that this week.