psalms and the life of faith

Sermon: "Praise and Trust," August 30th, 2015 with Ingrid Brown

Tom Cruise illustrating clamorous foolishness

Tom Cruise illustrating clamorous foolishness

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
Psalm 146

"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.


Sermon: "Temple Church" August 23, 2015

St. George's United Church
August 23, 2015
Thirteenth Sunday After Pentecost
Psalm 27

"Temple Church"
Rev. Ryan Slifka

“The Lord is my light and my salvation,” the twenty-seventh Psalm begins. “Whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life, of whom shall I be afraid?” The twenty-seventh Psalm is a song of deep, unflinching trust. The singer of this song is without fear, she can withstand anything, because of God’s great mercy and protection. “Though an army encamp against me,” she says, “my heart shall not fear.”

But when I was living with this text this past week I realized something. It looks a lot for her to get to this place. Because it seems like the last thing she should have is confidence. She has plenty to be afraid of. Because she’s surrounded on all sides by those who wish her harm.

With this Psalm we kind of have to skip to the last third to figure out the trouble. At verse 7, we have something of a flashback in this Psalm. It comes in the form of a prayer, one that reveals what the trouble is. “Teach me your way, O Lord,” the Psalmist pleads, “because of my enemies.” “Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries,” she says, “for false witnesses have risen against me. And they are breathing out violence.” Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me. Lies might though. She’s on the receiving end of falsehoods, rumors and innuendos. Her reputation is being destroyed. She is living, as the great Old Testament scholar James Luther Mays says, in “an environment of falsehood.” She’s living a life completely defined by other people’s opinions and distortions that there’s no truth to be found for miles. She’s so saturated in untruth that it’s like being buried alive—each little crack of daylight disappears with each new pile of dirt from the shovels of her enemies.

To begin a Psalm with “God is my light and salvation” and “of whom shall I be afraid?” is either stupid or naïve. Considering the fact that she’s got plenty to be afraid of. Because she has enemies who are about to drown that light she’s got in a flood of falsehood. Nowhere to run. Nowhere to hide.

But… there is a place for the Psalmist where a light shines through the cracks of anxiety. The Psalmist doesn’t have much to be confident about. Surrounded by enemies, drowning in lies. And yet… she finds shelter. She finds sanctuary. In God’s temple.

“One thing I asked of the Lord,” she says, “one thing that will I seek after.” Even in the face of all her enemies and their lies, there’s something she’s inexplicably drawn to. The one thing I’ll seek, she says, is “to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life. To behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” Here we have this scene with the Psalmist remembering her experience in the temple in worship. In the temple, she’s encountered this deep mystery. And she’s encountered the truth. She has stood in. She’s gazed upon it. And she’s grown in knowledge of it. 

And what’s more, it’s a place of vulnerability. In the divine presence, this glimpse of sacred beauty, There is safety. There is a sense of calm, and security. Though there’s nowhere else that she feels safe, it says in here God will: “hide me in his shelter.” God will “conceal me under the cover of his tent.” God will “set me high on a rock.” God has “lifted my head up,” she says, “way high above the enemies all around me.” And “If my mother and father forsake me,” she says, “the Lord will raise me up. In God’s presence in the temple, she feels truly unafraid. Truly safe from her fears.

Where her world outside is characterized by danger, falsehood and lies, the temple is characterized by beauty, by safety, and by truth. The temple is a sanctuary. It’s the only real place in her life.

The only real place. And truth be told, the church hasn’t always had the best reputation for being a place of the truth. Not only the face of hypocritical Christian politicians and televangelist scandals. Too often, church has been a place where we have to hide the truth about ourselves. Put on the Sunday best and a big smile. Worry about your kids acting up for fear of being on the receiving end of some dirty looks. Don’t stumble for worry you might be the subject of the latest gossip session.

A few months ago I was eating at the soup kitchen and there was a young woman across the table from me, in her early twenties. We got to talking and she proudly shared that it was her one-year anniversary of being clean. One year of not using heroin. She stood up from the table when she was done her lunch and used a few profanities to describe how good the soup was. Her friend burst out laughing and said, “don’t you know this guy’s the pastor here!” And this woman was so embarrassed! She kept apologizing to me for her language. She just told me that she’d been a year off heroin and she was more worried about me hearing her say a few bad words! She assumed that “pastor” or “church” meant that you couldn’t be yourself. A place to keep up appearances. A place of untruth. Rather than a place of safety, truth, and grace.

But despite the sometimes bad reputation the church at its best is like the temple in this Psalm. We had a conversation at one of our church council meetings responding to the question “why the church?” What makes church unique, something you can’t get anywhere else? One of the answers was “it’s a place where we can be ourselves.

The great American preacher Will Willimon tells a story about being the guest preacher at a large African-American church in the American South. He arrived at eleven o’clock, expecting about an hour of worship and to be out by noon. He didn’t end up preaching until nearly 12:30pm, after six hymns, gospel songs, plenty of speaking, praters, hand-clapping and more singing. Worship didn’t end until 1:15. And he was exhausted.

He asked the minister “why do black people stay in church so long? Our worship never seems to last more than an hour. His colleague smiled and then explained. “Unemployment runs nearly 50 percent here. For our youth, it’s much higher. That means when out people go about during the week, everything they see, everything they hear tells them, “you are a failure. You are nobody. You are nothing beause you do not have a good job, you do not have a fine car, you have not money.”

“So I must gather the, here once a week to get their heads straight. I get them together and here in church, though the hymns, the prayers, the preaching and the community say “that is a lie. You are somebody. You are royalty. You has bought you with a price and loves you as his chosen people. It takes me so long to get them straight because the world perverts them so terribly."

Despite the sometimes bad reputation the church at its best is like the temple in this Psalm. A place where we can can be ourselves. Where we can let down our defenses. Take off the masks that we wear in everyday life. Be accepted for who we are as we are. And then named and claimed by God as God’s own. Then sent back in to the world with the kind of confidence that says “the Lord is my light and my salvation—of whom shall I be afraid?”

How about you? How many of you here have had the same kind of temple experience as part of this community of faith? And in coming to this place, gathered with this people, this community of faith. You find shelter. You found safety. You find truth. You can be yourself without worry. And you’re being sent back in to your world with the strength and determination to stand up to and deal with the trouble you face. Or maybe you’re in the midst of that trouble. Maybe this is a time in your life where you are overwhelmed by worry, and surrounded by fear. Where you’ve felt like you’ve been wandering around in some kind of spiritual darkness with light nowhere to be seen.

Either way—you’re in the right place. Because the church at its best is a place of hope, faith and courage. A place of laughter, love and liberation that calls us in, builds us up and sends us out equipped to face whatever struggles we have in our lives with strength and courage. Because we’ve got a light in our lives that nothing, that no one can—that nothing—can ever take away.

So friends. Though trouble may be all around. Wait for the Lord. Be strong, take heart. Lift your heads high, give thanks to God in this temple today. With shouts of joy. Because if God is our light and our salvation. Of whom shall we be afraid? Surely we shall see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Sermon: "With God: Why Who God is is More Important Than What We Do" Psalm 113, August 9, 2015

Allan "Zion" Johnson, " Giving Praise to the Lord ," National Gallery of Jamaica, 1986.

Allan "Zion" Johnson, "Giving Praise to the Lord," National Gallery of Jamaica, 1986.

Psalm 113

The following sermon came as Part II in our worship series "the Psalms and the Life of Faith". Part I, "How to Be Happy" can be found here.

In the sermon, headlines regarding the United Church's recent decision to review the ministry of Rev. Gretta Vosper are referred to, and can be found here, here, and here. Christianity Today has a fairly objective article about it here.