A sermon preached by The Rev. Timothy C. Ahrens, at The First Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Columbus, Ohio, Easter 5, May 18, 2003, dedicated to Kaitlyn Marie Black in honor of her baptism, to my friend, Cantor Jack Chomsky, to all the First Church Musicians and lovers of music and always to the glory and praise of God!
Psalm 150 and John 15:1-8
(Sermon series on "The Psalms of Zion")
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of each one of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our salvation. Amen.
Psalm 150 - the final psalm of David is a psalm of pure and unalloyed praise. It does not call for detailed comment although I will share a few thoughts. It calls us as ones who worship and glorify God to know who is praised, why he is praised, how he is praised, and who is to praise him! The one praised is God whose sanctuary is above the vault of the heavens. This God is the supreme sovereign who rules over all. This God is the Lord who reigns forever. God is to be praised for mighty deeds that manifest immeasurable greatness. The Lord God is to be praised for God's works of creation and salvation. God is to be praised through trumpet, lute and harp! God is to be praised with tambourine and dance. God is to be praised with strings and pipes. God is to be praised with clanging, loud clashing cymbals. And in case any one of us, fail to remember "Who" is on this praise team down through the ages and throughout all time and in all places - the psalmist tells us - everything that breathes must praise the Lord!...Who, why, how, and who is to praise . . .
As you can see, praise of the Lord is a full body, complete creation, unabashed experience of movement and expression with every imaginable sound and creature getting into the act. We have become an almost auditory exclusive club among the "praiseworthy" people of God. Although I have heard Presbyterians refer to themselves, as "the frozen chosen" people of God, we could add ourselves to the list - for the most part. We especially want our moving children to be the frozen children of God. Although we delight in the fact, that they and the rest of creation have breath, we just don't want them to use it to make sounds in certain places - especially sounds of absolute, unabashed praise (or struggle) in the sanctuary - which the psalmist tells us - is where God is! I don't say this as a judgement. I say it as a parent. But, it does give you reason to pause when you consider how absolutely audacious we are called to be in our praise!
Years ago, when I was a summer seminarian intern at my home church in Lansdale, Pennsylvania, I was teaching this psalm in Vacation Bible School. All the children were given sound makers - tambourines, cymbals, trumpets, guitars, drums, you name it. With over 100 children, I went into the sanctuary and we practiced this psalm. I was the conductor, they were my orchestra. I showed them how to make soft sounds and loud sounds. When we practiced the loud sounds, one boy said, "we are not allowed to make noise in church (Clearly a child destined for the ordained ministry!)." I responded, "that's not what the Bible says!" I read Psalm 150 and told him it was okay to make noise as praise to God! A huge grin came across his face and he responded, "Well, God's a lot bigger than my parents! So, I have to follow him!"
We continued making noise to our heart's delight! Loud, clashing noises of praise! When we were finished our composition (which was simply known as "Psalm 150") the quickly gathered audience of adults - who had scrambled from all corners of the building to see "what was the racket in the sanctuary" - broke into spontaneous applause! Never had the symphony of sound been so utterly expressive in my home church than it was that day! (Actually, I believe I conducted a piece that morning for all the children of the church through all ages who had been still for all too long!).
Praising God need not be controlled or contrived. And it must not be limited to places and times where those who believe they've got praise figured out, gather to worship. We must praise God for all that is holy, cold, and dark, as well as all that is warm and light filled. We must praise God for all that we lose, as well as all that we gain. We must praise God for his stillness is the wake of pain, for his emptiness, for his dying, for peace in death, as well as for his joy and fullness, and birth and times of ecstasy. I know this because we are told, "If you have breath, praise the Lord."
I have spent my days of living unto death with praiseworthy people. I have witnessed those who, based on the poverty they face or the pain they experience, have no earthly right to praise God. But they do! I have seen people struggling to stay out of the gutters and struggling to lift themselves from their death beds, praising and glorifying God. I have seen people who have used what slight breath they had left to thank God for all the good he had done in their lives. If God should remove his breath from us, all would return to dust says Job (Job 24:14-15). But, God does not do this. Instead, and up to the last, God breathes into us true life. And there is no better use of that breath than to speak with gratitude for all God's creative blessings!
A man named Ed taught me this lesson. From the point of his transformation, Ed lived the end of his days with gratitude, after having sacrificed his life and family for too many years in alcohol. After surviving WWII in the European theater, Ed came home to a job as a steelworker in valley just south of Cleveland's downtown. For years, he was a hard drinking son of a gun. When he almost lost his wife, his daughter, his home, and his job, he got himself into Alcoholic Anonymous and thus began his journey of sobriety and serenity.
When I came to know him, he was, without a doubt, the most grateful man I had ever known. He arose each morning, rolled out of bed and onto his knees to thank God for delivering him through the night. Each morning, he dedicated himself for that one day to (in his words) "praise and glorify God." He lived one day at time, one moment at a time in deep and abiding gratitude. When he went to bed at night, he knelt again and said, "Thanks good buddy for this day you have given me." Wrapped in praise, Ed would rest in peace until the dawn of a new day.
King David, knew exactly what he was talking about when he closed his song book with this psalm of praise. King David had screwed-up royally. He was a poster boy for bad behavior. Knowing that his life should have ended because of his misdeeds before the Lord, David lived, like Ed, in a state of daily and constant gratitude and praise for the forgiveness, mercy, love, and grace of God which guided his life each day from sunrise to the close of waking hours. In the Psalms, he gave back to God all and every pain and joy that found breath within him.
These Psalms of Zion are powerful recitations of life and hope. In his collection of writings entitled, Eyes Remade for Wonder, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner tells the story of the recitation of psalms and the saving of one life. At a summer institute, one student, Milt Zaiment told him of a night in his life, more than sixty years before, when as a boy, he had come to the deathbed of his uncle. Milt's uncle had pneumonia and in those days, people knew that pneumonia was a death sentence in its advanced stages (the same can be true today, as well). As doctor left the house he told the family that the end was near, that Milt's uncle would not make it through the night.
Moments after the doctor left their home, Milt's father took the young boy's hand and took him to his brother's bedside. He looked at Milt and said, "We have a job to do." They sat down beside his bed, opened the Bible and began reciting the psalms. One by one they read all 150 psalms through the night. Milt would read, then his father would read - the two of them, reciting psalms through the night.
When morning came, his uncle was still alive. The doctor returned. He was amazed. He said he had never seen anything like it, that it was a miracle. His lungs were clear. He was breathing fine. Milt recalls, "My father smiled respectfully. He washed his face, had a cup of coffee, and went to work. He never said another word about that night. My uncle lived another 40 years."
The Psalms of Zion are powerful reminders that as long as we have breath and life, we must glorify God and praise God's holy name. These Psalms have power far beyond our imagination. In monasteries, in churches, in synagogues all over the world, these Psalms of Zion have already been spoken and sung by millions of people this weekend, before we even awoke to this new day. And these psalms will form a litany of praise and a recitation of exaltation until all creatures have ended their breathing. Their power to heal and to transform reaches far beyond our enervated imagination. And this 150th Psalm brings them all around right. This book of songs and prayers which began with a commendation of the Torah of the Lord as the way of life ends here with an invitation to praise the Lord as the use of life. The correspondence between the repeated verb "Praise" (hillel) and the title of the book in Hebrew which is "Praises" (or tehillim) argues that those who gave the book its name understood that the book itself contained the praises to the Lord offered by all and to all who have breath. Our life and breath of "Hallelujahs," full of gratitude and praise, belong to God.
So, as the last verse of the last psalm ends, let us remember this day, "Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!" Amen.
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