A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Sermon (April 7) - "Be Generous with Praise"

     Today, I want us to think about how generous we are in giving praise.  I don’t mean the praise we give to one another, as important and needed as that is, but the praise that we are to give to God. 
     Psalm 150 is the very last Psalm found in the Book of Psalms.  It is a wonderful concluding Psalm.  In this very short Psalm of just six verses, the word “praise” appears thirteen times. 
     In fact, the final five Psalms, Psalm 146 through Psalm 150, all begin and end with the phrase, “Praise the Lord.”  It’s like the Bible is sending us a strong message.  Be generous with your praise to God.
     Psalm 150 answers four questions about what it means for us to praise God.  It answers where we are to praise God, why we are to praise God, how we are to praise God, and who is to praise God.
     Let’s begin with the “where.”  The Psalmist begins by saying, “Praise God in his sanctuary, praise him in his mighty firmament!”
     In other words, the Psalmist is saying that we are to praise God wherever we are.  The phrase, “Mighty firmament” reminds me of the story of when the astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made history when they walked on the moon during the summer of 1969. 
     Aldrin was a very active member of his Presbyterian Church in Texas during this time and knowing that he would be doing something unprecedented in human history, he felt he should mark the occasion somehow and he asked his pastor to help him.  His pastor consecrated a communion wafer and a small vial of communion wine.  And Buzz Aldrin took the communion elements with him out of the Earth’s orbit and on to the surface of the moon.
     After just a few minutes of walking on the moon’s surface, Aldrin made this public statement: “This is the LM pilot.  I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.”
     He then ended radio communication, and there, on the silent surface of the moon, 250,000 miles from home, he read a verse from the Gospel of John, and he received the Sacrament of Holy Communion.
     We had just concluded a late summer three mile run on a beautiful central Pennsylvania mountain pass. I was bent over huffing and puffing with my fingers clutched to my knees when I heard my brother talking to someone.

     At first, I thought he was saying something to me. I looked over at him to respond and noticed that he was looking above the tall pines into the clear blue sky talking.

     "Thank you, God! Thank you for this day and this beautiful place. Thank you for giving us parents who loved the mountains. Thank you, God!"

     His prayer was out of the blue and caught me off guard. It was one of the most sincere prayers I have ever heard. It was as natural as breathing. God's beautiful creation prompted him to just start praying out loud.

     My brother was overwhelmed with God's grace in that moment, so he did the only think he knew to do. He started praising God.

     When you look into a crystal blue sky in the middle of God's majestic mountains, praise God. When you are looking into the eyes of a newborn baby, praise God. When you listen to a voice message from a friend you haven't heard from in a long time and who was an important part of your spiritual journey, praise God.

     And notice that the Psalmist also is very specific by saying to praise God in his sanctuary.  This is why we gather every Sunday for worship.  We gather in this place every week so that we can praise God together. 
     Where do we praise God?  “Praise God in his sanctuary and praise him in his mighty firmament!”
     The Psalmist also answers the why question.  Why praise God?
     For the why, we go to verse 2 of our Psalm.   “Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness.”
     One of the reasons why people don’t go to worship and don’t spend time praising God, is because, they’re just not aware of all the incredible things God has done.  Or maybe they have heard about what God has done, but they have forgotten.
     Just a week ago, we began the Season of Easter, a six week season in which we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It was the miracle of the empty tomb that led the disciple Peter to boldly tell the religious authorities who were arresting him about the good news of Easter.
     Peter tells them that by rising to new life, Jesus is the Savior of the world and it’s through Jesus, that we can receive forgiveness from our sins.  Peter also says, that God gives the Holy Spirit to those who obey him.  The Holy Spirit meaning, the presence of the risen Jesus for anyone who places his or her faith in what Jesus has done by dying on the cross and rising to new life.
     The Psalmist, who lived hundreds of years before the miracle of Easter, would have been thinking of how God had made a covenant with Abraham to become the father of a nation.  The Psalmist would have also been thinking of how God delivered the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt and led them into the promised land through his servant, Moses.  The Psalmist would have been thinking about how God had blessed David to be the leader of God’s people and to be a man after his own heart.
     Psalm 150 is reminding us to offer our praises to God because of God’s mighty deeds and God’s surpassing greatness, all of which reach their ultimate climax in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  It is through him that we are called to be an Easter people.
     That’s not a bad reason for us to offer praises to God every Sunday morning or in the morning after we wake up and throughout our day.
     Well, that’s the answer to the “where” and the “why” questions.  What about the “how” question? 
     The Psalmist gives us a list of musical instruments to help us praise God.  In verses 3 through 5, we hear about trumpets, lutes, harps, tambourines, strings, pipes, and cymbals.  We even hear about dancing.  I think this list helps us to see what it means to offer our praises to God, so that we don’t just think that praising God is a one dimensional activity. 
     It’s interesting to think about the instruments that are listed in our Psalm.  It’s a rich variety which I think is intentional on the part of the Psalmist.  A tambourine.  A harp.  Cymbals, loud crashing cymbals at that!
     Whether our worship services are more of a contemporary style or  a traditional style, the Psalmist says that we are to offer our praises to God in a variety of ways.   One of the many things I appreciate about our church is our wonderful music ministry.  We have very talented singers and musicians who help us to praise God throughout the year.
     In my previous church where I served as pastor, I became friends with a non-denominational pastor.  He was the founding pastor of a new church in town and they were getting ready to celebrate their fifth birthday anniversary as a congregation.
     He invited me to preach for their special Sunday morning worship celebration which I accepted.  While I was honored that he chose me, this mainline denomination pastor to speak at their special ceremony, I was also a little intimidated because I knew that our churches were very different with our worship styles.
     I don’t think that I have ever experienced a louder worship service than the one I attended that day when I spoke at his church.  I mean, it was really, really loud.  Drums, guitars, and lots of singing. Lots of singing.  Their worship service that day lasted two hours and most of it was the band and praise singing.
     About an hour into the service, and knowing that I still had another twenty minutes before I was to preach, I needed to go to the restroom. Even while I was in the restroom, the music was incredibly loud.  It’s the kind of church that even if you’re in the restroom, you don’t miss a thing!
     So I go back into the sanctuary and finally it’s time for me to preach.  I began by congratulating them on their five year birthday celebration.  This was an incredible church because they were reaching a lot of people through their recovery ministries and people who were dealing with addictions.  They were doing a lot of really great ministry.
     And then I said, “Our two churches are very different, though.” I said that by this time I would already be done with my lunch at Bob Evans because our worship services are only an hour long.  And they laughed.
     And then I said, “You’re church is celebrating five years and next year my church will be celebrating our 200th anniversary.” And they applauded which was really nice of them.
     And then I said, “The biggest difference between our two churches is that the music here at your church is a lot louder than at my church.” I said, “For example, before worship, you hand out ear plugs because the music is so loud.  At my church, we hand out hearing aids.”  
     Maybe this is why Psalm 150 gives us so many different choices of instruments to praise God.  There’s not just one way to praise God.  There’s  not just one volume. 
     The Psalmist answers the question of “how.”  We are to worship with a variety of instruments to help us offer our praises to God.
     And the final question.  Who?  Who is to praise the Lord? 
     Verse 6 – “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”  That narrows it down, doesn’t it?
     If you have a pulse, then you are welcome to praise the Lord.
     Our denomination, the United Methodist Church has a great phrase to describe who we are.  “The United Methodist Church:  Open Hearts.  Open Minds.  Open Doors.”
     I like that.  We are called to be a church that is always inviting and always welcoming our community to share in the ministries of our congregation.  The invitation is always open to come and praise the Lord together.
     Democrats. Republicans. Independents. Undecided.  “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”
     Long time Christian.  New Believer.  Seeker.  Agnostic.  “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”
     Senior Citizen.  High School Senior.  Preschool child.  “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”
     White.  Black.  Latino.  Native American.  “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”
     Rich.  Poor.  Or somewhere in between.  “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”
     Methodist.  Pentecostal.  Catholic.  Non-Denominational.  “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”
     Hymn lovers.  Praise Singers.  Organists.  Drummers.  “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”
     I was having a conversation with a member of another church and he said to me, “You know how you and I really like it when someone shows their appreciation to us?  Now, just imagine how God feels when his people praise Him every Sunday in worship.”
     One of the last things John Wesley, the 18th century founder of Methodism said before he died was, “I’ll praise my maker while I have breath.” 
     I can’t think of a better ending to the Book of Psalms.  And it’s not a bad way to end this sermon.
     “Praise the Lord!”

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