Enter the Life of Praise

Psalm 98; Isaiah 35:1-10

The Monty Python film Life of Brian tells the story of…Brian, whose life parallels Jesus in ancient Palestine. The tagline for the movie is, “A motion picture destined to offend nearly two thirds of the civilized world. And severely annoy the other third.” With their irreverent humor, Monty Python skewers religion and politics both on the left and the right. At the climax of the film, Brian finds himself on a cross, all avenues of rescue exhausted. Even his mother walks away, “Go ahead then and be crucified!” In the final moments, a fellow crucifixee says, “Cheer up Brian! You know what they say…”

Some things in life are bad
They can really make you mad
Other things just make you swear and curse.
When you’re chewing on life’s gristle
Don’t grumble, give a whistle
And this’ll help things turn out for the best…
And…always look on the bright side of life…

Always look on the bright side of life, sung from a cross-absurd, irreverent. Many have been are, and will be offended by such irreverence.

But there is something there, perhaps not what Eric Idle intended, but there is something there, something theological, something gospel.

When we focus on the way things are, it is easy to despair. It is easy to lose hope. It is easy to believe that resistance is futile. Many of you know what I am talking about.

Yet, we come to this place, and we are invited to encounter a different truth, a counter-story, a story of grace, of depth, and of faithfulness.

Last Thursday was earth day, and so we focus on that theme this morning in worship. As I reflected on and prayed about what I should say this morning, Monty Python was not the first thing that came into my head. Some of the standard things occurred to me: to reflect on climate change, to focus on the problems that are plaguing the environment, to encourage everyone to recycle, to buy local, to replace incandescent with fluorescent. There are many problems and challenges and faithful practices that I could have addressed this morning. There is no doubt that these things are important. But as I reflected on the texts for this morning, as I reflected on Earth Day, it occurred to me that instead of preaching about what we need to do for creation, perhaps we should listen for what the creation has to teach us.

Perhaps you know about that huge pile of garbage swirling around in the middle of the Pacific ocean called the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch.’ It’s this immense pile of plastic and other human debris brought together by the ocean currents, swirling somewhere between California and Hawaii. They have found one now in the Atlantic. Earlier this week, a gray whale that died after stranding on a Seattle beach was discovered to have “a surprising amount of human debris” in its stomach, including more than 20 plastic bags, small towels, surgical gloves, plastic pieces, duct tape, a pair of sweat pants, and a golf ball.

It is easy to despair when hearing news like that. It is easy to believe that there there is not much we can do about the stretching of creation to it’s breaking point.

But if we look at Scripture we find a different story, not one of despair, a counter-story, an absurd story.

(1) The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
Like the crocus

(2) it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.

Did you hear the words of the Psalm 98?

“Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands; let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of the LORD, for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with equity.”

What we find in these verses is not a song of sin and despair, but a song of praise.

What Monty Python offers with a sense of absurdity, Scripture proclaims with conviction and faith.

Go out and look at the mountains. Look at the snow capped peaks. Dip your hand into the cool, refreshing water of Logan River. Hike the Crimson trail; notice the flowers and the trees. If you go to the beach, and you look out over the vastness of the ocean, you can just see (when there’s not too much pollution) the curvature of the earth, and the beauty, mystery, and awesomeness of creation hits you. Look at these things, I dare you, and despair. You can’t! Because you hear the song of praise the creation sings. It sings for God, and for you and for me.

You scientists who are examining and investigating the material processes of creation, faith doesn’t ask you to leave your intellect at the door–to believe something counter to what your eye sees and mind discerns in the physics and chemistry and biology of the world. What faith does do is invite you to listen, underneath and through all of those processes, for the profound song being sung, the song of praise and wonder sung by a diverse and intricate creation working together in subtle harmony. Do you hear the notes? Underneath the chemical reactions, the biological cycles, and the physical properties is that harmonious song of praise to the creator, the creator God who has given birth to all of this and who loves each and every part of it-oh yes she does! sings the song. The Scripture texts we heard, giving voice to that song in human language, invites us to sing, and to enter into the life of praise.

I know how hard it is to sing when we are faced with the garbage patches in creation and in our lives, but creation invites us to praise! If the season of Lent invites us to take inventory of the garbage patches, to confess them, then Easter and the good news of resurrection invite us to let go of them, to embrace newness like a flower proclaims the newness of Spring. The song we are invited to sing is not one of denial, but of trust. We may be lost in despair and in the absurdity of life, but you know what, sing praise! Sing praise because we belong to a God who is faithful, a God who is loving, a God who is walking with us and leading us toward renewal, toward resurrection. Look for the good. In your relationships and interactions with others, lift each other up. Be encouraged. Witness creation; sing it’s song of praise. You will not end up in the place you were when you started. Praise changes you.

Absurd I know. But it is gospel.

If you go to the Big Island of Hawaii, and drive through the Volcano National Park, you will see the active volcano. You will feel the heat and smell the sulfur. If you drive a little further, you will see the part that was covered over most recently by the flow of lava. It is black and dead, that beautiful land destroyed. Then you drive a little further and you begin to notice something. A little further down the road, cracks begin to appear in the black lava. What is popping up through those cracks? Little green sprigs of life. Then you drive a little further to discover bigger plants growing in those larger cracks. Out of that death and destruction comes new life. Evan further, you will see a little of the lava, but the rest will be the beautiful lush Hawaii we know, and creation sings the song of renewal, hope, and praise of the God who makes all this happen.

Right after the service, the kids and I have to go to California to be with Carrie and her family, who mourn the loss of her father, Paul Hamilton, who passed away last Friday. I will lead the service this coming week. What an absurd time this is. We will deal honestly with the grief, and the pain. It is tough But at the end of the liturgy there is this absurd truth that we proclaim; “All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.” It is a song of praise, because death, in faith, is not an ending.

  • Many of us come out of the Methodist tradition, and Methodists like to sing. They sing well. I went into a Methodist church once, and as I was looking though the hymnal, I noticed that in the beginning, they had put John Wesley’s “Directions for Singing.” Now John Wesley lived in the 18th Century, and is the founder of Methodist movement. I find them rich and interesting as we reflect on entering the life of praise. Listen to them.
  • Learn, he writes, these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards learn as many as you please.
  • Sing all, every one of you. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a single degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.
  • Sing lustily and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, then when you sung the songs of Satan.
  • Sing modestly. Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony; but strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
  • Sing in time. Whatever time is sung be sure to keep with it. Do not run before nor stay behind it; but attend close to the leading voices, and move therewith as exactly as you can; and take care not to sing too slow. This drawling way naturally steals on all who are lazy; and it is high time to drive it out from us, and sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.”
  • Sing. Sing all. Sing lustily and with good courage. Sing together and in time. This is what we do here, to the best of our ability. We sing with creation. We praise. That praise changes us and empowers us to bring change.

Wesley, the volcano, the mighty mountains, the gathering of God’s people remind us of the importance of praise. It will lift you up. It will strengthen you. It will re-introduce you to the loving and faithful God in whose hands we rest.

And remember:

If life seems jolly rotten
There’s something you’ve forgotten
And that’s to laugh and smile and dance and sing.

How ultimately absurd is the life of praise; absurd…and blessed. Amen.

(To listen to the sermon, please click below)

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  • Affirmations of Faith

    On the last Sunday of October, ‘Mission Sunday,’ many of you helped us pack more than two hundred bags for a local school food distribution program.  Those bags of food went out to local schoolchildren, who live in food insecure settings, to keep their bellies full. The food we provided has the potential to ensure the schoolchildren are more successful in life and in their education.  In worship we sometimes use the phrase ‘Affirmation of Faith’ and then repeat a longstanding confession of the church, such as the Apostles’ Creed or the Brief Statement of Faith. I value reciting these affirmations, because they remind us of the core values we hold as Christians. But as I was thinking about this over the last few months, I believe that such mission work to the community around us is an even deeper affirmation of our faith by acknowledging Jesus’ call upon our lives, and then living out that ministry.

    I want to share information with you this month about another ministry which I believe is an affirmation of our faith. You have heard us talk about it quite a bit but may not know the details. For years now the Deacon’s Fund at First Presbyterian Church has provided financial assistance to those in our community facing immediate financial need that impacts their ability to live a healthy and productive life.

    There are social services around town, which provide supportive and meaningful resources, but there can be qualifications and restrictions associated with the access of those services. The Deacon’s Fund strives to offer judgment-free ministry to those who are facing financial challenges in life and helps people access these services.

    Barbara Troisi and Beth MacDonald are currently our two Deacon’s Fund facilitators.  They spend time each month looking at applications for assistance, and then distribute funds, which may involve multiple phone calls, trips to the store for Smith’s gift cards (useful for food or fuel), and various other tasks.  Prior to Beth and Barbara, other wonderful people contributed their efforts to this ministry: Linda Roberts, Tina Purintun, Kelly Rhea, Terry Brennand, Barbara Lutz (I am sure I have left a name or two off, please forgive me). Pam Riffe also makes contributions and supports people applying for these funds in her role as our office administrator.

    These are some of the ‘saints’ of the church. These are angels among us – superheroes, one might say – who make time in their lives to help others.

    The Deacon’s Fund recently received a large contribution from a couple in our community.  They are not part of our church, but they learned of our efforts to help local people through some friends who are church members.  They made this contribution to help those who are struggling to find sustainable and affordable housing. They wanted to make a significant contribution to help with housing issues and knew that First Presbyterian Church would be a wonderful avenue for those efforts. I am thankful for everyone who makes contributions to the Deacon’s Fund, small or large (most offerings to this ministry come in $10, $20, or $100 increments). Over the decades these dollars have helped hundreds of people in our community in moments of great need. This is truly part of the mission of the church, and one of the callings Jesus has placed upon us.

    Beth MacDonald is transitioning out of her role as a Deacon’s Fund facilitator at the end of the year (she will be plenty busy helping to organize and lead the Westminster Bell Choir). Thank you, Beth, for your efforts. This means we are looking for a new Deacon’s Fund coordinator to work alongside Barbara Troisi. If any of you would like to help, please let me know. If you have questions about this ministry, please talk to Beth, Barbara, or me. Beth has set up a nice spreadsheet to help keep track of funds received and funds dispersed. You don’t need to be a financial expert or math whiz to fill this role, only to have a caring heart.

    The ministry efforts of Mission Sunday and through the Deacon’s Fund are two of the wonderful aspects of First Presbyterian Church. Our calling as a faith community is certainly to worship and praise the Lord, but also to share the good news and make helpful, life-affirming contributions to the community and world around us. I pray that our ministry together continues to be vigorous.

    May the grace and peace of Christ be with you all,

    Pastor Derek

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