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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  • Breakfast Encounter

    Last Friday morning, I stopped by my GP’s office to let them draw some blood for a test and to get my flu vaccine for the year. Because of the blood test, I had to ‘fast,’ arriving for the blood draw without having any food that morning. When the phlebotomist had drawn the blood and given me the shot, I went to a nearby diner to get some breakfast. Little did I know I was about to witness something extraordinary.

    While I was eating my pancake, egg, and piece of sausage and reading a book about Oscar Romero, a young man went up to the counter to pay. I didn’t notice any of this, of course (occupied as I was with not only Oscar Romero’s life and ministry to the poor of El Salvador, but also all that butter and syrup…) until the young man started yelling at the woman behind the counter.

    “Swipe it again!” is what drew my attention.

    She did, and the card must have been denied a second time. She ran it again, and the look on her face told me the same thing happened. Denied.

    The young man was getting more agitated and saying things to her under his breath. I was paying more attention now, and she asked if he had another card she could try.

    “No! I don’t have another bleeping card!” he yelled at her. Except he didn’t say bleeping.

    Now I’m not a stranger to harsh words. I’ve said them myself. Usually when I’m trying to get a rusted bolt off an old machine and it finally comes loose, taking some of my knuckle skin with it. And I think I quietly swore under my breath in January of 1988 when the Washington football team beat my beloved Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, 42-10. There have been other times too. But never, ever at a person.

    Upon being sworn at, the young woman stared at the man like she didn’t know what to do (how could she?). Tears were about to appear. And the air in the room went real still. Like in the movies. I’m sure the background music was still playing, but it seemed deathly quiet at that moment.

    I was about to get up and walk over to the counter—not exactly sure what I was going to do once I got there—when another man who had been eating nearby wandered up real slow, eyes staring at the young man. He was a tall guy, with white hair under his old IFA ball cap, probably in his sixties. He asked the young woman, “What seems to be the problem here?”

    And that’s when the young man made what I thought was a fatal mistake: he answered when he hadn’t been spoken to. “It’s nothin’. My card won’t work,” he spat back.

    I thought a fight was about to break out, but the older man, his eyes searing into the young disgruntled one’s face, reached for his wallet and said to the cashier, “Aubrey, I’d like to pay for this young man’s meal, if that’s okay with him.” And after getting out some cash, he put his hand on the young man’s shoulder, not one of those friendly pats on the shoulder, but one of those firm grips that, well, made me think he was making sure the lesson was going to stick.

    I’ve had those kinds of hands on my shoulders a few times over the years. Perhaps from a coach, maybe from my dad once or twice; they happen when a boy or young man really needs to start paying attention.

    And after staring at him for what seemed like an eternity, the old guy said, “Be kind.” And then walked away.

    The young man left the restaurant and climbed into an oversize truck that was parked right out front, cranked up the volume on his radio, and left some rubber on the road as he departed.

    I went into the church office sometime later to finish my sermon, but I kept thinking about angry people and hurt people and kind people and people who teach lessons to those who could use them. I also thought about people who have a head full of kind words who refuse to tolerate ugliness.

    I hope I can be someone like that.

    I have a feeling Aubrey earned a whole lot of tips that morning. She deserved them.

    Be kind.

    That’s all for now.

    —Pastor Derek

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