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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  • After all this time…

    Well, this is it my fellow followers of Jesus, we are returning to in-person worship at First Presbyterian Church. It has been fourteen long months of us learning to be a worshiping community in the best ways we could figure out (thank you Jesus, even for things like YouTube and Zoom). It’s been challenging for me as your pastor (I imagine Pastor Meg would say the same). It’s been challenging for all of you in faith and life and with family and friends. 

    But we’re going back to church, praise the Lord.

    Many things seem to be happening in our world at this moment. How are you handling it all? We’re opening the church doors again. There was a verdict in the Derek Chauvin trial in Minneapolis. Many of you have your Covid-19 vaccinations. It’s Springtime and the tulips are starting to bloom. The Sandhill Cranes and other migratory birds are back in the valley. So how are we doing as we process all of this? How are you doing?

    Relief? Sorrow? Joy? Sadness? 

    All of the above?

    I’ve heard several phrases of late, including ‘pandemic pain.’ I’ve felt fatigued myself. But having received the vaccination shots, I am ready to be back in our church building with you praising the Lord together. With high vaccination rates among our church members and several safety precautions, Session has voted for our return to in-person worship. Details are listed in another article inside this edition, but our first Sunday back will be Sunday, May 9th, with our regular service times of 9 & 11 a.m.

    This worldwide pandemic is not over. Not by a long shot as I watch the news from places like India and Brazil, or even Michigan. But many of us have received our vaccinations and we are implementing some practices that should allow us to worship the Lord together, safely. And to be clear (I cannot say this enough), if you do not feel safe coming to church in the near future, please continue to worship from home. I will do my absolute best to make sure our worship live-stream allows you to connect with God and connect with the rest of us from the safety of your own home. We have purchased a small and simple (yet high quality) camera that will live-stream Sunday morning worship directly to YouTube. You have the option to watch it ‘live’ as we are worshiping or watch it at a later time that is more convenient for you.

    So, what might we expect on Sunday mornings in May when we go back? First and foremost, we will be together singing, praying, and praising the Lord. Hallelujah! There will be a few changes, of course. We ask that everyone wear a mask while in the building. We will not have indoor fellowship to prevent ‘grouping’ around the food. Both services will be in Bruner Hall (this is to allow for social distancing). We will initially space chairs out in groups of one, two, three, four, etc. (please find a group of chairs that matches your household). Our air handling system will be on during the service. We won’t use hymnals so that multiple people aren’t touching them each morning (lyrics will be in the bulletin and projected onto the wall). And finally, if you are feeling under the weather, we ask that you please be extra-considerate of your fellow worshipers and remain home.

    Every day of life is a new endeavor. The same is true for us in this process of returning to worship. May we prayerfully and carefully take actions that promote good community health, along with our spiritual health. Thank you for your patience with us, and I look forward to seeing every one of you, whenever that might be.

    —Pastor Derek

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