July 9, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
This past week, I had the most ordinary day: I had to go to the grocery store so I drove to Hornell and everyone on the roads drove a reasonable speed and not once did I think to myself, “What a dangerous driver!” When I reached the grocery store, a man entering before me held the door and waited for me to go through first. The store was a bit crowded but everyone moved politely out of each other’s way when necessary, apologized when things got tight, and tried hard not to interfere in one another’s business. At one point, I realized that I had missed one of the items on my list so I ran over to the next aisle and left my purse behind me in the cart but no one took advantage of my absence to swipe my wallet. The checkout clerk asked me about my day, a little girl behind me smiled shyly at me, and when I crossed the parking lot with a full cart, a passing car stopped to wait for me instead of running me over.
It was, as I said, a most ordinary day. I didn’t see a single fight break out that day. No one tried to assault me, rape me, con me, or rob me. I observed no instances of unnecessary roughness. Even the natural world was strikingly mundane; the earth did not shake, the breeze remained moderate, and the sun shone through the fluffy white clouds that were leisurely drifting across the blue sky.
In other words, it was a day like a thousand others that is so routine that it passed by without remark, because what is there to say when everyone treats you with commonplace kindness and nature hums along in a prosaic manner? That sort of day is the way we expect a day to unfold when we get up in the morning, and for a large percentage of our time on earth, those expectations will be filled and each of us will come to the end of that day unharmed, unscathed, and nurtured by the extraordinary ordinary-ness of life. Most of our time on earth is spent in the company of people who choose to be decent to one another and life unfolds without fuss or ceremony.
Certainly there are and will be days when this does not happen, days when people are cruel or tragedy strikes, and because those kind of events are so disorienting and painful, the repercussions from those rare times cause us to forgot just how rare they are. In fact, the power of evil is its ability to convince us that evil is the norm instead of the exception. Evil doesn’t actually have a numerical advantage over good — there is much more goodness in the world than there is evil — but evil warps our sense of reality to make it seem like it is more prevalent than good. A terrorist counts on the power of this falsehood by bombing public places not just to kill people but to convince even those who weren’t present that danger is all around us and that every person we encounter is a potential enemy. Or the acts of one corrupt politician can sow cynicism throughout the electorate and leave us grumbling that the entire system is corrupt. Or the mother who pulls her child away from a Muslim neighbor plants in her child the seeds of the false belief that all Muslims are prone to violence. Evil’s power lies not in its frequency but in its ability to make us feel that it is more frequent than it really is — it convinces us that life is terrible, that the world is fraught with horror, and that we’d better all be wary of one another because who knows what evil lurks in the heart of man?
And so periodically, when the blaring of the headlines threatens to overwhelm my belief in the power of goodness and love, I think through my day and I remember all of the countless times when someone I encountered could have chosen to be brutish, cruel, selfish, violent, criminal, or just rude but instead they chose to be nice. I remember all of the times when the world provided me with warmth and beauty instead of hurling storms upon my head. I remember that the actual ordinary state of the world which God created is good.
It is not popular in today’s cynical society to point out the good in the world, nor has it ever been popular. In the 1960 Disney movie, “Pollyanna,” which to make some of us feel old appeared in theaters more than half a century ago, a young girl is disturbed by the negativity of her small town and she pushes back at their fearfulness by gently insisting that they look at the blessings of life. In one scene, Pollyanna overhears the local pastor rehearsing his sermon. Though the minister is a regular joe kind of guy, when he gets into the pulpit, he spouts hell-fire-and-brimstone fear, telling his cowering congregation that “DEATH COMES UNEXPECTEDLY” so they had better be on their guard because evil lurks at their door.
As Pollyanna listens to him practice another of his stormy sermons, she interrupts him and casually mentions her own father’s love of the Bible’s “happy texts.”
“Happy texts?” the minister asks, puzzled to hear that there might be happy texts in the Bible.
Pollyanna explains, “Yes, like, ‘Shout for joy,’ or, ‘Be glad in the Lord.’ You know, like that… There are eight hundred happy texts, did you know that?”
The minister is bewildered, “No, I didn’t know that,” he admits.
Pollyanna replies, “My father said that if God took the trouble to tell us eight hundred times to be glad and rejoice, He must have wanted us to do it.”
To prove Pollyanna’s point, all we need to do is look at the Psalms. There are 150 psalms and almost every one of those psalms contains one of Pollyanna’s “happy texts.” To be sure, most of them begin as the blues — they express grief, sorrow, and anger over the misfortunes that attack us throughout a lifetime — but in spite of the sheer weight of their lament, with only a few exceptions, they inevitably end in a word of praise. Psalm 22, for example, one of the most poignant of the psalms quoted by Jesus on the cross, begins “My God, my God why have you forsaken me?” but moves in just a few verses to declare, “From you comes my praise in the great congregation…” Even when life is so bleak that it feels like God has fled the scene, the psalmist declares that he will have faith in God’s renewing presence, and trust that at its heart, life is still good, joy is possible, God remains faithful. And just to make sure that after all of our anguish and anxiety, we end up in the right place, the conclusion to the entire collection of psalms is a repeated command to give praise. In the six short verses of the final psalm, Psalm 150, we are told to praise God 13 times.
Where should we praise God? The psalm says, “In the sanctuary, out in the fields, under the stars, wherever you happen to be.”
How should we praise God? “With trumpets, harps, pipes, and if you don’t have any instruments, use your hands.” It doesn’t have to be eloquent or rational. In fact, praise can be just a jubilant expression of enthusiasm. Like the baseball stadium big screen, the psalmist tells us to just, “Make noise!”
And who should give praise? “Everything that breathes,” the psalmist declares: the oaks of the forest and the begonia on your window sill, the tiny shrew digging into the dark earth and the humpbacked whale diving into the ocean depths, the baby chortling with happiness in her crib and the old man drinking coffee in the diner. Say it, sing it, play it, hum it, and breathe it with every breath, the psalmist says.
Why should we praise? Why is praise so important in the psalms? The psalmists know that the only way to push back at the lies evil sows is to praise. Evil tries to convince us to live in fear and despair, but praise pushes back at evil by reminding us that evil is not the final word. It is not the only word. It isn’t even the most common and prevalent word. Yes, there will be times of sorrow and heartache for all of us, but we cannot make the mistake of shuttering our windows and sitting in the darkness of our despair. Praise pushes back at evil’s lies by declaring us that God gave us a world crafted in beauty with threads of divine glory and goodness woven into its very fabric. God looked on this world and said, “It is good,” and in the end, the psalmist says, that is where we as faithful people need to be.
This reminder is when we all need to hear. At a special worship service in a church in Omaha, a minister handed out helium filled balloons and told the congregation to release their balloon at some point in the service when they felt like expressing the joy in their hearts.
“Unfortunately,” the minister reported with a chuckle, “this was a Presbyterian church where people aren’t used to expressing joy in worship, and when the service was over, over 1/3 of the congregation was still holding their balloons.” (Bruce Larson)
Today, I invite you to let your balloons go, if only metaphorically, and express your praise in thanksgiving to God for the goodness of life. Evil tries to convince us that life is a brutish sordid enterprise in which we suffer and then die with nothing of worth to show for our days, but God promises that on the contrary, life continues to meaningful even when broken by times of suffering, that joy remains possible for even the most wounded of hearts, and that love endures. The psalmist tells us to push back at evil’s lie and through prayer and praise, remind ourselves of the goodness God has woven into the very fabric of our existence, giving thanks for the blessings of ordinary kindness and the wonder of the everyday beauty of life.
And so today, I praise God for the swallowtail butterflies that flutter through my gardens, the wine colored iris blooming by my porch, for the rufous sided towhee that tells me every morning to “Drink your tea,” for the joyful exuberance of my puppy Dexter who regularly leaps off my back deck at break neck speed intent on catching the robin who is hunting for breakfast in the backyard, and I praise God for the robin who rolls her eyes at Dexter and flies casually out of harm’s way time after time. I praise God for rolling hills, crashing waves, sunlight dew, and the awesome expanse of the Milky Way in a midnight sky. I praise God that we have a world of such profound beauty and that God has made me in such a way that nature’s beauty can lift my soul out of the concerns that too often absorb me.
I invite you to give praise to God either in silence or out loud by naming the places and things of the earth which lift your soul.
Today, I praise God for the people in my life whose love embraces my heart daily, for my family and friends who remind me it matters that I am here, for the care of those whose attention helps me make it through rough times, and for the kindnesses of strangers that gives me hope that evil cannot triumph and charity will prevail. I praise God that God has made me in such a way that my soul is knit to so many, that I can be larger than the confines of my one small life through the connections I experience with others.
I invite you to give praise to God either in silence or out loud by naming the people who have made your life deeper and richer through your connection to them.
And today I praise God that two thousand years after Jesus appeared to the disciples and said, “Go and make disciples of all nations,” that generation after generation took that command seriously so that we would be able to hear that gospel ourselves. Just think of how easy it would have been for those first Christians to hunker down in their homes saying, “Someone else can spread the gospel” letting the whole thing die before it even got started. But they didn’t do that — they chose to continue to follow Jesus in spite of doubt and difficulty. And millions upon millions of others throughout the ages have kept that faith through times when great cathedrals brimmed with the faithful and through times when just handfuls of worshippers gathered in tiny living rooms. I praise God for inspiring those who came before us so that we could hear the wonderful message of the gospel.
And today I praise God for all of you who have come here to church this morning. I know how hard it is to come to church in the summer — I know how hard it is to come to church any time — but I praise God that there is something in this faith business that continues to draw you to church to seek God and the company of fellow worshippers. And I praise God all of the time for the members of this congregation that make this church a place where people want to come, where the music can lift our souls and brighten our eyes, where the prayers of the congregation can calm our anxious spirits, and where the heart-felt greetings of those gathered here remind us that others care for us.
I invite you to give praise to God either in silence or out loud for the teachings of Christ and the experiences of faith which have enriched your life.
The poet and pastor, Eugene Peterson says of Psalm 150, “This crafted conclusion of the Psalms tells us that our prayers are going to end in praise… It may take years, decades even, before certain prayers arrive at the hallelujahs…. [but] prayer is always reaching towards praise and will finally arrive there. If we persist in prayer, laugh and cry, doubt and believe, struggle and dance and then struggle again, we will surely end up at Psalm 150, on our feet, applauding, ‘Encore! Encore!’
Praise the Lord!
Praise God in his sanctuary;
praise him in his mighty firmament!
Praise him for his mighty deeds;
praise him according to his surpassing greatness!
Praise him with trumpet sound;
praise him with lute and harp!
Praise him with tambourine and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe!
Praise him with clanging cymbals;
praise him with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord!