For 59 days there have been Black Lives Matters protests outside the justice center and federal courthouse in downtown Portland– the city of my dreams, the city I’m blessed to finally call home.  There have been protests elsewhere in the city too, but every night a solid group of protesters has assembled outside these criminal justice centers to call attention to the great brokenness of our justice system, to the militarization of police and policing, to the particular vulnerability of black, indigenous, and people of color and to demand change, meaningful structural change– disinvestment in forms of policing that too often profile people of color and end up with a disproportionate number of people of color behind bars or dead.  This is, of course, nothing new.  But the video of the knee on George Floyd’s neck, the news of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor… these three high profile cases came to consciousness in the midst of a pandemic and people rose up and filled the streets.

On Juneteenth (June 19th), I joined a clergy vigil, in daylight.  Prayed with colleagues.  Shared a song.  On that day I was invited to come back at 9 p.m. to bear witness to what happens when the sun goes down.  I declined because of a very full day the next day, truly.  But also out of fear.

I had the sense that the vast majority of protesters were peaceful.  I was hearing that some however were righteously angry and willfully destructive.  And I was hearing that the police were responding with great aggression.  My colleagues were bravely showing up to be able to tell the story about what is really going on.  I wasn’t ready.  It felt too messy.  Too complex.  And… there’s this highly contagious virus circulating…

I was told by those who were participating in the protests regularly that the police were using massive quantities of tear gas to disperse the crowds and behaving in brutal ways.  This seemed highly problematic given that the protests were triggered by the abuse of police power… to respond with aggressive power… drove more protests.  An unending cycle.

Our state legislature met in special masked session and passed a number of police reform bills in very short order. Not enough, but progress. And it seems the protests began to wane.

Among the reforms was a ban of the use of tear gas, CS gas and all derivatives thereof (which had been used, repeatedly, against protesters), and prohibits sonic weapons (which police had used on June 5th against protesters).  This ban was amended by lawmakers to allow tear gas to be used in situations police declare to be “riots.”  And, it seems, riots have frequently been declared.  Regardless, federal agents, with legal right to protect federal property and not bound by Oregon state laws, were deployed to our city.  And my friends who have been bearing witness (and many journalists) have reported about the extreme aggression of these federal agents, with shocking accounts of peaceful protesters hit with non-lethal munitions, protesters grabbed and taken away in unmarked vehicles without ever being charged, and even a retired naval officer ending up with a broken hand when he tried to engage the agents in conversation.  And so much gas, intense military grade gas, flooding the streets (just a few streets) night after night.  And as the aggression of the feds ramped up, the crowds began to swell again.

After listening to the frustrated reflections of a colleague, I was convicted that it was high time for me to go and bear witness myself.  I ordered a clerical shirt and collar, for the first time in 18 years of ministry…


… and accepted an invitation to join two faithful colleagues who have been out many nights already on Friday night, July 24, day 59, from 9:30 pm to 1 am.

It was strange to be in such a large crowd after months of being mostly homebound.  My friends told me the crowd was much larger than the night before. The crowd was almost entirely masked… and otherwise protected… bike helmets, gas masks, homemade shields, goggles. And really it was amazing– amazing to see so many people willing to stand up for the value of black lives, so many white people in this exceedingly white city, being led in chants by black leaders.  I had heard on other nights that the crowd was mostly young folks, but on this night I saw people of all ages, and all walks of life, including a man in a business suit holding a “Lawyers for Black Lives” sign.  And the signs… so many excellent signs.  My favorite read just “Expelliarmus.” If only we could disarm others with a spell… (that “Shoot Less, Smile More” sign also made me grin.)


There were food tents set up and volunteers hard at work cooking for the crowd.  Word was that this volunteer initiative has received so many financial donations they’ve asked for them to stop– they have way more than they need.  My friend dropped off two bottles of hand sanitizer to them which they gratefully received.

And there were so many signs of people looking out for each other, taking care of each other.  Volunteer medics at the ready.  And people picking up trash.

The street right in front of the justice center and courthouse were packed with wall to wall people.  Fencing had been put up in front of the federal building and we could see folks trying to pull this fencing down.  I briefly caught sight of the now famous wall of moms, now moms and dads (see the handholding folks in yellow wearing bike helmets), worming their way through the crowd, but never got into this thick crowd myself.


We were seated near this action, talking with folks a bit.  Several were very grateful to see clergy among the crowds.  One talked with me about being there with the moms and taking in massive amounts of gas on previous nights.  She said she felt safer now that the crowd was larger.

Eventually we pulled back, as the use of tear gas began.  We were never directly in the gas, but my nose was running and I was coughing and sneezing a lot.  So I definitely inhaled some of it.  We stood by our car, which was parked amidst several volunteer medic vehicles and on the road where protesters typically had been pushed back on previous nights.  We anticipated a press of protesters heading our way but it didn’t happen before we left around 1 a.m.  We did witness some coming for medical help and many rushing to help the impacted and wounded.

It was a bit confusing, from our more distant spot, when law enforcement deployed gas that was accompanied by an explosive sound.  But some protesters were also setting off fireworks, which truthfully felt exceedingly dangerous to me. I was grateful to be back away.  It was hard to distinguish between explosive sounds. But there were some sounds that were easy to make out– some chants– Whose lives matter?  Black lives matter.  Say his name! George Floyd. Some chants I found distasteful and won’t repeat, but most were along these lines. And there were drums and trumpeters.  I also was hearing rumors– of white nationalist groups circulating amidst the crowd and 40-50 officers approaching across the river on riot wagons.

That’s what I was hearing, but what was I seeing? Dancing, signs, people helping people, an artist painting the scene…



…people shaking the fence, leaning on the fence, fireworks…

What I wasn’t seeing?  Evidence of white nationalist presence. Officers approaching on riot wagons.  Federal agents. A riot. Truly, nothing seemed riotous.  I was a bit troubled by the fence shaking and quite troubled by the fireworks, but I saw no violence or active property destruction on the part of protesters. One colleague saw one water bottle thrown over the fence. My colleague suggested that the behavior that seemed ill advised to me– trying to pull the fence down, setting off fire works– were acts of agitation, understandable expressions of anger.  The goal of the protests is to achieve dramatic structural change until it is clear public officials are unwilling to tolerate the regular abuse and killing of people of color in our city, state, and country– and are willing to make the changes that will make that less likely.  And vandalizing the buildings where injustice unfolds and trying to get direct access to these buildings is a physical way to represent the change that is sought.  These are not tactics I appreciate, but I think I better understand them now.  

I heard a protester exclaiming that if all the crowd could unite and speak in one voice that that would be more effective than, in his language, “poking the bear.”  I tend to agree with him.  I don’t think that a large crowd shouting in unison is unlikely to be greeted any less aggressively or violently, but I think then it is crystal clear who is using the force, and who is crossing the line.  I believe in the power of large scale, non-violent protest to truly change things, even if it means bearing violence that arises in reactive response. A Facebook friend asked why the protests can’t move away from these buildings to stop provoking the nightly conflict.  I think because, again, these are the most centralized symbols of the system that needs changing.  And because it is from these buildings that nightly a continued militaristic response is emerging.  That which is being protested is being reenacted night after night, drawing more people out to protest every night.  I was not the only one there for the first time on day 59.

I understand the federal agents emerged around 2:30 a.m.  Perhaps some violence unfolded on the part of at least one protester.  And one protester was arrested.  I did not witness any of this directly.

What I did witness was thousands of people exercising their First Amendment rights, standing up for black lives, willingly enduring gas (sometimes using leaf blowers to blow it back) and taking other risks to demand necessary change.

And I’ll be back.  Because change has got to come.  And I want to keep bearing witness.  And showing up with love.  Even if it means looking right ridiculous… IMG_6813






The closest gym to the house we’re renting in a suburb of Portland is a Boulder gym, a climbing gym. It is at the major intersection closest to our house and often puts clever messages on it’s sign board. You can’t miss it. I’ve been intrigued by it for over a year. My daughter had begged more than once for us to try it out. I have repeatedly said, “someday…”

A friend once invited me to join her there. I had a conflict. It didn’t happen.

Part of my hesitation came from my commitment to CrossFit and the financial investment that comes with that commitment. I didn’t want to throw away 2 years of life giving training to start over with something new. And I didn’t think I could afford to do both. So… someday remained my answer.

Then I made the hard decision last month, after a year at a new Crossfit box to leave that box and try out a box closer to home, right behind the Boulder gym, actually. Definitely easy to miss. I missed it for a while year. I didn’t sign on to a full membership right away because I knew I was going to be away a lot this summer. So I purchased a 10 class pass. I’ve had some great workouts there. I like the coaches a lot. But they are a super small gym (which I prefer) and have very few classes. I’m finding it hard to get there consistently. Even though it is SUPER close to home.

I arrived in South Dakota for a week of vacation after weeks of no meaningful exercise whatsoever. I brought running gear hoping to at least get a few runs in. I did manage to run once (twice if you count portions of our first lap around Bear Lodge). And we hiked a lot. It was a good week for physical exercise and fresh air.

Kev expressed as we parked outside what I then knew as Devil’s Tower that he felt no need to climb the tower. I didn’t even know that was a possibility. But something tugged in me when I looked at it and thought about climbing it. The tugging continued throughout our two loops around it. The climbing skills needed are WAY beyond me. But a spark of inspiration took hold.

Before our tour loop was through I told Kev that I had decided to try out the Boulder gym when we got home and if I like it, to join that gym, leaving CrossFit behind for the next year. I also told him I was inspired to take a family hike once a week in the coming year. I am excited about these new commitments.

The truth is that of all outdoor activities, rock climbing is the only one that holds any appeal for me. I don’t know if I will be any good at it. And I have a significant amount of fear about the coming down part of climbing (even more than falling, I fear the process of descent). But for years I’ve been intrigued. And someday has arrived.

I’m not surprised that I feel this pull. Of the four elements, earth has always been mine. Mountains, not oceans, take my breath away. And there’s just something about rocks. Our tour guide told us “Natives believe rock holds the wisdom of the universe.” And I wrote that down. Because it seemed so right.

A lot of people throughout history have looked at Bear Lodge and been inspired to climb. Or at least a lot of people of European descent. Natives find different inspiration at Bear Lodge. It is a sacred site for them, a place at the base of which they hang prayer bundles, prayers for others, never for the themselves. And at the base of which they hold rituals. There is a climbing ban at Devil’s Tower/Bear Lodge in the month of June because many rituals take place around the solstice. And thus climbing during this time is as disrespectful as it would be to climb the walls of a sanctuary, or the cross at the front of a sanctuary during Sunday worship. I think native peoples would feel best were climbing to cease completely. But accommodations have been made to allow climbing 24 hours a day most of the year.

It occurred to me that my inspiration to climb is perhaps a byproduct of my cultural formation and location. I want to honor this inspiration, but I also want to learn from those who are differently inspired. How can a climb be a form of worship and deeper connection to the gift of this creation rather than simply a challenge to conquer? I’m excited to find out.

The second stop of our guided tour of Bear Lodge offered the climbing angle on the tower before us. We learned that the first woman to successfully climb Bear Lodge was Jan Conn. She and her husband made their successful climb in 1948. When they descended a crowd was gathered to celebrate their accomplishment. One of the men in the crowd asked Herb, her husband, how their climb had worked. “Did you climb up and pull her up after you?” Our ranger guide said that when Jan, a feisty woman of no more than 5 feet in stature, heard that she swore (probably in both senses of the word) that she would do it again in such a way that no one could question that she had done it herself.

Four years later that happened. Jan and another woman (whose name I have forgotten) made the first successful women only climb. When they descended there was again a crowd gathered and a bit of q and a time. Jan heard a man speaking to his wife as he walked away, “well, if two women can do it it must not be that hard.”

And there, my friends, is a powerful illustration of common reactions to women’s achievement.

Jan and her husband offered great gifts to those who wished to explore and enjoy the natural wonders of the black hills. They mapped routes through Wind Cave and Jewel Cave. They mapped all the climbing routes up Bear Lodge. We found their names on a list of volunteer surveyors in the visitor center of Wind Cave. Jan is still living, though Herb has died. She still lives in the wilderness she loves, in a cabin without running water or electricity. She is in her 90’s. When asked how she likes to spend her time these days, she says “doing everything Herb didn’t like to do.”

I am in awe of her achievements. And I wish her great joy in these her later years.

*story credit due once again to our ranger guide, Christina Nealson… can’t wait to get my hands on her book.


Approaching Devil’s Tower

I heard her— a wise and thoughtful tour guide offering a geological angle on Bear Lodge (when I was approaching I thought it was Devil’s Tower, but I learned before our guided tour even began that long before it was named Devil’s Tower it was known as Bear’s Lodge by the native people who have long considered this ground sacred.)

She said it repeatedly. I heard her. “There was no uplift. There was never any uplift. What we see before us today is the result of millions of years of erosion.”

20 minutes earlier I heard a fellow tourist commenting to a traveling companion about the many broken boulders at the base of the tower. “These must have been left behind when the tower pushed up and through,” he said. That made sense. I wondered why it hadn’t occurred to me. It just makes sense.

But it’s wrong. I heard her.

But what she was saying didn’t make as much sense to me at first. I’m looking up, way up. So I translated what I heard into something that made sense. 500 million years ago these tallest columns in the world sprung up in the depths of the earth. Over the course of millions of years the years the ground around it eroded away to reveal it.

I checked that with her as we walked between stops. No. “There was never any uplift. It’s all a matter of erosion.” Not even uplift in the depths of the earth. No uplift. Ever. Formed in the depths. Slowly, so slowly revealed.

“It’s just hard to get my head around,” I confessed to her. “It is,” she replied, “everything about it is hard to get your head around. 500 hundred million years, even 50 million years, or what it will look like in a million years, hard to get your head around.”

Those boulders at the base? They have fallen over the millions of years, off this structure that never rose up. They are the product of downward movement, not uplift.

That structure towering over me? It was revealed by steady wearing away, not by steady pushing or building up.

And with this slowly dawning understanding, something else came into focus. The vast limitations of perception- my perception, human perception. I am so bound by my location in time and space that if I am looking up, there had to have been uplift. It is up in relation to me. 800ft up.

Never any uplift. I heard her.

A version of this sermon was preached on Sunday, July 16, 2017 at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon.  It was the first in the second summer series (on Ephesians) in the Narrative Lectionary, which we will truncate from four weeks to three as our Blessing of the Animals service intervened on Sunday the 23rd. 

Embrace slide

For my first six years in ministry, around this time every year, Kevin and I found ourselves in Delaware with up to nearly fifty youth and adults from our presbytery.  We joined in what was then a ten year tradition of annual mission trips to Delaware to engage in home repair, worship, and fellowship.  One of the rituals of this trip is Thursday night communion on the beach.  All those teenagers and adults would circle up on a beach, just after sunset, after putting in four hard days of work on behalf of families in need and growing as a community of faith in that time.  Prior to receiving communion, we would pass the peace of Christ in the same way each year- everyone there exchanging hugs with everyone else.  No one was excluded.  The social norm of high schoolers, and truthfully everyone else, those norms that dictate that some are in and some are out were transcended every year at this moment, as all were IN, in this circle of hugs.

This time-honored Delaware Work Camp tradition beautifully illustrates what it means to be a part of the church.  The church is a community of faith in which EVERYONE in included in the radical embrace of God in Jesus Christ; not one of us is excluded.  We are all tightly and warmly held in the arms of our Creator, Savior, and Sustainer.

This is the testimony of our epistle reading this morning.  In grand and poetic language the early church in Ephesus is reminded who they are and, more importantly, whose they are.  You are the CHOSEN ones of God; you were chosen, not on your own merit, not because you have earned it or are worthy, but out of the sheer and abundant grace of God you were chosen before you were born, before anyone was even born, before the foundation of the world.  You are the adopted children of God, counted as one with the Son of God, Christ Jesus, and therefore you are beloved by God.  You are forgiven of all your sin, redeemed, saved by the works of Christ Jesus- you are the chosen, adopted, beloved, forgiven, redeemed children of God on whom Christ has lavished the riches of his grace.  You are held in the radical embrace of God in Jesus Christ.  So it was written to the church in Ephesus so long ago, and so it is proclaimed to the church gathered on the corner of Sunset and Dosch this fine Sunday morning.  You are in the arms of God, each and everyone of you.  You are the beloved children of God.

Think about that.  Let that sink in.  (PAUSE)  You, with all your rough edges, bad habits, painful tendencies, on your worst days as well as your best, you, just as you are, are within the circle of God’s radical embrace of love and grace.  You didn’t and couldn’t earn this.  This is a gift that has been given to you freely out of the lavish riches of Christ’s grace.  You are IN.  Let this permeate your entire being.  (PAUSE)

How does it feel?  Does it feel all warm and tingly like when your mom or your dad would tuck you in at night or rock you to sleep when you were very small?  Does it feel cozy and safe like the hug of your closest and dearest friend?  Does it feel just right like falling asleep in the arms of your beloved?  How does it feel?  (PAUSE)  Get in touch with how it feels to be the beloved children of God held in God’s loving arms because this is who you are and this reality fuels our life together as a church.

Now it is possible that this affirmation of who we are and who’s we are could lead us to feel rather smug and self-satisfied.  (Sing-Song) We’re the children of God, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah, nyah.  It could lead us to say- “Well, I’m assured that God loves ME and that’s all I need to worry about.”  But an embrace is not a one-way exchange..  If we are to simply sit with our arms cross our chests, smirks on our faces, we fail to hug God back.  We fail to participate in the embrace.  We therefore fail to experience the embrace that God has to offer us.

There’s something else said in the introduction to the letter to the Ephesians that helps to draw us away from a smug, self-satisfied, embrace-denying reaction.  This is perhaps the hardest language in this passage to get our heads around, let me read it to you again, and then we’ll consider an interpretation of its meaning together.  Listen again for the word of God.  “With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will according to the good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up ALL things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.  In Christ we have also obtained our inheritance having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will.  So that we who were the first to set our hope on Christ might live for the praise of his glory.”

What does this mean?  It may mean that our chosen, beloved status has offered us a special and privileged glimpse of the mystery of God’s will, a will which includes a plan for the fullness of time, meaning a plan that is still being worked out and will continue to be worked out as long as time persists, and this plan involves God bringing ALL things in heaven and earth into God’s loving embrace.  We are among the first, in the grand scheme of things, to have a full experience of the radical embrace of God in Christ, and we are therefore, out of our profound gratitude, to live for the praise of his glory.  And what does that mean?  We are to tell people about that good, good feeling that accompanies the embrace of God.  We are to praise the glorious work of God in Jesus Christ for we may be among the first to be gathered up into God’s arms, but we are surely not the last.

We are to open up our arms and participate in the embrace of God by reaching out beyond these walls and embracing those who most need to hear a word of God’s love for them.  We must remember that the grace we have received is a gift, not based on our merit, but based purely on the vast and abundant, lavish and rich grace of God.  Therefore, we ought to open our arms especially wide to those who seem least deserving, demonstrating the wideness of the grace and mercy we have received.

The experience of the all-inclusive hug on the beach each Thursday of the Delaware work camp was not only an illustration of what it means to be a part of the church, but it was also an illustration of what it means to BE the church.  To faithfully live out our call as the chosen children of God we must embrace everyone within reach, transcending social norms, and proclaiming the radical embrace of our Glorious God. And…  just this week exactly this happened, you could say church happened, on a different beach in Panama City, Florida. …. Let’s watch a news account….

We watched an edited version of this clip… 

80 strangers, on the spur of the moment, from every walk of life, make a human chain to reach those too far out and in danger of dying… May it be so among us.

Some version of this sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon on Sunday, July 9, 2017.  It was the fifth and final sermon in our summer Narrative Lectionary Psalm Series.  

art for 7.9.

For the past few weeks you’ve been invited to share either on-line or on paper your most beloved church music, and the songs keep pouring in… it’s fabulous. We’ll run this survey for a full month, so please, keep your beloved music coming. Why?

We just sang a setting of the Psalm of the week, because, after all, the Psalms are songs, made for singing. But, unfortunately, the very end of this Psalm, the part that has most grabbed my attention this week and the part that begins to answer this why question— well, it just didn’t make it into the sung setting. So, please, allow me to read this short, exuberant Psalm, I’m reading from the version in your pew Bibles if you’d like to read along:

Praise the Lord!
Praise God in God’s sanctuary;
praise God in God’s mighty firmament!
Praise God for God’s mighty deeds;
praise God according to God’s surpassing greatness!
Praise God with trumpet sound;
praise God with lute and harp!
Praise God with tambourine and dance;
praise God with strings and pipe!
Praise God with clanging cymbals;
praise God with loud clashing cymbals!
Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord! (NRSV)

So Psalm 150, the last Psalm in our series on the Psalms and the last Psalm in the whole book of Psalms ends with the charge “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord.” Other translations render that “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord…” and that’s what you have on your bulletin covers and in our focal image for today. The preceding verses call the faithful to praise again and again and suggest a wide variety of ways to praise. They name virtually every imaginable musical instrument of the time and suggest that dancing is also a good way to go. It is clear from this Psalm that music and dance are key ways to praise God— and it is clear from this Psalm that EVERYONE , indeed every living thing, is called to praise God.

But the naming of so many instruments suggests to me that each breathing one is to praise God in his or her or its own distinct way. Very few individual people play the trumpet, the lute, the harp, the tambourine, several stringed instruments, the pipe organ, AND the cymbals… Even fewer individuals play all those instruments simultaneously, all while dancing to boot. Is that even possible? I know there are one person bands, but… Some of us don’t play any instruments at all. And some of us certainly don’t dance. But virtually all of us are moved by music— whether we feel we can make music or not. Some music will stir us to make a joyful noise to God, even if it’s just a vigorous amen or a rousing hand clap when it’s done. Sometimes our praise is more of the quiet awe variety. I’ve been emphasizing volume of late, but truly you can praise God with a quiet and deep sigh of grateful contentment, I think— and frequently it is music that will take us there. The Psalm recognizes the diversity of our ways of praising God, but the Psalm is addressed to the whole community, inviting the whole community to praise God and to praise God together.

If praise is the lifeblood of worship, and it is, then music is one of the most important dimensions of worship. And it is, hands down, one of the trickiest parts of worship to plan and execute. Even for music loving pastors like me. Why? Because everyone here, I promise you, everyone here has a distinct way of praising God and is tuned to resonate with particular music. It’s like certain music sends out the signal that connects with our hearts and allows us to praise— like when your turning the radio dial, a few people here will remember this experience… and finally arrive at a clear signal… or better, a few more will relate to this… like when you’re scanning on the radio in your car and finally a song you know comes on and you stop it and belt along. If some songs, or styles of songs, connect for me, others, necessarily, do not. But… the very song that doesn’t work for me, may well be the one that inspires the person next to me to finally start singing along. We’re all tuned differently.

So, it has been my practice for over a decade, to ask the congregations I serve to tell me what makes their hearts sing. If I want to honor the charge of Psalm 150— Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!- and I do, then I need to ask everybody in the churches I serve to tell me what music they love and I need to attend to this as I plan worship, seeking a balance between the beloved and familiar, and the new… that which will become beloved and familiar for some, perhaps, in time.

It can be hard to fathom that other people don’t love the same things we do. I mean, on the one hand, intellectually, of course, we know this. Different strokes for different folks. But when we really, really love something… it’s hard to imagine how anyone could hate it. And vice verse. Let me just tell a tale on myself— several years ago I was talking with a fellow pastor about doing a movie discussion series between our churches. I loaned her a few dvds of my most beloved movies that I thought would be GREAT discussion starters. She returned them to me a few weeks later saying she hated them all. She likes movies that are pure distraction and these were too sad and gritty and blech. GASP. I was flabbergasted. How could anyone not love these movies??

Frequently church members are like this with their most beloved church music— we love it SO much we can’t fathom how anyone could feel differently. Currently the MOST beloved hymn of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, per the mid-term results of the first ever St. A’s beloved hymn survey, is Amazing Grace. I think it has 8 or 9 votes so far. Not surprising. It always shows up in the top three, I’ve found. It had at least 7 votes in my first church. Well, in that very church I had a church member who hated Amazing Grace with a fiery passion— thought it should be permanently banned from worship. She also believed every church service should begin with Holy, Holy, Holy (which, by the way is also polling well at St. A’s). As a worship leader charged with allowing EVERYONE to praise God, I couldn’t possibly honor either of this church member’s zealous desires. At least seven of her fellow congregants expressed that their hearts were particularly tuned to Amazing Grace. And I would bet at least a few can’t stand Holy, Holy, Holy, or at least would begin to feel that way if we used it every single week. Perhaps members of St. A’s worship team will remember our discussion about how many verses should be sung of any given hymn— some believe never more than 3— sorry, did four of six on the opener today. Others think we should, must, absolutely sing every verse. Again, sorry on that opening hymn, only four of six. Vigorous diversity of opinion. Anyone want my job?

St. A’s has in its repertoire an admirable range of songs and styles. Among your beloved music is Gregorian Chant and Southern Gospel, Mozart’s Requiem and Third Day, 19th century hymns a plenty and the 20th century Catholic hymn “Here I Am, Lord.” Some of you submit lists entirely filled with songs from the white song book. Some of you submit lists filled with songs in neither our hymnal nor the white book. Some of you just say “I like the old standards.” Hard for me to know what that means to you, everyone has a different definition of “old standard.” But so far we have over 150 different specific songs listed… more songs than there are Psalms! And while there is overlap— some songs have 4 or more hits, many songs have only one or two. But I have no doubt that even these that are loved by only one or two are truly and dearly loved. They wouldn’t make the list if they weren’t.

What this means, though, is that with such diversity of taste in our fellowship, on any given week it is entirely possible that none of the music will be well tuned to your heart. And that’s a bummer. It’s hard to praise God when the music just doesn’t connect. But… my hope is that when you realize that at least some, maybe even most of the music in the service is beloved of someone in your congregation that that will help you to grow in generosity and patience and maybe even stir you to praise. Look at God! How amazing is God to make such a blessedly diverse world!

It might seem awfully navel gazing to focus an entire sermon on the diversity of musical taste in congregations, but… we’re living in a world that is increasingly divided into warring tribes and factions, even our own American civilization, even the city of Portland… we are all segmented into different groups, listening to different news sources, shopping in different stores, trusting different people and ideas… so often difference is leading to division. It is radical thing what happens here in worship on Sunday mornings. The one God of steadfast love and mercy gathers us together, representatives of several different tribes, gathers us together as one people. So when we make space for one another in all our messy diversity (and trust me you’ve got it— could you be more diverse? Yes. Are you diverse? Yup. Your musical taste is a testimony.) and when we praise God even when using music that doesn’t connect with us because of the joy it brings us to know it connects with someone… When we praise God this way, it forms us into a people who worships God not only with our lips, but also with our lives. When we praise this way, it is a powerful witness to the God who overcomes division. When we praise this way we live into love of our neighbors, even of our enemies, we live our faith each day in a way that makes a difference.

I am grateful to my dear friend and colleague, my own personal sermon doctor, the Rev. Dr. Jay Koyle, for assistance editing this sermon. Images each week either generated by or edited by the marvelous Diana Zapata.  

4Jul 2.main image

Some version of this sermon was preached at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Portland, OR on Sunday, July 2, 2017, the fourth sermon in a five week Narrative Lectionary summer series on the Psalms. 

2a.feet in carWhen I was a child, I had a few neuroses. At a very early age I insisted that the seam on my socks or tights had to line up precisely with the tips of my toes. When this worked out, the day got off to a great start. However, it could be a very rough morning if this precision could not be attained. By early elementary school I had this thing for glue bottles sealed shut from years of careless use. I would spend hours carefully cleaning out the tips of glue bottles in the Sunday School classrooms of our church, finding a very particular satisfaction when glue flowed steadily from the tip once more and a very particular frustration when this success eluded me. You’d think that a little girl with such a bizarre hankering for order and precision would have been the queen of manners. But here we come to a third neurosis. I think I was a fairly polite kid, but by early to mid-elementary school I had this hang-up when it came to saying thank you.I’m sure I must have said it reflexively now and again, but there were certain moments when I knew that a thank you was in order and I would fret and sweat and feel terribly awkward and usually fail to say anything at all. I’m thinking of riding in the back seat of a friend’s car. Her mom is driving, the mom who made us special treats for our slumber party, the mom who let us giggle to all hours, the mom who cleaned up our messes. I knew that when we pulled in our driveway all I needed to do was say “Thank you”, grab my sleeping bag and backpack and run into my house. But the minute we pulled out of their driveway I started worrying about it. “What if I don’t say it right? What if I say it at the wrong time? What if I sound stupid? What if…?” The next thing I know, we’re in my driveway, I grab my stuff and say “Bye” as fast as I can and run inside feeling horrible for my neglect.

What is so hard about saying “thank you” out loud? I was thinking “thank you”. I was feeling “thank you”. I just couldn’t do it… on more than one occasion. The memory of this neurosis came back to me as I reflected on our Psalm this week. This week’s Psalm is an individual prayer of Thanksgiving for deliverance or healing. The psalmist felt near to death, cried out for help, and received help, and now is singing God’s praise, singing a deep and profound thank you. You might imagine that this is the follow up to our Psalm of two weeks ago, the prayer for help of one who was on the brink, anticipating the enemies who would rejoice in his or her downfall. But what I want you to notice is that this prayer of thanksgiving, though it is the prayer of an individual, was not sung in isolation, but rather it was offered in the gathered faith community. In the middle of the Psalm we hear the Psalmist invoke the community, urging all to sing praises and give thanks. This is framed by testimony to the reason the psalmist is exalting God and giving thanks. A consistent message in the Psalms is that the cycle of crisis, cry for help, divine intervention, and deliverance, is not complete until a word of thanks has been expressed, and not just a quite thank you thrown to the universe, but a “thank you” out loud, loud enough for all the faithful, and all those seeking faith, to hear.

I think one of my least favorite moments in ministry is that moment in a meeting or a class when I ask if anyone would like to pray. This seems a bit less the case at St. A’s, but maybe you know what I’m talking about. Everyone knows when that moment is coming and a dramatic transformation takes place. 5.not meThe same people who were talking freely, making eye contact with me, laughing and cajoling only a moment before get really quiet, look anywhere but at me, and they crinkle their brows letting worry and fear take over their faces. Sometimes someone volunteers or I volunteer someone and always the prayers are fine, usually even beautiful, sometimes deeply moving. But the anxiety in the room in this pre-prayer moment is terribly awkward, it feels a lot like what was going on inside of me as I sat in the backseat of a friend’s car.

6.there is always

At any given moment all of us can say thank you to God for something, if for nothing else than the fact that a meeting is finally over and we get to go home or get on with our lives. At every given moment, we have cause to give God thanks for God has delivered us and is delivering us from all manner of sin and struggle. Some of you, most of you perhaps, wouldn’t have trouble agreeing with this, but many of you, I suspect, feel that you can quietly give thanks to God to fit the bill. You don’t understand why you should ever have to pray out loud. Isn’t prayer a private thing? Isn’t prayer a moment for me and God alone? Why should anyone else hear what I have to say to God?

But even though, at any given moment and at every given moment we have cause to give thanks to God, at any given moment, maybe at every given moment, someone isn’t feeling thankful. 7.lady.lying downSomeone is feeling that his cries for help have gone unheard. Someone is feeling that no one, not even God, loves her. Someone is feeling that all is lost, there’s no cause for hope. Even when we gather for worship on a Sunday someone, or several someones in the gathered faithful may be teetering on the edge of despair, may be feeling that they’re stranded in the Arctic and gratitude is somewhere in the South Pacific. Even when you or I are in that place of despair, that place where “Thank You” is not in our vocabulary, it is still the case that we are God’s beloved children and there is cause for thanksgiving, but when we are in this thankless place we need those in the community who are right inside their gratitude to speak it out loud to remind us of the love of God that seems so far away from us. When you have cried out for help and you feel that the Lord has heard your cry, it is not enough to whisper “thank you” as you drift off to sleep though that is a good thing to do. You need to say “thank you” loud enough at least for your brothers and sisters in Christ in this family of faith to hear.

I wish that when it came time for prayer at the end of a meeting or class, someone who is feeling in touch with gratitude would eagerly jump at the opportunity to pray. Just to say “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” out loud so that those at table with them who are afraid to go home, who are afraid to go to the doctor the next day, who are angry as heck at their loved one’s recent betrayal, who are living with unanswered prayer, so that they can be reminded by your gratitude that God is good, all the time, and perhaps find some strength for their journey through their particular valleys.

It is a common practice in African American churches for folks to offer their testimony to God’s deliverance of them and to their gratitude to God. Sometimes a testimony is as simple and basic as “I thank you God that you woke me up this morning with my mind in tact.” Or “I thank you God for the clothes on my back and the shoes on my feet.” Sometimes its as dramatic as “I thank you God for picking me up out of the mud of my addiction and cleaning me up and sending me on my way.” When we hear testimonies like this it helps us realize that God is at work in our lives too, that God’s steadfast love is alive and at work in our lives, it may even take the thankless person and bring a thank you to their lips.

One Sunday morning, a younger member of the first congregation I served, walked up to the pulpit and offered a testimony to answered prayer. It wasn’t planned and it was NOT a common practice in this congregation, but when she did so many people came up to her and said, “I needed to hear that today, thank you.” She didn’t want to get up and do that, but she knew that after praying for years for one particular need, when she finally found that that prayer had been answered she had to say “Thank You” out loud.

So quiet prayers, silent prayers, are fine, but when we are able to say “Thank You” out loud, we need to do so. God’s people need to hear it.

Jul 2.col.cover

This is the fourth of five sermons in a summer preaching series on the Psalms.
Resource which has been helpful in the preparation of this preaching series:
Mays, James Luther. 1994. Psalms in the series Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Preaching andTeaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Some version of this sermon was delivered by me, Sarah Sanderson-Doughty, at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon on Sunday, June 25, 2017. It is the third in a five week narrative lectionary summer series on the Psalms. 

Psalm 23 (Common English Bible Translation)  (with pronoun edits by me…)

A psalm of David.

23 The Lord is my shepherd.
    I lack nothing.

He lets me rest in grassy meadows;
    she leads me to restful waters;

he keeps me alive.
She guides me in proper paths
    for the sake of her good name.

Even when I walk through the darkest valley,
    I fear no danger because you are with me.
Your rod and your staff—
    they protect me.

You set a table for me
    right in front of my enemies.
You bathe my head in oil;
    my cup is so full it spills over!

Yes, goodness and faithful love
    will pursue me all the days of my life,
    and I will live in the Lord’s house
    as long as I live.


I once heard a man say that he knows exactly when he is in God’s will and when he is in self-will.  I wasn’t sure I had such clarity so I leaned in close to hear his answer.  “When I’m in my will,” he said, “I’m restless, irritable, and discontent, no matter how great things are all around me. When I’m in God’s will I have peace, no matter how hard things are all around me.” In my will, restless, irritable, and discontent.  In God’s will… at peace.

His voice came back to me as I meditated on this week’s Psalm, the most familiar of all the Psalms, Psalm 23.  This is a Psalm of Trust— it’s not pure praise, it’s not a cry for help, it’s an affirmation of trust in a present, guiding, providing God.    

The verse that first grabbed me this week was “I lack nothing.”

want.nothingYou and I know that verse better as “I shall not want.”  But “I lack nothing” speaks more plainly I think. “I lack NOTHING.” How often do we hear that?  How often do we feel that?  I wrote this sermon surrounded by stuff that hasn’t yet found appropriate places in my more than adequate home, in my beautiful neighborhood, in this awesome city… and I’m convinced by the Ikea catalog that I lack… plenty.  We are all bombarded with messages that we lack… plenty.  I think in the church, the mainline church of the 21st century especially, we have a tendency to focus on lack, on loss, on what we don’t have or no longer have.  And what happens when we focus on lack? We get restless, irritable, and discontent.  We work harder and harder to try to fill the lack.  Or we find means of escape and distraction that often, ultimately, leave us restless, irritable, and discontent.  We are drawn into self-will and wander from following God our good shepherd, God our gracious host.

What picture does the Psalm paint of what it is like to follow God and dwell in God’s presence, to be in God’s will?  It’s like a steady walk, surrounded by fellow sheep, with regular breaks for nourishment and rest— that’s what green pastures and still waters means for a sheep.  When we’re following God, God LETS us lie down and be well fed.  God LETS us rest. 2.he lets me Of course, God does… God doesn’t just permit rest, God commands it— one day of 7 right?  But has anyone ever barked at you to relax or rest?  Does anything make you more tense than that? I think this Psalmist grasps the heart of the command; it’s permission to relax, to trust that God’s got us.


I’m reading a book right now that I’ve been meaning to read for awhile, it’s called “Real Good Church,” and in that book she confesses to her struggle to honor the boundaries of the part time contract she had with the church she serves as pastor— she has helped lead them to great renewal, but for the first several years did so by working 40-50 hours a week for 30 hours of pay.  At some point she started to wear out and suggested the church should pay her for 20 hours and she’d only work 30.  A wise member of her church’s leadership team said, “Why don’t we pay you for 30 and you work 30?” Recently I suggested to a leader in this church that we could meet on a Saturday if needed, and she poo-pooed me “You need family time. We are NOT doing that.”  Sometimes pastors get reminded of God’s provision and abundance and invitation to rest by our parishioners… You embody the good shepherd and lead us to green meadows and still waters.  And I hope that I will do the same for you a thousand times over.

But following God is not all about rest and peace.  Sometimes it is about steady movement forward, often through treacherous landscape.  4.treach landscSometimes the good shepherd leads us through dark valleys, hard scary places where, if we take our eyes off our shepherd, there’s plenty threatening us.  Natural dangers.  And human threats too— enemies.  There they are again.  They popped up in last week’s Psalm too! Following God’s lead does not mean being free from suffering, hardship, risk, and danger.  It does not protect us from all the hard feelings we talked about last week.  But even in the midst of threat, even in the midst of struggle, even in the midst of pain…  we can have peace if we are confident that we are following God and are in God’s presence.  And we can have confidence that we will make it through, that we lack nothing, that God is providing all we need and keeping us alive.

Sometimes we find ourselves in dark valleys not because God led us there and is leading us through there, but because we’ve wandered off… God has called us to go one way and we have willfully gone another.  Then that dark valley is deeply scary, then we are restless, irritable, and discontent on top of all the other hard stuff, then we have no idea how to get out and often dig ourselves deeper and deeper in.  It happens, right?5.person-in-a-hole

But here’s the best news this Psalm of trust gives us… goodness and faithful love pursue us all the days of our lives. Goodness and faithful love— these words have come up in all the Psalms we have been contemplating this month; this is the most consistent characterization of God in the Hebrew Bible.  So God, who is goodness and love, PURSUES us… chases us down.  6.one psalm slWe are chased by grace… we can follow God, aka goodness and faithful love, at a steady and reasonable pace, with regular intervals for rest, for feasts in the presence of our enemies even … this is a possibility.  But if we go another way, if we follow our own will and get ourselves into one pickle after another… God, goodness and love, grace will chase us down.  John Calvin spoke of God’s irresistible grace.  The choir today sang of the way in which grace always wins.

This is an incredible foundation for trust.  The God we worship will lead us along proper paths, not always easy paths, but proper paths, will provide our every need, will feed us well… and if we wander off, if we fail to follow, that God will chase us down— not to punish us, but to bring us back to the fold, to get us back on track.  This is who God is.  And this is why we worship.

7.god's got

Allow yourselves to be bathed in yet another version of this Psalm, as we watch and listen to Bobby McFerrin’s setting of it.  You need not watch.  You can close your eyes if you’d like.  Be at rest.  You lack nothing.  God is keeping you alive.  God’s got you.

Writing (in addition to scripture) that was cited in this sermon:
Baskette, Molly Phinney. Real Good Church: How Our Church Came Back from the Dead, and Yours Can, Too. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim, 2014.

Some version of this sermon was delivered by me, Sarah Sanderson-Doughty, at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon on Sunday, June18, 2017, in a service that included a time of healing prayer. It is the second in a five week narrative lectionary summer series on the Psalms. cover for 6.19.rev

Psalm 13

For the music leader. A song of David.

13 How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long will I be left to my own wits,
    agony filling my heart? Daily?
How long will my enemy keep defeating me?

Look at me!
    Answer me, Lord my God!
Restore sight to my eyes!
    Otherwise, I’ll sleep the sleep of death,
        and my enemy will say, “I won!”
My foes will rejoice over my downfall.

But I have trusted in your faithful love.
    My heart will rejoice in your salvation.
Yes, I will sing to the Lord
    because he has been good to me. (Common English Bible Translation)

I’ve had a lot of time in the car lately and podcasts have been a great companion.  One of the podcasts I’ve recently discovered and come to enjoy is “Kind World” produced out of the NPR station in Boston. As they describe themselves, “Kind world tells intimate stories about people whose lives have been changed by someone else.”  I’d like to share a bit of one of the stories I heard this week.  Perhaps some of you listened to it after I invited you to do so in the e-news… if so this will be a refresher!

1.despar man

Christmas was approaching and a young woman named Laura was full of anticipation as she had been dating her boyfriend for four years and living with him for at least a year. Everyone was anticipating an engagement that holiday season.  When, a few days before Christmas he told her they needed to talk, she was more positively expectant than anything else, so she was shocked when he said he thought it would be best for both of them if they broke up.  Within 24 hours he moved out.  She went home for Christmas and everyone asked her where the ring was, she put on a cheery face and shared the change in her circumstances, pretending everything was o.k., not wanting to lean on anyone for help.

But when she returned home, alone, Laura sank into a deep depression.  She had great difficulty getting out of bed.  She’d wake up hours before work and just stare at the ceiling and walls, noticing all the art that they had bought together that was no longer there.  And she was scared. “She was scared no one would ever love her. She was scared about bills, so she kept her heat around 50 degrees and skimped on food.” As time passed, she lost the will to care for her home, the dishes piled up in her sink in stagnant water.  Other chores were left undone all over the house.  And it was winter… and the snow was piling up and icing over, making her white house look like a pile of snow with windows. She was growing more and more isolated, desperate, alone.

Laura doesn’t know what made her do it, but one day she put out an appeal on Facebook for help dealing with the snow on her property.  She found the courage to ask for help.  And something amazing happened.  I’ll come back to this at the end of the sermon, I promise.

Anne LaMott says the two best prayers she knows are thank you, thank you, thank you, and help me, help me, help me.  If last week’s Psalm reflected the former, this week’s Psalm reflects the latter.  How long, the Psalmist asks, not once, not twice, but four times, how long am I going to suffer?  But he or she doesn’t ask it that way— he or she asks,“How long are you going to forget me, God?  Forever? How long are you going to hide your face from me? How long am I going to be left to myself, my heart full of agony- daily?  How long will my enemy prevail against me?”  The Psalmist is suffering and feels forgotten, rejected, abandoned by God, handed over to his or her enemies.  Two little words in the first two verses point to the depths of the Psalmist’s despair— they are questions that reflect the Psalmist’s feared answers to the “How long?” question— “forever?”  and “daily?” When you are in the winter of your despair, it can feel infinite— like every day is the same as the one before and so it will stretch out forever.

I suspect someone here today knows what I’m talking about, can hear the Psalmist’s cry and recognize in it the voice of depression— the voice that creeps in uninvited when the search for work drags on for months or even years, when month after month you’re still not pregnant, when the relationship falls apart, when the loss of a loved one knocks the breath out of you and it seems your breath will never return, when you get into messes you just can’t imagine your way out of, when you spiral down the pathway of addiction until you’ve lost everything, when someone is set against you and you feel deeply threatened, or sometimes there’s no particular trigger… sometimes brain chemistry is the enemy, and life loses meaning and the cry of the heart is that of a scared child who feels forgotten, rejected, abandoned.  Whether situational or chemical, whether it has lasted for days, or weeks, or months— it seems that part of depression is the sense that the way I’m feeling today is the way I’m always going to feel.


And this is why, often, as depression deepens and lengthens, thoughts turn to suicide.  I can even hear that threat in our Psalm today— after the Psalmist complains— how long?  The Psalmist pleads— SEE ME!  ANSWER ME!  HELP ME TO SEE!  Otherwise what?  Otherwise “I’ll sleep the sleep of death.”  The Psalmist suggests that without God’s help, he or she is going to die while enemies smugly gloat at his or her downfall.  I went to a workshop on suicide prevention last fall in which the presenter said repeatedly that there are many factors that lead to suicide, but the two most basic and common are a loss of hope and a loss of social connection.

Things had gotten pretty bad for the Psalmist.  But still he or she had some hope.  And still just a bit of connection. Remember, the Psalms were songs… the Psalmist was singing to God, singing out the lament and the cry for help… and by the end of the song the Psalmist is reconnecting with hope and trust, and remembering his or her connection with God— the good God of steadfast love who has been good to him or her— remember that God to whom we sang our hearts out last week?  The Psalmist hasn’t felt the love of God in awhile.  The Psalmist is feeling far, far away from the God of mercy and steadfast love— but somewhere in the Psalmist is a memory of this God, and the courage to ask for help, the will even to sing, “to place pain next to praise, suffering next to glory, hurt next to hope, suggesting that they are simultaneous realities in the life of the faithful, and leaving the psalmist to ‘wait expectantly’ (Ps. 5:3).”

This church has for some time engaged in healing prayer in worship, sometimes on a monthly basis.  This practice has fallen away in recent months, but with this being the scripture of the week, it seemed time to bring it back again.  Yes, the backbone of worship is praise— it is where worship begins and ends, it is the thread that runs right through— but when you are in the pit and praise feels hollow and God seems so distant, you too can come to worship.  Please, please, please come to worship.  Find the courage to join the Psalmist in calling on God for help, be reminded by the praises of those around you that God is a God of steadfast love and mercy who is in the business of helping people, and when the opportunity presents itself, let someone pray for you. In worship we can find both hope and social connection— two life preserving gifts.

man standing in field

The young woman about whom I shared at the beginning of the sermon had lost both hope and social connection, and was certainly on a self-destructive path if ever there was one.  She doesn’t know what prompted her to put the request for help on Facebook, she calls it “a moment of weakness” but one day before work that’s exactly what she did.  And a friend, Ruth, not a close friend, someone she had met through her work who felt some affection for her, saw the plea for help and realized no one was responding. When her husband, Bill, who had a plow, came in from clearing their own driveway she told him they needed to go help her right away, do it while Laura was at work so she wouldn’t have to come home alone to it at the end of the day.  When they got to the house they were overwhelmed by how much snow there was, but Bill got to work digging her out.  And while he worked on this, Ruth went inside and immediately saw the dishes, and set to cleaning them, and then the floors and set to sweeping and mopping them.

Laura knew they were helping while she was at work and this knowledge substantially lightened her spirits.  And then, when she came home, she was blown away by the clear driveway and the wide open path to the porch.  She was already crying when she came inside and saw a kitchen that was cleaner than it had been in months.  This day was a turning point for Laura, it restored her hope and social connection.

When you come to worship, you come as you are, and God, the God of steadfast love and mercy, can take any complaints you can level against God— so long as you are crying out, you are still connected, so shout at God if you need to “How long?”  Plead with God “Look at me! Answer me! Help me to see you!” Or just come forward with a prayer card and light a candle, or receive anointing oil from me, or seek more intimate prayer with a faithful church member in the narthex at the back of the church or in the prayer chapel over there… God has not forgotten any of us.  God stands ready to hear us.  And perhaps by asking for help today this will be for us as it was for Laura, a much needed turning point of renewed hope and connection.

Resources in addition to scripture that were cited in or influenced the writing of this sermon:


Notes in the Common English Bible Study Bible
Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith, NY: Random House, 1999.

Some version of this sermon was delivered by me, Sarah Sanderson-Doughty, at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church, in Portland, Oregon, on Sunday, June 11.  Week one in a 5 week Narrative Lectionary Series on the Psalms.  

joyful 1.noise

Perhaps you’ve heard the story of the time when a man visited a Presbyterian congregation on a Sunday morning, joining them for worship.  This man was glad to be there, he was voicing his gratitude and praise all throughout the service. When the music would move him he’d call out “Praise the Lord!” When a prayer stirred him he’d exclaim, “Praise the Lord!” And he became very stirred up during the sermon increasing the frequency, and the volume and intensity of every “Praise the Lord!”  That is, until an usher came up behind him, tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Excuse me, sir, but we’re Presbyterian and we don’t praise the Lord here.”

Frozen chosen, right?  Well, today, thanks to the band, and all of you we’re problematizing these humorous characterizations of us.  We’re Presbyterian and we DO praise the Lord here… as well we should.  For we belong to God who made us, a good God of loyal love and enduring faithfulness, a God who reliably comes to our aid, the God who is the source, sustenance, and salvation of all that is and yet is also God-for-us.  How great is our God?  So great.  Worth shouting over, worth hooting and hollering over, worth singing from the depths of our souls over, we worship God for who God is.  And the most fundamental act of worship is praise.  It’s where every worship service begins and ends and it is the thread that runs straight through every worship service…

2.witness sl

Did you know that when we praise God in worship this is an act of witness?  It is an act of witness to ourselves— reminding us to whom we belong as we give ourselves fully to God in this act— and it is an act of witness to our neighbors and to the world— when we praise God we give God away to our neighbor, witnessing by this very act to who God is and what God has done.

3.slide 111aaa

Why is this witness needed?  Well, let’s start with why it was needed in ancient Israel and the early church and then we’ll jump back to the 21st century. As one scholar reminds us, “In Jerusalem, there were two buildings side by side.  One was the palace/house of the human king; the other was the palace/house that represented the divine king.  The question in Israel’s history often was: whose will really rules?” (Mays, 318) Given the fate of the prophets who represented God and God’s will to the kings of Israel, it is clear that even among God’s chosen people there was confusion about this.  There was a definite struggle between the rule of God and human rule.  And things weren’t much different in the Roman era in which the early church emerged.  Then citizens of the empire were expected to worship the emperor— to identify him as Lord.  When early Christians called Jesus Lord they were engaging in an act of political resistance— refusing to acknowledge any earthly ruler as higher than God.  And many who made this confession of Jesus as Lord paid dearly for it.

On the surface it might seem strange to evoke the political from a simple Psalm of five verses that repeats over and over again a call to praise, thank, and bless the Lord.  But the language that is used at the very beginning of this Psalm would have immediately evoked a political awareness on the part of the ancient Israelites — because the commands in the first line of the Psalm all call for actions that belong to the approach to a king— the language “come into the presence” was used for entering into the precincts of the king— when a king would appear, all were to greet him with a shout of acclamation, and the verb “serve” suggests the appropriate relationship between a ruler and his subjects.  Again I quote a scholar “To serve the LORD is to have him as sovereign, as king.  To call oneself ‘a servant of the LORD’ is to acknowledge dependence upon and subjection to [God]” (Mays 317-318).

Elsewhere in the Hebrew scriptures there are two ways in which this invocation to “serve the Lord” is used— in the Exodus story it is presented as an alternative to being servants of Pharaoh.  In the story laid out in Deuteronomy it is contrasted with the service of other gods.  I quote again, “To serve the Lord is to live in a rule that excludes slavery to human government and subjection to the power of the ‘gods.’” (Mays, 317-318). So when the people of God gather to worship and praise their gathering is religious because it is directed to the one God, but it uses rituals and symbols derived from the political realm— by so doing the people of God point to, and witness to, the power they trust and to which they devote their lives.  It is an act of affirming one and only one power structure as “decisive.”  This makes worship a hugely significant social action, maybe the most significant form of social action we undertake.  I quote again, “Because worship is the direction of trust and obedience to a power whose will and way make a difference in life, it is always an activity with political consequences.  If it makes no difference in the way those who worship set themselves in relation to other powers, it is not the worship that Psalm 100 inaugurates”  (Mays, 318).


So are you ready to jump back to the 21st century?  Have you already done so in your own minds?  Is it any easier today to be wholly devoted to God and God alone, to put our trust in the rule of God over and against any earthly powers that be?  We seem to have a lot of confusion in our country between God and country, the two collapsing into one another… our nation or flag being worshipped in place of the God of all nations. And many in this globalized economy place a great deal of trust in corporations and profits.  And there are far lesser powers— the powers of entertainment, and pleasure, and distraction— to which many of us surrender on a daily basis.  The scholar I keep quoting today says that humans are by nature polytheistic.  In Israel’s day the question was not “Is there a god?” but rather “Who is god?” Though some in our day question the existence of God, most of us, particularly those of us who gather for worship, who identify as children of God, have to ask the second question ourselves regularly.”Who is God?”  John Calvin said that our nature is a “perpetual factory of idols” (Institutes I.11.8).  We are all inclined to take some of the good creations of God and make them into gods— worshipping created rather than creator.  And that which holds power on earth is especially seductive.

So why do we and why does the world need the witness of worship and praise? Because it is so hard to realize, acknowledge, and entrust our lives to the only one worthy of this trust.  Because there is so much death and destruction all around us that weighs us down.  Because so many voices tell us all the time that we should be very afraid.  Because when we give ourselves to lesser powers, we cut ourselves off from relationship with the good and loyal God, the God of unfailing love and enduring faithfulness… the one who gives us the very lives we’re living.


In the 20th century, with the rise of the Third Reich in Germany we saw what happens when people of God submit to a lesser power than God… over 6 million dead in gas chambers…many more killed by guns and bombs and starvation… Hitler was worshipped as Lord by everyday, ordinary, churchgoing people and a reign of terror and death unfolded.  There were some Christians who resisted— the Barmen declaration in our Book of Confessions, the first volume of our church constitution, reflects the witness of these Christians— and in that confession (look it up!) you’ll find one expression over and over again “Jesus is Lord!”  An act of praise that directly challenged the massive submission to the Lordship of Hitler.

May we with our worship this day and, every day we manage to worship, orient our hearts to the good God, the great God, the God of loyal love and enduring faithfulness.  And may this adjust our relation to other, lesser powers.  May it make a difference, even a political difference.  So will we honor the invitation today’s scripture extends to us.

Sources in addition to scripture that were cited in or that influenced the writing of this sermon:

James Luther Mays, Psalms in Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994.

Jean Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, volume 1.

Rolf Jacobson, Commentary on this week’s Psalm and all the Psalms in this series can be found at: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3270