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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.

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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:

1
Praise the Lord!
Praise God in God’s sanctuary;
2
praise God in God’s mighty firmament!
Praise God for God’s mighty deeds;
praise God according to God’s surpassing greatness!
3
Praise God with trumpet sound;
praise God with lute and harp!
4
Praise God with tambourine and dance;
5
praise God with strings and pipe!
Praise God with clanging cymbals;
praise God with loud clashing cymbals!
6
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.  

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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.

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