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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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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.

1.dark_valley

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.

3.rest-still

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.

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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.

2.Man-of-Prayer_Brainerd

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.

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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:

http://www.wbur.org/kindworld/2016/12/13/kind-world-32-pick-up-the-soap

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

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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.  

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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…

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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

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Some version of this was preached for St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Portland, Oregon on my first Sunday, Pentecost, June 4, 2017, as their pastor.  

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One Pentecost Sunday from my childhood is particularly memorable.  The sanctuary was filled with red balloons, as it always was on this holy day in my growing up years.  And my father was in the pulpit beginning his sermon with quite a bit of flourish— querying how we could possibly know if the Spirit were present.  He asked that question in various ways and then one last time “How would we know?” And just then a loud “POP!” as one of the balloons spontaneously exploded.  My dad suggested that afterwards many accused him of a slingshot hidden in the pulpit— the timing was just too perfect.  He chuckled at this and suggested that such skepticism might suggest we never could know…

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On the first Pentecost we’re told that several dramatic things happened— loud sound— like howling, fierce wind— a brilliant sight— something like flames of fire dancing above the heads of the gathered believers— and a cacophony of many different languages being spoken simultaneously— all speaking messages of God’s power and love such that the diverse community of Jews gathered in Jerusalem at that time from all over the world could hear and understand.  That’s as much of the story as we read today— but I suspect that if something on this order happened here in this sanctuary today we’d have no question that the Spirit is present.  Spirit, the word for which in both Hebrew and Greek also means Breath or Air…

But such dramatic occurrences aren’t typical of Presbyterian assemblies.  Occasionally, maybe… but we tend to be a more reserved communion.  Some even call us the Frozen Chosen.  Some might question whether the Spirit is with us at all.  But surely the Spirit is with us— this is the promise of Baptism, this is the power that takes ordinary things like water, bread, cup— and makes something extraordinary of them.  This is what allowed a pastor in Indiana to become a pastor in glorious Portland, thanks be to God.  The Spirit is what gives life to this congregation and binds us together.  The Spirit is what makes possible the powerful service carried out by this congregation.

I’m grateful that there’s more testimony to the Spirit than that which we find in Acts 2— in the letter to the Galatians, for example.  After four chapters of insisting, contrary to the teachings of other missionaries who had passed their way, that faith in what God has done in Christ, and that alone, is all that is needed for salvation, that the works of the Law are not what saves us.  In the fifth chapter he suggests that in fact those who belong to Christ (that would be us too— the church) do fulfill the law, which is summed up in the love commandment— by the power of the Spirit.  In what we read today, Paul suggests that selfish desires (in the Greek- flesh) are opposed to the Spirit. Selfish desires bear fruit— he gives a long list of the fruit that grows from a selfish orientation— but the Spirit also bears fruit— fruit that binds people together, orients us towards one another, pulls us out of self-obsession and makes us of service to others.

There are a few aspects of this passage that make me uncomfortable— for one thing, I think it could be easy to take from it that we should distrust all of our desires, but I believe that God inspires desire and that we need to discern between desires.  The passage suggests that SELFISH desire is the problem.  Is what I want only for me?  Might pursuing it in fact hurt others? Is it contrary to what God desires? That is the question.

Martin Luther suggests that sin has the effect of turning us in on ourselves— sometimes this takes the form of self-inflation/pride— sometimes of self-rejection— the problem is with self-obsession… making everything all about me— either me the great, or me the scum of the earth.  ME! By the Spirit we are enabled to turn around to truly see and connect with the other.  If I am only concerned with myself, I am not being guided by the spirit.  But let’s not take from this that we must distrust all desire.  Desire can be a great gift with which the Spirit works.

Another thing that makes me uncomfortable is the way in which people, throughout history, have taken vice lists like this from Paul’s pen and inked laws out of them— something like a straight jacket— no dancing, no drinking, no partying, no FUN.  But Paul is not interested in establishing law, he’s interested in inspiring trust in the God revealed in Jesus Christ; he yearns for the desires of our hearts to be shaped by the desires of God’s heart. He suggests that one of the fruits of the Spirit is JOY— so, I don’t think the point is to put us in a straight jacket of misery.  I think the point is to illustrate some of the outcomes of self-obsession. It’s not that not ALL forms of sexual expression, not ALL drinking, not ALL partying is a problem. But when these and other acts are selfish, when they put gratification of the self over and against all else, then there’s a problem. So Paul presents some of the outcomes of self-obsession, contrasting these with life in the Spirit.

Rather than creating a straight-jacket out of Paul’s list, maybe we should make our own list of the fruits of self-obsession gone awry. Maybe it’s always been this way, but it feels like right now we have a plethora of examples on which to draw. Let me just get us started with two—  How about the hostility directed at women in hijabs and then turned to deadly violence against men who stepped into defend them that unfolded in this very city?  How about stepping out of the Paris climate agreement— putting some kind of self or national interest ahead of global well being?  Our list of obvious vices today is probably a bit different than Paul’s, but if we ask the question— where is self-interest trumping the good of others?  We can make a long list.

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But what I want us to really focus on today… this day on which we celebrate the gift of Spirit that birthed the church… what I want us to focus on is the second of Paul’s list, the fruits of the Spirit.  This, I think, is a helpful guide to knowing if and when the Spirit is present.  And though, admittedly, I am VERY new here… I have already witnessed several of these fruits in this assembly— love— the bonds of affection between you are profound and the way that you serve your neighbors is SUCH a powerful embodiment of love; Joy- when Eric brought me the news of the vote when I candidated I witnessed in him and felt in me and in the room when I returned it was overflowing…; Peace— one of the references for this congregation told me that in the many years she worshipped with you she was astonished at the low level, actually virtual non-existence of conflict among you; Patience— I don’t know for sure, but you have just come through an extended season of transition… this requires great patience.  And your search committee worked with utter diligence not rushing decisions but carefully weighing options— evidencing the gift of patience; Kindness— you have this in spades— I can’t even begin to count the number of kind deeds I’ve witnessed or been the blessed recipient of on the part of this congregation.  Now, sure, any of these fruits might be lacking in any of us at any given moment.  But, together, in our fellowship, as we turn towards one another in love, these gifts emerge and are strengthened.

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Maybe there is no fierce wind or fire erupting today… but I suspect there are even more compelling signs that the Spirit is present, more of the fruits named by Paul emerging in the life of this congregation. And if we are willing to continue to let the Spirit of God turn us towards one another and towards the world God loves, they will come into full blossom.  

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  • Bring gifts and food the first week
  • Organize and execute an unpacking party
  • Roll with two radically different first worship services
  • Give concrete feedback, both positive and negative
  • Hire amazing staff
  • Graciously encourage your pastor to participate in enriching continuing education EARLY in her tenure
  • Demonstrate that you actually READ the e-newsletter
  • Cultivate working teams of church members who welcome but do not appear to require pastoral support
  • Send a thoughtful, articulate e-mail advocating for the installation of solar panels when the roof is replaced in a few years
  • Be the buildings and grounds chair who responds to said e-mail with an equally thoughtful and articulate reply
  • Ask for a coffee chat in order to share honestly and deeply, and volunteer to serve on a relevant ministry team minutes before being invited to do so
  • Share a story of an amazing intergenerational birthday party in which several church members recently participated and articulate that you know it to be an anticipatory taste of heaven– and this church at it’s best!
  • Speak passionately and theologically about the future of the church– with no prompting required!

In other words, two weeks in… THANK YOU, ST. ANDREWS!

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