Holy, Holy, Holy – Revelation 5.8-14 & Psalm 96.109

August 24, 2014 – 11th Sunday after Pentecost

Introduction to the scripture reading: Revelation 5 is a scene of heaven with angels and living creatures gathered around the Lamb of God. There is a dilemma over who is worthy to open the scroll–to reveal God’s truth. It turns out it is the Lamb who is worthy.

Listen for similar tones and themes that you heard in the Psalm and see if you can envision this heavenly scene of worship and praise.

Read Revelation 5.8-14

So this morning is the seventh of eight sermons in our  “Hum a sermon” series. And the starring hymn of today’s sermon is #519 “You are My Strength.”

I learned “You are My Strength” at a Montreat Youth Conference a number of years ago. Twice a day at Montreat, all the high school youth and their accompanying adults gather together in the auditorium and there is singing. Now the auditorium seats about 1200 people and to sing with 1200 young people is a glorious thing! This is not lip syncing to pop tunes or swaying to someone else belting out the lyrics with their band, this is lift up your hearts and sing–sing and bless God–sing and bring your whole being before God.

I remember as a high school student in youth group singing songs of praise to God–with my heart wide open and with as much love as I could muster. And I feel that in the auditorium at Montreat singing with young people.

“You are My Strength” is a song out of the praise and worsip tradition. It’s a genre of music we don’t sing much at Central and that’s one reason I wanted to introduce it in our sermon series. It’s also a song that’s still in the popular rotation at Montreat so it’s a song many of our high school students know. Plus, it’s a fun piece to sing because its got two parts that are sung in canon which sounds great especially here in the Chapel.

This morning I want to talk about praising God.

But more than that, given the past two weeks in Ferguson, Missouri, I want to think with you about what place praising God has in a world where so much seems wrong. How does praising God have anything to do with making choices that say Black Lives Matter? How does praising God have anything to do with using our privilege and power to effect systemic change in a culture that privileges people with white skin over people with brown skin?

Psalm 96 directs us–and all the earth–to sing to God, to bless God’s name, to declare God’s glory. For God is great and greatly to be praised.

In Revelation, we hear the angels, the living creatures and the elders singing “with full voice,” “Worthy is the Lamb!” Every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, sings, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” Every creature gives praise to God and to the Lamb.

And what we hear in the song of those who worship in Revelation 5 is almost exactly what is in our mouths when we sing #519: Jesus, Lamb of God, worthy is your name!

(And you might note that our opening hymn, “Holy, holy, holy” comes from a song sung in the heavenly scene in Revelation 4.)

Why do we sing praise? Our praise is grateful response to God’s overwhelming goodness. The organization of our hymnal itself reflects this. The first section of hymns sing of God’s mighty acts. The last section of hymns sing are response to God. Adoration and praise is what we do because of what God has already done in creation, Jesus Christ, in the church and the world. Worship is our grateful response to God’s love and faithfulness. Pastor and author Eugene Peterson says it this way:

“Christians worship with a conviction that they are in the presence of God. Worship is an act of attention to the living God who rules, speaks and reveals, creates and redeems, orders and blesses…Worship is a meeting at the center so that our lives are centered in God and not lived eccentrically. Failure to worship consigns us to a life of spasms and jerks, at the mercy of every advertisement, every seduction, every siren.”1

“The act of worship gathers into its centering rituals and harmonizing rhythms every aspect of creation. Worship does not divide the spiritual from the natural, it coordinates them. Nature and supernature, creation and covenant, elders and animals are all gathered”2 in this heavenly scene in Revelation 5. We sing in another song of praise, “All creatures of our God and king, lift up your voice and with us sing, alleluia, alleluia!” Or in the words of Charles Wesley: “Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.”3

But in a world in such trouble, can we stay lost in wonder, love and praise? Do we need to shake ourselves out of such reverie and do something, for God’s sake?!

One of the best books on prayer that I’ve read is Marjorie Suchocki’s book In God’s Presence. (A group of us read it together back in 1998.) So I turned to her book to think some more about praise and the trouble of the world. “Prayer is thanksgiving,” Suchocki writes, “for no matter what specific thing or person may be the subject of our praying, the very fact that we can bring these matters to the one who is God bathes the praying in the overflowing gratitude that is praise.”4 So even when we pray in anger or despair or confusion, what underlies our prayer is praise that we can pray in such a way; that God hears us and is moved by our prayer.

Suchocki looks at the writings of Paul in the New Testament and the way he consistently gives thanks to God for the gifts that are present in the communities to which he writes. Now, in his letters Paul is typically writing to address problems within the community but he begins with praise to God for the gifts of God that exist in the community. The failings of the community never wipe out “the reality that the community is a community of faith, love, and hope, and for this, thanksgiving [and praise] to God is unfailingly appropriate.” In fact, Suchocki says, it is precisely because the community is fundamentally formed through these gifts of [God] that its reform is always possible.”5 She describes this as an “echo effect”: we praise “God for giving the gift, and the creature for its own graced response as it makes the gifts its own. The result is that the…act of [praising or] thanking God affects our way of living in the world, making us expectant of seeing God’s gifts actualized in those we meet and those we know. Continuous thanksgiving to God creates a continuous expectancy of encountering [the] gifts God has released into the world.”6

Another way to say this is praise and thanksgiving wakes us up “to the wonder of God’s faithfulness. In every moment of our lives God touches us with an impulse toward”7 what is good and holy, what is just and true. We don’t always follow that impulse and even when we do, it doesn’t mean our lives are without harm or trouble. But “God’s guidance can empower us to live lives of faith, hope, and love in and through”8 whatever harm or trouble we encounter or create.

Suchocki reminds us that God’s guidance and touch in our lives “pushes us toward deeper involvement in the world.”9 God’s “insistent whisper [is] that we [would] live responsibly and lovingly in the world.”10

We praise God for God’s faithfulness and love and desire for well-being for all of creation. And in that very act of praising, we receive those gifts of faithfulness and love and well-being and are given the opportunity to use them for good in the world. And in the act of recognizing God’s faithfulness and love and desire for the well-being of all people and all of creation, our lives are changed and we live with an expectation that those gifts will be made manifest in the world. And in that expectation, our lives are changed and we become more of that which we long for–not just for ourselves but for the whole world. Which might just be a way of being lost in wonder, love and praise.

It’s not a lostness which takes us away from the trouble of the world. It’s a lostness that puts us right in the middle of it with the gifts and the presence of God.

And so in our praise, we don’t turn our back on the world. We gather in the world where we stand next to Michael Brown and Kajieme Powell and John Crawford III and Eric Garner and the many other brown skinned men and women who have been killed and whose names most of us don’t know. And we offer the gifts of God we have been given to transform the world in God’s image. A world where Black Lives Matter. A world where everyone has enough. A world where no more parents have to grieve for their murdered children or children mourn their murdered parents. A world where no children go hungry. A world where every person’s life is cherished as a beloved child of God. Giving praise to God doesn’t magically make that happen but it’s part of how God transforms us to transform the world.

* * *
1 Eugene H. Peterson, Reversed Thunder: The Revelation of John & the Praying Imagination (Harper San Francisco, 1988), 59-60.
2 Ibid., 62.
3 Charles Wesley, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.”
4 Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki, In God’s Presence – Theological Reflections on Prayer, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1996), 115-116.
5 Ibid., 117.
6 Ibid., 118-119.
7 Ibid., 120.
8 Ibid.
9 Ibid., 123.
10 Ibid.

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Written On Our Hearts – Deuteronomy 6.4-9 & Psalm 119.10-16

August 10, 2014 – 9th Sunday after Pentecost

Introduction: This reading from Deuteronomy 6 comes directly on the heels of the ten commandments which God’s people receive in Deuteronomy 5. We hear Moses instructing the people  on learning and observing God’s life-giving law.

READ: Deuteronomy 6.4-9

At the Sunday night hymn sing last week, nearly two dozen people gathered in our living and dining rooms to sing some of the “good old songs.” Many were hymns both former Baptists and lifelong Presbyterians knew from going to church on Sunday nights in our growing-up years. Many of the hymns were in the Glory to God hymnal. Some of them were in the Broadman hymnal and some in the Billy Graham Crusade songbook. Some of the hymns we didn’t have in any of our collections but Phillip said, “That’s okay. We don’t need the words written on the page” and then Carol chimed in, “Because they are written on our hearts!”

And that was true that evening. I loved looking around the room and seeing people–notably, those who had grown up Baptist–singing all the words by heart–even when we had the words on the pages of our hymn books.

The psalmist says “I treasure your word in my heart, so that I may not sin against you.” (Psalm 119.11) Or as the Common English Bible says, “I keep your word close, in my heart.” The entirety of Psalm 119 is an expression of “delight [in] the law of [God] and the importance of the constant study of it.”1

One of my colleagues in my Doctor of Ministry program is a rabbi and she reminded us this summer that the Jewish tradition of studying Torah (the law) is not only an intellectual pursuit but it is also a form of devotion, a way of worshiping God.

The psalmist delights in keeping God’s word–the life-giving direction we receive from God–close at heart “so that I may not sin against you.” I know we don’t talk a lot about sin and so I think we often have some less than helpful notions about what it is (and isn’t). I think it’s Marcus Borg who has written somewhat recently about sin as estrangement, or separation, from that to which we belong. Treasuring God’s life-giving word in our hearts is part of how we stay connected to God. It is how we remember both who we are and whose we are and what we are called to do in the world.

Back when I started seminary I had no plans to be a preacher. I was going to be a Christian Educator, a teacher. I wanted to be like the teachers who had inspired me to study the bible more and more. (My desire to be a teacher most likely started when I was in elementary school and my sister and I would play school in the basement where we had a blackboard and an old fashioned school desk. I, of course, was always the teacher and my sister was always the student who dutifully worked on the problems I wrote on the blackboard.)

As I was entering seminary, one of the formational scripture passages for me about the role of teaching came from Deuteronomy 6. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”

You might recognize some of the physical ways that this direction in Deuteronomy is observed in some Jewish communities. Some Jewish men wear tefillin–small leather boxes that contain verses of the Torah–they wear them on their forehead and arm, typically during prayer.2

If you been in the home of Jewish friends you have probably seen a mezuzah. It is a small, usually decorated, container attached to the doorframe. It is attached at a little slant and inside are the words we heard in Deuteronomy 6.4: “Hear, O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” When you pass through the doorway, you touch the mezuzah as a physical reminder of who you are and whose you are and what you are called to do in the world.

Both the tefillin and the mezuzah come from this passage in Deuteronomy as a way to be reminded of the commandment which binds one to God.

So one way the life-giving word of God is kept in our hearts is by physical signs and rituals that help us remember. That act as a touchstone–literally, something to touch–during the day, through the week, across the year, connecting us to God and to the community of God’s people.

The other thing we hear in this passage from Deuteronomy is the instruction to talk about the commandments when we are at home and when we are away, when we lie down and when we rise up. In other words, in all the circumstances of our day. We are commanded to let the word of God seep into, and saturate, all of our life. That’s how it becomes written on our hearts.

Deuteronomy tells us to talk about the commandments but I think the heart of its instruction also takes us to music. Have you ever had the experience of hearing a piece of music and immediately you are back in a place with an emotion connected to that song? Maybe it was the song you first danced to when you got married. Or the music that gave words to your broken heart in junior high. Or the hymn from the funeral of your parent or grandparent. Neuroscience has discovered music has this amazing power to transport us because it activates a large portion of our brain. Music stimulates the motor part of our brain that controls physical movement which is connected to rhythm. It stimulates the auditory portion of our brain that processes sound. And it stimulates the limbic regions of our brain that have to do with emotions.3

We also know that singing helps us memorize. Some of the research I’ve seen has used music to help people learn difficult languages–which explains why seminary Hebrew professors teach songs in class.

In a recent study, a researcher on memories and music related findings that “music transmitted from generation to generation” (music we hear from our parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles) “shapes autobiographical memories, preferences and emotional responses.”4 Doesn’t that sort of sound like another way of saying something is written on our hearts in this kind of memory? It speaks to me of the power of what we sing in church; the music we learn that forms us and shapes us and inspires us to live out our faith and stays with us in times of celebration and in times of suffering. I would even say that what we sing has the capacity to draw us into God’s presence.

I’ve learned the language of “heart songs” since the publication of Glory to God. Heart songs are the songs we know by heart and they are the songs that speak to our hearts. Heart songs are the music a community turns to again and again to find strength in times of trouble and to give praise to God in times of blessing.

Perhaps a heart song for you is “Blessed Assurance” or “Great is Thy Faithfulness.” “The Storm is Passing Over” or “There’s a Sweet, Sweet Spirit in This Place.” “Victory in Jesus” or “Trust and Obey.” “Precious Lord, Take my Hand,” or “The Lord Will Make a Way Somehow” or “If it Had Not Been for the Lord” or “I Need Thee Every Hour” or “You Are My Strength When I Am Weak.” “God of Grace and God of Glory” or “I’ll Fly Away.” Or one of thousands of other hymns that people have sung through the generations and found strength and courage, hope and power, life and liberation.

This morning we sing a heart song that comes from Korea: “Everyone Who Longs for the Boundless Love of God.” It is a newer hymn, written originally in 1986, which makes it different from other heart songs we may know in that it has only recently begun to be passed from one generation to another. Dave Eicher told me about the experience of singing this hymn with Korean Presbyterians in Louisville and how moved he was by the passion and conviction with which it was sung. Dr. Paul Huh at Columbia Seminary brought this hymn to the Glory to God hymnal committee and in an email to me this week he wrote, “I am excited to learn that more and more people are singing the song joining the popularity it has earned in the wide spectrum of both Korean and Korean-American churches.”5 And he clarified that this hymn is not just popular in Korean Presbyterian churches but across the Korean denominations.

With its message of God’s great love for us–”more than [we] can ever fully know” and God’s abiding presence–with us “in every dark and fearful place we go” perhaps this hymn will become one that is also written on our hearts and the hearts of the generations who follow us.

[Notes on #849 “Everyone Who Longs for the Boundless Love of God”:
This hymn has the biggest vocal range of any hymn in Glory to God. Basses and altos will like the first part and tenors and sopranos will like the second part.
Start on the left page–go to the first ending (4th line down: loves you more than you can every fully know). Then back to the top of the left page for where it begins “Everyone who worships God.” Then in the 4th line, move down to the next line so we sing “loves you now as one of God’s own.”

Then continue that line onto the right page and down to the first ending. Then go back to the bottom line of the left page where we sing again, “God is always watching over you” and then we take the big, dramatic second ending which ends on the very last line of the right page.]

* * *
1 James L. Mays, Psalms (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1994), 381.
2 http://judaism.about.com/od/prayersworship/a/What-Are-Tefillin.htm, accessed 8 August 2014.
3 http://www.spring.org.uk/2013/12/music-and-memory-5-awesome-new-psychology-studies.php, accessed 8 August 2014.
4 Ibid.
5 Personal correspondence.