Fifth Sunday of Easter 2016

Psalm 148

1 Hallelujah!
Praise the Lord from the heavens; *
praise him in the heights.
2 Praise him, all you angels of his; *
praise him, all his host.
3 Praise him, sun and moon; *
praise him, all you shining stars.
4 Praise him, heaven of heavens, *
and you waters above the heavens.
5 Let them praise the Name of the Lord; *
for he commanded, and they were created.
6 He made them stand fast for ever and ever; *
he gave them a law which shall not pass away.
7 Praise the Lord from the earth, *
you sea-monsters and all deeps;
8 Fire and hail, snow and fog, *
tempestuous wind, doing his will;
9 Mountains and all hills, *
fruit trees and all cedars;
10 Wild beasts and all cattle, *
creeping things and winged birds;
11 Kings of the earth and all peoples, *
princes and all rulers of the world;
12 Young men and maidens, *
old and young together.
13 Let them praise the Name of the Lord, *
for his Name only is exalted,
his splendor is over earth and heaven.
14 He has raised up strength for his people
and praise for all his loyal servants, *
the children of Israel, a people who are near him.
Hallelujah!
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Last Sunday was one of those rich and beautiful days that leave me satisfied, grateful, and full of praise.  I had led our youth confirmation class through an exploration of prayer and the varieties of ways we can engage our minds, bodies and hearts in adoration of all that is holy. Immediately afterwards I joined our parishioners who had gathered with our partners in our interfaith endeavor to till the soil and spread compost at the community garden we are sharing with them. I couldn’t refrain from praising God at the sight of Muslim and Christian children working side by side, ultimately for the benefit of others, but mostly for the joy of digging in the dirt.

That Sunday evening before bed, as is my practice, I looked at the scripture readings for today and quickly decided that I couldn’t resist preaching on the Psalm:

Hallelujah!
Praise the Lord from the heavens; *
praise him in the heights.

And I fell asleep that evening in a spirit of praise and thanksgiving.  I awoke early the next morning and was soon stationed in the sunroom with my laptop computer, gazing out over the rapidly greening oaks and pine trees below my house. I thought of today’s psalm, “Mountains and all hills, * fruit trees and all cedars; Let them praise the name of the Lord.” Woodpeckers and finches had gathered at the bird feeder only a few feet away – As the psalmist wrote,“creeping things and winged birds expressing their praise.”

My sermon topic, as I imagined it at the time, would be something heady, theologically challenging – an exploration of the question of why we praise God.  Why does the psalmist call on all creation, the celestial chorus, to join with us in praise of God’s splendor and exaltation?  “Does God really want or need our praise?” I wondered.

I was deep in contemplation of that question when one of my own wild beasts, my dog Lulu, decided that she was sorely in need of my praise. So she wandered over and put her head under my hand to receive a pat and a “good girl”.  Allie, my Australian Shepherd, noticing that Lulu was getting some attention, walked over to receive his morning’s share of praise and adoration. Needing both hands to provide all the admiring pats and strokes that my dogs demanded, I placed my laptop on the floor beside my morning cup of still warm green tea.   I’m not sure whether it was Allie or Lulu who was to blame, but a duet of wagging tails resulted in an overturned cup of tea and a stream of still-warm green liquid flowed directly into the USB port of my MacBook Pro.

At first it seemed that no damage was done, but as I gathered a towel to clean up the mess, I noticed that my screen had darkened and an image of a folder appeared with an ominous question mark blinking on and off.  A quick Internet search on my iphone revealed that this was not good news and that almost certainly my hard drive was fried.

In an instant all my praise and adoration directed at a beneficent God, the Hallelujahs that only a moment before I had shared with the Psalmist, the angels, the sun and the moon, fell away into a blasphemous torrent of curses, accusations, self-doubt, and cries of “poor, pitiful me.”

One moment I was singing a hymn of praise with the Psalmist, and the next I’ve joined Arkansas singer songwriter Lucinda Williams in one of her early songs of lament,

“If we lived in a world without tears
How would misery know which backdoor to walk through?
How would trouble know which mind to live inside of?
How would sorrow find a home.”

So quickly…my satisfaction turned to discontent, and my joy to sorrow.

In various versions, across a variety of cultures, the following tale is told.

A man named Sei Weng owned a beautiful mare which was praised far and wide. One day this beautiful horse disappeared. The people of his village offered sympathy to Sei Weng for his great misfortune. Sei Weng said simply, “Good fortune, ill fortune, who can say?”

A few days later the lost mare returned, followed by a beautiful wild stallion. The village congratulated Sei Weng for his good fortune. He said, “Good fortune, ill fortune, who can say?”

Some time later, Sei Weng’s only son, while riding the stallion, fell off and broke his leg. The village people once again expressed their sympathy at Sei Weng’s misfortune. Sei Weng again said, “Good fortune, ill fortune, who can say?”

Soon thereafter, war broke out and all the young men of the village except Sei Weng’s lame son were drafted and were killed in battle. The village people were amazed at Sei Weng’s good luck. His son was the only young man left alive in the village. But Sei Weng kept his same attitude: despite all the turmoil, gains and losses, he gave the same reply, “Good fortune, ill fortune, who can say?”

By the end of the day I had forgiven the dogs for their exuberance, Steve Jobs for creating vulnerable Apple products, myself for my carelessness, and I had let go of my instinctive response to hold God accountable for the direction in which a spilled cup of green tea might flow.  Eventually, I was led back to the question of why praising God in all circumstances makes sense, when we really never know in advance whether the blessings or mishaps that seem to randomly happen around us will ultimately prove to be of good fortune or ill.

I think that the Psalmist points to the answer by calling on all creation to join in praising God from the heavens and from the earth.  The state of my laptop matters to me only when I forget that I am connected, share my very being, with all of you, with every creature on earth. With fire and hail, snow and fog, and tempestuous wind. The Psalmist calls on the very elements that compose creation to praise God.  If the Psalmist had known of subatomic particles he would have called on quarks and bosons and leptons to join in the celestial chorus as well.

Yet just as the Psalmist calls on all creation to praise God, there are also Psalms of sorrow and lament.

“You sweep us away like a dream;
we fade away suddenly like the grass.
In the morning it is green and flourishes;
In the evening it is dried up and withered…
Make us glad by measure of the days that you afflicted us
and the years in which we suffered adversity.

These are songs, not just of individual sorrow, but of communal lament.  Just as the psalmist called on shining stars and sea monsters to join with him in praising God.  So does the psalmist share his sorrow with the withered grass of the evening.

We are not alone in either our joy or our sorrow.  It is the realization, or maybe the remembrance, of our connection, the communal experience, with all that is, that sustains us in sorrow and elevates us in joy.

Praise is a recognition of the deepest truth about reality. Praise lifts us above our shallow concerns and points us, beyond ourselves, and in the direction of the divine nature we share with all creation.

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