Sermons

Doxology

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Lesson: Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23

For about a century, week in and week out, the people of this congregation have sung the Doxology at some point in Sunday morning worship.

Praise God from whom all blessing flow.

Praise God all creatures here below.

Praise God above ye heavenly hosts. …

And here’s where folks break into two or three different versions: Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; Creator, Son and Holy Ghost; or Creator, Christ and Holy Ghost. They’re all fine. Thanks to our lovely church history, published to celebrate our centennial in 1997, we know that the Doxology has been part of the regular Sunday worship service since about 1913.[1]

The word “doxology” means praise. Louis Bourgeois, John Calvin’s choirmaster in Geneva, composed the tune we use in 1551. In 1560, William Kethe, a Scot and friend of John Knox, wrote a paraphrase of Psalm 100 using Bourgeois’ tune. That hymn is the oldest hymn in English still in use, and appears in our hymnal at number 220: “All People That on Earth Do Dwell.” The tune became known as “Old Hundredth” because of its association with Psalm 100. In the late 1600’s, Anglican hymn writer Thomas Ken borrowed “Old Hundredth” for another hymn, a hymn he called, “Morning Hymn.” The words we sing as the Doxology – “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” and so on, were the 14th stanza of that hymn. I’ll bet you’re glad we just sing the one verse. But we sing it every week, and we sing it as grace at potlucks and retreats and sometimes meetings, and even allowing for the significant chunk of time I quit going to church as a young adult, and accounting for missing church several times a year, I’ve probably sung the Doxology well over 2000 times. For some of you it could be twice that.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Not exactly the same words but the same message as Psalm 100. Praise God. Praise God all people. The Bible is a persistent advocate of the act of praise. In fact, the Bible is almost pushy about it. Psalm 100 isn’t an invitation to make a joyful noise. It’s a command. Throughout the psalms, we’re commanded to praise God, to fall down on our faces, to sing, shout, clap our hands, wave branches, blow trumpets, pluck strings, and bang cymbals together.[2] We are commanded to join our voices with the sounds of nature, with thunder and trees and the roaring sea.[3] I think most of us associate this kind of over the top behavior with Old Testament people – maybe that was normal several thousand years ago and perhaps it was a simpler people at a simpler time. And we tend to bristle at anything that smacks of a command. Praise God, even if I don’t feel like it? It reminds me of a line from the old British comedy duo, Flanders and Swann: “We should always be sincere whether we mean it or not.” Besides, why would God need our praise? Is God that narcissistic or needy?

Well, it turns out it is not God who needs it. We need it. C. S. Lewis wrote that what we need most as humans beings is doxology. “God is that object to admire which is to be awake,” wrote Lewis. Interesting thought: To praise is to be awake. To praise is to be alert to what is going on. “Praise,” he said, “is inner health made audible.”

“Praise is inner health made audible.” Current research affirms this. Praise and gratitude are closely connected; they are sisters if you will. Research shows that gratitude isn’t an attitude but rather, a practice, and the people who actively practice gratitude are the people who experience more joy. This is important: They are not grateful because they are joyful; they are joyful because they are grateful.[4]

All of that is what is going on when we open our lives and spirits to doxology. And there is a sense in which praise is a countercultural act, it is subversive to the values of the materialistic, consumer-based culture that goes into overdrive this time of year. We live and move and have our being in a culture that evaluates us, places us in the social spectrum, defines and identifies us on the basis of what we earn, own, look like and consume. And over against that prevailing ethos, the simple radical act of doxology says we belong to God. Our most basic identity as human beings comes from the One who created us and who is the life and love behind all of creation.[5] As John Updike put it, “Ancient religion and science agree: we are here to give praise . . . to pay attention.”

It is so, so easy to forget this, to lose track of this. To quit paying attention. Both my daughters were involved in theater in middle and high school, and decent actresses if I do say so myself, but also both very tall, especially for their ages. They quickly learned that the leading lady roles went to the petite girls, not because they were better actresses, necessarily, but because they were shorter than the boys who were cast as the leading men. So my daughters ended up being cast as mothers much of the time, including the time my daughter Allison played the mother in a summer drama camp production of one of my favorite plays, Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town.” “Our Town” is about everyday life in the fictional small American town of Grover’s Corners in the first years of the twentieth century. Throughout the play, a character called the Stage Manager narrates and in some cases interacts with the characters. In the final act, one of the main characters, Emily, has died in childbirth. We see her funeral and we see her take her place among the other townspeople who have died and who are now largely indifferent to earthly events. But Emily is not, not yet, and against the advice of the other souls in the cemetery, she decides to go back and relive part of her life. With the aid of the Stage Manager, Emily steps into the morning of her twelfth birthday. Emily both participates as the birthday girl and watches the scene as an observer.

The petite 12-year-old playing Emily in the summer drama camp production rushed her lines; my tall daughter probably could have delivered them better; but it didn’t matter. The power of Emily’s farewell speech transcends acting skills. She says, “But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s really look at one another! … I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed.” She turns to the Stage Manager: “Take me back – up the hill – to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye. Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners …. Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking …. and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths …. and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it – every, every minute?” And the Stage Manager replies, “No,” and pauses. And then he says, “The saints and poets, maybe they do some.”[6]

The saints, and poets. The saints and poets, who understand the practice of doxology. In the Ephesians passage, the writer, described as the apostle Paul but probably one of his followers, begins his letter at verse 1, “to the saints who are in Ephesus.”[7] As I mentioned a few weeks ago on All Saints Sunday, the early church used the word “saints” to refer to the whole church, the church on earth, here and now. You are the saints. We are the saints. The writer of Ephesians thanks God for inspiring the Ephesians with hope, enlightenment, faith and love.[8] And then he bursts forth with praise, but not insubstantial praise; it is not mushy or sentimental praise. The writer praises God for lifting Christ far above all rule and authority.[9] It’s easy to miss, today, that this was a political statement. If God has made Christ the King, then no other power on this earth is sovereign and deserves ultimate obedience: neither the United States nor the Democrats, the Republicans, or the Tea Party; neither K Street nor Wall Street nor Madison Avenue.[10]

Today we celebrate Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. It’s the last Sunday of the church calendar. Next week we start a new church year with the first Sunday in Advent. Biblical commentator Clifton Black writes, “On this of all Sundays, the impostors to whom we have pledged our allegiance are exposed. … On the Sunday of [Christ the King], Jesus Christ declares the church’s independence from every fraudulent lord to whom his children have sold their souls.”[11] So Reign of Christ Sunday, then, is like the church’s Fourth of July. It is our Independence Day. Praise God from whom all blessings flow. And that is exactly what the writer of Ephesians has in mind.

“The saints and poets, maybe they do some.” The saints and poets understand the power of doxology.  There is power in praising God for every, every minute of life; there is power in praising God for our independence from the other powers who would define us by what we earn, own, and consume, rather than as sons and daughters of God, created in God’s image and chips off the old divine block, as my New Testament professor[12] used to put it, worthy of God’s love and justice regardless of any condition you can imagine or the world can manufacture.

The writer of Ephesians is specific about gratitude for the community of the faithful, because it is the community that lives into this truth, this alternative reality where love is king, not cash or military might or status or anything else. We, the church, still gather in community because it is hard, even for us saints, to realize life, every, every minute. It is countercultural to practice gratitude, expect joy, and live doxology. The cover of your bulletins this morning is a Norman Rockwell painting that graced the cover of The Saturday Evening Post in November 1951.[13] Rockwell shows us that even then, even in the fifties, living a life of doxology was not the norm; it was an aberration drawing curious stares. And so as Psalm 100 says, we come. We come into God’s presence with singing. We enter God’s gates with thanksgiving, and God’s courts with praise. We come here, not because God lives at 72 Kensington Avenue in San Anselmo or even shows up here more than anywhere else. Psalm 100 is marvelously, radically inclusive: “Make a joyful noise, all the earth!”[14] God fashioned every single person, the entire earth is our venue for praise, and as the poet Rumi put it, “There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” But here, we offer a time, a place, an opportunity, and songs. That isn’t the only function of the church of course but it is a primary function: A time and place for praise; and the belief that praise is not only good but necessary in order for us to recall, as the psalm puts it, “that the Lord is God. It is God that made us, and we are God’s; we are God’s people.” We offer a time and place where doxology is the norm.

We come because we can’t will ourselves to be more grateful, to be more inclined to praise God, but we can learn, and practice, and we can be near people who believe praise is necessary, too, and maybe even do it well, or at least better than we do. On the Friday night of the retreat I co-led at Westminster Woods last weekend, a line- and square-dance caller taught us dances for an hour and a half or so. It was an exercise in being vulnerable with each other, not caught up with comparison but just willing to laugh and to give it a try. I was OK; I knew a few of the moves because we did folk dancing every week in P.E. when I was in elementary school. But there were plenty of things I’d never tried before and I had my share of missed steps. I figured out, however, that if I danced near Marjorie Hoyer-Smith, I was much better. Marjorie is a Presbyterian minister and spiritual director whom some of you may know, and she happens to be an excellent dancer. When I danced close enough to her to watch her, I was a better dancer, too.

And so it is when we gather for doxology with the church. Life unfolds like a game of Chutes and Ladders, ups and downs and not in any order; sometimes a down is followed by yet another down. It is in the community of the church that we learn to praise God in the most ordinary moments, because God is at work, and in the most elevating moments, because God is at work, and even in the most heart-wrenching moments, because God is still at work, and sometimes all of those are jumbled together and indistinguishable. Church is where you figure out by watching our brothers and sisters in faith, by dancing close to them, by praising next to them, that at times, as Anne Lamott writes, “even though what you want is clarity and resolution, what you get is stamina and poignancy and the strength to hang on.” Praise God, from whom all blessings flow.

For over a century, we have sung the Doxology. For 117 years, we have gathered to praise God. Praising God is power; it equips us for service; it is the foundation, the heart and soul of a powerful, prophetic, life-giving, life-changing ministry. God has blessed us with enormous resources: buildings, land, finances, people skills and life experience, faith and love, humor, commitment and courage. As a community of doxology, open to the never-ceasing possibilities of God, we have been and continue to be called to use our resources to join with God’s work in the world. And yes, this part is a stewardship pitch. We conclude our stewardship campaign today and your response to God’s gifts allows us to keep coming together to live and worship and learn and practice and serve together as people whose lives are shaped, and continue to be shaped, by praising God.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow. May it be so for you, and for me.

© Joanne Whitt 2014 all rights reserved.

[1] Our Past: A Window to the Future, Walt T. Davis, general editor (San Anselmo, CA: First Presbyterian Church, 1997), p. 159.

[2] Sing, clap hands and shout: e.g., Psalms 47, 66, 98 and 100. Wave branches: Psalm 118. Trumpets: Psalms 98 and 150. Strings: Psalms 92 and 150. Clashing cymbals: Psalm 150.

[3] E.g., Psalms 18, 29, 77, 93, 96, 98, 148.

[4] Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection (Center City, MN: Hazelden, 2010), pp. 77-79; 90.

[5] John M. Buchanan, November 24, 2002, http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2002/112402.html.

[6] Thornton Wilder, “Our Town,” 1938. The full text of Emily’s line: “Oh, Mama, look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead. You’re a grandmother, Mama! Wally’s dead, too. His appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it – don’t you remember? But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s really look at one another!…I can’t. I can’t go on. It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back — up the hill — to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye, Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners….Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth, you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every, every minute?”

[7] Ephesians 1:1.

[8] Ephesians 1:16-19.

[9] Ephesians 1:20-22.

[10] C. Clifton Black, “Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23,” November 20, 2011, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1056.

[11] Black, ibid.

[12] The Rev. Dr. Herman C. Waetjen.

[13] “Saying Grace” is a 1951 painting by Norman Rockwell, painted for the cover of The Saturday Evening Post’s November 24, 1951, Thanksgiving issue. It depicts an older woman and small boy, presumably a grandmother and her grandson, saying grace with heads bowed over their meals in a diner, as other patrons of the diner watch them with curious looks. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saying_Grace_%28painting%29.

[14] Psalm 100:1.

Whom Will We Serve?

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Lesson: Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25

We call this morning Together We Serve Sunday. This coming Friday, November 14th, is this congregation’s 117th anniversary, and “together we serve” is our congregation’s motto, adopted by the whole church after one of our members, Johnny Holm, began using it a couple of decades ago to close church correspondence instead of “respectfully yours” or “regards.” It just fit. In emails, many of us shorten it to TWS.  For a number of years we have celebrated with an all-church dinner and talent show, as we will tonight. Among the acts tonight will be the Kensingtones, our girl group, and tonight we’ll be singing, “One Fine Day.”[1] I mention this not as a bald-faced commercial for the Kensingtones – led and choreographed by the talented former rock musician Beverly Rodgers, artistic director, and accompanied by the incomparable Patty Sempell – I mention it because it occurred to me that if you switch the word “God” for the word “girl” in “One Fine Day,” which we do not, by the way, but if you switch the word “God” for the word “girl,” you end up with, “One fine day, you’re going to want me for your God.” And instead of being a song about a somewhat pathetic teenager longing wistfully for her no good boyfriend to take her back, you have a song about the God who waits for us and even pursues us even when we are the kind who want to run around, as the song puts it. It describes the God we meet again and again in Scripture, the God whose love will not let us go.

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Saints Aren’t Perfect

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“There is a crack in everything.  That’s how the light gets in.”  Leonard Cohen, “Anthem.”

Lesson: Psalm 34:1-10, 22; Matthew 23:1-12

I lived in Texas for seven years, which was not long enough for country and western music to become “my” music, but it was long enough for it to grow on me. Country and western songs don’t shy away from honest but messy emotions or less-than-tidy lives. While I lived in Texas, David Allan Coe released a song called, “You Never Even Called Me By My Name,” in which he said the perfect country and western song has to say something about mama, trains, trucks, prison, and gettin’ drunk.[1]

Believe it or not, this morning’s Matthew passage is what started me thinking about country and western songs. Jesus takes on the Pharisees for praying publicly, ostentatiously, using their phylacteries and fringes. A phylactery is a small box with a long leather strap. The box contains words of scripture central to the Jewish faith. Orthodox Jewish men still use phylacteries in prayer today.[2] Fringes are the long fringes at the corners of prayer shawls, also still used by Jews all over the world.[3] There is nothing at all wrong with using these prayer aids, but these particular Pharisees apparently are doing it for show. They are trying to look all tidy when their real lives look more like a country and western song, and they judge others by a standard they are not willing to meet themselves. And when Jesus closes with, “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted,”[4] it reminded me of another country and western song, perhaps the theme song of these Pharisees: “Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re perfect in every way.”[5]

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Be still…

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Intro to scripture:
Psalm 46 is written as a song. It actually has a subtitle telling us it is a song. One translation actually reads, “For the conductor, … A song for soprano voices.” There are also three indicators written in the Hebrew that suggest a pause or a breath between stanzas. There’s a verse repeated at the end of two out of the three stanzas that make up that psalm. The Bible records this repeated verse or chorus in verse seven and eleven, but it probably also belongs at the end of the first stanza, verse three. The chorus goes like this: The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge/haven. Selah

If these two names for God sound a bit odd, here is some context. The “God of hosts” refers to lots of angels – hosts of them, scores of them, an army of them at God’s disposal. (Nice.) If Jacob does not ring any bells for you, may I remind you of the stories of the brothers Jacob and Esau. Jacob is a scoundrel and cheats his brother out of his inheritance. Years later he is about to have a family reunion with Esau and Jacob wrestles with an angel all night. The angel blesses him with a new name. His new name is, “Israel.” Yes, that Israel – the one from whom the people of Israel derived their name. He ends up being a nicer guy and is remembered fondly. So our Psalmist is truly dropping some big names for God. A contemporized translation, The Message, says the chorus like this: Jacob-wrestling God fights for us, God-of-Angel-Armies protects us. Now, that sounds a bit different, doesn’t it! Sounds a bit more action-oriented and powerful. Sign me up.

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Bearing Fruit in a Season of Drought

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Lesson: Jeremiah 17:5-8

Note: Today’s sermon was preached by Rev. Kate Taber, Presbyterian Mission Agency point person in Jerusalem.

I arrived home one night in July to find a voicemail from an old friend. “Thinking of you,” she said earnestly, “and praying that you are safe.” I felt immediately sheepish, thinking of the beautiful garden patio I had just left, where I was having drinks with friends and making plans for brunch over the weekend. I was reminded again of the insane and surreal nature of our lives in Jerusalem over the summer. Fifty miles away, Israel was bombing and invading the Gaza Strip and militants there were sending out rockets. Yet, contrary to the perception of my friends and family, we were incredibly safe. Only a few rockets managed to reach as far as Jerusalem, and they were easily intercepted.

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A Quiet Mind + A Hopeful Heart = Joy

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Lesson: Philippians 4:1-9

The choir just sang, “Joyful, Joyful,” from “Sister Act.” Joyful times two. And in this morning’s passage, the Apostle Paul tells the Christians in Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”[1]  Rejoice not once, but twice.

It’s a double shot of joy, and it’s fair to say that this kind of joy set the early Christians apart. Observers at the time say it was uncanny the way they seemed to be infused with joy. Outsiders were baffled: Christians were a small minority, scattered across the Mediterranean world. They were not wealthy or powerful for the most part, and they were in constant danger of being killed. Yet they had laid hold of an inner peace that found expression in a joy that was uncontainable. Huston Smith writes, “Perhaps radiance would be a better word. Radiance is hardly the word used to characterize the average religious life, but no other word fits as well the life of these early Christians.”[2]

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The Purpose of Freedom

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Lesson: Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

There was a time when the only thing parents had to worry about with regard to what we now call “screen time” was whether your child was watching too much TV. You didn’t even have to think much about what he was watching because everything was appropriate. Well, that was then; this is now. Cable has brought R and even X-rated programs to the small screen, but besides, screens have multiplied like rabbits: laptops, tablets, smart phones, video games, texting. Screens are not bad; they serve many good purposes; but they are ubiquitous and tantalizing, and time on a screen means time you are not doing something else. So most parents I know try to limit “screen time,” both in terms of content and actual time. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that kids’ entertainment screen time be limited “to less than one or two hours per day.” And for kids under 2: none at all.[1] This is a major source of friction – if not World War III – in many homes. The child is likely to say something like, “You’re ruining my life!” while the parent is thinking, “No, in fact I’m trying to keep you from ruining your life.”

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Forgiveness

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Lesson: Matthew 18:21-35

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover that the prisoner was you.” Lewis B. Smedes

Every single Sunday we pray together, “And forgive us our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us.” We used to pray debts and debtors; many traditions pray trespasses rather than sins; but it all means the same thing. We are praying that God will forgive us, which Scripture says God does, freely, again and again, and we are praying for the ability and the will to forgive others – which does not come as naturally to us as it does to God and that’s why we need to pray it, week after week after week.

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Amazing Grace

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Lesson: Matthew 20:1-16

Back in the mid-1960’s, the Smothers Brothers became comedy sensations with a routine focused around a complaint that struck a chord with many, many people: “Mom always liked you best.” Brother Tommy complained that his brother Dick got a dog, while he only had a crummy chicken, and then in the middle of the routine, Tommy remembered he never had a bicycle. Dick had a bicycle, but Tommy just had a wagon. It resonated with people because it raised the kind of questions that come up in nearly every family and just about every other kind of relationship as well, including Jesus’ relationship with his disciples: Who is the favorite? Is everyone being treated fairly; is everyone getting what he deserves?

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Where Two or More Are Gathered

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Lesson: Matthew 18:15-20

Note: Diana began this sermon by retelling the story Enemy Pie by Derek Munson. If you are unfamiliar with the story, you may listen to a reading by Camryn Manheim on StoryLine.org: http://www.storylineonline.net/enemy-pie/. Diana makes references to this story in her sermon text.

What I love about children’s literature is how playfully and creatively stories can share a difficult, truthful, positive message.  If only we had the recipe for an enemy pie… I wonder what this world would be like? If only we could trick our adult selves into believing in enemy pie…if that were the case, then I wonder if worship would be in a kitchen around an oven? Perhaps we’d have associate ministers for baked goods and you could sign me up — and maybe we’d have pie and milk on our communion table? Delicious.

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