#Grateful

Prepared for and delivered at South Lake Presbyterian in Clermont.  Primary scripture, Psalm 100.  With a hat tip of gratitude to Walter Bruggemann, Jerome F.D. Creach, and Tremper Longman (works noted below).

Psalm 100 is one of those psalms that is both familiar and beloved. We often use portions in our prayers and liturgy. I can’t count how many times I’ve read it responsively  as a call to worship.  Echoes of its verses appear in numerous hymns and songs of praise, which is appropriate.  The Hebrew word for psalm – mizmor – actually means “to praise God with music”.

While we don’t know exactly how the psalms were sung, chances are good that the psalms were used in both public and private devotions. In fact, scripture includes examples of people patterning their own prayers after well-known psalms. Hannah’s prayer in 1 Samuel 2:1-11 is a beautiful example (cf Ps 113).

While Psalm 100 is short – only 5 verses – this little poem is asking much more of us than is obvious at first glance.  It opens with a summons to praise with three commands We are to make a joyful noise about God, to do something to gladly serve God, and to sing our way into God’s presence.  While these verbs all call us to worship, the psalmist probably wasn’t imagining the way we tend to experience it on a given Sunday morning.

Walter Brueggemann wrote that this Psalm goes beyond a poetic assertion of what we are to do in worship. He sees It as a call to re-orient our lives as a whole.  A close read challenges us to live so that we are oriented 100% toward the God who is worthy of worship, of gratitude. It is a call to live a doxological life. A life of thanksgiving that glorifies God.

You see, the more we praise God, the more we lift up God’s name, the more we sing the mighty power of God… The more clear it becomes that WE ARE NOT GOD.  The autonomy we seek, the fretting we do, the notion that our being is grounded in our doing…  all of that falls away.

As we orient ourselves toward God, we become aware that a life oriented to self, as Shakespeare wrote in MacBeth, is “but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.“

Our psalmist explains both how and why we live In a way that glorifies God in the next verse of our Psalm.  Know that the Lord is God.

This statement makes a bold claim, especially in an ancient world where most peoples believed in many Gods. The people of Israel are claiming that Jehovah God is THE GOD.  That the God of the Exodus is sovereign over all in the universe.  All other gods are de-throned.

And because God made us (we did not), the false God of self-sufficiency gets dethroned as well. Answering the summons to praise is an active choice to step out of the role of Master of One’s Own Destiny.  Claiming that we are God’s sheep asserts that we will reject false shepherds, those who claim to have the power to save, but lead only to ruin.  Instead we place ourselves in the hands of a caring creator, one who loved the world enough to take on flesh and walk the earth as the Good Shepherd who seeks and saves the lost.

When we know that the Lord is God, we live as grateful sheep, oriented to the shepherd’s voice. The second half of the psalm points to relationship between remembrance and worship. In this section, we are again summoned, this time to enter the gates of God’s court with thanksgiving, to give praise and to bless God.

These acts are predicated by God’s steadfast love, by God’s faithfulness that endures through all generations.

Grateful people praise, because they know that God is good – not in the sense of a good child who does as she is told. More like a good friend who is trusted.  God is good because of God’s track record in keeping covenant. Time and again, God has kept promises, in spite of humanity’s inability to do likewise.  The all-powerful God remains loyal and reliable, far beyond what we imagine, much less what we deserve.

For the past 3 years or so, I’ve made November a month-long exercise in gratitude.  I don’t remember exactly what prompted it, maybe the annual frustration with the Christmas items showing up in stores right next to the Halloween decorations and candy. Now that Black Friday has become a national shopping day, rather than a data point for economists, we barely have time to do the traditional “What are you thankful for” survey around our dining table before we’re expected to start lining up for bargains at the nearest big box store.

Anyway, for the past few years, I’ve taken advantage of Facebook as a public space for proclamation, and I’ve given thanks for something on each of the 30 days in November, including the ones after Thanksgiving.  Some years it has even spilled over into December.

Now, if you’re on Facebook or Twitter, you’ll might have noticed people adding a hashtag to their updates, a word or phrase with the hash mark (pound sign) at the beginning.  This labels an update or post so you can find what other people are saying about a topic.  This year I’m seeing a lot of #30daysofthanks or #thankful.  I’ve used the those and the one that is our sermon title today #grateful.

It’s interesting to see what people are thankful for.  Sometimes they are deep and meaningful, sometimes funny or poignant.  Once you get past the obvious- family, friends, health – people begin doing a real inventory.

Here we are on day 18 of my month of thankfulness, and I think that this year, I may be most grateful for the chance to consider what it means to fully embrace gratitude. To be fully engaged in glorifying God.

I’ve been thinking…
What would it take to live a life that answered the summons to enter God’s presence with thanksgiving?
To live loudly and boldly proclaiming the realty that God is sovereign in this world…
To remember how good God is, so that I might let God rule in every area of my life…

I’m beginning to think gratitude is a big part of what Jesus was talking about when he said that the first and greatest (and he should also have said hardest) commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength

It seems that we need to fully surrender if we are to love God so deeply that we can offer that same unconditional, transformational love to our neighbors.

It’s hard to wrap my head around that level of submission, if I’m honest.  Partly because here in America, we grow up being told we can be whatever we want to be (president, fireman, meteorologist, teacher…); we can go wherever we want to go (I’ve been to over 40 of our states and a few places beyond our borders); we can do whatever we want to do.  Say whatever we want to say… After all, it’s a free country.

I think that makes it hard for us to truly understand the significance of this psalm and the set that leads into it.   Taken together, they are as clear about God’s place as King as the Hallelujah Chorus. The 99th Psalm opens by proclaiming “The LORD is king; let the peoples tremble! “

I’m not sure that we really know what to do with this in an age of constitutional monarchies and democracy. I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone tremble in the presence of Queen Elizabeth.  This is where I lean into the literature I enjoyed growing up.

I fell in love with Norse mythology and literature when I read Beowulf in high school. I’m not going to embarrass myself by telling you how many times I’ve read it since.  I’m sure they are not alone in this, but the great Norse Kings are portrayed with combination of attributes that I found fascinating and intimidating.

They fought with and for their people, right there on the front lines with broadswords and helmets and all; when victorious, they celebrated with their warriors, lifting their voices and goblets. Then they would gather in all the spoils of war.

But rather than amass the treasure for themselves, the kings gave much of the treasure away, as gifts of gratitude.  First to the Thanes- the warrior lords – who then shared with their own men, all the way down to the slaves and servants.

Now, all the way up that chain, these men swore fealty- loyalty, submission – to the king.  They surrendered to his rule, to his will for their families, their land, and their very lives.   If he called upon them to fight, to provide food or other support for the armies, they did just that.  In return, they could trust the King to provide in times of want, to make decisions for the good of the whole, to seek to protect them from invaders or other threats.

We’ve just elected our national leaders, some state leaders, as well as some folks who will give leadership here in Central Florida.  Regardless of who sits in those seats of power, we know that God is our King.  Our Good King.

The summons we hear in this Psalm is to proclaim that truth with joy and gratitude. Every day in every aspect of our lives, we are to give thanks that God is God and we are not; that we are not the shepherd but the sheep; that we are not our own protection and do not choose our own pastures.

Not because God doesn’t love us enough to set us free, but because God loves us more than we can imagine.

Because we can’t see the dangers lurking. We can’t know which pastures are greener.  We have no sense of what lies beyond the horizon…. but God does.  Our hope is and can only be in the Lord.

And when we embrace this reality, we can reject the false gods that steal into our hearts,  distracting us, keeping us from our work – the work of building and stewarding the kingdom that God rules.

When we lose sight of God’s goodness, when we get disoriented, we are lured by the false Gods of consumerism, self-loathing, self-sufficiency, status, perfectionism, busyness.  The list could go on…. I’m sure you’ve thought of a few yourself.  As John Calvin famously observed, human nature unchecked is a perpetual factory for idols.

But when every moment of our life is lived as an effort to glorify God first, we become living sacrifices, holy and acceptable in God’s sight (Rom 12:1).

When we make our decisions bathed in gratitude for the gifts that God offered to make our choices possible, we draw closer to God.  We realize that we are blessed to be a blessing.

When we give thanks for those who introduced us to God, those who walked with us & led us deeper into a life of faith, those who are among the cloud of witnesses on whose shoulders we stand today…

When we give thanks for them, we give voice to God’s faithfulness.  And we proclaim God’s promise to complete the work that was started in us when we first believed.

When we sing and tell the story of Christ’s compassion for the nations…
When we live in the power of the Holy Spirit…
When we go and teach and baptize out of obedience to Christ’s call on us as his witnesses…
When we embrace the ones all others have tossed aside…
When we clothe, feed, care for and visit the least of these…

When we do these things, we are loving as Christ first loved us; we are connecting to the grace God plants within us; we are living as grateful sheep.

May this be true of us this week of Thanksgiving, during this month of gratitude, and each day of our lives.

Amen.

 

Really helpful reads:

Walter Brueggemann, (1985). Psalm 100. Interpretation, 39(1), 65-69.  (accessed online via ATLA).

Jerome F.D. Creach, Psalms: Leader’s Guide (Interpretation Bible Studies), Geneva Press, 1998.

Tremper Longman, How to Read the Psalms, Intervarsity Press, 1988.

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