Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sermon, "Theology at the Theatre: The Sound of Music," Philippians 4:4-13

Sermon 11/19/17
Philippians 4:4-13

Theology at the Theatre: The Sound of Music


I’ve talked to you before about the first sermon I ever preached, back when I was a college student, and I preached at my childhood church on the parable of the rich fool, the parable where the wealthy man decides to build bigger barns to keep all of his stuff, where Jesus warns us against believing our lives are all about our stuff. But although that was the first sermon I ever preached, it wasn’t the first sermon I ever wrote. I had a written a sermon a few years earlier, while I was in high school. That same pastor who nurtured my call to ministry and let me preach while I was in college had also allowed me to plan an entire worship service a few years before for the youth of the church to lead. I organized everything, and assigned all the parts, and I wrote the sermon – I just assigned the sermon to someone else to preach. I was far too nervous to do the preaching myself. So I wrote the sermon for my friend Becca to deliver. I don’t have a copy anymore, I don’t think, of that sermon, which I remember was handwritten, not typed, unless I tucked it somewhere in the pages of my journal from that time. But I remember my text: It was this passage that we’ve shared today from Philippians 4. And I chose it in particular because I was so taken by verse 8: “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” See, I grew up in the era of the great movie Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and the word “excellent” was used frequently in a slang style to denote everything that was particularly awesome and wonderful. And the idea that the Bible was telling us we should spend our time thinking about “excellent” things was very appealing to my young mind.
Indeed, Paul does tell the Philippians to be grounded in thinking about excellent and praiseworthy things in their lives, and his short letter is our focus for today as we conclude our series “Theology at the Theatre” with a look at The Sound of Music. The apostle Paul visited Philippi, a city in what was the Eastern part of Macedonia, now Greece, during what we call his second missionary journey, somewhere around the year 50 AD. The church in Philippi was one of the earliest established Christian communities. Paul’s letter to them is written some ten years after his first visit to them. The letter is written while Paul is in prison, although since Paul was imprisoned many times during his ministry, it is hard to determine during which time in custody he wrote these words.[1] Some scholars, however, point to the awareness of his own mortality in Philippians to suggest that Paul wrote this during one of his later imprisonments before he was executed.
            The word “rejoice” appears 7 times in the four short chapters of Philippians, which is a pretty high rate of frequency, especially compared with the rest of the New Testament. It isn’t just a nice word choice, it’s a definite theme that Paul chooses – he calls us to rejoice. This call is notable because Philippians is also filled with a deep awareness on Paul’s part that the span of his life is probably short. He reflects on his sufferings, on his work in Christ, on his love for the Philippians, and on the aim and purpose of his work. While some of Paul’s others letters are instructional, chiding, teaching, Philippians is more of a letter to loved ones whom Paul misses and from whom Paul receives comfort and encouragement as much as he gives it.
            He tells the Philippians, “For [Christ’s] sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him. (2:8b-9a) I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.” (2:14) Grounded in this sentiment, in this longing, and in this reflection on his suffering in service to sharing the message of Jesus, we come to our reading for today.
            “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Paul does not mean his words to be meaningless or trite, not filler or fluff. Truly, despite the adversity he has faced as a follower of Jesus, he is full of joy, and calls others followers of Christ to the same deep joy. “Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
            Paul says he rejoices because of the consistent concern and support the Philippians have shown for him. Indeed, they are one of the few places from whom Paul has accepted financial support for his work in ministry. But, Paul concludes, he has learned to be content with whatever he has. He has known what it is to have little, and known what it is to have plenty.  And in whatever circumstance he finds himself, Paul concludes, “I can do all things through [Christ] who strengthens me.”
            Today we turn our attention to The Sound of Music to think about a life of rejoicing in the midst of great struggle. The Sound of Music is a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical based on the memoir of Maria von Trapp, The Story of the Trapp Family Singers. The story is set in Austria on the eve of the Anschluss in 1938, the annexation of Austria by Germany on the brink of World War II. The musical opened in 1959, and it was adapted into the classic movie in 1965.[2]
At the start of The Sound of Music, Maria is a postulant (questioner) at the Nonnberg Abbey, preparing to become a nun. She sings about regretting leaving the beautiful hills where she was brought up. She doesn’t seem to be fitting in to life at the Abbey. She and the Mother Abbess speak together, talking together about the things that bring them joy when life is difficult. (“My Favorite Things”) Mother Abbess tells Maria that she should spend some time outside the abbey to decide whether she is really ready for the monastic life. She will serve as governess to the seven children of a widower, Captain Georg von Trapp. He and Maria grow close and fall in love, even as she helps him heal his relationship with his children. But she’s frightened by her feelings, and heads back to the abbey.   She says that she is ready to take her vows and become a nun, “but the Mother Abbess realizes that she is running away from her feelings. She tells her to face the Captain and discover if they love each other, and tells her to search for and find the life she was meant to live.”[3] Of course, as all this is happening, we also see the rise of Nazism in the background, and watch Maria and the Captain resist being caught up in Austria becoming a part of the Nazi regime, instead fleeing the country secretly.
The song that Betsy sang for us today, “Climb Every Mountain,” comes both at the beginning and the end of the musical, words that encourage Maria to follow her true calling, even if that means not become a nun, and words that reflect the von Trapp family’s calling to resist the rise of Nazism, even if it means leaving their homeland. The lyrics are simple but poignant: “Climb every mountain. Search high and low. Follow every byway. Every path you know. Climb every mountain. Ford every stream. Follow every rainbow 'till you find your dream: A dream that will need all the love you can give every day of your life for as long as you live.”
The real life Maria von Trapp reflected in her autobiography that she was sometimes mad at God, even on her wedding day, because she truly had felt called to become a nun, and it was hard for her to reconcile the new path of life she was taking with what she first believed to be God’s call. But, she said, she ended up experiencing more love than she had ever known, and she believed that she was following God’s will for her life.[4] Her years at the abbey, she said, "were really necessary to get my twisted character and my overgrown self-will cut down to size."[5] The Sound of Music is a fairly light-hearted musical, but the real-life events on which the musical is based were times of true hardship and struggle for Maria, her family, her nation, the world. Maria remained grounded in her faith, committed to following God’s will, and able to find deep joy in life in the midst of everything she experienced.
            What about you? Is your life filled with joy? Paul calls us to rejoice in the Lord always. How can we manage such a thing? This past week in our Disciple Bible Study, we talked about the book of Galatians and the freedom we experience in Christ that enables us to live a life of love and service, not out of obligation, but in response to God’s love and grace at work in us. I shared with the class words that are a part of the prayer of confession in our communion liturgy. We don’t often use the full formal liturgy, but the language in meaningful and insightful. We pray, “Free us for joyful obedience through Jesus Christ our Lord.” That phrase “joyful obedience” can seem to be a contradiction. But actually, it is so descriptive of the life in Christ of which Paul speaks. Despite challenges of every kind, Paul lives a life full of rejoicing because he has such confidence that he is following God’s will, living out the gospel of Christ, and grounding his life in the most meaningful things he can. He knows his true purpose, his true calling, and that brings him a deep satisfaction, a deep joy that transcends the sufferings and struggles he encounters.
            This week, we celebrate Thanksgiving. I hope that we are giving thanks, rejoicing for our life in Christ in ways that are deeper than giving thanks for the delicious food we might eat, as yummy as pumpkin pie might be. May our hearts be filled with the joy that comes from knowing that our lives are built on the solid foundation of a life of discipleship in Christ. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”



             




[1] “Epistle to the Philippians,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistle_to_the_Philippians.
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Sound_of_Music
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2005/winter/von-trapps.html

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sermon, "Theology at the Theatre: Fiddler on the Roof," Mark 7:1-15

Sermon 11/12/17
Mark 7:1-15

Theology at the Theatre: Fiddler on the Roof


            What are some of your family’s traditions? With Thanksgiving approaching and Advent and Christmas fast on its heels, we’re entering a season that is often steeped in traditions – cultural traditions, religious traditions, and family traditions. Have you had to create or recreate or bend or break traditions in your family? This year in particular, I’ve been thinking about how our Christmas Eve patterns have changed through the years. When I was little, we’d eat dinner at my grandparents, and then attend worship together. And then, we’d go back to my grandparents’ house to open presents. Eventually, the tradition changed because my family started going to church in Rome, and they had two Christmas Eve services, and it was too hard to go to service, drive to Westernville for worship, and drive back to Rome for the last service, and we were all involved in the choir and bell choir and reading and it was just too much. The tradition had to change, and it was hard to make that change, hard for my grandparents in particular, but it was the right thing to do, to fit our changing lives, and our deepened relationship with our community of faith. Of course, then I became a pastor, and my Christmas Eve traditions have changed again, and remain flexible each year to accommodate my schedule! But I’ve had one constant every year in ministry on Christmas Eve: my brother Todd has performed monologues during worship for me. He’s my brother who is a professional actor and a theatre professor, and every year for the last 14 years he’s been Joseph or a Shepherd or King Herod or Wiseman and helped me bring the Christmas story to life on Christmas Eve. This year, though, Todd is a serving for a year as a professor at the University of Idaho, and he’s not sure he’ll be able to make it home at Christmas time. I’ve been feeling sad, both about not having Todd at home for Christmas, but also for the gap he’ll leave on my Christmas Eve worship experience. This year, my tradition of Christmas Eve will have to change again.
            What are some of your traditions? Ideally, our traditions help us make meaning, help us experience more fully the meaning of whatever event our traditions are attached to, like Todd helps us more fully immerse ourselves in the Christmas story. But sometimes traditions can also keep us from moving forward, from growing in ways we want to, even if the tradition in itself isn’t a bad thing. I loved Christmas Eve at my grandparents – but it wouldn’t have been right for us to hold on to that tradition instead of becoming more involved with our faith community.
Today, we’re talking about Fiddler on the Roof. It’s the musical in our series that I know the best. Although my brother Todd is the professional actor of the family, I love theatre too, and twice I’ve been in community theatre productions of Fiddler, playing small roles like the hat maker, or more recently being typecast as the town gossip in the little village of Anatevka. Fiddler tells its main theme in the very opening monologue and song. In the opening scene, Tevye, the lead character, a poor milk man, asks the question and gives the answer that frames the whole story. He says,
“A fiddler on the roof ... Sounds crazy, no? But here, in our little village of Anatevka, you might say every one of us is a fiddler on the roof. Trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck. It isn't easy. You may ask, why do we stay up there if it's so dangerous? Well, we stay because Anatevka is our home. And how do we keep our balance? That I can tell you in one word! Tradition! Because of our traditions, we've kept our balance for many, many years. Here in Anatevka, we have traditions for everything. How to sleep. How to eat. How to work. How to wear clothes. For instance, we always keep our heads covered, and always wear a little prayer shawl. This shows our constant devotion to God. You may ask, how did this tradition get started? I'll tell you. I don't know. But it's a tradition. And because of our traditions, every one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”[1]
Throughout the musical, three of Tevye’s daughters marry in turn, but each match poses a challenge to Tevye’s sense of tradition and how things are meant to be done. His oldest daughter, Tzeitel, asks her father to be let out of the arranged match for her, so that she can marry the man she truly loves, Motel, the tailor. Tevye groans and complains, but finally agrees that they can marry for love. Then his second daughter, Hodel, wants to marry revolutionary Perchik. When they approach Tevye, they tell him they are not asking for permission, only for his blessing. Again, Tevye refuses at first, but finally gives in. And then finally his youngest daughter Chava falls in love with a Christian man, Fyedka. She, too, seeks to change her father’s heart about her match, but Tevye says “enough” – he has bent enough and let go of too much tradition. Near the end of the story, he does, at least, pray God’s blessing on Chava and Fyedka, even if he cannot fully come to terms with the marriage.
As enjoyable as Fiddler is as a musical, as lighthearted as it is at times, the questions asked are serious ones, important ones. How far should you change traditions to meet the demands of an ever-changing world? How far is too far to bend? When do the traditions hold us to what is good and important, and when do they keep us from moving forward, from growing and changing in healthy ways? What traditions are based on simple habits that have extended over generations, and when to they represent the unchanging truth?
            Today we take up the gospel of Mark, as we look in on a conversation between Jesus and a group of scribes and Pharisees. If you are at all familiar with the Bible, I think it is easy to come to a scripture text and see the Pharisees and think: “Aha! The bad guys!” whenever you encounter these religious leaders. But the Pharisees, of course, didn’t view themselves as bad or faithless or villains. They were, in fact, religious leaders, devout Jews, who tried very hard to follow the law of Moses carefully and interpret it for daily living. They emphasized upholding the rituals, the traditions. They insisted on using oral tradition as well as written tradition, and in that way were viewed as quite liberal by other Jewish sects. For example, they added qualifications to laws like "an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" so that executions were less frequent. On the other hand, however, their additions to the law through oral code sometimes added many new requirements for people to follow, like around issues of observing Sabbath, for instance. And their learning and education began to set them apart from the rest of the people, making them a kind of aristocracy.[2] These kinds of practices, all these additional rules and looking down on those who didn’t follow them all, these were the practices of the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus most often criticized.
            The Pharisees have noticed that some of the disciples of Jesus are eating without washing their hands. Their concerns weren’t about hygiene, but about ritual cleanness – an act of spiritual purification before eating. Mark notes for us that the Pharisees have elaborate washing rituals that they engage in before eating, traditions handed to them by the elders. They question Jesus: “Why aren’t your disciples following the tradition of the elders?” And Jesus responds with very pointed words: He said to them, ‘Isaiah prophesied rightly about you hypocrites, as it is written, “This people honors me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching human precepts as doctrines.” You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.’ And then, to the crowds he says, ‘Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.’ For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come.” Jesus indicates that somewhere along the way, the Pharisees stopped being concerned with carefully explaining God’s law, and started being concerned with doing things a certain way because that’s how they’d always been done. Somewhere in there, actually following God’s commandments got lost, in favor of human tradition. But what matters to God is the shape of our hearts, the state of our souls, not the nitty-gritty of these outside practices we adopt to practice our faith.
Jesus says that the Pharisees – and since he’s talking to religious leaders, we can assume he’s speaking to us, too – he says that we add so much stuff to the list of what we have to do to be a good and faithful person, and then get so worried about doing this little stuff, that we miss the main point, the core stuff, that Jesus asked us – commanded us – to do in the first place. And when we start worrying more about the stuff we’ve added on than the stuff Jesus told us to do, all that extra stuff becomes a form of idolatry, which is anything we make more important to us than God. In our Disciple Bible study, we’ve been reading through the writings of Paul, and Paul repeats Jesus’s theme frequently: he warns us very sharply several times against doing anything that puts obstacles in between us and God, or especially between others and God. Jesus is telling the Pharisees that all their traditions have become obstacles between them and God, between those they teach and God. 
            Rev. David Lose writes, “Jesus is challenging [the Pharisees] as to how their traditions contribute to them fulfilling their mission.”  “You’ve probably heard the old joke, “How many Lutherans [substitute your community] does it take to change a light bulb?” “Change? Change? My grandfather donated that lightbulb!” We love our traditions. I love our traditions. They have helped to mediate the faith to us in countless ways. But what if they’re not doing that for the emerging generation? What if we’ve come close to worshiping the traditions instead of the God they were supposed to point to? And what if Jesus is calling us to put our mission – whether to care for our aging parents, feeding the hungry, opening our doors to the homeless, making our building available to after school tutoring, sharing the Gospel with folks much of the church rejects, partnering with the community to care for more of God’s children, whatever – what if Jesus is calling us to put our mission ahead of even our most cherished traditions? What then?”[3] As a community of faith, we have to be continually examining our hearts, our spirits, our practices, and our traditions, and making sure we never lose sight of our mission, never let anything get in the way of our primary task: sharing the good news about Jesus and God’s reign with others.
            At Ohio Wesleyan University, where I went to undergrad, we had a tradition, one that I know other colleges have as well. There was a big rock outside the main dining hall, and different groups on campus would make a bonding activity of painting the rock, a practice allowed by administrators, I might add. Different groups would either sign their names in paint, or paint it in school colors, or do something creative, like make it into a giant ice cream cone. But I’ve always been curious: how big is that rock, really? I’m not sure how long the tradition of painting the rock has been around. But it’s been a long time. And if you peeled away all the layers, chipped away all the paint, would that rock be so small you could actually just carry it with you? Jesus told us what the greatest commandments were: to love God with our whole selves, and to love one another. Have we added so many layers to these tasks that we’ve made them into boulders that no one can carry with them?
            I want to be clear. The way we do things isn’t unimportant. Having traditions isn’t bad. I love some of the traditions, old ones and new ones, that my family shares. Jesus himself participated in the traditions of his time and place and culture. But the methods and practices we use to carry out our mission, following Jesus, can never become more important than actually following Jesus. Jesus reminds us that it is not the things outside ourselves that make us who we are. Who we are is what is inside of us, and God hopes that what is inside of us is a heart that is seeking after the way of Jesus. Amen.





[1] Bock, Jerry and Sheldon Harnick, Fiddler on the Roof, script located at: http://www.script-o-rama.com/movie_scripts/f/fiddler-on-the-roof-script.html
[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pharisees
[3] Lose, David, “Pentecost 14B – Tradition!,” In the Meantime,
http://www.davidlose.net/2015/08/pentecost-14-b-tradition/

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Sermon for All Saints Sunday, "Theology at the Theatre: Wicked," Matthew 5:1-12

Sermon 11/5/17
Matthew 5:1-12

Theology at the Theatre: Wicked


            How many of you are familiar with the musical Wicked? It’s the newest one on our list, and the one that was the least familiar to me personally, although some of the music from the show has become so popular that you may know a few of the songs from the musical, like the one the choir sang, without even realizing where they were from. Wicked: The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz is a musical that first opened in 2003. Written and Composed by Winnie Holzman and Stephen Schwartz, and based on the 1995 book by Gregory Maguire. Of course, Maguire’s work is an alternative telling of the classic The Wizard of Oz.
Wicked opens with the people of Oz celebrating the death of Elphaba, the Wicked Witch of the West. Someone in the crowds asks Glinda, the Good Witch, if it’s true that Glinda and Elphaba were once friends, and the question prompts Glinda to share the story. We flash back in time to when Elphaba and Glinda – then Galinda – both arrive at school, along with Elphaba’s sister Nessarose. Elphaba, who is born with the distinctive green skin that we see in The Wizard of Oz, is smart and skilled, and generally disliked by father and her classmates, especially the very pretty and popular but not-so-magically-skilled Galinda. At the start of the musical, then, Galinda and Elphaba do not get along, but after Galinda tries to make a fool of Elphaba by setting her up to wear a big black pointy hat, something no one else is wearing, Galinda feels bad and tries to make up for her mean behavior. Slowly the two young women become friends.
This lasts until Elphaba and Galinda meet up with the Wizard of Oz. The Wizard reveals himself as the man behind the curtain, and Elphaba realizes that he’s not a magician at all, and is in fact behind some of the horrible policies that have been taking over Oz. When it comes time to choose sides, Elphaba flees from the Wizard, but Galinda – who has changed her name to Glinda – becomes the public front for the Wizard’s regime. Ephaba becomes known as the Wicked Witch, and Glinda has become known as Glinda the Good. Many plot twists and turns unfold, including the appearance of a girl from Kansas named Dorothy, but finally, Glinda realizes the evil that is unfolding because she has been a part of the Wizard’s plans. She tries to stop harm from coming to Elphaba, but it is too late, and when the women finally meet again, they know that they will never see each other again. With this one last chance to talk, they forgive each other, let go of grievances, and talk about how they have changed each other’s lives.
In the song “For Good,” which we shared together today, they sing these words to each other: “I've heard it said that people come into our lives for a reason. Bringing something we must learn and we are led to those who help us most to grow if we let them and we help them in return. Well, I don't know if I believe that's true, but I know I'm who I am today because I knew you.” “Who can say if I've been changed for the better? But because I knew you I have been changed for good.”
“It well may be that we will never meet again in this lifetime so let me say before we part: So much of me is made of what I learned from you. You'll be with me like a handprint on my heart. And now whatever way our stories end, I know you have re-written mine by being my friend.”
“And just to clear the air, I ask forgiveness for the things I've done, you blame me for. But then, I guess we know there's blame to share and none of it seems to matter anymore.” “Who can say if I've been changed for the better? I do believe I have been changed for the better. And because I knew you, because I knew you, I have been changed for good.”[1]
It’s a powerful song. On this All Saints Sunday, I’m wondering, who are the people, those who have come before, and those who are a part of your life right now, who are changing your life for the better, for good?  And I’m wondering, too, whose lives are you changing for the better, for good, by your presence, your actions, your love, your gifts shared with them? There are a few lines from the traditional committal liturgy of a funeral, words I say at the graveside as part of a prayer that I find particularly meaningful, each and every time I say them. The prayer says: “Eternal God, you have shared with us this loved one’s life. Before she was ours, she is yours. For all that our loved one has given us to make us what we are, for that of her which lives and grows in each of us, and for her life that in your love will never end, we give you thanks.”[2] The words of this prayer express our certain belief that we are shaped by the people in our lives, and that we continue carry them in our hearts and have our own futures shaped by their lives long after their time in this life is over, because truly, in God’s love, we believe that their life never really ends. We continue to change, continue to grow, continue to become the people God is calling us to be because of the people who are the saints in our lives, just as they, by our role in their lives, become or became who God was calling them to be. We have the opportunity to bless one another beyond measure through our loving impact on each other’s lives. What an opportunity for good we have! So I wonder – who has changed your life? And whose lives are you changing? 
Our scripture reading from Matthew is a passage known as the Beatitiudes, a word that means “blessing.” Jesus shares these words at the very beginning of his longest chunk of teaching in the gospel of Matthew, a teaching we call The Sermon on the Mount. As he begins his teaching, the first things out of his mouth are these blessings. Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful. Blessed are the pure in heart. Blessed are the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. Blessed are those who are reviled and persecuted. In Jesus’ day, as in ours, people needed reminding that the most meaningful blessings in life were not the racking up of accomplishments and distinctions. The most significant blessings that we give and receive are those that demonstrate loving, serving, compassionate hearts. Those are the blessings that change our lives, and transform our world, and demonstrate that the spirit of Christ lives within us.
Today, as we remember the saints, we share together in the meal of Holy Communion. One thing we celebrate when we come together for Holy Communion is just that – communion, small “c.” Communion. A community – a joining together of the whole Body of Christ across all times and places. We believe in the communion of saints – that is something we say every time we recite the Apostle’s Creed. Since we believe in resurrection, since we believe that God has the power of life over death, since we believe that all those who have died are at home with God, forever in God's care, we believe that we, Christ's Body, are united at the table across even time and space. When we come to the table, we come together with those who have gone before us, who shaped us, who shared in the faith with us, who have changed us for the better, for good, and who remain, with us, the Body of Christ. Communion is a holy place where we experience the limitless ways of God, time collapsed and space drawn together into one table. At the table, we are blessed to be in communion with all the saints.
            As we worship, as we remember, as we share in the holy meal together, and as we leave this place and go into the world, let this be our prayer: Eternal God, you have shared with us the lives of these, our loved ones. Before they were ours, they are yours. For all that they have given us to make us what we are, for that of them which lives and grows in each of us, and for their lives that in your love will never end, we give you thanks. They have changed us for good, God. Let us go and do likewise. Amen.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Sermon, "Theology at the Theatre: Les Misérables," Romans 5:1-11

Sermon 10/29/17
Romans 5:1-11

Theology at the Theatre: Les Misérables

            How many Harry Potter fans do we have out there? You might be saying to yourself, “I thought we were talking about musicals, about Les Miserables today!” and we are. I promise I’ll get there…in a minute. I love the Harry Potters series. My childhood pastor actually got me hooked on them – he was reading and enjoying them, so I gave them a try. Some of you know that I even have a Harry Potter closet under the stairs, like Harry sleeps in in the first book, set up in my parsonage. I claim this is for my niece and nephew to enjoy, but it’s at least 50% for me! Anyway, through the years, author J.K. Rowling has continued to expand and explore the world of Harry Potter that she has so masterfully created, and she is pretty free with her comments about the series and characters. The villain of Harry Potter is the evil Lord Voldemort, and people pretty universally think he’s awful. But Harry also had a nemesis all through his school years, a rich, prejudiced, mean & nasty fellow student named Draco Malfoy. Draco seems to express some regret for his actions by the end of the series, but he’s never exactly one of the good guys. Nonetheless, Draco’s character has lots of fans, and J.K. Rowling has written about how this fact troubles her. She says: “I have often had cause to remark on how unnerved I have been by the number of girls who fell for this particular fictional character (although I do not discount the appeal of [actor] Tom Felton, who plays Draco brilliantly in the films and, ironically, is about the nicest person you will ever meet,” Rowling writes. “Draco has all the dark glamour of the anti-hero; girls are very apt to romanticise such people. All of this left me in the unenviable position of pouring cold common sense on ardent readers’ daydreams, as I told them, rather severely, that Draco was not concealing a heart of gold under all that sneering.”[1] She does go on to say that there is “some unextinguished good at the heart of Draco,” but she still doesn’t understand why so many people imagine that Draco turns out to be not-so-bad after all.
            Personally, though, I’m not surprised at all that people imagine a more forgiving, loving future for Draco than the life he experiences through the Harry Potter series, that people want to imagine stories about how his heart is changed, and he lives a different life in the imaginary future. I’m not surprised that people imagine Draco’s redeeming, and I think the reason goes beyond young people having a crush on the actor who plays Draco. Instead, I think people are drawn to imagining a redeemed Draco Malfoy because redemption is our favorite story. Redemption in everyday use means “the action of regaining…possession of something in exchange for a payment, or clearing a debt.”[2] If you take your recyclable soda bottles back to the store, you can redeem that 5 cents extra you paid when you purchased the drink. In theological language, in God language, redemption takes this meaning to a deeper place. Redemption is “the action of saving or being saved from sin, [from]…evil.” The idea is that we have been lost to the power of sin and evil in our lives, but that God “buys us back,” offering up the life of Jesus as payment for the consequences of our sinfulness. Our hope in redemption, our hope in this idea that someone, something, can save us from our sinfulness, save us from the evil path we sometimes choose instead of the path of good? As I said, I think it is, as a culture, maybe as a human race, one of our favorites stories. Today we will sing one of our faith tradition’s favorite songs, “Amazing Grace.” Why do we love it so much, this song? Because it is a redemption song, a story of being saved even though we put ourselves on the wrong path so many times, a story that lets us hope in God’s unlimited power to redeem us from sin and evil.
Les MIsérables is a redemption story, a work that examines through the lives of its characters themes of redemption and how we do – or don’t – long for redemption and offer redemption to others. The musical Les MIsérables is based on the incredible novel by Victor Hugo, composed by Claude-Michel Schönberg and lyrics by Alain Boublil. The action takes place in France in the early 1800s. The key player is a man named Jean Valjean. As the musical begins, Valjean is being released from prison, where he’s served for 19 long years, serving in hard labor. He served 5 for stealing the loaf of bread, but an additional 14 years were added to his sentence for trying to escape from prison. He gets a ticket of leave, and bears a brand on his chest with his prisoner number 24601, both of which identify him to people as an ex-convict and make it hard for him to start fresh. He can’t find work or a place to live.
Finally, a Bishop offers him food and a place to stay, but Valjean steals silver from the Bishop and flees. He’s caught by the police, who are ready to throw him back into prison. But instead, the Bishop comes and vouches for Valjean, saying the silver was a gift, and also giving him a set of silver candlesticks which the Bishop says Valjean forgot. The Bishop says to Valjean: “Remember this, my brother. See in this some higher plan. You must use this precious silver to become an honest man. By the witness of the martyrs, by the Passion and the Blood, God has raised you out of darkness. I have bought your soul for God!”[3]
Valjean is overwhelmed with this act of mercy that gives him a chance at a new life. “Why did I allow that man to touch my soul and teach me love?” he wonders. “He treated me like any other. He gave me his trust. He called me brother. My life he claims for God above. Can such things be?” Valjean asks. “Take an eye for an eye. Turn your heart into stone. This is all I have lived for. This is all I have known. One word from him and I'd be back beneath the lash, upon the rack. Instead he offers me my freedom. I feel my shame inside me like a knife. He told me that I have a soul. How does he know? … As I stare into the void, to the whirlpool of my sin, I'll escape now from that world, from the world of Jean Valjean. Jean Valjean is nothing now. Another story must begin.”
He rips up his ticket of leave and takes on a new identity, working hard to live a good life, constantly helping others whenever he has the opportunity. There some other stories unfolding in Les Mis: Valjean’s adopted daughter Cosette falls in love with a young man named Marius. Marius is involved in student rebellion, a group of young revolutionaries who are concerned for the plight of the poor and seek to overthrow the powerful government, particularly after the only advocate in the government for the poor and downtrodden dies. Valjean hates seeing Cosette fall in love, recognizing that he will lose his role in her life if she marries and moves on, but because of how much he cares for Cosette, he throws his lot in with the rebellion, which eventually fails, in order to protect Marius for Cosette, never revealing his identity. (The anthem the choir sang, “Bring Him Home,” is Valjean’s prayer to God to protect Marius.) But throughout all these events, the main story unfolds. A police captain, Inspector Javert, has hated Valjean since he was discharged from prison. Javert, who was born in a prison to a criminal mother, lives his life according to law and order. There is no room for grace and mercy in his life. And when he realizes that Valjean is the ex-con with a new identity, Javert pursues him relentlessly through the years. He’s obsessed with bringing Valjean to his idea of justice. Says Javert, “So it is written on the doorway to paradise that those who falter and those who fall must pay the price!”
Eventually, though, Jean Valjean gets the chance to kill Javert when Javert is caught out by the student revolutionaries, trying to infiltrate their movement. At the least, Valjean has the opportunity to let others kill Javert and not speak up for him. How easy would that be? Instead, Valjean saves Javert’s life, and Javert, in turn, lets Valjean go so that Valjean can save Marius’s life too. After he lets Valjean go, Javert unravels, unable to figure out why either he or Valjean acted with mercy. He says, “Who is this man? What sort of devil is he to have me caught in a trap and choose to let me go free? It was his hour at last to put a seal on my fate, wipe out the past and wash me clean off the slate! All it would take was a flick of his knife. Vengeance was his and he gave me back my life!” “I am the law and the law is not mocked.” “And must I now begin to doubt who never doubted all these years?” Javert cannot reconcile mercy with the order of law that has guided his life. In turmoil, he commits suicide.
Les Mis is about two people struggling with the idea of redemption. Javert can’t imagine that anyone is deserving of redemption – and therefore he doesn’t extend it to others, ever. He can only imagine that we are redeemed by following the rules, and so he seeks to do that with expert precision, and feels that anyone who fails to adhere to the law in complete perfection is worthless, irredeemable. No one can be perfect under the law, though, and when Javert himself ignores the law, his world crumbles. Jean Valjean, on the other hand, can’t imagine that he is worthy of redemption. But when the Bishop offers him redemption so easily, so freely, so lovingly anyway, despite his unworthiness, Valjean can’t doubt it, can’t ignore the gift of grace he’s received, even if he feels like he is unworthy of it. He has experienced redemption, and it transforms him, frees him to live a life serving others, even transforming him into someone capable of offering grace and redemption to his very worst enemy.
            This contrast between seeking our worthiness from perfect adherence to law, and discovering that our value comes from being redeemed by God’s free gift of grace is exactly the theme that Paul takes up in his epistle, his letter to the Romans. Paul has spent the first four chapters of Romans explaining how Gentile followers of Jesus – non-Jewish followers of Jesus – have come to be included in God’s plan of saving grace even though they are not part of the covenant, bound by the law of Moses, that the Jews have been part of for centuries. It isn’t that we are so good at following the law that earns us a place with God, Paul argues. Even Abraham, to whom God first gave the sign of the covenant in the act of circumcision, even Abraham didn’t find his place with God because of that covenant. Abraham’s relationship with God was built on faith and trust in God’s grace and God’s promises. Our hope is in God, Paul writes, and our hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love “has been poured into our hearts.” We were sinners, and Jesus gives his life for us anyway. Paul uses the language of reconciliation – we are reconciled to God through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. We are redeemed by the actions of God in Jesus, and that can be our boast, our joy, our celebration. We can’t boast in adherence to the law – we’ll never hold up to that set of rules. But we can boast in the gift of grace that God gives us, the gift that is available to each and every one of us. Paul writes with passion and conviction in Romans. It is some of his most eloquent, in depth work. Because the redemption story is Paul’s favorite story too.
            Where are we in this redemption story? Sometimes, I think maybe we’re a bit more like Javert than we’d like to admit. Both Javert and Valjean struggle to accept God’s grace for themselves. Indeed, it is an awesome gift and we can spend our whole lives in wonder, giving thanks for this gift that seems too good to be true. But because grace seems too good to Javert, he can’t extend grace and mercy to anyone. He can’t imagine that anyone can be redeemed from their wrong choices. What about you? Have you accepted God’s redeeming love in your life? Are you withholding redemption from someone, unable to believe that God’s grace is for them, too? If you are, my prayer is that you will set them – and yourself – free from the idea that we must be good enough to earn God’s love and mercy, that you must earn what God wants to give as a gift. Jean Valjean felt bowled over by the power of God’s redemptive grace in his life. It was so powerful, this gift that he experienced through the Bishop’s forgiveness, that his whole life was transformed, and he couldn’t stop extending mercy to others, whenever he had the chance. What about you? What about us? How are you letting God’s redeeming love change your life? What’s the new life you can live because God has redeemed you from the power of sin and evil? What opportunities to shower others with grace and mercy do you have, waiting for you to take action?
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God … and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts.” Thanks be to God. Amen.



[1] Rowling, J.K., as quoted in Time magazine, http://time.com/3644311/jk-rowling-harry-potter-draco-malfoy/
[2] https://www.google.com/search?q=redemption+definition&rlz=1C1CHZL_enUS691US691&oq=redemption+definition&aqs=chrome..69i57j0l5.4016j1j7&sourceid=chrome&ie=UTF-8
[3] Boubil, A., and C. Schonber, Les Misérables. All lyrics quoted here and following available online at https://www.allmusicals.com/l/lesmiserables.htm

Monday, October 02, 2017

Sermon, "Back to (Bible) School: Prophecy," Ezekiel 37:1-14

Sermon 10/1/17
Ezekiel 37:1-14

Back to (Bible) School: Prophecy


            This week is the last week in our series studying the kinds of literature we find in the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. We’ve looked at the Law, the history books of the Bible, and poetry or wisdom literature in the Bible. And today, we turn our attention to large chunk of the Hebrew Scriptures that make up the writings of the prophets. I think prophecy as a biblical genre is probably the most misunderstood, because we use the word prophecy to mean many different things.
            What first comes to mind when you hear the word “prophecy”? Often, people think immediately of predicting the future, a kind of fortune-telling. We seem to have a fascination with anything that suggests we could accurately predict the future. I saw some posts going around on facebook in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, I think, linking the dates of the storm and certain verses from the gospel of Luke. Some folks might be avid readers of their daily horoscope, astrology, the thought that the position of the planets and the time of our birth shapes the events of our daily lives. I used to read mine pretty regularly when I was a teenager, waiting for predictions of true love to come my way! Taurus is my astrological sign, and here’s my horoscope from yesterday (from one website at least!): “A couple, perhaps friends, could visit today. Perhaps you've moved into a new home or redecorated and want to show them around. They'll be impressed and you'll enjoy the company.”[1] I’m sorry to report I had no visitors yesterday, and I haven’t moved or redecorated, unless you think of cleaning diligently before the Trustees walk-though of the parsonage as redecorating!
            What’s the appeal of trying to predict the future? Why are we fascinated by anything that appears to be a prediction of future events? I can only imagine that it is our general anxiety over things unknown, and our general dislike of things that we can’t control that makes us want to believe that something, someone, somewhere can predict the future with accuracy. Otherwise, we have to live with the unsettling reality that things outside of our control, like disaster and illness, can just come on by and bring upheaval to our lives with there being nothing we can do to stop it. The idea of predicting the future, I think, is about control and security.
            That’s not, however, what the prophets in the Bible were all about. Prophets are truth-tellers. Prophets are truth-tellers, particularly when no one else wants to say how things really are. You know what I mean: Everyone knows what’s really going on, but no one wants to speak unwelcome truths out loud. A prophet is the child who tells the emperor he has no clothes, when no one else is brave enough to say so. A prophet tells it like it is, says how bad things really are, talks about where the path we are on will lead if things don’t change. But a prophet doesn’t necessarily want what he or she speculates about to come true. Instead, a prophet wants people to stop and repent, wants them to get back on God’s path before things go too far the wrong way. In its simplest version, you might think of prophecy like this: a parent tells a child that if they don’t get their grades up, they will flunk out of college, live at home for all of their days, and never get a real job. The parent isn’t predicting the future, even though this might be exactly what happens. Instead, they’re truth-telling. If you don’t change, this is the probable future consequences of your current actions. Prophets are visionaries too – they don’t only tell the bad things that might happen if we don’t get our acts together, they also try to hold before us the truth of the potential good that might come if we do change our ways. Think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.”[2] King was a prophet: a truth-teller, calling us to account for our racism, and holding before us a vision of what could be, a world where his children no longer faced discrimination and prejudice. He certainly was not predicting the future. He was offering up a vision of the possible paths we might take as a nation. A prophet.
            In the Bible, there are what we call “major” prophets and “minor” prophets. These aren’t more or less important prophets. Rather, the designation refers to the length of the book in the Bible. We have long writings from prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel, and just tiny entries from those like Obadiah and Nahum, books you might not even have heard of! The books of prophecy in our Bibles are Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, Daniel, Hosea, Joel, Amos, Obadiah, Jonah, Micah, Nahum, Habakkuk, Zephaniah, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi.
Today we’re looking at a passage from the prophet Ezekiel, a passage known as The Valley of Dry bones. Ezekiel was a priest living in exile in Babylon, with other Israelites. I think it is hard for most of us to imagine our whole community being conquered and living in exile in a foreign land, but the time of exile, in the sixth century BC, was Israel’s most devastating experience since their slavery under Egyptian rule. They were a people whose religious roots were deeply tied to their land – the Promised Land – and living in exile represented a great turning away from faithfulness to God.
Ezekiel describes in this passage an image God brings to him that represents what the exiled people of Israel look like emotionally – like a valley dry bones – skeletons. “The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. [The Lord] led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry,” we read. Then God asks Ezekiel, “Mortal, can these bones live?” Ezekiel is smart, and says, “You know, God.” God tells Ezekiel to prophesy that God will breathe into the bones and cause them to be covered with flesh and come to life again. Ezekiel does as he’s told, and it happens just as God describes, and the bones live again, given flesh and breath. These newly living beings say that their bones are dried up and their hope is lost. But God responds to them: “I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord … I will put my spirit within you and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil.” Ezekiel knows that God is faithful, even when we are not, and so Ezekiel knows that Israelites are not abandoned. Eventually, Israel does come home from exile, and slowly, they come back to life, and reclaim their identity. 
Some of you may have seen that I asked some questions on facebook in a couple places; I asked three questions about this text. First, I asked 1) When have you felt like "dry bones?" 2) When/how/did you experience some way of God breathing new life into you? And 3) What does that phrase “in your own soil” bring to mind - what's your soil? People seemed to know exactly what it means to feel like dry bones – not in body, but in spirit. Folks shared that there were “too many” dry bones times in life “to count,” or talked about years of struggle trying to have a baby, or how it felt like dry bones to be inundated with hateful words and messages online. One pastor, retired in the last few years, said trying to find a new identity after years of ministry sometimes felt like dry bones. Some felt like they were “dry bones” right now, and it was hard to imagine an end to it. What about you? When have you felt like you could fit right in to that Valley of the Dry Bones? Have we ever been “dry bones” as a congregation? Community? Nation? World?
            Many folks have experienced new life, finding direction, finding a calling, a purpose. I asked Dede Scozzafava if I could share her response in particular. She wrote, “Sometimes I feel like "dry bones" when I am just going through the daily motions of living. Almost like functioning on auto pilot...going from point A to point B and not really taking the time to think about the what and the why of the action. But sometimes God reminds me that I need to take a deeper dive than wading through the superficial surface waters. God directs me to see through different eyes and listen through different ears ... sometimes that interface changes my course and makes me evaluate the purpose of my actions. My soil is my faith ... sometimes growing...sometimes thirsting...sometimes looking to be nourished...sometimes nourishing others...sometimes balanced...other times unsteady...” We know what it is like to be dry bones, don’t we? I hope, too, that we also know what it is like to have God put flesh on our dry bones and breath into us God’s Holy Breath, Holy Spirit, Holy Wind. But I hope for us it is more than just a passive thing. I hope we aren’t just dry bones laying around, waiting for a breath from God, a word of hope from a prophet, when we already know that we serve the God of Resurrection and Life.              
            What do we do when we’re feeling like dry bones – as an individual, a community, a people? This is a question we can we can work on answering together. But here’s what struck me. Ezekiel kept his trust in God, listened for God’s voice, and did whatever God asked, even though he, too, was in exile, just like all those souls in the valley. Ezekiel seemed to have no doubt in the power of God to make dry bones live again. In The United Methodist Church, we still have in our Book of Discipline something called “The General Rules.” They were the rules that guided the early Methodists, when they met together with John Wesley, founder of the movement. Look them up this week, and read them in full. But here’s the gist: First, do no harm. Second, do good. And third, “attend upon the ordinances of God.”[3] These ordinances are practices or disciplines that help us stay connected to God. Wesley lists being part of the worshiping community, sharing in communion, praying alone and together, studying the Bible, and fasting as ordinance we ought to practice to ground ourselves in life with God. Even when we feel like dry bones, these practices help us stay ready, stay faithful, stay listening for God’s voice, ready to let new life and God’s breath fill our hearts again. It’s watering and tending the soil in which God seeks to plant us, digging deep. And eventually, in God’s right time, they’re the practices that make us ready for new life. Can these bones live? God knows. And with God, the answer to the question of new life is always yes. Amen.  



           






[1] https://www.horoscope.com/us/horoscopes/general/horoscope-general-daily-today.aspx?sign=2
[2] King Jr., Martin Luther.
[3] http://www.umc.org/what-we-believe/the-general-rules-of-the-methodist-church

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Sermon, "Back to (Bible) School: Poetry," Psalm 136

Sermon 9/24/17
Psalm 136

Back to (Bible) School: Poetry


            Do you like poetry? Have you ever read or written poetry? I think we can feel both daunted and bored by poetry. Daunted if we have to try to figure out what it means. One of my favorite movies is In Her Shoes, based on the book by the same name from Jennifer Weiner. In the movie, one of the characters, Maggie, is dyslexic. She ends up working at a nursing home, where one of the residents is a retired English professor. He encourages her to read to him, and not just read, but he helps her understand what she is reading. The first time she reads to him, she reads a poem. When she’s done, having struggled through word by word, he asks what she thinks. She says, “Good.” He says, “Unacceptable,” and then proceeds to ask her question after question until she realizes that she can figure out what the poem might mean to her, how it applies to her life right now. It’s a beautiful scene that captures how disinterested we can be in poetry, how much it overwhelms us, how afraid we are of getting the meaning “wrong,” and yet, how beautiful is can be when these artful words of others can speak deeply to our spirits.
            Do you like poetry?

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.[1]

You may write me down in history / With your bitter, twisted lies, / You may trod me in the very dirt / But still, like dust, I’ll rise.[2]

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate.[3]

The Lord is My Shepherd, I shall not want. He maketh me to lie down in green pastures. He leadeth me beside the still water.” (Psalm 23)

            Have you ever written any poetry? I went through a phase of writing poetry when I was in late elementary school and junior high. I was inspired, believe it or not, by an episode of Roseanne, the soon-to-return sitcom from the 80s. The character Darlene, who I loved, wrote a poem on the show, a poem that revealed her deep, unspoken emotions, and I was enthralled and inspired. I thought Darlene was very cool, and I set about to write my own deep, insightful poetry. It was not the greatest stuff. I’ve had pity on all of you by not digging some out of my old journals to share with you today. But truthfully, writing poetry, even bad poetry, helped me process all the myriad and overpowering feelings one has in the tumultuous tween and teen years. Writing poetry gave me a place to creatively process all the stuff that was in my heart at a time in my life when I felt pretty misunderstood.          
            Do you like poetry? Do you like music? Consider all the lyrics to songs that you have stored away in your brain. Consider the songs that shaped you as a child, as a young person, as an adult. Sometimes hearing a particular song can transport us back to a time, a place, an experience, help us recall things so vividly. The lyrics to all our favorite songs are poetry set to music, a kind of poetry that most of us are more familiar with today.
            The Bible is full of poetry. We find it in both the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament, and in the New Testament, though less frequently. In the Hebrew Bible, the books of Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Songs are considered books of poetry. These books are sometimes also referred to as books of wisdom. As I said a couple of weeks ago, the books of poetry in the Bible are not primarily about communicating facts, even though many of the passages of poetry refer to and respond to historical events. Instead, in the poetry of the Bible, we see the authors pouring out their hearts, sharing their deepest feelings in words they’ve written. To me, that makes the words of poetry in the Bible very meaningful and contemporary, because although our world has changed, I don’t think the range of emotions that we experience has changed. The authors of biblical poetry bring to us the feelings, the spirits, the souls of people of faith who lived thousands of years ago, and we discover that we experience the same intense emotions, and struggle with the same searching questions of faith.
            Today we’re looking together at Psalm 136. There are 150 psalms, songs, in our Bible, and they fall into several categories. Some are called “royal psalms” – they have to do with the business of the kings of Israel and Judah – psalms about a royal coronation, a blessing on a new rule, a royal marriage, or accounts of a king’s military leadership. Some psalms are laments – individual laments and communal laments – mournful psalms written in times of despair. Others are psalms of thanksgiving. They’re meant to praise God, give thanks for God’s actions. More than a third of the psalms are addressed to the Director of Music. They were meant to be sung as a part of worship. Our psalm for today is like that, meant to be shared musically in the call and response way we read it together today. A key feature of Hebrew poetry is a style called parallelism. Parallelism is a repeated pattern where we find one verse stating an idea, and the very next verse restating the same or a very similar idea in a slightly different way.[4] For example, our Psalm today starts with lines about giving thanks first to “the God of gods” and then to the “Lord of lords” in the very next verse.
            In Psalm 136, the focus is on praising God, particularly because of God’s steadfast love. The psalmist praises God’s faithfulness, driving the point home by repeating these words as every other stanza of the poem. God’s love is forever, God’s love is forever, God’s love is forever. The psalmist writes in a way that will have the congregation repeating these words again and again, etching them into their memory, helping the congregation feel the truth of them. “God’s love is forever” is like the refrain, the chorus of the song, sung over and over.
            Psalm 136 also shows us an example of Israel telling its story. Over and over in the scriptures, we hear reference to the Exodus, God leading the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt and into the Promised Land. It’s their defining story. Remember, when we talked about the law, the commandments, the Exodus, God’s saving the people is the reason given behind many of the laws for the new nation. So too, in the poetry of Israel, the story of the Exodus is told again and again. It is the story that shapes Israel, that provides the example of God’s faithfulness, that provides their sense of future and purpose, and binds them together as a nation. This psalm, like many others, reminds the people of their core identity. As Christians, we do this with Holy Communion. We tell ourselves the story of Jesus sharing a meal with his disciples, and sharing his life with us again and again, until we know it deep in our bones.
            I wonder, what’s our defining story as a congregation? What’s the story we tell ourselves again and again about our relationship with God? As a church, what story do we need to remind ourselves of again and again? What’s your defining story with God? What’s the message of your life, the way that God is showing up all through your days, again and again? How are you reminding yourself of God’s faithful presence in your life? And I wonder, what’s our refrain? What’s our chorus? What are the words that we need to etch onto our hearts about who God is? God is forgiving. God’s love is unconditional. God’s grace is for you. With God, everything is possible. What refrain do you need to hear over and over again? 
            I want to challenge you, as I challenged the children this week, to try to write your own poetry, your own praise song, your own words that help you share your heart, your feelings, your emotions with God. You don’t have to share your words unless you want to – they can be just for you. And if writing really isn’t your thing, I want you to think about how you might best express your praise for God, your love for God. Is it through art? Painting or drawing? Through music? Dance? How can you open your heart to praise God in a creative way this week? Try something.
“O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good, for God’s steadfast love endures forever.” Amen.
           



[1] Frost, Robert, “The Road Note Taken,” http://classicalpoets.org/10-greatest-poems-ever-written/
[2] Angelou, Maya, “Still I Rise,” http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/world-poetry-day-28-of-poetrys-most-powerful-lines-ever-written-a6944301.html
[3] Shakespeare, William, “Sonnet 18,” http://classicalpoets.org/10-greatest-poems-ever-written/
[4] “Psalms,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psalms