Mother Katherine’s sermon preached on May 9, 2021

Posted by on Sun, May 9, 2021 in Easter, Sermons

The Sixth Sunday of Easter

May 9, 2021

Psalm 98 is a psalm of praise and a hymn of Enthronement of the Lord, intended for the enthronement festival of the New Year. A community of faith is formed and strengthened by praising God, and here the psalm’s movement is from expressing joy at the mighty acts of Yahweh throughout history, to the deep promise God makes with us and the awareness of God’s justice and equity. The psalm is so powerful, joyful, and evocative that it’s assigned for Christmas as well as five other times, including today.

The Collect prayer we began with dates from the end of the seventh century, and has been altered and changed back several times. Thomas Cranmer replaced “such good things as surpass our understanding” with the lackluster phrase “invisible good things.” Wiser minds later restored it! We don’t usually imagine actual prayers as a source of contention, and yet even this week I was pretty horrified by one. A well-intentioned woman prayed for a critically ill friend—telling her God had assigned the cancer so that her faith could heal her, if only she’d reach out to Jesus with enough faith. This is so painfully opposite of the God I know! So yes, prayer can be questioned, and sometimes that questioning leads us to discover truths about our own faith. When we hear the Collect say God prepares for us “such good things as surpass our understanding” we might wonder what couldn’t we understand if we tried? What does it mean to pray that in loving God we will receive those promises “which exceed all that we can desire”? Haven’t we ‘desired’ an end to the pandemic, to homelessness, for someone we love to heal, for people the world over to treat each other with dignity, kindness and equity? And I’m back to things which surpass my understanding here, and praying that loving Christ means trusting he is with us in all things, and that in the end, the resurrection salvation we are promised does exceed any imaginable desire. Striving to love God “in all things” is a high expectation, and may take years to live into. Blessedly, the prayer asks God’s help to do so rather than leaving it up to us as another self-help or DIY project.

The psalm is related, and first calls us to sing a new song of praise to Yahweh, who is doing something new and so grand it deserves it’s own song. We hear of God’s mighty works and power, of a caring Creator with great love for us. What else can we do but praise?! This isn’t the moment to cry out for help as our prayers so often do, it’s the moment we simply give praise and thanks for it. We are in relationship with the Holy One, acknowledging our need and God’s greatness, our hope and God’s singular ability to be — God.

Walter Brueggemann says, “All of life is aimed toward God and finally exists for the sake of God. Praise articulates and embodies our capacity to yield, submit, and abandon ourselves in trust and gratitude to the One whose we are.… We have a resilient hunger to move beyond self. God is addressed [praised] not because we have need, but simply because God is God.” (Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology, Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis MN 1988) I’ve noticed over this past year I’ve heard how glad you are to have this time of praise and worship (and others throughout the week). What I haven’t been hearing much are those very rational practical reasons for not worshipping. Not that it doesn’t still happen, but I believe many value it differently now. We can see it changes something in us; even online, even in a pandemic, even without receiving bread and wine and hugs of peace. Praise isn’t practical or productive by work standards, and it’s certainly not centered on ourselves. One pastor and professor says “Praise means being lost in adoration of the beloved, being awestruck by beauty. Praise is downright wasteful in terms of possible ways to spend your time.”

To be in that relationship with God as our beloved and to spend our time, attention, joyful energy in praise, demands effort and a moment’s surrender of all the other things on our calendars and to-do lists. What I see happening as we do is nothing less than the ‘new thing’ the psalmist says God is doing. As one spends time immersed in loving God, we notice something quietly profound; our souls seem to grow lighter, brighter, take on new shape, dimension, passion. How else can we describe the feeling of Christmas Eve together singing out “Joy to the world the Lord is come!” — which you may know is Isaac Watts’ rephrasing of this psalm, he could literally ‘Sing to the Lord a new song’. What do you feel in that Christmas moment?

Losing ourselves in such a practice is a marvelous counteraction and to the evil or despair we encounter. It’s hard to be cynical or judgmental when we sing, to be sinful while we willingly “Shout with joy to the Lord…lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing…with the harp…with trumpets and the sound of the horn, shout with joy before the King, the Lord.” We lose the inclination to be all about us and ours when we imagination what we heard; “Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it, the lands and those who dwell therein. Let the rivers clap their hands, and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord, when he comes to judge the earth.” I marvel at how such exultation and praise can lay my mind to rest, my soul into quiet joy, and my heart to love this body of Christ more than just a moment before. It prepares us to continue on as followers of Christ’ Way serving others.

The psalms are part of the Hebrew Scriptures, written 500 to 1000 years before Jesus’ birth, yet for Christians it’s impossible to read them without a Christ-lens. For us he is the Messiah awaited in the psalms. God came to us in human flesh, Christ Jesus, and he tops the praise list. From Christmas’ Joy to the world birth, to his teaching, healing, feeding, loving, sacrificing, and death — to Easter’s resurrection, it is right to give him thanks and praise!

Certainly those awaiting a Messiah didn’t envision one like Jesus of Nazareth, with no army or royal entourage, no crown or throne. Instead his people came from all walks of life and his nearest friends were far from royalty. Instead of defeating tyrants and amassing land, he healed the sick and forgave sinners. The psalm is meant for raising one in a great enthronement celebration, though Jesus was raised first to a cross, and then, impossibly, raised from the dead. Still no one but the disciples would have called him a world leader or superpower back then. Wrong kind of Messiah! Our faith is built on the foundation of God’s incarnate Word, not on any of those trappings or worldly markers. He is crowned with our love as we follow his way, singing a new song. Both our Collect and psalm and gospel call us to new perceptions and awaken us to celebrating God’s acting among. They remind us how tenderly God loves us, provides a world for us, hopes for us—so much so as to send the Son for our salvation and to judge not with cruelty or punishment, but with equity and mercy. In our gospel Jesus calls us to abide in his love, so that “my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”

Notice that most of the psalm’s images are nothing we could make or do or buy? God has done marvelous and victorious things the world over. They’re fully available to perceive with senses given by our Creator. We can sing and play instruments to make that joyful noise in all manner of ways, and rather than be frustrated that we cannot roar like the seas, clap like the floods, or sing like the hills, we praise the one who makes them all, who fills us with the creativity and curiosity we treasure. The pandemic and far-reaching consequences have been more than we expected and the toll is high. We cannot escape that reality. We can be awake to God’s gifts in such things as vaccines, ventilators, and medications. It is our loving Creator who grieves with us, and also inspires health care workers to help families say goodbye on video calls. Christ calls us into Communion together, and we miss doing so in the usual ways. Thanks be to God we have people with tools and talents to help us do it as best we can on line. We are close to being able to worship in-person, and some already anticipate tears of joy and praise when that day comes. In none of this do we get to turn back time or return to pre-pandemic life. We are grieving our losses and giving thanks for what we have come through, that Christ is with us in both the bleak and the beautiful. Now we go forth, alert and newly mindful of holy help as we make a new way forward, praising God as we sing a new song. Amen.

My thanks for the insights of James Howell, adjunct Professor of Preaching at Duke Divinity School, pastor, writer and blogger, and Paul Myhre, Associate Director of the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology, Crawfordsville, IN.

© 2021 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.