February 5, 2009

Sermon on Psalm 147: Praise. Praise?

I read these words in Psalm 147 and even before I get to the second verse I have to stop and ask, what kind of world did the Psalmist live in?

“Praise the Lord. How good it is to sing praises, how pleasant and fitting!”

Last Tuesday, I drove the church bus to the airport with Ahmed, an Iraqi case manager for the Texas Refugee Services. We met and picked up an Iraqi refugee family: a mother who knew some English and 5 children who spoke only Arabic.
We loaded the bus with their 7 bags before heading to their new home: the Villages of Lamer, a low income housing on North Lamar. These 7 bags represented the little bit of home they could bring with them to this strange and foreign land to puzzle their lives’ together. 7 bags don’t seem like much, but as Ahmed informed me, Iraqi’s tend to bring a lot. I guess a lot of luggage is 7 bags when compared to the one or no bags of African or Myanmar refugees bring.
At the Villages we found their apartments. The small third floor apt where the mother and three youngest children would reside, and the smaller apartment where the older boys would live. Each semi-decorated apartment was disheartening for me to walk into. This wasn’t home.
But it wasn’t the loneliness of these scantily decorated apt’s that broke the family, but rather the distance. As I drove Ahmed back to his offices, he told me that the boys were distraught that they’d have to be so far from their family in the complex…the complete opposite side.
Didn’t the Psalmist know that our world has wars and violence that tears people from their homes and places them in fear, discomfort, and brokenness. Wars that violate innocents and destroy the ability to praise.

Was the Psalmists world so different from ours where people’s hearts are filled with fear because of the loss of jobs, the deep grief over the loss of a son at the hands of a tragic accident or suicide, or the confusion over the loss of a parent or child due to sickness or cancer?

Praise God. Praise God?

Do we praise God because he’s some sort of narcissist who commands and needs our adoration. Does God demand our praise out of his own superficial vanity?

If the Psalmist is emphasizing praise as an imperative to ignore our world of suffering and pain or to reinforce Gods vanity, then maybe the atheists, Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins are right, our ancient book leads us to mere delusion.

But we don’t have to guess at the world of the Psalmist. We do know some things. As Ann mentioned a few weeks ago, our current Book of Psalms is actually 5 books placed together. And in this final 5th, where Psalm 147 resides we can infer that the community that would read and sing these words had experienced the harshest of tragedies imaginable for an Israelite.

The Southern Kingdom of Israel, the indestructible Kingdom of God’s Temple presence in Jerusalem has been conquered. The Israelites have been sent out into exile and the Temple destroyed. It’s truly amazing that the Jewish faith still exists to this day.

See the normal procedure in ancient Mesopotamia, was to change gods if you were conquered, because that meant your god was weak or false. What should have happened in this moment of defeat and exile, is that the Israelites should have given up on YHWH who allowed them to be conquered for Marduk or Baal.

OT theologian Walter Brueggemann distinguishes the Psalms in three categories: Psalms of orientation, disorientation, and reorientation.

Psalms of orientation praise God for how the world works, and how God blesses humanity, especially his people, how life works.

Psalms of disorientation or Lament Psalms, have God’s people crying out in their suffering and pain, these are about how life doesn’t work.

Finally, Psalms of reorientation are where God makes possibilities new, and recreates the broken world so new life is possible in the midst of exile, destruction, cancer, the loss of jobs, broken relationships, and despair.

The Psalm from our Psalmist tonight is one of reorientation: the possibility of new life.

With exile and destruction on his mind, and possibly with its marks on his body; the Psalmist declares in the foretaste of hope that God builds up Jerusalem, gathers the exiles, heals the brokenhearted, binds the wounded.

Flannery O’Connor puts words to this experience of praising God in the midst of situations of despair, pain, and oppression: when she says, “grace comes sometimes like a kick in the teeth, leaving us broken, wholly unable any longer to deny our need.”

Grace is a reminder that we need God, and dependence on God is faith. So praise in the midst and messiness of life transforms and shapes our faith’s ability to respond and with a new orientation see God and our situation differently.

Praise in song and music has historically empowered oppressed people’s faith, from the inside to the outside: from despair to hope, from captivity to freedom. One thinks of the power of African American spirituals.

Cornell West, in the documentary about modern day human slavery and trafficking, Call and Response, says:
“The music itself coming out of, especially black people in America, but of course its true for voices all around the world, is very much about this freedom; freedom which is spiritual, so when George Clinton said, ‘Free your mind and your ass will follow: the paradox of freedom is you would have, you have to experience the foretaste of freedom before you become part of a freedom movement.”

God wants us to praise him because God wants to free the world. God wants us to be free from sickness, despair, hate, and loneliness.

We need praise to know the appropriate response to suffering and injustice. Praise grounds us in faith in God, so within our situations of pain, neglect, depression, and violence we can have a foretaste of new life, of healing, of resurrection.

We do not praise God in ignorance or naïveté, but we praise God in solidarity and hope that love and justice will prevail, that peace will come, and that every knee will bow in an overwhelming response to God’s overwhelming love for us.

As Henri Nouwen wrote:
“Worship, to me, is constantly to say, “Yes’ to God’s love; to say, ‘Lord, I love you too.’ All of our life should be worship. Every occasion in our time should be an occasion to say, ‘Yes, I love you too.” That signals a change of heart.”

Praising God in the midst of the brokenness of life and sin, equips us with the appropriate response. Praise is the paradoxical tool of love that forms us for action and activism.

Praise is the paradox that allows us to affirm that grace can come to us in the ugliest of situations, so that when we cry out: “My God, My God, Why Have you forsaken me,” we stand in solidarity with our Lord. We are able to pick up our cross and know, as Bono has said:
“God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house… God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives… God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war… God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.”

Let us pray:
Praise God, for God so loved the world that he gave us his only Son.

Praise God, for God so love the world that he gave.

Praise God, for God so loved the world

Praise God, for God.

Praise God.



Roger said...

this is outstanding Joe.....FYI, Brueggemann revision of that work has changed re-orientation to new orientation, saying that re- implies a return that is no longer possible once orientation has been destroyed...and...putting an emphasis on the new work that God is now doing...I like that difference......

well done!! Sorry I had to miss it

JoeBumbulis said...

Thanks Roger, I was a little afraid that this sermon is teetering on some bad theology dealing with suffering and mixing and mashing metaphors so hopefully the plane landed well.

I like the new distinction better from Brueggemann, thanks for the heads up!