November 20, 2011
Scripture: Psalm 95:1-7a
Above All gods,
Rev. Leanne Walt preaching
There is a window, an entryway into recognition and response that our psalmist offers us this morning. There is an invitation, to come make a joyful noise of “Halleluiah’s,” to come worship and bow down, a gracious invitation to come into God’s presence with thanksgiving and so we have brought our thanksgiving to this place on this day, we have set our thanks in the abundance of our pledges amidst the cornucopia upon this festive altar.
This psalm, Psalm 95, the Word that kindles the fire of our week of thanks, has been used as a call to worship for nearly 3,000 years. These ancient words were used by the Israelites as part of worship in the temple:
“O come, let us sing to the Lord;
Let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!
Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;
let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!
For the Lord is a great God,
and a great King above all gods,”
They sang these words as a processional to herald in the Feast of Booths, a Jewish festival lasting seven days in which they give thanks for that year’s fruit harvest and this familiar psalm continues to serve as invitation for our giving thanks to God for the harvest in our lives.
Though, for many the harvest in our lives is not so easily recognizable as the Israelites’ fruit on a vine or the fields of corn and squash that the Pilgrims celebrated at the first Thanksgiving. It takes attention and mindfulness to recognize how God is working in our lives and most of us stumble in here on Sunday mornings, slightly off-balance and seeking the strength to make a joyful noise to the Lord despite the recent loss of a friend, the bleak diagnosis of a loved one, an aging spouse, a depressed economy, or battling depression ourselves.
Around this time last year, I observed my grandmother attempting to regain her mobility after hip replacement surgery. She stood, looking a mixture of fear and determination that she would attribute to her strong German stock, I’m sure; the physical therapist supporting her from behind, hands grasping her walker, appearing ready to make a break for it down the long hallway of the rehab center and out into the streets. But, the progress was slow, one foot slowly reaching out into the unknown, tentative and measured, until she was sure that her foot would meet solid ground. She stepped. Then, she began the same process all over again with the other foot. In many ways, this is the life of faith, exploratory, gradual, and sometimes even a bit awkward.
I feel I have been on such a journey with you all over the course of the past month or so as we have stepped out in faith together to talk about money and we have introduced this idea that our giving is a response to God’s grace in our lives. According to our psalmist, we are to make a joyful noise to the Lord in response to the grace we have each been given. Yet, as I have been thinking about this idea of responding to God’s grace, I have realized that there is an element that must precede our response to God’s grace and that is our recognition of God’s grace; we must plow through the fields of our life and lift up before God the particular presence and persistence of grace that we discover in order to offer adequate response in return.
John Calvin wrote that we are in fact so close to God our Creator that our awareness of the divine is a natural, innate quality that is woven into the very fabric of our being when we are born. But as time goes on, he says, as we grow and learn and are exposed to culture, ideas, and ideologies, we fall away from this intrinsic awareness of God and we are no longer able to so easily discern God’s presence in our lives. Despite the five hundred years standing in between Calvin, our reformer brother, and us, it remains the case that it is difficult to discern true grace in our lives because there are so many facets of our culture that attract our attention and appeal to our desires; there are so many false gods to worship, to which we are tempted to offer our song, our praise, our thanksgiving.
False grace lurks in shopping malls, cell phones and on the Internet, in political authorities and the media, in our homes and cars, we pour our sacred trust into all of these things that they will lead us to joy and fulfillment. Devilishly they beckon to us that they will set our paths straight, that they will fill our hunger.
As the country singer Johnny Lee heartbreakingly sang about true love, perhaps the same can be intoned about our quest for true grace,
“Well, I spent a lifetime lookin' for you
Single bars and good time lovers were never true
Playin' a fools game, hopin' to win
Tellin' those sweet lies and losin' again
I was lookin' for love in all the wrong places”
Otherwise easily caught up in a fools game, we have stumbled to this place on this day to recognize and give thanks for true grace in our lives, seeking to know, once again, the hand that formed us and carried us into this world; the God above all gods.
It takes but a moment to recognize our God that the psalmist proclaims, just one moment of grace to shock us into its Truth and urge our thanksgiving to the God that is above all gods.
One of the greatest joys of parish ministry is the proximity to grace that the office allows, for the church can be and ought to be and is a place where people are touched by the grace of God. Ours is the church where a bereaved family gathers out of respect for the dead and unexpectedly finds a healing word of everlasting life that they never knew mattered. Stumbling into this sanctuary, unsure of their footing, touched but by the grace of God.
Ours is the church where a homeless teenager quietly wanders in on a cold fall night, seeking a place to stay to be met with the compassionate and outstretched hand of one of our very own. Offering a phone, a ride, some bus fare. Stumbling into the doors of this building, unsure of his footing, touched by grace.
Ours is the church that provides local teenagers a village by the lakeside at summer camp, a safe place where they can lead with their truth, lay down their burdens, be who God made them to be. In this haven, each one is touched by the grace of God.
Ours is the church that solicits and hand delivers frozen, heavy turkeys each November to Interfaith Social Services so that families in need will enjoy a similar feast to ours on Thanksgiving day. Grace.
Instances of grace exist in equal measure outside of the church; for the lifelong addict who gets sober at 36, meets the love of her life, has children in her 40’s, and has the family she always dreamed of but never believed to be a possibility. But for the grace of God.
For the black man with a young daughter who is incarcerated at 22 for dealing drugs, so lost that he finds prison a relief from the destructive distractions that existed for him in the free world. Yet a few years after his release, he is offered a job at the Boston Workers Alliance and now works to help young black men become wage-earning fathers in the home. But for the grace of God.
For, even when we’re playing a fools game, stumbling around in the dark, Calvin and Paul promise that we will find grace – or it will find us – one way or another. The question is how will we respond? Without a response, the grace we receive is cheaply earned as Bonheoffer coined and, as Paul warns in 2 Corinthians, we will have accepted the grace of God in vain (2 Cor 6:1).
This time of year I often wonder where the thanks falls for those who don’t recognize God at work in their lives. People are thankful for their family, for their health, for their jobs, and belongings, perhaps. But as they pass the turkey and stuffing, where do they direct their thanks for the grace and blessings in their lives if not to God? Like a lit candle, I imagine their gratitude gradually burns down on one end and evaporates like smoke into thin air on the other. A fleeting moment of thanks.
Psalm 95 summons our response, inviting us to come, sing to the Lord, make a joyful noise, bring our thanksgiving, for the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods. Through our giving thanks, we will be filled. This morning’s pledge dedication is this community’s recognition and response to God’s grace in our lives, for those moments when we have stepped out into the unknown, unsteady, tentative, and fearful, and somehow our feet have met solid ground. But for the grace of God.
This morning our thanks falls fully on God.