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Something to Shout About

Sermon - 6/10/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Psalm 96

The text for our reflection this morning comes from the 96th Psalm.  As I suspect many of you know, the Psalms originally were the church's hymn book, and the hymn-book of ancient Israel.  Psalms were sung, and have been sung for thousands of years, and chanted, and used in various ways in worship.  

It just so happens that this particular Psalm, the 96th Psalm, is in our Psalter, which is the back of your [pew] hymnal.  We are going to sing a response that is designated in the bold print:

1O sing to the Lord a new song;
   sing to the Lord, all the earth.

2Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
   tell of his salvation from day to day.
3Declare his glory among the nations,
   his marvelous works among all the peoples.
4For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised;
   he is to be revered above all gods.
5For all the gods of the peoples are idols,
   but the Lord made the heavens.
6Honour and majesty are before him;
   strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.

O sing to the Lord a new song;
   sing to the Lord, all the earth.


7Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples,
   ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
8Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
   bring an offering, and come into his courts.
9Worship the Lord in holy splendor;
   tremble before him, all the earth.

O sing to the Lord a new song;
   sing to the Lord, all the earth.

10Say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king!
   The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved.
   He will judge the peoples with equity.’
11Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
   let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
12   let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
13   before the Lord; for he is coming,
   for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
   and the peoples with his truth.

O sing to the Lord a new song;
   sing to the Lord, all the earth.

 

I have a clergy calling friend with whom I gather for lunch every few years to catch up on things in life.  Last time we gathered, Sam (not his real name), who is about 2 years younger than I am, shared some rather startling news.  He said he had been diagnosed the year before with Parkinson's Disease.  Unless a cure is found, he figures he might have 10-12 years where he will continue to work before the disease will force him into early retirement.

And so quite naturally he worries about his family, about his wife, what they will do without his income.  How they will manage his healthcare expenses if he loses his health insurance.  And he says retirement, for him, instead of something to look forward to, to be enjoyed, is something that he anticipates at best that he will have to endure.

To be blunt, his life stinks.  And yet, he will stand before his congregation as long as he is physically able.  And with all honesty and sincerity, he will proclaim the good news, as the Psalmist proclaims, 'sing to the Lord a new song'.  

How is that possible?  How does one bless God's name when faced with a debilitating future?  How can we declare God's glory to the nations when we see so many nations torn apart by war and poverty?

Life is full of all kinds of ambiguity, isn't it?  One moment we are celebrating the accomplishments of our seniors at graduation, and the next we are dealing with some personal tragedy.  My own brief bout with cancer has made me all the more aware of the uncertainty inherent in all life.  And therefore, I think, all the more sensitive to the preciousness, the special-ness, the beauty of life, of each and every day.

Now this may seem a bit odd, but I have to tell you I found more enjoyment in those first few weeks after my surgery last year than I have known for a long time -- perhaps ever.  I mean, you could spend $100 at the finest restaurant in Eugene and you would not receive as fine a meal as I had that day after surgery.  That chicken, those mashed potatoes, that gravy tasted soooo good!  Of course I hadn't eaten anything in 48 hours J.  It was absolutely heavenly.  I great regretted the fact that I ate it all, the next day, but in that moment it was intense enjoyment.  And the bed at home, with that $98.00 re-conditioned mattress was the absolute most comfortable bed in all the world.  I was so glad to be home.  Even after I went off the drugs, it still felt good J.  

And my favorite part, the most fabulous enjoyment of all, were those first hugs from my kids (one a graduating senior this year), and that first kiss from my wife.  There was nothing sweeter, nothing better, in the whole world.

It almost makes me want to do it all over again.  Until I remember that part about the catheter, and when they pulled it out.  Don't want to go there J.

To sing a new song to the Lord is to praise God not for saving us from the trials and tribulations of life, but in spite of them.  To know that no matter what difficulties we may encounter, that life is good because it is of God and therefore full of wonder, and beauty, and joy in each and every day.  And even in those times when we only have but a glimpse of that wonder, of that beauty, of that joy, it is enough to sustain us through all else.  For it gives us hope that God is not only still present in the world, but God is still the ruler who judges, that is, who directs us with God's equity, righteousness, and truth, as the Psalm proclaims.  

Hebrew scholar Clinton McCann writes that "this conviction expressed in the 96th Psalm, that God rules the world, empowers us even now in the face of old injustice and brokenness to defy such realities as we live under God's claim and sing a new song".

And this is why, I think, that my friend Sam can still proclaim the good news in spite of his own affliction.  It is why we too can be filled with joy no matter how dismal our perception of the world for we are those who live under God's claim.  "The kingdom of God is within you", Jesus said.  And therefore, we can defy the brokenness, the injustices, of the world to live by a different reality that we have in God.

And so the Psalm tells us to sing a new song to the Lord.  To proclaim God's salvation.  To declare God's glory.  And then note at the end of that Psalm, it says 'let the earth rejoice, let the sea roar, let the fields exult'.  It's as if all of nature is proclaiming this good news.  We are surrounded with a symphony of exultation and proclamation and joy, and we are the chorus called to sing that song.  Only the problem is, lots of us don't know how to sing this song.

Martha Grace Reese led a 4-year study of mainline protestant churches and how they dealt with evangelism, interviewed over 1,000 members and clergy, and I think it will come as no surprise to many of us that they discovered that a huge number of folks in churches like ours have strong feelings about evangelism -- they hate it!  It's one of the reasons most of our churches have been struggling for these past 40 years.  

Reese's book, that just came out last year, "Unbinding the Gospel", has lots of good tips and tools for turning that trend around.  It will be a resource for our study next Spring when she comes to speak at our regional assembly that will be hosted at Northwest Christian College.  Having just read the book on my train trip down to Fresno (that's what I love about trains, you spend all of that time reading) last weekend, I want to make one minor adjustment to what she says.  That is, I want to ban the word 'evangelism' from our vocabulary.  Sounds kind of radical, but I want to replace it with something else.  The word has such negative connotations for so many of us that it's hard to recover its meaning, to reform it.

Either we come from churches where evangelism was little more than a hunt for unsuspecting prey, or, we have been so badgered by so-called 'evangelists' that we want nothing to do with the concept.  So I want to find a different way of talking about it, to forget that word.

Whereas evangelism is most often understood as trying to convert others to your way of belief, you see, that's not what we're about.  Our goal is not the conversion of minds, but the transformation of lives.  Not the saving of souls, but the saving the world.  And you see the difference being -- the saving of the world involves souls, includes that, but too often those seeking to save souls don't care about the world.  It could go to hell in a hand-basket.  So we seek to do both.

If we are going to assist in the transformation of lives and the changing of our world, we have to be able to sing this new song of God.  To not be shy about sharing our faith.  Under that old rubric of evangelism, the reasons for sharing our faith were generally three-fold:

First, it was the way to get into heaven.

Second, conversely, it was the only way to stay out of hell.  You know, scare the hell out of people.

Third, because Jesus commanded us.  That we should go and "make disciples of all nations", right, the great commission in Matthew 28.

And for many folk, those are very compelling, important reasons, and that's good.  But if you don't respond to those promises of heaven or threats of hell, or if you're like me, or my teenage kids, if "I told you so" is not reason enough to do something (you have to understand more what's behind it) then I think we need to push that out of the way.  We need to wipe that off.  We need to expand our thinking.  We need to turn it around [at this point, Dan was showing off his PowerPoint skills J].

We need to come up with some new understandings, reasons why it's important to share our faith: 

Life is better with God in it.  Isn't that so?  When you are in tune with the will of God for your life and the world, it's better.  

Knowing Jesus makes me a better person.  I'm not saying better than someone else, but better than we would be without Christ in our lives.

God has changed my life.  I know that's true for many people.  Why should we be shy about sharing that?

Christ gives me peace and hope.  And how much we need that peace and hope in our world.  

We need the Christian vision for the world.  This, I think, is probably the biggest motivating factor I have for sharing my faith.  The biblical vision for our world:  when the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and swords are beat into plowshares, and the new heaven and the new earth where death will be no more.  That is the vision that we are called to share with our world and that's exciting.

I have found forgiveness and have learned how to forgive others in Christ.  That is such a powerful experience.

I feel so much love in the Christian community.  The church is a place where people can say "see how they love one another".  

People in the church have been so good to me.

The church gives me a place where I can make a difference in the world.  Here is a place where we can make a difference in the world, whether it be through out Helping Hand ministry or Good Samaritan ministry or Darfur action, or whatever it is that we do together when we join together to make a difference.  We truly do that here.

This is just a list for starters that I invite you to consider, and to come up with your own list -- why is it important to share our faith?  And to do so, you might think of these four questions, to meditate on these:

Why am I a Christian?

How do I experience God in my life?

Where do I see God in our world?

How does my faith in God make a difference?

 

Those who are in our prayer groups, this is extra credit -- you might use it in your group when you meet, to guide you.

I want to try and illustrate this with a personal story, or at least illustrate part of this.  My sister, Katherine, is the pastor of First Christian Church in Carbondale, Illinois.  Three years ago, her daughter Stephanie gave birth to her first child, a baby boy, Dawson they named him.  It was my sister's first grandchild and parent's first great-grandchild.  Only, something went wrong at birth.  It was a very long, stressful labor, lasted three days.  They finally decided they had to deliver Dawson by C-section.  Quickly after they delivered him they discovered that he did not have sufficient oxygen in his blood.  They told the family that he will go into critical condition in a few short hours, and they did not have the tools in their hospital to cope with the condition.

And so they had to have him air-lifted to the Children's Hospital in St. Louis.  My sister writes of that experience:  "The hospital staff decided Stephanie needed to be with her baby.  Even though she could not sit up after the spinal, they wheeled her bed toward the nursery where there stood many other grandparents admiring their newborns or awaiting news of birth.  The nurses laid Dawson on her chest while blowing oxygen in his face.  We wept openly in the hall.  Perceiving that this newborn infant was about to be whisked away in the arriving helicopter, perhaps never to be seen by his mother again, one of those grandparents asked Stephanie if she would like to have a picture with newborn son:

  

"The next couple of days were very trying for all in the family, and especially Stephanie, who was not able to leave that hospital to go and join her son.  She only had this picture, and her faith, to hold onto".

Fast-forward to one year later:

Baby Dawson sitting there on his Mom's lap, Grandma on his left, Great-Grandpa, my father, on his right.

Talk about reasons to praise God.  You know that this family has something to shout about.  The wonder, the joy, the beauty of life that puts a smile on everyone's face.

But you and I also know that not every such story has a happy ending.  And perhaps unintentionally, but quite visually, that is represented by the empty seat where Great-Grandma should be sitting in front of her husband.  This is the reality of life -- tragic deaths and miraculous births.  Life-saving wonders and life-threatening crisis'.  And in spite of all of that -- or because of it -- we are called to sing this new song.  To share our faith in God with the world, of this joy, this wonder, this beauty, this special-ness of life.

So if you ask me:  'where is God in that picture?'  I would tell you that he is seated right there on his mother's lap.  And even in that empty seat.  And in those happy faces that give witness to the victory of life over tragedy.

For God is in the wonders of medicine that makes life better and longer for all:

God is in the blessed peacemakers who teach us how to change this world through non-violent resistance:

 

God dwells among those whom the world presumes to be enemies, but instead discover that they can be friends:

 

God is in the refugee camps where our gifts from Week of Compassion are literally saving lives even today:

 

God is in those emergency workers, sometimes risking their own lives to save the lives of others:

 

God is wherever tragedy is transformed into hope.  Apathy transformed into action.  And death transformed into life.  That is the good news that we can share--and if we dare--even to sing, and to shout, to the world.

May it be.

 


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