Monday, September 25, 2017

Generation to Generation (Psalm 145)

As the fall is underway (though this weekend up in the 80s/low 90s seemed to contradict), churches return to "active mode" with their schedules and programming. As it happens, the Revised Common Lectionary suggests the 145th Psalm for the last Sunday of September, so I preached on this text as part of my visit to the First Baptist Church of Ossining, NY, ministering in a diverse community along the Hudson, just about 20 miles north of the NYC line.


In some Christian churches, I could ask this question: What is the chief end of man [humanity]? Many in the congregation reply: “To glorify God and enjoy God forever.”
How did they know this? Thanks to catechism.

While we Baptists might associate the word catechism more with Catholicism, a number of Protestant traditions use catechism as well, particularly in the Reformed traditions, especially Presbyterians and Lutherans. Catechism sets up a series of questions and answers for Christians to learn the vocabulary of faith and the beliefs central to Christianity. The question about “the chief end of humanity”, our identity and destiny, appears as Question #1 in some catechisms. 

So, why is this brief handful of words considered so great, so central to what it means to be Christian? To give God due praise and glory means that no other shall receive your faithfulness and dedication. God alone receives our praise and glory, and our understanding of life cannot be without a sense of humility that we exist not for ourselves. Such a faith is unflinching in its theism (i.e. there is a God) and its willingness to say that we give our trust and allegiance to God alone.
In the midst of our lives, such talk may sound too lofty or worse, detached from the life we know. To say that humanity’s very reason for being, our reason for being is to praise God is even difficult. We typically struggle with questions of life, trying to sort out the puzzles and the pain of human existence however the plain-spoken words of this question and answer ought to cause some troubling in your soul. Such thinking calls our bluff and asks us to think about what we really mean when we say we are believers. Is this conversation this morning a “nice thought” meant as a Sunday morning listening yet lost in the shuffle of the other six days of the week, or does this question illumine the faith of Christianity, with its way of discipleship that asks very hard questions of us? 

Answering with “to glorify God and enjoy God forever” is harder than just learning and repeating these words. To live it out means you commit to living out faith daily. Somehow, in the whirlwind of family and deadlines, in the midst of the headlines of the world and the headlines of your little corner of the world, such belief is a tall order. How does one learn such a way of life? And more to the point, can you risk life by living that way?
In the midst of the world, in the great times of trial, the praise of God can take place in every season of life, and it is indeed fitting for us to do so. Giving praise to God is in part a realization that our lives twist and turn, and often without much warning, yet we still recognize the goodness that God intends for the world, even when we cannot see much of it ourselves. 
Christians believe that in the end, whether it is our own or that of this world, God shall have the last word. God shall make all things well. As Augustine said, restless hearts will find their rest in God. To give praise to God, even in the midst of your worst days, understands our lives so much differently, cast not to the winds, but in loving trust of the One who has made us. 
Appropriately, the 145th Psalm raises up a long liturgy of praise. Of all the psalms, many of which call us to praise, this one begins with a self-description. Rather than perhaps “a psalm of David” common for many psalms, the superscription, or title, is simply tehillah, or in English: “Praise”. The psalmist just leaves it at that: “this one…it is praise.” To understand this psalm, you need not look any further than this one word: “praise”. 

Down the centuries, a rabbinical tradition arose, stating, “Every [person] who repeats the Tehillah [praise] of David thrice a day may be sure he is a child of the world to come” (cited Mays, Psalms, Interpretation, 1994, p. 437) Reading this psalm, measuring its words with your heart and mind, is offered as a good word, one that guides you through this life, helping you know your identity against all the other claims of the world to tell you who you are. One could rail against rote (indeed, catechism is often criticized as rote faith), yet in the repetition, if you look closely, you shall find a rhythm worth taking up in your own life. In reading this psalm in times of sorrow, in times of joy, in the midst of disaster and when going to bed after a ho-hum day, this psalm keeps turning us back to our reason for being.

In the midst of this psalm, we find the same wisdom that prompted the later Christian observation that the chief end of humanity is to glorify God and enjoy God forever. The life we live ought to be a life of praise, yet not one that is trite or errs on the side of living faith as if it is “magic” (if I pray or live a certain way, I’ll get a free pass from the unpredictable part of human existence). This sort of praise is meant for those who have diplomas from the School of Hard Knocks. The psalms reflect ancient Israel’s own story, shaped as much by pathos as praise, as much about lament as hope. And in the midst of the collection, we are offered a psalm that points to the life we know as well as the life to come.

We have a holy calling to be involved in the education and upbringing of each child and youth in our congregations. After all, we did not learn the ways of faith alone. We too are the product of the investment and love of generations who have gone on before us. In turn, we share the faith, and hopefully take it very, very seriously as a key investment in what it means to be a congregation. Each of us is responsible for sharing faith and helping our children and youth know that life may be complex, life may even get deeply sorrowful, yet there is a world to come that is worth living and a great calling to live this life fully. This is not just the work of Sunday school teachers. This is not just the work of a Christian education board. This is not just the work of a pastor. It is the responsibility of each one of us to be invested in children, whether just learning to walk, or starting to bridge across the stages of life. You have the wonderful challenge of “being there” for our kids!

I remember very well the witness of grown-ups who made the faith come alive. Teaching a Sunday School class, helping train me to be an usher, welcoming my voice (going through puberty even) into the choir, asking good questions and acknowledging me in the room as the young kid, the moody teenager, the young adult (with the assurance of knowing all things despite knowing very little). I was blessed by those who remembered their faith was not just “theirs” to have, but to share and kindle anew a spark, a flame and a love of God made known through Jesus Christ.

We did not use catechism, so “to glorify God and enjoy God forever” did not get communicated by a standardized teaching. Yet it was there, so when I read what other Christians were taught, I could agree with the good word it imparted. I had seen it lived out in the lives of the church folk who helped raise me up in the faith. I could savor the words of “glorifying and enjoying God forever” as words of faith, not only passed down to me but kept by me as words that anchor me. And today, I share the faith with you through my preaching and through our connections together through the American Baptist tradition and our ministry together as fellow American Baptists in upstate New York.

Sometimes, people will pick up on the fact I do not sound like I’m from the Northeast. (This accent is not from the Bronx nor is it from Maine, so I do “sound funny” pretty much at the outset of talking aloud to folks out here.) The question gets asked, “How did somebody from Kansas get out here?” (I suspicion I would be believed if I casually said it was due to a tornado and some winged monkeys.)
To answer that question is not about “jobs” or “opportunities”. I begin not with a roadmap or some GPS directions. I share that I am here thanks to first learning of the faith from a little Methodist church in a rural Kansas farming community. Later on, my family joined the local American Baptist church, especially for myself and my dad that day in 1984 through confession of faith, profession of Christ as Lord and going fully into the waters of baptism. How I wound up here today is a long journey that is still unfolding, still being discovered, somewhat on my own and somewhat on the way along with the gathered people called “Church”. Without a doubt, I can look back at that history thus far and say, “Praise be to God!” And I know I’m simply joining the rest of the choir, generations present, down the centuries of the past and with those who I hope will hear this sermon today and decide to join along this journey of faith!

Wherever we go in our lives, no matter how our lives play out in one time or another during the seasons of life, we are best known not as people with a list of successes or failures to our name. We are a people who know where we are going and what we should be doing in the times in between. We are a people called to a singular way of life, to praise God now and forevermore.