Saturday, August 23, 2008

Learning to Praise

Learning to Praise
Psalm 148
Myers Park Baptist Church
24 August 2008

The psalm this morning may seem benign and ordinary. “Praise the Lord!” it begins. “Praise the Lord!” it ends. And we’ve grown accustomed to such an exhortation. It’s what we’re here at church for, after all – to praise. But this is no ordinary act. And this psalm offers no ordinary word.

What is praise, but the staking of one’s whole life on goodness, on the goodness of God? What is praise, but the pouring out of one’s daily living in joy and gratitude for what has been given? In the face of so many forces of darkness, of despair, of violence and evil, there could be no more radical act than that.

But this psalm takes the revolutionary act of praise a step beyond. The psalmist issues an invitation to the entire universe. Everything that is, praises God. Not just “everything that breathes” as Psalm 150 would have it. But everything that is. Not just the angels in heaven. Not just the humans on earth. Every created thing. Animate, inanimate. Sun, moon, stars, rain, earth, fire, hail, snow, frost, wind. Mountains, hills, trees, mammals, sea creatures, creeping things, flying birds. Every cell of the universe, every atom of space, every single bit of creation does one thing in unison – it all praises God.

It is a sweeping and impressive picture – not only of unity of purpose, but of the radical inclusivity of praise. This is what everything was made for. This is what it all does. Every created thing praises the God who created it, simply by being what God made it to be.

Well, maybe all but one.

The psalmist here seems to have great faith that humans will respond to the innate urge to praise God. “Kings of the earth and all peoples,” he declares, “Young men and women alike, old and young together!” His confidence is inspiring. It is endearing. Is it not also a bit unwarranted?

The truth is, while cedar trees and dolphins and goldfinches and stardust all praise God by being beautifully exactly as God created it all to be, we have somewhat deviated. We struggle to give ourselves to God. We have a hard time seeking and seeing the goodness of God all around us, and responding to it.

There are so many reasons we find ourselves blocked from such a life. We are busy, and so don’t notice the pulse of God beating beneath the surface of everything. We are disappointed or disillusioned or grief-stricken, and therefore unable to see how we might give praise without being false. We are tired and drained and sucked-dry by the demands we face, and, finding no way to receive what we most need, we also have nothing more to give back, including our praise.

You may have seen the Washington Post story last year. That January, world-renowned violinist Joshua Bell engaged in a little experiment at the behest of a Washington Post reporter. Bell, dressed in street clothes, took his 300 year-old Stradivarius to the L’Enfant Plaza Subway Station. For 43 minutes during the morning rush hour, he performed, playing some of the most beautiful, most powerful, most difficult pieces of music ever written. The concert was videotaped with a hidden camera. Guesses were made ahead of time, about how people would respond, how many people would stop and listen, how much money might be tossed into his violin case. Plans were made to deal with crowd control.

Those plans were not needed. What happened was this. In the 43 minutes that the internationally acclaimed virtuoso played his violin, 1097 people passed him by. Most did not even look at him. Only one person, at the very end, recognized him. A few tossed in quarters or even pennies. And only seven people stopped what they were doing, to stand and listen, at least for a minute.

Gene Weingarten, the Washington Post staff writer who put Joshua Bell up to this experiment, and then reported on it, poses the question in his article: “If we can’t take the time out of our lives to stay a moment and listen to one of the best musicians on Earth play some of the best music ever written; if the surge of modern life so overpowers us that we are deaf and blind to something like that – then what else are we missing?”

It is a haunting question. What are we missing? What great gorgeous joy and wonder are present in the life God has given us, that we cannot see, cannot open ourselves to? What praise can we not give because we cannot see the millions of reasons to give it?

During Bell’s second piece, Schubert’s Ave Maria, “something revealing happened.” Weingarten writes of a woman and her preschooler coming off the escalator. The mother is walking quickly, needing to get her son dropped off at school so she can go on to work. Her son, however, is intent on hearing the music and watching the musician. On the video, you can see him twisting around to see Bell, even as he is being hurried towards the door. Finally, his mother maneuvers her body to block the child’s view. As mother and child leave the station, the boy can still be seen straining to get a look.

Weingarten writes:
"The poet Billy Collins once laughingly observed that all babies are born with a knowledge of poetry, because the lub-dub of the mother’s heart is in iambic meter. Then, Collins said, life slowly starts to choke the poetry out of us. It may be true with music, too.

(Weingarten goes on) "There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away."*

Can you imagine if you had been one of those people who walked past Joshua Bell without stopping? Or if you had been one of those parents, can you imagine how you’d feel when you were told who that was standing there in the subway station fiddling as you dragged your listening child away?

I think I’m that person on a regular basis. I think I’m that parent on a regular basis.

Every morning, the great God of the universe plays the best music ever made for us, and we march forward in our grim determination to get everything done. We scrabble on, trying to get what we think we need, trying to get ahead, ignoring the music of life. Instead of feeling joy, or hope, or gratitude we often feel resentment, or apathy, or resignation. Some of us even drag little ones along behind us, ignoring their innate sense of wonder instead of letting it teach us.

Those people in the subway station that morning thought Joshua Bell was just another street performer. How often do we look at a person and see something less than what is there? How often do we look at a tree, a rock, the sky, the ground, and see something less than what is really there? It is, all of it, glistening with God. How much of that are we missing?

In the midst of the press and crush of life, sometimes one of my children will interrupt me with something that seems very urgent to them – and so irrelevant to me. “Look! An ant!” “Look! The sky is grey!” “Look! Mimi is outside walking her cat! That man just ran by without a shirt on! That fat squirrel is sleeping on the picnic table! LOOK!” Or I will be trying to concentrate so hard on something so important and one of them will just burst out singing for no apparent reason, in words he insists are the right ones: “I hope! I hope! It’s off to work I go!” And it is so loud! And it is so joyful. And it is like they are responding to the music underneath everything, and picking up with a tune of their own in response. And I have a choice with how I respond. I can sigh with impatience, answer with gruff tones, ignore the ant, the squirrel, the tree, and the child, respond in a distracted, “Yes I see,” when I definitely do not. And I certainly have done all of those things. Or I can slow down. Wake up. Pay attention. Listen for God’s music. And be drawn back to wonder, and to praise.

When life has choked out your own poetry and music and praise, find a child. That child might teach you how to see again. And how to sing. Maybe the child you need to find is the one inside you. Jesus once said, “Whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15). I think by “receiving the kingdom of God as a little child,” this is part of what he meant – the opening of ourselves to the wonder and joy of the moment. Finding our way back to simplicity and a sense of the adventure and magic that lurks in each new day. Getting outside and letting ourselves be schooled in the ways of praise by the dragonfly and the maple leaf, the raindrop and the bullfrog. There is a revolutionary fellowship of praise, right outside our door – can we look up from our computers for a few minutes to really see it, and to participate with it in responding to the God behind it all?

Every day, we have the chance to choose: will I treat this day and its obligations as something to be gotten through? Will I treat people as interruptions, or burdens? Will I ignore anything that has no utilitarian purpose for me? Or, will I give myself to this day and its obligations? Will I treat people as holy, as God-given opportunities to love and to give? Will I treat creation as holy, as kindred spirit and kind tutor in the art of praise? Will I be on the look-out for the tiny shimmering clues to God’s goodness? Will I be listening for the gorgeous notes of God’s great music?

Can you see it? Can you hear it? Can you lift your voice in chorus with brother sun and sister moon? Can your life burn and glow like they do, in praise of the God who created and still creates? The animals, the trees, the skies, the earth, the children, they all give their witness to God’s goodness and truth, and in bearing their witness, they also give their praise. They are playing their music. God is playing, too. Now, what about you?

*Gene Weingarten. Pearls Before Breakfast.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

The Doors of the Heart

The Doors of the Heart
Matthew 15:10-28
15th Sunday After Pentecost
17 August 2008

“It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person,” Jesus tells the crowd in this morning’s Gospel story. I have to say I like the sound of that, given the sorts of foods I indulged in on our recent vacation. Good southern cooking in Alabama, decadent desserts in Georgia, fried shrimp in Florida – I feasted plenty, and the scale agrees: it’s time to get back on the wagon. I would love to think that what goes into the mouth does not defile, but all evidence points to the contrary.

We have made a high art of food rules in our culture, and we know more about the connection between food and physical health than ever before. We would very much argue that what goes in to the mouth definitely can defile. None of that has stopped us from glutting ourselves and suffering the consequences. There is a deep and complex connection between our emotions and our appetites, our hearts and our stomachs. We come up with all kinds of diets and rules to try to do battle with our appetites; some people even make a kind of religion out of dieting.

That leap isn’t far. In truth, food and religion have always had something to do with each other. They both have something to do with sustenance, and with strength. They both have dimensions that are highly personal and internal as well as dimensions that are highly external and communal. Both food and religion can be a source of great connection and community or a source of great division and even hostility. Food is highly pleasurable; religion can have that element as well, though many don’t associate pleasure with faith.

Throughout history, most religious traditions have had celebrations around food as well as rules about food. For the Jews of Jesus’ days, the rules were clear. According to Old Testament law, priests were required to wash their hands before eating (Ex. 30:17-21; Lew. 22:4-7), as a matter not of hygiene but of ritual purification. The Pharisees expanded the requirement to cover everyone, not just priests. We tend to think of Pharisees as purists and zealots, but their beliefs were actually radically egalitarian and democratizing. They believed in the equality of all people before God, and that everyone had equal obligation to devote themselves to the godly life, everyone ought to have the chance to live the holiest life possible. So the Pharisees kept the purity standards for themselves, including ritual handwashing, and they taught that everyone should do the same.

And then Jesus comes along with his disciples, and they do not keep the purity code. Most obviously, they don’t wash their hands before eating. The Pharisees, of course, notice. What kind of Jews are these that do not try to live the holiest kind of life?, they wonder And so they press Jesus, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? Why don’t they wash their hands?” Jesus responds with brevity and force: “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

It is a strikingly freeing word. Ritual is not the way to God. We are set free from the old laws and observances about food and another daily details. Freedom is at the core of what Jesus was about – and that freedom goes far deeper and far wider than we typically dare imagine. But these words about what goes into the mouth and what comes out aren’t only about our freedom. They are also about our need.

What is our need? Scripture says that our most essential need is to be put back in right relationship with God, and therefore with each other and with ourselves. The whole story of Scripture boils down to this one thing – this terrible fracture in relationship and how it can be overcome. This is what the laws in Exodus and Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy were about – they were about healing the breach. The Law was a gift from God, given so that we might find our way back to God. What was at stake when a law was broken was no minor thing, even if the law itself might seem unnecessary in our eyes. What was at stake was further separation from God and from the people of God. This is what it meant to be defiled, this is what impurity was ultimately about – a rupture in the relationship between a person and God.

It is hard to take the Pharisees’ question seriously because the issue of defilement is so foreign to us. We chafe at the idea that our relationship with God could be dependent upon external ceremony. But Jesus does not mock or argue with their concern about defilement – he shares it.[1] Separation from God, from holiness, from each other, from ourselves – this is what Jesus came to mend. We don’t call it “defilement” but that is what it is. Life as God intended it has been spoiled, and our best intentions have been corrupted. Even when we try to do our best, we hurt each other and even ourselves. We find ourselves feeling cut off from God. This is what it means to be defiled.

Jesus shares the Pharisees’ concern about defilement. He also radically clarifies it. “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles,” he says, “it is what comes out…. Because what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”

Jesus takes seriously the power in our words. According to him, our words matter very much. They seem so insignificant to us – just a little bit of air through the vocal cords, molded by the tongue and the lips, cut off with the teeth. Just a puff – and then the word is gone. That’s part of its power – we can’t take it back. Words are a kind of action: they can build up or tear down; they can encourage or manipulate; they can illuminate or deceive. Words can be the most vicious kind of weapons we have. They can create realities that shouldn’t be and destroy realities that should be. Words matter a great deal.

Most of all, words matter because they reveal the heart. They are like doors that open to show the world what’s inside of us, and who we are. The opening of those doors unleashes our actions for good and for ill. The heart is the place where our motives and intentions are born and take hold. All the good a person musters in life starts as the smallest intention in the heart. And the seeds of all the evil ever sown in the world started in the tiniest darkest places in human hearts. “What comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart,” Jesus says, “and this is what defiles. For out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person….”

What this means is that the problem is much worse than we like to think. The problem is inside of us. The problem is with our hearts. It would be easier, actually, if the real problem was somehow somewhere out there, outside of us. We could close the doors to our heart to whatever would invade us from out there. We could keep certain laws, do very specific things, to make ourselves pure, to set ourselves right. It would be easier still to believe that because we’d been set free from those laws there was no problem at all anymore. But too often we find, in our freedom, that we feel just as separated from God as ever – sometimes so separated that we aren’t even sure God is out there anymore. And we find we are just as cut off from each other and ourselves as ever. Freedom doesn’t mean anything if it’s not for finding our purpose, our wholeness, our relatedness with God and with each another.

In this passage, Jesus just stops the teaching here (or so it seems). He points out where the problem is – the heart – and then he leaves. Where he heads is Gentile territory, where the people would not be asking the same kinds of questions as the Pharisees – they did not live by Jewish purity codes there. A Canaanite woman approaches him and begs his mercy and his healing for her daughter. He says nothing. The disciples urge him to send her away; they can’t stand her shouting. Jesus responds that his mission is to the lost sheep of the house of Israel, but she persists: “Lord, help me.” He insults her, “It is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” “Yes, Lord,” she replies, “but even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters’ table.” Here we are again, talking about food and religion. She doesn’t care a thing about ritual purity, what she wants is the real food this man was meant to bring. “Woman, great is your faith!” Jesus marvels, “Let it be done for you as you wish.” And her daughter is healed. It is a disturbing story – to see Jesus respond to a woman’s distress first with silence, and then with insults. For some people, it is even more disturbing that Jesus is bested in an argument, and by a Gentile woman.

But it’s a marvelous story, too. This woman knows her need. She doesn’t argue that she’s good enough, or that she deserves what Jesus has come to bring. She throws herself on her knees, and she begs for his help. “This is (faith) down to basics: When we are thrown to our knees.” [2] “Lord, help me,” she asks. And she just keeps asking. And he gives her what she needs, and praises her faith.

This story may reframe how we see Jesus. Maybe it could also reframe how we see ourselves. We are supplicants. We are desperate. We are broken and needy. And if we want a fix for our unpure, broken, alienated hearts, then this is what we do. We throw ourselves down before him, and we pray the simplest prayer with her, “Lord, help me.” Help me.

“Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart,” we sang a bit ago. It’s a prayer worth praying every day. “Lord, I want to be a Christian, I want to be move loving, more holy, more like Jesus, in my heart. Lord, here’s my heart, I can’t fix it. I’m giving it to you. Lord, help me.” It’s what he came for – to take our broken hearts and make them whole, to bridge the gap between us and God, to heal the rifts between us and each other, to take up all our faulty, dishonorable words and gather them into his perfect self, the Word made flesh, and then to give us new words to sing and to pray and to live.

[1] This idea from The Sword of His Mouth by Robert C. Tannehill.
[2] Steven Shoemaker. "When Jesus Changed His Mind," preached at Myers Park Baptist Church, 11 May 2008.