Practice These Things

A sermon based on Psalm 40 and Philippians 4:4-13 from November 8th, 2015

Sermon audio

I look forward to Wednesday evenings. Something wonderful happens then—something that has helped shape and ground me and gives me joy. It’s choir practice.

I don’t come from a family of singers. My dad plays the guitar, but you’ll never hear a note come out of his mouth. He’s the one in church with the hymnal open but doesn’t sing from it. From 6th-8th grade, I tried School Choir. In 6th grade, I was a soprano, and by 8th grade, I was a bass.

I can still remember how to sing most of the songs we performed in concert back them: John Denver’s Annie’s Song.

You fill up my senses, like a night in the forest; like the mountains in Spring time; like a walk in the rain.

Billy Joel’s We Didn’t Start the Fire. And the song from an animated Disney movie called Somewhere Out There, which I will spare you of. I was the backup soloist for Annie’s Song, but I can’t describe to you how nervous I was about that. I did not want to do it, but I didn’t want to say no. I just hoped and prayed that Ben Hildebrand wouldn’t get sick. He didn’t get sick. I do love singing, but maybe school choir wasn’t my thing.

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There was an article published this week by USA Today about a psychological study that was done through Oxford University. They took all these adults and put them in 3 different classes: a creative writing class, a crafting class, and a singing class. After a few months of evaluating each classes’ progress, looking at how the participants were bonding with one another, they found out that by far, the singing class had developed the strongest ties to one another, and they did so faster than anyone from the other 2 classes. There’s something about singing that bonds us together—in very strong ways. Maybe it’s because when we sing, we offer a part of us that seems vulnerable, but since everyone does it together, the vulnerability becomes normal. Or maybe it’s because when we sing, certain molecules in our brains that affect our joy are stirred to action. Maybe it’s the cooperative nature of singing together that lights us up.

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Tonight we will come together to share food, prayer, and the pledges of our tithes and our offerings to our church. We will also share in song with one another. I realize that we’re not the most sing-enest church there is, but I can’t think of a better way to celebrate God’s abundant provision in our lives than to do so with song. Our bodies are built for praise. Giving glory to God is not only the right thing for us to do as Christians, it’s good for our bodies—we were created for it, our brains come awake when we sing, and praising God creates joy and a greater sense of gratitude in our lives. It’s not joy that leads us to praise to God. It’s not a greater sense of joy that leads us to louder praise for all that God has done for us. It’s the other way around. It’s the act of praising God that leads us into joy—that gives birth to it.

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These words from Paul in our Philippians passage were written while he was in prison. He was in prison because he wouldn’t shut up about Jesus, and the Roman government didn’t like that, so they locked him up. And his first words? Rejoice.

Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice!

Yes, even in terrible circumstances when nothing feels like it’s going your way, rejoice. Even when you’re hungry, and miserable, and have been beaten down like Paul, rejoice! Rejoice, and keep thinking about everything God has done for you. Rejoice always!

Paul wasn’t practicing joy in these terrible circumstances because he was delusional. He wasn’t a glutton for punishment, either. What Paul knew was that if he focused himself on the Christian vocation of praising God always and in every circumstance—and did so first, it would give shape to everything else in his life. His praise to God would create joyfulness, give his life meaning and purpose, building a life that was worth living.

It isn’t the goodness of our lives that creates praise. It’s praise that creates goodness in our lives. That’s why God wants us to practice these things. That’s why Paul encourages us here to rejoice.

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We began our Stewardship Season as we gathered around the Lord’s Table on World Communion Sunday. There we sang and ate together. Tonight we end our Stewardship Season around tables full of food where we will once again raise our voices in songs of praise. Beginning and ending our Stewardship season crowded around a banquet table is a wonderful reminder for us that it is God who responds first. It is God who has given us the creation from which we feast, and our responsibility to give of what we have—time, talents, and treasure—is really just that, it’s our opportunity to use our abilities to respond with thanksgiving for something that God did first—by feeding us, providing for us.

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Brother David Steindl-Rast is a Benedictine Monk, and back in the summer of 2013 he gave a talk about something that he and his fellow monks practice every single day: gratitude.

Brother Steindl-Rast said that we misunderstand joy. All of us want to be joyful—it’s one of those universal human needs that we all share. But he says we’re doing it wrong. Most of us think a sense of gratitude is the result of living a joyful life. We try to find out where and how we can be joyful, and once we think we have that all figured that out, we plant ourselves there and then try to find out how to be grateful. In other words, we think it’s joy that makes us grateful. Brother Steindl-Rast says that’s backwards. It’s actually gratefulness that makes us joyful.

He says that every moment is an opportunity to practice gratitude. Gratitude is like a muscle. It grows weak whenever we don’t use it. And the way to use it is by paying closer attention—by stopping, noticing, and giving thanks. In a world that moves so quickly all around us, people who are good at strengthening the muscle of gratitude stop to celebrate the small things. They realize that every moment is a gift and an opportunity to say Thank You. So, he says what we need are stop signs posted everywhere. Mental ones. Little reminders to pause were we are, no matter where we are, and count our blessings, celebrate the goodness inside small moments, and do that over and over again each and every day until we realize that each little celebration of ours has added up over time and has given birth to joy. It isn’t joyful people who are grateful. It’s grateful people who are joyful. We must practice these things.

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One of my favorite authors is a newly discovered one. A Presbyterian pastor whose name is Frederick Beuchner. He’s written enough books to keep me reading for a year, and I plan on diving in head-first—in fact I already have. He has this to say about joy:

There is not one of us whose life has not already been touched somewhere with joy, so that in order to make it real to us, to show it forth, it should be enough for Jesus simply to remind us of it, to make us remember the joyous moments of our own lives. Yet this is not easy because, ironically enough, these are likely to be precisely the moments that we do not associate with religion. We tend to think that joy is not only not properly religious, but that it is even the opposite of religion. We tend to think that religion is sitting stiff and antiseptic and a little bored, and that joy is laughter and freedom and reaching out our arms to embrace the whole wide and preposterous earth which is so beautiful that sometimes it nearly breaks our hearts.

We need to be reminded that at its heart Christianity is joy and that laughter and freedom and the reaching out of arms are the essence of it. We need to be reminded too that joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness is man-made—a happy home, a happy marriage, a happy relationship with our friends and within our jobs.

We work for these things, and if we are careful and wise and lucky, we can usually achieve them. Happiness is one of the highest achievements of which we are capable, and when it is ours, we take credit for it, and properly so. But we never take credit for our moments of joy because we know that they are not man-made and that we are never really responsible for them. They come when they come. They are always sudden and quick and unrepeatable. The unspeakable joy sometimes of just being alive. The miracle sometimes of being just who we are with the blue sky and the green grass, the faces of our friends and the waves of the ocean, being just what they are.

The joy of release, of being suddenly well when before we were sick, of being forgiven when before we were ashamed and afraid, of finding ourselves loved when we were lost and alone. The joy of love, which is the joy of the flesh as well as the spirit. But each of us can supply his or her own moments, so just two more things. One is that joy is always all-encompassing; there is nothing of us left over to hate with or to be afraid of, to feel guilty with, or to be selfish about. Joy is where the whole being is pointed in one direction, and it is something that by its nature a person never hoards but always wants to share. The second thing is that joy is a mystery because it can happen anywhere, anytime, even under the most unpromising circumstances, even in the midst of suffering, with tears in its eyes. Even nailed to a tree.

What Jesus is saying is that we are made for joy and that anyone who is truly joyous has a right to say that they are doing God’s will on this earth. Where you have known joy, you have known Jesus.

Friends, let us practice these things. Let us sing our praises to God—each and every day of our lives!

All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!

Alleluia! Amen.

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