Apocalypse Survival Kit

A sermon based on Isaiah 64:1-12 and Mark 13:24-37 preached December 3rd, 2017

I can hear you. You’re saying to yourselves, What’s Patrick doing reading this text? Does he not know it’s Advent? If I wanted to hear a fire and brimstone sermon this morning, I would have gone to another church. What’s an apocalyptic passage like this—an assigned reading for today, no less—doing here on the first Sunday in Advent?

That’s a good question.

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We hear a lot in that one word: Apocalypse. One mention of it and our minds, very much steeped in centuries-long cultural messages, go in tons of directions. In words like these from Jesus, we hear the warnings of fanatical preachers condemning the world for its moral degradation, trying their best to tease the end times—to encourage God to speed up the process a bit.

We hear in these words prognostications from televangelists about the whens and hows and whys of a God who must be altogether angry—enraged, really—and is just around the corner, ready to scare the bejesus out of all of us. Who will bring an apocalypse where all the good people will be sucked up into the heavens and everyone else will be left behind. We, spared. They? Well, they’re in for it. There are those who take passages like this and treat them like evacuation routes or escape plans.

There’s a satirical cartoon that advertises a roof escape hatch. A worker will come out to your place and cut a hole in your roof, turning it into kind of vertical doggy door, so that when you get assumed up into the sky at the end of times, you won’t hit your head on the way up.

We’ve been taught too may wrong-headed, wrong-hearted things about this. And it’s all non-sense.

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There’s no way around the fact that Jesus has some startling news for us in these words. There is a warning in them, and we ignore the vision given to us from the voice of our Lord to our detriment, but I’m not sure Jesus shared any of this to scare the pants off of us. Yes, these words are filled with caution and injunction, but have you noticed there’s nothing in what Jesus says here that sounds like a threat.

One telltale sign of the false messiahs and teachers of that day and the false prophets in our day too, is that they were all about showing off their own self-importance. They say what they say and do what they do to impress, because they have nothing else to offer. Jesus, on the other hand, is restrained here—as is the way he delivers these words to us. There are no scared-straight tactics here. Jesus doesn’t manipulate us like that. He never has. He does nothing to impose or compel faith. Instead, Jesus declares these things in order to get us to wake up to the present, to pay attention to what’s happening right here, right now.

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The word apocalypse is from the Greek—the language of the New Testament—and it means an uncovering or a revealing. Apocalypse is a word not about the future, but about the present. It’s a word about possibilities.

Jesus is uncovering something for us in this passage. Revealing something to us. And while uncovering something that we’d just as soon keep hidden can be a frightening prospect, the point is not to scare us, but to get us to take notice of what’s happening right in front of us. To ready ourselves, to anticipate what’s already underway. To startle us alive. To shake us awake—awake to what’s really going on, awake to the possibilities of the present moment. To see and then respond to the invitation in everything.

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Biblically understood, apocalypses happen every day. Whenever the earth shakes a bit under our feet or the faultiness of our lives crack open. They happen whenever we’re thrown off our center by something that happens, and it wakes us up to something that has always been, but we simply couldn’t see until that stark moment—when all the sudden, everything is laid bare in front of us.

You know these moments. You have lived these moments. Plenty of them.  Hospital stays where life as we know it comes to a screeching halt, and we are confronted by our own frailties. When the tales we tell ourselves about self-sufficiency and longevity are suddenly exposed as the myths they are. Or, how about those moments when a parent looks at their child and it dawns on them that they’ve grown up too quickly—right in front of our eyes. And it hits them like a ton of bricks.

These are moments when things are revealed for what they actually are. They happen all the time, but most of the time we’re not ready for them. Apocalypses show us what we’re not seeing. In their small way, these tiny, everyday apocalypses are an ending of the world—not in total, but as we know it. We wake up to something happening right in front of us that changes everything just a little bit.

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Here at the end of Mark chapter 13, Jesus is wrapping up a warning—something along the lines of: “everything we know passes away in due time.” In this particular instance, Jesus is talking about the temple in Jerusalem. This is a recently completed, tremendously huge, and very impressive monument that King Herod the Great has built for the Jews to worship in—where they believed their God resided in.

At the beginning of Mark 13, Jesus declares that the Temple in Jerusalem will one day be destroyed. It too will pass away, He says. Every stone will be thrown down, not one will remain on another. Indeed it was destroyed in 68 AD. Jesus declares that He is the new Temple. Everything, including this great temple, comes to nothing, but He, Jesus, Son of God, will forever remain.The end of something also means the beginning of something more, something bigger, clearer, something closer to the truth.

Apocalypses are hardly welcome, but they do come to reveal things for what they actually are. We must catch ourselves up to them. God works inside of each one. The promise of Christ is not that we are saved from these apocalypses, but that we’re saved in them. Our task is to endure and keep watch. Our ability to get through each of one—big or small—has much more to do with God’s faithfulness than our wit and wisdom, our skill or ingenuity.

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I’ve gathered together my own Apocalypse Survival Kit. I try my best to carry it with me wherever I go, but some days I forget. I’d like to share with you what’s in it. It contains five things—if you can call them “things”. I want to go through each of them real quick.

The first one is hope. Hope is that thing we do when we put our trust in, wait for, eagerly anticipate something or someone. We only have hope when we choose to patiently endure now because we know there will be a then, and that somewhere deep down God isn’t done with us yet.

The second thing in my Apocalypse Survival Kit is Peace. Biblical peace is so much more than the absence of war. God’s peace means wholeness, completeness. It comes from a Hebrew word we know: Shalom. It does not come from us. It does not happen simply when all is calm and bright. Peace happens when God is the source of every one of our longings.

May you see where I’m going.

The third item in my Apocalypse Survival Kit is Joy. Author C.S. Lewis thought that joy must be sharply distinguished from happiness or pleasure. I think he’s right. Biblical joy is a by-product of a life with God. It’s not a feeling but a perspective we adopt that’s more constant and more enduring than adverse circumstances.

The fourth thing in my Apocalypse Survival Kit is Love. Love is the greatest of these four, only to be outdone by the fifth. Author Frederick Buechner asserts that the first stage is to believe there is only one kind of love, the middle stage is to believe that there are many kinds of love, and the last stage is to believe that there is only one kind of love. Love, if we’re going to understand it in any way close to how God does, is an act of the will. We love our neighbors by working for their well-being, even if it means sacrificing our own well-being in the process. Love is a decision we make over and over again.

And the last thing in my Apocalypse Survival Kit is Christ. The greatest of these five is Christ, because in Him we find the perfect image of the first four. In Him we find our way, our truth, and our life. He is God come near this Advent, over and over again surprising us, confronting us, comforting us, waking us up to what it means to really live this life, to what it means to be human. On the cross, He showed us what it means to live completely—to love even if it does us in, and in whose Advent, was God come down. In Him, and still because of Him, heaven keeps invading earth.

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Carry these five things close in an Apocalypse Survival Kit of your own. And this Advent, keep watch with me.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

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God’s First Move

A sermon based on Psalm 85:8-13 and Ephesians 1:3-14 preached May 14th, 2017

The world is so much bigger than we think.

There’s a book by Emma Donoghue, and the tie-in movie—both entitled Room—about a young mother named Joy and her 5-year old son named Jack. Jack’s mother has been held captive inside a 12 by 12-foot garden shed for 7 years, for all of Jack’s life plus another 2 before he came along. This 12-foot square room is all that Jack has ever known. He calls it “Room.” It’s his whole world.

When young Jack began asking questions and remembering their answers, his mother Joy decided it was best to tell him there was nothing more than these four walls that surrounded them—the ceiling a few feet above their heads. There were no windows in Room. Just a skylight above that gave them nothing to look at but blue sky and white clouds. The light of the sun and the dark of night was nothing more to Jack than a one-dimensional covering that he must have imagined existed just a few feet above Room’s ceiling. Jack’s world was tiny and simple.

When Jack turned 5, his mother decided he was old enough to comprehend the bigger picture. The black and white TV in Room, she told him, projected images of real human beings—other people who existed in the world and lived hundreds, maybe even thousands of miles away. We can hear Jack asking,

What’s a mile?

Joy tried her best to tell Jack that the world is filled with billions of people who were just like them. That people had to drive cars to get from one place to another because the places they needed to go were so far away. All this was lost on Jack. He didn’t believe her. How could he? He’d never known anything bigger than the cramped and dark 144 square feet of a garden shed.

At one point in the movie, Jack refuses his mother’s big words about this immense world she is talking about. He shouts,

I want a different story!

His mother quickly replies:

No! This is the story you get!!

Jack’s mind is no bigger than what his eyes can see, his ears can hear, and all they know are the tin walls of a ramshackle shed, the static-y murmur of a black and white TV.

I won’t give away the ending. It’s a profound story you must see for yourself. But, this I will say: Room is a story that should make us wonder about the vast entirety of the world—maybe even the cosmos—and our place in it.

Throughout, questions should bubble up in our minds: This world and this life we live in it, do we believe it’s only as big as what we’ve seen and been told by others, or do we know more? Could it be that we move about this vast planet of ours in our tiny little circles so repetitively that we lose perspective? In an effort to be comfortable with our own small version and vision of things, maybe we have taken the vast dimensions of God’s immense creation and shrunk it down into our own versions of a 12 by 12-foot room.

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Just like 5-year-old Jack, in order to grow to maturity, to know the truth about creation, the God who made it, and our place in it, we must first be made aware of how large the gap is between our tiny vision of things and God’s immeasurable power and grace. What else is there but what we can see through our own skylights?

No matter what we’ve been told, no matter how far we’ve traveled or how wide our eyes are as we go along our way, what Paul wants us to know, right off the bat is that everything about God, the grace He gives, the love He has for us, the plans He’s made for us—they’re all much bigger and louder, more wondrous and glorious than we could ever know. This is Paul’s message to those first Christians in Ephesus. And it’s still an important message for us. First, we must be told that, in the grand scheme of things, the only reason why we’re significant is because God has adopted us as his family through Jesus Christ, and because of this, we do not, cannot, live in our own world. This is God’s world, and in order to know our place in it, we must hand ourselves over to God—to persistently and intentionally give ourselves over to ways of Christ Jesus.

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In the original language this whole passage, verses 3 through 14, is one huge, marvelous, run-on sentence. At 201 words, it’s the longest sentence in all of scripture.

Paul must have thought that the urgency of these words was great enough to warrant the abandonment of proper punctuation and syntax. This news is so good that even a comma would disturb the power inside of this sentence! It’s enough to give any English teacher a coronary.

But the largeness, the grammatical abandonment, of this colossal, run-on sentence should be excused, even by the most strident of grammar Nazis, because its lack of punctuation and its sheer size echoes the gracious abundance of its subject: God.

This one-sentence passage is a torrent of God-activity that refuses to pause or come up for air. It’s an avalanche of blessing that gathers size and strength with every tumbling word, all of it mirroring God’s lavish generosity. How can we keep from singing? How can we stop talking about how amazing God is?! This is the Gospel. This is Good News that will not wait!

Right away, through this torrent of nouns, verbs, and adjectives, the message is clear: in order to grow into the life that God has for us, in order to grow into spiritual maturity, what last week we identified as the goal of the Christian life, we must abandon all our shallow notions of who God is, all of our tiny twelve-by-twelve, Room-sized views of things, all of our too-small perceptions of how the world works and how God works in the world, and give ourselves over to the magnificence of what God is doing through Christ Jesus—the salvation He is working within us and among us, as well as far beyond us. God is not merely a part of our lives. That’s way too small and backwards, Paul says here at the outset of Ephesians. We are a part of God’s life.

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In order to open our eyes and then our lives to all this magnificence, Paul fills his run-on sentence with seven action verbs: blessed, chose, destined, bestowed, lavished, made known, and gather up.

None of these verbs have us as their subject. God’s the One doing all the action here. We are the objects of all of these verbs. We do not bless, choose, destine, bestow, lavish, make known, or gather up ourselves. God’s the One who blesses, chooses, destines, bestows, lavishes us. God is the One who makes known to us who we are, and gathers us up.

God’s the first Mover. In this salvation life, we do not begin on our own. These verbs, they’re God’s ways of jump-starting the work of salvation inside of us and among us. God has the first move. All of our action is merely a reaction to all that God has done and is doing for us in Christ Jesus, His Son and our Lord.

These words are in chapter 1 of this letter for a reason. Paul wants us to know this from the start or else all of our starts will be false ones. Let us not waste any more of our time thinking that we are the ones who make any of this happen. Let’s not live one more second of our lives—including our life together as Church—under the delusion that we’re the ones who make something of ourselves. Notions like that are just as tiny as 5-year-old Jack looking up at a tiny patch of blue through a sky light thinking he’s seen the whole world. God has made room for us to stretch our vision. To see things we have never and will never be able to see on our own.

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The older we get, the less we know. You’ve heard that before. In our younger years, we think we know it all. But as we growth into maturity, as we step out into the world, we slowly begin to realize how small we are inside of it.

It’s those moments when we stand beside the ocean, as the song goes, and find ourselves small and insignificant in the vast array of God’s creation, that we begin to realize how tiny we are and how little we know. The moment we realize this is a moment of amazing grace. It’s the instance when we abandon all those overinflated thoughts we have about ourselves, when we slowly let go of our own significance and begin to find ourselves all over again in the vast and Divine family of things. This is the first step into spiritual maturity. When in one way or another, we say,

God, this is all you and none of me

As Paul writes,

It is in Christ that we find out who we are and what we are living for.

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I hope I don’t give away the ending of Room if I tell you that 5-year old Jack and his mother, Joy, are finally freed from the confines of their 12 by 12-foot world.

Once outside of Room, Jack sees the immense glory of creation—what was once a mere rumor that he refused to believe. At the end of the film, we hear Jack say:

I’ve been in the world 37 hours. I’ve seen pancakes, and stairs, and birds, and windows, and hundreds of cars. And clouds, and police, and doctors, and grandma and grandpa. But Mommy says grandma and grandpa don’t live together in the hammock house anymore. Grandma lives there with her friend Leo now. And Grandpa lives far away.

I’ve seen persons with different faces, and bigness, and smells, talking all together. The world’s like the black and white TV in Room, but it’s on, all at the same time, so I don’t know which way to look and listen.

There’s doors and… more doors. And behind all the doors, there’s another inside, and another outside. And things happen, happen, HAPPENING. It never stops. Plus, the world’s always changing brightness, and hotness. And there’s invisible germs floating everywhere. When I was small, I only knew small things. But now I’m five, I know EVERYTHING!

And the book-readers and the movie-goers and God himself laughs, and we all say:

Jack, You haven’t seen anything yet!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Embodied Gratitude

A sermon based on Psalm 119:137-144 and Luke 19:1-10 preached October 30th, 2016

Sermon audio

As it turns out, we have Zacchaeus all wrong. The little man has gotten a bad rap for centuries. We thought we knew the story. Zacchaeus is a greedy, crooked, little tax-collector. He’s no better than a Wall Street CEO. The kind of person whose entire life revolves around shamelessly taking money from the most vulnerable among us, and padding his already bulging bank account. We think this story is about the moment when Jesus, on behalf of the crowd, confronts this slime-ball of a tax-collector. And upon seeing Jesus, Zacchaeus confesses how greedy he’s always been, and at once promises to change his ways by divesting half of his wealth. But that’s not at all what this story is about. It turns out, Zacchaeus is a better guy than we or anyone in the crowds that day thought he was. It turns out we have completely misunderstood Zacchaeus. 

See, back then crowds loved to hate tax-collectors. They’re the people who steal from the poor to line their own pockets. They were hated more than any IRS agent is hated these days. But Zacchaeus is not your average tax-collector.

Zaccheaus stopped and said to the Lord, ‘Look, Lord, I give (not ‘I will give’, future tense, but present tense) I give half of my possessions to the poor…and if I have cheated anyone, I repay (again present tense) them four times as much.

He doesn’t say,

I’ll start giving as of this moment.

Zacchaeus says,

I’m already giving. I have been giving for all this time! In fact, I make a habit of it! I make a practice of giving half of what I have to the poor. And if ever I find out I’ve cheated someone, I have always (and will continue to) repay four times as much.

Zacchaeus stands in front of Jesus and the crowds, not confessing greed or repenting for something he’s done wrong. He’s defending himself against a crowd of haters, and he’s trying to set the record straight.

“Look,” he says. “You have good reason to hate all those other tax collectors, but you’ve got to understand: You’ve got me all wrong. I’m not like them! I’m following the Law. I’m one of the good guys!”

And as it turns out, this little verbal mistake translators have always made changes the entire meaning of the story! So, our task this morning is to meet Zacchaeus again as if for the first time, and find out what this story, now rightly understood, has for us, especially in the season where we’re focusing on God’s call upon our lives to be faithful stewards of all of our resources.

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For the last few weeks now, we’ve been talking about the right use of money. How we earn, save, spend, and regard our money is a mirror into our hearts. We are how we use our money.

The people who were attracted to Jesus in New Testament times were the poor. Jesus was pretty much the only one around who had Good News for the down and out. That day, the crowd surrounding Jesus as he entered Jericho was mostly peasants. They knew, or at least had heard, that Jesus’s main message was for them—that the Kingdom of God favored those who had no earthly comforts.

It was into this crowd that Zacchaeus entered, and each and every one of those peasants hated the man. They knew what he did for a living, and that’s all they wanted to know about him. In their minds, Zacchaeus, no matter the facts, was automatically lumped in with all of the scoundrel tax collectors out there. It didn’t matter what the truth was. They had their minds made up already.

Imagine then the crowds’ dismay when Jesus, champion of the poor and forgotten, vindicator of the disregarded and trampled-upon, speaks up only to address Zacchaeus! No words of encouragement for anyone else, no healing of the sick, no reassuring the impoverished. None of that. Jesus solely focuses upon the short little tax collector. According to the crowd, Zacchaeus is the last person needing Jesus’ attention that day, but here Jesus is buddying up to the little guy! Jesus even invites himself into Zacchaeus’ house. Is this a joke! We can imagine the crowd whispering to one another or even shouting out loud for everyone to hear:

Jesus, I thought You were on our side!

But that’s a slippery slope! No matter what side you’re on, that’s a very dangerous thing to convince yourself of. And, if that’s what you think, surely Jesus will surprise and disappoint you every single time. Jesus doesn’t come strolling into town to take your side. Never expect Jesus to prove you right and your enemies wrong! Jesus is much bigger and a whole lot more unpredictable than that! God’s not here to take sides. When God shows up, God takes over! When Jesus walks in to our lives, he’ll slay every sacred cow we’ve got, and he’ll leave us questioning all those pre-existing notions we have of Him. Jesus is unpredictable and unsafe like that!

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In the chapter before this, Luke tells the story of a rich ruler who wants to know what he has to do to enter the Kingdom of God. Jesus tells him he needs to sell everything he’s got and give the money to the poor. It’s a familiar story. The rich ruler walks away because selling all of his possessions is way too much to ask of him. He’s too tied to his wealth. That rich ruler is the only person in the Gospels who walks away from one of Jesus’ invitations. Jesus watches the man walk away, and then turns around and says to his disciples,

How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.

Camels don’t have an easy time squeezing through the eye of a needle. What Jesus is saying is, as long as that man likes the idea of being rich better than he likes the idea of aligning his heart and his life with God’s heart and life, as long as he puts more trust in his fortune than he puts in God, then he stands a just as much of a chance of understanding and entering into the Kingdom of God as a camel’s got squeezing through the eye of a needle. Jesus tells his disciples that it’s not impossible for that to happen, but it is very unlikely. But here it happened! In this story! This is the story of the day when a camel passed through the eye of a needle. They said it couldn’t be done, but they were wrong! Zacchaeus is proof that even the largest of camels—a ruler among tax-collectors, the head hauncho of tax-collectors—gets it! He understands the Kingdom of God, and He lives his life practicing God’s ways!

Look, Lord, I give half of my possessions to the poor (that, by the way, is four times the amount the Law requires of him.) And if I have cheated anyone, I repay them four times as much (that’s twice the amount the Law requires of him).

Zacchaeus understands the huge claims the Kingdom of God makes upon his life, that they cost him dearly (both financially and spiritually), but he follows through with it, because he knows that it’s much better to live his life God’s way than it is to live his life his own way. He knows that the blessings of living faithfully for God make him far richer than all the money in the world could make him!

The story of the rich ruler and camels passing through the eye of a needle isn’t about who’s in and who’s out of heaven. It’s about who understands how the Kingdom of God works, and who doesn’t! And as it turns out, Zacchaeus understands how the Kingdom of God works. He’s living proof that even the wealthiest among us can still be faithful to God if they’re generous and willing to share their wealth with others. Jesus proclaims, much to the dismay of the crowd,

Today salvation has come to Zacchaeus’ house, and he too is a part of God’s family!

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Zacchaeus’ commitment to go above and beyond the requirements of giving has a lot to teach us this stewardship season. This passage has a whole lot of action in it. Zacchaeus is all over the place in this story. He’s peering over shoulders, climbing up and down trees. I can see him heartily welcoming Jesus into his home and excitedly introducing Jesus to his family.

Back in Zacchaeus’ day, kinda like ours, grown men didn’t climb trees. That’s only something little kids did, but don’t tell that to Pete Nelson and his crew. Pete Nelson is the founder of Nelson Treehouse and Supply. Tree House Masters is a show on Animal Planet that documents Pete and his team of carpenters and designers as they design and build huge, extravagant treehouses for adults. The treehouses they build are big enough to live in, and they’re the best quality treehouses money can buy. And it’s such a joy to watch that show, because you can tell that Pete Nelson is bonkers about trees! He has the energy level of an over-caffeinated hummingbird. The moment he finds just the right place to build a treehouse for his clients, he can barely contain himself. That’s what I imagine Zacchaeus, a tree-climber in his own right, was like! Joyful. And joy is a natural byproduct of having an attitude of gratitude.

Just like Pete Nelson who can’t stop thinking about trees, or tiny little Zacchaeus who will just about do anything he needs to do—including climbing a sycamore—to get a view of Jesus passing by, God loves when joy comes together with serious commitment! When you have a mixture like that, God is glorified! Joy and serious commitment.  Let’s call it the recipe for embodied gratitude. Embodied gratitude happens when we not only say thank you to the God who has given us everything, not only when we know where all our gifts come from, but when we—just like Zacchaeus—put them back right where they came from, right back into the hands of God. It happens when we take our gratitude and we turn it around to practice the right use of all of our actions, our time, and our money so that they come right back around again to glorify the Source of it all!

Embodied gratitude.

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I bet that Zacchaeus wondered every so often if he was a fool to give half of what he had to the poor, or what he could do if he didn’t stick to his tall promise to repay four times the amount to anyone he’s cheated. A second house in Maui? A higher pair of shoes so he didn’t have to climb a tree every time a crowd gathered around him? I bet he had those moments. But I also bet that he was content right where he was—that he thought life was good and right. That giving back was good and right. And that giving back more than he had to was even better!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

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.

Two Sons Come Home

A sermon based on Psalm 32 and Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32 preached on July 5th, 2015.

Two Sons Come Home – audio

When we were younger, my brother and I both got presents on the other one’s birthday. My parents didn’t want my brother to feel forgotten and left out when my birthday came around—and vise versa.

I’m not sure if giving presents to all the other siblings on another sibling’s birthday is a regular thing that parents have to do. It sounds exhausting, but I get why my parents did it. Being there on the outskirts of a sibling’s birthday party is a lonely feeling. All the attention is on somebody else that day, and even though you might be happy that your brother or sister was born, people could afford to tone down the celebration a bit—either that or pay more attention to you. That sounds utterly selfish, but don’t we feel that way often—even as we grow older? We compare ourselves to each other like this all the time. We think thing like…

It’s great that a co-worker is getting an award at the company’s annual ceremony. I guess she deserves it, but why not me—was I even considered?

or

The neighbor across the street pulled into his driveway in a new Mercedes this afternoon. My car is starting to feel kinda old. I wonder if it’s time for me to start looking for a new one.

or

There’s this couple from my son’s soccer team who throws parties at their house every couple weeks and invites everybody.

or

I’m not sure how they find the time or the energy to do all that, life as it is is already exhausting, but maybe it wouldn’t hurt to step up our game and invite a few folks over for a party at the house once a month or so.

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We know this parable well. It’s probably the most well-known of Jesus’ parables, in part because all 3 characters in it are rich. We can put ourselves in their place.

There’s the younger one. Most of the ink on the page of this parable is about him—in fact we know this as the parable of the prodigal son. He cashes in his inheritance, which is just as good as wishing his father dead, and he goes out at blows it Vegas-style. He makes a series of terrible and short-sided, selfish choices and ends up crawling back home, hoping to be accepted back by his father—if only as one of his hired servants.

Then there’s the responsible older son. He’s the one who does everything the way it is expected of him. He is duty-bound to his father. He lives his life and makes all of his choices by the book. But as perfect as the older son seems, he has troubles of his own, which we’ll get to later.

Then there’s the father. The one who gives his younger son his part of the inheritance and watches him run off with it—saying nothing of how much it hurt him to have his son do that to him. And when his younger son comes groveling back home, just hoping to be made a hired hand, the father welcomes him back like he’s royalty.

Which of these 3 characters can you relate to? My guess is each of us have a little bit of all 3 inside. Maybe at different times in our lives, we’ve played the role of all 3.

We call this the parable of the prodigal son, but I think that’s the wrong title for it. The trouble that the younger son gets himself into is surprising, but what’s even more surprising is that his father welcomes him back home. What’s the most surprising—maybe we could even say the most offensive or scandalous thing—is how easily the father celebrates his return: no chastisement, no record of offenses mentioned, no anger or betrayal, only pure joy and celebration because his son was “dead and now is alive, he was once lost but now is found!”

This parable should be called The Parable of the Grace-filled Father.

This story is indeed about God’s grace, because while we are still a long way off—wondering, just like the prodigal son, if we will be welcomed back home, God is the One who comes running toward us in the person of Jesus Christ, and who, despite all we’ve done wrong, despite all the terrible decisions we make in our lives that have us wander far away from God, we are always welcomed back home again.

But that sort of grace isn’t just extended to you and me. It’s extended to everyone. And this is where this parable becomes scandalous and offensive.

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The older son sees his father running out to his younger brother to call him back home. He sees his father pouring over his younger brother—putting a ring on his finger and dressing him in royal garb, and placing sandals on his feet—and the older brother wonders why. He wonders why his father has never given him the royal treatment. The fatted calf is killed for his younger brother’s return, and they throw him a huge homecoming party where he’s the center of everyone’s attention, and in that moment, no one even seems to care that the older brother even exists. The older brother sees all the efforts his father makes to welcome his younger brother back home, and he wonders aloud why no one’s ever thrown a party for him. After all, he’s the son who’s followed all the rules, and did everything that was expected of him. He’s the one who made sure never to offend or disappoint his father. So, where’s his party? Why doesn’t he get a gift, or at least some recognition for how faithful he’s been?

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God’s grace can be offensive, especially to those like the older brother who think they deserve more reward from God—more of God’s love and attention—because they’ve lived a clean life and played by all the rules.

As the younger son’s homecoming party carries on, the father sees that the older son isn’t there to celebrate, and he goes out to find him. The older son says to his father,

Look, I’ve served you all these years, and I never disobeyed your instruction. But despite this, you’ve never thrown me a party, not even when I’ve asked for one!

So, who’s the lost son here?

The fact is that both sons are lost. Both sons misunderstand grace. The younger son comes home underestimating his father’s grace—he comes home begging, just hoping to be made a hired hand—he assumes that the only way to be accepted back home is to bargain for it—to manipulate his way back into his father’s presence. And the older son just doesn’t know grace. He’s stuck in this mentality that the only way to get on his father’s good side is to live by the rules, to never make a mistake, never move to either the right or to the left but to live his life perfectly, rigidly following all the rules—earning his way into his father’s love. The older son also has a hard time letting go of grudges, which is graceless in itself. The tighter he holds on to his grudges, the more distant he feels from his father.

The younger brother was once lost and is now found, but the older brother, even though he never took a step off his father’s farm, is like a foreigner is his own home—just as lost as the younger one, if not more so.

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Brené Brown says that part of living a wholehearted life is to let go of comparison and replace it by cultivating creativity.

Comparison,

she writes,

is the thief of happiness…Comparison is all about conformity and competition. And we compare ourselves to others every single day whether we realize it or not.

When we compare ourselves to others, we tell ourselves two paradoxical things at once:

Fit in and stand out. Be like and do everything just like everybody else, but be it and do it better.

We’re at once told to be our own selves—whatever want to be—but at the exact same time we’re also warned: don’t stand out too much or else…

Brené Brown says that the way to break free of this exhausting, half-hearted lifestyle of constantly trying to conform to, but at the same time compete with, others is to let go of comparison altogether, and we do that by asserting our creativity and our uniqueness. Creativity, she says, is the expression of our originality—that every single one of us is unlike anyone else, that what we bring to the world is completely original and cannot be compared to.

When we embrace our wholeheartedness, comparison loses its meaning and sway in our lives. Concepts like ahead or behind, best or worst lose their meaning. So, instead of cultivating our standards of meaning and worth from others, we need to let go of rivalry and comparison, and cultivate our own unique set of standards by living our lives creatively—making our own, original dent in the world—striking out and cultivating meaning that’s like no one else’s—living creatively by making our own way, however we might define that.

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The father in this morning’s parable never once compares the two sons. There are no thoughts of who’s better or worse, more or less. No measuring sticks at all. The father responds to both his sons according to their uniqueness. Each son is uniquely and completely loved. The older son underestimates his father’s love, thinking that love given to the younger son is love taken away from him, but that’s just not true.

φ

We live in a world that is constantly comparing us to others, so what Jesus is saying to us through this parable is not an easy thing for us to grasp. God loves with a divine love, a non-comparing love, a love that fully loves us in our uniqueness and others in their own uniqueness.

Even though we know in our heads that this is true, it’s still very hard for us to comprehend. But that’s God’s grace: ungraspable and incomprehensible—a love without comparison. May we each know of God’s unrivaled love, and may we each find our way back home.

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

Alleluia! Amen.

David’s Song

A meditation on Psalm 145, preached November 10th, 2013 at KMPC.

Sermon audio

I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless you, and praise your name forever and ever. Great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; his greatness is unsearchable. One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts. On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.

Ω

The pastor at grandma’s funeral said that there was no reason to mourn because his grandma was in a better place now. David sat in the pew, and he tried to hear those words. He really did try, but they sounded empty to him.

There was no comfort in words like these. The pastor at grandma’s funeral said that she was no longer in pain because up in heaven there was no such thing as pain.

All David could think was, even though that would be great for grandma, if it was true, how does that help us here? Grandma may not be in pain any longer, David thought, but look at us. We’re in pain. I’m in pain. Where were the words I need to hear to comfort me in my loss? But this moment wasn’t for David; this moment was for Grandma.

The fact was that David did believe that Grandma Carney was fine. Maybe the pastor was right. David did believe in a God who comforts and he believed that Grandma Carney was with God—wherever that was–and that did comfort him a little.  But here he was, sitting in a pew in a strange church with a stranger presiding over his grandma’s funeral.

David was surprised how much his grandmother’s passing was hurting him.

David had been to a few funerals before, but this was the first time he lost someone that he really loved. There were few words that were good enough to comfort—even words from the bible didn’t matter much to him right now.

David felt this way about the bible often. The bible is full of grand ideas, but sometimes all those grand ideas left him cold and left out. Sometimes it took too much faith for David to read most of the bible. But there were always the Psalms. There have been times in David’s life when the Psalms were all he could read from the Bible.  And this was one of those times.

The Psalms were different. They weren’t preachy. The Psalms were human.  The Psalms were about the rawness of life, and how it felt to lose and fail and fall and slowly get back up and try again.

The Psalms were written in the voice of our common humanity. Frail and misshapen and broken as life often is.

Ω

The might of your awesome deeds shall be proclaimed, and I will declare your greatness. They shall celebrate the fame of your abundant goodness, and shall sing aloud of your righteousness. The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made. All your works shall give thanks to you, O Lord, and all your faithful shall bless you.

David’s grandmother first taught him about the Psalms. There were times when she sat down to read them with him; but it was more like she lived them.

Grandma Carney was real and honest and alive and she taught David that the Psalms were too. If there was a human emotion, Grandma Carney said, you could find it in the Psalms. The ups and the downs, the celebrations and the despair. Grandma Carney had said that if there was something about life that didn’t make sense, there were about 5 psalms written about it.  

Grandma Carney said that you can read the rest of the bible, but you lived the Psalms. David liked to say that the book of Psalms was the best collection of blues songs ever recorded.

Ω

David’s father bought him his first guitar when he was 12. An electric. David’s father had played in a rock n’ roll band during his college days. They did a couple shows in town. They even had 2 or 3 fans. But when his father handed David his first guitar, he thought the best way in was to introduce him to the blues.

That was years ago. David loved the blues. In a world full of radios playing pop hits about how great new boyfriends are and how to become popular fast, the blues…the blues were about something deeper. The blues were honest. The blues came from a place that nothing else came from. Deep within the pit of your stomach.

The blues was Buddy Guy singing his Black Night Blues:

I have no one to talk with
To tell my trouble to
My baby gone and left me
Someone tell me what more, what more can I do?

The blues was Adele singing:

But go on and take it. Take it all with you. Don’t look back at this crumbling fool. Go on and take it, take it all!

The blues make sense because everybody knows what it feels like to live through a dark night, and everyone knows what it feels like to crumble every once in a while.

Ω

They shall speak of the glory of your kingdom, and tell of your power, to make known to all people your mighty deeds, and the glorious splendor of your kingdom. Your kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and your dominion endures throughout all generations. The Lord is faithful in all his words, and gracious in all his deeds.

The Lord upholds all who are falling, and raises up all who are bowed down. The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.

The Psalms were Grandma Carney’s favorite book of the Bible, and every time David went over to Grandma Carney’s house, she would tell him something else about a psalm. How different the book of Psalms was from the rest of the bible, how different each psalm was from one to the next.

Grandma said that the Book of Psalms was a collection of songs that people gathered together to sing. That people memorized and sung from and read from every day of their lives. Grandma Carney said that a lot of the psalms were written by King David, or at least they say they were.

David didn’t know all that much about King David. He knew enough to realize that King David wasn’t the cleanest spoon in the drawer. There were things that King David did that you can’t really talk about in church, even if they are in the bible. King David wasn’t perfect by any stretch of the imagination. And Grandma Carney used to say the Psalms were different because they were written by imperfect people just trying to understand how to live life in the way God wanted them to.

Grandma Carney had told him stories about King David.

How his very best friend Jonathan was killed in battle, and how he suffered the loss of one of his children—it was a tragic loss that King David believed was of his doing—a payback from God for David’s past sin.

King David certainly knew loss and grief. 73 of the Psalms are said to be written by King David, and they’re full of lines like in Psalm 38:

O Lord, all my longing is known to you; my sighing is not hidden from you. My heart throbs, my strength fails me; as for the light of my eyes—it also has gone from me. My friends and companions stand aloof from my affliction, and my neighbors stand far off.

King David knew how to sing the blues.

Ω

Grandma Carney always sang. When she was cooking, gardening, driving, whatever she was doing, she was always singing. David loved spending days over at her house just listening to his grandma sing from a couple rooms away.

David couldn’t imagine a world without his grandma’s voice in it. He remembered countless nights when she would tell him bedtime stories off the top of her head, and then she would sing him a song until he fell asleep. It was the familiarity of her voice that had always comforted him. There were other nights after Grandma Carney tucked him in bed when she would open up the bible—almost to the very center—and she would read David a psalm.

Grandma Carney read him lots of Psalms throughout the years, even after David was too old to be tucked into bed. She would recite some from memory too. Sometimes David thought Grandma recited some pieces of the Psalms without even realizing she was doing it. They would just appear there on her lips as she was cooking dinner or dusting the old furniture.

But by far, the psalm that David heard his grandmother recite most was Psalm 145. Grandma Carney once told him that it was her favorite—that its words got stuck inside of her one day and stayed there.

The Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.

She would almost stop there at “abounding” and let that word just rest there in the air around her. Abounding.

Our God was abounding! Everywhere abounding! Abounding in love! Slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

The repetition and the build-up of those words whenever they came from his grandma’s mouth were almost blues-like. Those words were both a celebration of God’s goodness and a plea for more hopeful and abounding days ahead. It was the prayer she prayed most often. Whenever Grandma Carney recited from Psalm 145, it was like Sam Cooke singing,

I was born by the river in a little tent, and just like the river I’ve been running ever since. It’s been a long, long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come, O yes it will.

It’s like The Avett Brothers singing,

There was a dream and one day I could see. Like a bird in a cage, I broke in and demanded that somebody free it. And there was a kid with a head full of doubt, So I’ll scream til I die and the last of those bad thoughts are finally out.

Or like the opening words of Psalm 40,

I waited patiently for the Lord; he inclined to me and heard my cry. He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock.

Pain and hope and longing mixed together.

David never asked Grandma Carney what weighed her down—maybe it was losing Grandpa Carney 12 years ago. Maybe it was the arthritis in her back that left her bent over in the last years of her life. Yes, the words that Grandma Carney spoke from Psalm 145 were praise but they also seemed to be a desperate prayer to make things right again. Grandma had been through it all, but she always believed that God was good. Even a blues musician’s got to sing a happy song once in a while.

Ω

The Lord is just in all his ways, and kind in all his doings. The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. He fulfills the desire of all who fear him; he also hears their cry, and saves them. The Lord watches over all who love him, but all the wicked he will destroy. My mouth will speak the praise of the Lord, and all flesh will bless his holy name forever and ever.

As the funeral sermon went on, David opened up his bible to the very center, and he remembered the last thing that Grandma Carney had said to him about the Psalms.

Psalm 145 is the very first of the last 6 psalms—all of which come together to begin an overture of praise unto God. At the end of the Book of Psalms, she said, all of the language of suffering and hardship, all of the anger and grieving gives way to praise and celebration, and that’s the way she intended to live out the last days of her life. Praising.

The last 5 psalms begin and end with the word Alleluia—praise the Lord. That’s why Psalm 145 was always her favorite. It was the beginning of praise. It affirmed that even when life is hard and complex, we should still take time to stop and thank God for God’s goodness.

The rhythm of the Psalms is like the rhythm of the blues and the rhythm of life itself. Yes, there are many things that weigh us down. There is loss and distress, and confusion and sorrow, but the sun comes up at the end of even the longest nights.  Grandma Carney’s very life declared that even in the midst of it all, God’s goodness abounds.

Ω

The preacher had just ended his sermon, none of which David had heard. The preacher gave a nod which was David’s cue. David stood up and made his way up to the chancel area to follow through on one last promise he made to his grandmother.

After a lifetime of Grandma Carney reading and teaching Psalm 145 to him, it was David’s turn to read it to her.

So David spoke,

I will extol you, my God and King, and bless your name forever and ever. Every day I will bless you…

God’s goodness abounds.

Alleluia! Amen.