The Foothold of Faith

A sermon based on Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22 and Ephesians 2:1-10 preached on June 11th, 2017

Sermon audio

Hobby wind-surfer, Adam Cowles, realized he was way off-course when he spotted a cargo ship. He was windsurfing the Swansea Bay, not too far from his house, but after a few hours of delightful distraction, Adam found himself in strange territory. He had unwittingly made his way into the Bristol Channel, 140 miles away from home.

The water that day was freezing cold. If he fell in, he’d be in serious trouble. If there came a lull in the wind, Adam could have found himself stranded. Opposite the cargo ship, Adam could see land, so he surfed his way to shore and walked into a nearby bar, soaking wet.

The locals must have seen sights like him before, because even though he was still dripping wet when he walked into that pub, the patrons thought and said nothing of it. They even bought him a beer.

Adam began to tell them his story.

They told him how far away from home he was. 140 miles. He was astonished. And then he was embarrassed when he had to call his wife, asking her to make the 280-mile round trip to pick him up. She was not happy.

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Wind is so prevalent inside of scripture that one could easily call it a character. A living force rather than an object or an atmospheric phenomenon.

God shows up in the beginning of the opening act, in the very first lines of our story in Genesis 1, as wind. This is the form in which the Spirit of God makes way into creation, and then helps creation take its shape out of what was before simply chaos and nonsense. The second verse in all of scripture says it this way:

Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.

This is how God shows up. In a breeze. And that happens over and over again throughout God’s story—our story, too.

Consider the moment of the Exodus, when the Hebrew people, enslaved for two centuries in Egypt, make their way across the Red Sea and to the other side, outrunning Pharaoh and his army and into freedom. The Sea was split in two that day by a strong eastward wind.

And then there’s Jonah, the stubborn prophet, who tried his best to outrun God after God asked him to do something that made no sense to him. Throughout the Book of Jonah, he’s stopped, over and over again, to the point where it gets comedic, by wind and sea, by whale and wave.

We try our best but there’s no escaping the Spirit of God.

There’s at least two stories in each of the four Gospels, where fisherman disciples are out on a boat on the Galilee Sea. Terrified by brewing storms and rising waters, Jesus comes to calm the waves and the rain and brings them through. These are messages for us about how when we are caught in the scary seas of our own lives, when the water rises too high all around us, Jesus comes to us and subsides our fears and says to us the same thing he said to His disciples in those moments:

Peace be with you.

Last and certainly not least is the story we have in the Book of Acts where Luke gives us a glimpse of Paul’s travelogue. To get to the churches he has planted, Paul and his own team of disciples, servants, doctors, and scribes cross the Mediterranean Sea and sail up the Aegean between present-dayPaul Turkey and Greece, and north into the Sea of Marmara. Some of these voyages brought disaster. Pirates, shipwreck. Loss of cargo and loss of life. Throughout scripture, water and wind give life but they also take it away.

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dSo when Paul writes from a prison in Rome to the young believers in Ephesus—and by extension, to us—he has been wind-tossed, beat up, lost at sea, and then found again. Paul knows a thing or two about what it is to be blown about by wind. And he warns us, right at the get-go, here at the very beginning of Chapter 2,

Do not be blown about by the wind. Once you lived your entire lives wandering off-course in this perverse world….You were the offspring of the prince of the power of the air. He once owned you and controlled you.

I don’t know what kind of devil you believe in. We talk so little about evil and its personifications. Certainly, the personification of evil into some being with the proper name, Satan, is not as much a creature found in scripture as it is one that has been imagined in the tales of subsequent works of fiction: Dante’s Inferno and John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost. We need to keep our stories straight.

We’ll talk more about this when we reach Chapter 4 of Ephesians, but for now, suffice it to say, here Paul describes some sort of evil or persuasive power, but he doesn’t give it a name or a form. It’s as if Paul is describing that thing mentioned in the first two verses of Genesis 1, a sort of earthly chaos, life and creation without shape, or meaning, or form. Life without God. That is a sort of evil in and of itself.

Paul is warning us against living in a way that’s uncritical, where we get swept up by the power of the air, picked up by every breeze that comes our way. Life lived empty and persuadable, easily manipulated by anything and everything around us. We can get picked up and pushed around wherever the breeze takes us, like that empty plastic bag at the beginning of the movie American Beauty. This is the prince of the power of the air. This is an opportunistic presence that will sweep us off our feet any chance it gets.

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We live in a culture full of wind-blown people. Too often, we get caught up in the prevailing winds of our day, and before we know it we’re like that empty plastic bag that gets knocked around by forces both visible and invisible. We get taken anywhere it pushes us.

What Paul is inviting all of us to see is a new way to live and move. Paul’s words here are a sort of prelude to the important and biblical idea of living in but not of the world. We cannot be blown about. Persuadable. Pushed about. We must find our footing. We must be discerning, keen, wise, sharp, perceptive, insightful, critical. You’ve heard the phrase,

If you don’t stand for something you’ll fall for everything.

This is God’s way of saying a similar thing. Find your footing.

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Paul knew something about wind. He was a tentmaker.

These days, if a person calls him- or herself a tentmaker, there’s a good chance they’re a Pastor who specializes in creating new churches. Paul did that, but before he ever entered into the ministry he actually made tents. This is how he made a living, even while he sailed the seas, planting churches.

So, Paul knew a thing of two about wind. How to shelter oneself against it. How to build a structure that can withstand it. Build them strong, resilient, and with a big footprint so they hold up to the power of the air and the elements. Everything thrown at it.

As we mature in our faith, as we walk forward slowly in the Way of Jesus, following in His footsteps, we too become strong against the breezes that try to blow us off course.

It is with rope and ground pegs, poles and stakes that a tent becomes secure even in the most chaotic of climates. It’s the power of God’s grace that does the same thing for our minds, our hearts, our spirits. God’s grace pins us to solid ground, can keep us from being blown off course. Grace is the foothold of our faith.

I mentioned a few weeks ago when we began our look into Ephesians, that God’s grace given to us is not an end in itself. Grace is not the end of any conversation, as in, “but for the grace of God go I.” Grace is always the beginning of the conversation. Grace was in the wind that blew the disciples out of their tiny house on Pentecost, and it’s the power we have been given by God to walk out of here and do God’s work—in and for the world.

Grace is the fuel, the power source God gives us to start something—to go out from here, or wherever else we are, as agents of God’s love, as keepers of God’s Message, as sharers of God’s mercy. Grace is designed and given to us by God to take us places. It is first unmerited benefit, yes; but it’s also Divine enablement. Grace is given to us to get us going!

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Through grace, we gain a foothold in our faith, stand up tall in Christ, and then become agents of grace—taking it and using it. Paul writes,

For it is by grace you have been saved. You have received it through faith. It was not our plan or effort, it’s God’s gift. Pure and simple. You didn’t earn it.

That’s verse 8. It’s one of the most beloved in all of scripture, but I’m afraid it’s too often misunderstood. People use it to convince themselves that works—doing stuff with and because our faith—isn’t important. But what Paul says is, Take God’s gift of grace, freely given to you—yes, it’s never earned, it’s always a gift—but then do something with it. Use it. Pay it forward. Grace is never the end of the conversation; it’s always the beginning of one. God’s grace is given to us in order to be put to work through us. Grace is God’s enabling power for growth.

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If you feel like you’re trudging through life right now under your own power, if you’ve lost your footing, if you’ve exhausted yourself that way, let me re-introduce you to grace. Author Anne Lamott says,

When you’re out of good ideas, what you’re left with is God.

She describes grace as spiritual WD-40 or water wings, if that works better. And all you have to do to find grace is to say “Help,” preferably out loud. Shout it into the heavens if you have to. The heavens will hear you. “But watch out!” Anne Lamott says. The moment you say that word, “Help!”, the moment you find grace, buckle up! Because, powered by the Holy Wind of God as it always is, God’s grace will take you places you never intended to go!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

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Conversations By Firelight

A sermon based on Psalm 30 and John 21:1-25 preached on April 10th, 2016

Sermon audio

There was a light in the distance, on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Peter and the rest of the disciples had spent the pre-dawn hours just 100 yards from the shoreline. That’s when the fish are biting—very early morning—with dark still cast above the surface of the water. Their nets had been dragging beside the boat for a few hours now and to their surprise, they were catching nothing. Not one thing. At least nothing worth keeping.

It was still Easter. The disciples had seen the resurrected Jesus appear to them over and over again. The first time was in the upper room, all bolted up and shut tight around them. The second time, Jesus came again to the empty room, this time to quell Thomas’ doubt. But the questions still remained: What do you do when you’ve lost your leader? How do you start something all on your own when all you’ve done for the last three years is follow? Well, what you do is you return to something familiar, and for the disciples, what was familiar was fishing. But for some reason, not even that was working out all that well. By this time in the morning, they’re usually dragging in loads and loads of fish, but that morning, all they had to show for it were empty nets. Something wasn’t right. Even the most familiar things didn’t feel the same anymore.

Peter was the deck captain. It was his job to make sure that before they set off from the shore the nets were mended, that they had enough bait, and the boat was in working order. But Peter’s mind wasn’t in the game. He seemed distant, almost like he was caught in some kind of net himself—unable to find his way out of it. It was near the end of this terrible, no good morning when they saw a flickering light against the shoreline—a small campfire, maybe. There was a man standing next to it, some dark figure moving along the beach. Then a voice:

Children, have you caught anything yet?

No,

they replied to this mysterious figure.

The man standing along the shore yelled back,

Try the other side of the boat!

Whoever he was, he must know his stuff, because his fishing tip worked out. Once the disciples hauled their net to the other side, they were glad they took the time to mend their net before setting off. It was so full, there was no way for them to bring it back up into the boat. They had to drag it to shore. And as they got closer, it was the unnamed, beloved disciple who recognizes that this mysterious man along the shoreline is Jesus. He says so to Peter, and at once, Peter leaps out of the boat and into the water (Peter, it seems, is prone to jumping off the sides of boats!), and he swims toward Jesus.

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The last time Peter had seen a charcoal fire was on the night Jesus was arrested. Peter gathered around it for warmth, bundled up, hoping that no one would recognize him or figure out his accent. Peter’s shame for what he did that night had been an anchor around his neck ever since. That night, Peter denied Jesus three times. Jesus even knew he would before it ever happened. For days and days, Peter’s shame was unbearable, and seeing the flicker and spark of another charcoal fire sent shivers up his spine, the smell of it deepened his shame.

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In his gospel, John refers to every appearance of the resurrected Jesus as a sign. Signs point the way. When we’re lost, they can help us find out where we are in relation to things. They grab our attention, turn our heads, help us get unlost, point us in the right direction. But lots of times, we don’t have eyes to see them.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus was a sign-maker. He created signs for all to see. He existed to show us the way to God. He pointed all who met him in the right direction, but most who encountered Jesus couldn’t decipher His signs. They couldn’t recognize them.

This time, though, the resurrected Jesus shows up along the shoreline to help Peter find his way again—to lead him out of his haze, out of his lostness and despair—to give him new purpose and direction.

A fish breakfast sizzled over the charcoal fire along the beach that morning. Peter was soaked from diving off the boat, so he huddled around the fire for warmth, sitting next to Jesus. Another fire. Another cold shiver. Another conversation by firelight…

Peter, do you love me?

Jesus asked.

The question must have caught Peter by surprise, but that Jesus asked it of Peter three times must have offended him.

‘Peter do you love me?’ ‘Peter, do you love me?’ ‘Peter, do you love me?’

Yes, Yes, Yes,

Peter answers.

It wouldn’t be ‘til later, that Peter would recognize what Jesus was doing. With each question, Jesus was giving Peter a chance to redeem himself, to undo each of his three denials. Jesus visited Peter in the early dawn of the morning to turn those old No No No’s into new Yes Yes Yes’. Jesus has returned to take that anchor off from around his neck. To free him from his guilt and shame. To rehabilitate Peter. To make him whole again. That morning, during a conversation by firelight in the dim dawn of that early morning, Peter was lifted out of his fog. But not only that! See, when the risen Jesus appears, He not only forgives and unbinds us, He calls us to something—gives us purpose and direction! This isn’t just another Easter resurrection Jesus sighting; this is a call story for both Peter and those of us with ears to hear and eyes to see. After each time we tell Jesus we love Him, He says prove it.

‘Jesus, I love you!’ ‘Then feed my lambs.’

‘Jesus, I love you!’ ‘Then take care of my sheep.”’

‘Since you love me, feed my sheep!’

That is love’s fruit. If we love Jesus, then we will feed his people, because love isn’t just something we feel. Love needs purpose. And if the love we love with doesn’t compel us to action and call us to feed and care for others around us, then we’re not being faithful to Jesus, and the call and voice we hear is not the call and voice of the Gospel but some lesser call. This is Jesus saying to Peter and each and every one of us,

Don’t just sit here with your love for me! I need you out there! Enact your love for me! Don’t do this ‘follow me’ thing with lips only. Do it with your lives!

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When my Aunt Peggy was a teenager, my grandfather took her fishing out on Kueka Lake in upstate New York. My grandfather had some property there that he retreated to often, and he thought Peggy was old enough and experienced enough to fish with him without being too much of a bother. So, they cast out onto the lake with their fishing rods, bait, and candy bars for snacks, and sunk their hooks underneath the surface.

My aunt Peggy was in the front of the boat; my grandfather in the back. And at some point that morning, Peggy threw her rod around her shoulder to cast her line out, and she hooked my grandfather clear through the nose, and before she realized she had done that, she pulled on it. Now, Jordan noses are pretty big, but my Aunt Peggy couldn’t have done what she did twice!

The line didn’t yank my grandfather out of the boat, but I bet a fishing hook through the nose rattled him for a time. I’m sure it took my grandfather a few minutes to get the thing out of his nose, but once they got it out, he just kept on fishing. I’m not sure if my aunt Peggy reeled in anything other than my grandfather’s nose that day, but they did catch some fish.

To add insult to injury, that night they made their own shoreline campfire, and as he cooked the fish they caught, my grandfather spilled boiling water on his bare feet. But he kept on cooking!

I wonder what the conversation around the firelight was like that night!

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Seeing Jesus upon the shore, yanked Peter out of the boat. It dragged him to the shoreline, and together they sat as the fish popped and crackled over a charcoal fire.

The firelight warmed their faces as they shared in conversation with each other. In a sense, it was a signal fire. The smoke from it was an offering that rose into the sky above them, as Jesus, with His words, gave Peter a new sign, a new purpose and calling, signaling a new vocation for Him, not as a deck captain to a ragtag bunch of fishermen, but as lead disciple, and the Rock upon which Christ’s church was to be built. It served as a signal that even our worse words and actions can’t yank us out of relationship with Jesus.

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The Good News for us, friends, is that this world is full of shore-side charcoal fires! There’s signal fires and burning bushes everywhere we turn. We just have to have Easter eyes to see their spark and flame, and ears to hear their crackle and snap. But the message of the Gospel is that we have to want to see those signs! See, most us completely overlook God-sightings. We don’t recognize them as we should. We suffer from a lack of attentiveness. Mexican novelist, Carlos Fuentes, defines love as paying attention to the other person and opening oneself to attention. And discipleship means jumping out of the boat to be closer to Jesus. To risk something of ourselves to follow Him, to take up the vocation to love Jesus by feeding and caring for His sheep. Pastor Mike Foster says that we who are Christ’s church need to risk more of ourselves. He writes,

Our guardian angels are bored. We’re not taking chances with our faith.

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As we know, Peter would grow into his calling and purpose. He would indeed become a rock—a strong presence for an emerging church. He and his fellow disciples would eventually become unafraid and bold in their proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. But it would take them growing braver and walking into the world with it. The Way of Jesus is not a point of view. It’s not a religious opinion. It’s not a political or moral position. It’s not a stance we take. It’s a walk. What pastor and author Leonard Sweet calls “a world walk.” And it all started with a conversation around firelight.

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Do you love me?

That’s the question Jesus asked of Peter—of all of his disciples. It’s the question Jesus asks of each one of us.

If you love me, then follow and feed.

Jesus has the same words of purpose and vocation and challenge for us:

Forget about fishing on water. Start looking in different places. Start fishing in different ways. Risk more. Cast your faith out into deeper waters! We’ve got some hungry people to feed and some lost people to care for. Walk the Gospel Way…and follow me!

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

Alleluia! Amen.

Crescendo

A sermon based on Acts 10:44-48 and Psalm 98 preached on May 10th, 2015

 Sermon audio

The houselights dim. The people take their seats. A sudden hush falls over the theatre. All eyes straight ahead.

The conductor raises her baton slightly.

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The cellists bring bow to strings. The flautists, the trumpeters, and the trombonists raise their brass instruments to their lips. Everyone in house feels that pregnant silence before the first note of a symphony and holds their breath.

Imagine the split-second moment before the universe was brought into being. It’s the pause before a tiny big-bang. Something’s about to occur—to come into being, to be born right in front of their eyes. And it will astound all who are there to see it.

The conductor’s baton moves. The concertmaster (the first violinist) begins her song. Each instrument will join her in their own time.

Every little thing can become something great.

The symphony begins.

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The Psalms are like a symphony. When their words take the stage—when each one of them picks up their instruments and begins to play, whole worlds are created—new spaces for the faithful to move inside of are born.

That’s the nature of the Psalms. Every image they conjure, every emotion they confront God with—anger, joy, jealousy, ecstasy—they’re rooms we’re invited to live inside of, songs we can join in on, instruments we can pick up and start to play.

There’s nothing off limits in the Psalms. Every aspect of—the full range of our feelings are fair game in the Psalms. They’re real and authentic and vulnerable and loud and messy. The despair inside the desperate ones descends down to the depths of Sheol; and the praise inside the most joyful of them ascend to the heights of heaven.

That’s the nature of the Book of Psalms. No limits. No categories. Everything is expressed out loud and honestly in wide-open spaces where we can be free to be exactly who we are, wherever we are, and feel exactly what we feel in front of God and one another. No fences or boundaries.

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There was a band back in the day whose name was Caedmon’s Call. They were a quote/unquote “Christian band.” A very popular one back in the 90’s and early 2000’s. The lead singer, Derek Webb, resurfaced a few years ago to share this thought out loud—he said,

There’s no difference between sacred and secular. The word Christian, when applied to anything other than a human being, is simply a marketing term.

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We live in a world that likes to categorize things. Everything we encounter and everyone we meet needs to fit snuggly into one of our predetermined categories. But whenever we do that we ignore too much, we take away who or what those things are. We ignore the divine fingerprints that cover every bit of them whenever we do that.

The psalms teach us that there is no such thing as secular space—everything is sacred, everywhere is holy ground. The psalms laugh out loud at the false division we’ve conjured up in our minds that some aspects of our lives are holy and others are not. The psalms are absolutely opposed to the idea that we live in a fragmented world.  Absolutely everything is sacred. Everything we encounter—whether it’s music or art, or story, or place, or people—it’s all imprinted with the divine. Every song everything sings is a divine one because our God is Lord over all of creation.

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I remember Harvey Lake, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. I was born there and so was my mom. She and my dad lived there until I was born before moving down to Richmond. We would visit several times a year, and over the summer, we might make our way down to my grandfather’s old fishing grounds.

Harvey’s lake was where I learned to skip stones. I was never really great at skipping stones, but I loved watching my mom and dad teach me. Sometimes the stones they threw would make it way out there.

I liked the kerplunk more than the skip. Throwing huge stones and hearing that sound was more my thing, but I would try to skim a stone or two. But what I liked the best was the ripple afterwards—water remembers wherever the stone sunk beneath its surface, and it sends out a wave that grows outward, getting larger and larger.

That’s what Psalm 98 is: it’s the ripple effect of our song of praise that we sing. It’s the first wave of the conductor’s baton, the first note of the concertmaster’s violin. It’s one voice singing that first opening line:

Sing to the Lord a new song…

Then, in verse 4, the invitation for others to join in. One voice becomes two:

Shout triumphantly to the Lord, all the earth!

And then 3. How can we keep from singing?

Sing your praises with the lyre. Trumpets, join in too. Then the horn—the shofar, why not—start your song also! Join the symphony of praise to our God!

And with each new sound, the ripple of this song grows larger—the circle of praise gets bigger—and even more join in. Let the sea roar. The world and all its inhabitants. The mountains jump in—rejoicing out loud.

Eventually all of creation joins in on the symphony and the music swells. The sound reverberates throughout all of creation, and what was once the song of just one instrument becomes the sound all the earth makes together. It crescendoes—spilling over from one voice to another—one instrument to the next. Praise to God is centrifugal—it’s not complete until all have joined in on the song. The ripple in a pond is always a complete circle. Praise is contagious.

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Growing up in my home church, I always knew about Raymond Erb. Raymond’s parents sung in the choir while he sat in the back of the sanctuary and kept quiet. Raymond has Down’s syndrome. He kept close to his parents who loved him immensely and included him in every aspect of the church’s life.

One day, I remember my pastor talking to Raymond, and he asked him why Raymond didn’t sing along with the hymns in worship. Raymond had a loud and uncontained speaking voice—he declares whatever he has to say with an outdoor voice-a voice turned up to 11. Never a 1 or a 2. Our pastor got Raymond to say,

Yes, I’ll start singing in worship.

And he did. And it was loud and wonderful. You couldn’t understand and word he was singing, but he declared it joyously anyway. I’d hear Raymond sing from the other side of the sanctuary and weep tears of joy.

All God’s creatures have a place in the choir. Some sing low, some sing higher.

Raymond belted out his praise to God. And Raymond’s praise was contagious.

At some point, though, he stopped singing. I don’t know why he stopped singing, but not too long after that, he and his parents decided to join another church—they actually started on of their own. My fear is someone complained that Raymond’s singing disturbed their worship. I’m not sure about that, but it’s my hunch.

My heart breaks for that. It did then. It still does now. Our praise and his was cut off with just one sour note.

Whenever anything in creation is silenced, when any voice is muted, when any instrument is muzzled, the whole symphony feels the ripple effect—the crescendo breaks and the song falls apart.

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Our Acts passage for the morning finds Peter realizing that more people than he ever could imagine are included in God’s embrace and in the symphony of God’s creation. Acts can be described as a book where the first followers of Jesus—all of them Israelites—begin to recognize that their circle of inclusion is a whole lot smaller than God’s. Here we have the leader of Christ’s church, Peter, the Rock upon which Jesus said it would be built, realizing that Gentiles are being called to be a part of Jesus’ church—that they are just as important and legitimate members of the body of Christ as any Jewish person is.

Friends, 2,000 years later, we’re still astonished by how big God’s circle of inclusion is. It’s much, much bigger than any circle we have drawn. And the circle of inclusion we draw ripples out farther and farther—growing larger and larger, and that expanding of our circle won’t be complete until all are inside, joining with one voice and singing together one song of praise to our God.

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It’s almost reckless how this Psalm unfolds!

It’s author cuts loose on his praise. There’s no holding back a thing. There’s no self-consciousness or fear of what others may think. This psalmist proclaims loudly and doesn’t seem to care if he makes himself a spectacle. And everyone around him sees his joy and his complete and total lack of inhibition and they join in on the song—and it builds and builds, and swells and swells until even creation itself—the seas and the mountains can’t contain their praises. All the earth sings the same uncontrollable and uninhibited song of joy to God the Creator. And in this shared song of praise, all the categories that everything and everybody fit inside of—they’re gone, they disappear, no divisions, no classifications, no exclusions—just voices joining together to sing—because when we come together to worship God, everything that separates us and divides us falls away and there is only shared song, building and building into earthshaking crescendo.

That’s the thing about the psalms: Just by being exactly what it is created to be, everyone one of us and everything in nature, is invited to come together and spontaneously praise God and proclaim its purpose in creation.

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Let that be the new song that the Church sings. A new song sung to a broken and fragmented world sung by a people once fragmented, but no longer; where every voice is heard, where all people have a place in the continuing symphony of a beautiful and ever-unfolding creation—our song building and building in praise to the God who creates.

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

Alleluia! Amen.