In Good Company
Today is a day of celebration! As a congregation, we gather for special events that allow us to rejoice in the ministry God has called us to here at Heritage Presbyterian Church. The newsletter report this past week is full of excitement and good news about the places and ways we have seen God at work in the past year. Our congregational meeting builds on that foundation as we anticipate another year together. And, of course, there is much to be appreciative of with the incredible response we have received in the face of the tremendous task of replacing and repairing various parts of our HVAC system. Looking around this room today, I see a glimpse of the great cloud of witnesses. I think about the many gifts you offer to our life together, and the ways that everyone here contributes to what it means to be a family of faith. This is just as true for those who have been here since near the beginning to those who have recently held the loaves of bread that welcome new visitors. Without you, all of you, here, it would not be the same. I feel truly blessed to be in such great company. And when surrounded by so many blessings, there is only one thing to do – give thanks.
The Psalmist knew this well. Psalm 111 begins with the exclamation “Hallelujah!” which the NRSV translates rightly as “Praise the Lord!” It is meant to be a joyous song of praise, a boasting in God. We might recall the slogan of the Reformation, “to God alone be the glory.” To begin with this exclamation reminds us of the root of all of that which we celebrate – God. Whenever we become aware of life’s blessings, we are prompted to give credit where credit is due – to God. And, as I shared with the children, in today’s Psalm, the songwriter covers it from A to Z. The Psalm also covers the entire history of the people of Israel. The verses map out a fly-over of the history of God’s interaction with God’s creation, sweeping through all of time and space to remind the community gathered of all that God has done, from creation to the parting of the sea. This psalm tells the whole story of the people of God. Which means it tells our story, too.
This morning, we have engaged in some storytelling ourselves, as we have recalled moments of celebration in the past year. We have given thanks to those who have gone above and beyond in dedication to ministry through the Watwood Window of Service Award. We have highlighted facts and figures and moments in our common life. But to put this celebration in the context of the Psalm, we might also remind ourselves that God has been at work well before the past year. Those named today will join others dating back to 1991 who have received the same award (you can read them in your bulletin insert, along with the story of the project that inspired the award). We may be worshiping in a unique location for the start of this year, but as one member reminded me, it’s not that different from the very first place this congregation met, in a day care center on highway 92. The stories that we tell today weave together with our past in rich ways.
And, lest we think it’s all about us, the Psalmist reminds us that our stories intertwine with those of God’s people throughout the ages. In faith, we are connected to believers in every time and place. When we read this Psalm, or any psalm, in worship, we are repeating a centuries old worship practice. We are taking our place among the company of the upright. There is a beautiful song released in 2008 by entertainer Julianne Hough that almost reads like a modern interpretation of a psalm. It begins:
Look at me, can’t believe I finally made it here
Feeling like I’m where I belong, singing my hallelujah song[i]!
It seems that when we sing praises, particularly to God, we find ourselves in good company. Kindred spirits and friends are found. Our thanksgiving and hallelujah songs are the beginnings of community, and are some of the best descriptors of what it means to be “the upright” – that is, God’s people, giving praise. Anne Apple notes:
The essential structure of God’s gathered people is to be an unfolding narrative, rather than a rigid institutional system[ii].
That is the kind of story we tell with our Hallelujahs. The psalm suggests a way of being for us as God’s people. Thanksgiving should mark our time together here in this church and in our lives. The key is an increased awareness of God’s presence and role in our lives. As Thomas D. Parker says:
To live as if there were no God is to live in a space too small for our souls to grow and flourish[iii].
Instead, we are called to notice and name God, so that we are better able to see the big picture. It can begin with the simple practice of asking “where have you seen God today?” What if that was what we said to each other during the passing of the peace, or as we passed in the hallways? Chances are it would be less passing and more bonding. The same can be asked in the car running errands or around a dinner table. Or, differently framed, “what would you thank God for today?” In doing this, we will begin to see the magnitude of the God the psalmist talks about. Parker continues:
Those who revere (“fear”) God live in a larger world, because they allow themselves to be open to something greater, something better, that lies deeply within even the most ordinary experiences[iv].
A life of thanksgiving and hallelujah is “living large.”
The psalmist prepares us for such a way of being. The work begins with a hallelujah, which roots us in an understanding of God’s presence throughout it all. Then, our songs of praise and thanksgiving bind us together in community in powerful ways. I think this happens in part because our gratitude reveals what we have in common. By offering praise together, we are celebrating that which we have in common. Last year, a Danish tv channel produced a powerful commercial about community titled “All That We Share[v].” Take a look:
Every time those individuals stepped outside of their boxes, they were singing a hallelujah. When there was clapping, or signs of acceptance or reassurance, a knowing look, or even just a moment of acknowledgement for that which we cannot understand about each other, there was a gratitude for the good company they were in. In those moments of naming all that we share, we might also hear the voice of the Psalmist giving thanks to God for what connects us – that we are all beloved children of God. Gratitude and grace go hand in hand.
In her book on prayer, writer Anne LaMott argues that there are only three types of prayers, “Help,” “Thanks,” and “Wow.” In speaking about thanksgiving, she, too, talks about the importance of it being a fully embodied act just as the Psalm introduces. She writes:
Gratitude begins in our hearts and then dovetails into behavior . . . You breathe in gratitude, and you breathe it out, too. Once you learn how to do that, then you can bear someone who is unbearable[vi].
For LaMott, the idea of gratitude stems from an understanding of grace, and brings us to a sense of community; “from the package of self-obsessed madness to a spiritual awakening[vii].” And it leads us to act accordingly. Our Hallelujahs go from being words on our lips to the words of our lives.
Today, I invite you to live out the Psalm together here and now. Step outside of whatever box you might be in and give thanks to God for all that we share. Find some additional good company, here in this room. Sit next to new people at lunch (and maybe even the next time you come to worship). It is a safe space, and a brave space. Here is where we can learn and grow, so that when we go through those doors, we can step out of the other boxes we are in. This is what it means to give thanks with our whole hearts, offering everything we are to God and to each other. For God has indeed done marvelous and amazing things, and we have been included as part of that story. Hallelujah! Let’s praise the Lord! For we are in good company. Amen.
~Rev. Elizabeth Lovell Milford
January 28, 2018
[i] Julianne Hough, “My Hallelujah Song” 2008 Mercury Records, a Division of UMG Recordings, Inc. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R2mu0g3ir_w, accessed 1/25/18.
[ii] Anne H. K. Apple, “Pastoral Perspective: Psalm 111,” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).
[iii] Thomas D. Parker, “Theological Perspective: Psalm 111,” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).
[iv] Thomas D. Parker, “Theological Perspective: Psalm 111,” Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 1, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, Editors, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008).
[v] “All That We Share” Tv2, published on YouTube January 27, 2017 – 3:01 length – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jD8tjhVO1Tc accessed 1/25/18.
[vi] Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012).
[vii] Anne Lamott, Help, Thanks, Wow: The Three Essential Prayers, (New York: Riverhead Books, 2012).