a sermon on Psalm 111 for the Fourth Sunday after Epiphany
preached on January 29, 2012, at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone
Why do we come here? What brings us together every Sunday? Plenty of people spend their Sunday mornings in bed, enjoying a quiet and slow start to the day, with a cup of coffee and the voluminous Sunday Times, embodying the truest sense of sabbath rest in these very busy times.
Yet we gather together here instead, for some reason forgoing a restful morning on the one potentially restful day of the week for many of us, spending an hour singing sometimes strange hymns and listening to someone go on and on about a two-thousand-year-old book.
This is very strange to many people in these days. It used to be when you moved to a new place you sought out a doctor, a barber or hairdresser, and a church, but now church is optional, and coming together is pretty rare.
So for many in our world, the psalm this morning seems especially confounding. It talks about coming together to give thanks to God. Now thanksgiving is an understandable thing, but in our society it belongs on the fourth Thursday in November – the rest of the year, you’d think that everything that we have is completely and totally of our own doing. And the “together” part – giving thanks “in the assembly of the upright, in the congregation,” as the psalmist puts it – this doesn’t make sense at all. In this day and age, thanksgiving is our own private matter, something that belongs to me and me alone, maybe with a family role sometimes, but never discussed in public. As usual, though, the psalmist insists that the way of the masses is not the way of the people of God. For the people of God, thanksgiving is an everyday task, one that is at its best when others can join us along the way, when we do it together.
There’s more that’s unusual about this way of life, though. The psalmist insists that God is at hand in everything, not just in the thanksgiving of the congregation of the people. According to the psalmist, God is present and at work in creation, doing majestic and glorious deeds that shine from age to age. God’s mercy and compassion extend to all people, not just in abstract ways but in bringing real justice and peace and in providing for those who are in need. God’s presence and life extend beyond every imaginable boundary, and God’s power overcomes every human limit to show God’s love for God’s people. The God of this psalm is trustworthy, honest, and true, bringing a new way of life into the world and sealing God’s love forever and ever.
This incredible way of God that the psalmist describes is so different from our human ways, not just on Sunday morning but each and every day. For the psalmist, good things are not our own doing but are solely of God’s doing. The beauty and wonder of creation – even those things created by human hands – is from God alone. Mercy, compassion, justice, peace, and love are not optional things in this way of life, to be done when they are convenient or to our advantage, but rather are the way that God lives – and so should be the way that we live, too.
As usual, in offering praise to God, the psalmist helps us to see a little clearer picture of the way of life that God intends for us and our world. Even though the psalmist speaks for himself in these words, the life of praise and newness he describes is only possible “in the congregation of the upright” – in the times when we come together.
This seems like a fitting thing for us today as we prepare to spend some time together this afternoon talking about the life of our congregation. When we gather, we come together not just because we usually like each other as people but because we have a special purpose for our life together, because here we begin our faithful response to God in praise and thanksgiving and here we seek to embody God’s new way of life in our world. When we gather, we are reminded that our life together is not centered in some building constructed by human hands but in the grace of God who gathers us and transforms us more and more into the people God is calling us to be. When we gather, we find that the life we share together here is important not so much because of the history that comes before us but because here we are strengthened for the living of our faith in these days and beyond.
The institution of this place is less important than what we accomplish together. As one of my friends put it so well recently,
What matters most to me about church is that there is an opportunity for people to gather – in some way, shape, and form – around the Jesus that can known through the Gospels and in the company of the Spirit that can be known by who-knows-how.
So as we go into this time of business this afternoon, as we consider some of the earthly things that we must think about as we share this life in this place, as we discuss the sale of the manse that has served as the home of your pastor for the last fifteen years, I hope and pray that these earthly, administrative things will not overwhelm what is really important: that we come together to live the life of praise and thanksgiving that the psalmist describes, that we come together to share hope and love for all people, that we come together to witness to justice and peace in our common life and our individual lives, that we come together to share our joys and our sorrows along the journey, and that we come together to trust God, who gives us everything we need to make it through the day so that together we might share in the resurrection life of Jesus Christ our Lord.
So may we praise the Lord together and give thanks to God with our whole hearts each and every day as we journey together into the new life and light that has already come into our midst through Jesus Christ our Lord. Thanks be to God! Amen.