Congregational Church of Brookfield (UCC)
Twelfth Sunday After Pentecost
August 3, 2008
Today’s sermon is the eighth in my summer series suggested by this year’s Confirmands – we have just 3 more to go – summer is fleeting! I appreciated the simplicity of Sam Ronan’s title, “God,” though some in the class kind of rolled their eyes at him when he said it. Someone I think even said, “Aren’t ALL sermons about God?” Now that’s an interesting question – it gets at the very purpose of preaching – in my opinion, not to talk ABOUT God, but to invite people to connect and build deeper relationships with God. But as I started to think about it, if I hadn’t learned so much about God from my family and my church, I don’t think I would have had any interest in building any personal relationship with God in prayer. So today’s sermon, like today’s Psalm (145), could be called something like “The Best Things I Love about God.”
God is great and God is good! The basis of all worship is the practice of praise and thanksgiving. Did any of you grow up saying that blessing at the table, “God is Great”? At our house, we like to sing “Johnny Appleseed” – “Oh, the Lord is good to me and so I thank the Lord.” But when I was a child, we usually said, “God is great and God is good. Let us thank Him for our food. By His hand we all are fed. Give us, Lord, our daily bread. Amen.” That little prayer could be a four-sentence summary of Psalm 145. The Lord provides for us so generously, as our parents do when we are small – filling our plates with nourishment, blessing us until our cups overflow. I love that line, don’t you? “The eyes of all look to you, and you give them their food in due season. 16You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.” One of the exercises I did in my prayer class was to pray with that expectation – that God loves us and longs to fulfill our every desire. But the most beautiful lesson I got in that was when John and I took my daughter Lela to Berkeley’s Little Farm just before we left California Friday. I loved watching the children’s faces as they held out to the sheep and the goats little green sprigs of lettuce to be nibbled. What a tender, intimate relationship we have with the Lord of all. With every morsel we eat, we nuzzle the hand of our Master. Each warm breath we take touches God’s flesh. This is the reality of the incarnation. “You open your hand, satisfying the desire of every living thing.” Yes, Lord, and we thank you.
Because here’s the thing: those sheep and goats aren’t the most kind and gentle creatures on the planet – you know? We give goats a bad rap – even the Bible separates the good sheep from the bad goats in Matthew 25 – but you know, those sheep aren’t any too loving or polite. When the park ranger came by for the afternoon feeding, he let the kids toss big armfuls of hay into the paddock for the sheep and into the goat pen. And even though the goats had horns, I saw no better manners among the sheep. There was one big fat bully sheep who got the most, but several of the smaller ones were also butting heads to steal the biggest mouthfuls. The ranger encouraged us to spread the feed out evenly among them – but they still muscled each other aside to get more and more. And not one of them looked up long enough to say “Thanks!”
In Christ’s Church, we’re called to something a little different. Since the time of the ancient Hebrews, God’s people have been called to vigorous disciplines of praise and worship of the Good Shepherd who feeds us – who created and cares for us all, body and soul. We are called to flock together, for the good of all, and to see to the needs of those who have less – for our God is “good to all,” and we are called to see the face of Christ in the face of our neighbor – even in the face of our enemy. For our God is “gracious and merciful” to all who sin and fall short of the glory of God. To Christ’s table of forgiveness and healing we are called. No matter how WE behave, God is “faithful and gracious.” God upholds us if we are falling, and God raises us up if we have fallen down already. When we are weak, God is strong. “The Lord is just …and kind … near to all who call.” This is Good News we have to tell. This is the love story we are called to share with our children and with the world.
Many of you, I know, are familiar with what Jesus called “The Great Commandment,” to “love God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your might, and to love your neighbor as yourself.” What you may not realize is that this is a direct quote from Hebrew Scriptures – in fact, one verse that may well be the most familiar to the Hebrew people, as it is traditionally posted in the doorway of all Jewish homes. It’s called the Shema, and it’s in Deuteronomy 6:4–9:
“Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.”
Part of the genius of the Jewish religion is the way stories of faith were both written down and regularly acted out – in ways that the people could remember, and in tangible ways that could be passed down to children. In traditional Jewish homes, the Shema is mounted in doorways so it can be touched and remembered as often as people pass in and out of the house. And the Psalms themselves, like the songs in our hymnal, became for the people poetic and memorable ways to tell and retell their stories of deliverance and salvation. With the regular practice of study, prayer, and worship God’s “dominion endures throughout all generations.” The Psalmist’s vision becomes real as we keep our stories alive and “All flesh will bless God’s holy name forever….”
One of the themes that have surfaced in our church-wide Visioning Process so far has been the importance to all of us of finding ways to pass down the stories and practices of our faith. Our Church School, Youth Groups, and Confirmation programs all play a huge part in that. We all have stories to share – even those of us who haven’t found the words to tell ours quite yet. So in closing, I wanted to leave you with a practice from the earliest Jewish table worship – from the Seder meal for Passover that was developed in the time of the Captivity in Babylon, the communion meal that Jesus celebrated as a Last Supper in the Upper Room with his disciples and dearest friends.
There are four questions that, at one point in the meal, are asked of the children at the table – questions that are mostly about the meaning of the various symbolic foods. Matzoh, the unleavened bread, is a reminder of the hasty escape from Egypt, before the bread could rise. The Maror, or bitter herbs, and the parsley and salt water, and Charoset, the mortar-like paste of apples and nuts and raisins, are reminders of the bricks made in slavery, the bitter suffering and tears of the people, as well as the sweetness of salvation and fresh greenness of new life.
But one of the most challenging parts of the service – and yet, I would argue, the most essential – is for each generation to speak out and tell the story anew for as it is relevant to their OWN lives. For God’s work is not just a story of miraculous deliverance in the past – it is a story of ongoing liberation for today. “How are YOU being set free today?” is the question asked of the parents at the table – just as it remains a question for us in churches today. How do we tell the story of our own personal, present-day relationship with this good and great God of power and of love?
I was reading about a new tradition among one modern community of Jews –something they call “The Freedom Plate,” which is set down on the Passover table next to the traditional Seder plate of all the elements I was describing – the matzoh and charoset and so forth. It is the “bring your own” plate that the Seder participants share, both adults and children alike. Each guest brings some object, edible or otherwise, to show on the plate as a symbol of his or her liberation THIS YEAR from Mitzraiim, what from Hebrew would translate as our own “tight space” of captivity. Soon after the meal begins, guests each take a turn to explain their own personal freedom object. At the meal in the story, one guest (a student) had completed a major term paper, another brought a gold coin that was smuggled out of Germany by his parents, fleeing the Nazis, another brought a watch (a symbol of her busy schedule, which made her feel trapped), and another brought nothing, a symbol of the freedom he had to NOT share in that silly new ritual! You see in that our Congregational roots in the Jewish synagogue tradition? We do not resemble the strict hierarchical Empire of Constantine’s Roman Church. We are free to obey or NOT do as we are told – because we are God’s family and not God’s subjects!
For better and for worse, we are the sheep of God’s pasture – and we are being led even today to freedom, with great mercy and great love, to new life in Christ. How is the Spirit setting YOU free from the tight spaces in your own life? Let us learn to tell our stories, even as we continue to give thanks and praise to God for this Good News. Amen.
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