Dear sisters and brothers in Christ, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus, who is the Christ. Amen.
For most of my life, I’ve struggled with praise language in the bible. Not just praise language in the bible, but in hymnody and songs. Come to think of it, I kind of struggled with praise throughout all of worship. I guess I never really understood why we needed to always be praising God.
Don’t get me wrong, I understood why God was worthy of praise. I could appreciate, as today’s psalm details, all of the incredible things that God had done. But I just didn’t quite understand why God continually wanted to be reminded of it. Is God that needy?
I mean just imagine, if you will, a typical Sunday for God. There are nearly 150 Lutheran churches in the Minneapolis Area Synod alone. Add in the Baptists and the Presbyterians and the non-denominational folks, that’s a lot of praise getting heaped on one person or deity as it were. Does God just need the constant ego stroke? I gotta believe God is bigger than that.
Me on the other hand, I’ll take all the praise I can get. The fastest way to butter me up is to compliment me on my lawn. (I’m so very suburban.) I like to mow in three different directions on a rotating basis. Horizontal one day, vertical rows a few days later. Then, in a couple more days I do a diagonal cut. It can have a baseball field vibe, but my dad told me it’s better for the grass long-term to vary how you cut.
Few things are more satisfying than when Dad comes for a visit and comments on the mowing pattern lines. Makes a guy feel good.
I never really questioned my dad on the whole mow-your-lawn-differently-each-time strategy until one summer, years into our marriage, Beth kind of called me on it. She was like, why do you do that, it takes so much longer. I said, it’s better for the lawn. She looked at me like I was full of it. I said, no it’s true, my dad told me so.
The stories we tell ourselves are the ones we believe to be true.
I grew up with this story about lawn care. You have to cut your lawn in alternating patterns. For my entire adult life I lived with that story. I never checked it out, I never researched it, it was what my family lived. It was handed down to me. It was part of my story because it was a part of my dad’s story (because I’m sure his dad made him alternate the mowing patterns). We weren’t allowed to run on my grandpa’s lawn. Just let that sink in.
The stories we tell ourselves are the ones we believe to be true.
This summer I received an e-newsletter from a lawn care company. One of their helpful tips for a healthy lawn was to mow in alternating patterns. Vindication!
This past week a photo surfaced that was taken back in March and had been posted on Instagram. It depicted three young men, students at Ole Miss (University of Mississippi), armed with guns standing in front of a bullet-riddled memorial sign in Mississippi. The sign marked the place where Emmett Till’s body was pulled from the Tallahatchie River. In 1955, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old, left his home in Chicago to go and visit some relatives in Mississippi. He never returned. Emmett Till was lynched from his relatives’ home, beaten, shot, and dumped in that river. His death began to galvanize support for the Civil Rights movements. Emmett Till would have been 78 years old this past Thursday.
Like too many young black men, Emmett Till was a victim of a story that has been told far too often in our country, and for far too long. It’s a story that says whites are superior to people of color. It’s a false story. But the stories we tell ourselves are the ones we believe to be true.
According to a ProPublica article on the incident, this isn’t the first incident like this at Ole Miss in recent history.
In 2014, three students from an Ole Miss fraternity house placed a noose around the neck of a statue on campus of James Meredith, the first known black student to attend Ole Miss. They also placed a Georgia flag of the past that contains the Confederate battle emblem.
According to federal prosecutors, the freshmen students hatched the plan during a drinking fest at the house, where one student disparaged African Americans, saying this act would create a sensation: “It’s James Meredith. People will go crazy.”1
The stories we tell ourselves are the ones we believe to be true. As people of God, we need to tell better stories.
Today’s psalm re-articulates a familiar concept that is present throughout much of Hebrew scriptures:
O Lord, you are gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
You are good to all,
and compassionate toward all of your creatures.
These words are kind of like God’s personal mission statement. This is how God chooses to reveal God’s self to people time and again. A God who is gracious and merciful. A God who abounding in steadfast love, a God who is good to all and compassionate to all God’s creatures.
So why does God need to be praised, need to be told what God already knows, what God has already told us?
In seminary one of my professors told me that we praise God not to flatter God or to say nice things about God. Praise and worship of God is fundamentally for us and for our neighbor. We give thanks and praise to God to immerse ourselves in an alternative story.
We tell the story of God’s mercy, love and kindness to bath ourselves in a story, a promise that runs counter to the stories of suspicion and violence and animosity that prevail in the world.
We praise God for the ways God lifts up the failing and raises up the oppressed to remind ourselves that tending to the needs of all of God’s children is central to our identity as people of God.
We praise God, because in Jesus Christ we have been drawn into God’s story of life. We praise God because the stories we tell ourselves are the ones we believe to be true.
My grandma was amazing with cards. She had a card for every occasion and nearly a card for every person. She provided care and encouragement to so many people with her cards and her calls. Without fail there was a card for birthdays, anniversaries, deaths, graduations — you name Joyce was on it.
Inside all of the cards I received was a lovingly crafted note and, without fail, a bible reference, usually from one of the psalms. There was a period in my life where I would roll my eyes at the inclusion of these verses. I thought to myself, I’ve got it, Grandma, I know these verses; I know that God is good and faithful and merciful.
But I don’t have it. I don’t know. I tell myself all kinds of stories each and every day that are far from the truth, but I believe them to be true, and so I live them.
But each new day is an opportunity to fill your heart and your mouth and your hands with a new story, a true story, a powerful story. One in which God is at work in this world, feeding and tending and loving this whole world. Moving us all from death to new life. Thanks and praise be to God this day and always. Amen.