Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
No matter who you are. No matter where you are on life's journey. You are welcome here.
Praise the Lord!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation.
Great are the works of the Lord,
studied by all who delight in them.
Full of honour and majesty is his work,
and his righteousness endures for ever.
He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds;
the Lord is gracious and merciful.
He provides food for those who fear him;
he is ever mindful of his covenant.
He has shown his people the power of his works,
in giving them the heritage of the nations.
The works of his hands are faithful and just;
all his precepts are trustworthy.
They are established for ever and ever,
to be performed with faithfulness and uprightness.
He sent redemption to his people;
he has commanded his covenant for ever.
Holy and awesome is his name.
The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practise it have a good understanding.
His praise endures for ever.
Amazed, With My Whole Heart: Psalm 111
In my research this week, I came upon a commentary by the scholar Shauna Hannan that I found both entertaining and persuasive. She argues that Psalm 111 is one of the best Psalms to use if you were trying to introduce God to somebody new. Now, she's a professor, so she imagined using the Psalm to introduce God as a guest lecturer in her class. Because I have been in a lot of classrooms and I'm married to a professor, I was pretty charmed by the idea. She even wrote the commentary like a professional resume:
Current Position: God, also known as true Lord of All
Accomplishments: Providing food for those who fear God. Making and keeping covenants. Providing for the legacy of the nations by helping them tell the story of their past and looking towards their future. Crafting justice. Redeeming people. Practicing grace and offering mercy. Developing a relationship with humanity that will last forever.
Turns out God is pretty accomplished. I guess that's why God gets brought in as a lecturer. When you have a guest lecturer, after making sure everyone knows about all the cool stuff they've done, you spend some time bragging about how great they are.
God's attributes include: Trustworthiness in the relationship that has been developed with creation. Powerful, but always tempered by righteousness. Honorable and majestic. Quick to hold others accountable, but willing to be held accountable as well. Upright. You could even say that God's very name is holy and awesome.
Dr. Hannan argues that many gods might have some mix of these attributes, but this Psalmist thinks this combination of majesty, power, grace, and trustworthiness is unique to our God. That is why this Psalmist steps out into the congregation and shouts in Thanksgiving. You see, when God is as good as this God, the author can't help but shout about God's works. They can't help but want you to know this God better. Were this a classroom, that's the real reason God has been invited to give a guest lecture. The Psalmist knows God is good and wants to introduce you to that God. This Psalm lays the groundwork not just for an introduction to God, but for the development of a whole relationship and lifestyle lived with God. If the Psalmist was a professor, they would really want to make sure that you know that this speaker is worth paying attention to.
Now, Dr. Hannon thinks that we don't just learn of God's great works without being affected by them. God's movement in this world is not outside of us or beyond us. The God described in this Psalm works on us, too. This God tends to people and calls them to service. This God makes promises and demands that we keep our promises to God. The respect and thanksgiving we offer God shines back on us in the form of wisdom and understanding. And, in turn, that wisdom and understanding shapes how we function in this world. I read another commentary, this one by a scholar named Kenyatta Gilbert, who described one way that this cycle of thanksgiving and creation shaped a group of people's behaviors. Dr. Gilbert described a particular kind of prayer service called a Kesha that he attended in Machakos, Kenya. It was a service where people were ready to be shaped by their praise. He said that the people sang songs of praise and prayed together. He said that they acted out their praise, too, dancing before God and one another in thanksgiving. He said they even began to practice glossolalia, speaking in tongues. You see, their praise was so all-encompassing that common words could no longer express it. This is a group of people consumed by praise for God, and unafraid to show it.
Dr. Gilbert goes on to describe the prayer service itself as an offering. He said all the people's prayers, all their movements, all their words were offered up to God in thanksgiving. This is a kind of full-bodied offering that doesn't require much money but does require commitment and trust and vulnerability. In his commentary, Dr. Gilbert spoke of the freedom that such thanksgiving inspires even in the midst of the required trust and vulnerability. Like the Psalmist, the worshipers in the kesha service have let themselves loose to praise God. They have burst forth from worldly expectations and everyday burdens to simply spend some time marveling at the God who created them. That praise that they shouted forth then reshaped them, helping them to fulfill the covenants that God had long ago made with humanity. This service was part of a cycle of Thanksgiving and transformation. Gilbert said that this service helped him to better understand what it means to give thanks with one's whole heart, just like the Psalm says.
This afternoon is our annual meeting. I think we have good reason to give thanks to God with our whole hearts, too. Because, I believe that if you look over the descriptions of our last year in ministry together, you can see that God has been at work among us in this church just as surely as God worked in the life of the Psalmist. For one, the Holy Spirit continues to draw each of us each week to this place for worship and prayer. While our worship sounds a bit different that the service Dr. Gilbert described, we still worship and offer our whole selves to God. You all have read scripture, offered prayer, sung, and played instruments together, each time reflecting the Spirit's movement through your offering. You have cheered one another on as you tried new things. You have sung new songs and practiced new ways of worship. You have remembered one another in prayer and spent time together in fellowship. You have even been willing to testify to the ways that God has moved you sing, to cook for the community, and to welcome strangers, all in our times of communal worship. Each time that we worship together, God has been at work. For that, I know I am thankful.
The Holy Spirit has called us to serve beyond our walls, as well. As the Psalmist says, God provides food. Some of the way God does that is by inspiring us to share our own. Many of you volunteer at the Winthrop Food pantry and the congregation itself donated 275 pounds of food to the pantry this year. I can't even count the amount of food you have shared with one another, bringing food for fellowship hour and to the homes of people who could use a hand in emergencies. Because we know that there is something divine in sharing food and eating together, several of us attended an Iraqi cooking class taught by a new Mainer friend. And, you've made sure that the food we sell people, at chowder and at luncheons, is both delicious and affordable.
God has inspired this church to make sure people have other material goods they need, too. You bring bars of soap for the Everyday Basics Pantry and home-goods to the Family Violence Project. We connected with Christians all over the world who donate to Church World Service, sharing an offering of blankets, hygiene kits, school kits, and disaster relief buckets. In fact, in response to the terrible hurricanes and earthquakes of this fall, this congregation raised enough money to donate 13 buckets to Church World Service. As best as I can tell, that is the largest disaster relief donation we've ever collected. If there was ever a way that we have worked to keep our promises to love our neighbors, we have done so with food and donations.
In Psalm 111, it says that God shapes faithfulness and justice. We have reflected this particular shaping of God's hands in our ongoing commitment to be open and affirming. In the broader community, there has been an increase in activity of white supremacists as well as an uptick in anti-immigrant rhetoric and politics. This congregation knows that such hateful actions do not reflect God's justice. So, we have worked to have a more visible stance of welcome and care that does. We joined with many religious communities and individuals in the Capital Area and placed a sign that said "No matter where you are from, we are glad you are our neighbor" in three languages in a prominent place in the church yard. Many of us also put these up in our own yards as well. We also created a "Love Your Neighbor" sign based on Matthew 6 that was prominently displayed on our property, reminding ourselves and our neighbors of this call from God. Upon learning that they did not have plans to celebrate an important religious feast together, our church hosted an Eid party that 60 new Mainers and their family mentor partners attended. In marching, rallying, and signing petitions together, we have lived more closely into the justice that God is creating around us.
These are only a few ways that we can be thankful that God has worked in and through us over the last year. I'm sure we'll talk about more ways later in our meeting. There will always be more that we can thank God for in this amazing life that is being created in us. It matters that we recognize that what we do together, our worship, our service, our caregiving, and our justice-seeking, can always be rooted in our praise and thanksgiving for the what God has already done in this world. Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Great is the God who inspires us to follow God's lead. May we continue to be willing to offer all we have, our skills, our ingenuity, our good humor, our lament, in thanks to this God and in partnership with the Spirit. This God is always trustworthy. May we be trustworthy, too.
Pastor Chrissy consulted the following resources while writing this sermon:
Shauna Hannan: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3542
Kenyatta R. Gilbert, "Fourth Sunday After Advent," Preaching God's Transforming Justice: A Lectionary Commentary, Year B Featuring 22 New Holy Days for Justice, eds Dawn Ottoni-Wilhelm, Ronald J. Allen, And Dale P. Andrews (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.