WELCOME FROM HAYWOOD STREET:
Registration closes September 10th. Sign up today!
Two incredible opportunities to view “Theirs Is The Kingdom”! It will be screening in Hickory, NC as part of the 7th Annual Footcandle Festival on Saturday, Sept. 25 at 7pm at the Hickory Community Theater and at the Knoxville Film Festival on Saturday, Sept. 18 at 1pm. Help spread the word!
1. We have a current opening for Minister of Congregational Care and Mission. Learn more HERE
2. Please join us under the tent at 12:30 on Sunday August 29 as we welcome Rev Elizabeth (Liz) Magill. Pastor Liz will share an excerpt from her book Five Loaves, Two Fish, Twelve Volunteers: Growing A Relational Food Ministry. The book offers stories from eight congregations that share ministry with the people they serve, and shows how your congregation can do the same. Building relationships and inviting people to volunteer helps to create church. Ask questions about the people she has met, share what is happening at your meal or pantry, and get advice on next steps for creating a more relational ministry.
1. Sign up to provide a meal for Respite here
2. Tent setup! We are in need of volunteers Tuesday, September 1 at 7:30 AM to help set up our new 20×40 tent in the main parking lot. 5-6 people should get the job done! Contact Hannah if you are available.
3. More companion presence needed on Wednesdays — running meals, serving ice cream, set-up, clean-up, and being with. Reach out to Hannah if you have any questions.
4. Companion gathering scheduled for Thursday, August 26th has been rescheduled for Sept 9th, 5:30-7:30. Details to follow.
A HAYWOOD STREET SERMON BY: SETH
The scripture we will be diving into today is a passage from this extensive collection of songs and poems called the Psalms. This name, Psalms, comes from a Greek word that means to sing to the accompaniment of a musical instrument, so the name of this book already provides us with an insight into its intended purpose: namely, that these passages were meant to be recited – artfully and worshipfully expressed. Within this collection, there are a variety of different types of Psalms that address a multitude of topics and appeal to wide range of emotions and contexts. There are hymns, there are these things called royal Psalms, individual and communal complaints, Psalms of thanksgiving, wisdom Psalms, and so forth. So not only are the Psalms meant to be expressed, but they are situational as well – meant to serve the needs of the worshipping community in Jerusalem at the time in specific contexts. Now the authorship of the Psalms is traditionally attributed to King David, who we read about in the books of Samuel. It’s probable that David did write some of the Psalms, but he didn’t write all of them for it’s pretty clear that the context in which the Psalms were written seemingly spans a large stretch of Israel’s history: from prosperous and joyous times, to darker periods of injustice and immense suffering. But even though there are different types of Psalms dealing with a variety of content and context, one thing unites this book as a whole: it speaks to the human situation and humanity’s relationship with God. It is a beautiful work of art complete with gratitude and praise, lament and confusion, triumphal victory and crushing defeat.
The psalm that we will be reading today in particular, Psalm 111, is a hymn. It is a Hymn of praise and thanksgiving, of acknowledgment for all that God has done; it steps back and looks at the bigger picture with gratitude and appreciation. It is overwhelmingly positive and praising, even triumphal in a sense, revering a God who works in the life of the world for good.
This psalm is the lectionary reading for this coming Sunday in the United Methodist Church. You may be aware or you may not be aware that there is a schedule of scripture readings throughout the year that some churches follow and some don’t called the lectionary, and the lectionary serves a few different functions. It serves a function of uniting separate congregations around the world by focusing on the same set of scripture passages for that week, so even though we might be separated by space and time, different worshipping communities are learning about the same thing. So that’s one function. Another function, at least how I see it, is that this schedule of scripture readings serves to challenge pastors and congregants alike to attend to scripture in the context of time, asking the question of how does this passage speak to where I am, where we are, where the world is right now. In other words, how do we read this scripture in the context of this moment?
So that’s the question that we will be discussing today, but before we read this passage, I must make a confession. I struggle reading a Psalm like Psalm 111 with everything happening in the world today. I struggle singing a hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God for all the good work God is doing in the world amidst all the disease, death, division, and dehumanization. I struggle expressing my eternal gratitude for the good when the good seems few and far between, and it seriously rubs me the wrong way when people tell me or tell others to just be grateful for what you have, to just be happy, to just be appreciative, just think positive and stop complaining; as if my pain and anger and confusion and the pain and anger and confusion of others holds no merit in the eyes of God and must be suppressed and bypassed. As if feeling anything other than joy and gratitude is wrong. I try to practice gratitude and sing hymns like this one we’re about to hear, but I struggle church. And if you struggle with that as well, let’s read this passage and struggle through it together.
What does offering praise and thanksgiving look like in the midst of suffering? How do we sing a hymn of praise and thanksgiving like Psalm 111 when here is so much suffering happening in the world?
The importance of looking at the bigger picture
Practicing gratitude for and paying attention to the little things
The power of hope and faith in adversity
The book of Psalms contain a number of memorable passages. Perhaps one of the most well known Psalms is Psalm 23: “the Lord is my Shepherd. I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters.” It is a beautiful passage, right? Reading and feeling a Psalm like Psalm 23 makes it easy to sing a hymn of praise and thanksgiving to God like Psalm 111 – to say, “praise the lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart.” But sometimes it’s hard to see the pastures as green. Sometimes the waters are less stilling and more turbulent and rushing and scary. Sometimes it’s difficult to feel the presence of the Shepherd and reconcile how such a loving God and such suffering can coexist. Now of course, there is nothing that can separate us from the love and presence of God, but sometimes God still feels absent and we’re left wondering why, how, what to do, what to feel, and it feels like all we can do is question and lament and cry to and call out God. Does that mean we should try to just force ourselves to see the green and feel the stillness, forget our situation or the situation of the world, overlook the pain and heartache and just try to see the positive? Being grateful for what we have is important and helpful, but I don’t believe gratitude and praise calls us to forget and overlook, bypass or suppress our true, authentic feelings. No, I don’t think so. Why? – because the book of Psalms is not just Psalm 23 or Psalm 111 and because gratitude and praise are a lot more complex, inclusive, and expansive than we might think.
In the chapter before the comforting, restful tranquility of Psalm 23, Psalm 22 has a different tale to tell about the human experience. “The lord is my Shepherd” is preceded in Psalm 22 by the psalmist saying: “My god my god, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? Oh my god, I cry by day, but you do not answer, and by night but find no rest.” If that sounded familiar to any of you, it’s because those first few words, “my god my god why have you forsaken me” are the same words that Jesus utters as he was being crucified on the cross in the Gospel of Mark. Jesus is quoting the Psalms here. Now this is pretty remarkable and telling if you ask me. If Jesus Christ is God incarnate as the Christian tradition professes, what does it mean for us that even God laments to God’s own self? That even God had a moment of feeling alienated from the presence of God? What does it say for our walk of faith that Jesus Christ, the incarnation of the divine, the exemplar of faith and praise laments and calls out God and cries out of suffering, saying: “my God my God why have you forsaken me?” I’ll tell you what it means to me at least. It means that lament and questioning, anger and frustration, sadness and confusion are just as holy and sacred and acceptable to God as thanksgiving and adoration and praise. It means that we serve a God who values and validates and celebrates our authenticity, a God who is big enough to handle the full and beautiful and messy and complex spectrum of our human emotions and the human experience. It means perhaps that “giving thanks to the Lord with our whole hearts” includes the parts of our hearts that hurt and grieve and writhe in anger. It means perhaps that even lament is a form of praise, and the Psalms seem to validate that.
I mentioned before how the name of this book, Psalms, comes from a Greek verb meaning to sing to the accompaniment of an instrument. Well in Hebrew, which is the language that these scriptures were originally written in, the name of this book is the word tehillim, and tehillim is most commonly translated simply as “praises.” So if the Greek name gives us an insight into the intention of artistic and worshipful expression, the Hebrew name of this book, tehillim, gives us insight into what it is we are artfully expressing: namely, praises. But this word, this designation of praises does not just apply to the Psalms like 111, which are so blatantly worshipful and praising and positive. The name, “praises,” applies to and includes Psalms like Psalm 22 as well, which seemingly makes tremendous space for the lament of pain and suffering in the practice of praise. Even our reading for today, Psalm 111, seemingly provides for this kind of space, “Praise the lord! I will give thanks to the lord with my whole heart.” How different does this read if we take the word “whole” here as not saying one gives thanks at the expense of all other feelings and attitudes, but rather as saying thanksgiving and praise is practiced with the wholeness of our being – a wholeness that includes the parts of our hearts touched by suffering and that feeling those heavy feelings is just as holy and worshipful.
I truly believe that God wants us in our wholeness – that God desires our whole hearts no matter how light and positive, dark and despairing, joyful or angry they might be. Gratitude and praise are not mutually exclusive to lament and the authentic feelings of hurt. Gratitude and praise are practices of expanding our perception, of making room for more than just despair at the table, but the particularities of our suffering and pain still have a seat. And if the Psalms and Christ on the cross teach us anything, it’s that God blesses whatever of our hearts comes to the table, however it comes, in its wholeness.
So today we sing a hymn of praise and thanksgiving, expressing our gratitude for all the good that God has done and is doing and will do, knowing that such an act of praise and gratitude is not a means of limiting the holy and healthy expression of lament. Rather, it is a license to lament, a license to bring our whole hearts to praise and worship, knowing that praise is not synonymous with positivity and that God not only lovingly receives us, but blesses the mess and the marvel that is humanity’s capacity to feel.
Saying, “Praise the Lord! I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart” sometimes feels like “the lord is my Shepherd,” and it sometimes feels like “my god my god why have you forsaken me.” And that’s okay because there is more than enough room at the table for the fullness of our feelings. So may we praise with our adoration and praise with our lament, knowing that God walks alongside us, receives us, and loves us no matter what authenticity feels like, no matter what authenticity looks like.