Crescent Hill Presbyterian Church
November 18, 2018
“Giving Thanks and Taking Action: A Reflection on the Psalms”
“Be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God the father at all times. And for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Giving Thanks and Taking Action: A Reflection on the Psalms
Today, we are going to do something a little different. In most sermons, we listen for the Word, and we sing a hymn afterward. Since the Psalms are meant to be enacted, we will sing or say various psalms throughout the sermon.
I chose today’s reading from Ephesians because it sets our mood. Rather than being involved in excess of habits, such as drinking too much, we should turn this energy toward God by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. A few weeks ago, Amy Pauw preached about the breadth in the Psalter. She focused on lamentation. The psalms show a wide range of moods and perspectives. However we feel, we will probably find that emotion echoed somewhere in that book. Today’s focus is on thanksgiving.
My first exposure to the Book of Psalms came from my dad. One night, when he read to me, he said, “Instead of reading a bedtime story, I want to read some of the Psalms.” The most memorable one at that time was Psalm 23. God as shepherd was not difficult. I heard it as “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.” I didn’t break that into two lines. I had also never heard the word want used to mean lack. So I wondered the most logical question, why wouldn’t we want God? Later, of course, this was straightened out. Yet, we often live that first two lines as if God is not really important to us. We sometimes say, “Take my life and let it be,” and leave it that. Reading the Psalms helps us understand that we really need God. Many of them explained why.
Scholars do their best to classify the psalms. Those under the category of thanksgiving are generally ones of rescue. Their theme is, I have gotten into some scrapes, and God got me out of them. An example is Psalm 107 that lists a number of events and god’s responses to them. Let’s sing #653: “Give Thanks to God Who Hears our Cries.”
Many other psalms thank God in different ways. Psalm 136 expresses thanks for God’s action in the cosmos and in Israel’s history. Let’s read a few verses. When I raise my right hand, say, “God’s steadfast love lasts forever.” I am reading from the Common English Bible, with a few inclusive language modifications.
Give thanks to the Holy One because God is good. (response)
Give thanks to the God of all gods. (response)
Give thanks to the only one who makes great wonders. (response)
Give thanks to the only one who made the skies with skill. (response)
Give thanks to the one who struck down the Egyptians’ oldest offspring. (response)
Give thanks to the one who brought Israel out of there. (response)
With a strong hand and outstretched arm, (response)
Some psalms offer thanks with unrestrained praise. When I was in Sunday school as a ten-year-old, we had a lesson on Psalm 100. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” A joyful noise? I thought. If I make a noise that I think is joyful, some adult will say, “Quiet down!” The paraphrase Old Hundredth expresses the sentiment of the original psalm quite well, “All people that on earth do dwell, sing to the Lord with cheerful voice.” Thanksgiving should not be only a duty. It should be an expression of joy.
Some psalms express assurance. They thank God in quieter ways. Psalm 8 expresses our relationship with God and our place in the universe. Listen to a few verses: “O Lord, our Sovereign, How majestic is your name in all the earth! When I look at your heavens the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established: What are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than God and crowned them with glory and honor.”
Another kind of quiet assurance occurs when we look at God’s gifts and leadership. We see this in the hymn Great is Thy Faithfulness. It expresses gratitude for God’s many blessings. Psalm 23 also expresses assurance of God’s blessings and leadership. God is the perfect shepherd. The title, shepherd, was often applied to earthly kings but is more fitting for God. Let us now sing Hymn #473, Shepherd me, O God.
At times, Thanksgiving is a difficult emotion for us. When we look at the way the country and world are going, we may be tempted to give up hope. We may become angry and want to fight back. Anger can be a motivator, but it can only go so far before it becomes vengeance. Gratitude gives us the freedom and desire to move ahead.
God has given us a great deal: The gifts of the earth with all its resources for food, the sun for warmth and growth, and the moon and stars for their majesty. God has provided us with flowers for beauty, both in appearance and fragrance. When we consider all this, we are humbled and grateful.
However, gratitude can be misused. I have been to many Thanksgiving dinners in which we all say what we are thankful for. Some things may include a good place to live, healthy food and water, as well as the freedom to pursue our dreams. These are blessings, but we must keep in mind that not all people have them. The danger we face is that we will see the situation as a zero-sum game. If I have these things, others will go without, and this doesn’t bother me. I don’t believe most people think this starkly, but sometimes, what we have gives us a certain smugness and insulates us from the problems with which others struggle. How do we make sure we don’t become thankful, but cut ourselves off from others?
One way to do this is through guided thanksgiving exercises. I really like what Jennifer Thalman-Kepler is doing on Facebook. She is doing the thirty days of gratitude, but with a twist. She is asking questions about our gifts, special possessions, and skills from others and God. It reminds that we are all different, but we are all children of God and that we can make connections to others.
This view of thankfulness comes directly from Scripture. Our first reading from Genesis, as well as Psalm 8, tell us that one of the greatest blessings that God has given us is being created in the Divine image. We have been given responsibility over all of the earth. God has made us stewards over the world and the plants and animals that inhabit it. This blessing comes with tremendous responsibility and helps us organize our thinking about the other benefits God has given us.
We are motivated to do things by various emotions. Gratitude, unlike anger, will keep us positive and focused. But how do we get from thanksgiving to action? I believe this will usually occur in steps.
We first feel thanksgiving for a gift that God has given us. We must then identify a problem or need that grows out of it. Next comes prayer. We pray for God to be with us in the solution of the problem. Prayer by itself is often not enough, but it starts us on the road to thinking and to receiving the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
The next step is usually study. What light does Scripture shine on the issue? Psalm 1 says, The delight of the righteous “is in the law of the Holy One and on it they Meditate day and night.” The word, Torah or Law, means more than knowing the first five books of the Bible. It means instruction. We are instructed by the complete Scriptures, as well as books that explain them to us and are in harmony with their message. We engage in study through classes and discussion.
The next step is action. Responses can take many forms. It may be giving money, time and talent, or being prepared to act when appropriate.
We are thankful for God’s creation, the plants and animals, the natural resources, and the beauty they give us. The Earthcare Team keeps the congregation informed about needs of our congregation, the wider church and the world. They provide prayer concerns during worship, and lead an annual Earthcare service each year. They work with all the councils to keep them mindful of environmental concerns. The team has encouraged several actions. They have sold bags to help eliminate waste. Some members walked at least part of the route from here to the General Assembly in St. Louis to campaign for our denomination’s divestiture from fossil fuels. They were not successful, but results may not be seen for years.
We thank God for the diversity of people in our country and around the world. However, many people are not receiving the blessings that we take for granted. Grannies Respond is working to address this issue among immigrants and asylum seekers on the Mexican border and in cities around the nation. A group of volunteers goes to the Greyhound station to meet immigrants, welcome them, and give them supplies for their journey. Last Sunday, Sharon Kutz-Mellem spoke to us about this organization and the good work they are doing. We then had an opportunity to pack bags to be distributed. I found this to be a very empowering activity. Each of us did one small task. Yet, we packed hundreds of bags. We were given an opportunity to take action and were shown the importance of community. Individually, this task would have taken hours. With several tables working, it took about twenty minutes.
We thank God for children, for they are our future. Most churches have had Sunday school for over a century, but we realized that something more needed to be done. At one time, we had a children’s sermon called the Teaching, but it was determined that this was not the most effective way of presenting the Gospel to them. We had Joyful Noise, but variability in attendance and the need for volunteers made this difficult to maintain. Also, having the children in church with age-appropriate activities would give them greater exposure to worship and get them used to our practices. The Prayground is evolving, and it will be interesting to see where this journey takes us. We used to have a preschool that served the neighborhood with a low-cost means of early childhood education. The needs of parents changed, and this model was unsustainable. However, it has alerted us to the fact that we must always be looking for opportunities to serve children in our midst. We can also help children by donating school supplies, coats, and other requested items to Gena’s tree.
Rabbi Daniel Hartman, in his book Putting God Second, tells the story of a famous Hassidic master who was walking along a street in Eastern Europe when he heard the of an insistent cry of a baby from his student’s house. The student was deep in prayer. The master rocked the baby to sleep. The student was embarrassed finding his master in the house, rocking his baby. “Master,” he asked, “What are you doing? Why are you here?” The master replied that he had heard the baby cry and found her alone. The student had been too engrossed in his prayers to hear her. The master said, “My dear student, if praying makes one deaf to the cries of a child, there is something flawed in the prayer.”
This is the time of year that we think of thanksgiving, but it is more than a holiday on which most of us eat too much. Gratitude is a discipline. Yet giving thanks by itself is meaningless. Let us give thanks, learn, and act. Amen.