Sermon from June 11: For Why?

For Why?

Trinity Sunday; June 11, 2017

Psalm 100

Sometimes when I'm saying my prayers I feel something like a great weight on my heart, as though an enormous force is pressing in on me. It feels like awe, the sense you have when you're face-to-face with the scope and majesty of reality. Perhaps you and I feel something similar when we're out on the prairie and see the sun set, or when standing at the lip of the Grand Canyon.

One of the many things I admire about the preacher Barbara Brown Taylor is her ability to see the grace of God in ordinary moments. I remember hearing her talk about an encounter with the clerk at the post office as a moment of God.

Occasionally we sense the work and presence of God in a turning point in our history, and often we do in doing mission together. Some of you have spoken of the holiness of going to New Orleans together, or Pilger, or serving dinner at Siena Francis House. That is similar to those moments when we sense the presence of God when we worship together: when singing a hymn, or taking bread and wine.

Creation, common life, community at work and worship: three very different kinds of experience, yet we find God in all of them. Frederick Buechner said that the Christian doctrine of the Trinity is the affirmation that, despite appearances to the contrary, there is only one God.[1]

When I have preached for you I have occasionally indulged myself in talking philosophically about the existence of God. The Bible, and especially Psalm 100, is not particularly interested in the question, "Is there a god?" Rather, the Bible, and especially Psalm 100, is deeply interested in the question, "Who is God?" Is Marduk, the god of the Babylonians? Baal, the god of the Canaanites? Historical Inevitability, the god of the communists? Terror, the god of violent extremists? Free Market, the god of the Americans? Who is God?

Psalm 100: "Know that the LORD is God." Know that the one who said, "Let there be light" is God. Know that the one who called Abraham to be the ancestor of all the faithful is God. Know that the One who freed slaves from Egypt, who restored a rebellious people from exile, who sent Jesus the Messiah is God. Know that, and give praise.

Although today is Trinity Sunday, I don't want to get too hung up on doctrine, even though it is a Sunday dedicated to a doctrine of the Church. The doctrine of the Trinity, of course, is the claim that God is one and God is three at the same time. We can twist ourselves into knots trying to make 1 + 1 + 1 equal 1. God, the Three-in-One, is a mystery deeper than mathematics. In Hebrew, "God" is a plural word that takes the singular form of verbs. God has a name that means something along the lines of "I am Who I am," which is either a profound wonder or nonsense. We say "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit" in order to try to give handles to three realities that are one reality. It is fruitless to try too hard to make sense. Far better to make a joyful noise. The LORD is wonder and mystery and glory and as ordinary as buying stamps at the post office. Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.

In my third grade Sunday School class we were required to memorize Psalm 100, so I still want to say it in the King James Version. "Know ye that the LORD, he is God; it is he that hath made us, and not we ourselves." There's a beautiful ambiguity in the Hebrew of verse 3: "We-lo anachnu" can mean "and we are his" or "and not we ourselves," depending on what part of speech you take the words to be. The LORD has made us, and we belong to the LORD; or the LORD has made us, and not we ourselves.

We are the stuff of the earth, we come from the earth and we return to the earth, and that is the work of God. Yes, the poet wants us to think of the LORD as our creator. But hey, there's something else here. Who took a group of slaves in Egypt, led them through the wastes, helped them conquer a land, formed them into a nation, and gave them an identity and a history? Who took people from every race and language on earth, people who fight with each other and occasionally hate each other and occasionally love each other, people who seem to have no common identity and can't even agree on whether those in charge ought to be a Session or a Board or a Church Council or a priest or nobody ought to be in charge and yet made us one great Church? Who took us, here in this room, and brought us together?

It is the LORD who made us, and we belong to the LORD. It is the LORD that made us, and not we ourselves. We are a people, a blessed people, a called people, a people of God because God made it so. Make a joyful noise.

And what do we know about the LORD? "The LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations." You can count on the LORD. People will let you down, investments will falter, your perfect body will begin to break down. Sometimes, in the short term, even God seems to let us down. Next week's Psalm will give us a chance to talk about that. Some mornings when I'm doing my daily Bible readings I get so upset at the promises of God that I say, "Well, God, what about that? Are you going to keep that promise?" And the LORD God patiently reminds me to take the long view, look beyond today and the years of my own brief existence, and see the work of God. God's steadfast love endures forever, God's faithfulness to all generations.

When our kind of Christianity was emerging in Geneva and, soon after, in Scotland, we did a lot of singing. But we Presbyterians didn't sing hymns or praise choruses, but only psalms and other poems from the Bible. In the mid-16th century a paraphrase of Psalm 100 was written in Scotland that Presbyterians still sing to a tune written in Geneva a few years before.[2] We're going to sing it right after the sermon. It has a phrase in the fourth verse that strikes me funny: "For why?" It really is the great conclusion to the Psalm. It's all very well to call upon people to make a joyful noise, to sing and give praise, but really: For why?

Because the LORD is good. The LORD is faithful, the LORD preserves truth, whose steadfast love endures forever. That's why.

Walter Brueggemann calls Psalm 100 "an act of sanity."[3] Our world is quickly going insane. I do not think you need me to remind you of the insanity that surrounds us and is even inside us. Now, I'm speaking metaphorically, of course. True mental illness is not, of course, what I'm talking about. I'm talking about what you experience when you see the newsfeed on your smartphone, or watch the evening news, or read the morning paper. I'm talking about what you experience when you drive on a highway, or try to have a reasonable conversation. Do you really need for me to list for you some of this week's insanity from government, business, and religion?

No, of course you don't. You and I don't need to be reminded that the world is going insane. You and I need to be reminded that there is a deep sanity at the core of reality, that there really is a fundamental goodness at work in the universe. You and I need to be reminded that the LORD is good, that God's steadfast love endures forever, and God's faithfulness to all generations.

There is a lot of talk these days about resistance. The people of God at our best have always been a resistance movement. In a world of violence we love peace. In a world of deceit we love truth. In a world of greed we love generosity. In a world of vengeance we love forgiveness. In a world where each one says, "It's my life" or "my property" and "I can do whatever I want" we say, "It is the LORD that made us, and not we ourselves, and we belong to the LORD." We love what the LORD loves; we say what the LORD says. For the LORD is good.

In an insane world, the sanest thing you and I can do is to make a joyful noise.

Robert A. Keefer

Presbyterian Church of the Master

Omaha, Nebraska

[1] In Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (Harper & Row, 1973), p. 93.
[2] "All People that on Earth Do Dwell," paraphrase by William Kethe (1560), tune OLD HUNDREDTH attributed to Louis Bougeois (1551); #385 in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (2013).
[3] In his 1985 commentary on Psalm 100, quoted by J. Clinton McCann, Jr. in The New Interpreter's Bible, vol. IV (Abingdon, 1996), p. 1079.
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