Monday, May 07, 2007

Psalm 148 - “The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Worship”

5th Sunday of Easter (Year C - Lutheran Service Book Readings)
Saturday, May 5, and Sunday, May 6, 2007

The Kentucky Derby is the most exciting two minutes in sports, a pinnacle of horse racing and pageantry. Today I’d like you to consider that the Kentucky Derby is also the most exciting two minutes in worship. Yes, those horses running around the track at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky, are praising God with all of their might.

That’s essentially what today’s psalm, Psalm 148, is saying: the whole Creation praises the Lord. And the Derby horses are part of that worship as they run for the roses.

In a book titled, Nature, God and Pulpit, the Rev. Achtemeier wrote a sermon which wonderfully looks deeper into Psalm 148. Not being able to do better, I am going to borrow heavily from this sermon, because it explains the Creation’s praise so well. To give Rev. Achtemeier proper credit, the sections of this sermon that I preach from the music stand will be the sections that Rev. Achtemeier wrote [blue text]. When I’m in the pulpit, those are my words. Together these words are our sermon today, an expanded look at God’s Word.

When we look about us at this universe in which we live, it is not difficult to believe that God made the world [out of love]. We are surrounded on every side by works of extravagant beauty and variety and intricacy. The lowly housefly bears on his wings colors of breathtaking beauty, as anyone knows who has ever looked at them through a microscope. The turtle drags along in the mud a belly plate marked with intricate pattern. The head of an ordinary caterpillar contains 228 separate and distinct muscles. And that’s just speaking of very common creatures. What are we to say of wildflowers and scarlet tanagers and dogwood trees, of pink coral reefs and wooded hills and waterfalls, except that they are stamped with the love of a God wildly enthusiastic about his work?...[As explained by author] Annie Dillard’s phrase: “The Creator loves pizzazz!”…

The answer to the love of God is to be the creation’s echoing praise. The whole universe is to praise its Creator for the existence he has given it, for the good life he has made. In [Psalm 148], there is a universal call to praise:

Praise him, sun and moon,
praise him, all you shining stars!...
fire and hail, snow and mist,
stormy wind fulfilling his word!
Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Beasts and all livestock,
creeping things and flying birds!...
Let them praise the name of the Lord!
For he commanded and they were created. (English Standard Version)

…The response of the creation to its Creator is to be a thankful praise, a ringing hallelujah for the good life that God through His Son has made.

And God waits for that song of his creation to rise up to him, waits to hear the thankful affirmation “Yes, life is very good,” waits to hear the praise and know that all is right with his world. God is a music lover who wants to hear his creation sing, because when it sings he knows that his creation is as it should be, stamped with his love and overflowing with good, in a perfection of harmony.

All creation does try to sing a song of praise to its Maker. We think it is just poetic license and exaggeration when our psalm talks about the universe singing and praising God….But we now know that there is a regular energy pulsing from quasars ten billion light-years away, in a remarkable rhythm, that there is a kind of music of the [galaxies].

…[Missionary/theologian] Lesslie Newbigin gave [a talk] one time about the night he spent in the jungles of India. He said the dark was full of sounds—the roars of lions and shrieks of jackals and jabbering of monkeys. “And,” asked Newbigin, “who hears all these things—there in the depths of the jungle of India, night after night?” Well, God hears them. His creatures sing him songs in the night, and God loves the music and is very pleased that his creation is very good.

Ach, that’s a bunch of nonsense, say our literalistic and pedantic minds. Maybe it is. But did you know that nature seems to [detest] a silence, and that somewhere, underlying all the other signals, is a continual music? Lewis Thomas, the biologist, tells us, for example, that even lowly termites “make percussive sounds to each other by beating their heads against the floor in the dark, resonating corridors of their nests.” Bats, as we all know, make sounds almost ceaselessly to sense, by sonar, all the objects in their surroundings. But they have also been heard to produce strange, solitary, and lovely bell-like notes while hanging at rest upside down in the depths of the woods. Fish, says Thomas, “make sounds by clicking their teeth, blowing air, and drumming with special muscles against their tuned inflated air bladders.” Animals with loose skeletons rattle them. Even leeches tap rhythmically on leaves.

We know that humpback whales sing, because recordings have been made of their songs, and we rational humans have concluded that their long, complex, insistent melodies are simply practical statements about navigation, or sources of food, or limits of territory. But how strange it seems, notes Thomas, that they should send “through several hundred miles of undersea such ordinary information as ‘whale here.’” Sometimes, “in the intervals between songs,” they have been seen to breach and to leap clear of the waves, “landing on their backs, awash in the turbulence of their beating flippers.” It is as if they were showing pleasure and jubilation for the way their songs went, and yes, perhaps their praise for the joy of life.

Bird songs, of course, have been analyzed into nothing more than warning calls and mating messages and pronouncements of territory. But as Thomas has put it,

The thrush in my backyard sings down his nose in meditative, liquid runs of melody, over and over again, and I have the strongest impression that he does this for. . .pleasure. Some of the time he seems to be practicing, like a virtuoso in his apartment. He starts a run, reaches a midpoint in the second bar where there should be a set of complex harmonics, stops, and goes back to begin over, dissatisfied. Sometimes he changes his notation so conspicuously that he seems to be improvising sets of variations. It is a meditative. . .kind of music, and I cannot believe that he is simply saying, “thrush here.”

Yes, all creation praises its Maker. We hear only a few of the sounds at one time, but Thomas has further suggested that if we could hear the combined sound which rises from the universe, it would lift us off our feet. But God hears it, and he is pleased….

This is what I mean by the Kentucky Derby being the “most exciting two minutes in worship.” We think of thoroughbred horses as being bred to run, that’s why they’re chomping at the bit to burst out of the gate. We think of them almost like machines that owners, trainers, breeders, and jockeys have somehow manipulated into running.

But watch a horse run. Watch those horses as their legs fly in perfect succession, their hides barely containing the muscles that flex and stretch to move their 1,000 pound bodies at 40 miles per hour. There’s a lot that humans have no control over; there’s a lot of beauty, joy, praise, and worship in the movement of a horse. That horse running around the track is doing what God made him to do. With every pounding hoof, with every breath, with every stretch of his neck, those Derby horses are praising their Creator with every sinewy muscle in their bodies. It is truly the most exciting two minutes in worship.

The Kentucky Derby is a holiday that I accepted after becoming part of Susan’s family who lives in Louisville. While the nation may tune in for the race itself, the Derby in Louisville is a two week festival. The Derby is more than a race; it’s a huge celebration of Kentucky. In fact, in many years, I have asked to have this day off from preaching so I could watch the race at home as we hosted a Derby party.

Yet, I have often been reluctant to talk about our Derby holiday, because the Kentucky Derby also means gambling. I mean, that’s what going on at Churchill Downs and every other horse track. The people aren’t just there to watch horses run in praise to God; they’re at the track to pick a horse, place a bet, and wait to win. Gambling can become such an addiction, such a poor stewardship of our money, gambling can lead to so many different sins, that I have been reluctant to talk much about the Kentucky Derby for fear that someone would think that I, as pastor, was endorsing all of the gambling, drinking, cheating, underhanded schemes that get associated with horse racing as the stakes get so high.

I hope you would know that I wouldn’t ever endorse those parts of the Kentucky Derby. It’s like I said, I watch the race because it’s a holiday, a part of Louisville, Kentucky, culture, and I see those horses praising God with their bodies. Yet, as Rev. Achtemeier continues the sermon, “The difficulty is, of course, that we have interrupted the praise….”. All of the sins associated with the Kentucky Derby have interrupted the praise, the way those horses are worshipping God in a most exciting two minutes. We interrupt the Creation’s song to God. Besides making the Derby all about gambling, there are far more serious ways we do this.

We have interrupted the praise….[T]hink what we have done to the song of praise from grizzly bear and coyote, from whale and manatee, from eagle and whooping crane—all those endangered species. We are slaughtering off the sound of their singing. Indeed, we human beings have ravished the world with our bug sprays and poisons and technology, with our bulldozers and concrete and earthmovers, and now the day seems not far distant when God the music lover will listen and hear from his good earth nothing but a deafening silence.

It is profound the way the prophets of the Old Testament picture the end of the world. Jeremiah talks about the time when there shall no longer be the sound of mirth and of singing, when no voice of feasting or merriment will interrupt the stillness caused by sin. His last apocalyptic picture of judgment is a picture of awful silence, when there is no bird left to sing on a bush and no human and no light. It is a picture that could very well portray our world after the final hydrogen bomb explodes….“This is the way the world ends: not with a bang but with a whimper.” Silence. Because we are destroying the song of praise.

…[W]e have systematically failed to praise God for the life he has given us, and we have systematically and wantonly destroyed his good earth. But God will not have done with us! There is the final miracle—that he will not rest content with our sin and silence. He will not deliver us into the dominion of darkness and its stillness into death. Instead, he has sent his own son into our wasting and wasted lives, to walk this world with us, and he has said, “Here, here is the measure of my love for you; here is my forgiveness of your sin. You have laid waste my world and ignored my love, stamped on earth and sea and heavens. But you are more important to me than my sparrows, than the grass that clothes my meadows. You are of infinitely more worth than my lilies in the field.”

…That is a fantastic thought. God loves you more than all the wonders of his world. Think of the care he lavishes on the birds—clothing them in gorgeous colors, providing them trees for nests and infinite melodies in song, guiding their instincts year by year in their seasonal migrations, feeding them with bug and berry and giving them drink from the rain. And yet Jesus says, “Are you not of more value than they?” God lavishes on you more care and love in his Son Jesus Christ than he has lavishes on all his creation through him….God loves you more than he loves all creation. And so he gives his very Son for you on a cross to restore to you abundant life, that you may have joy and hope and learn once again what it is to sing. And Christ is raised from the dead, that you may truly [praise God forever]….

But then, good Christian saints, is our feeble praise sufficient to laud the love of such a God? Or do we not, with our Psalmist, need to be joined in our praise by a universal chorus? When our voices are feeble in their song to God, [we need] the mighty whale’s jubilation. When we sleep tonight, [we need] the night creatures’ roars and shrieks of joy—the endangered tiger, the wolf, the Rocky Mountain grizzly.

When we [aren’t constant in our praise], [we need] the steady pulsation of the distant stars, beaming their energy through an unpolluted sky. And when we are dissonant and divided in our praise,…our disharmony [needs to] be drowned out by the liquid melodies of lark and wren, or the roar of pure waterfalls. When we turn horses running into a reason for gambling and other vices, we need those horses to worship God with their running that shines brighter than gold.

I think of last year’s Derby winner, Barbaro, who just a few weeks later broke his leg in three places while running the Preakness Stakes. After many surgeries, he eventually died this past January. You watch video of the race, listen to people talking about Barbaro’s injury, and all of our ways of corrupting horse racing got erased for a moment. His jockey didn’t hesitate to try to stop Barbaro from running as soon as he noticed something was wrong, jumping off the horse as soon as possible and going to support his broken leg. Trainers and track crew raced to Barbaro’s aide; fans watched and cried from the stands. I don’t know who won the Preakness; I could have looked it up I suppose, but no one seemed to care. Gambling was no longer important, because we finally realized that Barbaro was running in worship to His Creator and now he was suffering in this world messed up by our sin.

So today beyond everything we try to do to interrupt the praise of the horses at the Kentucky Derby, still those horses are there running with joy and wonder for their Maker. Despite all of our attempts at interrupting the praise of this world, the Creation continues to find ways to lift up its own music to God. And despite all of our attempts at silencing the Creation’s song, God still loves us, still sent His Son to die for us, still raised His Son victorious from the grave, still has promised to return to give us eternal life on a new earth where we will join the Creator’s choirs in praise forever. There the horses will run all day, and we will not stop them. We will cheer and sing with them, raising our voices to the Lord our Maker.

Nature, God, and Pulpit, Elizabeth Achtemeier, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1992, pp. 41-48. All rights reserved.