Nov. 6th, 2022
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
Picture this: You are in a Sunday School classroom. The lesson is all about resurrection and some of the class isn’t sure what to think about this idea. Some ask: “How do we know about resurrection?” Others might say, “I saw this program on a person who says they talk to the dead …” One attendee is sure to point out, “I know there is a resurrection because my Dad told me that grandpa is waiting to see us again.” And then there is that student who always wants to make people laugh, who always asks questions impossible to answer, who presses you and the whole class to explain themselves.
“So…” this know-it-all starts. “So, what if a woman marries a man and the man dies. And then, like they tell us in the Old Testament, the man’s brother has to marry her. And then he dies. And there is another brother. And he dies. And so this woman has been married to SEVEN brothers. And then she dies. In the resurrection, whose wife will she be?”
I’m using this made-up scenario because I don’t want to propagate the picture of Jesus arguing with some Sadducees and give the impression that we Christians should shun our Jewish brothers and sisters. Just a few days ago we saw what happens when we picture those religious people who had intense debates with Jesus as people who don’t really count—as people who we can even imagine “exterminating.” People who are not right in the head, or people who have been led down the wrong path, or people who have chosen to be hateful, maybe believing they are being faithful—they make threats against Jewish people, Jewish synagogues, Jewish pre-schools. It happened right here, in Livingston. And we should raise our voices in a howl of displeasure. This is NOT what Jesus would do.
And since I’m making comments on this text, let’s not forget that even if this is a ridiculous example, it does give us a window into an actual practice in ancient times—that of levirate marriage—where if a woman is widowed without any male children, a male family member should step in and marry her, to try to produce an heir for the first husband. In the example where this woman is passed from one to another brother, we lose sight of the woman herself. Did she want to be married to any of these men? Did she have any time to grieve? Or was she just being passed along like an unlucky charm, or a hot potato? In this world, her opinion, her life is not important. She is barely given any thought, except as an example for a religious argument. In our world, we still do not always allow women to be the important voices they are.
Back to our story. I can see Jesus (who I picture as the Sunday School teacher in our imaginary classroom), and Jesus has a little smile on his face. Jesus looks at our questioner with fondness and replies, “You are so focused on husband and wives, on who belongs to whom, that you have totally missed the point. When we are in heaven, in the resurrection, what matters is not who our companions were in this life, but what matters is that we are children of God, we belong to God, and we will be able to praise God, face to face, with all the others who surround the throne.”
It seems to me that many of us, much of the time, are like that annoying student, getting caught in the weeds, missing the forest for the trees, and generally just missing the point of it all. I’m going to take a moment to show my Presbyterian nerd-ness. You know that I am proud of the fact that we Presbyterians are a confessional church—meaning, those of us in the PC(USA) have lifted up confessional statements throughout the ages as helping us think about what we believe. (And every communion Sunday we use a part of a confession or creed in our worship service). Here’s the nerd part.
As I thought about this gospel text, what popped into my mind was the first question of the Westminster Catechism. (I do have to confess that I’m only a little nerd, because I’m not sure I remember much more than the first question)—but here it is.” Question One: What is the chief end of humans? (Or in other words: What are we supposed to be doing? What are we intended for? What is our purpose in life?) And the answer is: “To glorify God and enjoy God forever.” To Praise. The next time you are trying to figure out what you should be doing, the next time we are struggling with what our ultimate purpose is as a church, the next time any of us get in a difficult mood and start asking those questions intended to demean or to make fun of or to lead us down rabbit holes—let’s make a pact that we will say, to ourselves if to no one else, “What is our chief end? What are we supposed to be accomplishing in this life?” And we should answer ourselves. “We are to glorify God and praise and enjoy God forever.” At least we will have put everything else in context.
Now comes the hard part—HOW do we praise God? What are we supposed to do? And how many times a year, a week, a day, are we supposed to do it?
As for how many times, I have some bad news. The Apostle Paul says, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18). Everything we do, everything we say, everything we are, is under the umbrella of “praise God.”
As for how, well each of us would have a different answer to that. Some would say, “Lift your hands and sing out loud getting swept up in the movement of the Spirit”
--Some might say, “Take a moment for silent meditation”
--Another “Let your mind wander as you color a mandala”
--Another “say a gratitude prayer—pick a number and lift up thanks for that many things in your life”
--Another “Take a walk, feasting your eyes on the glory of God in creation”
--Another “Sit by the lakeside, watching the play of light and the movement of water and the sounds of wildlife nearby”
There are so many answers—all of them right. What is important is that we do something. Because saying we will glorify God and praise God forever is not the same as doing it. Actually praising God requires setting aside time in our busy days. Actually praising God might require structure for some, and total freedom for others. We don’t have to start in a vacuum. People have been praising God for millennia. We get a peek into how they might have been doing it by looking at the book of Psalms.
In the book of Psalms we see that praising God doesn’t mean we can’t bring our grief before God. Praising God doesn’t mean we can’t yell at the heavens. Praising God doesn’t mean we can’t whine and complain. Praising God means all of that and all the joyous words we can think of besides. Praising God means feeding the most important relationship of our lives—between God and ourselves. Remembering we are God’s beloved children. Living our lives of justice and mercy and humility as we walk with God into whatever is to come.
The ancients had some tricks. Because how to praise God is not a new question. And often we become tongue-tied when we come before the Almighty. Our problems seem so petty. We give our laundry list of wants and then don’t know what to follow up with. How many times can we say, “I praise you, I glorify you, I worship you, Holy One of Love”? Now what?
We can see one of the “tricks” that our ancestors in the faith used in Psalm 145. It is called an acrostic psalm. So in Hebrew, each line of the psalm starts with the next letter of the alphabet: aleph, bet, gimel, dalet, he, vav or in our alphabet, a, b, c, d, e, f, and so on. Of course, you can imagine that we might lose something when we translate it word for word, instead of holding onto the acrostic pattern.
I’ve given you a page where someone from Seasons of the Spirit has tried to recreate pieces of Psalm 145 as an acrostic psalm in English. Let’s just look at the first couple of lines to get an idea of what is happening.
Psalm 145 begins:
“I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you
and praise your name forever and ever…
And our acrostic adaptation says,
Always I will champion God’s name,
Bless and praise God as I rise each day,
Let’s do one more piece… Psalm 145 continues:
“Great is the Lord and greatly to be praised;
God’s greatness is unsearchable.
One generation shall extol your works to another
and shall declare your mighty acts.”
The acrostic adaption goes,
…who is so
Colossal, vast, beyond my reach. Yet I will
Disclose God’s powerful feats as a small part of
Each cycle of praise from generation to generation.
You get the idea. But, you might say, this acrostic thing seems to be forced. Did they really use this formula in praising God? Well, we know that there are nine psalms in our Bible that use some kind of acrostic pattern (Psalms 9, 10, 25, 34, 37, 111, 112, 119, and 145). What that says to me is that this type of prayer, this type of praise might have felt right to some people, and so we have this example of how we might structure our praise of God.
It takes a little bit of work to fit our thoughts onto a certain scaffolding, but I imagine that is part of the point. Sometimes praise, our relationship with God, comes easily. We are filled with the glory of God and want to shout or sing it everywhere we go. But sometimes we just don’t feel it. The heavenly wifi is down, or we are blocking the signals. At times like these, we can use tools like an acrostic to help us spend time in praise.
Want to try it? Seasons of the Spirit suggests choosing a word that means praise to you: maybe start small, like “JOY.” Then write a short phrase or sentence that begins with the letters in your word.
“Why are we doing this?” I imagine our quizzical Sunday School student asking. And my answer to myself is that this life is practice for the resurrection. I remember how I used to practice the piano before a recital. I would work on each measure one by one. I would study the music, what is its structure? Is it loud or soft, and for how long? I began to learn it for memory. I would sit down and see if I could play the piece from start to finish. But until you walk out on the stage, until you get before an audience, before you sit down at the piano bench without any music to help or guide you, you are just practicing. But the time will come, when the practice stops and the recital, the resurrection, begins.
Praising God is what we were created for. Praising God will be our forever vocation. So, right now, right here, we are to practice praising God. In all kinds of ways. In all kinds of moods. In all kinds of combinations.
For we were born to glorify God, and praise and enjoy God forever.
May it be so, Alleluia, Amen.