Taste and See that Our God is Good
A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church
On the 27th Sunday of Ordinary Time, October 2, 2011
WORLD COMMUNION SUNDAY / PEACEMAKING SUNDAY
Exodus 20: 1-20 Psalm 34: 1-10
I am convinced of the centrality of the psalms in shaping Christian life. The psalms are our grammar book, teaching us not only the language of faith, but faith’s dialects of suffering, praise, doubt, anguish, and joy; in isolation and community. They teach us the language of prayer. We can find in the psalms the faith of childhood (God rewards the righteous and punished the wicked); but the psalms can also help us develop and sustain a mature faith when that simple faith fails us – when, for example, the righteous suffer and the wicked prosper. And more importantly, the psalms promote our faithfulness to – and praise of – God even when all moral categories break down, when we are not sure which side we are on; when the line between friend and enemy is not so clear, our own motives murky, or God seems more absent than present. The psalms do not leave any of our experience outside the sanctuary.
A couple of years ago I participated in a workshop with Ellen Davis, professor of bible and practical theology at Duke Divinity School, who said that protestant preachers generally neglect the Hebrew Scripture, or Old or Second Testament, in preaching, and almost entirely ignore the Psalter. I came back from the workshop with a commitment not just to use the psalms in worship, or to encourage their use in prayer, but a commitment to preach on the psalms, to treat them as the scripture that they are, full of good news and challenge.
I’ll say more about our attention-deficit disorder in relation to Hebrew Scripture on another day, but I will ask today how many of you can remember a sermon preached on a psalm other than the 23rd? And yet it has been said the translations of the Genevan Psalter, the psalms sung in sixteenth century Geneva, into almost every European language, were the single greatest tool of evangelism spreading the reformation faith.
The second half of psalm 34 contains a portrait of God’s intimate goodness, care, and justice as experienced by the Hebrew community. Today I want to look briefly at what Psalm 34 might offer us in regards to the practice of prayer as we come to the communion table in the company of Christians throughout the world.
Let’s attend closely to the phrases the psalmist sings.
I will bless God at all times; God’s praise shall continually be in my mouth.
At all times… in our mouth.
My soul makes its boast in the Lord; let the humble hear and be glad.
O Magnify God with me, and let us exalt God’s name together.
Our prayer is an encouragement to others. Our prayer involves us in each other’s lives: our soul, God, our neighbors. We belong to one another.
I sought the Lord, and she answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.
Prayer invites memory; its draws strength from the fact that what has happened may happen again. And it is honest memory; the righteous often suffer and need deliverance; their cries are heard. Or perhaps we were not the righteous then, but we have been mercifully spared the consequences of our actions. Or we know God’s presence even as we suffer the consequences of our actions. Psalm 34 carries the ascription: A Psalm of David, when he feigned madness before Abimilech, so that he drove him out, and went away. If you want a complicated story of moral ambiguity, human suffering, and God’s deliverance, grab a study bible and check out the story.
Look to him, and be radiant; so your faces shall never be ashamed.
Do you hear the dynamics, the poetry: look up, lift up your face, look to God, and find coming toward you God’s radiance, God’s light resting upon you, God shining in your face. You are radiant. Head lifted up. The opposite of shame.
This poor soul cried, and was heard by God, and was saved from every trouble.
O taste and see that our God is good.
This tasting and subsequent seeing no doubt is related to praise which is continually in our mouths when we, the poor souls, bless God at all times, and turn toward God in prayer.
Happy are those who take refuge in God.
God is our sanctuary from despair, from fear, in whose arms we are secure, not from suffering but from the anxiety, shame, or hopelessness that causes us to succumb amidst suffering.
“I will bless God at all times; God’s praise shall continually be in my mouth, that I might taste and see that God is good.”
What would it look like to bless God at all times?
St. Paul urged believers to ‘pray without ceasing’ (1 Thess. 5:17), which you have heard me say before always reminds me of the young woman in J.D. Salinger’s short novel Franny and Zoe. Franny, away at college, earnest and devout, seeks to fulfill St. Paul’s injunction by incorporating the so-called Jesus Prayer, “Jesus, son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” into her breathing pattern, so that, with practice, she would be praying with every breath. So hard is she trying, that when her prayer stumbles, she forgets to breath, and passes out.
The traditional Christian answer to ceaseless prayer has been the Divine Hours, the ancient pattern of situating work within a rhythm of prayer multiple times a day. As St. Basil said, “In this way we fulfill prayer even in the midst of work, giving thanks to him who gave both strength of hand to work and cleverness of mind to acquire the skill and also bestowed the material with which to work.” Basil of course meant moments throughout the day when the community would pause for prayer. His community in fourth century Caesarea came to hear sermons at noon on weekdays. These sermons are famous for breaking off mid thought when time was up and the congregation had to return to work. Morning, noon, and night, the Christian community offers prayer for itself and the world. I once had a high school student named Michel ask me as I described the practice of daily prayer “What are we, Muslim, praying six times day?” And I said, “No, we’re Christian, praying seven times a day” (Psalm 119:164, “Yes seven times a day I will praise you for the gift of your law.”) and in fact the ancient monks among whom this pattern took fullest form prayed eight times (they got an extra bedtime prayer in there).
Of course, prayer is not limited to fixed hours. In Judaism, prayers are offered throughout the day to accompany the activities of daily life. My favorite is the prayer to accompany bowel movements, which I used to have hanging on the back of my bathroom door. OK. You might say TMI, too much information; but it was re minder to me that occasional prayer during the day, prayer tied to occasions, like washing ones hands or before breaking bread, are ritual or regular reminders of what it means to live life humanly – that is, only marginally in control of our lives, dependant on others, and called upon to be faithful to, and give praise to, God at all times.
So I’ve been wondering, if God does not ask of us what we cannot do, or to have the prayer life of a monk attending communal prayer seven times a day, how do we bless God at all times? And I was reminded of something I had already been doing.
From the day my son August was born until he was four years old I greeted him every morning with the words “Good Morning August. Good morning God. Thank you for a brand new day.” Every day, and often by phone when he was travelling. I learned (again) with these words to cherish every day as a gift not to be lost or squandered. In time, I learned to add “Good morning mom.” And when Noelle and I began to rediscover life together apart from parenting “Good morning Noelle.” On his third birthday I started adding scripture. “Good Morning August. Good morning Noelle. Good morning God. Thank you for a brand new day.” Followed by “This is the day that the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it” from Psalm 118, or “Open my lips, and my mouth shall proclaim your praise” which comes from the 63rd Psalm, or “Satisfy us with love in the morning, and we will live this day with joy and praise” from the 90th Psalm.
Recently, these regular morning prayers have given way to new practices and more elaborate evening prayers – prayer for family, friends and our world and creation. We end each day with a prayer August and I wrote together:
Thank you for the light of day, in which we work, in which we play.
Now thank you for the dark of night, for resting until morning light.
“I will bless God at all times; God’s praise shall continually be in my mouth.”
I’d like you to think about the different spaces in which you live your life each day. And I invite you to imagine with me, creating a prayerful awareness in each of those spaces. You wake up in the morning. What’s the routine? Is it rushed? Relaxed? As you think about awakening, what sort of thanksgiving might you offer, quietly or silently or together with loved ones? Many of us find ourselves next at school, at work, at meetings, tending the household. For what do you need prayer? What prayer seems to arise as a complaint, a yearning, a celebration from this space in your life? Who do you encounter here and in what joint efforts do you engage? What kind of prayer presents itself as you reflect on this? What would change if you imagined this space as a holy place, a place inhabited by God? What strength or possibility might arise? To what is God calling you in this place of business or commitment or learning? As evening falls, where are you usually found? Commuting? Eating? Attending to household matters? Preparing to go to work, perhaps – following a clock that differs from so many? Where do you sense God at this time? For whom do you pray? For what are you grateful? And as you lay down to sleep, for what do you hope? For what do you seek forgiveness? How are you talking to God? Where in your nighttime ritual could you pause or think or sing or touch a hand of a loved one or remember God’s faithfulness in all times and places?
As we come to the table today, we come with these prayers in our mouths.
We come in prayer that Christ will meet us here, as he promised, that the spirit will transform this sharing of common bread and wine into the banquet feast of God’s kingdom
We come in need of prayer ourselves, even as we come praying for others and our world, and on this peacemaking Sunday, with particular prayers that we might know and practice peace.
We come as a church community itself made up of people from around the world: from New York to Idaho to California to Florida, and from Jamaica, India, Ghana, Lebanon, Cameroon, Kenya, Montserrat, Colombia, England, China, Korea, South Africa, and the Philippines.
We come to the table with saints in heaven, the great cloud of witnesses that has come before us, and goes ever before us, leading the way.
We all come as guests – whether members from this congregation or from other congregations, or visitors from the neighborhood, from Pace University or SUNY Purchase.
For this table belongs to Jesus Christ, who desires a full house at his banquet, whose mercy and love and justice make this table a place where everyone, everyone is welcome and where a place has been set for you. So come. Come with your prayers. Come blessing God. Come with praise in your mouth. Come taste and see that our God is good. Amen.