Praise and Protest
A sermon preached by The Rev. Sarah Henkel at The White Plains Presbyterian Church on Reign of Christ Sunday, November 23, 2014
In seminary I took a class titled, “Worship as Resistance,” taught by Rev. Dr. Luke Powery. I was drawn in by the title and by the question that immediately followed in my mind when I heard the title. What do we resist through our worship? There are many ways to answer that question. This morning I want to suggest that what we resist is a view of the world as too fast-paced, too hopeless, too conflicted, and too violent to prioritize our praise of God.
I’ll always remember a story we read in that class by Reverend Fred Craddock, a brilliant story-teller and preacher. In the story Rev. Craddock describes a moment of rest on his back porch as night was falling when suddenly an “Idea,” not a new idea but a very old idea, comes to him. The idea is that doxology – the praise of God – should accompany him everywhere he goes. In the story he imagines Doxology as a friend or companion. Doxology – praise of God – goes with his family on vacation and is present in conversations with neighbors and friends downtown. Craddock praises God in mundane interactions and in small ordinary things that no longer seem so ordinary. But there are moments when it isn’t as easy to live with Doxology at his side.
“…I had to make a stop at St. Mary’s Hospital to see Betty. Betty was dying with cancer, and the gravity of my visit prompted me to leave Doxology in the car. Doxology insisted on going in and was not at all convinced by my reasons for considering it inappropriate to take Doxology into the room of a dying patient. I locked Doxology in the car.
Betty was awake and glad to see me. I awkwardly skirted the subject of death.
‘It’s all right,’ she said. ‘I know, and I have worked it through. God has blessed me with a wonderful family, good friends, and much happiness. I am grateful. I do not want to die, but I am not bitter.’ Before I left, it was she who had the prayer.
Back at the car, Doxology asked, ‘Should I have been there?’
‘Yes. I’m sorry I did not understand.’”[i]
What do we resist when we bring the worship of God into all times and places? We resist any inkling, any idea that God’s love is absent from any moment in our lives or any place in this world. We resist a society that moves too quickly to take note of God’s presence here and now and in all things.
Paul’s words to the Church at Ephesus are a Doxology, a prayer of Thanksgiving. He gives thanks for the congregation and prays for their wisdom, he give thanks for God who has made Christ ruler over all things and reconciled all people. Now, this prayer stood at tension with the felt reality of a struggling new community of faith, trying to deal with the conflict between Jewish and Gentile followers of Christ, the reality of a multicultural church. Jesus may have brought down the dividing wall of hostility but there was some rubble and grumblings being held between the distinct parts of the community.
What this prayer of praise opens is a space amidst that conflict to remember Christ’s presence and God’s unfolding plans. It creates a space to notice and dwell in God’s faithful plan for reconciliation. A space for worship to resist the overwhelming narrative that these conflicts – in those days and in ours – will be impossible to overcome.
Now how many of you struggle to find space in your day for…anything?! This morning we are going to practice together an experience of bringing space for wonder, awe, and thanksgiving into a very common activity. In your pew you should have a bag of raisins. I invite you to take at least one and pass them along.
At last week’s Prayer Breakfast Rev. Ted Miller shared about the benefits of Mindfulness Based stressed reduction in being present to people in times of struggle and pain. These practices, which include meditation, focus on our breath, centering prayer, and stretching bring mind, body, and spirit to a grounded place, conscious of God. They are a form of praise, bringing awareness to the joy and privilege of simply being.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, who has made Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction practices popular in this country created a Raisin Eating exercise to give people a sensory experience of mindfulness meditation to open us to the present moment. We’ll practice together what it feels like to be in the here and now, mindful of this one raisin, one tiny piece of God’s abundance.
Eating One Raisin: A First Taste of Mindfulness[ii]
Holding: First, take a raisin and hold it in the palm of your hand or between your finger and thumb.
Focusing on it, imagine that you’ve just dropped in from Mars and have never seen an object like this before in your life.
Seeing: Take time to really see it; gaze at the raisin with care and full attention.
Let your eyes explore every part of it, examining the highlights where the light shines, the darker hollows, the folds and ridges, and any asymmetries or unique features.
Touching: Turn the raisin over between your fingers, exploring its texture, maybe with your eyes closed if that enhances your sense of touch.
Smelling: Holding the raisin beneath your nose, with each inhalation drink in any smell, aroma, or fragrance that may arise, noticing as you do this anything interesting that may be happening in your mouth or stomach.
Placing: Now slowly bring the raisin up to your lips, noticing how your hand and arm know exactly how and where to position it. Gently place the raisin in your mouth, without chewing, noticing how it gets into your mouth in the first place. Spend a few moments exploring the sensations of having it in your mouth, exploring it with your tongue.
Tasting: When you are ready, prepare to chew the raisin, noticing how and where it needs to be for chewing. Then, very consciously, take one or two bites into it and notice what happens in the aftermath, experiencing any waves of taste that emanate from it as you continue chewing. Without swallowing yet, notice the bare sensations of taste and texture in the mouth and how these may change over time, moment by moment, as well as any changes in the object itself.
Swallowing: When you feel ready to swallow the raisin, see if you can first detect the intention to swallow as it comes up, so that even this is experienced consciously before you actually swallow the raisin.
Following: Finally, see if you can feel what is left of the raisin moving down into your stomach, and sense how the body as a whole is feeling after completing this exercise in mindful eating.
How did that feel?
Maybe it felt like the first bite of real nourishment you have tasted all week…
Maybe this felt a little silly or forced to you, perhaps it feels too small an act in the face of such immense world issues…
Maybe this was the first time you have slowed down all week to focus on one thing at a time…
I want to connect this very small act of awareness and centeredness that we just did here to what is happening on the ground now in Ferguson, MO. Though the media continues to portray the presence of community activists, protestors, and faith leaders in the streets of Ferguson as chaos, masses to be feared, that is not the truth of what is happening. The reality is that there is a large and growing non-violent presence, focused and grounded on the clear message that Black and Brown lives matter. This kind of sustained movement for justice, like others before it, requires mindfulness, attention to the importance of one single life that represents many many others. This movement, furthermore, is grounded in praise and hope. A fast-paced, violent world says that people are expendable. The God we worship resists that fallacy.
We praise God who created all things and called them good. We worship God who, through Christ, reconciles all people and out of our worship of God we are led to speak about what is happening in Ferguson to pray and act toward the vision of a reality where we do not lose brothers and sisters to violence, where injustice and racism no longer divide and endanger lives.
When Paul prays for the congregation at Ephesus he prays for their wisdom, that is to say their ability to love each other across cultural divides. He prays that their hearts be enlightened, that they be centered on the hope of Christ’s reconciling love. He offers a prayer of doxology that sings above and through the conflicts.
May Doxology be our constant companion and our guide through the pain and challenges of these days until Christ comes again. Amen.
[i] Craddock, Fred. Craddock Stories, (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001), p.154.