I Praise the Lord
Into the crude and cynical conversation of the American people today, followers of Jesus can speak a chorus of praise, gratitude, and joy. It may be the single most important contribution that believing people can make to public discourse. In so doing we will be imitating Jesus our Lord, and also Paul his chief apostle who wrote to the Philippians this simple testimony, “I praise the Lord.”
My message today is this: you can choose the negative and complain or you can choose the positive and rejoice. Let’s follow Paul and give thanks to God for all the good in the world and all the blessings in life.
There is much in our country that is not good. We are focused on gun violence this spring and hoping for new approaches to keep America safe. We are witnessing the worst inflation in more than 20 years. I paid more than $5 a gallon for gas on this last trip to Missouri. We are watching the hearings of a big lie told by our former President and embraced by too many of his followers. Every day brings new revelations of sexual abuse and misconduct among religious leaders. Thousands upon thousands of refugees are fleeing poverty and violence and crowding along our southern border. And around all of this, the rising temperatures witness to the overarching crisis of the climate.
These things could dominate our minds much like they dominate the evening news, the cable channels, and the talk shows. They justify some measure of alarm, anger, and angst.
Or we can turn to other things to feed our souls and shape our speech. We can give thanks for the prosperity of our country, the safety of our travel, and the freedom of our worship. We can celebrate the beauty of the sky, the glory of the national parks, and the birth of our children. We can dance to the music, sing with the choir, and raise our hands in holy happiness.
Several months ago, you recall, I quoted my grandson who said, “I have decided to be happy in all situations.” He was 12 years old, living with his mother, and surviving on poverty-level income. His is the spirit of Paul, who also chose to be hopeful instead of fearful, joyful instead of jealous, and grateful instead of grumpy. “I praise the Lord” he wrote when he could have just as easily written, “I protest my lot in life.” He said, “I am grateful” when he could have said, “I am angry.”
Paul had much to be grumpy about. He was in jail, in a place he had never been, far away from most of his family and friends. He was working a cause—the Jesus gospel—that was largely unknown and certainly unpopular. He had little evidence of success, other than the few small bands of believing people scattered across the big, bad Roman world. The Jews were against him; the Roman authorities were against him; even some in his own religious movement were against him. Now and then, he describes this woeful situation. But more often he ignores it and gives glory to God.
“I praise the Lord” is typical of Paul the apostle.
It is imbedded in his eight-part testimony, as I have been preaching these last few weeks. “I never get tired” of the work I am called to do, he says, first. “I consider it trash” he wrote about his pre-Jesus resume. “I want to know Christ” is the way he voiced his deepest passion, ignoring the trouble around him. In fact, in the midst of all that trouble, he writes, “I press on” with a spirit of courage, faithfulness, and perseverance. No wonder he can write to the believers in Philippi “I love you.” When you heart is full of God and your speech is full of gospel, you can love everyone around you. We are not surprised that through it all he can sustain this chorus, “I praise the Lord.”
I have just come from a funeral in Missouri. My friend from the Hazelwood High School class of 1968 died. She died suddenly, without warning, with no known medical condition. She was 71 years old. That is too young to die. Pat Reeder Perkins was full of talent and energy. Her face carried a ready smile; her voice spoke words of encouragement and gratitude. Her two daughters and five grandchildren adored her.
I was one of two speakers at the memorial service. A full choir and orchestra filled the platform, a gospel quartet sang two songs, and 250 people gathered to celebrate her life. We had a choice, did we not? We could bemoan her untimely death. We could grieve her sudden departure, leaving all of us with no time to say good-bye. We could testify to our sorrow.
But we did not.
We choose to dwell upon her righteous life and the wide circle of her godly influence. In so doing, we were obeying the gospel written here in this letter: “Fix your thoughts on what is true, honorable, right, pure, lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” I amend that text to read: “Speak about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.”
You have this choice every day. Think and speak and write about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. You have a choice. Choose praise. Choose joy. Choose gratitude.
All of life and faith is this way.
When we pick up the Bible, we can emphasize this verse or that verse. You can read Psalm 127 verse 9, “Happy is the one who takes your babies and smashes them against the rocks!” or you can read Psalm 136 verse two, “Give thanks to the God of Gods whose faithful love endures forever.” We may say all scripture is given by inspiration of God, but I will choose the second of these two to guide my thoughts and inspire by praise.
You can read from the epistle we call First Timothy where it says, “Women should learn quietly and submissively. I do not let women teach men or have authority over them. Let them listen quietly.” Or you can turn to the roaring letter we know as Galatians where it proclaims, “There is neither Jew or Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
It is a matter of emphasis.
Jesus had this same approach to religion. One man came to him and asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” In other words, of all the commandments in the Hebrew Bible, which should we emphasize? Already, Moses had taught the Hebrew people to pay attention to ten rather than all 635. We call them the Ten Commandments. Now one of those readers of the Law of Moses came to Jesus and said, “Which of these should we emphasize the most?”
Jesus did not choose any of the 635 commands in the Torah. Jesus did not even choose any of the Ten given by Moses. He selected two. And he did so by asking a question: What part of the Hebrew Law do you think is most important? And the man, well educated no doubt, said, “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” That is the greatest commandment. And the second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Jesus said, You are right!
Even Jesus knew that reading the Bible is a matter of emphasis. Are you going to give priority to love and compassion and caring for people? or are you going to give priority to judgment and critique and keeping score of who is right and who is wrong?
Which do you choose to read and share and celebrate? Are you going to praise the Lord for mercy and grace and love? Or are you going to protest to the Lord and to people the ugliness and anger and unfairness in the world?
I challenge you today to take up the cause of praise, sing the chorus of gratitude, raise a joyful noise unto the Lord!
Jesus was a Jew. His followers later came to be called Christians. But Jews and Christians share this commitment to lift our voices in praise, to give thanks, to live grateful for all the goodness of life.
We also share it with Muslims.
Yasir Qadhi is dean of the first and only Islamic seminary in North America. It is in the greater Dallas metroplex. In a recent conference, he featured a professor at Southern Methodist University named Oman Suleiman. I listened to his talk on the first virtue of their believing community. It is found in the opening chapters of the Quran. Gratitude! He spoke for 15 minutes about having gratitude in our souls, gratitude in our voice, and gratitude in our deeds. His talk about giving thanks could have been given at any DEEPER of our church!
It is a universal rule of the spirit: Give thanks. Cultivate gratitude. Rejoice. Praise God. In Judaism, in Christianity, and in Islam, the rule of the spirit is precisely this as expressed by Paul, “I praise the Lord.”
Paul was grateful that some friends came to his aid.
There is no better feeling than that. When you are in need, you want people to come to your aid. When you are depressed, you want somebody to sit with you and listen to your soul. When you are late in making a payment, you want friends who will loan you money or pay your fee. When you need a ride, you want friends who will go out of their way to pick you up. When you are sick, as Danny was this week, you want doctors that stay late, employers who give you time off, and a wife who will take you where you need to go and prepare you food when she brings you home.
My sister once said, “I just want a church where they know my name and will bring me a casserole when I am sick.” I say amen to that!
“You have done well,” Paul wrote the Philippians, “to share with me in my present difficulty…. You were the only ones who gave me financial help when I first brought you the Good News and then traveled on from Macedonia. No other church did this.”
Paul had reason to be thankful; and so do you and I.
Paul had reason to thank God; and so do you and I.
Paul had reason to be grateful; and so do you and I.
We gather today and every Sunday to say with Paul this most fundamental confession of faith, “I thank God.”