Hot August night
And the leaves hanging down
And the grass on the ground smellin' sweet
Move up the road to the outside of town
And the sound of that good gospel beat
Sits a ragged tent
Where there ain't no trees
And that gospel group tellin' you and me
It's Love, Brother Love, say
Brother Love's Traveling Salvation Show
Pack up the babies and grab the old ladies
And ev'ryone goes, 'cause everyone knows
Brother Love's show
Neil Diamond says he was a passenger in a commercial airplane flying high over Memphis TN when he received the inspiration for this song. It was released on the 1969 album “Sweet Caroline.” I don’t know when I discovered it, but from that moment I embraced it as a wonderful description of the meaning of salvation.
The sung lyrics are interrupted halfway through with what is called the sermon. Here Neil Diamond describes the two hands: one to reach up to God in prayer and confession and faith and trust; and the other to reach out to our neighbor with love and strength and compassion and sacrifice. These two hands are symbolized by the cross: the vertical piece that points to God and the horizontal piece that points in all directions to our neighbors. Sometimes we say the first is spiritual and the second is social; or the first is theology and the second is sociology; or the first is righteousness and the second is justice; or the first is about eternity and the second is about today and tomorrow.
We find these twin elements of the Christian life connected like a DNA helix in many parts of the Bible, including right here in Psalm 146. The praise of God and practice of justice are intertwined in this song of Hebrew worship. We might say the glory of the Lord and the common good are linked together into one continuous fabric of faith.
“Let all that I am praise the Lord!” is the defining mood of this hymn. It opens and closes with the simple, straightforward Praise the Lord! This is not a bad way to open and close a service of worship; or a prayer in public or private; or the day itself: praise the Lord in the morning and praise the Lord in the evening.
This sound of praise can be a solo, the individual overcome with the wonder of all things, breaking out into song or dance or confession or praise or kneeling down to give thanks. It is Jacob the scoundrel on that lonely hill in Palestine, seeing the vision of heaven. It is Hagar the dismissed slave hearing the voice of God in the wilderness. It is Hannah bending the knee in the temple and presenting her plea to God who hears. It is David fleeing from his enemy singing that song, The Lord is my shepherd. It is Mary startled by the angel, Hail, Mary, blessed are you among women. It is Simon Peter napping on the rooftop, seeing the vision of animals, and hearing that voice of rebuke and correction from heaven. These are the episodes of people like you and me, being surprised by a close encounter of another kind.
Elizabeth Barrett Browning had this in mind when she wrote, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God. But only she who see takes off the shoes. The rest set around and pick black berries.”
Do not be surprised if your friends and family do not see the living God or hear the sound of God or sense the presence of the living God or sing for joy to the living God.
But know this: the praise of God is not just a solo performance, not just an individual shouting here, dancing there, or overcome with silence all around. It is a might chorus of people, angles, animals, even the stones crying out and the morning stars singing together the praise of God.
In a moment we will sing that fabulous song, Lift every voice and sing. Lift every shoe and dance. Lift every arm and send praise to God. We together have experienced the revelation of God all around us, the inspiration of God within us. We have received the salvation of God among us and together we join our bodies and souls in the adoration of God. We together, from every tribe and nation, on every continent and in every country: the young and the old, the saint and the sinner, the wise and the simple—we all together comprise the people of God giving Glory to God.
This week is All Saints Day. All saints: some alive and around us; some gathered into glory long ago. It is my mother and my father. It is my sister-in-law whom the Lord called home just this past June. It is John Prine singing his wonderful song, “When I get to Heaven” and it is my aunts and uncles humming the tune “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be.” We are praising God here; and there are praising God there.
The writer of the book of Hebrews describes it this way: Since we are surrounded by this great cloud of witnesses, let us put aside everything that holds us back and run with patience the race of life set before us. Think of the running track that surrounds a ball field; and imagine the stands, all around, filled with the people cheering you on. Encouraging you not to give up; not to quit; not to grow weary in well doing; not to be discouraged or disappointed or frustrated. Keep going, they are calling out to you.
We keep our eyes on Jesus. And when we do, we see Jesus reading this psalm: Psalm 146. This psalm describes the mission of God and the ministry of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit. Justice to the oppressed. Food to the hungry. Freedom to prisoners. Sight to the blind. Protection to the stranger. Care for the orphan and widows.
What does this sound like?
Did not Jesus almost quote this when he stood up to preach in Nazareth? They gave him the scroll and he turned to Isaiah, to what we call chapter 61. The spirit of the Lord is upon me. I am announcing good news to the poor, freedom to the captive, sight to the blind, release to the oppressed. I am announcing the time of the Lord’s favor.
Jesus is quoting Isaiah; but Isaiah is reciting the Psalm 146!
Both are testifying to the mission and purpose of God. We are listening to the mission and ministry of Jesus. It is here at the beginning of his vocation, and then again at the end, when he describes the great judgment day, when all the nations will be gathered before the throne of God and they shall be separated like sheep from goats, like cows from the hogs, like tomatoes ready to eat from tomatoes too rotten to carry home. Whatever image you want to us, it helps us understand that God approves of some things and disapproves of others.
And like worship, both solo and chorus, ministry is both an individual act and a corporate act. It is both the charity that you and I do—like feeding those with little to eat this afternoon right here at the Providence House, and your commitment to cut down on your use of plastic or install solar panels or pay your workers a living wage; and it is the justice that you and I together support that moves us toward the community described by Jesus.
This must have inspired the great offering that Paul the Apostle collected. The famine in Palestine left Jewish believers in great need. And everywhere Paul traveled throughout what today we call Asia Minor and the Mediterranean world, he promoted the offering. Let’s all pull together, he said, and do together what we cannot do alone. Let those who have much give much and let everyone give something.
I spent Tuesday riding on the Blue Ridge Parkway; and every time I marvel and give thanks for the people who imagined this park, the people who funded it, and the people who built it, and now the people who care for it. It is pulling together for a common and godly purpose.
Each month I get a check from the government and so does my son. I get that check because I paid into the system for fifty years; but he gets his check because he is disabled and unable to care for himself. All over the country there are blind and hobbled people, and together we care for them and provide them food and a safe place to sleep and n some cases even daily work. It is the social dimensions of the gospel. It is the social gospel. It is social justice.
Our president is traveling overseas even as we speak today. One of his purposes is building a common cause to address energy use and conservation and preservation of resources and building a more just and righteous global community. It is global community, global justice, global gospel.
The work of God is personal charity and social justice. It is you, today and tomorrow, listening to the voice of God to do justice, show mercy, and walk humbly with God. But it is also us, today and tomorrow, together listening, together resolving, together working for justice, with mercy, with humility.
This psalm celebrates both sides of this gospel coin: the personal side of salvation and celebration and the social side of justice and community. Like the double helix that shapes you identity, these twin stands of God’s purpose in the world give the gospel its two-sided identity. This is, a Neil Diamond wrote fifty years ago, that good gospel beat! And I like the feel of it, don’t you??