The Wonder of It All
I once wrote a piece called “Soundtrack of My Life.” You can find it on my website, themeetinghouse.net. There I list the music that has shaped my soul: show tunes from the “Sound of Music” and “Les Mes”, church hymns like Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing and I have Decided to Follow Jesus, classical pieces like Tchaikovsky’s first concerto and Handel’s Messiah, pop tunes like Bad Moon Rising and Country songs like Folsom Prison Blues.
More recently, I have fallen in love with John Prine and songs like Speed of the Sound of Loneliness; and early on, what ruined me for life, Johnny Horton, Sink the Bismarck and stuff like that!!
But right in the middle, while a pastor in Pittsburgh, we hosted a summer with Doug and Teri Vancil, now co-ministers of music at FBC of Greensboro. And they brought with them the then-new anthem Majesty and Glory of Your Name, by Tom Fettke. Our small choir sang it in rehearsal and then in worship; and sang it again and again, during the rest of my tenure there. I quote it here, putting it in the first person.
When I look into the night skies and see the work of your fingers;
The moon and stars suspended in space.
Oh, what are we that you are mindful of us?
You have given us a crown of glory and honor,
And have made us a little lower than the angels.
You have put us in charge of all creation
The beasts of the field, The birds of the air, The fish of the sea.
Oh, what are we? Oh, what are we that you are mindful of us?
O Lord, our God the majesty and glory of your name
Transcends the earth and fills the heavens.
O Lord, our God; little children praise You perfectly,
And so would we. And so would we.
The majesty and glory of Your name. Alleluia! Alleluia!
The majesty and glory of Your name. Alleluia! Alleluia!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia! (Alleluia!)
The music is modern; but the lyrics are ancient, taken from Psalm 8. The heavens declare the glory of God and the universe declares God’s handiwork. We look around and see much that declares our sin and selfishness; but the heavens declare the Glory of God.
On planet earth, we see too much greed, violence, and outright meanness; but when we pause of these beautiful nights and gaze into the night sky, it declares to us the imagination and inspiration of the God who made it all.
During the week, our news is dominated by death and dying, by strife and struggle, by money and materialism; but on Sunday when we open the Bible and the hymnbook and our hearts, we are filled with faith, with hope, and with love.
We read the story of the creative genius of God. We recite the narrative of God’s sweet purpose in the world. We recount to one another the stories of Jesus. And we are remined that there is another narrative that is working its way around the world, another script that is shaping history, another plot line that is pointing to the redemption of the world and the renewal of all creation.
This is the source of our joy, our hope, our delight. This is one marker of living as a person of faith today: dancing with delight because we know God lives, God loves you and me and the Afghan refugees, and God is filling the days with sunshine and the nights with the stary skies.
And God is calling upon us, you and me, to fill empty bellies with food and empty hearts with love and empty minds with truth.
This week Joyce Faye read a letter to us, Providence Church, from our friends and ambassadors to our sister church in Cuba, Kim and Stan. They had delivered on our behalf gifts of money, food, and medicine: "Thanks for ... sharing so generously with your brothers and sisters in Cuba. They feel and value your love and send their love back to you. God bless you and many thanks for your prayers. They are a treasure."
What can you do this week to join our creator God in honoring creation, helping people, and extending hope to one small corner of our community? Maybe you could join the work crew today at our Worship Meal? Maybe you could contribute to one of the funds in our region that invests in protections of the environment. We all read this week that authorities declared recently that 22 species are now officially extinct. This very psalm includes these words: You have given us charge over everything you have made: the flock and the herd and all the wild animals, the birds in the sky, the fish in the sea, and everything that swims in the ocean currents.
Coming to church today, I drove over the abandoned railroad that runs through Laurel Park, from Hendersonville to Brevard and beyond. Workers are taking up the iron rails and wooden ties; they are grading it in the first stage of this rails to trails project. Any of you involved in that campaign?
Regardless of what happens in dysfunctional Washington or on the divisive Supreme Court, we can invest our resources and energies in the work of God: distributing Bibles, serving food, welcoming strangers that walk into our sanctuary.
We can pray for our leaders: school superintendents and principals, business owners and managers, hospital administrators, even pastors and preachers: all who are in places of authority, that they made have wisdom and courage and kindness in these difficult Covid days.
What does the apostle say: First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for everyone, for presidents, governors, and all who are in high places, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity. This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. Paul’s first letter to Timothy.
Who better illustrates this calling that our 39th president of the United States, Mr. Jimmy Carter?
This week he celebrated his 97th birthday. Kind, generous, strong, fair, investing his life in world peace and traveling the globe to build affordable homes. The most widely distributed pictures of him are one, his walk down Pennsylvania Avenue during his inaugural parade, two, the famous handshake between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, and three, Jimmy holding a hammer while constructing a Habitat for Humanity house. Happy birthday, Mr. President.
What is a human, this psalmist asks? Then answers the question. You have made us a little lower than the angels. You have crowned us with glory and honor. And I want to put a picture in the Bible, right next to this text, a picture of Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter. They illustrate the role that God wants all of us to play in this world: on the public stage working for peace and understanding and compromise; on the local scene building houses and passing out food; in the congregation, welcoming the committed and the curious, opening up the Bible and reading its story, embracing its vision of life, and inviting others to love God with all of your heart and head, you soul and strength, engaging each other to love our neighbors of every color and creed, every dress and dance, every race and religion, every size and significance.
It makes me want to sing for joy! It motivates me to give glory to God.
Yes, the stars are magnificent and the night sky entrancing; yes, the rising sun and big bright moon are captivating; and yes, the gazing at ridge after ridge of the mountains is mesmerizing. But the wonder of wonders is the human person fully alive, Irenaeus said many years ago, the woman or man, boy or girl with a face stretched wide with a smile and a heart overflowing with kindness and generosity and a fierce determination to rise above all obstacles and be all that God intended us to be.
My grandson Sam—you have met him—he has not had an easy life. He recently told his nana Jan, “I have decided to have a positive attitude all the time!” I have decided to have a positive attitude all the time. When the human spirit full of the divine spirit rises above the pain and problems all around us to give glory to God, it makes me want to sing, doesn’t it you?
People who travel to what we call under-developed countries, or undeveloped countries always comment about the joy expressed by the people. They may live simple lives, but they live strong in the Lord and obsessed with the sacredness of life. Yesterday a friend posted this tribute on FB. He is a young black pastor in New Jersey attending the funeral of a man who had served a long time as president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention: “We celebrated the life of a truly remarkable and kind human being. It was the first state-recognized funeral I have attended Rev. Dr. Timothy Stewart earned our respect, commitment, and excitement over decades of exemplary service to the historic Bethel Baptist Church, Bahamas, and also to the Progressive National Baptist Convention. He will be sorely missed. Rest well with the ancestors, Mr. President.”
Sometimes we wait until a funeral to give honor to whom honor is due; and sometimes early in life we have occasion to recognize a person who can be described in the way Psalm 8 does. Sometimes, it is the wonder of the natural world; sometimes, it is the blessedness of a remarkable person; and, yes, sometimes it is the glory that radiates from the body and soul of Jesus Christ our Lord.
Jesus was also made a little lower than the angels. One of the magnificent hymns of those first century believers found its way into the text of a letter written by Paul the Apostle to the church at Philipp. You know it well. It is found in what we now call chapter 2, versus 5-11. The great apostle was making a point about humility and not thinking too much of ourselves.
Have this mind in you that was in Jesus Christ.
Though he was in the form of God,
he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped.
He emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,
born in the likeness of men.
Being found in human form, he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
Therefore: God highly exalted him
and bestowed on him the name that is above every name.
At the name of Jesus every knee will bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth.
Every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
To the glory of God the Father.
It is a hymn; and what I miss about this awful pandemic are the hymns. I miss singing hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs, as the gospel writers command. I miss standing and singing about Jesus, and conversion, and justice, and walking the Christian walk. I miss hearing you sing. I even miss hearing me sing, as mediocre as that is.
Singing lifts the spirit and calms the soul. It stirs the will and celebrates the wonder of it all. I’ll be glad when we can once again fill this sanctuary and sing to the glory of God. How about you??
This hymn in Philippians declares that Jesus as a person, like you and me, was made a little lower than the angels. But he was exalted through the resurrection from the dead. Later, the apostle put it this way:
The Son of God radiates God’s own glory. He expresses the very character of God. He sustains everything by the mighty power of his command. When he has cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven. This shows that the Son is far greater than the angels, just as the name God gave him is great than their names. The Christian book of Hebrews, the first few verses. Somebody put that into lyrics we can sing. And we will sing it to the glory of God.
Today, we remember the glory of God and the goodness of Jesus, who gave his life for us. We celebrate it today, around this familiar table: how the religious and political authorities turned against Jesus, bribed one of his friends, cornered him at night, took him into custody, rushed him through a sham of a court proceeding, and hurried him off to execution.
As we recall this injustice to Jesus, we meditate upon all the injustice in the world, how powerful people abuse the weak, how mean people curse their neighbors, how we ordinary people resign ourselves to systems that marginalize the most desperate and trap others in generations of despair.
We remember Jesus who was crucified for our sins and for the sins of the whole world. We mourn our Jesus who died for us and with us. We give thanks for Jesus the son of God, the Messiah of Israel, the savior of the world who gave his life that we might have life and have it abundantly, that we might participate in the divine life and share it with others, that we might be new creations, infused with hope, with kindness, with steadfastness in the things of God and the way of Jesus. We gather around this table of Jesus praying that God will convert us into the people we need to be, into the people the world needs us to be.
Come, Lord Jesus, fill our minds with your goodness and glory! Come Lord Jesus, rise in us that we might live our lives animated by all that is good and gracious. Come Lord Jesus, live in us your life of mercy and righteousness. Come, Lord Jesus.