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The Dance of Gratitude

A sermon by Keith Herron, Pastor, Holmeswood Baptist Church, Kansas City, Mo.

The Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 30

July 7, 2013

II Kings 5:1-14; Galatians 6:(1-6), 7-16; Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Gratitude is a game-changer. Gratitude is a spiritual discipline that allows us the chance to keep all of life’s experiences and our relationship with God in balance no matter where we find ourselves on life’s journey.

So how about a lovely prayer of honest gratitude for the morning?

I owe the Lord a morning song of gratitude and praise,

for the kind mercy he has shown in lengthening out my days.

He kept me safe another night; I see another day.

Now may his Spirit, as the light, direct me in his way.

(Amos Herr)

Good morning, faithful ones! At least that’s how the psalmist refers to you. It’s a communal greeting but it’s to be understood both individually and communally. I like it, don’t you? It surely recognizes we’re not always faithful, but it’s inclusive enough to realize we’re faithful at least some of the time. I like to think of it as, “On my good days I’m faithful.”

Most everyone knows the collection of psalms are a songbook of worship, [aka, a psalter], a book of songs meant to be sung in all experiences across the arc of existence. The Apostle Paul says we should pay attention to the work of the Spirit in our lives and in doing so, we should “(speak) to one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:18b-19, NAS).

But the psalter is a book of all kinds of songs. There are songs for the extremes of life, songs of magnificent victories and exultation as well as songs of tragedies and anger and everything in between. If the psalter is to have meaning, it must be singable in all weathers, in all the stations of life.

Some come to worship filled with joy over some goodness that gives them gratitude, which makes praise and thanksgiving easy to offer. But others come weeping, crying for help, or dismaying over some experience that’s tough to face. Others are negotiating with God over something over which they feel out of control. This psalm has something for us all and we’re invited to dance a jig of gratitude no matter where we are in life.

It’s Walter Brueggemann, perhaps this generation’s ablest interpreter of the Hebrew Bible, who gives us an interpretive key to reading the 150 psalms. In his study, he sees them in three categories of experience, something he calls “a scheme” that allows us to see a progression of experience that seems true to life. First, there’s the position of orientation, usually sung in a time of peace. That’s followed by disorientation, for those times of distress or unease. Finally, that disorientation is resolved and experienced as a time of “new orientation,” or re-orientation.

Life swings back and forth from event to reflection and in those cycles, Brueggemann’s Orientation – Disorientation – New Orientation make sense of it all … this is a workable paradigm we can use to make sense out of almost any sequence of events.

 

Another interpretive clue he gives is to try to re-narratize the psalm by taking life as it’s lived as the lens through which we can experience the psalm. Assign a life story to the psalm and give it voice! He says, “To re-narratize the Psalms is to protest against vacuous generalization and to focus on concreteness wherein real people live real lives of agony and ecstasy.”[1]

In other words, a psalm about restored joy after a period of suffering needs a story. My pastoral friend, Lib McGregor Simmons, a Presbyterian pastor in San Antonio, tells such a story:

Two middle-aged single adults married late in life, a first marriage for both of them. Both were wonderful, loved and respected by all; they were full of life and full of faith which they lived out richly in multiple ways. The church where they worshiped celebrated their romantic discovery of one another and their joyous decision to marry. Everyone also shared the couple’s excitement as they shared their wish to have a baby. Everyone subsequently prayed for them as they went through the fertility treatments they hoped would turn their dream for a child into a reality.

One Sunday the husband stood during the sharing of congregational joys and concerns and announced they were expecting. But it was not just one child he said as they were expecting twins, a boy and a girl.

The pregnancy went forward as planned in the coming months until the day the twins were born. In the mystery of the drama of birth and despite the efforts of the doctor and nurses, both children floundered and tragically died soon after birth. The boy and the girl both lived a few hours then died. They lived just long enough for both parents to hold them in their arms and name them. The boy they named Abraham Joseph and the girl they named Sarah Mary, names they had picked out before the babies had even been conceived for these children were for them a sign of fulfillment of God’s promise, just like their namesakes in Scripture.

Upon their deaths, the church was drawn into shared grief with the parents. As the pastor sat with them in planning a memorial service for the babies, the parents asked whether they could play the song, “What a Wonderful World” at the close of the service.

It was a terribly difficult week for everyone as the church and community gathered round this grieving couple in their time of great sadness.

At the service, the pastor gave the benediction with tears rolling down his cheeks, tears that were shared by those in the pews. And as had been planned, the peaceful life-affirming strains of “What a Wonderful World” began to waft gently over the crowd as the couple stood to recess out of the sanctuary. But just as they stepped into the aisle, the husband stopped short and lifted his arms whereupon his wife stepped close to him. Then they turned their sweet embrace into an elegant dance step, smiling through their own tears, and waltzed their way up the aisle.

There is a great mystery of how sadness and joy can co-exist in one moment. But they can. They sound so exclusive of one another as though they were polar opposites but life keeps beckoning us from brokenness to health.

That grieving couple danced a saintly dance out of the deep reservoir of their faith offering a witness that God is present, even in the deepest hurt.

“Weeping may linger for the night,” the psalmist tells us, “but joy comes with the morning … you have turned my mourning into dancing … so that my soul may raise you and not be silent.”

Sharing the Bread and the Cup

[1] Walter Brueggemann, “Psalms in Narrative Performance,” Performing the Psalms, David Bland and David Fleer, editors, St. Louis: Chalice, 2005, 9-29