Preached at Gentle Shepherd MCC, Phoenix, AZ Sunday September 25, 2005
“Christian Love of God includes expressing our love in worship this is as sincere, vibrant, and artful as it is scriptural.” (4th affirmation from the “Phoenix Affirmations”) “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls, who, on finding one pearl of great value, sold all else that he had and bought it.” (Matthew 13:45-46)
We all do good things in our lives, often doing them well. But sometimes we do them without fully understanding why. We may do them automatically because we’ve “always” done them. We may do them because someone told or taught us that we “should” or that we “have to” do them, and maybe we’ve even been told “how” to do them. If we do them just for these reasons, we’re only giving lip service.
I believe there’s a lot more to the things we do in both our temporal and spiritual lives. I’m just not sure we, myself included, always realize what we’re really doing and why we do it – especially in our spiritual lives.
So, what really is behind what we do? Why do we reach out to do good things? What’s really behind what we do as followers of Christ; as people who love others as we love ourselves? I believe it’s a compulsion – that we’re compelled to do good – that there is something beyond us, beyond our conscious or unconscious thought processes and motivations, that fills our spirits and actually compels us to do good things.
Perhaps part of this compulsion is that on some level we realize that no matter how few material things we may think we have, and no matter how significant we may perceive our own problems to be, we also just simply realize that somewhere, someone else has less, and suffers more, than we do.
When I started to prepare for this sermon, I thought of a variety of ways to approach it. The only really clear thing was that we would talk about worship. Our Affirmation for today asks us to commit to showing God’s love through worship that’s sincere, vibrant, and artful. Of course we have some sense of what sincerity and vibrancy are. Webster’s defines “artful” in the sense the word would be used regarding worship, to mean “marked by skill in achieving a desired end.” Yes, we can be, and hopefully are, adept at crafting worship that finds a way to speak to all present and gives room for corporate and personal expression as part of the worship experience.
However, sincerity and vibrancy seem to “come from a different place” than does artful. I don’t believe sincerity and vibrancy can be crafted. I believe they have to come from within us. They’re ways of expressing what’s inside of us, not something that can be imposed on us or by us, like some sort of stamp or imprint. In the context of worship, they have to reflect the sense of joy and praise that are in us – or that I believe need to be in us if we are to worship “in sprit and in truth” as scripture tells us. I believe if we begin by counting our blessings – by handling them and relishing them – we are compelled to worship and give thanks for them. The great pearls we posses – our blessings – and the conscious relishing and then the sharing of them is why we worship. It’s why we have the need to return to God our sincere and vibrant praise for the blessings we have and the opportunity to share them. Our blessings compel us to celebrate. Today’s parable seems a simple one. But I believe that, like life itself, not everything about Jesus’ parables is as simple and direct as might first appear. The parables are given to make us think – not just accept. They’re teaching tools that often require us to look below the surface for what’s really there. Studying the parables is much like looking for pearls. You have to go through a lot of sand and oysters to find the real pearl. I believe the pearl in today’s parable, as much from what it does not say as from what it says, is teaching about celebration, which I think is appropriately just another word for worship.
I don’t know what the merchant who found and bought the most valuable pearl was going to do with it. I can only assume he planned to leverage its value to increase his personal worth and that of his family – and perhaps even to help others less fortunate. (Maybe he could even get a tax deduction for it.)
But I don’t think that’s all he did. I think the first thing he probably did was the same thing you and I would be inclined to do if we’d just won the lottery. I think that before he even considered his next business move, he called his friends and they all got together and had a big party!
It’s human, its emotive, its natural – we celebrate the things that make us happy; the things that we find rewarding in our lives. That’s the way God made us.
In line with today’s theme, I think understanding the concept of celebration on a more conscious level is important to our development as worshipping children of God, and I think it gives more meaning to our lives, and thereby to others’ lives as well.
Think of it this way: As children, we were excited as the days leading up to Christmas shortened; but our excitement was tempered because we knew we just had to deal with the passage of time. Compare that level of excitement with our level of excitement on Christmas morning when we could actually see, touch, and play with that new bike or Gameboy or doll. Now that was real excitement! We jumped and yelled with joy, we called our friends, we hugged and kissed and thanked our parents or rushed to the phone to thank grandma and grandpa; we raced out the door and around the block to our best friend’s house to show off what we’d gotten and share our joy and celebration.
When we do what we do with true joy and exuberance, when we invite others into our celebration, when we openly and limitlessly share our excitement, it satisfies and encourages us and it welcomes others into a togetherness of sharing and mutual celebration. That Christmas morning excitement both builds on the connectedness that already existed between us and our parents, between us and our best friends, and it enlivens and enriches that connectedness for them as well as for us.
We have many ways and reasons for celebrating in everyday life, and we love to do it. Our joyful and excited celebrations run the gamut – cheering and yelling at sports events (or even at the games on TV sometimes), births, anniversaries and birthdays, new jobs or promotions, a new house or apartment – the list is as endless as the things in our lives.
We do this because why? Well, obviously because we like parties and celebrations. Yet, beyond that, why? Is it just because everyone else does it? Maybe, or is it because it’s “the thing to do”? Maybe, but we also have to celebrate because something from somewhere inside us, some urging we can’t define, is telling us “feel good and know that being thankful and happy are essential elements of a life lived well – maintain a balance between the serious and the silly, the devastating and the delightful – it OK!”
And when we listen to that urging, to use a pretty hackneyed old phrase that’s still as true now as it was when it was coined – “when we count our blessings,” we can’t help but think about them, and begin to actually relish them.
Did anyone play marbles as a kid? I did. Now think about this for a minute: If I gave you a bowl of marbles and said “count these to see how many I have, but you can’t look at them” what enjoyment is there in that? On the other hand, if I gave you my bowl of marbles and just asked you to count them, with no restrictions, if you’re like me or my friends were, you’ll look at every one you pick up, you’ll see the colors and swirls, you’ll recognize particular ones you want to play me for, and you’ll LIKE that job of counting marbles. You might even exclaim out loud about some you really liked. You’d be enjoying yourself and you’d be, in a way, thanking me for asking you to count them.
Blessings are the same way. They’re the pearls of our lives, and when we count them, we have to handle them, and when we handle them, we’re not able to deny they’re real. And when we acknowledge their reality we’re not only enjoying and encouraging ourselves, but we’re also, in that acknowledgement of their reality, thanking God we have them. We might even exclaim out loud about the blessings that are truly special to us. That’s worship! Thus, consciously knowing what we’re doing is knowing why we are worshipping.
Lessons about worship – about celebration – can be drawn from many sources.
I chose today for us to honor and learn from traditional African religion. If any culture might feel little reason to express unbounded joy, it may be the people of Africa – and if any culture understands their connectedness to God and the absolute impossibility of separating life from God or God from life – and therefore the need to worship and celebrate – it may well also be the people of Africa.
Africa has long been a continent of discontent yet, at the same time, one of beauty, magic, and surprises. We’re familiar with the fact of tribal warfare going back to ancient times, with the sad history of enslavement, apartheid, and sometimes brutal leadership, even to today, that engages in genocide, female mutilation, and other atrocities. But, just as with Jesus’ parables, all we’ve heard about Africa may not be what it seems.
In spite of great tribulation, there was, and is, wisdom and healing from Africa and much which we can learn. In Africa, the breath of God in creation, that thing we often call the human spirit, seems to somehow always live on undaunted. You may have heard of the fabled ferocity of Zulu warriors and the often embellished tales of the brutality of the great Zulu chief, Shaka Zulu. Less known is that Shaka Zulu was a great politician, somewhat of a peacemaker, a strategist with the good of his people at heart, and even someone who challenged white Europe to deal with its prejudices, hatred, and imperialism. Shaka had learned the wisdom of listening to his elders, as was the custom. He applied what he had learned. Shaka is reported to have expressed the idea that he and King George IV of England should establish a “committee of Elders” to work out a way for Black and White people to live together in harmony and peace. His wisdom continued to serve him well again, when his people grew fearful of an eclipse of the sun, thinking they might perish. He told them, “I have heard the old people say it has happened before.” These examples were his way of saying, “be at peace, in spite of evil and in spite of your fears life can be lived, good is still possible, life can still be celebrated.” This spirit, this sense, of recognizing the good in people and in all creation, in spite of what might seem overwhelming evil and daily difficulties, birthed the spirit of Africa that lives today; to celebrate the abiding presence of God. Mercy Oduyoye, the African feminist theologian who provided us our Second Lesson today, explains it this way in her essay, The African Experience of God Through the Eyes of an Akan Woman:
“In traditional Africa, that is, Africa when people are being themselves, discounting Christianity, Islam, and Western norms, God is experienced as an all-pervading reality. God is a constant participant in the affairs of human beings, judging by the everyday language of West Africans of my experience. A Muslim never projects into the future nor talks about the past without the qualifying phrase insha Allah, ‘by the will of Allah’. Yoruba Christians will say “DV” (“God willing”), though few can tell you its Latin equivalent, and the Akan will convince you that all is ‘by the grace of God’.” Nothing and no situation is without God. The Akan of Ghana say Nsem nyina ne Onyame (“all things/affairs pertain to God”).
That African’s maintain an integrated view of the world has been expressed by many. In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela writes:
My father was an unofficial priest and presided over ritual. . . . and local rites. . . ., he did not need to be ordained, for traditional religion of the Xhosa is characterized by a cosmic wholeness so that there is little distinction between the sacred and the secular, between the natural and the supernatural.
The Yoruba respond to prayer with Ase, the divine and highly potent power with which Olodumare (God) created the universe and maintains its physical laws. The belief in the all-pervading power and presence of God endows the universe with a sacramental nature. The African view of the world is nourished by a cosmology that is founded on a Source Being, the Supreme God, and other divine beings that are associated with God. As God is the foundation of life, so nothing happens without God. God lives, God does not die, and so indeed humans do not die. Even when we do not occupy a touchable body, we still live on.” My goodness, what an awesome understanding of God – and what a cause for great celebration! Now, I want to stop here for a moment and acknowledge the fact that there are great evils in our world today. There are man-made disasters and natural disasters, and great injustices. It can sometimes be hard to be sincere in thanking God for so many personal blessings and so many blessings on our community of faith, and it’s especially difficult to be vibrant and excited about our blessings when so many others around the world have so little, or have lost all they had. I know that right now we’re trying to celebrate God’s blessings with heavy hearts, hearts filled with sadness and dismay over the two recent hurricanes on our gulf coast. We can’t help but think about and mourn for the great loss of life, family, property, jobs, housing, and for the physical, mental and spiritual anguish suffered by the survivors, especially the very old, the very young, the very black, and the very poor.
It can be difficult to celebrate with those things in mind, and yet we must be reminded that through it all, God continues to call us to make a joyfull noise. We have to ask ourselves “why”? I believe it’s because if we lose our joy, we won’t have anything to share with those who need us. God has called us to liberated, joy-filled lives and celebratory worship that creates connectedness and sharing with others-not to sad and dour lives that send the message “I don’t have any blessings worth sharing”.
It is our faith – our belief in the “assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” according to the 11th chapter of Hebrews – that keeps us going on in joy. Faith, I believe, is our greatest pearl. It is faith that makes us want to love God and love our neighbors as ourselves. It is faith that tells us we have blessings worth sharing, and a God worthy of great praise and worship.
Our parable tells us two things about our pearls: That we are to multiply our blessings; and that they are to be celebrated.
Our lessons from African culture give us another way of understanding that even in spite of great tribulation, there is much to be celebrated, and that the source of that celebration is an understanding of the connectedness of people with one another and with all creation.
Our children have shown us the innocent, faith-filled joy of celebration, and have proven the truth of the statement: God doesn’t call the equipped; God equips the called. Jesus knew exactly what he was doing when he said, “let the little children come to me.” They are another of our great pearls because they are examples to us of a pure faith and the willingness to demonstrate that faith.
Indeed, we ARE “up to our necks in pearls.” We have only to multiply them and celebrate them – and share them.
If worship is to be sincere, vibrant, and artful, and therefore pleasing to God, it must come from a deep place within us. With child-like honesty, enthusiasm and authenticity, it must well up and pour out of us with a force we can’t stop.
It is these things that come up from deep inside us and well out of us in song, in prayer, in meditation, and at God’s Table that connect us and that give sincerity and vibrancy to our worship. And in that we all become “artful” or adept at achieving our desired end, which is to give glory to God and through God to all creation.
And it is our connectedness through the pearls of many blessings, of faith, of love, of both troubles shared and joys multiplied, that makes us reach out to hug, to sing, to share, and to want to do it again and again and again in communal and individual worship.
I pray we all feel that connectedness and that joy today, and always, so that we may forever engage in authentic celebration of the God who is, was, and always will be.
Amen, Shalom, and Blessed Be.