Sermon Seeds: Praise God
Thirty-second Sunday in Ordinary Time Year C
Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 27
Haggai 1:15b-2:9 with Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21 or Psalm 98 or
Job 19:23-27a with Psalm 17:1-9
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21
Additional reflection on 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
by Kathryn Matthews Huey
It’s hard to imagine a better text for the stewardship season: Psalm 145, one of the last psalms, goes back to the very beginning of it all, to God as creator and source of abundant blessings. In this season of thanksgiving and generosity, especially, it would be good to read the entire psalm, not just the lectionary verses, to hear again and again of God’s goodness and tender care for God’s creation, including each one of us. The voice shifts back and forth, from talking to God, to talking about God. Of all the books in the Bible, the psalms are the only one addressed to God, but there are verses within them in which the psalmist seems to turn away from his prayers to address the audience, too, perhaps because he just gets carried away by how great God is, and has to tell everyone about it.
At the heart of our Jewish ancestors’ faith, and at the heart of our faith, is the conviction that God has created us in love, that God remembers us, and that we need God and are expected to respond to God. There’s a hint of the reverse of that, or the consequences of such a reversal, in verse 20: “God watches over all who love God, but will destroy all the wicked.” As so often happens in the psalms, we’re going along and everything is lovely, and suddenly the talk turns to God destroying people. Does it make sense to wax rhapsodic about God’s love for all of God’s people, all humankind, if God destroys some of those people? J. Clinton McCann, Jr., has a persuasive response: “The happiness or prosperity of the righteous is not so much a reward as it is their experience of being connected to the true source of life – God. Similarly, the destruction of the wicked is not so much a punishment as it is the result of their own choice to cut themselves off from the source of life. The compassionate God does not will to destroy the wicked, but their own autonomy gives God no choice.” He likens it to Augustine’s familiar words about our being created by God for God’s own self, and our restlessness until we rest in God (Texts for Preaching Year C).
Abundance: there may be no better way to approach a stewardship sermon, and no better text than a song that praises God for all of creation and for God’s tender care. Stewardship is not about paying the bills or covering a budget (or making up a deficit): it’s our participation in the beauty of the creative process that continues even today, God’s creative hand at work in the world. It’s our response to everything in this psalm: God’s goodness and the vision of how things are supposed to be, how God intends them to be.
Walter Brueggemann has written extensively on the theme of God’s abundance and how things are supposed to be: “Israel reflects on the free gift of food: the earth germinates, the seasons work, water, sunshine, breeding, production, nurture, availability. It is a guaranteed system culminating in the food chain for those in God’s image, the whole designed for us. There is elemental generosity at the root of our human life in God’s world. There is enough. Israel sings its lyrics of abundance” (The Covenanted Self). Israel doesn’t look around at what it has, and take credit for the beauty and wonder of creation. Israel looks at creation and its own life, and gives God the glory. Israel understands that God is the source of life, and its prayer life, the life of its community and its observance of the Law, are a song Israel sings to the God who has provided so richly for humankind.
“Elemental generosity at the root of our human life in God’s world”: does our worldview begin with such an idea? Certainly “the world’s worldview” doesn’t. Do we say these words, or at least hear them spoken in church each week, but live our lives on very different assumptions? Are the words of this psalm lovely thoughts, but irrelevant to how we order our lives, as individuals and as a community? Is there a connection between our worldview and our giving? Does our giving have anything to do with who we think God is, and who we think we are in the light of God’s love? Does what we do with our money have anything to do with the creative processes of God? Does our giving to the church express our commitment to share this elemental generosity? If abundance is God’s big idea, why do we people of faith seem more ruled by a scarcity mentality? There’s never enough, we think and hear, never enough to make sure everyone is fed and sheltered and clothed and given medical care and educated. There’s never enough to do the ministry we might do, so we cut back and cut corners – it doesn’t sound very much like abundance and it doesn’t sound much like this psalm, does it?
Long ago, in a land and culture with far less in terms of material possessions but perhaps far more in terms of spiritual wisdom, Israel’s song of “exuberant trust” praises the way God set things up, Brueggemann writes, the way God established “a coherent, viable, life-giving, life-permitted order – a place for life” (Theology of the Old Testament). A place for life. Is the church “a place for life”? Are our cities and neighborhoods and the world “a place for life”? What’s keeping us back from making it so? What has damaged God’s plan, and subverted God’s intent for the world? We might begin, as the psalmist often does, with the earth itself and the beauty and abundance of the creation on which we depend. The growing awareness of the earth’s distress isn’t about God’s actions but ours, and this is a stewardship sermon waiting to happen. How we care for the earth is related to how we view the origin and purpose of everything. If we think the point is to amass more than our share of “the goods,” then stewardship of the earth is no more necessary than giving away our money. Or at least it hasn’t been, until now, when our very survival is at stake. The point of the psalmist, about our dependence on what we’ve received, is even stronger. We didn’t create all this, but, ironically, we do have the power to destroy it. The question then is whether we are willing to hear the Stillspeaking God calling us to care lovingly for the abundance we’ve received, and to share it with one another.
This good and loving God of Israel didn’t give us all these gifts and then leave us on our own. Clearly, this God still cares about what we do with our gifts. And this God cares about those who cannot get their share or even get a footing in the world. Little Israel, much of the time, even while recognizing God’s goodness, was one of those “little ones” that struggled, but Israel’s struggle, Brueggemann says, was marked by trust in the “God who works equity, righteousness, victory, and justice” as “Israel’s only line of defense against the powers of chaos and destructiveness that make life wretched and finally impossible” (Theology of the Old Testament). God as an “only line of defense.” We’re God’s agents in the world today, and there are folks today who need a line of defense against poverty, hatred, hunger, and war.
God is full of power and is in charge, but God’s power is one rooted in goodness and generosity and love, not in the way we often feel power exercised, as brute force or cold self-interest that steps on others. That’s not how God intends the world to be, according to Brueggemann: “The world is ordered by Yahweh so that it provides what all human creatures must have to live….Thus human creatures live in a world that leaves them elementally free of anxiety, because of the goodness, reliability, and generosity of Yahweh” (Theology of the Old Testament). If we approach giving as a free response to God’s generosity and an expression of our “exuberant trust” in God, there will be more than enough for the church to do powerful, life-giving ministry in this world that God loves.
Stewardship is hope for the world, it’s gratitude for what we’ve received, and it’s sharing the overflowing blessings from God. We hear about God in this psalm, but we also hear a call within it, an expectation of our participation in the song: “We bask in the overflow of creation; our song enacts the overflow,” Brueggemann writes. “We discover that some of the abundance of God’s generosity has been entrusted to our hand. As the singing proceeds, we begin to notice the grace of generosity emerging in our own life. When the song ends, the conversation in the choir continues. We are left with courage, freedom, and imagination, and we are given sufficient energy to care for the humanness, the humaneness, the humanization of the world. In the act of humanizing, the song of praise continues, for the creation does what the creator hopes” (Finally Comes the Poet). Stewardship, generosity, giving: the song that we sing in the church.
And stewardship is our prayer, as well. Brueggemann has written beautiful prayers rooted in Scripture, and one of them draws on Psalm 145: “When we sound these ancient cadences, we know ourselves to be at the threshold with all your creatures in heaven and on earth, everyone from rabbits and parrots to angels and seraphim….That is how it is when we praise you. We join the angels in praise, and we keep our feet in time and place – awed to heaven, rooted in earth. We are daily stretched between communion with you and our bodied lives, spent but alive, summoned and cherished but stretched between…” (Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth). Each time we bring our gifts forward, each day that we offer our lives to God, we are thanking God, praising God, and expressing our longing for the dream of God, for what is yet to be. We can trust in all that, with an exuberant and heartfelt trust.
This week’s lectionary text from the Epistle to the Thessalonians is problematic on a number of fronts. There are problems for the contemporary reader of the text as the letter in 2 Thessalonians is laden with apocalyptic imagery and discourse on the parousia and what will happen when “the day of the Lord comes.” If that is not enough, there are repeated references to “the lawless one” who is described in part – but goes unnamed and unidentified. There are also the problems of the early church which prompt the letter to the Thessalonians. This was a church facing affliction and persecution, the details of which are missing.
There are even problematic elements in ascribing the authorship of the letter with certainty. Some scholars say Paul was the author of both letters to the Thessalonians, while others say the second is not written in the style that was attributed to Paul and consistent in other letters written by Paul. Although not clearly stated, there are issues in the church which are urgent enough to cause the writer, who could be Paul (or one writing in his name), to write beseechingly to the church and provide words of encouragement and assurance to them regarding their faith.
Reading the text provides its fair set of challenges. Immediate attention in the text is drawn to the concerns of the Thessalonians that the parousia has occurred and they missed it. Whether this idea of the second coming came from their misinterpretation of teaching or their reading of a letter is not clear. The writer, however, believes that this is a clear case of deception by false teachers usurping the relationship between him and the congregations. The writer cautions the church not to “be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us” (v.2 a). The writer implores the church with these words and begs them not to be deceived by anyone that “the day of the Lord is already here” (v.3).
Beverly Gaventa provides her concerns for a reading of the text in this century: “Because it also contains apocalyptic imagery and expectations that may be elusive and complex, contemporary readers may miss the urgent pastoral worries that drive the passage” (Texts for Preaching Year C). There is a need to read these verses and rest in the desire of the author to address the concerns of the people. The writer does not focus on the apocalyptic but on the people and on moving them beyond the anxiety and fear. This understanding of the text challenges us to read the pericope in the context provided rather than focus on the notion of end times, and move beyond as the writer does to find ways to address the impact and damage caused by the misinformation and deception leveled at this first-century church.
The writer of the letter is not present, but is well-known to this church. As with other epistles, this letter addresses a specific situation happening in the church. The people are afraid. Their faith is shaken. Their recent experiences have caused them to be susceptible to erroneous teaching and to those who would willingly deceive them. The letter itself begins with a thanksgiving prayer for the church before it segues into addressing the problems the church is facing. The prayer itself is couched in apocalyptic expectations that lay the framework for the discussion of perceptions around “the missed parousia.”
The reassurance that all is well is followed by the writer’s exposition on events that are expected to precede the parousia. The imagery of the lawless one or the antichrist is familiar in Jewish apocalyptic literature. Carl R. Holladay asserts that some kind of political upheaval would “precede the Eschaton” and some antichrist figure was a common feature of Jewish apocalyptic literature, and was usually portrayed as excessively arrogant, assuming for themselves the role of God (Preaching through the Christian Year C). The writer provides this explanation by way of reassuring the people that the end times had not occurred. The focus of the text is not on this figure but on the people and what they need to survive during the times of persecution, affliction, and deception.
The author has cause to be alarmed but does not stop there. Annette G. Brownlee’s assessment of the text notes: “His real interest is in focusing the Thessalonians on the assurance of their salvation because of what Jesus Christ has done for them. The future he wants them to keep in the front of their minds is not the alarming description of the end times, but their full participation in Christ’s glory, as he says in 2:14b” (The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and the Epistles).
An additional challenge in the reading is content in chapter 1 that informs the situation facing the Thessalonians which is not reiterated in this week’s reading. The Thessalonians were being persecuted. “Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring” (1:4). The nature of the persecutions and afflictions is not explained, but it is a church under duress that is led to believe that the second coming is at hand and gone.
How can we attend to communities of faith that are under duress to encourage their faith even as they question where they are in context of personal and community experience? Brownlee frames a question of relevance as she invites the preacher to step beyond this passage and look at what can shake the minds of parishioners today, new or mature Christians beyond deception about Christ’s second coming.
Audrey L. S. West picks up on this concern for vulnerable communities whose faith can potentially be exploited: “In the current day, 24/7 news coverage readily provokes a similar sense of alarm, focusing as it typically does on the bad news of the moment. Pollution, poverty, economic collapse, domestic violence, war: headlines and news feeds carry these catastrophes directly to living rooms and breakfast tables. Coupled with the turn of a millennium (or even a decade), such upheaval leads many to ask, ‘Is this the end of the world?'” (New Proclamation Year C 2010). The first-century church had its fair set of concerns and challenges. Left unaddressed, they were susceptible to those who attempted to shatter their faith. How can we address the concerns of this twenty-first century church amidst the challenges West identifies?
The author returns the Thessalonians to the content and substance of the teaching they have already received. There is additional assurance for the community of believers in the relationship between Paul and the believers. He knows them. He knows what he taught them. He invites them to consider these things and the relationship between teacher and congregation. What do we do when those around us and in our congregations come across Christian teaching that is destructive to persons and communities of faith?
The lectionary reading skips much of the explanation about “the lawless one” and picks up, West writes, on the end of the chapter “where the author seeks to strengthen his readers against false beliefs by recapping what they have already learned and giving thanks for all that God has done among them” (New Proclamation Year C 2010). It is God who loves the church, chose the church, and called the church. Because of God’s proven actions in and among the people as recounted by Paul, he encourages them to “stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught” (v.15b). Or, as Beverly Gaventa writes: “What awaits those who are led astray by lawlessness need not be frightening to those who remain faithful. They give thanks to God, confident in God’s love, and in God’s choice for them” (Texts for Preaching Year C).
The evoking of tradition and memory are important. These are places where faith is solidified amidst life’s challenges. The church can stand firm or risk being anxious, shaken in mind and alarmed by what they see, hear and experience. There is a big difference between those experiences of life and standing firm in faith. Tradition and memory are themes which run throughout the Hebrew texts and Christian narratives: the people are constantly called to remember what God did for them and where God brought them from. In so doing, they have a basis for their faith, one that says what God has done before, God can do again.
The call to remember tradition and faith is not a passive one but a call to action. Brownlee sees this action as central. This action comes from a specific understanding of the Christ as one who overcame all things with the resurrection. The call to remember is a call to active participation with God, allowing for the presence and movement of the Spirit in all our life’s concerns. We can choose to take care of things ourselves. We can attempt to worry about what is and is to come. We can make attempts to be reassured in the proclamations of others around the actions of the Divine, but in the end, the ability to stand firm and be strong in our faith resides in our understanding of God.
“Standing firm” is the ultimate challenge. The first-century community of believers was susceptible to teachings that moved them away from the teachings of Paul and other teachers who brought them to their young Christian faith. They could rest on the new, unsound teachings they heard or live into the traditions they knew and trusted.
“Standing firm” creates these and other challenges in our contemporary society. We too run the risk of being deceived, especially when we ourselves are in vulnerable places. How do we recapture those memories of God in our midst when we are being caught up and swept away by those who would want to deceive us and erode our faith traditions?
“The image of standing firm is rich,” Brownlee writes, “especially when our instinct is to do battle, to take on whatever forces assault the gospel. Paul’s call to stand firm is a test of our confidence both in Christ’s victory and that we do and will participate in his glory. To stand firm calls us not to take things into our own hands, but to rest on our confidence that they are in Christ’s pierced hands” (The Lectionary Commentary: Acts and the Epistles).
We are busy people who are accustomed to finding answers and solving our problems ourselves. We are intellectually inclined with a growing sense of self-reliance that says we must do for ourselves and is at times suspicious of community and support from others. How then do we embrace this challenge to stand firm when a part of the challenge invites us to look to God and have faith in God in all things?
Lastly, the writer prays for comfort and strength for the Thessalonians. What do those in the pews of our churches and in our communities need to sustain and aid them in their adversities and afflictions? What can we provide for ourselves and others to get through the places where our faith is shaken and we are anxious and alarmed? For those who stand to minister through the preached and taught Word of God, how do we refute the “winds of doctrine” – whether apocalyptic or otherwise – that seek to prey on the fears and anxieties that are in many of our communities and congregations amidst these unstable economic times?
The Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson serves as Minister for Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations with the United Church of Christ.
Haggai 1:15, 2:1-9
In the second year of King Darius, in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the Lord; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. For thus says the Lord of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the Lord of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.
Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21
I will extol you, my God and Ruler,
and bless your name forever and ever.
Every day I will bless you,
and praise your name forever and ever.
Great is God, and greatly to be praised;
God’s greatness is unsearchable.
One generation shall laud your works to another,
and shall declare your mighty acts.
On the glorious splendor of your majesty,
and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
In every way God is just,
and kind in every action.
God is near to all who call,
to all who call on God in truth.
God fulfills the desire of all who fear God;
God also hears their cry, and saves them.
God watches over all who love God,
but will destroy all the wicked.
My mouth will speak the praise of God,
and all flesh will bless God’s holy name forever and ever.
O sing to God a new song,
for God has done marvelous things.
God’s right hand and holy arm
have given God the victory.
God has made known God’s victory,
and has revealed God’s vindication
in the sight of the nations.
God has remembered having steadfast love
and faithfulness to the house of Israel.
All the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth;
break forth into joyous song and sing praises.
Sing praises to God with the lyre,
with the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
make a joyful noise before the Ruler, the Sovereign.
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy
at the presence of God;
for God is coming to judge the earth.
God will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with equity.
“O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book! O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever! For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.”
Hear a just cause, O Lord; attend to my cry;
give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit.
From you let my vindication come;
let your eyes see the right.
If you try my heart, if you visit me by night,
if you test me, you will find no wickedness in me;
my mouth does not transgress.
As for what others do, by the word of your lips
I have avoided the ways of the violent.
My steps have held fast to your paths;
my feet have not slipped.
I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;
incline your ear to me, hear my words.
Wondrously show your steadfast love,
O savior of those who seek refuge
from their adversaries at your right hand.
Guard me as the apple of the eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings,
from the wicked who despoil me,
my deadly enemies who surround me.
2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here.
Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?
But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
Liturgical notes on the Readings
In ecumenical liturgical practice, there are normally three readings and one psalm at each Sunday service, in this order:
First Reading: Hebrew Scripture
Response: Psalm (or Canticle) from the Bible
Second Reading: Epistle (or Acts or Revelation)
Third Reading: Gospel
The first two lessons are normally read by laypeople, the Gospel by a Minister of the Word or a layperson. In Roman Catholic, Anglican and liturgical Protestant churches, it is uncommon for an ordained minister to read all of the lessons.
The psalm is not a reading but a congregational response following the lesson from Hebrew Scripture: it is normally sung with a refrain or recited by the congregation as poetry. Occasionally, a canticle is appointed in place of a psalm; it is sung or recited in the same way. The New Century Hymnal provides a complete liturgical psalter with refrains and music.
A hymn may be sung as an introduction to the proclamation of the Gospel.
During Ordinary Time (seasons after Epiphany and Pentecost) two alternative sets of OT readings with responsorial psalms are provided. The first option is a semi-continuous reading (Series 1) through a book of Hebrew Scripture; the second is thematically related to the other readings (Series 2). It is suggested that a congregation choose one option and follow it.