August 15, 2021
"Living Praise in Challenging Days"
Rev. Scott Landis
I am sometimes asked by colleagues in other churches a simple question about my sermons. Rarely is it about content, rather the question is, “how long do you preach?” The implication being: “how long does your congregation tolerate your ‘going on’ in the pulpit?” My response is, “generally between 15 and 20 minutes.” But something happened last week that reminded me that sermons actually go on much longer than that. A good sermon may take between 10 and 20 minutes to deliver, but it should live-on much longer in parishioner’s minds as they ponder what was stirred up for them – as they listened for God’s message to them. You see, pastors recognize very early in our careers, sermons are much less about what “I say,” and much more about what “you hear” – that is, what “God is saying” in your life.
For example, I can’t tell you how many times I have been standing at the door to shake hands with people as they left worship (remember those days) when someone said to me something like, “Pastor or Kahu, when you said such-and-such in your sermon today, it was if my eyes were opened. I finally understood. Boy, did that speak to me.” They will typically go on at length telling me something I know I did NOT say – but it is what they heard OR what they needed to hear. I am so grateful when I hear this because I know it is God who planted some deeper thought (or understanding) through my words, and it was exactly what that person needed to hear.
A similar thing happens as questions are stirred in a parishioner’s mind as a result of something I said, or which God evoked.
That happened just last Sunday. We tried a new format in a dialogue sermon. Rev. WhiteLight and I discussed a challenging text from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and we ended by pinpointing what might be the focus of a sermon based on the text. It was the phrase, “And be kind to one another,” that raised some resistance in the mind of one of my deacons. She wondered how we are supposed to do that – especially those who are really nasty or are doing things that are diametrically opposed to what we might consider pono – responsible and just. I realized as she pondered her questioned that the sermon had gone on much longer than the 15 minutes it took to preach. [Pause]
St. Paul was a master at stirring such thought. He knew that we, who try to follow Jesus’ life and teaching, would be in a constant battle between: good and bad, pure and evil, right and wrong. He even identified this struggle as one between the “old self” and the “new” or “redeemed self,” as he described. But he was careful to point out that this struggle is a process – and one that will last a lifetime – and often go unresolved.
He even confessed his personal battle on such life or spiritual matters in his letter to the Romans when he spoke of doing exactly what he didn’t want to do and that he didn’t do the very thing he knew he should do. (Romans 7). In other words, Paul understood – life is a struggle – presenting all kinds of inner conflicts – spiritual and otherwise – that we must face in deciding how to act or respond.
Today’s passage presents a similar dilemma. Against the backdrop of the “old self” and “new self,” Paul challenges believers to ponder the question – “how are you spending your time?” It’s one that is just as relevant today. How are you spending your time? Or, how are you living your life? [Pause]
It’s so easy, given the unending nature of this pandemic and folks’ myriad responses which may bug the heck out of us if we think they are wrong, to slip into pessimism and chronic complaining. But is that helpful? Is that the way we want to live our lives – spend our time? I think Paul suggests otherwise.
He first warns believers not to waste their time. Don’t get drunk. Don’t be foolish. Now, this doesn’t mean you can’t have a glass of wine and tell a good joke every now and then, but it does mean that there is much more to life. And the “new life” or “new self” begins to form upon being “filled with the Spirit.” And that new life is evident in the way we live – “singing psalms and hymns, and spiritual songs – together – singing and making melody to the Lord in our hearts.”
That’s why our time of separation from corporate worship during the pandemic has been so difficult – and why we are doing everything possible to keep our doors open for weekly worship so folks can gather – in safety and in peace, to sense the energy of our spiritual `ohana, to feel the sacredness of this place, and to sing!
In short, we need to encourage one another to live lives of praise even during these challenging days. But notice, this is not something we do alone. Paul makes an important point. The primary focus is on corporate praise – an expression that comes from our hearts – not our heads. In other words, and it gives me great pain to say this – the most important aspect of worship is not the sermon, rather it is the expression of our souls – our hearts in praise.
Praise is not something we always feel like doing. There are those days when it’s the LAST thing we WANT to do. But it’s precisely what we NEED to do – until we finally sense a deeper joy that only the Spirit can evoke. And it’s why we MUST offer our praise together. It reminds us of both the importance of our spiritual community, and the responsibility we have to one another within our `ohana and beyond. [Pause]
There is an old South African concept you’ve undoubtedly have heard before. Often referred to by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmon Tutu in their writing. “Ubuntu” is a concept that reminds us we cannot exist apart from community. Often pared down to the phrase, “I am because we are,” ubuntu reminds us of the importance of `ohana, community, and church. “Ubuntu” helps us understand that I can only realize my uniqueness when I am in relationship with others. [Pause]
We are seeing so much of the opposite manifest throughout our world today. The cry for individual rights I view as outright selfishness as many decide whether or not to get a vaccine or wear a facemask. While I certainly respect the ability of individuals to make decisions for themselves when those decisions have little or no impact on others, I find it incredibly out-of-touch to demand the same right when the results can be devastating in the broader context – a reality we are currently seeing play out each day.
Both Jesus and Paul held a common value in stressing the importance of community life. We practice that as we pray together, sing together, break bread together, and worship the God of love who challenged us to love and care for one another – not just ourselves! And we must take that way of living out into the streets as we encourage others to do likewise.
It begins here as we raise our voices in praise and sense each week the vital significance of community – that’s the easy part. The hard part is taking it out into the streets – to live our praise in these challenging days.
You’re probably going to mess up – again and again. I know I have. So, keep coming back. Keep practicing with those who understand and are quick to forgive. We’ll remind each other – as long as it takes – to live in love.
As we build one another up, let us commit ourselves (and our time) to inviting others to do the same.