The Stewardship of Praise

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Before there was music, there was praise. Before there was worship, there was praise. Before there were preachers, there was praise. Before there were liturgies and hymnals; before there were sanctuaries and choir lofts and pulpits; before there were prayers and creeds and theologies, there was praise.

The baby in your house knows that, doesn't she? Lying there in her crib, some time yet before you are fully awake, she gets up with the first rays of morning light. She doesn't know her own name; she doesn't know the name of God; she cannot walk and she cannot talk; but she knows even at that early age that -- with the beginning of dawn -- the only appropriate thing to do is to sing a baby song of praise.

You have one of those conversations -- it doesn't happen very often, but often enough for you to be reminded how precious they are -- in which what gets discussed is not the weather or the stock market or the headlines, but heart-talk. You hear, and you are heard; and the frog comes to your throat and tears come to your eyes because to be understood in such a way is always such a stunning thing. And for the sheer wonder of that experience, you let out a burst of praise.

Before anything else, there is praise. Scripture says so, too.

As early as the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, there is that soaring poetry about creation. Of light and darkness, of earth and sky, of waters and plants and animals and finally people. And, at the end of all of this creative activity, as a kind of epilogue to it all, there is attributed to God's very self nothing other than a burst of praise. "God saw everything that God had made, and indeed, it was very good."

In Exodus, when the people of Israel made their way past the hot breath of Pharaoh's pursuit, beyond the armies and oppression of Egypt and through the Red Sea to firm ground on the other side; when they were finally safe, before they did anything else, they paused to praise God. "I will sing to the Lord," they sang, Moses and Miriam, all of them, "for God has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider God has thrown into the sea." It was praise!

The prophet Isaiah heard singing like that once. He was in the temple to worship; and while there, he saw a vision of God and heard the seraphim singing, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God's glory."

It's there, all through scripture, too, as if to suggest that praise lies beneath everything else as nothing less than the vigorous intentionality of God. God means for us to be stewards of nothing if not praise, because nothing is more appropriate or more timely than praise.

That's part, at least, of what's being said about praise in today's text -- that it's appropriate and timely. Through much of Luke's gospel, Jesus is on the road to Jerusalem, on the road to the cross, the hard, bumpy road of discipleship -- that same road that you and I are called to travel. But here, there is a bend in the road, and the city -- the destination! -- comes into view! It's not the conquest of that city, nothing like that; but it's the vision of it at least. In Luke's telling of this moment, the disciples did what came naturally. "As he was now approaching the path down from the Mount of Olives," Luke writes, "the whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen." They sensed, somewhere in their guts, that nothing was more appropriate or timely than praise.

But the Pharisees in this story were not so sure about that. Maybe they felt that the praise was premature -- after all it was one thing to reach that city, but it was something altogether different to claim it. Maybe they felt that they should postpone the victory celebration until there was something to really celebrate. Or maybe they were afraid that the praise would get out of hand and attract too much attention and alert Herod and the authorities, who were laying for Jesus anyway. Or maybe they were alarmed that the praise was too spontaneous, not attentive enough to rubric and order, too hot to handle, and not seemly without a bulletin or hymnal. Or maybe they just didn't believe it. Who knows why they were nervous? Whatever it was, they demanded that Jesus tell his disciples to stop.

"He answered," writes Luke, "I tell you, if these were silent, the stones would shout out."

There it is again! The praise that lies deep down beneath everything else! The fundamental praise that creation itself takes part in! The praise which will find voice even when it's not our voice; which begs for our attention and expression here this morning in this big stone church, but which lives by the confidence that -- if we, too, were silent -- these stones, too, would shout out. Because, even here, the message of this text still holds; there's nothing more appropriate and timely than praise!

But, like those Pharisees, we still have some nagging doubts about it. At an intersection such as this one, or at an intersection like the one where I do most of my work, surrounded as we are by the awesome symbols of commercial and sheer political power, would we presume to lift our voices in praise not to that power but to God? When to get to this church from our hotel means that, at least occasionally, we have had to negotiate our way past a sleeping person, or walk past a beggar, or in some other way be confronted with the detritus and other visible evidence of the inequities of this world; if we will have the stomachs for it by the time we get to this sanctuary, do we dare praise God? Is it really appropriate and timely?

Yes, says Jesus. There's nothing more appropriate and timely -- even here, even today. And here's why. The praise that wells up from the essential truth that is the bedrock of all creation, the praise that simply must be expressed -- that our stones will shout if we don't -- is praise that bestows upon us glimpses of the clear vision of God. This is the other central point of this text, I think. It's not pollyanna praise, it's not pie-in-the-sky praise, not whistling past the graveyard praise, not something sweet placed among us just to make the world more beautiful praise. It's praise instead that gives us vision, that enables us to see the world more clearly.

And it is no accident that in Luke's gospel the thing that happened next after that spontaneous act of praise is that Jesus saw the city -- saw it as God sees every city -- and wept over it. There is a relationship between praising God and seeing the world as God sees it, in its potential for good and its capacity for evil; in its grief and its loss and its power and its despair and its tenacious hope. And to be stewards of praise is also, I think, to be stewards of some measure of God's clear vision.

Such a stewardship, of course, is not an easy thing to come by; but neither is it impossible.

I'm moved by a story I heard a while back about composer George Gershwin. Once, while on a train from New York to Boston, Gershwin was inspired to compose the major portion of "Rhapsody in Blue." It was on that train, of all places -- with its steely rhythms and its click-clack regularity of sound and its bells and whistles and all of the other distractions that Gershwin was inspired and suddenly heard the complete construction of the "Rhapsody" from beginning to end. Can you believe it? On a train? Much later, he made this remark which I think is something of a sermon in itself. He said, "I frequently hear music in the very heart of noise."

Now you and I live in a world that is filled with noise. And not just the noise of street-life and sirens and honking horns and airplanes. It's also the noise of our own egos wrapped up in their sad self-promotion. It's the noise of petty conflicts that often grow in size to large wars. It's the noise of too much shouting and not enough listening. It's the noise -- if not of Jerusalem -- then of Dallas, or Atlanta, or Indianapolis, or the city where you live in all of its splendor and excitement, yes, but also in its anxiety and its power-politics and its pretense. It's the noise, finally, of our whole laboring world.

And it often takes work to hear the music. But it's there! It's there!

One Christmas Eve we did what all of you did in your churches on Christmas Eve. We planned rich and festive worship. We had three festival communion services -- two of them in our sanctuary and one of them, the 9:00 evening service, in our chapel. Our chapel is, in my opinion, the most beautiful space in the church I serve. English Gothic, stone exterior, stone interior, beautifully carved wood, nice pipe organ, splendid windows. It's a great place to worship! But the people who packed that chapel on that Christmas Eve for that 9:00 service had to pay a price to enjoy that beauty. They had to file through a crowd of about 50 homeless men to get into that chapel. These men were the ones who had not made it into our night shelter -- another capacity crowd, warm for the night, in our gymnasium. These 50 or so men were huddled together at the intersection -- busy and prominent during the day, but never more deserted than on that particular night. They were there waiting for a bus that would take them to a city shelter. We invited them to worship with us, and I suspect we would have tried harder to make them welcome, but they had declined so that they could wait for their bus.

Those stone walls! On one side of them, the well-placed and warm; and on the other side -- the outside -- of them, the cold and nearly forgotten!

We processed into the chapel, we said a corporate prayer of confession. We kept some silence. We sang a Kyrie, and our Associate Pastor announced the news that makes such confessional honesty possible; the news of pardon and acceptance. "Friends," the Associate Pastor said, "Believe the Good News of the Gospel! In Jesus Christ, we are forgiven!"

And at the moment that sentence was finished, an amazing thing happened. A huge cheer went up on the other side of that stone wall! Those men were cheering the arrival of that bus that would take them to another shelter -- a bleak version, at least, of pardon and acceptance.

But the effect on our side of that stone wall was riveting! I will never be able to hear those words again without thinking of the only appropriate response to them; riotous cheering throughout the precincts of heaven and earth! Music in the very heart of noise!

The challenge of faith, I think, is to do what Jesus did -- to listen carefully for that music. For it comes from some place deep beneath everything else that is. To be in touch with such wonder is to want nothing more than to lend our own voices to it, and to follow the sound wherever it may lead.

It's not easy, but neither is it impossible. In fact, it's the most important and radical thing we ever do! For, before we are anything else -- anything else at all -- we are stewards of praise.

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