Sermon for June 16th, 2019

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Psalm 103:1-22

Of David.
1 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and all that is within me,
    bless his holy name.
2 Bless the Lord, O my soul,
    and do not forget all his benefits—
3 who forgives all your iniquity,
    who heals all your diseases,
4 who redeems your life from the Pit,
    who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy,
5 who satisfies you with good as long as you live
    so that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.

6 The Lord works vindication
    and justice for all who are oppressed.
7 He made known his ways to Moses,
    his acts to the people of Israel.
8 The Lord is merciful and gracious,
    slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always accuse,
    nor will he keep his anger forever.
10 He does not deal with us according to our sins,
    nor repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
    so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
    so far he removes our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion for his children,
    so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.
14 For he knows how we were made;
    he remembers that we are dust.
15 As for mortals, their days are like grass;
    they flourish like a flower of the field;
16 for the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
    and its place knows it no more.
17 But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
    on those who fear him,
    and his righteousness to children’s children,
18 to those who keep his covenant
    and remember to do his commandments.

19 The Lord has established his throne in the heavens,
    and his kingdom rules over all.
20 Bless the Lord, O you his angels,
    you mighty ones who do his bidding,
    obedient to his spoken word.
21 Bless the Lord, all his hosts,
    his ministers that do his will.
22 Bless the Lord, all his works,
    in all places of his dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul.

Psummer of Psalms II - 103

For those of you who carefully read our church's online newsletter, the E-Pistle, and observed that today I would be preaching on Psalm 91... don't worry. That's next week's sermon. Today, however, I'm going a little off script, a little off plan, because it's father's day. And I wanted to preach on a good, father's day psalm. But first, since it's father's day and I am a father, I thought I would take this once-a-year opportunity to indulge in a truly fatherly pursuit: The Dad joke. I have ten of them, actually. With absolutely no connection whatsoever to today's sermon, other than the fact that they bring great joy to... well... me. And Dads like me all around the world.

So here goes:

1. What do you call a fish without eyes? Fsh.

2. What do you call a nose without a body? Nobody knows.

3. What do you call an elephant that doesn't matter? Irrelephant.

4. What do you call a dog that can do magic tricks? A labracadabrador.

5. What do you call a person who loves to tell Dad jokes but doesn't have children? A faux pa!

6. After dinner, my wife asked if I could clear the table. I needed a running start, but I made it!

7. My daughter asked me if I was alright, and I said, "No, I'm half left."

8. I told my son I was named after Thomas Jefferson… He said, “But dad, your name is Neal.” I said, “I know, but I was named AFTER Thomas Jefferson.”

9. Last night Amy and I watched three movies back to back. Luckily I was the one facing the Television.

10. I only recognize 25 letters in the English language. I don’t know why.

11. Can a kangaroo jump higher than the Empire State Building? Of course. The Empire State Building can't jump.

I don't think there are any Dad jokes in the Book of Psalms, but in the NRSV translation of the Bible, the word "Father" does occur six times. Three of those occurrences are rather negative, as in Psalm 109, "May the iniquity of his father be remembered before the Lord and do not let the sin of his mother be blotted out."

The other three are more favorable references, including verse 13 of this Psalm: "As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him."

The word compassion, in Hebrew, is רָחַם (racham), which in its broadest sense, simply means "love." A father loves his children, and in the same way, God loves those who fear him. In this context, the word fear (Hebrew יָרֵא - yarah) doesn't mean terror or distress in the negative sense, but rather the awe or amazement in which a small child regards its parents.

As a father loves his children (and protects them, and takes care of them) so the Lord loves (and protects, and takes care of) those who look up to him in wonder and in gratitude.

Psalm 103 is a Psalm of thanksgiving for that kind of love. It's also a model how to express gratitude and thanksgiving. Why is that important to us? That's why.

A recent Forbes magazine article entitled "The Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude" cites the following:

In a 2012 study, people who intentionally practiced acts of gratitude each day experienced "fewer aches and pains and reported feeling healthier than other people" in the control group.

In addition to physical health, are psychological benefits: According to researcher Dr. Robert Emmons, in multiple studies on the links between gratitude and well-being, gratitude "reduces a multitude of toxic emotions, ranging from envy and resentment to frustration and regret."

A 2012 study from the University of Kentucky found that gratitude enhances empathy, sensitivity, and reduces aggression in social situations.

There are so many other similar studies, demonstrating that intentional practices of gratitude improve everything from self-esteem, mental strength, athletic performance, and even quality of sleep at night.

So you want a better, healthier, happier life? Try practicing thankfulness. And Psalm 103 guides the way.

The ascription to Psalm 103 tells us that it is a Psalm of David, who was, incidentally one of the most successful and well-loved characters in the Bible. David experienced great joy in his life as well as unspeakable tragedies, but in both his youth and his old age, he is quick to give thanks to God for all things.

David's song of thanksgiving is not, properly speaking, a prayer. He's not talking to God. He's talking to himself.

Bless the Lord, O my soul and all that is within me bless his holy name. David is reminding himself of what's most important--to bless, or give thanks, to God. "Don't forget," he says to himself, "all the benefits" that God provides. And then in verses 3-5 he lists them. These are all personal, individual blessings, and I imagine with each one David is thinking of specific examples where God has forgiven him, healed him, saved him from danger, raised him up.

STEP 1: When you are practicing gratitude, start with all the things God has done specifically for you, all the things God has given to you. And then bless his name.

In the next part of the Psalm, verses 6-13, David moves from the personal to the public, expressing gratitude for all that God has done for the people under his care, his community, the people of Israel. The focus here is forgiveness--he knows that his people (like him) have not always lived up to God's expectations, and like a typical father, God has often been angry with them--but he knows that won't last forever.

There's a famous line in this section, verse 12, that I quote from each Sunday after our prayer of confession: "as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. This section ends with the comparison between a father's love for his children and God's love for us.

STEP 2: When you are practicing gratitude, move beyond the things that have benefitted you personally, to the ways in which God has blessed your family, your community, your church, your tribes, and your nation. Give thanks for these things, and then bless his name.

The next section, verses 14-18 continue to expand, speaking of all people, all mortals, and putting our lives in long-term perspective -- we are dust, our days are like grass. We flourish like the flowers of the field, and then in an instant we are gone. But still the world goes on--our children, our children's children, and their children after that; and the God who made everything continues to love us throughout the eons.

STEP 3: When you are practicing gratitude, remember to put things in perspective. The things that seem so important to us in our frantic day to day routines are fleeting. No one, on their deathbed, says "I'm grateful for all my money. I'm grateful I had a nicer house (or car, or wardrobe) than my neighbors. I'm grateful for all the time I spent at the office." We should be the most thankful for things that endure, for things that really last. For love. For relationships. For the beauty of the world. And for a God whose love and promises stretch deep into eternity. Give thanks for the things that truly matter most, and then bless his name.

In the last section of David's thankful song, he turns at last to the cosmic, to the mystic. "The Lord has established his throne in the heavens," which for ancient peoples meant the sun, the moon, the stars, the entire observable universe. And as deeply as you can look into all of that, you will find that God is there, guiding it all in some mysterious way, toward a goodness that we can only begin to understand. The angels bless him. All of his works, all his creation blesses him. And so, David concludes, let me bless him, too.

STEP 4: When you are practicing gratitude, go all out! Find a way to be grateful for every single speck of stardust in all the cosmos, of which you are a tiny, but very important part. And then come back to that part. Give thanks for it all. Give thanks for eternity. And for today. For you, and all that is within you. Then bless his holy name.