Paul's Episcopal Church
Second Sunday of Easter: 4/07/13
Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia! May I speak to you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I've heard Psalm 150 called an "Easter Alleluia turned into an entire Psalm." Last week we heard the blast of the ram's horns, or at least our wonderful brass players, and sang joyful Alleluias with all of our strength. And we shouted the Easter acclamation that the Lord is risen indeed...Alleluia!
We came home from church and the next day it was Monday again. And to make it worse, when we turned on the news, rather than Easter triumph and Easter joy, we saw the pain and suffering of a world still disfigured by sin. Psalm 150, in all of its cheerful splendor, can seem distant from what we experience of the world. How does Psalm 150 speak to our broken world when we don't always feel like praising God with timbrel and dance?
Let us look at the first verse of the psalm. I fear that it might be lost, at least a little, in translation. What does Hallelujah mean? If you were ever in church school, you might have learned a song that goes: "Hallelu, hallelu, hallelu, hallelujah! Praise ye the Lord!" Sound familiar? Hallelujah is Hebrew for "Praise ye the Lord." So every time we see the words "Praise God" or "Praise him," it's written out "Hallelujah" in Hebrew. It's not just an exclamation, like we might say in response to life's little triumphs, like seeing that Diet Coke is on sale, or getting to church on time. It's a forceful, imperative verb – we are actually commanded to praise God time and time again in Scripture. And not just us. Two psalms earlier, the same verb Hallelujah commands angels, sun and moon, shining stars, sea monsters, fire and hail, snow and fog, tempestuous wind, the list goes on and on.
But why? Does God need our praise? Does God's ego get a boost from our Alleluias? Theologian C.S. Lewis struggled with this question. He writes: "The most obvious fact about praise — whether of God or anything — strangely escaped me. I thought of it in terms of compliment, approval, or the giving of honour. "I had never noticed that all enjoyment spontaneously overflows into praise... And just as people spontaneously praise what they value, so they spontaneously urge us to join them in praising it: ‘Isn’t she lovely? Wasn’t it glorious? Don’t you think that magnificent?' He goes on... "I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment." To summarize the rest of Lewis's argument, our enjoyment of God is not complete unless it is shared in community. Our praise grows out of our love for God, who is kind, just, merciful, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love. And when we join our voices with others who know this same God, we see why God loves our praise.
Church services at St. Paul's were cancelled for a Sunday because of the February blizzard, so my wife Meredith and I decided to say Morning Prayer from the comfort of our living room couch. We got our cups of coffee and tea, our Bible and our Book of Common Prayer, and had church, with our West Highland White Terrier sitting between us on the couch. I had picked out a few hymns that we would have been singing at St. Paul's. As soon as we started singing, I knew something was off. Meredith and I both love singing, so that wasn't the problem. I think the problem was that it was hard to shout hallelujahs while at the same time worrying about waking up our neighbors in the apartment next door. As I timidly sang those Transfiguration Sunday alleluias that morning, I longed to be with our choir, organ, and congregation, all singing at the top of our voices. I think this is what the psalmist is describing when he says "Praise him with the blast of the ram's horn; the lyre and harp, timbrel and dance, strings and pipe, resounding cymbals, loud-clanging cymbals. Let everything that has breath praise the LORD."
Most churches don't have all of these instruments every Sunday, and from a musical aesthetic standpoint some congregations prefer choirs and organs. Some prefer guitars and drums. Some prefer the beautiful simplicity of an 8 am spoken Rite I service. What's more important here than the individual instruments mentioned is the breadth and variety of them. Even today, some 3000 or so years later, there is no category of acoustical instrument that is not represented in Psalm 150. In King David's time, the pipe was not regarded as an appropriate instrument for sacred music. It's only mentioned two other places in scripture, and never for use in the liturgy. Yet the psalmist commands us to praise God with the strings and pipe, signifying that his praise is not bound by our own distinctions between sacred and secular music. Timbrel and dance, or tambourine and dance, have a hidden connotation too. Think back to the Easter Vigil service last week. In the reading from Exodus, who was playing the tambourine and dancing? From Exodus 15: "Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron's sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing." In those days, playing the tambourine and dancing were usually done by women. So, if it hadn't been made clear in the line "let everything that has breath praise the LORD," Psalm 150 is intentionally inclusive of women in its call to praise.
It's all well and good to read this psalm and imagine the symphony of creation called forth by the psalmist. But what if we feel like we can't join in? Look at today's Gospel reading. When the disciples were huddled together in a locked room on that Easter Sunday evening, I suspect Psalm 150 was not the first thing on their minds. The blast of the ram's horn, loud clanging cymbals and shouts of Hallelujah may have seemed premature for the disciples who hadn't yet seen the risen Christ. Maybe their ears were still ringing with Jesus' words from the cross from another Psalm, Psalm 22. "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Maybe they were hiding in fear, thinking they were next to be arrested, and praying Psalm 121: "I lift up mine eyes unto the hills; from whence cometh my help?" Was there a place for praise in the midst of the disciples' fear and doubt? Is there a place for praise in the midst of our own fear and doubt? Even on our Easter Mondays, when we don't see much reason for rejoicing?
The answer is emphatically yes. Theologian Craig Satterlee says we can "prescribe praise as the Easter antidote for fear and doubt."As the hymn says, "Easter triumph, Easter joy, these alone can sin destroy." Once the disciples actually saw the risen Christ, John says they rejoiced. Thomas, not being with the other disciples at the time, hadn't yet gotten this opportunity. And as a result, he has earned the nickname Doubting Thomas, and in church, we tend to make an example out of him every Sunday after Easter! But when Thomas finally got the opportunity to see the risen Christ, he went a step further professing his faith, praising Jesus and saying "My Lord and my God." We can join with Thomas and the disciples in praising in the midst of our doubt and sorrow, on our own Easter Mondays, because of God's mighty act of raising Jesus Christ from the dead. As the Apostle Paul says, "For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his."
As Easter people, we have seen the risen Christ. We have seen the risen Christ in the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion. We have seen the Risen Christ in each other, as the body of Christ, particularly in things like our Covenant to Care, which we celebrate today, and the work of social workers like Mary Berrios. Because Christ is risen, we can confidently "praise God for God's mighty deeds," and "praise God according to God's surpassing greatness."
So what does this Easter life of praise look like? I doubt we're all going to take up playing the ram's horn or loud crashing cymbals. Just as Meredith and I discovered singing hymns on our living room couch, I don't think we're necessarily called to impose upon others with our loud sung praises. We can expand our definition of praise as we go about our daily lives. A life of praise is a life focused on God, that celebrates God's greatness rather than dwelling on ourselves. A life of praise is a life of forgiveness, reconciliation, full of the fruits of the Spirit. We will still encounter sin and death, but we should never underestimate the power of praising God for God's mighty deeds and surpassing greatness. Because the God who brought the Israelites out of Egypt and raised Jesus Christ from the dead is the same God who is actively at work redeeming the world through the power of the Holy Spirit.