April 28, 2013  — EASTER 5

Rev. David Boyd

 

There was an article published by National Geographic that affirms that Humpback Whales have culture. Animal behaviourists have been telling us for years that use of tools is learned behaviour, where to find food can be passed on, what songs to sing in the pack and how to behave are learned behaviours, and that all of this constitutes a culture. We know that the bee does an elaborate dance to communicate, and that other insects have elaborate mechanisms to transfer information. Isn't this culture, too? And isn't this a way to offer praise to God?

I love the last few psalms of Book of Psalms. These last few psalms are the praise psalms. Praise God, or hallelujah, is the common refrain. The last 5 psalms are a fitting way to end the book of poetry that has inspired so many in so many difference circumstances for so many years.

Whatever view the ancient Jewish people had of the creation God made, it included the understanding that all life can praise God. The sun, the moon and the stars praise God; the mountains and fruit trees praise God. Essentially, as all is a manifestation of God's creation, as all contains within it something of the spark of God, praise can surely be offered. The very fact of creation demands praise.

Watching a bee buzzing from flower to flower is an amazing thing; it is a form of praise. The relentless nature of ants is a form of praise. The spawning salmon, the red Kokoanee flashing up the streams in the fall, is a form of praise. The call of a song bird in the morning is a form of praise. A bull elk breathing fire on a cold fall morning is a form of praise. A bellowing bear is a form of praise. A soaring eagle is a form of praise.

Praise isn't reserved for us human beings, although we, too, are called to praise God. We need to let go of our human-centric ways to see that there is a greater whole and each part of the whole offers praise to God in a very unique and wondrous way!

In our modern world, Psalm 148 becomes an environmental rallying call. It is the idea that if God created all life, and all life is capable of offering praise to God, then all life needs to be affirmed as sacred and holy. One element of life—like us, for instance—isn't more important than others.

It strikes me, having participated in our first annual peace festival, that one of the elements of peace is having within oneself a sense of praise, a sense of wonderment, a sense of beauty and appreciation, a sense of mystery at the gift of life. On Thursday morning I heard Anna Maria Tremonte interviewing a Muslim leader who helps deradicalize Muslim youth; this was in response to the arrest of the two young people who wanted to derail a Via passenger train. During the course of the conversation he said that one of the strategies is to get the vulnerable youth to a place of gratitude, to help them appreciate life, to help them offer praise would be another way of putting it. The Muslim leader said that it is hard to feel the radical hate when you have a song of thanksgiving and praise in your heart. (Those weren't his exact words but close enough.) When we live peace, we can't help but have an appreciation for life and a sense of gratitude that life is good. We can't help but praise God!

I'm reading a book by Douglas John Hall—my first legitimate e-book! The book is called Waiting for Gospel and its assertion is that liberal protestant denominations like ours have gotten away from preaching the gospel. Hall is probably the pre-eminent United Church theologian and his claim is that while all of the sociological arguments about the declining Church are true, the discussion doesn't go far enough. We can engage in all kinds of spiritual disciplines for people, provide space for people to gather, sing together, eat together, reach out to non-church folk, but if we aren't preaching the gospel, if we aren't helping people understand the context in which live and how we find meaning, purpose and hope in it, then we won't thrive. I have found that I've been squirming a bit as I read this book because I keep thinking to myself, "Am I one of those ministers who have abandoned the gospel?" In one of the chapters called "What are people for?" Hall answers the question from the perspective of stewardship.

Hall claims that people are existentially challenged in that we don't always know what our purpose is. The Westminster Confession of Faith, an important protestant statement that is now quite outdated, answered the question by saying that "the chief end of a person is to glorify God and enjoy God forever." Hall has suggested that the important answer to the question "what are people for?" is "The chief end of the human being is to be God's faithful steward in a profoundly threatened creation."

Hall goes on to define stewardship and to affirm that there are two sides to stewardship. It is a misconception to suggest that stewardship is about managing the environment or other systems. Stewardship implies relationship with, and thus has an accountability and a responsibility component to it. We are accountable to creation and to God and we are responsible to creation and to God.

Which brings me back to Psalm 148. Isn't this what Psalm 148 is suggesting, i.e. a relationship with creation, with God, with each other? And within this relationship we are both accountable and responsible. And together we can offer praise to God.

The problem is our Western penchant for individualism. We want to be distinct, separate, successful. We celebrate the rugged individual. That leads to poor stewardship and a sense of separation or at the very least a sense of everyone in it for themselves. When the individual is highlighted, we lose track of our accountability to each other in this great relationship of life and we lose track of our responsibility to each other, to the poor and the vulnerable especially!

Psalm 148 invites a sense of community, and a broad community at that, one which embraces all of creation. When we read this psalm, it is hard not to feel like one is in community with the sun, the moon and the stars, with the mountains and the fruit trees, cattle and creeping things, flying birds—we are a community of love.

Community, accountability and responsibility were part of what Jesus commanded according to John. "Love one another as I have loved you. By this love they will know that you are my disciples." Just as praise is difficult on the lips of someone caught up in fear or hate, love is a challenge for those who are radicalized to see themselves as victims of an unjust world. And yet love and praise breaks down those hearts of stone, shatters those walls of self-protection and empowers us to live as brother and sister together with the whole of creation.

Nan Merrill has paraphrased the psalms into forms of prayer; at the end of Psalm 148, she wrote, highlighting this idea of relationship and praise and peace:

For all are called to be friends,
			companions to the true Friend,
			giving their lives joyfully as
				co-creators and people of peace!
		Praises be to the Blessed One,
			the very Breath of our breath,
			the very Heart of our heart!

Amen.