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Sermon: Great and Good

November 13, 2009

Psalm 113

I have spent a lot of time on the floor in the last year, and in that time I have discovered a lot of unwelcome lessons about the stuff that is beneath the couch and behind the piano and in any number of forgotten corners of the house.

I don’t mind being on the floor, of course, because that’s where I play with my granddaughter.  She’s only a couple of feet tall, and I have to get down on my knees—sometimes on my belly—to get any real face time with her.  I had forgotten about all the little goodies that collect on the carpet, even after it has been freshly vacuumed.  For Cayden, however, that’s her world, and each of those little bits of fuzz and paper and six-day-old macaroni and cheese is a new discovery.  Into her mouth it goes, and once there, she decides whether to chew it, swallow it, spit it out or carry it around in her mouth all day like a chipmunk with food in its cheek pouch.

When I am down there on the floor with her, I see the world the way she sees it.  I get to watch the expressions on Cayden’s face when she first encounters a new and exciting object—like a ballpoint pen.  I get to tickle her and sing with her and play with her blocks.  But I can’t really do those things until I get right down there on the floor where she lives much of her life.

There are also times when it is appropriate for me to lift her up off the floor, especially if she is going to eat in her high chair or get a bath in the kitchen sink or take a nap in her crib.  I also used to spend a lot of time taking her hand and helping her to stand up or take some of her first feeble steps.  Or I can pick her up and into my arms to give her a tight squeeze before she goes to bed for the night.

That’s what it takes to love a one-year-old.  Sometimes I have to get down on the floor to enjoy her in her world, and sometimes I pick her up to help her learn to join the grown up world where she will spend the better part of her years on this earth.

*     *     *     *     *

At many Passover tables each year, Psalm 113 is sung or read at the beginning of the meal (Artur Weiser, The Old Testament Library: The Psalms [Philadelphia: Westminster, 1962], 705.).  It is a hymn of praise for the God who, from the beginning of time, has been in love with Creation.  God’s name is blessed, and we are called on to praise our God whose glory is not simply over the earth, but is even above the heavens.

Scripture is full of these kinds of affirmations, descriptions of a God who rules over all the nations, near and far.  It speaks of a God who created the heavens and the earth, animals and people, with just a word.  It tells of a God who sustains all life with the divine breath.  Scripture takes great pains to help us understand that this infinite, mysterious God has a greatness that is beyond all other things—both human beings and angels.

That God is certainly worthy of respect and even worship, but not necessarily love.  I can respect the fact that the New York Yankees have won 27 World Championships, but that does not mean I love them.  I can respect the fact that Kanye West has won 12 Grammy awards, but that does not mean I love him or his work.  But my granddaughter?  I love her, and she hasn’t done very much with her life yet.  Love and respect don’t always go together.

Psalm 113 tells us there is a reason we might love this powerful God of ours.  The scripture tells us that God’s home is in the highest heavens, where—as the NRSV puts it—God “looks far down on the heavens and the earth” (Psalm 113:6).  Your pew Bible (Today’s English Version) has a slightly more intimate paraphrase of that verse: God “bends down to see the heavens and the earth.”  The first sounds as if God needs a telescope to see us, and the second seems as if God were leaning over to pet the family dog.  But there is a third version of that text, from the World English Bible Version.  God “stoops down.”  God stoops.  To me, that is a much more intimate portrayal of God coming down to be close with us.  To stoop down makes me think of getting down on my hands and knees with my granddaughter.  It makes me think of getting way down where I can see the gunk under the couch and smell her baby freshness.

God stoops down, and what’s more, God “raises the poor from the dust” and “lifts the needy from the ash heap.”  God does not simply look down on us to observe like a scientist watching a Petri dish.  God gets down there with us and raises us up, holds our hands and lifts us up onto our feet.  God helps us walk and grow and develop.  God carries us when we are weak and leads us when we are lost.  That is a God worthy of our praise and our love.  That is a God who is both great and good.

God cares for each of us, no matter how far below we are from God’s greatness.  In fact, the Bible tells us that God seems to have a particular love and care for the least, for the poor, the needy, the widow, the orphan, the immigrant.  God is willing—perhaps even eager—to leave the throne above the highest heavens in order to get down in the muck and mire with messy, complicated, unruly and uncooperative humanity.

And so, if God is so great as to be worthy of praise, from the west to the east, from sunrise to sunset, and if that God stoops down to show such love and concern for us—especially for the poor and needy among us, then perhaps…perhaps that’s the kind of love we are meant to have for one another.

I am sure that God appreciates our acts of praise and worship—our hymns and beautiful anthems, the prayers we offer in Jesus’ name, the offerings we share with God and the Church.  But I wonder sometimes if perhaps the most valuable acts of praise are to love one another, particularly the poor and needy.  I wonder if God doesn’t stoop down and see the ways that we love one another and feed one another and clothe one another, and smile, and say, “That’s good.  They’re learning.”

Christie and Angie didn’t need a sermon about that.  They told you about their work for young women of Pravaham.  They didn’t need a sermon do decide that sharing love with those women from such impoverished backgrounds, women who had little hope for a healthy future, that to love them was to love in just the way that Christ loves us.  They didn’t need me to tell them that loving those young women from halfway around the world was just the same thing as loving Jesus.

They figured out that is precisely what we do.  We are loved by a God who is both great and good, who stooped down to live among us, to save us, to die for us, and to lead us to true life.  In consequence, that’s precisely what we do for each other.  We pick each other up out of the dust.  We feed each other.  That is the way of Christ.  That is the way of love.

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