A sermon by Thomas R. McKibbens
August 25, 2019
Are you a mountain person or a beach person? At the end of the summer vacation season it may interest you to know that psychologists at the University of Virginia conducted a study that found that introverts generally prefer mountainous areas, whereas extroverts opt for beaches. Beaches attract people who tend to like to socialize; mountains attract people who want to decompress alone. At least that is what the study concluded. Whether you are a mountain or a beach person, we can all agree that either place allows us to be awed by beauty and grandeur of God’s good earth.
When I ponder Psalm 103, I feel like I am standing at the summit of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park on a clear summer day. There is no direction you can look where the view is not breathtakingly beautiful. To the east is the sparkling sea and the islands; to the west are mountain ranges. The sky merges with the sea, and if you are there at sunrise, you are among the first to greet the day in the entire country. There is no place quite like it. That is the nature of Psalm 103; there is no way to do it justice. But we can take in a few of the sights from this mountain peak of a psalm.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. The writer of this psalm is talking to himself! Do you think it is weird to talk to yourself? I hope not, because I do it a lot, especially when I’m driving! This psalm writer is talking to himself, reminding himself out loud that even if others fail or falter, his life should bless the Lord. Let others complain or condemn or bellyache, but you bless! Let others spend their time blessing themselves or their achievements or their possessions, but you bless the Lord. And all that is within me, bless his holy name. Half-hearted, indifferent, lukewarm, apathetic praises are not good enough; this writer is telling himself to love the Lord with all his heart, soul, mind and strength. He is reminding himself to offer God nothing less than the best, the utmost, the finest praise and thanks that he is capable of giving.
Last week I assisted my pastoral successor at the First Baptist Church of Worcester in a funeral for a wonderful woman who became very upset with me one summer Sunday because I invited a member of the church to read the scripture, and that person came up to the chancel wearing blue jean cutoff shorts, sneakers with no socks, and a tee shirt. She let me know in no uncertain terms that she was offended!
The writer of Psalm 103 would agree with her! Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. God’s name is holy, and when we approach worship, we are engaged in holy business. We do not want to offer God sloppy, careless, slipshod worship. We present to God the best we have. We want the sanctuary clean and sparkling. We do not apologize for dressing as if this hour is special! It is holy! It is different from other activities. One of my childhood memories is the ritual of shining shoes on Saturday night. We wanted our shoes looking good for Sunday. That ritual quietly taught us children that Sunday was special, different from other days.
OK—that is looking in one direction from this mountaintop of a psalm. Let’s turn now and look in another direction. This writer had lived long enough to see many of his loved ones and friends die. He was a veteran of grief. So he concludes: As for mortals, their days are like grass: they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more.
The life that begins in the mother’s loving arms all goes so fast. Ask anyone born before World War II if life has gone fast and you will likely get the same answer: “I can’t believe how fast it has gone!” This writer knew that feeling. Our lives are like flowers, he says; they flourish for a time, and then they are gone.
The cosmetic industry is devoted to fighting that decline, as is the plastic surgery industry. But as the song written by Pete Seeger asks, Where have all the flowers gone? Gone to the graveyard every one. Within these very walls, in these very pews and in this very pulpit, there were people of energy and ideas, growth, complexity, and beauty. But now, how many of their names do we know? They flourish here, like flowers of the field, but now the place knows them no more.
Does the Christian faith have anything to say to those who are struck with how quickly it all goes? Our culture largely agrees with the answer found in Shakespeare. He has Macbeth give the hopeless answer: Out, out brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage, and then is heard no more: it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. What a depressing view of life! Yet that is the view of much of our culture.
But there is another view that is expressed by the writer of Psalm 103. It accepts the reality of how quickly life flies by, but also expresses a deep faith that life does signify something important, that in all the sound and fury of our days there is significance. Consider the reality of Psalm 103: As for mortals, their days are like grass; they flourish like a flower of the field; for the wind passes over it, and it is gone, and its place knows it no more. So far that sounds very depressing! But read on: But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting on those who fear him…who keep his covenant….
A tale told by an idiot—that is the hopeless, Godless option. But the church gladly proclaims the other option: that out beyond the horizon in the distance, there is the everlasting love of God. And when we cross that horizon, we do not cross into nothingness, but into the presence of that loving God. Our life here is not a tale told by an idiot. It has meaning because we are part of a moving, generational drama of a people who pledge to live the way of Christ in our time. Future generations may not remember our names or have any idea what we looked like or how we sounded, but we all play a part in this moving drama of God’s people.
The approaching end of summer reminds us that we are all like grass, like the flowers of the field. The wind will pass over us, and we will soon be gone—every one of us. But it’s all right! Why? Because the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting. Someday, no one will know that we worshipped here today, no one will know what we thought or how we behaved or who we loved, but God will know. From everlasting to everlasting, God will know. So we look out at the vast sea with its horizon in the distance, and we see, not dread, but beauty, and we say: Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name.