Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Well-Spoken Church

James 3:1-12
September 23, 2012
William G. Carter

How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire. The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity; it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell. For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this ought not to be so. 

            This is a Bible text that can change a room. As soon as it is lifted into the sanctuary air, it addresses us like few other passages of scripture. Wise old James speaks to the church. He says, “Be careful what you say.” He looks over his shoulder to the preachers and says, “Not many of you should teach the faith, my brothers and sisters, because as soon as you open your mouth, you are prone to make many mistakes.” Then he looks back at the rest of us, and warns us about the destructive power of words.

            Anybody know what he is talking about? A friend reminds me of the moment that most of us have known. You are thick in a discussion with somebody you love, and you blurt something out. And you want to reach out with your hand and grab the words that just escaped your mouth, and try to push them back in.

“The tongue is a restless evil,” says Brother James. “It is full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse those who are made in the likeness of God.” So today, in the hope that we can be a well-spoken church, let’s have a conversation about our words.

First of all, the syllables we speak shall reveal who we are. If we are bitter and brackish, so shall be our words. There is a consistency between who we really are and what we say. Peevish is peevish. Generosity reveals generosity. Those who are being saved by God will neither be small-minded or forked-tongued. God’s power at work within us sets us free from speaking as if God is mean and judgmental.

In this regard, James draws upon the words of Jesus, from the 12th chapter of the Gospel of Matthew:

Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.
The good person brings good things out of a good treasure,
and the evil person brings evil things out of an evil treasure.
I tell you, on the day of judgment
you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter;
for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
(Matthew 12:34-37)

To say it simply, we need to watch what we say – and when we speak, let our words reflect the good work that God seeks to do within us.

Craig Barnes is a pastor in Pittsburgh. He says he has lost count of all the times when his church members say, “I’m sorry I got into an argument at the committee meeting last night, but I have a short temper. That’s just the way I am.”

Craig says he always replies, “No, that’s not who you are. You are who God made you to be, and God didn’t make you angry.”[1] For the scriptures are clear: “We are what God has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”[2]

We are created for good works. Brother James says that over and over again.

That leads me to the second thing I want to say: the first good work is the spoken word. In the Hebrew language, the word is considered the deed. Speaking is something that we do, a primary expression of what we believe and what we commit ourselves to do.

·         The emergency room nurse looked into the eyes of a frightened woman. She said, “I will get you the care that you need,” and she was good for her word.

·         The math teacher nodded toward the struggling student, and said, “If you drop by after the final bell, I will help you figure out what is confusing you.” Bell rings, student returns, teacher is waiting for him.

·         A minister stands before two people who love one another, who can’t wait to enjoy life together even though there are moments when they drive one another crazy. She asks them a question, waits for an answer, and for the last nine years I have pondered the meaning of those two little words, “I do.”

Our words matter because our words are our deeds. We are created to make promises and keep them, to describe the world truthfully, to welcome the voices that once were silenced – and most of all, to say what we know about God.

After all, and this is the third thing I want to say: the God of the Bible is a God who speaks, a God who is known by what God says: “Let there be light! Let there be life! Let my Word take flesh and save the world!” God says it – and God does it. The Christ-follower can never separate the Word and Deed.

When I’m done with this sermon, we will stand and sing our faith: “I believe in God, Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord . . .” Over the centuries, people have fought over those words, just to get them right. All of our big theological statements took time to be spoken, because they are important and because they point to what we believe to be true.

Say it’s time for the creed. If you ever stand in church and discover your tongue has gone on autopilot, stop and pull it out of gear. Never speak the ancient words as if they lost their meaning. Speak them as if they are written in blood, as if they matter more than everything else. Take a deep, deep breath and exhale the truth along with all of the other believers. God gave you that breath, to start with, God formed the thought in the church’s brain, and God listens for the church to speak as it receives. Worship words are just that important!

And since they are important, they are the first to be neglected. That brings me to one more point that I want to say – how tragic it is when we mistreat our words!

For a brief time before I was a pastor, I was a church custodian. It was the summer of 1984, in the little town of Nichols, New York. They wanted me to preach for four weeks in a row, and they wanted me to tidy up after I was done. It was good experience: a little church with big expectations. I said, “Do you have a job description?” They gave me a job description. I took one look at the first item and I was amazed. I pointed to it and asked, “Do you really want me to do this?” Oh yes, was the answer. That is the Number One chore.

So I shrugged and did as they requested. On Sunday morning, I preached the sermon. I did the best I could. On Monday morning, I went back, unlocked the door, reached into a closet, pulled out a large push broom, went into the sanctuary, and swept up all the used words.

There were all kinds of words. Old words like “theology.” Young words like “balloon.” Tired words like “righteousness.” Busy words like “grace.” All of those words were left behind. After everybody departed the church, they discarded a pile of used words. On Sunday morning, I put them into the air. On Monday, I returned to sweep up all the words that had fallen flat on the floor. It was discouraging.

Ever since I have wondered – how is it that so many of our words run out of helium? They simply flutter down and flop on the floor. I have a theory, that maybe we simply talk too much – that we have one tongue and two ears, but many of us speak twice as much as we listen.

To sum it up, finally, we have to mind our mouths, all of us, and be stewards of what we say. We live in a yackety time, when people post every passing thought as their Facebook status, when television advertisements are four decibels louder than the shows they are funding, when words constantly bombard us until they have no meaning.

Might I suggest, as a Sabbath discipline, that we fast from all the extra words? If you must watch football this afternoon, turn off the sound and enjoy the game. Resist checking your e-mail until sundown. Give your eyes and ears and tongues a rest. Let the Words of God be sufficient to sustain you. If we must speak, speak as God speaks, with syllables as these: You belong to me – Blessed are the poor – I have loved you with an everlasting love - Take care of the widow and the orphan – and perhaps my favorite of all God’s sayings, The Table is set and all is ready.

“Be slow to speak,” says Brother James. It’s good advice – especially so we come to treasure the words that really matter. You may remember a line attributed to either George Eliot, Abraham Lincoln, or that great theologian Mark Twain, “It is better to keep silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.” Actually all of them borrow it from the book of Proverbs: “Fools who are silent are considered wise; when they close their lips, they are deemed intelligent.” (17:28)

Did you hear about the Christian monk who lived in the Egyptian desert? He survived in the sands by living carefully, depending on the mercy of others, and devoting his life to prayer. He never spoke. When friends took him food, they would approach him with the basket. Brother Agathos looked up, smiled, and nodded. As they set the meal before him, he would spit a small stone out of his mouth.

The friends took him food once a week. Every time it happens – they bring the basket, he looks up and smiles, they set the food before him, and he spits a small stone out of his mouth.

One time, one of the friends simply had to ask, “What are you doing?”

Brother Agathos said, “Learning to be silent.”[3]

            Ah – when somebody like that speaks, I will listen. The well-spoken church knows how to listen. It also knows how to sing.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Craig Barnes, The Pastor as Minor Poet, p. 94
[2] Ephesians 2:10
[3] Thomas Merton, The Wisdom of the Desert, p. 30.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

An Intentionally Blind Church

James 2:1-10, 14-17
September 16, 2012
William G. Carter

As we continue the countdown toward our hundredth anniversary, we think again about the church. What kind of church are we called to be? The letter of James begins with an observation, and moves to a challenge.

My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ? For if a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, ‘Have a seat here, please’, while to the one who is poor you say, ‘Stand there’, or, ‘Sit at my feet’, have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts? 

Listen, my beloved brothers and sisters. Has not God chosen the poor in the world to be rich in faith and to be heirs of the kingdom that he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor. Is it not the rich who oppress you? Is it not they who drag you into court? Is it not they who blaspheme the excellent name that was invoked over you?

You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ But if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors. For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it…

. . . What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you? If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill’, and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead.

A few years ago, the United Church of Christ spent some money on an advertising campaign. The television spots were simple. It’s Sunday morning and people are going to church. As they arrive, there are two bouncers at the door. They turn aside the two men who arrive together, and allow in the blond family with well behaved children. The African-Americans, the man in the wheelchair are denied entrance, while the well dressed elderly couple is welcomed with their big checkbook. The bouncers look grim, and then the tagline fades up: Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.

The advertising campaign struck a nerve. Other churches grumbled. So the United Church of Christ dug in, and just in time for Easter, they created a follow-up campaign. It’s Sunday morning again, and people are sitting in church. The worship service is underway, and the ushers pay attention to who is present. A baby is crying in the fifth row. Not a problem; the usher hits a red button, the baby and his mother are ejected out of the room. The undesirable couple, the homeless woman, the old man in a walker – on by one, the usher hits the red button, and they fly out of their ejector seat pews.

Maybe you remember the ads, which were carefully timed to appear during Holy Week. What you may not remember is the outcry. A friend of mine in Cleveland was part of the U.C.C. staff that dreamed up the commercials. He said they received a mountain of mail. Some of it said, “Say whatever you want, but in our congregation, we reserve the right to reject anybody.”

Now, I know. That strikes a nerve in some of us. We have heard the lesson for today. It’s straight-forward. God welcomes everybody. God creates everybody, so God welcomes everybody. That’s the word from Brother James. All else is commentary; except, it is nearly impossible to welcome all the people that God welcomes.

It is there in our gestures. Have you ever noticed what our hands declare?
The hand says “Enter…”
The hand says “Halt . . . “
The hand says, “Come and sit right here . . .”
The hand says, “Move along . . . sit over there . . .”

The hand says all of this, for the hand reveals the heart. If the heart is welcoming and hospitable, the gesture reveals openness and generosity. If the heart is anxious or fearful, the hand will reveal it.

James is acquainted with those gestures in the church. He has seen them in his own church. The rich person enters and is escorted to the choice seat. If the needy person in dirty rags is there, she is told to move, if not ejected.

Please note: we are not talking about reserved seats in the concert hall. A hundred dollar ticket puts you right down front, while the cheap seats are in the balcony.

James is not talking about that. No, he is speaking of “the assembly.” That is the tag-phrase for the sanctuary, the synagogue or the sanctuary, where every child of God is invited, and where the hosts and hostesses are called to welcome them. It is a church that is intentionally blind to the distinctions of the world.

Did you see the movie “Finding Neverland”? It’s the story of J.M. Barrie who wrote “Peter Pan.” He is failing as a playwright. Nobody came to see his last show, and he has lost all inspiration. The muse returns, he drafts the words, books the theatre, hires the actors – but fears that nobody will actually come. So he goes to the waifs homes of London, visits the orphanages, and offers free tickets to any child who will come. Soon the theatre is jammed, and the play is a huge success – because he welcomed the little ones that the rest of the world turned away.

It’s a metaphor for the Gospel. Jesus said, “Let the little ones come to me.” He meant the children, to be sure, but in the broadest possible sense, the little ones. He welcomed both the little and the big, the rich and the poor, the ones who heard him gladly and those who were still working through the implications of his message.

At the heart of it all is the experience of evidence of welcome. The gesture of inclusion – “y’all come.” This reveals the heart, not only of the point person at the door, but the very heart of the whole institution.

My daughter and I took a whirlwind tour of four colleges in Boston. We returned last night. Every college is distinctive, of course. Some of them require a distinctive amount of money.

We visited one school where the tour guide was indifferent. She didn’t make eye contact to any of us, took little interest in our questions, and basically moved through the tasks of the work-study job. It was a big school – no surprise – and I can imagine that the students often feel like mere numbers.

Then there was another college, where we went on a whim during a long lunch break. We didn’t know much about it, didn’t have much time, and stopped by to see if we could at least drive through campus. The guard at the gate could have turned us away. But he pushed back his denim cap, signed an orange pass, and pointed us toward a convenient spot in the parking garage.

Even then, we weren’t certain what we would see, since tours weren’t scheduled for the day. But the admissions receptionist smiled, offered us a conversation with a staff member, and that impromptu visit turned out to be the most hospitable stop of the whole tour.

It’s this sense of welcome that makes the difference. Brother James asks, “Do you really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?” If you believe, it will be clear in your works of welcome. It’s obvious in treating the neighbor as we wish to be treated. It’s clear in how we postpone our own urges for the sake of the guest.
James puts this forth as his hope for the church of Jesus Christ – that it would be an intentionally blind church where all are welcome. Distinctions do not divide. The greatest possible good for the largest number of people is pursued. It’s a church where I work for your well-being because we are both children of God.

William Barclay explains the Greek words that James is using. They have to do with seeing, with looking upon the face, with regarding people for what you see about them. We see differently from what God sees. We see the nice clothing, the expensive haircut, the shined shoes, the manicured fingernails, the chiseled physique. Or we see the discounted blouse, the torn sleeve, the dime-store makeup, the downtrodden expression.

Do you know what God sees? A child of God! God looks at the human face and murmurs, “She looks like me. He was made in my image. Whether those people know it yet or not, they are my offspring.” Each one of us – you, and you, and you. Sisters, brothers. Different, but not better or worse. Each one identical in the love of God.

Henri Nouwen gets at this when he writes, “The church is one of the few places left where we can meet people who are different than we are, but with whom we can form a larger family.”

At our best, this becomes true. We welcome one another into our lives, sweet or ornery, all of us in the process of being changed by God’s love. Those who have a lot, those who have a little – all of us, all of us, have God in common, because God makes us and God loves us.

So the church is called to be something different from the football team. Football is fine as a sport, but you only get to play football if you are strong, mighty, and fast. And the church is something different from the office staff. In the office, there is a hierarchy, a pecking order, a gradation of value based on importance and significance. And the church is called to be something different from the clientele of the shopping mall. People go to the shopping mall to buy things, to make purchases, and that only makes sense if you have the money to go.

Oh no. We are different. In the church, we gather before the Word of God. We gather to hear how God chases after us, how God is always calling us out to trust, to love, to make a difference. We gather to hear the Word that shakes us out of our complacency and comforts us in our affliction. Most of all, we gather and we hear that every single one of us is wanted and beloved. Every single one, even the grumps. Every single one.

Because this is the church. The intentionally blind church, where every single person has infinite value.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

A Perfectly Adequate Church

James 1:1-18
September 9, 2012
William G. Carter

My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.

If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you. But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change. In fulfillment of his own purpose he gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

My good friend Bill McSwegin is gone a few years now. When he was among us, he made his way around the churches to see how they were doing. That was the kind of job he had – pastor to the pastors, executive pastor to the presbytery. And he regularly used a phrase on Sunday morning to greet the preacher after the sermon. He came up with a twinkle in his eye, moustache twitching, and he said, “That was a perfectly adequate sermon.”

Perfectly adequate. What did he mean by that?

A perfectly adequate sermon – maybe that means the sermon you get today is as good as it gets. It fulfills basic needs, and not much more. The preacher showed evidence of wrestling with the scripture text, found a couple of nuggets worth sharing, did not trip over the tongue more than a half-dozen times, and wrapped it up in a suitable time frame. Perfectly adequate.

Remember the last time you went to a perfectly adequate restaurant. The menu was predictable. The food was served without much of a wait. The wine was not watered down. The service was competent. You were not hungry when you went out to the parking lot. Perfectly adequate.

Imagine saying to your friends, “I have perfectly adequate children.” What would that mean? I suppose it could mean a lot of things. They eat their vegetables. They keep their rooms clean. They manage low B’s on their report cards. Best of all, they remember your birthday.

So what would it mean to say we have a perfectly adequate church? Perhaps it suggests that a respectable percentage of the pews have somebody sitting in them. Most of those assembled look pretty modest; the women are strong, the men are good looking, and the children are above average. An adequate church has reasonable expectations. They know every Sunday is not a jazz revival. The notes of the first choir anthem of the season land where they should. The offering plates reveal a post-vacation bump. And everything goes along as it always does. Perfectly adequate.

Except it sounds a little different when Brother James says it. The phrase he uses is “lacks nothing.” The church “lacks nothing.” They have been through some testing. They show some endurance. They reveal themselves to be perfectly adequate. They “lack nothing.”

We know people like this, don’t we? His wife is sick. The diagnosis catches them by surprise. She needs critical care. He goes every day to sit with her, even though she cannot do much more than sleep. But he goes every day. Eight in the morning, he pulls on his jacket, takes the car keys out of his pocket, and drives down to her room. He does that every day for two weeks. She looks at him with silver eyes and says, “You don’t need to push it. I’m not going anywhere.” He smiles silently and takes her hand.

One afternoon the doctor stops in to say, “I think we see a turn for the better.” All those prayers have gotten them through the vigil. A few days later, they both return home, worn out but relieved. They are different people. They have gotten through.

James writes to Christians who have been slogging through it for a while. Not quite a hundred years, but they have stuck around through the bumps on the road and the boredom of the straightaway. He begins this collection of Christian advice by noting simply that faith can be lived without a heightened sense of drama. We don’t need a lot of wattage. Don’t need to bring in a bevy of excitable people (whom James calls “unstable”). Don’t need to chase after things that entice us; these, he reminds us, are empty temptations. No, says James. Stay the course. Keep your wheels on the road. We are perfectly adequate in our endurance.

This is the voice of stability. We see it in those people who just keep going. God works on them over time. Have you been to the anniversary dinner? People are honored for keeping long promises. There may be little about them that is flashy or exhilarating. Hollywood will never make a movie about their lives. Perhaps an unstable culture would consider them boring. But James seems something healthy, something steady, something that matures over time. And those around them are changed mysteriously for the better.

Endurance is the first sign of a perfectly adequate people, a perfectly adequate church. And to burrow down to a deeper level, what makes endurance possible is the ability to receive. It’s the spiritual ability that knows everything we need over time is offered as a gift from heaven. Perfectly adequate people learn to receive everything from God.

James says, “If anybody is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.” Later on in the book, he says, “Is anybody among you suffering? Go ahead and pray. Are any of you sick? Call for the elders of the church and have them pray, and the Lord will raise you up.” There is something important here. Prayer is the practice of dependency. We do not pray because we are competent. We do not pray because we are complete. We pray because we depend on God. We pray because it is God’s generosity that makes us adequate.

This is one of the great paradoxes of the spiritual life. The strongest Christian is the one who depends most on God. The most competent Christian is the one who prays for forgiveness every day. In a do-it-yourself, pull-yourself-up society, this doesn’t make any sense. But it is a profoundly Christian truth, uttered by Jesus as the opening line of the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the strong” – no, he doesn’t say that. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

It reminds me of that Bible story from a few weeks ago. Jacob is running away after swindling his brother. Exhausted, he puts his head on a stone and goes to sleep. And what does he dream? A ladder extending between heaven and earth. And what’s happening on the ladder? Angels going up and coming down. There is a circular activity between heaven and earth.

As a preacher friend points out,

Overflowing generosity is the quality that describes the triune God. From God’s very being, all gifts of every variety flow freely and generously upon us. The usually somber John Calvin gushed that he “that he was ravished with astonishment” at the generosity of God, whose love knows no bounds and whose mercy is everlasting. (Have to love that phrase: “ravished with astonishment”!)[1]

We pray in our need, and James says, “Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.” God’s generosity makes us adequate.

Beyond endurance, beyond dependence and receptivity, there is one particular gift that James encourages us to pray for. It’s the gift of wisdom. Wisdom. That is an unusual word. It’s not the same thing as intelligence. Some of us have met smart people who aren’t very bright. They park their car beneath a falling tree. Fred Craddock, the preaching professor, used to describe the student who got a 4.0 and missed the point. Or the expert in Bible Law who approved of Jesus when he said we should love our neighbors, but who really didn’t want to see a Samaritan as his neighbor.

When the Bible speaks of wisdom, it speaks of an applied knowledge. Wisdom is holding together the “knowing” and the “doing.” It is a gift of experience; go around the track a number of times and you learn how the track moves. Wisdom is a gift from God, a holy insight that stitches together the word and the deed. As James declares in his letter, “If people think they are religious and cannot bridle their tongues, their religion is worthless and they deceive themselves. Pure religion is to care for the needy in their distress.” The Word from above is expressed in the deed down below.

Have you known the person with that kind of wisdom? I think of the college professor with a Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh, intelligent and well-read, as smart as they come, and his professional specialty was working against discrimination in any form. A successful Sunday School graduate, he went to seminary, aiming to become a preacher. But he quickly became disillusioned when the teachers in his Christian school were silent as his country got entangled in an unjust war. So he took that disillusionment as God’s call on his life to go in a different direction. He is smart, humble, and completely integrated.

I think of the woman who wears out her knees in prayer. She prays for the sick, she prays for the healthy, she prays for the people who don’t think they need it, and she prays for her pastor and his ex-wife. Every day she prays, and you can see it in the light in her eyes which never diminishes.

I recall the teacher, looking at retirement, wanting to stay active and do something significant with her life. So she gets dirty mucking out houses that were flooded down river one year ago today.

And I think of the internet photo that somebody sent me yesterday. It’s a picture of a restaurant receipt. A young couple with kids discovered that their meal was paid for. The donor wrote on their receipt, “Somebody once paid for our diner when we were young parents and it made a mark on us. The foundation of this gesture was good parenting. Keep up the good work. Time goes by so fast.”

These are glimpses of pure and unstained religion, lived out in Christian wisdom, holding together the Word and the deed. And should this happen among us, we would be a perfectly adequate church – enduring, receptive, and wise.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Clap, Shout, Sing

Psalm 47
Jazz Communion
September 2, 2012
William G. Carter

Clap your hands, all you peoples; shout to God with loud songs of joy. 
For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome, a great king over all the earth. 
He subdued peoples under us, and nations under our feet. 
He chose our heritage for us, the pride of Jacob whom he loves.    Selah

God has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet. 
Sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises. 
For God is the king of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm.

God is king over the nations; God sits on his holy throne. 
The princes of the peoples gather as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God; he is highly exalted.

            It was a hot summer night in Saratoga Springs. It was thirty years ago this summer, but I will never forget the event. The outdoor performing arts center was bustling, in anticipation of the final act of the annual jazz festival. That’s a serious festival for hard core jazz fans – twenty-four concerts in thirty-six hours. The tourists fizzle out pretty early, and a few of my adventurous friends were sticking around with me to the bitter end. I was their ride home.

            We knew the final set was the highlight of the whole weekend. That’s how those festivals are programmed. Indeed it was an all-star cast: Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, Tony Williams on bass – that was the all-star rhythm section for Miles Davis. On saxophone was the great Joe Henderson, and the trumpeter was a kid named Wynton Marsalis, still young enough to have an Afro. And if that wasn’t a great enough line-up, guitarist George Benson was scheduled to play and sing with the band.

The crowd was buzzing as the lights dimmed. It was going to be a great concert. To our surprise, a scruffy looking man wandered on the stage. He looked like the janitor. He wandered around for a minute. Maybe a stage hand. All of a sudden, he slipped off his shoes. Then he unbuttoned his shirt and removed it. Picking up a microphone from the piano, he started banging on his naked chest. He cupped his hand, and it sounded he was clapping. The rhythm was intoxicating. Then he let out a shout and started dancing around. He had a rhythm going. It was amazing.

Then he sang. He sang high like a trumpet. He sang low like a bass. Everybody laughed. We never heard anything like this. Who was it? The warm-up act? He was a one-man band, simultaneously singing all the parts, high and low, banging his bare chest, making an extraordinary joyful noise. In fact, nobody seemed to care when the rest of the band came on stage and began to play with him. The music finished and Herbie Hancock said, “Say hello to Bobby McFerrin. We just met a few days ago.”

Bobby McFerrin
The music started here. It moved to here. Ninety minutes later, as we left for the three hour drive home, that was all we could talk about. Our jazz heroes were great, but we had never heard anybody make music like Bobby McFerrin. People have been talking about him ever since. As Newsweek magazine later said about him, “He sounds, by turns, like a blackbird, a Martian, an operatic soprano, a small child, and a bebop trumpet.” The guy could do it all – clap, shout, and sing.

            That memory brings me to the poet of Psalm 47. Clap, shout sing: those are verbs of that Bible text. Verbs are the muscles of Scripture. They do the heavy lifting. And when verbs jump into a room, they invite us to do what they are doing. Clap, shout, sing! Each verb from the Psalm uses human muscles to its work. Can we do them one at a time?

            Clap! It doesn’t say “applaud” It says “clap.” That’s different. “Applause” is what you do for somebody who stands up front and does something for you. “Clap” is how you participate in the rhythm with your own hands. In Hebrew, the verb is “ta-KAW.” It also means “blast,” as in to play the trumpet.

            Shout! It works best with a fist in motion, as if we are fist-bumping the clouds. Let me hear you do it: shout! Shout is not a whisper. It demands breath and force and exuberance. When the Psalms say, “Make a joyful noise!” this is the verb that the Bible uses.

            Sing! The verb comes with a tone – let me hear your tone: sing! There’s a lot of individual expression in that verb. If two or more do this at once, we have instant harmony. In the Psalm, there are five “sings” – sing, sing, sing, sing, sing. To sing is to make melody with your voice or with a musical instrument. The verb does not specify. Singing happens in a hundred different ways.

            Do you have those verbs memorized? Clap! Shout! Sing!

            Psalm 47 offers with this visceral, three-fold invitation. Clap – Shout – Sing! These three muscle words remind us that Christianity is not a spectator religion. We don’t watch from the bleachers – we participate. We don’t come to consume entertainment and decide whether or not we like it. Oh no – we are the ones consumed. To use Paul’s words, we present our bodies as living sacrifices. We come in worship, presenting skin and bone and breath.

A lot of us are Presbyterians, so the question is inevitable: why all the noise? The Psalm is ready with an answer: because God is the ruler. God rules over the earth, God rules over the nations on the earth. God rules over everybody and everything, and then some. The poet invites the human race to join in a celebration that takes place beyond this planet. God’s rule is a cosmic reality. All the “fake gods” and minor league deities are exposed as shams; the one God over all is proclaimed.[1]

It is an exhilarating invitation. And it can be dangerous. The joyful praise of God threatens the powers and principalities on this small planet. Just last week, seventeen people were murdered in Afghanistan by the Taliban. What was their supposed crime? They attended a dance party with loud music. The Taliban didn’t like that and condemned them to death.[2]

            Joyful noise can stir up trouble. It reminds me of that scene from C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe. After an impossible winter, the land of Narnia begins to thaw. Aslan the Lion, the Christ figure, is coming into the land, and the White Witch, the commander of the winter, is losing her grip. She comes upon a group of animals who are rejoicing at the change of seasons, and she explodes. She can’t handle it! She doesn’t want Aslan to affect anybody so positively. She waves her magic wand and turns the party into stone statues.[3]

            I’ve known people like that. They have an issue with joy. Especially around children! “Sit down and be quiet!” they proclaim. “Stop laughing. Put a lid on it. Settle down.” In other words, become as buttoned-down and repressed as the rest of us.

            We have been doing this annual jazz service for twenty-one years. Every year, I hear about somebody else who can’t quite fathom what this is about. They say to somebody in the grocery store, “You have jazz in your church? Really? How do you get away with that?”

            One lady said, “Well, the minister is a jazz pianist.”

            “Oh, I’ve heard about him,” was the reply. “And people put up with that?”

            Well, I suppose if she would rather go to a sedate, boring, stuffy congregation full of stone statues, I can suggest a few. What interests me, though, is that joy is a fundamental quality of life. We were created to enjoy God. We were created to enjoy what God gives to all of us. We were created to enjoy each other. Clap – shout – sing – it’s all an expression of this joy. And if anybody tries to shut this down, they are not acting on behalf of God.

            Jesus came walking into our world, just as Aslan came into the land of deep winter. One of two things happened when Jesus came to town. Either people got well, and began to flourish, and began to rejoice – or somebody tried to shut him down. Now, tell me – which is the work of God? Bringing people to the fullness of life, or trying to stifle the joy of God’s kingdom?

            If you put the question that way, there are only three ways to respond. Remember? Clap! Shout! Sing!

            Some of us make jazz. Others of us make apple pies. Still others paint pictures or draw with chalk on sidewalks or climb to the top of a mountain and sing when they get there. All of this is a human response to the truth that God rules over heaven and earth. This is God’s world. It is populated with God’s creatures. And all of them, in their evolving complexity, are expressions of God’s joy.

            Let’s wind it up one more time: clap – shout – sing. Our joyful noise is an echo of God’s joy. Nothing less than that!

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Laurence Kriegshauser, Praying the Psalms in Christ (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 2009), 113.
[3] C.S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe (New York: HarperCollins, 1950) 127.