As we continue with our worship, I want to share with you the words from Sonja Stewart who wrote The Worship Center. These are words our preschool children hear at the beginning of the Sunday School. “This is a very special place. It is a special place to be with God. In this place we have all the time we need. So we don’t need to hurry…This is a special place to be with God, talk with God, to listen to God, and to hear the stories of God.” Join me in prayer. God of us all—thank you for the stories that communicate the eternal truths of your mercy, forgiveness, and longings. Help us not be in a hurry to receive them. Amen.
Last week, Winton introduced us to our sermon series on the psalms and Walter Brueggemann’s framework of looking at the psalms. While not every one of the 150 psalms can fit neatly into a category, the majority of the psalms, according to Brueggemann, can be viewed in three ways: Psalms of Orientation, Psalms of Disorientation, Psalms of Reorientation.
Today we look at Psalm 100—a psalm of orientation– a psalm that has us express our trust in God’s goodness and care.
I find this Psalm short and sweet but deeply inspiring and instructive. It first begins with a call to worship and then moves into the reasons why we are to worship. We are to worship God because we belong to God, because God is good, God’s love endures forever, and God is faithful down through the generations.
In our baptism services, the last statement we proclaim upon baptism is “Child, you belong to God!” And it is our hope that each person baptized will be able to live into this sense of belonging to God.
But what does it actually mean to belong to God? As human beings we have a deep desire to belong and we strive to fill this desire in many ways. Often in order to belong, we seek other people’s approval. Belonging and approval go hand in hand. This is a normal, human longing and God knows that we are desperately looking for this. The danger of seeking approval from someone else is that you will get it, and thereafter you will be hooked on that approval. And even our best intentions of not getting hooked into a pattern of seeking approval may not be enough to stop our desire.
George Orwell describes an incident that challenged his belief that he was immune to seeking approval and immune from the desire to belong in an essay from 1936 entitled Shooting an Elephant
While serving as a police officer of the British Empire in Burma (now Myanmar) in the 1920s, Orwell witnessed the brutal treatment of Burmese prisoners in British jails. He came to the conclusion that British imperialism was an evil force. But to the local people, he was embodiment of the hated British Empire and was routinely insulted and sneered at.
One day an elephant came rampaging into the town through a market and he was summoned to take action. Orwell surmised that this was a working elephant that must be experiencing a frenzy of violent behavior that afflicts male elephants on occasion. But because of the elephant’s rampage a man was unfortunately trampled to death. So with an elephant rifle in hand and a large crowd watching, Orwell set off to find the elephant.
When he found the elephant, it had calmed down, and was eating bunches of grass. Orwell knew that the right thing to do would be to wait for the elephant’s owner who would take the elephant home. Orwell believed there was no need to shoot the elephant. But the crowd of two thousand who were watching became full of frenzy and wanted to see him shoot the elephant. Orwell writes: “Suddenly I realized that I should have to shoot the elephant after all…Here I was, the white man with his gun, standing in front of the unarmed native crowd—seemingly the leading actor of the piece; but in reality, I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those faces behind…To come all that way, rifle in hand, with two thousand people marching at my heels, and then to trail feebly away, having done nothing—no, that was impossible. The crowd would laugh at me. And my whole life, every white man’s life in the East was one long struggle not to be laughed at.”
Orwell does what he hates—he shoots the elephant. Unable to bear the elephant’s agony, Orwell walks away and learns later that it took 30 minutes for the elephant to die.
He paid a huge price to gain approval and find a sense of belonging. Rather than lead the crowd to do what he knew was right, he was led by the crowd to do what he knew was wrong.
This story is very powerful story but not uncommon. If we are honest with ourselves we all can remember stories of how we made poor decisions simply to gain approval, as a way to belong.
But let me be clear, our desire to belong and seek approval is not meant to cause us shame or guilt. This is a natural human propensity. What does matter is whose approval is going to run us? And this is where verse 3 in Psalm 100 gives us hope. We are God’s children, we belong to God—under the influence of God’s generous love, we find a sense of belonging that brings salvation and wholeness. What we experience from this involves a conversion in the very deep areas of belonging and our way of relating.
Belonging to God helps us to reorder our lives. And this is important because our lives need reordering. We are inducted into a world in which we are typically in rivalry with each other, or take revenge upon each other, or need to despise some people, or conceive of our security and well-being as something which depends on others being excluded from it, or compare ourselves to others as a way to make us feel better, or mislead and abuse others. Down through the generations this is passed onto us from the world and what we learn to imitate. But Psalm 100 tells us that there is something else that is passed down–God’s faithfulness—another affirmation of God’s character. We are all recipients of God’s faithfulness which is rich and dense, forgiving and without rivalry, and this is all part of the quality we sense as we belong to God.
The last verse also has us consider the affirmation that God’s love will never end. The Bible is full of testimonies of God’s unfailing love and mercy towards all creation. In our church we speak often of God’s love and God’s love for the world. As Christians, we have learned of this enduring love as it is made known in the crucified and risen one.
Through Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection we are made aware of a kind of love that is utterly gratuitous. According to James Alison in his book Knowing Jesus, “The self-giving of Jesus to his death, and the giving of him back in the resurrection were entirely gratuitous—completely and absolutely outside the tit-for-tat, cycle of violence we see in the world.” This is the love of God incarnate. “It is important that we remember not only how much we have been loved but more importantly the shape of our being loved—that someone was prepared to occupy the place of victimage, and shame, patiently and gently, out of love for us, long before we sensed how much we depended on such a thing. We are loved from this space of God’s giving.” And it is precisely this love that was from the beginning and endures forever.
Finally, in four words the psalmist makes a simple but important pronouncement: “The Lord is good.” The Lord is good. How do we know that? Well, the whole Jesus story, his coming among us, being thrown out and coming back again without resentment—this really is the shape of God’s affection and goodness towards us. This goodness flows from a God who is not looking to settle scores with us in any way, a God who offers a gratuitous forgiving presence that calls us out of ourselves, out of rivalry, revenge, out of fear, and into the life of God. The sheer goodness of God can be perceived when we can begin to glimpse the benevolence and power of what Jesus was doing coming into our midst. Yes, indeed the Lord is good.
Before we move into a time of reflection I invite us to sing the last verse, verse 4, of Hymn #7—All People That on Earth Do Dwell.
- How do you understand the affirmation that we belong to God? Whose approval do you seek?
- Are there times when you notice in you a sense of rivalry with someone else? How do you respond to this?
- How does God’s love and goodness expressed in the self-giving of Jesus connect with you?
- How has God’s faithfulness of forgiveness and mercy been evident to you?