Sermon: “Greater Than Advertised”

November 6, 2016: Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Psalm 145:1-5, 17-21
Luke 20:27-38

For over twenty-five years of ministry, I have opened nearly every funeral service at which I’ve officiated with these words:

“God is near to all who call,
who call from their hearts.
The desires of those who fear God are fulfilled;
their cries are heard;
they are saved.”

It’s a suggested opening from the funeral service in the Book of Worship of the United Church of Christ, and it’s a somewhat different translation of verses 18 and 19 of Psalm 145 than that of the New Revised Standard Version. In the midst of my own losses, both the deaths of loved ones and personal regrets and failures, I have yearned for the comfort and assurance of these words:

“God is near to all who call,
who call from their hearts.
The desires of those who fear God are fulfilled;
their cries are heard;
they are saved.”

Despite my familiarity with these words from a funeral service, Psalm 145 is an extravagant celebration of God, who gets described as gracious, merciful, patient, loving, good, compassionate, glorious, powerful, mighty, splendid, everlasting, and faithful – and that’s just through verse 13.

The people of Israel would have sung this song to celebrate good times and successes, and they would have sung it for comfort amidst loss or failure, just as we do today. It’s a reminder of who God is, and what God does. You might even think of it as an advertisement for the Lord.

“Now available: the universe’s greatest deity. Supports the falling, raises the fallen, feeds the hungry, cleanses the sinners. Available exclusively through this limited time offer, no exceptions or exclusions apply.”

That’s the challenge of Psalm 145. Advertising great Bill Bernbach declared that “the most powerful element in advertising is the truth,” which seems a little strange to say as we close a political season in which truth has been a rare commodity. Bernbach also inspired the maxim that “nothing kills bad product faster than good advertising.” I’d actually remembered that in reverse, that nothing kills good advertising as quickly as bad product.

It means that the faithful must ask, and answer, these questions in every age: Is God great? Is God good? In a world where there is so much suffering, does God, can God, live up to the hype?

It’s not enough to just say, “Oh, yes, certainly,” and go on. That wouldn’t comfort the sorrowing baseball fans in Cleveland, let alone those in grief for a significant personal loss. To be a witness, to be an effective witness to the God of Psalm 145, we must be able to ask and answer:

Is God great? Is God good? In a world where there is so much suffering, does God, can God, live up to the hype?

If anyone is in suspense over this, you might note that I titled this sermon “Greater than Advertised,” so, that’s where I’m going.

St. Augustine, in his Exposition on the Book of Psalms, looked for God in the gaps. He wrote:

“For how great things besides has His boundless Goodness and illimitable Greatness made, which we do not know! When we lift the haze of our eyes to heaven, and then recall it from sun, moon, and stars to the earth, and there is all this space where our sight can wander; beyond the heavens who can extend the eyesight of his mind, not to say of his flesh?”

He imagined greatness beyond what he could see. In fact, he imagined greatness beyond his imagination.

Well, with tools we’ve extended the eyes of the flesh far out into the heavens and into the tiny things of the earth. With mathematics and data gathering and method we’ve extended the eye of the mind – yet creation retains its mystery. New discoveries raise new questions. I suppose someday we might learn all there is to know, but there’s no sign of that happening any time soon.

In this week’s Messenger, I wrote about ordinary and unexpected blessings. I see God’s handiwork in everyday miracles. This planet continues to provide what’s needed to sustain an enormous range of life. Living things are amazing. They’ll live in the strangest places, including undersea volcanic vents like those of Lo’ihi, the next island-to-be of the Hawaiian chain. To my eyes, that’s a divine miracle.

Over and over again throughout the centuries, people have testified to the intervention of God in their lives. Sometimes it’s been personal, as when Abraham and Sarah gave God thanks for their new home and their longed-for family. Sometimes it’s been on a grand scale, as when Moses led his people out of slavery into freedom, crediting a God of power and justice. Sometimes it’s been both, as when Jesus’ followers understood that the entire world had been changed by his resurrection.

Over and over again, people have found increased joy, added strength, and reinforced hope, and they’ve given thanks to God for it, and left us their stories as witness.

You may know the saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” It’s widely quoted, and has its roots in a sermon of the Rev. Theodore Parker, a 19th century Unitarian minister and anti-slavery crusader from Boston. I see its truth in the world, though I can’t say that progress is absolute. 150 years before Jesus, the Romans destroyed the city of Carthage and enslaved 50,000 of its inhabitants. Forty years after Jesus, the Romans destroyed the city of Jerusalem, and enslaved thousands of its survivors. That was a common way for a war to end in those days, but no more. Now wars are more likely to end with the rebuilding of the defeated country. After World War I, the League of Nations lasted only 26 years and it failed to prevent the calamity of World War II.

We’ve now had a United Nations for seventy-one years: and we haven’t had a World War III.

A few years ago, I heard Dr. Robert Orr speak. At the time, he was the UN’s Assistant Secretary General for Policy Coordination and Strategic Planning, and the highest-ranking American in the UN’s staff leadership. He said something astonishing: that human beings have developed effective techniques to end extreme poverty. With the will and resources behind them, we could end extreme poverty around the world in our lifetimes.

We could end extreme poverty. That’s never been even contemplated before.

Racism remains an ugly poison in the soul of humanity. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., quoted Theodore Parker often, that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. And so it has. It has bent toward justice. We in America still suffer the toxic effects of racism – but it’s better than it was. There’s more bending toward justice ahead, but it is bending.

America wrestles today with questions that would have been rejected out of hand a hundred years ago, and rejected with violence. If some of today’s political rhetoric appalls us with its racial overtones, remember that fifty years ago the racism would have been explicit, and it would have appalled people less because it was entirely normal.

The arc of the moral universe is long, and it is noticeably bending toward justice.

I could go on.

The truth is that none of this amounts to scientific proof of the greatness or goodness of God. There’s no experiment I could perform and repeat and get the same result to demonstrate God’s love. The words and wisdom of the prophets and of others who testified to God’s action in their lives could have come not from inspiration, but from their imaginations. The civilizing of humanity could be the result of human development, not the guiding influence of the Holy Spirit.

Even my own sense of conversations with God could be wishful thinking at best, and delusional at worst.

But like the author of Psalm 145, and like millions of people since it was written, I read its extravagant praise and say, God is greater than advertised. God has surprises in store, and wonders, and blessings.

I can hardly wait to see what’s ahead.

Categories Sermons | Tags: , | Posted on November 6, 2016

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