As we enter into our summer lectionary readings we begin with a topic that might make some of you uncomfortable. It’s all about praise!
I can hear you thinking: Oh now, pastor, can we have just a little more time with all that judgment stuff, please? Obviously, that makes us uncomfortable, too, but at least when you talk about judgment we aren’t worried that you’re going to force us to do something we don’t want to do!
Praise is a scary word. It’s scary, because it brings to mind other scary things like dancing and singing. We don’t dance much in public anymore, you might have noticed. It wasn’t that long ago that school dances involved dancing. It also wasn’t that long ago that communal singing was a thing that happened all the time. Nowadays, it’s pretty much reserved for church and the occasional odd sporting event, which is really cool when it happens, by the way. I will always remember the late-September 2008 Twins series sweep of the White Sox when the Metrodome corridors were packed with fans shouting Glory, Glory, Hallelujah. We know how to praise. We mostly just don’t want to.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. In many places in the world today, dancing, and singing, and communal praise are essential to worship. In 2006, I went on a trip to Tanzania with the Augustana Choir. One Sunday after worship in a village outside of Iringa, a half dozen local choirs joined us on the back lawn of the church to sing for one another. But it wasn’t just singing—it was dancing and jumping. It was praising. Every one of those groups came dressed for the occasion and ready to move it, clad in long-flowing robes or traditional Masai black-and-red laden with jewelry. They knew who they were, and they were there to do praise.
Our music was meaningful but different. This Lutheran tradition of stoicism is a heritage of ours that has some real strengths. We tend to be humble; we tend to value meekness; and we tend to do what we do well. But, man, do we struggle with praise! So, we say “Praise the Lord! Praise, O servants of the Lord; praise the name of the Lord” from Psalm 113, but we say it meekly. We say it uniformly. We don’t want to stick out. And if the pastor (or anybody else) tries to get us to do differently, watch out!
So much of this comes from a good place—really, it does! We see the people who make a show of their praise—who raise up their hands not out of genuine worship but to demonstrate their faithfulness to others, or to fit in themselves. We see the auditoriums and the stadiums full of worshipers who are mimicking the actions of others, and we find that at best inauthentic and at worst showy or boastful. But just because we see the hypocrisy of others doesn’t mean we have our house in order.