November 19th – Steve Jungkeit – with audio
Texts: Psalm 150; Luke 17: 11-19
How to Render Praise?
This is a Sunday that presents the preacher with a wide palette of colors to paint with, having to do with food, the offering of thanks, and of course, communion itself. But given communion, and given the holiday feasting that will soon be upon us, I’d like to share a story worthy of consideration on a Sunday such as this.
The story was written by Isak Dineson, entitled Babette’s Feast. It was adapted into a beautiful film in the late 1980’s. Whether in print or on the screen, it’s a story that every lover of food should see, but every lover of God and of grace as well. The story is set on a windswept island off of Denmark in the late 19th century, and it features an austere Christian sect akin, in some ways, to the early Puritans. Their lives are devoid of color or ornamentation, as they rigorously seek to obey the commandments of God. Two aging sisters lead the community, both of whom declined offers of marriage years earlier, choosing instead to remain devoted to their community. One day a stranger named Babette shows up at their door, a refugee from revolutionary Paris. She carries only a letter from one of the sisters’ former suitors, pleading with them to take Babette into their care. They have no money, but Babette begins to cook and to clean without pay, remaining in the community for years. One day, in a stroke of good fortune, a winning lottery ticket is sent to Babette as a gift, enough to allow her to return to her home, and to her former way of life. But instead, Babette, who prior to her exile had been the chef at the finest restaurant in France, chooses to prepare an exquisite, sumptuous, intricate feast for the community that has sheltered her, to signal her gratitude. She spends months preparing the feast, sending a courier to fetch all the ingredients from Paris. She invites the two marriage suitors, now grown old, to return to the community, and finally, she invites all the remaining residents to gather around a table. Some of those residents have covenanted among themselves not to reveal the pleasure they’re deriving from the meal. But soon, the sheer artistry of the food breaks down their defenses. Distrust and old animosities melt away. Discarded love is rekindled, and haunting regret is overshadowed by the grace of second chances. Something like redemption settles over the entire community.
I got to thinking about that film when I was visiting with a few friends in our congregation. After a little while, our conversation turned toward films we admire, and Babette’s Feast was mentioned. I ventured that I thought it was about a terribly repressed community being called out of themselves by the splendor of a feast. One of those friends had another interpretation, though, and truth be told, it struck me as far better than mine. “You know,” she said, “I think the film is about the different ways that people find throughout their lives to praise God. For some, praising God means to give something up, to sacrifice something. For others, it means to dedicate oneself to service. For others still, it’s to create objects or experiences of surpassing beauty. They’re all ways of praising God.”
I loved that thought, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. What does it mean, really, to praise God? What does that phrase, found so often throughout the Psalms, “Praise the Lord,” mean for those of us who live in the 21st century? For many of us, there’s something more than a little archaic about it, belonging to a worldview that we no longer inhabit, or worse, belonging to the world of TV preachers that we find goofy at best, or reprehensible at worst. For me, it often conjures the world of megachurches, which I flirted with in my youth, filled with individuals who all have their eyes closed and hands raised, singing songs about how worthy, or majestic, or awesome God is. It doesn’t, in other words, sound like a phrase that New England Congregationalists would say or exclaim on the regular. Even so, there’s something to it. What if that phrase described a basic feature of our humanity? What if to render praise was as natural as breathing, and to forgo it was deprive ourselves of something precious, like oxygen? What if our very vocation as human beings was to discover how best to render praise to God?
In Hebrew, one of the words used for praise is yadah, which means something like “to throw down, or to cast down.” In that sense, to render praise would imply encountering something before which you threw yourself down. It might also imply putting something aside, for the sake of something greater. That would be in keeping with several of the more pious characters in Babette’s Feast, who seek to humble themselves through abstention, or simplicity, or austerity. It would be in keeping with a lot of Lenten practices, where people deny themselves that which they love, for the sake of a higher love. It would be in keeping with our Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors. There is an honor and dignity to that form of praise. There are times when we’re asked to give things up, for the sake of something greater than us. It’s something that every parent knows well. It’s something that everyone who strives to lead a life of integrity should recognize. There are behaviors and activities that are best avoided if one is to live a life of decency and respect. There are times that to render praise requires the exertion of a kind of discipline, where we simply say no to something that might, for whatever reason, feel thrilling, or interesting, or pleasurable. There is an honor to abstemiousness that I wish to uphold, an honor that every member of Alcoholics Anonymous can attest to. It is an important, and too often trivialized, way of rendering praise.
But there’s another possibility inherent in the words used for “praise.” A word that is sometimes interchanged in the Hebrew is halal, which means to “flash forth light,” and this too is an important valence that we must acknowledge. We all have ways in which we flash forth light. Most often it happens when we’re immersed in something, to the point that we cease to be conscious of what others might think or say. When we’re given to witness a person at work, for example, one whose skill and craftsmanship serve to call forth a sense of awe, we’re witnessing one who flashes forth light, which to say, a person offering praise. When we witness a performance, of music, or dance, or film that suspends time, I think we’re witnessing the flashing forth of light, which is to say, the offering of praise. When we offer a word of encouragement or express interest in the life of another, we become those who flash forth light, which is to say, those who offer praise.
Many of you are just that – a flashing forth of light in the way that you live, in the way that you conduct yourselves, in the way you share with others. Just a few weeks ago, I heard of how a few of our choir members gathered together, and visited one among us who is in her last moments. She loves music, and she loves our choir, and so these individuals surrounded her bed, and sang a few old hymns. It meant the world to her. But as I heard the story, it also meant the world to those who sang. To offer such a gift is to render praise. But to receive it – that too is to render praise. Like Babette offering her feast of thanksgiving, like the austere Protestant sect learning how to receive a gift so lavish, that bedside scene struck me as a beautiful way to render praise to God.
But perhaps that story from Luke’s gospel offers a final insight into the question of praise, one fitting for the week we’re about to embark upon. It’s a story of healing, but really, it’s a story of thanksgiving. Ten lepers are healed by Jesus, who thereafter tells them to present themselves to a priest. When that task is over, only one bothers to return to find Jesus, a Samaritan the text tells us. He throws himself at Jesus’s feet, in a way that ought to remind us of that Hebrew word, yadah. And he offers thanks for what had been given to him. The others simply go on their way, as if they were entitled to all they had received. Not the Samaritan. Like Babette and her feast, it was the exile who recognized the gift that he had been given, and who found a way to say “Thank you.” It’s as fitting a way to render praise as anything I can imagine.
There are, I imagine, as many ways to praise God as there are people on the earth. How do you give praise to God? How does your life express grace and thanksgiving? As we celebrate the sacrament of communion, and as we celebrate Thanksgiving, I hope that you feel invited to consider all the ways that you offer praise. I hope you consider the ways you flash forth light.