Monday, 17 October 2011 00:00

"Bigger Than Life", October 16, 2011

“Bigger Than Life”
Psalm 150
A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
October 16, 2011
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Last night, our family accompanied Hal Gold on a riverboat ride down the St. Croix River.  The dinner cruise was on a replica of a paddle-wheel boat, complete with a Dixie land band and a wedding party.  While the food was great and the conversation fun, I most enjoyed going up to the third floor open air deck.  In the brisk autumn dusk, we passed drydocks filled with blue-tarped boats all set for their winter dormancy.  We saw eagles circling overhead.  We saw the colors fade from deep orange and brown to gray and black as darkness fell.  We smelled the water let the wind dance through our hair.  My daughter commented to me about how the water made her calm.  How she feels connected with eternity on the water, with God.  She remembers her baptism and the constancy of water.  “We would die without water.”  She said, “Water is life.  It’s bigger than life.”

What in your world seems bigger than life?

What force makes you step back with your jaw wide open?

What brings out wonder in you?

I would venture to say that whatever that is, we might well call it God—or we might better say that it points to God.


Today’s scripture is one of those bigger than life scriptures.  It celebrates the majesty of God and the wonder of creation.  It seems appropriate that we recite it on the day that we celebrate the 30th anniversary of this fine instrument.  An organ is by nature and design bigger than life.  The pipes are 2 feet, four feet, eight feet, 16 feet and 32 feet high.  It is played on two keyboards and foot pedals.  Terrance Olson certainly makes it sing and ring through this church.  An organ is not a demure instrument.  Sure, it can play soft and meditative music, but it can also quickly move to the kind of music that rumbles through your solar plexus.  It’s designed to be a permanent structure, built into the architecture of a building celebrating the majesty and wonder of God—a force bigger than life.  So that’s what it draws out in us.  Even if you’re not a big fan of organ music, you can’t deny the power that it has to shape and move you.

I was at the St. Paul Cathedral a month ago with our Nicaraguan visitors.  As we were touring, we saw workers hoisting up box after box of pipes for an organ renovation and expansion.  It got me thinking about the installation of this organ here at UBC.  What a huge task.  This organ was built on site, designed for this space and made to be the perfect balance for our architecture and our sound.  It was built thanks to the generosity and commitment of the UBC congregation.  It was built to point us in the direction of something grand—bigger than life.

Harry Emerson Fosdick was one of those bigger than life preachers.  He was a leader of the liberal church movement, the author of fifty books and thousands of sermons. And the church he served was one of those bigger than life churches.  Across the street from Union Seminary where I went to school sits the Riverside Church.  An American Baptist/United Church of Christ congregation, it stands as a beacon for progressive theology and social action.  The architecture fits this idea.  Modeled after Chartes Cathedral in France, the nave is easily ten times as large as this sanctuary.  The organ and the chancel are phenomenal as is the choir.  
The altar area is surrounded by carvings of theologians, and saints—like a cloud of witnesses.  There are unique carvings amongst the statues.  If you look closely enough you’ll see Mary, Moses and Miriam.  But you will also see Einstein, Gandhi, Albert Schweitzer and Martin Luther King.

The steeple has a carillon of 74 bells, the largest of which is 20 tons.  They ring out on the southern tip of Harlem right next to Grant’s tomb.  It’s bigger than life.

But is bigger always better?  When I was in seminary, I attended great events with internationally renowned speakers and musicians at Riverside.  But I also attended community organizing events, Central America solidarity events, even midnight basketball in their gym for the youth of the neighborhood looking for a healthy outlet for their energy.  That made the church bigger than life, not because of its fame, but because it used its position to make things better for the city and for the world.

I attended worship at Riverside from time to time, but I found myself lost in the wonder and aura of it all.  It wasn’t trying to be impersonal.  But it was too easy to get lost in it.  I found myself gravitating to smaller churches, more intimate churches, churches that didn’t do things on the large scale that Riverside or Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem did.  Churches where you knew everybody and supported each other through the daunting task of eliciting and responding to the call of God in our lives.  I found this at my church in Granville, Ohio, the UCC church where I served as a seminary intern and the Lutheran church where I lived and worked during my last year of seminary.  In the smaller church, everyone was important to make things work.  So when you were missing people noticed.  You also got a chance to respond to the word preached.  We all got chances to share our voices.  I wonder if that’s why I have always served relatively smaller churches.  They all seem bigger than life, and yet small enough to make intimate connections.

When someone seems bigger than life, they are unattainable, put on a pedestal, revered or feared.  LeDayne Polaski spoke last week about the notion that there is Moses, Jesus, Martin Luther King, Gandhi and then the rest of us.  This idea that you can only do something worthwhile if you are bigger than life is a cruel deception.  We all have a voice, a perspective, a flavor that is essential to the mix of the church as a whole.

It is tempting in this election season to latch onto a candidate that portends to be bigger than life.  As if that person or that party can be the savior of all of us.  But the standard is, are they using that stage to make things better for all of us?  If not then they are grandstanding and encouraging us to fall into the tempting trap of idolatry.

Jesus was always uncomfortable with the notion that he was bigger than life.  Whenever he was declared the Messiah, Jesus said “Don’t tell anyone”.  Biblical Scholar Jane Medema spoke about how Jesus pointed to the kingdom of God out there.  But as soon as people started pointing to Jesus as the embodiment of the kingdom of God, they stopped pointing at the kingdom and stopped imagining themselves as a part of that kingdom. In his sermon "The Peril of Worshiping Jesus," Harry Emerson Fosdick complained that too many people would rather put Jesus "up on some high altar, pray to him, sing to him, do anything for him".  Anything that is than do his will in the troubled present age.

Think of the people who are bigger than life.

Think of the forces that hold you down or hold you back.

Do they have the only word for you today?

I’m impressed with the 99% movements across the country.  People have been told that they are insignificant.  They are told that we are powerless against big business.  They will buy elections.  They will suppress the vote.  They will ship jobs overseas.  They will demand tax breaks and an end to regulations but not be held accountable as they cut more and more jobs while lining their pockets.  The people in the streets have had enough and they are taking to the streets.  I mentioned last week that I hope that their presence in the streets enlivens imagination amongst the people.  It certainly has and it certainly will.  A big part of the imagination is that individuals are significant.  That even bigger than life structures are subject to the will of the people.  In fact, they only exist because the people have not questioned their right to exist.  People taking their power back is somehow similar to Jesus turning over the tables of the moneychangers in the temple.  The people in the 99% coalition have all but said, we will not settle for our public squares being a haven for a den of thieves.  They may not know it, but they are making an astute theological statement.  That corporations are not above reproach.  That rich people are accountable to the rest of society.  That millionaires and minions are part of the same family and have a responsibility for each other.  They are saying that money and its acquisition are not God.  The people gathered together are pointing toward the kingdom—the real kingdom.

Today’s scripture is the last of 150 Psalms.  It is a fitting conclusion.  It says to Praise God in the sanctuary, with trumpet and pipe and percussion and dancing.  Let everything that breathes praise God.  It’s a ‘bigger than life’ proclamation. It seems to tie up all of the Psalms in a nice praisey bow.  But have you ever read all of the Psalms?  There are beautiful and heart wrenching psalms side by side.  At one moment there is praise, another there is lament, there is anger, longing, vengefulness, beauty, imagination, joy and pain.  It’s kind of like life.  And life is not all joy and praise.  Life is messy and unpredictable and traumatic and confusing, too.  No church worth its salt would let you forget that.  What the psalm is saying that at the end, there is something bigger than life.  There is a force out there that can restore us to sanity.  There is a model and a motivation that pushes us toward a more healthy and whole existence.  That is the God we celebrate.  That is the one we praise with clanging cymbals and voices lifted up on high.

That it the God about whom we sing.

That is the God for whom we play bigger than life instruments.

Because that God points us toward the Kingdom of God where all people are blessed.

Where the wolf lies down with the lamb and the fatling with the calf together.

Where swords are bent into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks.  Nation shall not lift up sword against nation and neither shall they study war anymore.

Where every valley shall be lifted up and every mountain shall be made low and the rough places are made plain.

Where justice rolls down like a mighty water and righteousness flows like an ever-flowing stream.

That’s the bigger than life vision we proclaim when we praise God with trumpet and organ and song.  May we be so inspired by the music to go out and join God in the bigger than life task of repairing this broken world.