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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

February 1, 2015

Psalm 111


Have you ever seen the book N Is for Nutmeg?

It’s an alphabet book for children that’s all about the state of Connecticut. It starts with, “A is for American Robin,” which, in case you didn’t know, has been our state bird here since 1943. Then, “B is for Barnum,” as in P. T. Barnum, of Barnum & Bailey Circus fame, who also happened to be the mayor of Bridgeport in his day. Then, “C is for Crandall,” as in Prudence Crandall, who accepted black students into her girls’ school in Canterbury in the 1830s, in spite of violent opposition from her neighbors. Then, “D is for Dinosaur State Park,” where you can see the fossilized footprints of the giant reptiles that inhabited this area hundreds of millions of years ago. It goes on through the alphabet, teaching you something interesting about Connecticut with each passing letter.

So why am I talking about a children’s alphabet book? And what bearing could N Is for Nutmeg possibly have on our scripture reading for this morning? I’m glad you asked.

It turns out that Psalm 111 is what’s called an acrostic poem. If you were to look at it in the original Hebrew, you would see it broken into 22 short phrases, one per line. The first line starts with the letter א, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet. The next line starts with ב, the second Hebrew letter. The third line starts with ג, the fourth with ד, the fifth with ה, and so on, through the alphabet.

As the poem goes through the alphabet, it gives praise to God in a different way for each letter. It touches on God’s nature—gracious and merciful, full of honor and majesty, faithful and just and trustworthy. It touches on God’s saving acts in history, as recounted in the Hebrew Scriptures—providing quails and manna from heaven for the Israelites during their wilderness wanderings; giving the people the Ten Commandments, instructions about how to live; forgiving them when they promptly broke those commandments and created for themselves an idol, a Golden Calf; bringing them safely out of Egypt and, eventually, into the land of Canaan, flowing with milk and honey.

Scholars speculate that acrostic poems like this one may have been the sort of thing that young apprentice scribes would have been set as an assignment. Compose a poem, the teacher would say, with one line for each letter. Or, perhaps these poems were teaching tools to help forgetful pray-ers learn who God is. I know there’s something I’m supposed to remember about God that starts with M… Oh, yeah, Merciful!

For us, today, I think there’s another reason why acrostic poems are important. I’m fairly certain that most of you know your alphabet already, so I don’t think you need practice remembering the letters. And I don’t have any particular need for you to memorize a specific A-to-Z list of divine attributes. Rather, I think the benefit of an acrostic poem is this: it sparks our imagination. It invites us to think creatively about all the many things for which we might praise God. It challenges us to notice more of the ways in which God’s blessings show up in our lives. And particularly at those times when praise feels out of reach, it reminds us of God’s great goodness and all-encompassing love.

Praising God is easy when you’re riding high, when things are going well, when you’re inspired and enthusiastic and positively tingling with the presence of the Spirit. Praising God is harder when the path gets bumpy—when someone you love receives a diagnosis, when you lose your job, when the daily routine is grinding you down, when you feel alone or afraid or unloved. But high or low, in good times and in hard times, we Christians are called to praise God nevertheless—not because God needs our praise to boost God’s divine ego, but because we need to be realigned, reoriented, drawn out of ourselves and reminded of who God is and who we are.

In fact, the Hebrew name for the book of Psalms, Tehillim, translates directly as praises. That is what the psalms are—some of the earliest prayers of our tradition, prayers of praise to God. Psalm 27: “The Lord is my light and my salvation.” Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” Psalm 96: “O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.” Psalm 150: “Let everything that breathes praise the Lord!”

If you’ve ever read through the psalms, though, you know that not all of the psalms sound as joyously praise-ful as these do. There are psalms about national crisis; there are psalms about personal crisis; there are psalms about feeling alone and afraid and unloved. These prayers do not deny the bumpy, painful parts of our paths. But even in the midst of hardship, these psalms find ways to praise God. Even the psalms of lament find ways to point to God’s mercy, God’s justice, God’s steadfast love. Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? … Yet you are holy; in you our ancestors trusted, and you delivered them.” Psalm 69: “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck … in the abundance of your steadfast love, answer me.” Psalm 116: “The snares of death encompassed me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the Lord; when I was brought low, God saved me.”

In our midst here today, there are surely some people who are riding high, inspired and enthusiastic and full of the Spirit. And in our midst here today, there are surely some people who are having a hard time. No matter which of those camps you’re in this morning, every one of us is called to praise God, to be realigned, reoriented, drawn out of ourselves and reminded of who God is and who we are.

And so I have a challenge for you. In the coming week, I challenge you to write your own Psalm 111, your own acrostic poem. Start each line with a letter of the alphabet and come up with a word or phrase that gives praise to God. You might touch on God’s nature—Amazing and Beautiful and Creative. You might touch on the gifts God gives to your life—Dignity and Empathy and Forgiveness. You might touch on how God has shown up in the past—Giving you life, Healing your broken heart, Inspiring you with a sense of vocation. You might touch on how you hope God will show up in the future—as Justice for all who face oppression, Kindness for all whose hearts are hardened, Love for all who despair. See if you can’t find some ways to praise God that you’ve never thought of before.

In the pew racks with the welcome cards, there are pieces of paper you might use if you’d like to get started right away. If you don’t finish, put it in your pocket and see if you can’t fill in the other letters over the coming days.

To inspire your creativity and spark your imagination, hear now this version of the same psalm Jesse read for us a few minutes ago, this time in Eugene Peterson’s translation called The Message:

I give thanks to God with everything I’ve got—
Wherever good people gather, and in the congregation.
God’s works are so great, worth
A lifetime of study—endless enjoyment!
Splendor and beauty mark his craft;
His generosity never gives out.
His miracles are his memorial—
This God of Grace, this God of Love.
He gave food to those who fear him,
He remembered to keep his ancient promise.
He proved to his people that he could do what he said:
Hand them the nations on a platter—a gift!
He manufactures truth and justice;
All his products are guaranteed to last—
Never out-of-date, never obsolete, rust-proof.
All that he makes and does is honest and true:
He paid the ransom for his people,
He ordered his Covenant kept forever.
He’s so personal and holy, worthy of our respect.
The good life begins in the fear of God—
Do that and you’ll know the blessing of God.
His Hallelujah lasts forever!