Sunday, February 7, 2021

Sermon: "Delighting in the Caretaker", Psalm 147:1-11 (February 7, 2021)


Normally, I avoid preaching on the psalms. Not that I have anything against them; they’re beautifully expressive poetry that, over the course of 150 chapters, conveys the full range of human emotion. They’re incredibly useful for personal devotion. Not to mention that the psalmists wrote in such a liturgical style that the psalms are a wonderful resource for worship planning. It’s just that to me, the psalms often feel…well, repetitive. I mean, how many ways can you say, “God is awesome,” or “Everything is terrible, God,” or “Save me, God”? They’re obviously important texts, but psalm sermons can get bland if you’re not careful. So, in what’s perhaps a personal pastoral shortcoming, I generally avoid them for preaching purposes.

But this week…this week, the psalm hit my ears differently. Maybe it’s because I had my rescue dog, Murray, on my lap as I read this psalm for the first time, or maybe it’s just because I so often feel lost and helpless without God, but for whatever reason, I didn’t hear flattering-bordering-on-sycophantic adoration for a mighty deity when I read it this time. Instead, I heard the pure, simple delight of someone recognizing how much they owe to God. I guess with Murray in my arms, this psalm brought to mind a different sort of relationship: I found myself picturing a shelter dog rhapsodizing about its caretaker going about their morning chores.

The dog-people among us are nodding your heads; you know that this comparison is apt: although human beings often take “the little things” for granted, dogs seem to be gratitude incarnate. They’re notoriously adept at expressing their love and devotion, so I think that’s why this particular image popped into my head. This kind of humble adoration springing spontaneously from a human being’s mouth would make me suspicious of their agenda, but from a dog? I totally believe that.

Imagine yourself in a shelter dog’s shoes (well, paws). You open your eyes in the morning and the first thing you see is the familiar face of the person that provides for your every need. As they make the rounds, greeting each animal by name, you grow more and more excited, unable to contain your pure joy at the opportunity to hear their voice, feel the touch of their hand, and express your gratitude. You know that it doesn’t matter to your caretaker that you’re not a purebred; you deserve to be cared for just the way you are, every day, until you find a home.

When they finally arrive at your kennel, you smother them in licks as they bring you everything you could possibly need: food, fresh water, a clean blanket, and—most importantly—belly rubs and words of love. You WOULD like to go outside, of course, but you’re not worried. You know that your caretaker will provide that for you in time, as they always have for as long as you can remember. It’s no wonder you’d feel inspired to compose a psalm!

Each day, God cheerfully goes about God’s daily chores to care for creation, tasks that are somehow both mundanely routine and deeply meaningful at the same time. By the time we arise, God is already making the rounds, tenderly bandaging the hearts of those who wake up suffering, making sure that each star is where it’s supposed to be, reorienting those who’ve gone astray in the night, providing rain for the earth and food for the animals…all the little things that we often take for granted.

God does these things every day, without fail, without being asked. God doesn’t favor some of us over others; to God, ALL of us are beloved and deserving of God’s care. For the dog in the animal shelter, gratitude springs forth effortlessly for such simple yet bountiful provisions. But how often do we stop to not only appreciate, but celebrate OUR great caretaker?

It struck me that the last year or so has been characterized by BIG prayers: prayers for the pandemic to subside; prayers for those bearing the weight of racial injustice and for those affected by protests and riots; prayers for the economy, prayers for the now over 460,000 U.S. Americans killed by COVID-19; prayers for the development of an effective vaccine; prayers for GETTING the vaccine; prayers for our divided nation; and more. All weighty, important prayers. But this psalm reminds us that while God has been moving powerfully to lift us out of this collective pit of exhaustion and despair that we find ourselves in, God has also never stopped doing those daily chores that God took on at the beginning of time. God has never, not even for a moment, stopped working the small, everyday miracles that surround us, even though we’ve largely (and to an extent, understandably) been too distracted by fear and anxiety to give adequate thanks for them.

The truth is, we don’t just need God for help with the “heavy lifting” of life. We fully rely on God for EVERYTHING, from the air we breathe to the food we eat to the relationships with one another that sustain us. Like a dog in a shelter, we literally could not survive if God were ever to stop providing for us. Fortunately, God has no intention of ever abdicating the role of our caretaker—scripture assures us of that. So shouldn’t that fact inspire us to be a little more “dogged” in our devotion? Doesn’t that merit as much effort as we can possibly muster?

Don’t misunderstand me; our praise isn’t a condition of God’s providence, but that doesn’t mean that a quick “thank you” is adequate. The shelter caretaker would still bring food and water to the dog whether or not the dog offered its ecstatic display of thanksgiving every morning, but the daily interaction between the two does more than satisfy a quid pro quo. It solidifies their bond and nurtures their love for one another. This cycle of provision and praise isn’t a transaction; it’s the evidence of a flourishing relationship that brings joy to both parties involved. And the greater the gratitude, the more the relationship is able to thrive.

There’s no excuse for us falling short in this respect. Of course, as fallible humans, there’ll be plenty of times that we neglect to offer thanks, but the moment we realize our oversight, we should “sing praises to God with a lyre,” with everything we have…because our gratitude for the “daily bread” that God provides is the very foundation that our holy relationship is built upon.

It makes no difference whether or not we feel “worthy” of God’s provisions. Nothing we do can stop God from seeking a relationship with us; Christ has assured us of that. After all, every dog gets into mischief (not sin, per se, but definitely enough to earn them the title of “bad dog”). But at the end of the day, the chewed furniture and the muddy paw prints are forgiven and we once again assure them that they’re loved and worthy of our care. How much more eager must God be to forgive our sins and return to the daily delight of the ordinary yet sacred interactions between lover and beloved?

This psalm suggests several familiar ways for us to do this: we can sing and praise God with music; we can recount God’s many magnificent attributes; we can offer up our prayers and our joy. But the shelter dog has yet another lesson to teach us in this respect. As much as they’d probably like to, dogs can’t express their feelings through sonnets and music and poetry, so they rely on their actions to convey their gratitude. I’m sure God cherishes our offerings of words and songs, but you know what they say— “actions speak louder than words.”

After all, if we truly feel the amount of gratitude that God deserves, it shouldn’t be possible to contain within ourselves; our minds and hearts should be so overflowing with love that it pours out through our bodies in a flood of physical expression. Maybe we dance; maybe we hug one another; maybe we throw our arms in the air in ecstasy. Maybe, we could even help the caretaker with some of those daily chores that make such a difference: healing the brokenhearted, helping the poor, caring for animals and the earth. I can only imagine how pleased God would be to see us mirroring God’s love and care for the world through our actions.

We won’t always need to rely on our caretaker to provide for us the same way we do right now. Like the shelter dog, we, too, are looking forward to the day when we arrive at our “forever home”—God’s heavenly kingdom. When we do, our bodies will no longer be subject to illness or death; we’ll no longer experience weariness or despair. All of our time and energy will be free to praise God eternally. Yet our past reliance on God, the gratitude that we’ve expressed, and the relationship that’s been cultivated will have been a profound gift. Our new life will have been shaped by our interactions with our caretaker here and now. The difficulties will fall away, but our love will remain, and our joy will persist.

So until then, amid all the big-prayer moments, let’s not forget to offer our simple yet abundant gratitude in the quiet day to day. Let us give thanks for every breath, every sunrise, every step, and every blessing. May we make our canine friends proud with what we’ve learned from them—the joy of expressing pure delight in our caretaker. Amen.

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