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First Presbyterian Church, Nashville

Dr. Todd B. Jones

October 27, 2013

 The Duty and Beauty of Faith

Psalm 65; Luke 18:9-14

             The past Wednesday afternoon I stood outside the Princeton University Chapel awaiting the grand processional to mark the inauguration of Craig Barnes as Princeton Seminary’s new President.  Professors, Trustees, academic institutional representatives and ecclesiastical officials were decked out in their regalia.  It was an incandescently beautiful autumn day.  My eyes were caught by a young maple tree that sits next to a piece of outdoor sculpture right between the tower of Firestone Library and the gothic grandeur of the University Chapel.  The more I looked at the tree on this crisp, clear autumn day, the more taken by its sheer beauty I was.  The colors were at their most brilliant oranges and reds, and these gifts were just on the cusp of beginning to fall.  I understood in that moment why Joyce Kilmer wrote his almost too perfect poem entitled Trees.  Taking in the whole scene, standing next to one of my oldest and dearest friends in the world, I took hold of his arm and said, “George, this is a tough day for atheists.”

             The Psalmist begins today’s sixty-fifth Psalm with the words, “Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion….”  It is a reminder that there are things that we do in life because we have to do them, because we feel a sense of obligation, because we feel duty bound to do them.  I pay my taxes every year out of a sense of obligation, and I pay bills and insurance premiums for the same reason.  Most of the time when I was in school, I did homework and studied out of a sense of duty.  I knew I had to work if I was going to please my parents, my teachers and in some sense, myself.  A whole lot of life is done out of a sense of duty.  We do much of what we do in life because we have to, because we know it is required of us.

             And church is frankly often something we do because we see it as our duty.  One of the Ten Commandments tells us this: “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy.”  We are here today, many of us, because we feel we should be.  God commands us to worship, and most of us grew up in homes and families where we were required to go to church on Sundays.

             The Psalmist acknowledges this right out of the blocks: “Praise is due to you, O God, in Zion.”  We owe God our worship and praise for many reasons, the Psalmist reminds.  We owe God our praise and worship because God “answers prayer,” and because God “forgives our transgressions.”  Is there anything more wonderful that God gives than the forgiveness of our sins?!  Praise is due to God as well for our “deliverance” and for our “salvation.”  Bishop Pike once said that a Christian was someone who knew that Christ died and rose on Easter for them – that they understood these events personally.  He then said that a Jew was someone who understood that God delivered the Jews at the Red Sea during the Exodus in a personal way – God did this for them as well as for Moses and those Hebrew slaves.  Either way, whether we are Jews or Christians, we owe God our praise because we understand that God has delivered us and saved us.

             And we are also people who owe God praise and worship because we realize that God provides for us.  God is not just the Creator and sustainer of all that is, God is the great Giver of all that we have and all that we are.

             So there are all kinds of reasons why “Praise is due to you, O God.”  But something happens to the Psalmist as he recounts all the reasons why God is due our praise.  You can sense it in the flow of the Psalm.  As he remembers that God answers prayer, and that God forgives sin, and that God delivers and saves us, and that God provides bountifully and abundantly, something happens to the Psalmist.  He gets caught up in the sheer extravagance and grace of all that God has done, all that God has provided, and what started as duty turns into delight.  The Psalmist is overtaken by God’s sheer generosity and abundance, and he is overcome with joy.

             There are things we do because we have to.  And then there are things we do because we want to, because we are moved with delight, because we are so overcome with joy that we cannot help ourselves!  This is what happens to the Psalmist, and he finally sees God’s goodness and grace in everything, and all he can do is shout with joyous praise.

             Duty is a good place, a helpful place to begin with God, and a fine place to begin again when we have lost our way.  But worship really becomes beautiful and life-giving when we move from duty to delight, when we come to points and places in our lives where we worship for the sheer love of God.  This is the grand transition from duty to beauty.  Annie Dillard said, “Beauty and grace are performed whether or not we will or sense them.  The least we can do is try to be there.”

             Beauty is God’s handwriting, it is God’s trademark upon all of creation.  “Poems are made by fools like me,” said Kilmer, “But only God can make a tree.”  And when we praise God, not because we have to, but only for the sheer love of God, we become beautiful, too.

             I might add this principle is true in all areas of life.  The Bible tells you it is your duty to “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land which the Lord your God gives you.”  I tried my best to be a dutiful son, albeit the spoiled youngest child of three!  I did my chores, obeyed most of their rules, and tried to do the things that would please them.  But then sometime in my early twenties, I cannot remember exactly when, I grew more profoundly aware of how utterly wonderful my mother and father truly were – and I realized how deeply and joyfully I loved them.  And from that point until they died, and even beyond, my love for my parents was not at all about duty – it was about delight, about gratitude and joy for how beautiful and good they were.  I still will never find words fit for all the ways in which they blessed me.

             It is true in your vocational life as well.  You can work out of a sense of duty, and all of us do.  It is where we all start.  But I know the joy of falling head-over-heels in love with four different church families over the last thirty-three years, and it is why I feel so blessed to be able to serve God as a Presbyterian minister.  So many of you have turned what I started doing out of duty into a labor of love.  And that is why after thirty-three years I love what I do more than ever.

             It is supremely true in marriage.  Duty is essential if you are ever to stay married.  But God’s intention here and elsewhere is that duty gives way to delight, and my prayer is that all who are married are learning to be married for the sheer love, the privilege, and the gift of it.  Love has the power to turn duty into beauty.  And Saint Francis made the simple observation that “God is beauty.”

             I performed a seaside funeral committal last Saturday for Ann Riner, who died this year at eighty-seven years of age.  Ann grew up in Kentucky and met her husband Nick, marrying in their early twenties.  Nick was handsome, outgoing, personable, and owned a car dealership in Shelbyville, Kentucky when such a business meant prosperity and community standing.  Nick and Ann had a beautiful girl and then a fine boy in short order, and their life beckoned before them.  They had the American dream.  Then Nick was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis in his thirties, and soon everything changed for them.  In a few short years Nick was bedridden, where he would live for the next twenty years.  They lost the business, and Nick spent the rest of his life as an invalid.  Ann went back to work as a public school teacher, soon becoming one of the best loved and most respected teachers in that Kentucky community.  Nick’s illness changed life for all of them, and while Ann’s life was not the one she had planned, the one she had dreamed of, she loved and cared for Nick, and raised her family, and blessed her community in such a way that her children and grandchildren “rose up to call her blessed.”  Ann figured out somehow that life is about love, and because of that, her life was utterly beautiful to all who knew her, not least to her children and grandchildren who wept tears of joy and thanksgiving for the great gift of her life.

             Let me close with the same words I offered to Ann’s family.  They are not my words, but rather the words of the 90th Psalm; “Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us, and establish Thou the work of hands upon us; the work of our hands, establish Thou it.”

                                                                                     Amen.

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