Psalm 116
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
January 14, 2024

While only about half of us make New Year’s resolutions, most of us who don’t make them then, make resolutions at other times. This makes sense of course.  For wouldn’t anyone with serious goals set out steps by which to pursue their fulfillment – that is, make resolutions?

Some of us have at one time or another made resolutions to love God and neighbors more fully.  Unfortunately, our having good intentions doesn’t guarantee our having good follow-through.  Most of us have spotty success in fulfilling such vows.

We are always tempted to think that, to deepen our dedication to God, we just have to knuckle down, muster our willpower and try harder.  But those who succeed in developing greater dedication to God rarely take that approach.  For that approach focuses on who we are and might become rather than on who God is and ever will be, focuses on what we can do rather than on what God can do.  And that amounts to depending on what is not entirely reliable!

Greater dedication to God usually springs forth from greater gratitude for God.  In other words, it comes less from working more than from appreciating God more.

That’s how it is for the unknown human composer of Psalm 116.  He begins the Psalm by declaring he loves the Lord because of all the Lord has done for him.  He tells of how when “the snares of death encompassed me” and he “suffered distress and anguish”, he “called on the name of the Lord”; and the Lord – whom he describes as “gracious” and “righteous” and “merciful” – “heard” him, “saved” him and “dealt bountifully” with him.  The Lord, he testifies, “delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling” – so that he could “walk before the Lord in the land of the living”.

Though the Psalmist has been greatly battered by life, he feels greatly blessed by the Lord.  His appreciation of God’s grace fills him with deep gratitude – and that fills him with a determined resolve to pay off the debt of gratitude he deeply feels.

Verse 12 marks a turning point in this Psalm.  There the psalmist raises the question as to how to pay his debt of gratitude, asking, “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?”  He replies by saying, “I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord.”

“I will lift up the cup of salvation.”  Is it an empty cup he raises heavenward that God might fill it, or a cup already filled by God that he pours out to God as a “thanksgiving sacrifice”?  I think it’s both at once since every good thing we receive and every good thing we give ultimately comes from God anyway.

The Psalmist also says in this verse, “[I will] call on the name of the Lord.”  He’d told us earlier he’d done that in his times of “distress and anguish”.  Now in better times, he states in three separate verses his intention to continue to “call on the name of the Lord” – that is, to turn to God with joyful hope and determined dedication.  He means to “pay my vows to the Lord” (which he repeats twice) and to tell Him “I am your servant” (which he also repeats twice).  His great gratitude ignites his great dedication.

The gratitude comes from his firsthand experience in the past of God’s goodness.  But his dedication in paying his debt of gratitude in the present comes from his resolution to pay his vows.  Ah, but what enables him to fulfill that resolution?

It is worth noting that he speaks of his fulfilling it in the context of a supportive and encouraging community of faith.  Mark how he twice says, “I will pay my vows to the Lord in the presence of all his people”.  That expresses his awareness that he can only fulfill his individual resolution in collaboration with fellow servants of God who also make their heart’s home in God’s dwelling place on earth – that is, “in the courts of house of the Lord, in your midst, O Jerusalem”.

It takes a village, the old Nigerian proverb says, to raise a child.  It also takes a village to raise a faithful servant of God who fulfills his or her holy vows and perseveres in loving God and neighbor.

To keep in good faith with our individual vows to the Lord, we need the community of the faithful – what writer David Goetz affectionately calls “the pokey local church”.  Goetz confidently asserts that for all its shortcomings – its slowness in changing for the better, its occasional self-centeredness, its weakness in devotion – the pokey local church is still the most fertile ground in which to grow great dedication to God, and apart from a long commitment to it our holy vows and resolutions are stunted in their development.

Interestingly, it turns out that the reasons for which we might leave a pokey local church are the very reasons to remain in it.  While we may think we need a church with better programs, better worship or better Christians, it’s actually good for us to stay committed to folks that are as imperfect and in process as we.  Carmen Renee Berry in her book on church admits that the very reasons she withdrew from church – such as her disappointment in church folks who fail to act like Christians – ended up being what drew her back to church.  She writes, “I had overlooked one essential fact: that I am as…flawed as everyone else.”  This became undeniable for her when a friend committed suicide and she realized she could become just as lost herself.  She realized that “there but for the grace of God go I” – were it not for the grace of a family of faith where I can be myself in honest truth and with others wrestle with my doubts and fears, were it not for the grace of a pokey local church.  She writes, “Something happens [in church] that simply doesn’t when you are alone in prayer or on the Internet.”  Then she concludes, “As much as I hate to admit it, my faith is enhanced and enlarged when I [am in consistent contact] with other less-than-perfect human beings.”

So let us bond together as God’s imperfect, in-process people that we might help each other develop great gratitude for His grace – and thereby develop great dedication for fulfilling our holy vows and resolutions to the Lord!

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