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24th July 2022

Your Party Piece

Passage: Psalm 150


The men of my mother’s family were characterised by being very tall, very thin, gentle, soft spoken and- take it from me. I knew several of them- so laid back they were almost horizontal. It came as a shock to me, then, to hear my mother tell of her Grandfather’s “party piece,” which was apparently to hold an (old) penny in each eye and dance on the kitchen table, singing “the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo.” I just could not imagine it; not one of those men.
But I guess this is what “party pieces” are all about- people breaking out in exuberance to sing or dance or tell a story or do a trick which is beyond their usual capabilities. Their own excitement and that of their friends combine to make them think “I can do this” and a normally slow, quiet man will break out and dance on the kitchen table.

That Psalm we read together (150) sounds rather like a party piece or maybe a combination of party pieces. Different people play a variety of musical instruments, some dance, some sing and they are all encouraging each other to “Praise the Lord.”
It is an exuberant act of worship throwing all restraint to the winds. “Do whatever you do best to praise God. Let everything, EVERYTHING that breathes, praise the Lord.”

Great, but some people might say, “hold on. I don’t like these “praise songs.” I prefer to worship in more traditional music.” And some people don’t want to worship in words or music at all. They prefer silence. And some people, right now, may feel that they have very little to praise God for. It is hard to be exuberant in praise when your eyes are filled with tears, or your body wracked with pain, or your mind twisted up in despair. Let everything, that breathes, praise the Lord?” Not for me, not today. &&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&&

But praise does not have to be noisy, does it? In Jane Austen’s novel “Sense and Sensibility” we meet Sir John Middleton who was “loud in his praise” of Marianne Dashwood’s piano playing and just as loud in his talking through every piece she played. Colonel Brandon spoke very little but paid Marianne the compliment of listening attentively to her music. Which was the greater praise? Praise is about affirmation- you let someone know that what they are doing is good. And you can do this just as effectively in quiet words as in loud applause.

In the Bible, Psalm 150 shows that there is a place for singing and dancing and making loud music to praise God, but St Paul also pointed out that we praise God by showing compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. We affirm God by living as God tells us to. The prophet Amos was so angry at the social injustice in his country that he proclaimed a message from God saying, “I hate your noisy religious festivals. I despise your praise songs. Let justice roll down like a river and righteousness as a mighty stream.” If our songs of praise are not sung by people doing God’s will, then they are nothing more than a loud, empty noise.

The hymn we are going to sing later asks, “Fill my life, Lord my God, in every part with praise; that my WHOLE being may proclaim your being and your ways.” We praise God in the way we order our homes, create our relationships, do our work, spend time with friends, vote in elections, support good causes. And more than this, every time we look at ourselves in the mirror we either praise or despise God. If we believe what was said in the Baptism and Dedication service- that God is the giver of life, that Jesus brings us close to God, naming us God’s children, that the power of the Holy Spirit is in each one of us then, in affirming God, we also affirm ourselves. I am who I am because God loves me. If we look in the mirror and despise ourselves, then we are also despising God.

Coming back to party pieces, then, if we are called to praise God in every aspect of our lives, what might be called our “party piece?” What brings out an exuberance in our faith, a pushing out of the boundaries? What is the everyday equivalent of, “Let everything that breathes make music to praise the Lord.” (or “the man who broke the bank at Monte Carlo?”).

Well, I think of people I have known who have shouldered a huge burden of care for someone they love with far more courage and good cheer than they ever knew they had; I think of Captain Tom, pushing what strength he had left at the age of 99 to the limits in order to raise both money and hope in the darkest days of Covid; I think of Betsie and Corrie ten Boom witnessing faithfully to the love of God in Jesus Christ even when suffering in a Concentration Camp; I think of Christians who commit themselves to steadfast prayer in the face of a struggling church or a pastoral crisis; I think of people who take on church work with little confidence in themselves but trust God to hold them up- and the results can be amazing. And let me just tell you about two women I remember who used to sit together in church, one of whom had serious hearing issues and the other very limited sight. Both were struggling to keep their independence, and both grappling with real fears and frustrations. But in church the lady with limited sight would nudge the one with limited hearing when they were told to stand up or sit down. And the one with limited hearing would write the Hymn numbers very large on the Order of Service for the one who could hardly see. It would never have occurred to either simply to stay away from church. It was a very simple “party piece;” but one I have never forgotten. It used to make me feel incredibly proud of them and humbled to be their Minister.

Thinking of party pieces in this way puts a different perspective on the way we view our lives. For sometimes a tragedy, a frailty, a misfortune becomes an invitation to perform our very own party piece: an excess of praise, of power, of confidence in God that breaks the boundaries of what we ever believed possible.

Clara and Luke have been named today not only as God’s children but as children of this church; their lives not only dedicated to God but also to the church of Jesus.It is important, we believe, that their baptism and dedication are lived out within a Christian community. But if -as I have been saying-affirmation of God and of themselves as children of God can happen anywhere, anytime, anyplace, why is the church so important?
I guess the church might be described as the “powerhouse” of praise and prayer. The church is here to keep drawing us back to God, to place us where we can receive God’s power. It is a space in which we can encourage one another and inspire each other in identifying our very own party pieces, pushing out our boundaries for God.

One of my greatest privileges here has been to engage with the Scouting and Guiding groups in planning Church Parades. I think back to the Cubs wanting to lead a service about football; the Scout Leader telling me that for Remembrance Sunday the Scouts wanted to dress up as women and cycle round the church as members of the French Resistance; the Rainbows doing a service based on Winnie the Pooh; the Guides acting out the real life stories behind our Foodbanks; the billycan band two weeks’ ago….. In pushing out their own boundaries of thought and understanding, they helped me to push out my own. And hopefully, in pushing out my boundaries, I enabled them-many of whom have little or no church connection- to find their unique ways to praise God and to be glad of who they are.

I hope, we all hope and pray that Clara and Luke may discover their own unique “party pieces” in which they praise God, affirm the people they are and inspire others. Will they be the musicians or the singers? The dancers or the jugglers? The conjurors or the game players? What will they become because God loves them? It is our job and our promise today to help them find out. God bless them and bless us all. Amen.