Divine innovation

Psalm 111

            "Great are the works of Yahweh," says the writer of Psalm 111, "studied by all who delight in them.” We could say the same thing about innovation, couldn’t we? It’s difficult to imagine our world without our cell phones or the internet, yet while those technologies are several decades old, the innovation that led to their widespread use is less than 20 years old. Think about that for a moment. Some of our church’s young people, like Olivia, Zoe, Garrett, and Brady, who are just going off to college this month, were born in a time when a smart phone was cordless and the only way to connect to the internet was dialing through your phone. Not your cell phone. Your land line.

            We witness those types of innovations in the highly utilized, highly publicized types of industries, but we also see them in products that suddenly seemed to just appear on our shelves, without even realizing the stories behind them. Brownie Wise, for example, was a secretary at an aviation company in 1947. She began to sell brooms at parties in private homes to make a little extra cash. Soon she began to offer a product called Tupperware, and her "party plan" sales technique took off. Today, party businesses like this are everywhere, offering everything from jewelry to candles to animated Bible stories.

In 1974, Art Fry was working as a project developer at 3M. He wanted a better bookmark for his church hymnal, so he and Spencer Silver, a colleague, invented Post-it Notes. The 3M company now sells 50 billion of them annually. Lonnie Johnson was working as a nuclear engineer in 1982, and he invented an environmentally friendly heat pump. But guess what? It was also a very cool water toy. Known as the Super Soaker, his water pistol sold 200 million units in its first 10 years.

Great are the works of Brownie, Art and Lonnie. Without them, we wouldn't have Tupperware, Post-it Notes or Super Soakers. Our leftovers would spoil, our bookmarks would fall out and our summer picnics would be much less fun. Drier, perhaps, but less fun. Of course, it may be that you are not a big fan of these particular products. Fair enough. But the point is that they were all startups -- small projects that quickly became very, very big.

Much the same process occurs in Scripture, as small innovations turn out to have huge implications. Psalm 111 is a song of praise for God's wonderful works, a celebration of the spiritual projects that have touched and transformed our lives. The themes in this Psalm offer nothing new, but the intimacy and familiarity of the Psalmist’s words invites us into new understandings of them, into new ways of exploring our faith. Call them God's startups.

The Righteous Startup. The psalm begins by speaking of God's "righteousness," which endures forever. Righteousness is one of God's most innovative projects, beginning with the people of Israel and continuing with the Christian church. Job, one of the Hebrew prophets, was one of the first examples of a righteous man, "blameless and upright, one who feared God and turned away from evil.”. In the book of Acts in the Christian scriptures, we encounter a righteous woman named Dorcas, who was "devoted to good works and acts of charity.”

These two were not self-righteous -- holier-than-thou, self-satisfied, smug. No, they were righteous, which means being in right relationships. A life of righteousness includes treating your neighbor as you would like to be treated, neither oppressing them nor being oppressed. It means that you strive for a right relationship with God, and put energy into good works and acts of generosity. A righteous person who follows the teachings of Jesus is not judgmental or focuses on the rules, but instead focuses on love, and on sharing the love of God with others.

Of course, none of us can achieve righteousness on our own. We need help. We need one another. We need the example of Jesus. We need God’s forgiveness when we make mistakes. We need a forgiving spirit when we are wronged by others. We need to let the relationship lead, in most instances, rather than the offense. This concept leads to the second startup theme in Psalm 111.

The Covenant Startup. Psalm 111 also speaks of "covenant.” A covenant is a promise-based relationship, one in which God promises to be our God and we promise to be God's people. You might think of the covenant as being God's "Like" button, a divine version of the button that we push on Facebook when we like something.

Speaking of which - Did you know that the "Like" button itself was a startup? In 2007, a team of Facebook developers and designers built a working prototype of what they called the "Awesome" button. A couple of years passed before CEO Mark Zuckerberg approved the "Like" button, and then it quickly took over. The covenant is God's eternal "Like" button. All through the Hebrew scriptures, God renews the covenant and calls people back to faithfulness. Then, in the story of Jesus, God makes a new covenant.

Those are the words we use whenever we take bread and cup communion – we join together as a community to honor and recognize the new covenant of God in the person and life of Jesus. God's faithfulness becomes a model for our faithfulness, especially as we try to honor our commitments in the covenant of marriage and other important promise-based relationships. And that leads to the last startup.

The Praise Startup. The last of God's startups from this Psalm is praise. Praise is at the beginning and ending of this Psalm. It fills the psalmist as she or he directs our thoughts towards righteousness and covenant. Notice that the only action involving the psalmist is the expression of intent to give public thanks to God with the whole being. This complete dedication of the self to God is the essence of praise.

And even though it may not appear like it, when we encounter a phrase like ‘the fear of the Lord,’ it is also rooted in praise. Praise is part of a posture towards God that includes gratitude, obedience, and love. While ‘fear of the Lord’ clearly involves the expectation of performance and practice as part of our whole being obedience, the Hebrew equivalent for ‘fear’ in this context does not have the same cowering meaning as our English word conveys, but instead offers a more nuanced definition that is geared more toward honor and respect. We praise God for the ways that we have received God’s love and we honor and respect God for the great works that God has done.

Righteousness. Covenant. Praise. These divine startups have become very big, growing beyond the people and places in which they were first introduced. They have exploded like the tutoring provided by a hedge-fund analyst named Sal Khan, who started out by helping his cousin with math via Yahoo. Then he moved his instructional videos to YouTube. Now he runs an education nonprofit called Khan Academy, and his videos have been viewed 1.25 billion times.

Even bigger than Khan Academy are the works of God, studied by all who delight in them. When we ground our lives in the wonderful works of God, we learn that God's innovations are the key to a life of righteousness, one in which we can enjoy right relationships with God and with each other. When we study God's startups, we discover that covenant-keeping is the foundation of solid marriages, family relationships, friendships and Christian commitments. When we marvel at God's innovations, we realize that praising God with our whole beings fills us with a spirit of gratitude and love that spills over from our worship of God to our relationships with others.

Case in point – I believe it is nearly impossible for someone to be filled with authentic praise for God and to engage in bad relationships with a friend, co-worker, child, spouse, family member, or stranger. Rooting ourselves in praise of God, connecting with God with our whole selves, makes it much more difficult to cast blame at others for the very same behaviors we engage in ourselves. God knew this, from the beginning of relationship with humanity, and charted a journey  filled with righteousness, covenant, and praise to give us what we need when challenges arise and when the way forward is unclear.

We often hear anecdotes about divine intervention in life. But perhaps what we need more often is to reflect on these types of divine innovation – the gifts offered to us by God that make a lasting difference in our lives, in our faith, and in our world. Amen.