Good evening. While it is always an honor to deliver a homily at an interfaith service, tonight, my heart is full as I look out into the pews of this historic sanctuary. Among you, I see people of different creeds and religions, different races and sexual orientations, different political spectrums, people from different walks of life and ways of living. And yet despite these differences, differences that in any other situation might lead to heated debates and discussions, tonight, we come together in unison, as one people, to give our thanks to the Almighty One, to a divine presence that gives us a sense of purpose, that grounds us, that implores us each to be a better person, and together, to be better people.
I’ll be honest, in the wake of an incredibly divisive election season, and in response to a tumultuous and fraught two weeks since the election, I have been in need of a moment like this. A moment of quiet. A moment of peace. A moment of unison in the face of difference. We live in a time when information gets thrown at us faster than we could ever possibly process it. My facebook newsfeed, for example, is an endless stream of real news, fake news, satirical news, of points and counterpoints. And lest you think I am only talking about politics,let me assure you that I have actually never been more inundated with information and opinions (all claiming to be the only “right” way in the face of a lot of tragically “wrong” ways) than since I became a parent. My poor wife is convinced, on a daily basis, that she has ruined any chance our nineteen-month-old has at a bright future because she chooses to let him watch five minutes of educational television while she does the dishes. Or because she lets him cry himself to sleep. Or because she doesn’t let him cry himself to sleep. Or because she sometimes lets him cry himself to sleep, but with periodic checks that only intensify the crying.
In the face of so much information, on every topic, it can be exhausting. And religion, of course, is no different. Just take a tally of the different religions on this Earth–and there are tens of thousands of them (over thirty thousand of them Christian by the way)–and you can see that when it comes to God, divinity, and spirituality, there’s a lot of ideas about what is “right” and what is “wrong.” And long before there were the Facebook newsfeeds to duke it out, there were the Psalms–different authors from different times with varying and certainly conflicting views on the same topics, all fighting for that featured status. Today, scholars can even argue, with evidence, that some Psalms are actually collections of poems put together, so they are actually repostings and retweets, to help the authors’ arguments.
Contemporarily, there are 150 Psalms in our canon. Scholars have asked, for centuries, why these 150? What allowed them to make the cut? Presumably, these were the best of the best, or perhaps they were the most common, or the most popular. We will never know for sure. What we do know is that there are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of others that didn’t make it, but are still being uncovered in archeological digs and in the scrolls of ancient libraries, all with even more insights into the arguments and counter-arguments of ritual, practice, and life, and all made through the medium of song.
And so it is that when I am trying to make sense of a world seemingly thrown into divided, categorized, and marginalized chaos, that I turn to my favorite Psalm, Psalm 50. If the Bible can teach us anything, it is that many of our problems, while modernly different, aren’t in fact new. So it is with information overload. As a brief introduction, Psalm 50 is a Psalm of Asaph, and is probably the first example of the Asaphite collection, a collection written for and by the Levites, who served as Temple singers during the Second Temple period. This Psalm, in particular, is interesting in that the voice in the Psalm is neither a Levite nor an Israelite calling to God; rather, it is the voice of God TO Israel. While the Psalm itself is 23 verses long, for our purposes, I want to focus on verses 7 – 14, wherein God says to us:
Pay heed, My people, and I will speak, O Israel, and I will arraign you. I am God, your God.
I censure you not for your sacrifices, and your burnt offerings, made to Me daily;
I claim no bull from your estate, no he-goats from your pens.
For Mine is every animal of the forest, the beasts on a thousand mountains.
I know every bird of the mountains, the creatures of the field are subject to Me.
Were I hungry, I would not tell you, for Mine is the world and all it holds.
Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of he-goats?
Sacrifice a thank offering to God, and pay your vows to the Most High.
Now, as my congregants know, the context in which a Psalm (or any passage in the bible) is incredibly important to our understanding of its underlying message and this is certainly the case here. So, first, some history. This Psalm was most likely sung during the time of the Second Temple, wherein the cultic rituals of sacrifice were still going strong. But, from what we are reading here, not everyone agreed that this was the right thing to do. God says, according to the Psalm, I’m not interested in your sacrifices, or your burnt offerings. And why? Well, God basically says, why would I want you to give back to me that animals I actually gave to you? “The creatures of the field are subject to ME,” not you. You don’t own these animals, I do, God says. So why are you giving them to me? Now, remember what we’re talking about here: sacrifice was a tradition for thousands of years; it was unbreakable. To even suggest otherwise was crazy, and yet here is a polemic against sacrifice right in our very canon.
And the Psalm continues from there, to one of my favorite parts. God says to Israel, “If I were hungry, I wouldn’t tell YOU.” Historically, it was a common belief that sacrificing to the God in Israelite culture, just as sacrificing to the gods in pagan culture, was a way of feeding the deity. Fire would be burned and this would be a way of feeding God. There were other ideas about sacrifice, or course, such as gods liking the pleasant odor of BBQ, but apparently the stronger held view was that we needed to feed God because God was hungry. But listen to the Psalm, and what it is conveying. God tell us, “you think I’m hungry? I’m not hungry. And even if I was, do you think I’d complain about it to you?” “Do you really think I eat the flesh of bulls or pour myself glasses of goat blood?” Very polemical.
Which brings us to the point of the Psalm this evening. God offers an alternative to these practices, saying “Sacrifice a thank offering to God.” In other words, in the face of all the confusion about ritual, the disagreement about the reasons for sacrifice, God is telling us to just let all of that go. It’s silly. It’s not important. It’s a waste of time and energy. “Don’t do what you’ve been doing for ages,” God says, “just because you think you’re supposed to.” What the Psalm tells us, what God really wants, is thanks. Gratefulness. That is the offering to give to God. And it’s an offering that makes sense.
Rabbi Norman Lamm explains it this way:
We err if we imagine that the offering of thanks to God is a kind of religious courtesy, a form of spiritual politeness, of good manners to a good God. Thanks may be the sort of good taste that lubricates the machinery of human relations, but certainly God transcends the limits of cultivation and good breeding. The Merciful One desires the heart; God looks to the depths of a man’s soul and is unimpressed by ceremonial compliments. Surely the Lord prefers piety over polish, genuineness over gentility, the broken heart over the soft tongue. Obviously our thanks are not made to flatter God.
Indeed, what Psalm 50 teaches us is that our gratitude to God should come from a place of such depth, of such humility, that to offer it costs us more than our finest livestock, our most luscious fruits. To put it in 21st century terms, to thank God–truly and honestly–should be more difficult, and require more dedication, than to give up our paychecks, our cars, even our homes. In the Psalm, God states, “Mine is the world and all it holds;” in other words, nothing is ours. Not the animals, not the trees or grass, or the food we make from the wheat and materials from the Earth. All of it belongs to God, because God created it and rules over it. And God’s not looking for give-backs. No, the Psalm expresses what God truly wishes from us, which is that we be emphatically grateful.
It’s a message that has brought me to my knees more than once in my lifetime, and a great deal in recent weeks. What does it mean for my gratitude to transcend the material goods that make my life, and my lifestyle, possible? Spoiler alert: I don’t have an answer to this question. But I do have a beginning to an answer. It means doing what Psalm 50 does: turning off the noise, the static, the information overload that attempts to drive us in a thousand directions and in no directions all at once. It means finding our center. It means, in my humble opinion, as a student of God’s word, just like each of you, that we should listen to these powerful words of old:
To each among you have We prescribed a law and a revealed way. And if God had so willed, God would have made you a single people, but the intent is to test you in what God has given you. Vie, then, with one another in doing good works. The return of you all is to God, Who will then tell you about that wherein you differed.
In case you were wondering the source of such wisdom, it comes from the canon of our Muslim cousins, the Qu’ran, of which I am proud to quote in this diverse group. This Thanksgiving, as we turn to the Almighty One, and to each other, to express our deepest gratitude, let us do so by silencing the din that surrounds us. Let us go back to basics. Just as the writer of Psalm 50 exhorted us to forget the infighting over sacrifice in favor of a more simple view of God for the divine being God is, may we do the same as we see each other–each member of the human race–for what he or she is. A beautiful, intelligent, worthy brother or sister in need of our understanding and our compassion no matter the differences that may exist between us.
As the Rabbis of the 5th century taught in the great work of the Talmud, each one of us were and continue to be created b’zelem elohim, in the image of God. This is the equality that exists within each of us, no matter on which topics we disagree, and it is what can guide us to see the best of one another this week, no matter our differences. May this be the offering we give to the Almighty, and may gratefulness and thanksgiving ring through every household this holiday season.
 According to the World Council of Churches
 Chapter 5, Verse 48