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Clapping in Church

Date: September 1, 2019/Speaker: Sharla Hulsey

Scripture: Psalm 148

Did you know that everybody here speaks Hebrew, at least a little bit? We all know at least a couple words in Hebrew, and we use them quite frequently.

Every time we pray, we end with a Hebrew word: “amen.” And when we say “amen,” we’re not just saying, “I’m through praying now.”

In the Gospels, we often have Jesus say something rendered in modern translations as, “Truly I tell you…” Most commentators say that when Jesus begins a statement like that, he is asserting some authority. He’s declaring something that is, essentially, the word of God: There are several examples of this in the sixth chapter of Matthew—part of the Sermon on the Mount:

“[Whenever] you give alms, do not sound a trumpt before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagoges and on the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”[1]
“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.”[2]

The phrase translated “Truly I tell you,” in Greek, is amēn legō humin. And that first word, amēn, has been brought into Greek straight from Hebrew.
So when we close our prayers with amen, we’re saying more than simply that we’re finished. We are saying that what we’ve just said is true, and if we’ve asked for something in our prayer, our closing amen means, “so let it be.”

The other word from Hebrew that we use frequently is the one I want us to spend quite a bit of time with this morning.

Something I find interesting about the Hebrew language is that, by adding prefixes and endings to a word, and changing the vowels a bit, it can be made into a complete sentence. Here’s how that works, with the word we’re focusing on.

We start with a verb: halal, which means “praise.” Change the last verb from an “a” to an “e,” and you have hallel, an imperative, or command, form. Next we add a “u,” which makes it second person plural: “All of you praise.” Finally, we add jah, which is a shortened version of God’s Name, generally rendered in English translations as “LORD” in small caps, because the Name is not spoken. Now we have a complete sentence: Hallelujah—Praise the LORD. And every time you say that word, you’re speaking Hebrew; you don’t just know a couple words in Hebrew, you know how to say a Hebrew sentence. [3]

Some of our church traditions can be pretty baffling to folks outside the church. (That doesn’t mean we should throw them out; but it does mean we might have to do a little teaching.) Actually some traditions practiced in some churches can be sort of baffling to other Christians, too.

Western Christians don’t always understand that Orthodox Christians (whether Greek or Russian or Syrian or whatever) see their icons, those stylized, two-dimensional depictions of Jesus, or Mary, or some event or another from Scripture, not as objects of worship but as windows through which we can catch a glimpse of the Divine. We don’t tend to recognize that every color used, every posture or hand position in, an icon has symbolic meaning, intended to help us draw closer to God.

When I was in seminary, there was a movement in some evangelical churches away from celebrating Communion. The rationale was that seekers, people who’d never been to church before, would find “This is my body,” and “this is my blood,” to be “freaky.” Best not to scare them off, so the argument went. But then there are others of us—Disciples, Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, just to name a few—who don’t really feel like worship is complete unless we’ve had Communion, and we don’t entirely understand why any church would want to skip it.

A lot of white mainline Protestant churches with more traditional worship styles have discussions from time to time about whether or not clapping should be allowed during a worship service. Doesn’t that detract from the reverence of worship? some ask. Some argue that when we clap for an especially moving musical or dramatic performance, we are turning our focus away from God to praise the performers. (Many churches who have had this argument will acknowledge one exception: if the performers are children—a children’s choir, for example.) We might have this argument, but in churches of other cultures or with other styles of worship, clapping isn’t just allowed, it’s encouraged, perhaps even expected at certain points in the service.

There is one tradition some churches follow that I don’t understand. In these churches, on the last Sunday before Lent starts, the congregation says good-by to the word Hallelujah (or, in its Latin form, Alleluia). Some even make a show, especially with children, of locking the Hallelujah up in a chest or something, and putting it away somewhere, hiding it, or even burying it.

It’s not something I’d ever feel the need to do, myself.

For one thing, the Sundays that fall during the season of Lent are Sundays in Lent, not Sundays of Lent. When we count 40 days of Lent, the Sundays are not included. Because of the first Easter, we worship on Sundays, and every Sunday—even during Lent—is a “little Easter” in which we proclaim that Jesus has risen from the dead. The colors we use in the sanctuary may change, and our worship might be a little more somber during Lent; but we are still celebrating the Resurrection.

Furthermore, as I’ve just told you, the word Hallelujah means “Praise the LORD.” Is there ever really a time when praising God is inappropriate, even during the season of Lent, when we might spend a little time examining our lives and trying to set aside things that interfere with our faithfulness? I just don’t think there is, and so I have never been all that interested in banning Hallelujah from my life or that of my church during Lent. We have something very big to praise God for during Lent—the gift of grace embodied by Jesus Christ, which makes it possible for us to turn away from sin and toward God in the first place!

But Psalm 148 answers a much bigger question. It’s not, “When should we praise God?” but “Who or what praises God?” And Psalm 148’s answer is very expansive.

Some people will say that the thing that separates humans from other creatures is that we alone are capable of praising God. I’m pretty sure the author of Psalm 148 wouldn’t agree.

Yes, of course there are things about humanity that make us special: no other creature is said to be made in God’s image; and the author of the eighth Psalm said we are “a little lower than the angels.” We’re not just any animal, even though human beings are, biologically speaking, animals. But the author of Psalm 148 would not say we’re special because only we can praise God.

The psalmist says that the purpose of all of creation, including humanity, is to praise God! The sun, moon and stars; the weather; bodies of water and all that live in them, including the primordial sea monsters; mountains, hills, trees, and plants; wild and domestic animals, birds, even mice and bugs! All human beings, from the greatest to the least, oldest to youngest, regardless of gender, ethnicity, or anything else—and especially God’s own people, the ones with whom God has made a covenant, namely the Jewish people and, by adoption, Christians. Everyone and everything that exists has the same purpose: to praise God!

We know how we praise God: we worship, we sing, we tell about how excellent and exalted God’s Name is, we shout Hallelujah. But how does a mountain praise God, or a tree? How does a fish praise? How does the water in which the fish swims praise? How do cattle in pastures or feedlots, coyotes, or skunks praise God?

And why?

The Psalm tells us why: because all that exists was created by God’s command and is maintained by God’s continuing care.

But how? How does the creature say “Praise”?[4] And how can we really say that everything in all of creation has that one purpose, to praise God? What about snakes? Weeds? Mosquitoes? Viruses? Murderers? Hurricanes? Do these praise God?

Do they? Because from where I sit, they don’t seem to be anything but destructive.

Does God see them otherwise? Or is something else afoot?

The thing is, yes, everything was created to praise God—including nature, outer space, plants and animals, and all human beings. But something is wrong right now. It’s been wrong for a very long time, pretty much as long as any human being can remember.

The story in the second and third chapters of Genesis—which we’ll look at next Sunday as the Narrative Lectionary resumes—indicates that this is the result of sin. The Bible generally understands sin not just as individual people’s bad behavior or breaking the rules, whatever they are, but the insidious fallenness that has done damage to all of creation.

The purpose of the mountain is to praise God—not to shake and quake and send out ash and lava and smoke that chokes out all life it touches. The purpose of creation is to praise God—not for the strong to prey upon the weak, or for any creature to make others sick. The purpose of the weather is to praise God—not to form itself into deadly hurricanes that damage everything in their path. The purpose of humanity is to praise God—not to exploit creation and one another, or to abuse, maim, or kill one another in myriads of ways.

And so we catch glimpses of the heavens and earth praising God and proclaiming God’s glory…but they are only glimpses, because nothing in creation right now is fully capable of praising God. But someday…
Someday the insidious power of sin will be defeated, and then things won’t be so mixed up and messed up and confusing and bizarre, and nothing will hurt or kill or do damage. Someday the work Jesus began by becoming a part of creation, a part of humanity, allowing that power of sin to do its very worst, and then on Easter morning demonstrating in dramatic fashion that the worst sin has to offer is no match for God’s glory and God’s righteousness: someday that work will be completed. Until then, all of creation longs for it.

“It’s a sigh that is wafted across the troubled wave,
it’s a wail that is heard upon the shore,
it’s a dirge that is chanted around the open grave…” [5]

How does the creature say “Praise”? One day we will know. One day we will hear that song, and we will join in. Now we catch only glimpses, snippets here and there—like the rhythm of rain dripping off summer leaves, or the pictures the Hubble telescope has shown us of deep space.

All of creation waits, with eager longing, for the day when that work begun with Jesus is completed, and all things are redeemed and perfected, and finally—finally!—we all may fulfill the one purpose for which all things were created. In the meantime, our worship, whether it includes clapping or reverent silence, organs or guitars, is a rehearsal for that day.

Our Hallelujahs in this holy space will one day be echoed by all of creation: sun and moon, shining stars, heaven and earth, mountains and hills, fruit trees and cedars, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy winds, wild and domestic animals, bugs, birds, fish; all the rulers of the earth and all peoples, young and old, every gender and race, in every language.

May that day come soon.

[1] Matthew 6:2

[2] Matthew 6:5.  The formula is also repeated in 6:16.

[3] The Hebrew name Immanuel, which comes from Isaiah 7 and is later applied to Jesus, works similarly, although in Hebrew sometimes a “be” verb is left out and it’s a matter of interpretation whether it should be added in translation:  Im, with; anu, us; el, God—God with us, or God [is] with us.  So, technically speaking, you actually know two Hebrew sentences.

[4] This is the subject of a beautiful hymn text by the late Jaroslav Vajda, “God of the sparrow God of the whale,” with music by Carl Schalk.  It’s in the Chalice Hymnal, #70 (as well as many other newer hymnals); or you can find the lyrics at and the story behind them at  A quick YouTube search will yield clips of various choirs and congregations singing it.

[5] From the last verse of Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times Come Again No More.”