On occasion this summer, I will preach from one of the 150 psalms. The first psalm that I have chosen is that oh, so loveable, Psalm 146. It opens with someone in an unmistakably good mood, clicking her heels, feeling great about life. It almost sings as it opens: “Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long!”
Listen well and you can hear the toe-tapping, attitude-adjusting, down-right-joyful upbeat of this musical psalm. Whether the English, “Praise the Lord” or the Hebrew, “Hallelujah,” Psalm 146 could not offer a more positive, serene, even whimsical start to spending some of the summer with the psalms.
Well, in the words of Mr. Gershwin, “It ain’t necessarily so.” People of faith sang Psalm 146 when Fascist fires were burning in the German village of Barmen in the early 1930s. Throughout Germany the Third Reich had created its own church of those who called themselves “German Christians.” They pledged loyalty to the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, and also to Jesus.
In May of 1934, embattled Christians in Germany who rejected the ultra-nationalism of the German Christians wrote “The Theological Declaration of Barmen.” It is a part of our church’s constitution even today. The Barmen Declaration declares that the ultimate allegiance for Christians is to God in Christ and it refutes the ultra-nationalism and anti-Semitism of the Nazi “German Christians.”
The banner created at Barmen shows a swastika crossed out and the Christian cross rising out of it, a visual protest against the Nazi tyranny and its attempt to coopt the church. The banner also has a flaming fire at the base of the cross, symbolizing the suffering and death which sometimes comes from following Jesus, suffering and death that some of the signers of the Barmen Declaration would experience themselves.
Facing the hell before them and living in the midst of a fractured and fractious society, the Christians at Barmen sang Psalm 146. They sang, “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!” They knew that there is something about singing “praise the Lord” that has more substance to it than those pesky “born again” folks who repeat those words again and again if they were a magical talisman. There is something world-shattering about saying, “Praise the Lord” because those three words frame life itself.
You can summarize Psalm 146 in one short sentence, “Trust God, not human rulers.” That is why Jews and Christians have sung this song, over and over, for centuries. We sing it to remember to whom we pledge our allegiance. We sing it to remember that “In God We Trust” is more than something to stamp on our coins. According to the Psalmist, “trust in God alone” is to be stamped on our hearts, making all other trust relative and suspect.
Psalm 146 says that human leaders, unlike God, are adam in the Hebrew, that is “mortal,” and will return to the adamah, that is “the earth.” Great leaders know they are mortal and flawed and great leaders never forget it. Just days before the end of the Civil War, Richmond fell and Abraham Lincoln came to celebrate. “No sooner had the presidential party reached the landing,” writes Pulitzer-prize winning historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin, “than Lincoln was surrounded by a small group of black laborers shouting, ‘Bless de Lord! . . . here is de great Messiah! . . . Glory, Hallelujah!’ First one and then several others fell on their knees, ‘Don’t kneel to me’, Lincoln said, his voice full of emotion, ‘that is not right. You might kneel to God only and thank him [God] for the liberty you will hereafter enjoy” (Team of Rivals, p. 719).
Every Sunday when the ushers return to the table with our morning offerings, you and I sing some version of Psalm 146. It is a Doxology, a song giving glory and praise to God. We do it Sunday after Sunday “and we never know what holy power is unleashed by such singing,” writes Walter Brueggemann.
“This singing is our vocation, our duty, and our delight. We name this staggering name—and the world becomes open again, especially for those on whom it had closed in such deadly ways—the prisoners, the blind, the sojourner, the widow, the orphan. The world is sung open” (“Psalm 146: Psalm for the Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost,” No Other Foundation, p. 29).
If we are looking for a sleepy, sedate little Psalm that will sing us a lullaby while we dose for the day, we had best not sing Psalm 146. For when we sing this old psalm a new world – God’s world – is sung open. Sing this Psalm and we catch sight of a God who cares passionately about justice, about hunger, about widows, about orphans, about the oppressed, about prisoners, about women’s rights and the rights of those who are most vulnerable around us.
“Hallelujah!” “Praise the Lord!” Those words may sound like the start of a Jewish or Christian cheer, but they are actually the music of a march, a revolution. Sing this psalm and God’s world is sung wide open. I am grateful that a group of Christian leaders across denominations and race and gender are singing this Psalm today in a movement called, “Reclaiming Jesus.” Like the Christians in Barmen, they are standing up to ultranationalist Christians and they are singing a different song.
Those “Reclaiming Jesus” begin with words that ring true and sing in my own heart: “It is time to be followers of Jesus before anything else—nationality, political party, race, ethnicity, gender, geography – our identity in Christ precedes every other identity.” Sing that song and you may find yourself shouting words of welcome over the harsh cries telling us to harden our borders and lock our doors. Sing that song and you may find yourself shouting words of generosity over all the catchy “get tough on crime” words until we spend more money educating the poor, especially the poor of color, than imprisoning them. Sing that song and you may find yourself insisting that adequate and accessible health care is the very least we can do for the “least of these” and that includes care for those caught in the grip of addiction and mental illness.
If ever there was a time for the church to sing “Hallelujah – Praise the Lord,” it is right now. If ever there was a time to tell our children and grandchildren, our colleagues at work and our neighbor next door, why we follow Jesus the way we do, why we are not ultranationalist Christians, why we come to Cove Sunday after Sunday to follow Jesus, it is right now. If ever there was a time for us to stop hiding our faith in public and allowing others to lump us in with ultranationalist Christians who seem to be okay with racism, are resigned to the belief that all politicians are liars, who do not lose sleep over how women are treated or how we are exploiting creation, the time is NOW.
The Reclaiming Jesus paper ends this way: “Our urgent need, in a time of moral and political crisis, is to recover the power of confessing our faith. Lament, repent, and then repair . . . We believe it is time to speak and to act in faith and conscience, not because of politics, but because we are disciples of Jesus Christ.” The Psalmist puts that same thought far more succinctly: “Hallelujah! Praise the Lord! Praise the Lord O my soul! I will praise the Lord as long as I live; I will sing praises to my God all my life long!”
When you and I sing those words, all the moral cobwebs fall from sight and we remember that even on our finest day we are not God, but that on our finest days we follow God’s Son, Jesus, into a life that cares about and provides for all those whom God loves.
Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!
There is no more powerful a song to sing.