Sermon by Rev. Gary W. Charles, May 30th, 2021
Once upon a time in a land far, far away, people sang. Not just children or youth keeping the beat with earbuds inserted. Not just young adults at concerts, but adults of every age and in every place. Some sang solos, soaring into perfect pitch glory. Some sang in small groups sitting on the front porch with friends while strumming their instruments. At some point, everyone sang in a large community choir, even those who changed key as often as they stayed on it.
Once upon a time in a land far, far away, people sang one song. This song had many different lyrics and tempos, but it was the same song nonetheless. Sometimes the song sounded like an avalanche of pure joy. Sometimes the song had a haunting plaintive beat. Sometimes the song lingered in gut wrenching lament. Sometimes the song had an angry edge to it, demanding justice to pay a long overdue visit. Even with different lyrics in different circumstances, everyone sang and they sang one song.
That was then and this is now. I can go days without singing even when by myself. I can go days without hearing someone else sing, unless I search out some recorded music. Increasingly, I hear some suggest that singing is a superfluous, add-on to life, one of many electives to our public or private education. In this age of specialization, some even suggest that we let the specialists sing while the rest of us get comfortable and just listen.
Once upon a time in a land far, far away, everyone sang not because they were all trained singers; they sang because that is what you do when the Spirit of God stirs within you. They sang one song, but they had a hymnal full of variations of that song. You and I know that hymnal as the Psalter, the book of 150 songs that is really one song. It is a song of the sovereign and gracious, and sometimes, inexplicable grace of God.
One arrangement of the song is Psalm 96. It is not a quiet, timid song. It is a toe-tapping song that soon has spectators singing and awakens sleepers. In this psalm, the choir is not restricted to human voices. It is a far more diverse choir. Trees and forests, seas and every living creature in them sing. For those who diminish creation as simply the playground or feeding ground for humans, Psalm 96 sings a far more imaginative song, a far more expansive song. It does not sing the old song of consumptive excess, ecological neglect, and environmental arrogance as if humans were the only part of creation that really matters to God. Its song invites us to join our voices with all creation to sing of living in harmony with all our partners in praise.
When Psalm 96 was first written, some found this part of the one song hard to sing. As their kings were defeated, the Israelites tasted the bitter food of slavery under the Assyrians, then the Babylonians, then the Persians, then the Greeks, then the Romans. It was tempting to stop singing songs of praise in such dismal, defeated times. One variation of the song even asked, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Psalm 137). Distressed at the apparent impotence of their God, some did stop singing. They were not about to sing, “God will judge the peoples with equity” when they felt that not only had God been unfair; God had deserted them.
Somehow, even during these dark times, though, a choir of the faithful kept singing. They sang because they refused to accept their present condition as the last word from God. They sang, “Declare God’s glory among the nations” even when the nations were mocking them and defaming their God. They sang, “O sing to the LORD a new song, sing to the LORD, all the earth” because they trusted that the God who shaped all creation and called every living thing into being was not going to settle for a world where injustice reigned, where truth is suppressed, where the most vulnerable are sacrificed. So, some sang even when their circumstances would suggest that they stop singing.
Once upon a time in our own land, slaves sang at night by campfires in the woods. They added their own lyrics to the one song and their new song gave them hope that the true LORD was their true master and slavery was not king; the true LORD and king was the great God Almighty, who is neither male nor female, neither white nor black, and who reigns now and whose final reign in heaven and earth will be one in which the singing will never stop and segregation will forever end.
Slaves sang, “O, who’ll be a witness for my Lord? O, who’ll be a witness for my Lord? My soul is a witness for my Lord. My soul is a witness for my Lord.” They looked around at all the prevailing props of power – the whip, the bill of sale, the lynching tree – and they added lyrics to the one song. They sang not because they hoped that their singing might lead their masters to lighten their load or soften their whips. They sang to remind themselves that they were owned only by God, a God who is in the world, working to set things right. They sang of hope in a world that bore absolutely no resemblance to the one they were experiencing. They sang of their faith in God and their faith in God made them sing.
The song of Southern slaves was the song of the God we meet in Psalm 96, the God who will eventually turn all who claim ultimate power on their heads. It sings of one loaf being able to feed everyone who is hungry or ever will be. It sings of one cup that will quench the thirst of anyone who drinks even a sip. It is the community’s song to sing to each other and to the world, even when war persists and cancer resists a cure, when vaccines exist but people refuse to take them, when tyrants deprive their people of the most basic needs, when bullets fire into crowd after crowd, when nature assaults with demonic force, and when evil dances unrestrained.
Once upon a time, people sang Psalm 96. They sang about a God who was and is and is to come, a God whose reign will have the last word and it will be a word of life and hope, justice and mercy for all heaven and earth. When their faith was under assault, they sang their faith back to life. They had no choice but to sing, as Walter Brueggemann prays: “We are people who must sing you, for the sake of our very lives. You are a God who must be sung by us, for the sake of your majesty and honor. And so we thank you, for lyrics that push us past our reasons, for melodies that break open our givens, for cadences that locate us home, beyond all our safe places, for tones and tunes that open our lives beyond control and our futures beyond despair. We thank you for the long parade of mothers and fathers who have sung you deep and true; We thank you for the good company of artists, poets, musicians, cantors, and instruments that sing for us and with us, toward you. We are witnesses to your mercy and splendor; We will not keep silent… ever again. Amen.”
Once upon a time, people sang. By the grace and mercy of God, may that time be now, be tomorrow, and be forevermore.
O people of God, SING!