My friends Marc and Jenn were the friends who did everything first. They got married a year out of college, way before any of the rest of us. Many of us, including Jenn, went off to grad school. Marc got a real job. They were also the first to have a child. When the day came, the rest of us around the seminary were overjoyed. One of our buddies went and sat with her while Marc rushed home from work. A crew of us – way more than were necessary – transported them to the hospital, sat in the waiting room all afternoon. Just after the epidural kicked in we went in to say, ‘hi,’ which I now realize was not a good decision, either. We also had to make sure to get Marc’s picks for the fantasy football draft that he was missing that might. That was the extent of our pastoral care. A few hours later Marc, exhausted, sweat dripping down his brow, walked out to tell us that their son Joshua had been born. We leapt to our feet, excited, with absolutely no idea what that meant. Then, slowly, Marc’s grandfather, retired Presbyterian pastor and president of Columbia Seminary for a time, reached out his hands to grab those beside him. As he steadied himself his deep voice, a bit garbled, began to sing the Doxology. He got the first few words out, then we all joined in, there, in the waiting room of the Dekalb Medical Center: Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise him all creatures here below. Praise him above ye heavenly hosts. Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, Amen. There was nothing else to be done, nothing to be said. The only thing for us to do was to sing.
I think it most appropriate this day in which we celebrate the presence of new hymnals, to think a little bit about the role of music – more specifically song – in life, and in the life of faith. Music is all around us in an astounding variety of shapes and sizes, allowing us to live with an almost constant soundtrack. Music plays in the office, in the grocery store, in restaurants overhead. But while music is still rooted in a shared experience, a show, a concert, so much of the music around is becoming individualized. We get in the car and the radio is on, media surrounds us in our homes. Most places you go you see people walking around with ear buds in, down the street, on the trail, out in public. It may be extraordinary music, but for only one person.
There are still a few places that we share music. Wonderful concerts, collective event experiences, from places like DPAC to PNC arena to the school gym where someone you care about is singing in a chorus or playing in band concert. No matter what craziness is happening at a sporting event, everything stops as the color guard walks out onto the court. A person or group begins the national anthem, and by the end we are all singing, in a magnificent communal act of patriotism. This kind of experience happens when we sing an Alma Mater. Have you ever been to a birthday party in which there was NOT a moment where someone brought out a desert and ‘Happy Birthday’ was sung?
One of the last places people sing together regularly is church. The church – or perhaps better said, the desire to worship God – has inspired much of the best music throughout our history, from sacred chorales from hundreds of years ago, symphonies commissioned and dedicated simply, ‘to the glory of God.’ Pieces sung and played, week after week, for centuries. Music draws us together in some sort of collective, shaping experience that we put our heart and soul and voice into, focusing it all towards the worship of the Triune God. These songs of faith shape us: Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. A mighty fortress is our God a bulwark never failing. Joyful, joyful we adore thee God of glory Lord of love. Away in a manger no crib for a bed, the little lord Jesus lay down his sweet head. The seasons of Advent and Christmas don’t work without the music. Christ the Lord is Risen today, Alleluia. We all have special songs that hold us, maybe ones we grew up singing, whose words come to us.
These songs find their roots in scripture. In the bible, like in life, critical points are marked with song. In today’s text the Israelites mark the crossing of the Red Sea by singing a song of celebration and thanksgiving. On the heels of the Joseph narrative, covering the last 13 chapters of Genesis, the book of Exodus begins with his death. Joseph dies and the author says, ominously, "Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph." The process towards slavery began, the Israelites enslaved, Exodus says in chapter 12, for 430 years. Exodus, ex-hodos, a way out, a road out, moves from Joseph’s death over those centuries of oppression to the miraculous circumstances around the birth of Moses, raised by Pharaoh’s daughter, to his escape to Midian, called by a burning bush. God calls Moses, with help from his brother Aaron, to proclaim God’s will to Pharaoh, that the people be FREE, and does so through pain and plague, until the ruler of Egypt finally sees God’s power.
The people begin their escape and, no sooner than they have left town, Pharaoh changes his mind and sends his armies. A massive chase ensues, the Israelites fearing how poorly it will end as they approach the Red Sea, until Moses, following God’s instructions, raises his hands – I can’t help but see Charlton Heston here from the movie the Ten Commandments that is always on television the night before Easter. God pushes the waters back so the people cross on dry land, the waters closing back in over the Egyptian chariots the moment the Israelites are safe. On dry land chapter 15 begins with singing. The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation. Your right hand, O LORD, glorious in power-your right hand, O LORD, shattered the enemy. You brought them in and planted them on the mountain of your own possession, the place, O LORD, that you made your abode, the sanctuary, O LORD, that your hands have established. The LORD will reign forever and ever. The Lord has triumphed gloriously, horse and rider thrown into the sea.
Scripture is filled with these amazing songs, from Moses and Miriam to Hannah, praying to God for the child that will be Samuel, the prophet who anoints King David. Wisdom literature, particularly the book of psalms, is filled with the songs of the covenant community. Jesus comes in song, with Luke’s pairing of Mary’s Magnificat when she feels the child Jesus leap in her womb with Zechariah’s song when John the Baptist is born. The Christ Hymn in Philippians 2 is likely an ancient hymn of the church Paul quotes in his letter. As best I can tell, no one from those texts seemed caught up in worrying whether they had a perfect voice – and I don’t even know what that means – or not. It doesn’t seem that anyone was concerned whether it was an old song or a new one, whether the tune was familiar or not. No one worried how they would sound or whether anyone else was singing along. Moses sung because God had been faithful. Miriam sung because that was the way she knew to give voice to her faith. There are occasions in life that call out a song, that bring something out of us that we didn’t know we had, that bind us to God and each other in ways that can’t happen maybe ANY OTHER WAY.
Last Sunday 50 or so of us gathered over soup to spend time with this new hymnal. I went because I wanted to be supportive, but also because I always learn something when Monica teaches, but I was distracted. Personnel had met and we are very close on hiring an Office Manager, we were working on terms of call details for today’s congregational meeting. We had a funeral for Marvin Walker the day before, were moving towards Link Wily’s which we ended up moving, then postponing, because of the ensuing weather choas. There were lots of details to juggle, so many pieces to move, and I was late and was eating while everyone started singing then my phone kept ringing so I was in and out of the fellowship hall a couple of times and we had a big session meeting that night and I wanted a nap.
Then we started singing. The thing that is great about singing is that it’s hard to do anything else and really focus on it, esp. if it is something new. It requires all of your concentration, your breath. In the midst of the wonderful job Monica did teaching we sang hymn #36 – new words and a tune you will find familiar, exactly as we are going to sing it here in a moment. We’ll stand, have the women on verse 1, the men on verse 2, and all together on verse 3. As I choked down the rest of my lunch we sang a simple song of gratitude to God – in the midst of a world filled with suffering and unpredictability and strife. We sung for the gifts we are given, for the privilege of this life, food to eat and people to love, of comfort and community when things feel like more than we can bear. As we sing I want you to pay careful attention to the words.
For the fruit of all creation, thanks be to God.
For the gifts to every nation, thanks be to God.
For the wonders that astound us for the truths that still confound us,
most of us all that love has found us, thanks be to God.
And I was lifted up, for a moment, and felt surrounded by that love in the joy of the music. This Sunday, the first Sunday of Lent, maybe that’s worth remembering – the love that grounds our journey of Lenten preparation, that has found you, found us, found the world, in Jesus the Christ. I look forward to the singing we’ll keep doing, together.
All praise be to God. Amen.