This is the second and last sermon I preached at Oxford Circle Mennonite Church. And yes, yes I did decide to read a speech from one of the nation’s most famous orators. That part went okay. Also, I only clicked my tongue once (my nervous preaching habit), which felt like a major victory.
Why We Sing
Because singing is so specific to religious groups, it might be hard for most of us to believe that the songs we sing in church aren’t just for Christians. It seems like that should be the one part of church that is just for “us.” After all, most of the other things that happen at church involve people outside the church. When we pray we pray for our world, our government and our neighborhood. The sermons we hear are usually about injecting faith into life outside Sunday morning. We spend time talking about ministries and hearing from our missionaries. But it seems like singing to our God, worship of Jesus, that’s the thing that’s really about the people gathered on Sunday morning.
The first part of the psalm read today seems to confirm this idea. “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, praise his name; proclaim his salvation day after day!” Psalm 96 begins with rightful worship of our God as we remember the good things God has done for us. It’s us offering praise to God. But after this short introduction the psalmist’s tone changes. We find out that God’s glory is to be declared among the nations. All the people of the world are to give God honor and praise. In fact, the whole earth will tremble before God. Amazingly not only people will sing praises to God. The physical creation, the rocks, trees, fields, sea and sky will also break forth in songs of joy.
What’s really wonderful about this psalm is the way it expands our ideas about the direction of our worship. For most of us worship looks a lot like something I give to God. Worship comes from the old English word “worth-ship.” We ascribe worth to God because of who we know God to be. We praise God for what we’ve seen God do in our lives. Good worship is a response to the beauty and glory of God we see in newborn babies, the delicious smell of barbeque chicken, and that beautiful, arcing homerun. These things call forth our praise to God, their Creator.
This response of worship is what led Charles Wesley to write the hymn “Jesus, Lover of my Soul” in 1740. Some of you, especially if you grew up in a hymn-singing church like me, know these words:
Jesus, lover of my soul, let me to Thy bosom fly,
While the nearer waters roll, while the tempest still is high.
Hide me, O my Savior, hide, till the storm of life is past;
Safe into the haven guide; O receive my soul at last.
What’s I love about this hymn is that it wasn’t inspired by an internal storm of doubt and fear. It’s about a real storm! It was written when Wesley was crossing the Atlantic Ocean, returning from America to England. This was a time when travel by sea was extremely dangerous. While on the voyage Wesley’s ship encountered a horrible storm. He kept a journal about the experience:
“I prayed for power to pray, for faith in Jesus Christ, continually repeating his name, till I felt the virtue of it at last, and I knew that I abode under the shadow of the Almighty. The storm was at its height. At four o’clock, the ship had made so much water, that the captain, finding it impossible otherwise to save her from sinking, cut down the mizen mast. In this dreadful moment, I blessed God. I found comfort and hope and such joy in finding I could hope as the world can neither give nor take away. I had that conviction of the power of God present with me, overruling fear and raising my above what I am by nature, as surpassed all rational evidence. After the storm subsided my first business today – may it be the first business of all my days – was to offer up the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”
Praise was Wesley’s response to God’s saving power. Others have written songs about spiritual salvation, a dramatic change in life from who they were before. These are often wonderful songs of praise that encourage each of us as we walk through difficult times. These songs also give us the words to say when we have no words of our own. They give us words to thank God when we have experienced the incredible goodness of the Lord.
But worship that stops with “God and me” doesn’t take into account how big our God really is. Our psalm today starts out with songs to the Lord but then it reminds us that we sing to the God of Creation, the God of the Universe. “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous deeds among all peoples.” Over and over again we read that the whole earth is supposed to hear, in song, about God’s good work. And we know from the newer testament that this is actually happening. When God sent Jesus, God’s own Son, that declaration of glory to the nations we read about in psalm went into overdrive. In Acts we learn how this happened, how those who followed Jesus took up his command to be his witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the very ends of the world. It was time for the whole world to get in on the relationship with God that before was reserved for the Jews.
So, as strange as it sounds, when we sing we’re not just singing for God. The theologian Marva Dawn says that we also sing for our neighbors as good singing forms us for daily mission. Let’s think about it this way: how many of us talk about “going to church” on Sunday? Dawn reminds us of what a strange thing this is to say, as if the church was just a building, a sanctuary, or a pulpit. This is a place where we the church, the body of Christ, meet. The things we do here prepare us to be the church every day of year. The more we engage in worship together as the church, the deeper we get into the stories of salvation and thanksgiving of those around us. The longer we live into the ways God is working among us the more we are going to want to share about that God with the world around us. Our neighbors will see that we have something to sing about.
This means that our worship and our evangelism are always intertwined. Will Willimon, a United Methodist bishop, shares a story about how important it is that our praise be witness to the fullness of life in Christ. It was the end of the day when Willimon decided to visit a member of his congregation who was a lawyer. He dropped by his office and everyone had gone home but this lawyer who was working late. Starting off the conversation Willimon asked, “What sort of day have you had?” The lawyer replied: “A typical day…full of misery. In the morning I assisted a couple to evict their aging father from his house so they could take everything while he was in a nursing home. All legal, not particularly moral, but legal. By lunchtime I was helping a client evade his worker’s comp insurance payment. It’s legal. This afternoon I have been enabling a woman to ruin her husband’s life forever with the sweetest divorce you ever saw. That’s my day.”
Willimon thought, “What could I say?” The lawyer continued, “Which helps explain why I’m in your church on a Sunday morning.” Willimon replied, “I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed thinking what on earth I have to say in a sermon which might help you for a Sunday.”
Then the lawyer said, “It’s not the sermon I come for, preacher. It’s the music. I go a whole week with nothing beautiful, little good, until Sunday. Sometimes when the choir sings, it is for me the difference between death and life.”
Marva Dawn explains that, “It is a major flaw in present-day churches that we don’t realize that our primary evangelistic tool is the corporate life of the believing community. Our neighbors need to see the Christian way of life that gives warrant for belief.” The strength and conviction of our singing vertically is going to reverberate horizontally, into the world.
In the same way, if we sing to God like God is another one of the idols of this world, if we sing like singing is something our own little insular group does when it’s not busy doing real work, then no one is going to want to be a part of what we do here. People are busy! People have things to do. We’ve all got our idols to worship, whether that’s money, prestige, relationships, sex or politics. Psalm 96 reminds us that our singing isn’t one of these idols but says something about these gods: “For great is the Lord and most worthy of praise; he is to be feared above all gods. For all the gods of the nations are idols, but the Lord made the heavens.”
Singing like this, singing that’s to the God of Who Rules Everything, will actually blow the doors right off the church. My friend RG is a pastor in Birmingham, Alabama. His church is called Church Without Walls. I love that name. It’s a reminder to me that worship done well is going to explode our idea of what God is doing in the world. When we start to see worship that puts our idols in place we might be surprised by the results. Who here expects to walk outside and see the heavens putting on a light show to the tune of Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee? Who here thinks that on their trip to the Shore that the waters will churn and swell to A Mighty Fortress is Our God? Who would have ever thought or imagined that trees would grow mouths to open and would sing praises to the Lord? Get ready, because that’s the God we worship, a God beyond our expectation.
If even the trees of the fields will clap their hands, clearly our songs will sometimes find themselves breaking out into the world in unexpected ways. The Rev. Dr. Charles Tindley discovered this when his song “We Shall Overcome” started to be sung at rallies and churches during the Civil Right movement. This gospel song can be heard as a longing for the time when pain and trials will cease. It can be heard as a song about strength for our earthly journey as we face the perils of daily life. But as Bull Connor’s fire hoses beat back protestors and as churches exploded in the night more and more people began to sense in this song a longing for justice on this earth that reflected eternal peace. Eventually the song was taken to a folk workshop and reworked into a protest song, one that became the most popular anthem of the Civil Rights.
When some people hear this story they think that “We Shall Overcome” was stripped of it’s spiritual meaning and secularized for a political cause. But I don’t think that’s what happened. Instead, in this gospel song we see how our singing taps into something so much bigger than what we could ever imagine. Remember we’re singing to the God of the Universe who created all things. When we sing well our songs will speak to the yearning for justice, righteousness and wholeness God has put in all our hearts. Songs like “We Shall Overcome” are a strong reminder that God’s love is embedded in good worship. Sometimes we just have to be willing to let it run wild in the world.
But letting our worship loose in the world isn’t without risk. We all know that this world is filled with forces that want to thwart the work of the kingdom, forces that want to silence the voice of the faithful. Yet, we also know that we worship a God who has already defeated the greatest adversary, Satan, and who is coming again to judge those powers of destruction and violence. Psalm 96 says, “Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for he comes, he comes to judge the earth. He will judge in righteousness and the peoples in his faithfulness.” This part of the psalm sounds apocalyptic. It reminds us that Jesus is coming back and things are going to be made right in the whole world — not just only in our spiritual lives and our personal relationships but in the whole of creation. When our songs break forth into the world this is a foretaste of what’s to come when God redeems everything. Our songs participate in this reality now.
But in this life, before we experience the glorious return of Jesus who will judge all the hatred, violence and destruction we will find that we sing in dangerous places. Dr King knew what it was like to sing “We Shall Overcome” in front of an angry crowd of rock-throwing protestors. He knew what it was like to sing to the principalities and powers of this world. Listen to his words:
Deep in my heart I do believe, we shall overcome.
Now I join hands often with students and others behind jail bars singing it: We shall overcome.
Sometimes we’ve had tears in our eyes when we joined together to sing it, but we still decided to sing it! We shall overcome.
Lord before this victory is won some will have to get thrown in jail some more, but we shall over come. Don’t worry about us, before the victory is won some of us will lose jobs, but we shall overcome.
Before the victory is won, even some will have to face physical death. But if physical death is the price that some must pay to free their children from a permanent psychological death, then nothing shall be more redemptive. We shall over come.
Before the victory is won, some will be misunderstood and called bad names and dismissed as rebel-rousers and agitators. But we shall overcome.
That’s the place true worship that is pleasing to God will take us. It will take us to jails, to lost jobs and even to death. It will be called rebel-rouser and agitator. It will sing the words of wholeness where the spirit and the body are at peace. Remember, when Dr King said “We Shall Overcome” he meant that one day we would live in a nation that recognized the personhood of blacks and whites, men and women, the abled and the disabled. But Dr King also meant that we will overcome even death. Those words I read were his last speech before his assassination following a trash-workers union strike in Memphis. He reminds us that we live our lives doing the work of God and then return to our God who will one day judge our broken world in righteousness. Right worship to God prepares us to do the risky work of singing out against the powers of this world that seek to destroy God’s kingdom.
My favorite worship band, U2, knows about the risk of singing out against the powers. In the mid-1980s the band was on tour during the time the nation was debating making Dr King’s birthday a national holiday. Some, especially in the south, were vehemently opposed to the idea. As the debate heated up, U2 introduced the song “Pride” into its lineup. I’m sure many of you have heard this song: “One man come in the name of love, one man come and go, one man come here to justify, one man to overthrow. In the name of love, what more in the name of love.”
The song draws a parallel between the life and work of Jesus and that of Dr. King. You can imagine that those opposed to commemorating Dr King were not happy about the public singing of this song. Some people were so unhappy that they sent the band death threats. One night at a show in Arizona a very specific death threat was issued. Bono received a letter that said, “If you sing Pride tonight it will be the last song you ever sing.” The band faced a real dilemma. Would they stand by their convictions and sing this song or would they back off just for the night? After much deliberation they decided to sing Pride. As Bono began to sing, standing helpless before a crowd of thousands, he closed his eyes. He didn’t open them again until the song was through. When he did, he saw something amazing. Adam Clayton, the band’s bassist, had been standing in front of Bono for the entire song, acting as a human shield.
We’re not always going to find ourselves singing before a loaded gunman, but we do need to remember that our worship can take us to places that are not safe. Really good singing not only prepares us but propels us into the fullness of God’s work. Singing is risky business.
So far we’ve talked about worship that goes in the direction of God, then spills out to our neighbors. Sometimes we have to be ready for it to burst into the world in unexpected ways, ways that may be risky as we make the proclamation about Jesus. Our singing moves in one final direction – through eternity. I’m always encouraged to remember that the songs we sing were all written by real people who lived real lives out of which these songs came. They were written by the former slave trader, John Newton; by a woman blinded by illness named Fanny Crosby; by Mennonite martyrs; by African churches; by contemporary worship leaders; by great church reformers, by pastors and poets.
When our worship gets risky or puts us in difficult places we can remember that we stand in the company of those who wrote the songs we sing. And because we believe in the resurrection we aren’t just singing in memory of those who have gone before, we are singing with them. We know from the book of Revelation that one of our primary activities in the new heaven and the new earth will be worship. Even now we sing with those who sing in every nation and tribe around the world. But we also sing with those who have died and gone before, our loved ones and those unknown faithful who sing with us. We never sing alone.
Singing takes our faith in every direction imaginable. Our praises go up to our God, they go out to our neighbors, they run wild in the world and they spring into eternity as we sing with the faithful both past and present. So let us all sing to the Lord a new song. Let all the nations of the world ascribe God glory. Let the trees of the forest sing for joy. And let our praise resound as an announcement of the risky work of those who have built up the kingdom of God and those faithful workers who are still to come. Amen.