Sermon, Given/Giving Voice: Psalms as Historic Songbook
This sermon was preached at First Presbyterian Church of Boise, Idaho on 9/6/15
and was the first in a three part series on Singing the Faith.
You can also find the video of this sermon here,
I do not preach from my manuscript so the two will track each other but not be identical.
“Voice: Psalms as Historic Songbook”
12As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. 13Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.14Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. 16Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. 17And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
1Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. 2Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. 3Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. 4Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name. 5For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.
1By the rivers of Babylon— there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. 2On the willows there we hung up our harps. 3For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” 4How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land? 5If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! 6Let my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth, if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy. 7Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem’s fall, how they said, “Tear it down! Tear it down! Down to its foundations!” 8O daughter Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! 9Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!
I grew up in a musical family, mostly a musical family. I grew up as the grandson of a church organist and everyone on my mom’s side was very musically inclined – not as much on my dad’s side of the family. In fact my dad has described passionate worship to me as a time when everyone is singing loud enough that he is sure no-one will hear him… at which point he will actually sing.
But my dad attended lots of musical concerts over the years regardless of his enjoyment of the music in and of itself because his children were making the music. Music is not just an aspect of my childhood – music is all around us. My dad, for instance, can identify most birds simply by the music they make. There is music in him – it’s just a different tune and melody. Music speaks to all of us on some level because music is a part of the soul. We feel music. We hear music not simply as the words – in fact if you are a parent today (any day actually) and you ask your child how they could possibly listen to those words (to the song they like and you don’t) the child will likely say, “Oh I just like the beat.” I would argue that. I would argue that those words are going somewhere, we do not hear and encode all those words without them making an impact and forming us on some level but I do understand what is being articulated in that moment. Before we know the words – the beat and the rhythm, the melody and the harmony of the music speaks to us, connects with us, and moves us – even white middle class protestants can be slightly moved…. by music.
And researchers will tell you that music is a great memory device – so will advertisers, by the way, we all have little commercial ditties memorized in our heads. But psychological researchers study how music works with the mind and its strong aid in memorization. Even more than just those catchy melodies it’s the rhythm and the rhyme, the patterns and alliteration, and the repetition of it all that driven by the melody. And I don’t want to get caught up too deeply in this track but some of those researchers argue that music predates our development our language. We were dancing and singing before we were speaking and writing. And this continues to be the case so we use music to teach, to memorize, to store information, and even retrieve it. Alzheimer’s patients have been known to hum familiar tunes to help fight off the loss of their memories[i].
Music connects us to an emotional experience and speaks deeply to us and becomes a part of us. We will all wake up with a song in our heads we haven’t sung or heard in forever… where is it coming from? Within you – it is a part of you. Music is in our soul.
In this sense then we can see how music operates on some level as a memory devise, it is part of our soul and the spirit. It is for this reason that if you were to read in the Presbyterian Directory of Worship, by the way not always a very stimulating read, but informative – if you were to read there about the role of music it speaks to music as prayer. Music functions in our worship as prayer. We sing praise, we sing supplications, we sing out needs and wants and hope and promise. Our music then becomes not only a private and individual-encoding-of-my-being moment but it is a corporate prayer – a speaking of God, who in full mystery could never be spoken. God cannot be spoken but can be sung.
The Cherubim in the beginning of the Book of Isaiah are perceived by the prophet as “dancing” (more literally, flying around in circles) with eyes covered and they are singing their painful praise “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” (Isaiah 6:3) The Cherubim in all their heavenly higher order being cannot gaze upon God but they can sing of the glory of God! And it was the angelic heavenly host that greeted the birth of our savior, “the multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying (singing), “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:13, 14)
Music speaks to our soul and music encodes our being; music speaks God, and music forms our relationship with God. And these are fundamental parts of music in our life, but ultimately the part I most enjoy about music is that music gives us voice.
One of my friends told a story once about her young son pulling out all the pots and pans from under the kitchen cabinets and hitting them together and banging them and making a big racket. And when she – annoyed as we all would be – stopped him and asked him what he was doing he looking up at her – with what I imagine was a bit of twinkle in his eye – and said, “I’m making a joyful noise to God.” Music gives us a voice and we come with thanksgiving and gratitude and praise, and even those who have not felt invited into active worship can become participants by way of the music. That moment we open a hymnal – maybe we don’t even sing, maybe we just track it. Or maybe we can’t even that we just listen – and we listen ourselves into the worship. I have a very good and wise friend who speaks of a time in her life that was very difficult and in that time she could not bring herself to worship. She could not utter the words and feel the spirit of it all… but… she would sit in the back and let the congregation worship for her. Even as we listen we are part of the music of creation we worship with the simple hum of our breath and the beat of our heart.
Psalm 137 has always been one of the most challenging pieces of scripture for me. How does one say, “This is the Word of the Lord,” after a psalm that ends speaking of the happiness of destroying the life of a child?
But the importance of that sentence lies in the voice it is giving the people. It gives more voice to the people than to God… in fact isn’t that what we most love about God? That God gives us voice. And this voice is about the whole song – and that whole song is beautiful in the way it voices grief and hurt… and yes, anger.
My favorite way into this psalm is a small round sung from this psalm by Don McLean, also author of American Pie. (singing: “By the waters, the waters… of Babylon. We lay down and wept, and wept… of the Zion. We remember, we remember, we remember thee Zion.” (sung twice through))
It is no wonder that the singer of that song, the pain that is given voice here, is moved to anger. Righteous anger that needs to be voiced and released. It is so easy to indict the last verse when you haven’t felt the pain of the singer. These also have held the still hearts of their own shattered children. They have known life ripped out of place. And they give voice to the anguish. “Our tormentors ask us to sing songs of our homeland. They think our grief is a traveling minstrel show – a performance for their entertainment. But we do not perform our grief for them. This is music is mine. My voice – an emotion experience that we release from deep within. Appropriating my voice for your entertainment is just one more level of hurt.
In the 1920s African-American activists began to shun the singing of their spirituals citing that they were a movement of docility and servitude before their white masters. A young Howard Thurman, who would go on to become a great spiritual mentor to a generation and advocate for nonviolent protest, sought instead to reclaim the radical nature of these songs and the strength and hope they gave voice to – not docility but prophetic advocacy filled with protest. He writes in 1939, “’The slave was a man without a home… his primary social grouping had been destroyed, so it was not possible for him to perpetuate his own tongue… slavery stripped the African to the literal substance of himself, depriving him of the props on which men commonly depend – language, custom, and social solidarity.’ The spiritual became an attempt to find meaning in circumstance of radical discontinuity when old truths lost their power to explain, comfort, or succor.”[ii] Music gave them voice in a world that had taken it away.
Just ask Mary, the mother of Jesus, about reclaiming voice and identity. Mary sings one of the great songs of our faith, the Magnificat[iii], a powerful word of protest against the political, social, and economic structures around us, as well as a great proclamation of the Gospel. Those who had no voice in the world were being given voice, word – made flesh – for them, among them, by God. We sing songs, spirituals, hymns – we speak the Holy, we let that which is a part of us free… even if it is only for a moment. In prayer and praise, in lament and hope, we sing the Gospel. We claim our voice and proclaim God’s grace.
Thanks be to God, Amen.
[ii] Quotes from Visions of a Better World: Howard Thurman’s Pilgrimage to India and the Origins of African American Nonviolence by Dixie and Einstadt.
[iii] Luke 1:46-55. See also the Song of Hannah (l Samuel 2:1-10) and the Song of Moses and Miriam (Exodus 15:1-21)