Sermon: “Give us a new song”

choir

He put a new song in my mouth,
    a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
    and put their trust in the Lord.

~ Psalm 40:3, New Revised Standard Version

First Christian Church of Santa Barbara
January 15, 2017
Psalm 40:1-11

The Psalms were intended to be sung. I’ll leave that to others, but I can still appreciate the poetry. I can appreciate the way they articulate the range of human emotion.  I can also appreciate that, as Biblical scholar J. Clinton McCann, Jr. writes, “The book of Psalms presents nothing short of God’s claim upon the whole world and … articulates God’s will for justice, righteousness, and peace among all peoples and all nations.”[1]

Like many of the psalms, the songs of our souls are frequently laments, like this poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson:

Tears, idle tears, I know not what they mean,
Tears from the depth of some divine despair
Rise in the heart, and gather to the eyes,
In looking on the happy Autumn-fields,
And thinking of the days that are no more.[2]

I’m not talking about depression. I know depression; it’s my constant companion. Praise God, we have meds and therapy for that. I’m talking about the never-ending, self-serving, pointless, pity party. I’m talking about the tendency to dwell on the past or focus more on our problems than our blessings. I don’t know if it’s a hard-wired human tendency or a pathology, but I do know that if we let it go on too long it’s unhealthy for the entire, integrated, human self – body, mind, and spirit. Better to remember, as it says in verse one, the times when God inclined to us and heard our cries and drew us up. Better to remember, as Garth Brooks sang:

There’s bound to be rough waters
And I know I’ll take some falls
But with the good Lord as my captain
I can make it through them all[3]

That’s the real message of our Holy Scriptures – not that God is going to take away all of our struggles and suffering, but that God is going to walk with us and guide us through whatever we face. We need a new song, a song with honest lyrics that acknowledge that life can be hard and unfair. We need a song that doesn’t sugarcoat reality. We need a song that, when others hear it, they want the deep, close relationship with the Divine that we have.

Sometimes we get distracted, maybe by the “information overload” and constant noise that bombard us, and we find our souls singing psalms of praise; but that praise is to some other god than Yahweh. Let’s go back in time. Twenty-five years before Garth Brooks sang about “the River,” Simon and Garfunkel sang:

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning,
In the words that it was forming
And the signs said,
“The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls
And whisper’d in the sounds of silence[4]

The idols of the modern age aren’t Ashtoreth or Baal, Bel or Molech.  They are more likely to be celebrities or politicians or science or substances – occasionally sports teams – none of which are inherently bad, all of which have their place, but none of which are suitable to put on a pedestal and worshiped. I sometimes refer to alcohol as “god in a bottle” because for some people it takes over, and it isn’t a benevolent god.  Whatever the weakness, I’m sure we’ve all given into the temptation now and again.

When we depend too much on people or things or even on our own abilities, we distance ourselves from the Holy One. Those things become more of a motivator than our devotion to God, and that’s idolatry, even if idolatry isn’t our intent. We need to remember that people and things can – and often do – let us down or do us harm, but Yahweh is always faithful. If we pay attention we’ll notice the many times, in ways big and small, that God has “multiplied wondrous deeds and thoughts” toward us, and we’ll spend less time singing the praises of people and products and more singing the praises of God. We need a new song, one that keeps us focused and acknowledges God’s sovereignty in our lives.

Although singing God’s praises is good, words are not enough, no matter how eloquent or beautifully sung.  If Yahweh is our god, we need to live as if Yahweh is our god. If we say, “I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart,”[5] we need to live as if we mean it.  Having God’s law within our hearts is both simpler and more complicated than a rule book. God said through the Prophet Hosea, “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”[6]  Jesus reminded us when he said in Matthew 9, “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”[7]

Nineteenth Century poet Philip James Bailey wrote:

We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths;
In feelings, not in figures on a dial.
We should count time by heart-throbs. He most lives
Who thinks most, feels the noblest, acts the best.[8]

Acting the best, in the eyes of God, requires us to show mercy and compassion, and sometimes we confuse that with sacrifice.  In recognition of the birth of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on this day in 1929, I want to share what he had to say about compassion in 1967: “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”[9] Giving money to Church and charity is important and commendable, but donations and tithes are not the objective. We need to keep track of our giving because it’s good stewardship, not to justify our own righteousness – “Look – I gave twelve percent of my income last year!”

Likewise, giving our time and energy to the work of the Church and other worthwhile efforts is also a blessing, but we may want to rethink our priorities if we’re working so hard that we’re sacrificing our health or neglecting our most important relationships with family and friends. We may want to rethink our priorities if we’re using our positions of leadership to bully, control, or dominate others. As the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, “If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”[10]  We need a new song, a song that is a call to action on behalf of the poor, the outcast, the hurting.

In a poem that seems especially timely after the past couple of weeks, poet Audre Lorde wrote:

It has rained for five days
running
the world is
a round puddle
of sunless water
where small islands
are only beginning
to cope
a young boy
in my garden
is bailing out water
from his flower patch
when I ask him why
he tells me
young seeds that have not seen sun
forget
and drown easily. [11]

In verses nine and ten the Psalmist again reminds us of the importance of “telling the glad news of deliverance.”[12] Like “young seeds that have not seen sun”[13] we also “forget and drown easily.”[14] We forget that “the light shines in the darkness”[15] so it’s important that we share our celebrations as well as our lamentations. We forget that “all have sinned and fall short”[16] so we need to be sure the “glad news of deliverance”[17] we share really is Good News and not a salad bar of hand-picked excuses to criticize and judge one another. We need a song we can sing to remind our community of faith of the many times that God has delivered us.

In a sermon preached at Second Presbyterian Church of Richmond, Virginia, the Rev. Alex Evans said, “Most of Psalm 40 sounds like faith from [the perspective of] a person who has been redeemed, renewed, given new life . . . and is praising God.”[18]  So strengthen our faith, Holy One, and give us a new song. Give us a song that we can sing from our lowest lows as well as from our highest highs. Give us a new song, a song that tugs at the hearts of the lost and lonely and draws them closer to you. Give us a new song, a song we can sing quietly, to ourselves, when memories of your goodness dim and our trust is shaken, and can sing aloud in the congregation to encourage one another. Give us a new song, a song that keeps us focused on true devotion –  mercy, compassion, justice, and righteousness. Give us a new song.

AMEN.

 

[1] J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms: introduction” in The New Interpreter’s Bible: a commentary in twelve volumes, (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996), 4:641.
[2] Alfred Lord Tennyson, “Tears, Idle Tears,” Stanza 1, 1847, at http://www.poetrysoup.com/famous/poem/tears_idle_tears_239. Accessed January 13, 2017.
[3] Victoria Shaw and Garth Brooks, the River, Verse 3, copyright 1991.
[4] Paul Simon , Sounds of silence, Copyright © Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Universal Music Publishing Group.
[5] Psalm 40:8, New Revised Standard Version.
[6] Hosea 6:6, New Revised Standard Version.
[7] Matthew 9:13, New Revised Standard Version.
[8] Philip James Bailey, “We live in deeds, not years; in thoughts, not breaths,” at http://www.poets.org. Accessed January 14, 2017.
[9] Martin Luther King, Jr. April 4, 1967 on Democracy Now, speech at a meeting of Clergy and Laity Concerned, Riverside Church, January 21, 2013. Accessed January 14, 2017.
[10] 1 Corinthians 13:3, New Revised Standard Version.
[11] Audre Lorde, “Coping,” the Collected poems of Audre Lorde, (New York, N.Y. : W. W. Norton Company, 1997,) 267.
[12] Psalm 40:9a.
[13] Lorde.
[14] Lorde.
[15] John 1:5a, New Revised Standard Version.
[16] Romans 3:23, New Revised Standard Version.
[17] Psalm 40:9a, New Revised Standard Version.
[18] Alex Evans, Sermon, “As For Me, Poor and Needy, Hasten to Me, O God!,” Second Presbyterian Church, Richmond, VA, November 15, 2015Accessed January 13, 2017.