Third Sunday after Epiphany 26 January 2014
(Isaiah 9:1-4 Psalm 27:1, 4-9 1 Corinthians 1:10-18 Matthew 4:12-23)
I was standing in Christ Chapel this past Monday evening at the conclusion of the Martin Luther King celebration. All the people in the chapel were holding hands together singing “We Shall Overcome.” My mind began to wander, trying to imagine the power and strength of that song, the hope it provided for innumerable suffering and enslaved persons over countless years. Negro spirituals were primarily expressions of religious faith. These songs were usually songs of sorrow and hope, deeply emotional and expressive. They were a testimony to the strength and tenacity of the African slaves. They were like tears, as they were a relief to aching hearts. They also often gave vent to a desire for a better life in this world as well as in the next.
The Negro spirituals of our more recent past are not so very different from the Psalms of Israel’s past. The Psalms confront such themes as longing, distress, trust and praise, all of these the deep rhythms of the spiritual life.
Martin Luther wrote that the Book of Psalms “might well be called a little bible, because in this book is comprehended most beautifully and briefly everything that is in the entire Bible.” 1 I think what Luther meant was that the Psalms take us to both the heights and the depths of the life of faith; they weep with those who suffer; they laugh with those who celebrate; and they teach all of us about the loving journey of faith. These prayers/songs bring alive the journey of faith in a most profound way!
They is a powerful scene in one of Wendell Berry’s novels entitled, A Place on Earth, that speaks to the need for religious language to touch the human heart and soul. In this scene a family loses their son who is away at war. The pastor of the town feels he should visit the family, but really seems uncomfortable with the situation. He finally goes to visit the family, and while there, he says all the “right” things, quotes all the “right” scriptures, says how the young man is better off, and how God wanted to call the young man home.
After the pastor leaves, the father observes that the pastor really didn’t help, that all his pious words did nothing to touch their pain. The father says that “the hope of heaven” is fine, but “it needs to be connected with the pain of earth.” What the writer seemed to be saying is that genuine healing and hope come only in the relationships of daily life where pain is acknowledged and where hurt and grief can be articulated and shared.
I read this story years ago because it speaks an important lesson about pastoral care, but I think it also says a whole lot about being in community together; and for a faith community that prays together, it reminds us where music and singing and poetry and (I would add) the Psalms fit into what worship is all about—connecting us to the past, to each other and to God.
I know I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again, worship may be the most subversive and counter-cultural thing we do as Christians. We don’t come to worship in order to feel good and forget our pain. In fact, it is entirely the opposite! The subversive part of worship is that we come together so that in the very midst of our pain and the pain of the world around us, we can still praise God! And by putting God at the very center of our singing and praying, a different world is offered to us, and this very different world, for which the human community yearns, is entrusted to us.
Psalm 27 is a jewel of a Psalm. It is my favorite, the one I pray most often at hospital beds and in rooms of those who are sick.
So when we pray “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom then shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?” we pray into a confident faith; in it we also make the bold claim that we do not need to hide in the shadow of our fears.
When we pray, “For in the day of trouble God will give me shelter, hide me in the hidden places of the sanctuary.” we make the bold,counter-cultural claim that God has the power to touch pain and hurt and death, and when God does, life is strangely given.
When we pray, “Even now my head is lifted up above my enemies who surround me….I will sing and make music to the lord,” we make the bold claim that a different kind of world that depends upon a powerful, passionate and pain-informed God.
When we pray, “Hear my voice, O God, when I call; have mercy on me and answer me, we make the bold claim that our God is not removed from us and that a missional community can emerge even in the face of people nearly voiceless in despair.
When we pray, “My heart speaks your message…” we make the bold claim that God can shape pain and grief into new possibilities of hope.
When we pray, “Hide not your face from me, turn not away from your servant in anger; forsake me not, O God of my salvation” we make the subversive claim that there is another person in authority in our world who has the creative power to put justice, equality and peace at the heart of relationships.
Faithful worship invites us to sing hymns and songs and psalms, proclaiming the goodness of God until what we can only imagine becomes reality!
Faithful worship invites us to speak light into our darkness, hope into our fear, and life into the despair that threatens to hide the face of God.
A new world will never happen until we can boldly imagine such a world; and that imagining can only take place in faithful worship.
Keep telling the counter-cultural story “of Jesus and his love!” Keep telling the story “of Jesus and his love!” Keep telling the story! Keep telling the story! Amen.
1 Lutheran Study Bible, NRSV. Augsburg Fortress. 2009. P. 848.