|Sermon - May 13, 2012||| Print ||
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Not that long ago, Bill Burton told me that joke. There were once a United Church minister who decided to go to the racetrack to have a better understanding of gambling, something we all know that is not really allowed in our denomination. Once there, our minister saw the Roman Catholic priest from his neighbourhood and decided to follow him. The priest went into the stable, stop in front a horse, said a short prayer, went back to a wicket, betted on it and the horse won the race. The minister, completely amazed and perplexed at the same time, kept following the priest who did exactly the same thing a second time with exactly the same result. So when the minister saw the priest in front of a horse, saying prayers in Latin and throwing holy water on the beast, our minister taught, “This must be a sure deal. I have the collection money on me. I will bet it on that horse and our congregation’s deficit will disappear.” The minister did that. Guess what happened… The race began and at mid-race the horse drop dead. The minister founded the priest and asked him what happened. All the horse he blessed won their race. What went wrong with the last one? The priest answered back, “That’s the problem with you Protestants. You do not know the difference between a simple blessing and last rites.”
As you are probably all aware, there are many differences between the Roman Catholic and Protestants Churches. Many are visible and obvious, like structures, gender of clergy or sacraments. As someone who grew up Roman Catholic and completely discovered the United Church in my early twenties, the biggest difference and learning curve when I joined a congregation was this… In all the parishes I attended, there were no hymnbooks. There were a choir that was doing all the singing. People were not expected to find a hymn according to a number, to stand up at the right time and to sing with the rest of the flock in the middle of the service. Church was a place where you had to remain silent when music was played. Even the psalms were recited in a very monochord way.
Interestingly the 98th Psalm, which like all psalms in the Bible are ancient songs used in public worship, offers us an invitation to sing in the presence of our God. Because of God’s wondrous deeds and miraculous activities displayed in the past, people are called to celebrate the transformative power of the Holy One. All are urged to adopt fresh expressions of joy that praise the outbreak of God in our world. All should celebrate the unexpected, unique, and amazing greatness of the Holy One. All should sing their amazement about God’s willingness to renew nature and history as well.
The author of this psalm even went as far as from refraining to restrict this invitation to only God’s special people or a certain group of insiders. Not only are trained and professional musicians are invited to be heard, the whole earth is called to make a joyful noise. Each person and every nation are summoned to proclaim the joy of being known and loved by God. The sea and everything in it, the world and its inhabitants, even the hills are invited to acknowledge and join in the praise of God’s rule over the cosmos.
For this concert of praises, the old songs are no longer adequate because they are unable to fully capture our responses to what God has done for us in the past. The creation of a new song thus becomes an imperative necessity. This new song would be made of not only freshly compose music, but words that could express our gratitude and our infinite in debt to the creator of the universe. A new song is required to express something that cannot be explained, something that could only be voiced in praises.
This invitation to sing a new song might be easy to accept for those of us who enjoy the benefits of a full belly, a safe shelter, and a secure homeland where laws are respected. However, being invited to sing joyfully when life is difficult and challenging, that’s another game. How can we honestly sing when innocents are suffering in wars, when men, women and children are dying from HIV-AIDS, when the shelters of this wealthy part of the world are overflowing every night? How can we avoid to play meaningless notes when leaders manipulate the population with fear, when corruption and greed distort our system, when inequities of all sorts only divide even more our society? How can we be joyful when people are suffering, humiliated, denied justice and respect by those who are supposed to protect and nurture them?
And yet, we keep singing, but something not necessarily for the right reasons. We feel the pressure to be joyful because joy is often linked with happiness, health, success, wealth, pleasure, fun, or good fortune. Sometimes we pretend to be happy because who really wants to be identified as a party breaker? Who really wants to be labelled as bad news? Who really wants to be known as someone with “baggage”? In times of difficulty and sadness, when anxiety and depression overcome us, when the “joyful noise” we are supposed to make resemble more to a cacophony than melodious sounds, we find it easier to put a mask on our face and to pretend. We pretend to be happy. We pretend to be okay even when our scares from the past still hurt like hell. We pretend to be like everybody else so we can join the chorus around us.
I am deeply convinced the author of the 98th Psalm knew all the challenges and the difficulties of our human conditions. He or she probably experienced the same fear and insecurities than we do. The temptation to look back in our past and to focus exclusively on failures, missed opportunities, betrayals and those who hurt us is surely the same back then than it is today.
And still the psalmist encourages us to resist those temptations in order to help us to move away from the past and walk boldly into the present, into the now. Although things might look bleak and gloom around us, we are still invited to sing. Instead of following the chorus of those telling us that we should fall in line, we are invited to chose the most radical of all political options, the subversive act of hope. Even if the odds seems to be stacked against us, even if we cannot see the end of our problems, even if religion is still used today to hurt good people, we are summoned to loud, boisterous, exuberant, unrestrained celebration in the presence of God. We are called to stop asking God, “What have you done for me lately?” or “How can you address my needs?”, but simply as Walter Brueggemann wrote, to sing joyfully because God is and will remain in the future with all the possibilities and opportunities that come with this statement.
As the Bible so often does, Psalm 98 gives us a counter-intuitive piece of advice. When we are afraid, when we feel like sinking into a black hole, when the though of a new day paralyses us, when we are hurt, we are called to hold on, to discern what God might yet do and to sing a new song while we are waiting. So let us sing because only singing keeps hope alive. Let us sing and live as if as God was about to act again, making all things right. Let us sing because the world is about to change again. Let us sing joyfully a new song because we have a song about a God who loves, who cares and who acts in our lives. Amen.