Message at Advent Lutheran Church’s Common Ground service on May 26

A special word of thanks goes to Dr. Gordon Lathrop. The main idea for this message came from something he said. The reading for the day was Psalm 98.

Vicar Marc
Advent Lutheran Church, Manhattan, NYC
Common Ground, 5/26/2011
Psalm 98

It’s interesting that the two sections of the Hebrew Scriptures that scholars have identified as the oldest are both songs. One is Miriam’s song ‚Äì a short couplet in the book of Exodus and the other is Deborah’s song in Judges. Miriam, with a tambourine in her hand, leads the women in song and dance as the waves from the Sea crush Pharaoh’s army. Deborah, with Barack, sings of the victory over the evil general Sisera who is killed by the woman Jael.

Both are songs of victory – of deliverance – of salvation – of when God acts in very God like ways.
And the words seem…easy and almost effortless.
They are a witness to the awesome power of God and the goodness of God.
God showed God’s power!
It just seems natural to respond in song and praise. The Psalmist here has it right ‚Äì God has remembered God’s people and God saved them.
In the midst of victory, why would anyone do anything but sing?

And now, in the middle of the fifty days of Easter, Psalm 98 feels right from a religious point of view. Jesus suffered. Jesus died. God rose Jesus from the dead. The glorious gospel message ‚Äì that we are loved in spite of our very selves through the work of God in Christ ‚Äì that is victory. We’re marching on to Pentecost and then the Ascension, where we are told Jesus ascended to the very right hand of God ‚Äì a metaphor for God’s power.

So it just sounds right for us to continually, in this and every place, to just sing! Sing! Sing! Why would we do anything else?

But sometimes we just can’t.
Sometimes the words don’t form.
Sometimes we can’t get on the right beat.
Sometimes we can do nothing but lip sync and hope no one sees us.
And other times, we can only stand or sit in utter silence.

There are times when this almost command to sing — stops feeling liberating and instead feels like a prison. In the midst of suffering, in the midst of our own doubts, of our own fears, of our own exhaustion ‚Äì this psalm can feel like an accusation ‚Äì like a giant finger pointing straight at us and telling us that we can’t sing and that there is something wrong with us.

And there are times when it just…it just seems wrong to raise our voice in song.
When the victory and deliverance and hope seem so far away or non-existent,
when we can’t be Miriam or Deborah or Barack or the women by the sea.
And we find ourselves asking “Is there something wrong with me? Am I missing something?
Shouldn’t I be able to just walk it off or put myself on hold just for this moment and sing out?
Can’t I just take a break from where I am and not feel as if I am being faithless?

The church can sometimes do this ‚Äì and make songs of praise lose all its comfort. It’s one of the various things that the church can get very wrong.

When we open the doors on Sunday mornings, the church rightly desires to celebrate the gospel, the resurrection, and the cross. But we can easily view our song as something that we do to please God, or, in someway, to get God’s attention.

The songs no longer are about God coming to us but are our attempts to reach out and grab onto God.

Unlike Miriam and Deborah, whose songs are in response to the deliverance that God brought, we try to gain for ourselves. We push God to be on God’s throne and to do Godly things and hope that, if our tune is right, if our voice is pure, if God notices that we are praising God like God says we should ‚Äì we’ll be okay or we’ll be blessed in some way.

And it is there when the church can turn song into a prison, turn the words of grace into accusation, can block love with a giant finger pointing right at those who, on that day, in that place, cannot sing. It is as if the church says ”

They’re wrong, they’re not here, they’re just doing lip service to God.
They don’t truly believe, they don’t truly have faith ‚Äì they are unworthy.
They are worshipping wrong.
They are wrong.

But, really, sometimes the faithful can’t sing. Sometimes, it doesn’t seem right TO sing.
Tonight, the offering will be given to the ELCA Disaster Response ‚Äì specifically to those agencies helping the area struck by the massive tornado in Joplin, Missouri. Last I read, 125 people were killed, 30% of the city was destroyed, one of the two hospitals is completely unusable ‚Äì and with the destruction of cell phone towers, internet, and other communication devices, they don’t know how many people are really missing yet. Missouri is releasing the list of who they cannot track and find ‚Äì the utter chaos has left 232 people classified as “missing”. Most are likely alive ‚Äì having fled to stay with friends or to neighboring towns and are just unable to contact their families and loved ones. And this tornado is just the largest in a massive outbreak of storms that has already made this year the worse year for tornados in sixty years.

In watching news coverage of the Joplin tornado, I saw video of one meteorologist, standing in the middle of a street – the entire area was destroyed.

Trees were uprooted, stripped, debarked;
walls had collapsed;
barely anything was left standing;
All around, everything was now flat.

Now, this meteorologist tried to do his job. He began to report, described the damage, mentioned the tornado, talked about what use to be on that street. But soon, it became too much. The words stopped and were replaced by tears.

The meteorologist wept.

In that place, and at that time, Psalm 98 doesn’t make sense to me. A song of praise for all those who had survived and who were uninjured ‚Äì just wouldn’t fit. In the midst of destruction, of suffering, of brokenness, all the meteorologist could do, was weep.

The right words were tears.
Saying “it could have been worse” isn’t comfort.
What makes sense is to respond with the suffering.

The reporter didn’t plan on crying. He didn’t plan on tearing up. He planned to be stoic, to do his job, to report on the news. He planned to put his emotions on the shelf. But he couldn’t and his only response to what was around him was tears and silence.

And that’s okay.

That response ‚Äì our response ‚Äì our inability to form words and song in our moment and in our lives ‚Äì that’s okay.

It’s something the church doesn’t really say enough.
We can make the mistake of forgetting the cross and moving too quickly to the resurrection. We stop walking with and end up being against.

We let ourselves get in the way of Christ and we teach praise at the expense of our being so very much a part of this world and in this place.

We individualize everything to such a degree that praising is left up to us, no matter if we can form the words or not.

We tell ourselves to “walk it off” because we’re in this on our own.

But we’re really not alone.

The church really can be a gift and when the church gets it right ‚Äì their singing isn’t highlighting my slack of singing but, rather, they are singing for me. When we can’t form the words, the church can. When I can’t match the beat, the church can. When I act like everything is up to me, the church prays and sings that it’s not.

On Sunday morning, we’re not doing something to God but rather God is doing something to us.

And when we can’t sing, others can.
And they will.
And they’ll carry me, you, and all those who can’t sing, in their song.
When we can’t pray, others do.
When we have no words, others do.
The church can– through the very grace of God – carry us with it.
And if Advent can’t, other churches will. If the Metropolitan Synod can’t, the ELCA will. And if the ELCA can’t, our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout the world will.

In some Lutheran churches in the mid-west that were built by Norwegian immigrants, the altar rail is a semi-circle.

When people would come up to receive communion, they would kneel on the cushions at the rail and the pastor would give them the host and the wine. Not many other churches used the semi-circle. Most I’ve seen use the straight rail ‚Äì like Advent has ‚Äì or some various version of it. But everything is always boxy or in long, straight lines.

But for those immigrants, it was the semi-circle that spoke to them and their piety.
Because even though they physically saw only half a circle, they never treated it as such.
You see, for them, the second half of the circle was in heaven and with the entire hosts of heaven.
For them, that’s what it meant to be part of a church that exists in many different places and in many different times.

We’re never alone and we’re never doing this on our own.
When Psalm 98 feels like a prison, there will be others there to fill this place with sound.
And Music.
And Dance.
And all that you cannot do.
And this happens not because the church is perfect or because the church doesn’t hurt people or destroy lives. But rather it’s because that’s what God does for us as Christ walks with us ‚Äì
in the midst of the suffering,
of the pain,
in the silence,
at the times when no words can form.
And where Christ goes, so do we.

Why would we do anything else?