My sermon from the 55th annual Upper Pascack Valley Interfaith Thanksgiving Service hosted at Christ Lutheran Church in Woodcliff Lake, NJ. Delivered on November 19, 2023.
So about twenty years ago, my denomination – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America – decided it was time to create a new hymnal. Every 30 or 40 years or so, we take what we’re currently doing in worship and wonder what it might look like in the future. This process is how we faithfully hold onto our traditions while noticing the newer songs and prayers that feed our souls. But this work, as you can imagine, often invites people to live into every one of their big feelings. Some who worked on this new hymnal only wanted to sing the songs they already knew since those were foundational to their experience of God. Others, though, wanted to embrace the fullness of a worldwide Lutheran Christian story that isn’t only European and white. Arguing about what we do when we gather together to worship and sing is, I think, an experience every one of our faith traditions knows fairly well. And in my denomination we eventually came up with a compromise that no one was 100% happy with. However, when we physically began to assemble the book itself with all 654 hymns the church decided to include, another issue popped up. Those whose job it was to keep the whole thing under budget noticed that all these hymns made the book a little expensive. These folks decided to try something different so that every song that was picked could be accessible at a more reasonable price. And so one of the ideas they used was to print some of the hymns without their traditional 4 part harmonies. Now for some Lutheran Christians – this was a bit traumatizing. We have a rather long tradition of singing songs that include many different kinds of voices. Tenors, basses, sopranos, altos, those with high voices and those with low voices are necessary for the songs we sing. And while a song without those voices can still be beautiful, it would also be missing all the pieces that make it whole. At the heart of this church’s debate around its new hymnal was, I think, a conversation; one we’ve been having since Jesus’ disciples walked with him almost 2000 years ago. How do we make sure we’re doing all we’re supposed to do so that every voice can be included in the song we believe God is calling us to sing?
Now, growing up, the only singing I ever did was either with my elementary school choir or in the shower at my parent’s house. Singing out loud in a way that other people could actually hear wasn’t something I really did until this faith thing became a part of my life after college. When I first started to go to church, I chose not to sing because I didn’t know any of the songs and I was embarrassed by how off key I usually was. Yet the flavor of Christianity that claimed me as its own didn’t let my lack of singing stop it from showing how my voice already had a home. The community did this by making sure that singing was something we did all the time, often including those all the additional verses beyond the first 4 that we usually ignore. The people around me made sure that these songs were often repeated so that I could learn what they meant. And my very first pastor modeled to me what voices were allowed to be part of this church community since he never, ever, hit the correct note even after having many different lessons with a variety of professional voice teachers. When we sang together, we were allowed to make mistakes, to feel all that we were feeling, to remain silent if we didn’t know what to say, and to experience what it’s like to have someone sing for you when you no longer can. The perfection of a community’s song doesn’t depend on how perfect it sounds but rather, I think, on who is there when we sing.
Now creating the kind of space big enough where every voice has its place isn’t always easy to do. Life has a habit of making any kind of singing very hard. When we are living with too much grief, sorrow, fear, doubt, anxiety, and pain – it can seem as if there’s no place in this song for us. We sometimes assume our voice isn’t good enough or we might try to limit all the other voices that are meant to harmonize with us. We act as if a song of unity, strength, power, hope, and love includes only one voice that just so happens to fit with everything we already think and believe. The songs we sing are meant to bring life rather than to take life. And when we spend all our time, energy, and effort on making sure other voices aren’t included in the songs we sing, what comes out of our community ends up being mere noise – reducing our creativity, our beauty, our diversity, and our hope into the sound of a resounding gong or a clashing cymbal.
Now, at the moment, too many of us are experiencing what that kind of noise feels like. There are far too many people that we know or who we are connected to who are not spending their version of Thanksgiving sitting with their families and friends at a dining room table. The unholy songs of terror, fear, war, and violence are way too loud. And I often feel as if there’s a sound stuck deep in my throat full of anger, fury, sadness, and fear that’s on the verge of roaring out. It’s been down right heartbreaking to see how the songs of antisemitism and islamophobia have perked up among so many who claim to follow Jesus. And as my community made plans for tonight’s service, we weren’t quite sure what we could sing since the terror attack on October 7 in Israel and the ongoing war in Gaza has impacted so many of you. It feels weird to sing songs of thanksgiving when so many are living through such an overwhelming crisis. And I couldn’t really imagine which songs within our hymnal were big enough to represent who we truly are while being honest about all the tension hanging in the air right now.
And so that’s why we sort of made the decision to reach deep into our musical tradition of finding ways to simply sing. We, together, have already sung about thankfulness and the wonder of creation and in a bit, we’ll sing about healing, wholeness, peace, and joy. It’s how this church can live into the truth that our towns, schools, and neighborhoods can’t be what they’re supposed to be without each of you. Your voice matters and we’ll do our part to make sure it’s heard. I know we won’t always get that right and we too often focus more on what to sing rather than why we’re singing in the first place. But we have truly been blessed by this interfaith community that has, since 1968, taken the time to listen, learn, and be a part of each other’s songs. My prayer is that this will continue because when we sing together, the songs of hate, fear, terror, and violence that keeps us apart loses all its strength and power. And on this Sunday before Thanksgiving, one thing I can be thankful for is that each of you are you. I’m thankful for your voice. I’m thankful for every one of the leaders that is part of this interfaith community. And I’m thankful that your voice is part of the songs I get to sing. I hope that by taking the time to share, learn, and be part of each other’s songs, we can help write a new song where our love, peace, mutual encouragement and constant support never fades.