Monday, 23 September 2013 00:00

"A New Song", September 22, 2013

“A New Song”
Psalm 96
A sermon preached by the Rev. Douglas M. Donley
September 22, 2013
University Baptist Church
Minneapolis, MN

Sing to God a new song, says an old song.  Doesn’t that strike you as odd?  It does me.

This past Friday, we had a New Song event at UBC.  On the eve of the MN state Sacred Harp Convention, about 60 of us gathered in the upper room to sing from a brand new book called Shenandoah harmony.  It has a whicker cover, to distinguish it from the red book and the blue book.  It has lots of new songs, some even by local singers.  But the bulk of it is old songs.  Songs by Daniel Read from the late 1700’s.  Even the new songs are set to old words.  People were thrilled to hear these new old songs.  Sing to God a new song.  These are new songs in an old style.

What does it mean to sing a new song?

This idea shows up a lot in the psalms, you know those old songs:


Psalm 40:3 says that “God put a new song in my mouth”

Psalm 33:3 say to, “Sing unto God a new song: play skillfully with a loud noise.”

Psalm 98:1 says, “O sing unto the Lord a new song; for God hath done marvelous things: God’s right hand, and God’s holy arm, hath gotten God the victory.

Psalm 144:9 says, “I will sing a new song unto thee O God; upon a psaltery and an instrument of ten strings will I sing praises unto thee.”

Psalm 149:1 says, “Praise ye the Lord, sing unto the Lord a new song, and God’ss praises in the congregation of saints.”

Isaiah 42:10 says, “Sing unto the Lord a new song, and God’s praise from the end of the earth, ye that go down to the sea and all that is therein; the isle and the inhabitants thereof.”

Psalm 96:1 says, “O sing unto the Lord a new song; sing unto the Lord all the earth.”
What new song did the people need to hear?  What old song was holding them in check?  What old mantra kept them from experiencing the life-force of God?  Many of the psalms were written during dark nights of the soul, when evil forces surrounded the people.  The songs of the oppressors were too much for them.  Sing to God a new song, a song of liberation.  A song of hope.  A song of vision. A song that will help us to make it through this awful time and envision a brighter tomorrow.

This is my song, O God of all the nations
A song of peace for lands afar and mine.
This is my home, the country where my heart is
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine.
O hear my song, O God of all the nations,
A song of peace for their land and for mine

Sing to God a new song.

I was talking with someone from the Sacred Harp community yesterday.  She said you could tell when people went to seminary.  If they went in the 70’s, their sermons talked about authenticity.

If they went in the 80’s they talked about relevance.

If they went in the 90’s, they talked about being post-modern.

If they went in the 00’s, they talked about context or praxis.

If they went now, they talk about what, Matty?

Multi-faith dialogue? Emergent theology?

Do we sing a new song, or do we just repackage the old songs?

The music search team has been polling the congregation these past few weeks about how we might want to move forward in our music program. What we uncovered was not really surprising.  We love our music at UBC and we are passionate about it.  We wrote our own hymnal back in the 80’s before there were inclusive language hymnals.  We love the old classics and we appreciate new music from time to time.  When we did a survey of favorite hymns here several yeas ago, people responded with the titles of hymns but also words like Finlandia, Hyfrydol, St. Denio.  Those are hymn tunes.  New words to old tunes make them a new song.

Music is a vital part of our community.  This month we are looking at Sacred Community.  The songs we share is a big part of that.

Songs are meant to unite, although they sometimes divide.

Songs are meant to bring people together and wake people up.

Songs are meant to bridge the temporal and the spiritual.

Songs are meant to recover the sacred.

Maybe the Psalm ought to say, sing the old songs again, but sing them with new energy.  Sing the old songs, but sing them with deliberation and joy.  Sing the old songs, but use inclusive language.

But we know too that as the Composer’s Datebook on NPR has said so often, “All music was once new.”  We can get shaken out of our complacency and moved by a piece of music never heard before.

Maybe we are supposed to sing a new to us, song.  Maybe the song is to take root in us in a different way.

We are a congregation that loves to sing.  We love to make music.  We love to sing a cappella.  When we redesigned the sanctuary several years ago, we got rid of the carpeting so that we could hear each other sing better.

We face each other so we can hear each other sing better.

We love to sing in parts.  I love to hear you sing in parts. So many churches that are singing new hip songs are doing it to the accompaniment of electric bands.  They actually focus on the performance aspect of worship.  They put words on screens with no music and certainly no parts.  The good thing about that is that it has people looking up instead of looking down.  People clap and move.  The bad thing is that it makes the music a bit less dimensional.  I don’t mean that it is less complex, but it means that the audience (and it is an audience) participates in just one way.  The melody is provided by the band.  We are to sing along.  Is this the kind of new song we want?

But I think the Psalmist isn’t talking about singing.  I think the song is a metaphor for our expression of God’s handiwork in our lives.

Think of the new things that God is doing. Think and talk about how God might be moving in our world. How might we move our concept of God toward authentic, relevant God-talk instead of idolatrous worldliness that wears a God-mask?

The new song the Psalmist seems to be talking about is the song that proclaims that YHWH alone is God.  The other gods of this world are but illusions.

I had the blessing of presiding over three weddings this past week.  The latter two were same-sex marriages.  I was struck by the fact that the words I was using in the ceremonies were the same words for a heterosexual wedding.  But what was different was the fact that these marriages carried with them the blessing of the state.  Federal benefits were extended on the other side of the vows.  Licenses were signed.  And people were celebrating.  I imagine God looking down with a great big smile.  Maybe that is the new song that God is singing.

Even the Pope has gotten into the new song business.  He said this past week that the Catholic Church has spent too much time focusing on abortion, contraception and gay marriage and not enough time on attending to the poor.  You think?  And Catholics and non-Catholics rejoiced to hear this new song by Pope Francis.

The last of the three weddings was held here in the sanctuary on Friday evening.  It was for a female couple who had been together for 24 years but could not be married in Alabama.  So they took a road trip up here to Minnesota.  Are some people gonna start calling this OZ, I wonder?  We gathered here in this diamond, augmented by two rows of chairs.  We did the traditional wedding, but we added four sacred harp songs.  2 old ones and 2 brand new ones written just for the occasion.  To our knowledge, it was the first same-sex sacred harp wedding on the eve of a convention.  Does that make it a conventional wedding?  I don’t know, but I think it qualifies as a new song.

Maybe it’s not about the music.  Maybe it’s about the new way we approach life.  Maybe it’s about not settling for the same old same old if that has proven toxic.  Sing a new song.  Remember that God is alive, not dead.

God is a liberator, not an oppressor.

God sets free, doesn’t bind you up.

God is that force that helps you think creatively.

God is that impulse to try something new if that newness leads to beauty and fairness.

God is that drive toward justice, that impulse toward inclusiveness.

God is that aching in your heart when you hear of another mass shooting.  It’s the heart that aches in compassion and the heart that won’t settled for the cop-out of “that’s the way of the world”.  God is that impulse at the core of our humanity that imagines a solution to the problems of inequity, prejudice, fear and short-sightedness.

God is the light shining in the darkest corners of our world and showing us a way home.

Sing that new song. Sisters and brothers, we are in the business of singing a new song in this beloved and sacred community.  The new song is reinterpreting the old story to a new community. It is saying that community is possible. It is saying that peace is possible. It is saying that we can address the worst of the world without demonizing entire classes of people. It is saying that God’s people active are the new song for which we have been waiting.

Let me close with a poem written by my former preaching professor James Forbes.  He wrote this poem at the birth of his son.

"Release Your Song"  by James Forbes

There's a song inside of me
I can hardly wait to see
What it is I have to say
Or the music I will play.

It's been so long in coming
First the thought and then some humming,
But before I find my key
Something stifles it in me.

What keeps my song from being sung?
Past hurts, deep fears, a timid tongue?
What makes my song come so hard?
A self-made live-in prison guard?

Meanwhile the song still groans in me
I can't be me 'till it is free
Debating, hesitating, getting ready to sing,
The song could die like a stillborn thing.

"Release your song," said the Spirit to me.
"Be free! Be free! It's Jubilee.
Cast out each fearsome song patrol.
Proclaim deliverance to your soul."

The Spirit of life flowed through my blood.
I said "Yes" - something broke
It came like a flood.
Up from within, down from above,
A kingdom built on the power of love.

Thank God my song has been set free.
The rhythm and the words are right for me.
I'm finally ready to sing out strong.
My soul is saying, "This is my song!"

Sing a new song sisters and brothers. Feel it surging in your soul.  See it in your mind’s eye. Feel it on the tip of your tongue.  And finally set it free.  It’s the song of your soul and it joins with the angel band singing Hallelujah.  Sing this new song.  It will make all the difference.