Sunday, June 14, 2020

Sermon: "Make A Joyful Noise: Joyful, Joyful", Psalm 100 (June 14, 2020)


While my heart is full at being able to worship with you in this beautiful space once again, it’s impossible to forget that everything’s different now. When we first went into lockdown at the end of March, we told each other, “Don’t worry; it’ll just be a few weeks before we’re back to normal.” As we approached Easter, we reassured ourselves, “It’s an *authentic* Easter, hearing the Good News while hiding away in our homes. When we get back into the church building, we’ll have a REAL Easter celebration, with singing and bells and hugs and joy!” And yet, here we are, halfway through June, and we’ve been told on no uncertain terms that although we can begin to gather again, we must continue social distancing and refrain from singing together—ESPECIALLY in Church. None of us want to be in the news for becoming a hotspot for the virus’ spread. So, many of us are still staying home, and those of us who are physically gathered still remain physically distant from one another. While it’s wonderful to be back in this sacred space, it feels like a far cry from the Easter Celebration that we’ve been waiting and hoping for. We’re navigating a new worship experience, one that’s quieter, lonelier, and more technologically complicated than we’re used to.

So what do we do with Psalm 100 as our scripture reading this week? “Make a joyful noise to the Lord,” it says, “Come into God’s presence with singing!” Uh…haven’t you been reading the news, psalmist? That’s, like, the ONE THING that we’re not allowed to do anymore. Stop rubbing it in. Singing is such a central part of our identity as the people of God that I think we genuinely don’t know how to worship God without it. I mean, of all the guidelines that have been proposed in the wake of COVID-19, I have BY FAR encountered the most resistance to the “no singing” rule. “Well, what if we wear masks?” Nope. “What if we wear masks *and* stand six feet apart?” Still no. “Ten feet?” No, and also that would only leave us enough room for, like, four families to be in worship. “What if we just hum?” I asked the same question, and unfortunately, the answer is still no. Trust me, I’ve considered every possible permutation or technique or arrangement, and the consensus from the professionals is that there’s simply no way to sing together safely right now.

It almost does feel like Psalm 100 is mocking us and our current situation, doesn’t it? A much more relatable psalm would be 137: “By the rivers of Babylon—there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion. On the willows there, we hung up our harps.” We’re stuck here in this “foreign land”, this modern Babylon, that LOOKS suspiciously like our sanctuary, but feels more like a sterile, joyless maze when we aren’t able to sit together and lift our voices in song to the Lord. How can we sing the Lord’s song in this foreign land?

But friends, we need to stop fixating on the first verse of Psalm 100, and start focusing on the last verse: why do we make this joyful noise? Why do we sing? “For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.” This is telling us that our singing isn’t a REQUIREMENT for worshiping God; it’s a natural RESPONSE to all of God’s marvelous goodness and faithfulness! And while singing hymns feels like the most organic way for many of us to respond to God’s gifts, it’s simply not safe right now. Jesus is pretty clear about that “loving our neighbor” thing, so we just need to come up with other ways to respond to God’s love.

I mean, it’s kind of funny that we’re so infatuated with hymns as the primary way to respond to and connect with the divine, if you think about it. Don’t get me wrong; congregational singing is one of my favorite parts of worship, too, but ALL of worship is meant to be a response to God’s goodness. I’ve been trying to emphasize this a lot during our weeks “Praising in Pajamas” on YouTube: reciting the Apostle’s creed is a response of our FAITH to God’s goodness, as communicated through God’s Word. The giving of our tithes and offerings is a response of our RESOURCES to God’s goodness, as demonstrated through God’s gifts to US. Lifting one another up in prayer is a response of our TRUST in God’s goodness, as promised through the reassurance that God hears every prayer. Being sent out into the world is a response of our INTENTION to God’s goodness, as shared through the Gospel message that we’re charged to spread. Heck, every moment of our lives ought to be a response to God’s goodness! We should already be used to responding to God’s goodness in ways that don’t involve singing together!

If we manage to avoid getting hung up on that one part of Psalm 100, we see that there are plenty of other suggestions as to how we might respond to God’s love and faithfulness. The psalmist tells us to “worship the Lord with gladness”; last I checked, “gladness” doesn’t involve any dangerous respiratory droplets. Entering God’s presence “with thanksgiving” doesn’t seem too risky, either. Giving thanks and blessing God’s name—neither of those things require a single sound to come from our mouths.

In fact, even though this psalm is often associated with music, aside from that one reference to singing (which, um, isn’t even mentioned in the CEB translation) and the vague reference to “making a joyful noise”, every response in this psalm could be interpreted and accomplished in any number of different ways that don’t involve putting others at risk in this age of COVID-19. We’re at a point in history where we need to get creative in how we worship God, but fortunately for us, there are plenty of examples right here, just waiting to inspire our imaginations.

Truthfully, we’re not even required to give up music in order to respond in a new way. We just have to engage it differently. Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” is a favorite hymn for many because of its simple but powerful melody. But Beethoven himself never heard it; at least, not the way that we hear it. Ludwig von Beethoven, as you may recall, was completely deaf by the time he composed his 9th Symphony, of which “Ode to Joy” was the fourth movement. He never heard these beautiful words set to his powerful music. He likely never sang of hearts unfolding like flowers before God, of sin and sadness melting away like clouds, of all creation joining in a happy chorus praising the Lord. He himself never heard this “triumph song of life”. And yet, he too felt the need, bubbling up from the depths of his being, to respond to God’s goodness and faithfulness. So he did—he read the words of this moving poem, felt the vibrations of the notes, and wrote down the music to share with the world. He gave us one of the most beloved hymns of history, all without being able to experience it “the normal way” himself.

But I’d argue that maybe, he was able to glean more from this hymn than we are, with our singular focus on singing. How many times have you read the words of this hymn (or of any hymn, really), not just to know what will come out of your mouth next, but to really think about what those words are communicating? How many times have you felt—not heard, but really FELT—the vibrations of the organ, the power of the major chords, reverberating through your body and your soul, instead of focusing merely on their sounds? How many times have you reflected on how the various aspects that make up this piece of music—words, rhythms, tones, instruments, voices—are a metaphor for every part of God’s creation coming together to joyfully celebrate God’s goodness, God’s love, in perfect, divine harmony? Probably not too many. But now that we’re forced to change the way we do worship, we have this incredible opportunity to experience the familiar in an entirely new way.

I understand that it’s hard to give up something that brings us so much joy. But remember that THIS—all this that we do, the reason we’re here, whether physically or virtually—isn’t really about us at all; it’s about God. And God says that there are other ways to respond to divine goodness that are just as meaningful to the Lord. More so, even, because we know how God feels about that “love thy neighbor” thing, and the reason we choose not to sing is out of care for our neighbors. Abundant caution out of abundant love: that’s something that God can definitely get behind.

So when we read Psalm 100, and when we encounter “Ode to Joy,” let’s remember that there’s more than one way to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” Perhaps now is the time for us to rediscover the power of joyful prayer, either whispered to ourselves or silent. Perhaps we find new joy in clapping our hands or stomping our feet, either with the beat of instrumental music or as a disorderly, jubilant cacophony of sound. Perhaps we begin to understand the holy joy of a clacking computer keyboard, either writing an email to a far-away friend to share the peace of the Christ or composing a brand-new verse of a beloved hymn. Perhaps we begin to comprehend the sacred joy of a hopeful protest, with feet marching together either in solidarity or in pursuit of a better world. Perhaps we begin to appreciate the sound of our own voice by itself, imperfect as it might be, lifting songs of praise to our creator in our own homes.

There are so many different opportunities for us to “make a joyful noise unto the Lord.” There’s no limit to God’s goodness and faithfulness; there certainly shouldn’t be any limit to how we respond to it. Although we can’t sing together right now the way we’re used to, this might just be our chance to discover ways to worship God that we’d never considered before or to invent some new ones. This might even be our chance to discover the sacredness in sounds that we’d previously considered strictly secular. Friends, it’s okay to mourn what can’t be for now, but don’t let yourself fall into the trap of thinking that this is the beginning of the end. “Behold, I am doing a new thing,” says the Lord, “now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Behold, beloved Church, WE are doing a new thing. New things often feel uncomfortable when they start out…but they can result in more beauty than we ever thought possible. Let’s have some faith in God, and see what we can come up with together, shall we? Amen.

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