At the end of a week of unbearably sad news, I picked up the Washington Post on Friday and read that a brand new, bright red, three-keyboard, bleacher-shaking pipe organ has been installed at Nationals Park. Just in time for the playoffs.
This brought back fond memories from the days of my boyhood. It was about 35 miles from my home in Hamilton, Ohio to Crosley Field, which was home to the Cincinnati Reds from 1912 through 1970.
And while my family didn’t have much money, at a time when the highest priced tickets in the major leagues—the box seats in Yankee Stadium—went for $3.50 each, even a working-class family could afford to sit in the farthest reaches of Crosley Field.
To get as much out of each visit to the ballpark as possible, we always arrived early to watch batting practice. And we hung around after the last out to hear the organist, Ronnie Dale, play “Auld Lang Syne,” “God Bless America,” and “Good Night, Sweetheart.”
Little did I realize that years later music, and specifically the pipe organ, would be a factor in the so-called worship wars. And for the next few minutes, I would like to focus on worship music, specifically on hymns.
Last Sunday, Pastor Teer preached on a beautiful, lyrical passage from Philippians, known as the Christ Hymn. But the oldest hymns in our Bible are the 150 Psalms of the Old Testament. Those of you who still read the Bible on the printed page know that it sits right in the middle of the Protestant canon.
As someone who grew up hearing the cadences of the King James Version, I was astonished to learn that English was not the language of Christ and the apostles. Even though it said right in the front of my Red-Letter Bible: “The Holy Bible Containing the Old and New Testaments Translated Out of the Original Tongues.”
And I’m going to let you in on another secret. These old hymns—the 150 Psalms—weren’t actually written for the organ. Most of them were probably played on the harp or an 8-string lyre.
What I love most about the Psalms is that they give voice to the full range of human experience, of human emotion. To joy, abandonment, fear, gratitude, anger, contentment, depression, uncertainty, restlessness, outrage in the face of injustice, and, of course, praise.
God has broad shoulders, and it seems to me that “coming boldly to the throne of grace”—to borrow a phrase from the letter to the Hebrews—should be a “come as you are” affair. As Charlotte Elliott’s old hymn says,
Just as I am, though tossed about With many a conflict, many a doubt; Fightings within, and fears without . . .
And yet somehow we seem think that we need to approach God timidly, hiding our doubts, hiding our raw, un-churchlike feelings and emotions. Yet when we read the words of the Psalms—words we affirm as scripture—we realize that the children of Israel didn’t pull their punches. They were barefaced, brash, unflinching as they sang their songs to God.
For instance, the author of the 55th Psalm speaks of a friend’s treachery:
Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my plea; hear me and answer me. My thoughts trouble me and I am distraught because of what my enemy is saying, because of the threats of the wicked; for they bring down suffering on me and assail me in their anger.
My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen on me. Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me. (NIV)
I wonder how many of us would be willing to talk that way in public, running the risk that someone might think our faith is weak.
And listen to these words of despair from the 13th Psalm:
How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I take counsel in my soul
and have sorrow in my heart all the day? How long shall my enemy be exalted over me? (NRSV)
These days, most “church people” wouldn’t dream of talking about someone as an enemy, much less speak so explicitly about our impatience with God. I mean, who talks to God this way? Accusing God of being asleep at the switch.
Or consider these words from the 22nd Psalm:
My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer; and by night, but find no rest. (NRSV)
The passage is familiar, because Jesus repeated the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” from the cross. And because they’re so familiar, we may lose sight of how truly jarring they are. Who among us would really be comfortable accusing God of abandoning us?
Our theme for worship these past few weeks has been “Hard Pressed.” With North Korea posing a nuclear threat, an earthquake killing hundreds in Mexico, and the devastation of a succession of hurricanes that hammered the Caribbean and the Southeastern United States, the images that flood our television screens are almost more than we can bear.
Where do we find hope with so many people facing such great hardship?
A week and a half ago, I suggested to the rest of the worship team that we deviate from the Revised Common Lectionary texts for this morning, and talk instead about the encouraging words in Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
Rejoice in the Lord always . . . Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Well, that was my suggestion about ten days ago. And then last Sunday night, a gunman fired hundreds of rounds into a crowd of 22,000 innocent people, killing at least 58, and wounding over 500. And like the Psalmist, we cry out, “How long, O Lord? How long?”
In the face of such senseless violence, Paul’s words may seem wanting . . . hollow . . . inadequate. It may be easier for us to identify with the words of the Psalmist:
On the willow there
we hung up our harps.
For our captors there
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
“Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land?
Of course, this morning we don’t worship in exile in a foreign land, but many of us barely recognize the world around us. Many of us feel like hanging our harps on the willow and weeping for our world.
And for those of us who feel that way, I don’t think the Apostle Paul is saying, “Don’t worry, be happy.” This is the same Paul who assures us that the Holy Spirt intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.
And Jesus told us that those who mourn are blessed.
· He didn’t say that we shouldn’t mourn because we should have stronger faith.—He said that those who mourn are blessed.
· He didn’t say that we shouldn’t mourn because when God closes a door, God opens a window.—He said that those who mourn are blessed.
· He didn’t say that we shouldn’t mourn because God has a plan.—He said, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
They shall be comforted. Those who mourn are not alone. God mourns with us.
As we heard this past Sunday, in Christ Jesus, God took on the nature of a servant—made in human likeness—and walked among us. Indeed, he suffered with us.
He endured the worst that people can do to each other. He was betrayed, abandoned, mocked and tortured. But he refused to respond in kind.
And when it looked like evil was going to have the last word . . . in his refusal to return evil for evil, Jesus exhausted the power of sin in his own body.
But the story didn’t end there. In the resurrection, he conquered death itself. And in conquering death, he offered the gift of life to all.
Even so, how can we make sense of the world around us? How can we read the newspaper without wanting to hang our harps on the willow? How can we look at the images on our television screens and rejoice?
I’m afraid I don’t have a satisfactory explanation for all the heartache in our broken world. But the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus offer us hope.
· We have hope because God’s peace guards our hearts and minds.
· We have hope because we gather in a community of faith.
· We have hope because the Lord is near.
· We have hope because we worship a God who hears the cries of God’s people.
· We have hope because we are an Easter people.
· We have hope because death has been overcome.
We have hope because absolutely nothing in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.