Sermon for June 19, 2016

Anna V. Copeland, Preaching

Psalms 42 and Psalm 117

                           All That Matters

There’s been a lot happening recently in Lake Wobegon, my hometown. Boy howdy! Tucked among the major events that have left us reeling, ordinary life carries on. Just last week I received by mail an invitation to the upcoming high school class reunion. Don’t ask me how many years it’s been, lest you tempt your pastor to lie. I filled out the requisite form: name, personal data, family information, hobbies. Then half way down the page, the question was written in bold letters, 24 font so we could see it clearly, these instructions: “In the remaining half page, please describe what you’ve been doing since you graduated from high school, your passions and accomplishments.”

“What, are you kidding me?” How could any of us possibly describe ‘all that matters’ in such a short space and time? Then again, how can we not? Should not any of us be able to describe in a short paragraph or few sentences the purpose of our life?

If you haven’t written down your life intention lately, you may want to consider doing so. It isn’t difficult, but it does require some uninterrupted time to ponder some significant questions. Who do you trust and serve through every season? What do you wish to contribute in the days that lie ahead? How do you want to be remembered after you transition to glory?

Once we have clarity on all that matters, the things that don’t serve our purpose can be released. Our focus sharpens. We become less frantic, harried, and stressed. If our purpose is to be a generous neighbor, then we will lean our intention towards generosity when our feet hit the ground in the morning. If our purpose is to anchor our home so that all who dwell therein can flourish, then we will lean our intention towards creating a context where those we love than thrive. If our purpose is to bring joy to the world through music or the arts, then we will lean our intention towards creative endeavors that make the world richer and more beautiful. Music provides the sound track for our lives.

From the beginning of recorded human history, human creatures expressed their joys, sorrows, desires and prayers through music.

For many of the musicians sharing their gifts this morning, music is the purpose for which they were created. Music praises God, and encourages others. Music can make us laugh, or help us weep. Music can sharpen our anger, soothe our troubled souls, or stir us to action. Music changes us.

From the earliest recorded human history, human creatures have expressed their deepest desires, joys, and sufferings through music. The Psalms were among the earliest hymnody of people of faith, sung and chanted around campfires in the desert long before Jesus was born.

Today’s Psalms begin with the sung prayer of Psalm 42 filled with longing for release from suffering and end with praise that whatever happens, God is with us. How we need these words of release from sorrow and assurance of God’s greatness this morning. We open with the words of Psalm 42 sung into the horrific events of this past week.

“As a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God. When shall I come and behold the face of God? My tears have been my food day and night, while people say to me continually, ‘Where is your God?”

         We know how that feels. We know what suffering looks like. We remember fear. We’ve walked through days when tears have been our food day and night. In the lonely reaches of the night, we too have searched for God. In the words of another musician of our time, “It’s Been a Hard Day’s Night.”

         In times like these, when there are no words, when relief seems out of sight, we turn to the Psalms, which were the earliest sung prayers for our ancient forebears in faith. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult….Be still, and know that I am God.” Psalm 46

The Psalms give voice to our lament, calm our fears, and then stir us from the silent cries of human suffering to the promises of our God who triumphs over evil, shatters the finality of death, and reveals the seeds of hope for a future we cannot yet see.  Like the Psalmist, our worship flows from lament to praise: “Praise the Lord, all you nations! Extol him, all you peoples! For great is God’s steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord!”

         Music changes us. As founder of NPR Music's All Songs Considered, Bob Boilen talks to musicians for a living. For a while, he's asked many of them the same question: "What is the song that changed your life?" When you think of all that has happened in your life since YOU graduated from high school, what is the song that changed you? When interviewed by NPR’s Ari Shapiro about why he loves to ask that question, Bob told Ari that he has always been fascinated about what it is that inspires people to become what they are.

What music inspires you? Is it popular love songs from when you grew up or the protest songs of the 60’s? Are you inspired by the hymns of personal transformation like “Amazing Grace”, or the hymns that unite us like “Glorify thy Name”, which might called the theme song of this congregation as much as anything else.

Some music makes us laugh, like “All God’s critters got a place in the choir….” Some music makes us cry, like “I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry”. And some music quiets our troubled souls, such as “Spirit of the Living God.”

This past week Rev. Calvin Sanborn of Grace Episcopal Church and I were brainstorming what music could unite all our churches in hope at the Friday evening ecumenical worship service we held to remember the victims of Orlando and issue a call to respond. As it turns out we were drawn to the same instinctive pattern as the Psalms. We began worship with our Gina and a fellow musician singing “The Prayer” by Josh Groban, a contemporary Psalm of yearning for God’s presence in suffering which parallels the yearning of Psalm 42.

“I pray you'll be our eyes

And watch us where we go

And help us to be wise

In times when we don't know

Let this be our prayer

As we go our way

Lead us to a place

Guide us with your Grace

To a place where we'll be safe

I pray we'll find your light

And hold it in our hearts

When stars go out each night

Let this be our prayer

When shadows fill our day

Lead us to a place

Guide us with your grace

        Give us faith so we'll be safe.

As we gathered to hear testimonies from our state senator, a local rabbi, Catholic priest and daughter of this church, we sang hymns of comfort to calm our fears and songs of conviction like “We Shall Overcome” to stir us to action. We struggled to find a culminating song that would unite all our faith traditions in this community, and provide hope to those who are part of no faith community at all.

We thought of many, and then with empty hands received this new Psalm, written by Joyce Andersen in the desolate aftermath of 9/11. After walking by candlelight from St. George’s Church on Friday night to the steps here of First Parish, we concluded our prayer vigil and call to action as a community with these lyrics set to music by Joyce Andersen, called “Filled with love”.

“Men of anger, men of war

My heart is filled with love

Tell me what are you fighting for

My heart is filled with love

Raise your voices, spread the news

My heart is filled with love

Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, Jew

My heart is filled with love.

I do not know my neighbors name

My heart is filled with love.

I love that stranger just the same.

My heart is filled with love.

Hope is rising from this place

Divine wisdom, amazing grace.

My heart is filled with love.

My heart is filled with love.”

As we remember the words of the Psalmist this morning, and new Psalms written for our time, we’re grateful for the many musicians of this church who lead us in music that encourages our faith. Among the powerful, faithful and even haunting music shared by our musicians and choirs, perhaps the one that will become long remembered is the one you will soon hear during our morning offering, “I Believe”.

We dedicate this work today to those who lost their lives in Orlando last weekend, and to all who loved them. There are but three lines, the words of the song etched into the wall at Auschwitz, and later set to music by composer Mark A. Miller.

“I believe in the sun, even when it’s not shining.

I believe in love even when I don’t feel it.

I believe in God, even when God is silent.”

When something happens that brings us to our knees, there are no words. Out of the depths of our yearning rises a single cry that rises to a chorus.

Whatever song changed you, singing is a physical manifestation of our love for God and all that we experience as humans. Music becomes our embodied faith, prayer with skin on it

         This summer when I attend my high school class reunion, I’ll share small talk with strangers and stories with old friends. If I find a familiar and beloved face in that crowd, I will tell them the truth about what I’ve been doing for the last umpteen years. Among other things, I’ll tell them I’ve been doing what I’ve always done. I sang in the choir and “Swing Choir in high school. I sang in musicals and in the youth choir at church. I still sing in the choir today because it gives me joy and like all of you, hope for a future we cannot yet see, through faith. I pray our singing pleases God, because as long as we human creatures have life or breath, music will continue to provide the sound track for All that Matters. May it always be so, to the glory of God. Amen