April 16, 2017 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Psalm 96; Matthew 28:1-10
Have you ever got a song stuck in your head? Even a good tune that goes on and on and on eventually drives most of us a little crazy.
When our children were young they took music lessons and we were glad of it and happy to encourage them. But sometime, hearing them practice the same song or scale over and over and over again got to be a bit much. Andrew was the worst. When he was in middle school he took up the tuba. The instrument was almost as big as he was. When he took it to school for band practice the bus driver had to get out and open the emergency door in the back to get it in. But Andrew’s practice just about drove us nuts. No melody, just do, do, do, do-do-do; do, do, do, do-do-do; do, do, do, do-dodo! Sometimes I just wanted to holler out, “play a new song!” And that’s exactly what the psalmist is encouraging us to do this morning; Sing a New Song unto the Lord!
A new song, “unknown to you before!” Why a new song? If we read the Hebrew Bible carefully, it tells the story of a god in evolution, a god whose character changes radically from beginning to end. In fact we discover that the children of Abraham initially believed in many gods. Psalm 96 is one of several biblical passages that exhort them to ignore the others and to only worship him who made the heavens. Movement toward monotheism was a slow, new song.
And the revised Christian Lectionary for 2017 has this psalm precede the gospel reading of Matthew – another new song. There is absolutely no reasonable scenario for all the gospel writers to tell that the women were the first witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection. Women were considered of little account and identifying them as the eyewitnesses was a claim that almost guaranteed rejection by most of the belief in the resurrection. But it was such a new song that it grabbed the attention, gripped the hearts, of those who had heard Jesus, watched his persecution and death, and experienced the fervor of these first apostles.
Jesus had lived his whole life singing new songs. He left his home and he chose to wander without a steady source of income. As far as we know he was wifeless and childless. He willingly moved from his homeland of Galilee to Samaria and finally down to the region of religious orthodoxy, Jerusalem, in order to engage the maximum number of people.
Though a devout Jew he challenged the rules that were obstacles to compassion and service. He preached mostly to other observant Jews yet taught that welcoming the stranger and being inclusive were more important than isolationism that protected ritual purity. He taught that there was really only one commandment; love; to love God, neighbor and self. Jesus was not concerned that he was singing new songs. Jesus was not a “keep it in control” kind of guy. And it eventually got him killed. But the empty tomb led to another new song.
On Easter morning, the women Mary Magdalen and the “other Mary,” who journeyed to view Jesus’ tomb, were without hope of anything but staring at a rock-blocked cave. But Matthew tells us that they were knocked upside the head by no less than an earthquake. The earth upon which these women stood, the strata upon which they trusted their existence, shifted and changed as they viewed the tomb. The “earthquake” Matthew recorded was a “faithquake”; for the world of faith was forever jolted and regenerated from that moment on. Events were not going to unfold according to expected theological norms. The Alleluia of Easter led to the Jesus movement and eventually to the birth of Christianity; a very new song.
And this year, 2017 we mark the five hundredth anniversary of the reformations; new songs by people of faith who had different experiences of the sacred than the ones being proclaimed and celebrated by the established church of their time. And today, April 16, 2017, each of us is being invited, once again, to sing a new song.
Psalm 96, after three calls to sing, moves to another imperative: the appeal to bless God’s name. In worship, to bless God is to recognize, own, and affirm God’s wondrous deeds. The psalm identifies God’s glory and strength and points to the power and beauty of creation to support its claim. But, we are urged, “Sing a new song”; not necessarily of the depictions of God that we learned as children, or we’ve been told about or read about or even celebrated ourselves in the past. What are the present signs of God active in your life today? What are, for you, the meaningful appearances of the sacred? Do you recognize the divine in the trust your grandchild has in you, or in the unconditional love from your dog, in the forgiveness from a friend, or maybe in the faithful support of your spouse? Perhaps you see the divine most vividly in the crashing waves, or in the newly budding trees. What signs do you see in this troubled world, of self-interest and self-protection being overcome by generosity and compassion? Where do you see hatred and violence overwhelmed by respect, civility, patience and love? When do you experience fear and distrust toppled by welcoming hospitality and service? And what about examples of anger and the desire to retaliate quashed by patience and kindness. All of these and more are manifestations of God’s divine Spirit in and around us.
If the Divine doesn’t genuinely move us, if the Sacred doesn’t leave us in awe, if the Spirit leaves us unchanged, we are probably holding on to religious ideas and images that we’ve outgrown. But if we only give up beliefs that no longer hold meaning for us, we are doing ourselves a great disservice. We, like the women on Easter morning need to travel to the tomb with minds and hearts open to a miracle.
What exactly is your new song? Singing it gives each of us a way to state what we, God’s people, believe about the world and shapes the way we live right now. Psalm 96 is motivational. It moves us to proclaim the goodness of the God of our experience. “Come, all ye nations of the wide earth, who, up to this hour, have been giving your worship to dead gods that were no gods at all; come and give your hearts to the true and only God in this new song.” This is the power of liturgy as well as the power of Psalm 96. Together we declare what we each believe about the world. We share our experiences and awareness of the divine. As we do, we create a community that not only believes in God’s reign, but also responds to God’s kingdom with heart. We work to bring justice and well-being to our community and beyond. Again, Psalm 96 exhorts, “Worship the Lord with the beauty of holy lives.
Easter invites us to sing a new song. Easter urges us to find unlooked-for possibilities. Easter is about the enormity of new ways to live and breathe and have our being.
For our children we put Easter in the context of baby chicks and brightly colored eggs — the symbols of new life. But the core of Easter is much more confrontational and challenging. Easter is the possibility for a truly new beginning; a beginning that can only emerge after a conclusive closure. If every year’s Easter is a celebration of a resurrection, then every year something must die to this world, in order to find itself re-born. Are we holding on to comfortable old religious ideas that no long hold meaning for us and have stopped inspiring us? What do we need to let go of in order to sing a new song?
In Matthews gospel this morning we heard that the angel spoke to the women saying, “Don’t be frightened! I know you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified, but he isn’t here! The women then let go of what they had expected to find. We are told that they ran from the tomb, badly frightened, but also filled with joy, and as they rushed to find the disciples to give them the angel’s message it was then that they found Jesus right there in front of them!
Let us this Easter accept the grace to sing a new song. Alleluia!