03 November 2013

Singing a New Song

Psalm 96 & Hebrews 12:1-2
All Saints’ Sunday/ 3rd November 2013

There’s certainly a lot of singing in today’s service!  But there are times when we cannot sing. When our hearts are sad; when our hearts are broken.  There’s nothing to say, there’s nothing to sing.  When Israel was in exile in Babylon it was difficult for them to offer praise to God.  Psalm 137 captures their feelings in this lament:  “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.  For there our captors asked us for songs, and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’  [But] how can we sing the LORD’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:1-4).

Singing praise songs to God in the midst of grief seems cruel.  Forced mirth violates our feelings.  In times of trial and trauma it’s difficult to worship God.  When we are racked by grief and loss it’s difficult to offer praise, to sing a song, when all you really want to do is cry.

            On this day when we remember the saints in light and give thanks for their life among us, we remember all those who have gone on before us.  We especially remember the friends we have lost this year.  This is always a poignant service. For some it’s a tough service.  The memories, the grief are still quite raw.  Unanswered questions remain.  Loose ends. Unresolved issues. Unresolved feelings. 

Even if you haven’t lost someone dear to you this year, we all know what grief feels like.  Grief hurts.  The pain of grief requires attention; it deserves our respect.  The depth of grief is also a measure of our love.  The greater the love, the greater the grief.  For there is no love without grief. Perhaps this is what William Faulkner (1897-1962) was getting at when he said, “Between grief and nothing I will take grief.” Grief implies love.

            It is fitting that today, on this All Saints’ Sunday, that we introduce and dedicate the new Presbyterian Hymnal, Glory to God.[1]  We started the new hymnal campaign a year ago on All Saints’ Sunday.  Today we bring it to completion.  In the bulletin you’ll find a booklet with the names of people honored and remembered.  Take it out now and look at it—look at those names, especially the ones remembered. Many are probably familiar to you; many are not. Look at the names. Now imagine them standing around us, on the periphery of the sanctuary, gathered around us, looking on.

            Hebrews 12:1 tells us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, the saints in light who have gone on before us.  They might have gone on before us, but they have not forgotten us.  They surround us, even here, even now.  And they’re urging us on. Encouraging us.  They’re eager to see what you will accomplish for Christ and what we will realize for the gospel.  They’re all around us, eager to see what we will achieve and do for the sake of the Kingdom. 

The poet W. H. Auden (1907-1983) once said, “We are lived by powers we pretend to understand.”[2] He’s right.  Our lives—our choices, our actions, our beliefs—are being influenced by a larger force, by the presence and power of God’s Spirit shaping our lives. Those who are in the Lord, in this world or in the world to come, are close and near-at-hand, because whether we live or die, as the Apostle Paul said, we belong to the Lord (Romans 14:8).  We are the Lord’s.  And through Christ we are united with them.

            Not only do they encourage us and urge us forward, they invite us to join them in song, singing in praise to God and to the Lamb (Rev. 5:12).  Even if we don’t feel like singing, even if we don’t think we have a voice, we need to remember that they are singing and they invite us to join them in the song of the ages, to unite our voices with theirs, in full harmony, with songs of praise that are always new.  “O sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth.  Sing to the LORD, bless [God’s] name; tell of [God’s] salvation from day to day” (Ps. 96:1-2).

            The praise of God gives us new reasons to rejoice, new reasons to live; the praise of God gives us new reasons to live our lives in praise and service to God.  The praise of God gives us hope for the living of these days.  And new days require new songs, new days call forth new songs, new melodies, new words, new metaphors, new visions of God’s grace and goodness. 

The saints around us summon us to sing, all for the glory to God.  For, as we will sing at the close of worship this morning, a stanza that so beautifully, perfectly sums up the chorus of heaven and earth:

O blest Communion, fellowship divine!
We feebly struggle; they in glory shine;
Yet, all are one in thee for all are thine.
Alleluia! Alleluia![3]


[1] Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (Louisville:  Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, 2013).
[2]W. H. Auden, “In Memory of Ernst Toller” (1942).
[3] From “For All the Saints,” written by William Walsham How (1823-1897), sung to the tune SINE NOMINE, written by Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

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