Year A Proper 18--A New Song, or the Same Old Song and Dance?
A Sermon Preached at the Cathedral Church of St. Mark
Year A, Proper 17—Exodus 12:1-14; Psalm 149; Romans 13:8-14; Matthew 18:15-20
The Reverend Canon Tyler B. Doherty, Canon Precentor
A New Song, or the Same Old Song and Dance?
Our psalm for today exhorts us to “Sing to the Lord a new song,” and I got to thinking this past week about what that might actually look like in our lives. I was thinking about our lives as the song God sings through us, and how we can either cooperate with that song or resist its challenging freshness, newness, and the different key in which it sounds. I was thinking about our family piano in the basement (the one I grew up playing as a kid) and the way in which some of the keys work fine, and others, here and there, stick every time you strike them. If we are the piano and God is the hands and the music we create together is the shape of love in the world, then it’s useful to ask ourselves whether we actually want to sing a new song. Like the first time Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was performed in 1913 almost causing a riot among the audience, sometimes the song God sings is a strange and unfamiliar one that seems to require a new set of ears and vocal lessons. Sometimes, especially in times of transition when the reality of constant change and insecurity cuts a little too close to the bone, we prefer to fall back on our old, familiar songs about ourselves, others, our community, and God. We hum and grumble these stale old tunes to ourselves as a way of protecting ourselves against the unknown, as a way insulating ourselves against the disruptive, in-breaking power of the bracing newness of the new song.
In our reading from Exodus, which takes place on the cusp of the Israelites beginning their journey and being constituted as a faithful(ish) people, the new song is what is singing the Israelites out of bondage under Pharaoh in Egypt. The new song is the what parts the Red Sea and dances them through the wilderness wastes. The new song rains manna and quail, and gushes water from the rock Manasseh. The new song leads them by cloud and a pillar of fire out of bondage into freedom. But the Israelites do what Stravinsky’s first audiences did, and what we all do when we hear a new song that causes us to wiggle in a different way and asks that we learn a few new dance steps—they dig in their heels, engage in stiff-necked complaint, and hanker after the flesh-pots they enjoyed under Pharaoh—“Sure we weren’t free, but at least the chow was good.”
Before we get too far with this idea of new songs and stale old tunes, let’s not forget to look at the rest of Psalm 149 Cantate Domino. Everything hums along just fine until verse 6 when, suddenly, things take a rather blood-thirsty and violent turn. We’ve gone from singing a new song, to something that sounds a lot like the song of us versus them, insider and outsider, victor and vanquished, elect and damned. Hmm… this doesn’t sound like a new song at all! It sounds like the same old tune of judgement, vengeance, and murderous ethnic violence by which human being have always lived.
Ironically, what we have in this psalm is the psalmist passing off his same old song and dance of vengeful violence for the new song God is singing. It’s as if the psalmist sidles right up to the edge of the dance floor and is about to try out a different of way moving through the world, but gets cold feet. Like the shy kid at the high school dance, he pulls back at the last second, retreating back to wallflower status. This is something we see over and over in Holy Scripture—the struggle that the authors have, under the pressure of God in their lives, to fully embrace and express the breath-taking, heart-rending, and mind-boggling reality of the unconditional love of God who loves everyone, everywhere, at all times, and without exception. Instead of seeing this as an embarrassing mistake and editing out the apparent contradiction like the lectionary committee often does, however, we can see that this psalm actually enacts right before our very eyes exactly what we human beings do all the time. This psalm shows us who and how we often are. We tiptoe to the edge of the dance floor, but turn back in fear. We say with our lips that we love this new tune, but in our lives trudge through the same old song and dance. It starts with timbrels, and joy on their beds, but ends with chains, vengeance, punishment, and links of iron—stark images that serve as chilling portents in the face of the president’s recent order on immigration and 16th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the one-going “war on terror.”
Now we might think that the new song is something that we have to cook up, or compose out of thin air. That would be a daunting task—one more thing to add to our already busy schedule—wake up, make kids’ lunches, carpool to school, pick them up, make dinner, and somewhere in there squeeze in some time to sing a new song to the Lord. How easily we fall into thinking that the life of Christian discipleship is about what we do for God instead of what God has already done for us in the gift of his Son. That new song that we are exhorted to sing, that dance to timbrel and harp, is already singing in our hearts. As St. Paul writes in his Letter to the Romans, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.” The gift has been given us already. We lack for nothing. The only question is whether we will open the gift—allow the gift to open itself in our lives—or whether, like a forgotten present shoved way back under the Christmas tree, we leave it wrapped up tight.
Going back to the piano metaphor I used at the outset—will we let our lives be an instrument upon which God plays the new song of love breaking loose? Will we consent to God singing us out of ourselves and dance us away from the deadly slumber of self-preoccupation? Will we open ourselves to the openness of God? Will we surrender to a music not of our own invention, something that is not the same old song and dance? Or will we, like the finicky ivory piano key, stubbornly resist, retard, and refuse? Do we turn our back on life’s daily little annunciations, or do we pause, mid-step and turn toward this new thing, and learn its strange new harmonies that might just save us from ourselves?
Etty Hillesum, a young Dutch Jew murdered in Auschwitz in 1943 at the tender age of 29, kept a diary of her time in the death camp that is a remarkable record of spiritual awakening and living the life of prayer in the very midst of an indescribable hell. On October 7, 1943, several days before her murder, she threw a postcard with her final words out of a train:
Opening the Bible at random I find this: ‘The Lord is my high tower'. I am sitting on my rucksack in the middle of a full freight car. Father, Mother, and Mischa are a few cars away. In the end, the departure came without warning... We left the camp singing... Thank you for all your kindness and care.
How can someone, in the midst of such dehumanizing violence, murder, torture, and demented barbarity even think of singing? How can Etty thank everyone for their “kindness and care” crammed into one of Eichmann’s demonic holocaust trains? I think it’s because she had ears to hear the song God was always already singing in her heart. Earlier in her diary, she writes, “There is a really deep well inside me. And in it dwells God. Sometimes I am there too. But more often stones and grit block the well, and God is buried underneath. Then God must be dug out again.”
Etty Hillesum names what we too often are afraid to admit—that sometimes stones and grit block the well where God dwells. Sometimes we need to dig God out. Sometimes, noise and chatter deafen us to the new song that God is singing in Christ through the Holy Spirit. Not the “song of myself” (apologies to Walt Whitman), but God’s song of welcome, indiscriminate hospitality, and all-inclusive love that erases every boundary, crosses every border, and seeks out lost sheep no matter the cost. In his Letter to the Romans, Paul writes that, “Now is the moment to wake from sleep.” Now is the time to dig out the well and dwell with God where God dwells—in the very depths of the heart. Now is the time to descend to that place, and to become the unique, and unrepeatable song that God is improvising in and through your life.
Too often, and especially in times of transition and change, we think that it’s what we do that is going to get us through the uncertainty and panic-inducing unsettledness. We fall back on a whole set of old strategies for making ourselves feel safe and secure by humming the same old tunes. Some worry. Some plan. Some gossip and predictably tear others down. Some just check out and pretend the whole thing isn’t really happening. Whatever the strategy, we find ways to block out the call of the new song God is sing in Christ through the Spirit in the deep well of our heart. The thing to remember, the article of faith, hope, and trust in uncertain times, is that it doesn’t matter one lick what we do for God. We are human beings not human doings. Just be, as you are, and let God be in you. Open, rest, relax, surrender and let something new emerge.
What matters living from that deep well. What matters is that we make God’s life our own. What matters is that let ourselves be the instruments of God’s peace, justice, and reconciliation. What matters is that, as Paul says again, we “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s a bold statement. We do not just confess Jesus Christ as Lord. We are not just to admire him from arm’s length, have him as a bumper sticker, dangling from our neck, or bobbling on our dash board. We are not even to imitate our Lord. Well, what’s left? If I can’t confess Jesus, admire Jesus, wear him, put him on my bumper, or imitate him—what should I do? “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul says. Make his like your own, open yourself so totally and so completely that Christ can life his life in you—“And it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). Don’t try to save the world—God’s already done that in his Son.
The way the dance looks in one person’s life is different from how it will appear in someone else’s. There are ballerinas and bunion-toed bumblers, minstrels, maestros, and mariachi singers—the outward form of the new song and dance may look different, but underneath there is the one dance to the one song of the one, true, and living God. It’s the dance of the risky adventure of God’s love coming into the world. Do you hear it? If not, will you dig out the well?