Tagged with Songs of Summer 2018

Song of Solomon

This summer, as you know, we have been exploring songs of the Bible. And there is one extended song, taking up a whole book of the bible, that is quite different than anything else in our holy text. It is the song of Solomon, also known as the Song of Songs.

You are unlikely to hear the Song of Solomon read very often in a church service. Depending on which schedule of bible readings a church follows, if it follows one at all, this book shows up either once in every three years, or never.  One could argue that this is because the Song of Solomon does not once mention God, or God’s law, or God’s covenant. But I think it’s more likely that church leaders are uncomfortable with the contents of this book. There is a reason that I chose to preach on this text after our shared services with Tricon were over.  There are passages in the Song of Solomon that I personally could not read in church without blushing. In fact, when I was at a Catholic retreat center earlier this summer, I learned that when a sister there received her first bible in the 1970s, she was strictly instructed never to read the Song of Solomon. Naturally, it was the very first thing that she looked up.

Traditionally, this text is attributed to the great King Solomon.  However, most likely it was written later than he lived, around the 3rd century bce. No one knows quite why it was written, or where, or for whom. Biblical scholars have not been able to agree on a comprehensive structure or storyline for the entire book, either. It seems instead to be simply a collection, a set of passages, perhaps even a theatrical song cycle with the themes of love and longing.

Some of the less risqué passages from Song of Solomon have become well-known despite their absence in our Sunday scriptures. Descriptions of the bride in the song are often applied to Mary of Nazareth or Jesus: “a rose of Sharon, a lily of the valleys.”   Some passages that we heard Barbara read are frequently used at weddings, including the recent royal wedding: “Arise my fair one and come away,” and “Set me as a seal upon your heart.”  You may also have heard another beautiful line from this text at a wedding: “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved’s is mine.”

Passages and images from this text are popular with artists as well, from Marc Chagall to Toni Morrison to Madeline L’Engle.   Even though the church doesn’t always make full use of it, our culture has.

If you read the text from beginning to end – as I imagine some of you will now, if you never have before – you may notice that the lovers spend a great deal of time complimenting one another.  If anyone is looking for creative expressions for your modern day love declarations, you could seek out some resources here. When is the last time you told someone they were like a cluster of henna blossoms? Or you could wow them by comparing their teeth to a flock of shown ewes that have come up from the washing. Maybe even better, simply tell them that their love is better than wine.

In another famous section, the speaker says, “I am black and beautiful.”  Due to centuries of racism, this text has often been translated, “I am black but beautiful.”  Thankfully translators have corrected this in most modern versions, so that the text is again what it was originally meant to be: a celebration of dark-skinned beauty.

You may be wondering: why did this text end up in the Hebrew Scriptures? It helped that it was attributed to Solomon. But my guess is that mostly, the Song of Solomon made it into the canon because it was so popular. Song of Songs means: the best song. How could you make a book of the most important pieces of your cultural and religious inheritance without including the best love song ever written by your people?

There are many who would disagree with my interpretation, however. Both Jewish and Christian scholars have argued that there is nothing about human physical love in the text at all.  No, they say, this text is only about the relationship between God and the people Israel; or Jesus, and the Church.

Mostly I find this interpretation laughable – really, read it through and see if you can agree with them. However, we can gain a few things if we open the door to a more theological interpretation of the text. If we apply this language to a relationship with God, it is striking in its intensity and intimacy. “I am my beloved’s, and my beloved’s is mine.”  Or, “Love is stronger than death, passion fierce as the grave.”  These are lovely ways to describe human spiritual fervor, and the depth and seriousness of God’s love for us.

Another argument in favor of the more theological interpretation comes from modern feminist and womanist theologians. If this is how God relates to the people Israel, or how Jesus relates to the church, or how the holy by whatever name relates to us individually; perhaps we are in a less lopsided power arrangement than we have traditionally imagined.  The lovers in the text are mutually passionate and committed. Perhaps we also could be partners with God, sharing love with one another, and working together for the good of creation. (see Phyllis Trible, “Depatriarchalizing in the Biblical Interpretation,” among others).

Mostly, however, I find this text a gift because it does focus on human love. This is part of the human experience, and holiness can be found in it. Christian tradition holds so much that represses, denies, and shames the human body and human sexuality.  One could even argue that our willful turning away from human physical experience has prevented us from providing moral leadership about good, mutual, safe, and loving physical touch.

Furthermore, in scriptures it is rare to find any description of love or marriage that is worth celebrating. Which biblical marriage or love affair would you care to duplicate in your own life? There aren’t many. Here, however, there is reciprocal delight and satisfaction: gifts from God, and worthy of celebration.

Please pray with me.

God, thank you for love of all kinds: 0ur love for you, your love for us, and our love for one another, in its many forms, in its great variety. May we seek out and celebrate love that honors us and honors all others, in all of our dignity, individuality, worth, and beauty. Amen.

Songs of Lament

Psalm 137:1-6
Nehemiah 1-12

This summer at West Concord Union Church we have been exploring the songs of the bible, as you may have heard a few weeks ago. There are more than 185 songs in the bible, sung by very different people, and for very different reasons. We’ve heard songs of praise, and songs of victory, and one song of eulogy. But so far we have not yet touched on another large category of biblical songs: songs of lamentation.

There is, in fact, a whole book of Lamentations.  The book of Lamentations is a set of five songs, traditionally thought to be written by the prophet Jeremiah. These songs mourn the destruction of Jerusalem, its community. and its great temple: “How lonely sits the city that once was full of people! How like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations… Judah has gone into exile with suffering and hard servitude; she lives now among the nations, she finds no resting place; her pursuers have overtaken her in the midst of her distress.” (Lam 1:1, 1:3)

Songs of communal lamentation in the bible are not limited to the book of Lamentations. There are several psalms that fit this pattern as well. They express grief for what has happened to the people, for what has happened to the nation. They remember God’s past acts of salvation. They ask for God’s help, and for holy restoration.

In the psalm Andrew read today, those who are in exile in Babylon following the destruction of Jerusalem tell us: “by the rivers of Babylon we sat down,  and we wept when we remembered Zion. Our captors and tormentors asked us to sing the songs of Zion. How could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign Land?” It was hard to sing at all, in a strange place, when times were bad; and yet these very words are part of a psalm, part of a song. Singing has been an important part of the process of mourning for our ancestors in faith.

I feel a profound sense of grief about our public life, our communal life, our national life, today. We’re not in the same position as the inhabitants of Jerusalem. Our holy city has not been destroyed. We are not, most of us at least, exiles from our homeland. And yet, it is a troubled and a troubling time.

I wonder, what might we grieve, in our common life in America today?  What do you grieve about our city, our state, our nation, our world?  I encourage you to read the book of Lamentations, and our psalms of communal lamentation, whether it is for the first time or a return to very familiar texts.  And consider, if you wrote a song of lamentation today, what would it say? What do you grieve most deeply about what we have lost, who we are now, and what we have never yet become together?

The longer reading this morning is a selection from the book of Nehemiah. If the book of Lamentations describes the pain of the destruction of Jerusalem, this is a story of what happens afterwards. An Israelite serving abroad in a royal court named Nehemiah hears of destruction and exile, and he feels called to return and rebuild Jerusalem.

At first the work of rebuilding does not go well. Some folks laugh at those who are trying to build the city wall again. Others try to destroy it.  Still, one way or another, the wall continues to rise. Other things begin to change for the better, too. Nehemiah brings legal action against the officials who are starving the people through heavy taxation; and he is successful. Slowly, the people begin to recover from starvation, from occupation, from oppression. Nehemiah becomes the governor of Judah, and people return to their homeland.

To me the most fascinating part of the story is what happens when there is finally a crowd again in the square, in the rebuilt city of Jerusalem.  The people ask Ezra, a scribe, to bring the book of the law of Moses, and to read the law aloud to them. They begin to practice their faith again together and renew their covenant with God. And we learn that among those who come to live in Jerusalem are those who are in charge of the songs of thanksgiving.  Songs of thanksgiving, after so much suffering.

If we want to rebuild our common life; to restore good things from the past, and begin good things that have never yet been realized among us; I wonder if it starts with music. Music, that brings our voices together in grief. Music, that brings our voices together in longing. Music, that brings our voices together in hope. Music, that brings our voices together, eventually, despite everything, in thanksgiving.

We need music in doubt and in faith, in grief and in joy. Music is a gift from God that helps us express what is deepest in our hearts. It connects us with one another, and it connects us with all that is holy.

The book of Lamentations contains songs of exile from the people Israel. There are songs of exile in our own American songbook, too. Songs of those who were stolen from their homelands in Africa and the Caribbean and beyond and enslaved on our shores. W.E.B. Du Bois (Boys) calls these spirituals “sorrow songs.”  He says they are “the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas.”

Today we sing one of those American sorrow-songs, Balm in Gilead.  And as we sing, let us pray that our singing together, in grief, in longing, in hope, and in thanksgiving, will help remake each of us and be part of the remaking of our nation. Amen.

Songs of Moses

Exodus 15:1-2, 11-18
Revelation 15

This summer here at West Concord Union Church we have been exploring songs of the bible, of which there are more than 185. We started with the longest song, and then the most popular one. We’ve heard a song from Deborah, a judge and prophet; and two from David, that great king and musician. Today we hear two songs of Moses, which are the first and last songs in the bible.

The first song in the bible is found in the Book of Exodus. God has called Moses to lead his people up out of slavery in Egypt. Reluctantly, Moses agrees. With the help of God, his siblings, and many others, Moses convinces Pharaoh to let the Israelites go. But just as the people are nearing freedom, Pharaoh changes his mind, and the people are trapped between the shores of the Red Sea and an Egyptian army.

You know this story. God tells Moses: stretch out your arm. And Moses stretches out his arm, and the Red Sea parts.  The people walk forward on dry ground, with water on either side. When they have safely crossed, the water closes in again. And Moses and the people sing a song sometimes called the Song of the Sea: “I will sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider have been thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, and has become my salvation; this is my God, who I will praise, the God of my ancestors, who I will exalt.”

They go on singing, praising God as majestic in holiness, and awesome in splendor.  And they describe the fear of other peoples in the face of their God. Then the prophet Miriam, Moses’ sister, takes a tambourine, and leads the women in playing, dancing, and singing: “Sing to the Lord, for God has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider have been thrown into the sea.”

This is the first song in the bible, a song of Moses. The last song in the bible comes in the midst of a less familiar story, in the book of Revelation. This book is traditionally attributed to the disciple John, who is also traditionally credited with the gospel of John and several letters.

John, imprisoned on the island of Patmos for sharing the good news of Jesus, receives a message from the resurrected Christ. This message is for seven churches in Asia: a call to repentance and a promise for those who are faithful. The message comes in the form of fantastic visions including angels, beasts, catastrophes and plagues.  Amidst all this there is a choir standing beside a sea of glass with harps of God, singing what is described as the song of Moses and the song of the Lamb.

The choir sings: “Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations!  Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgements have been revealed.”

The first and the last songs in the bible. Both, songs of Moses. But are they the same song, or different songs?

These two texts agree on a lot. God is amazing, powerful, and unique. God inspires fear and awe. But these songs were recorded more than 500 years apart, in dramatically different contexts, and this shows up in the text as well.

Exodus was recorded in the 5th century bce, based on much earlier oral and written traditions. It was written by and for a Jewish audience. Exodus focuses on how God liberates oppressed Israelites in the midst of many powerful, competing nations. Therefore it is with relief that the text imagines the members of other nations quaking before the God of Israel: “pangs seized the inhabitants of Philistia…trembling seized the leaders of Moab; all the inhabitants of Canaan melted away.”

The book of Revelation was recorded close to the end of the first century of the common era. It was written by and for an early Christian audience. Its vision was formed in part by the large, diverse Roman Empire from which it emerged, a political entity larger than most people had experienced before.  Revelation focuses on the redemption and unification of all people in the newly forming church. And so this song imagines God’s power as a uniting rather than a conquering force: “All nations will come and worship before you.”

It is dangerous to read two scriptures together in dialogue, Hebrew and Greek alongside one another.  It’s easy to compare and contrast without remembering context. Christians in particular are famous for our inclination to interpret our more recent Greek scriptures as an improvement on the Hebrew texts.

I wonder if instead of claiming one song of Moses and deriding the other, we might receive some wisdom from both of these songs today.  Their visions are different, but still complementary. We can remember, with the Israelites by the Red Sea, that the work of our powerful God is to free the enslaved, lift up the lowly, undo human injustice, and bring down those who misuse power. And we can also embrace the Christian impulse, sometimes to aggressive, to invite and include all people into the good news of God.

You all may be aware that about a month ago, the United Church of Christ conferences of MA, RI, and CT all voted to form a new conference together.  I don’t know how much you’ve talked about this at TriCon. The decision made the Boston Globe, but I’m sure some of you have not yet heard about it, and others may not care.  Perhaps you imagine that this is simply downsizing, or deck chair reorganization. Let me suggest otherwise.

These southern New England conferences saw an opportunity, as conferences with greater resources, to be leaders in a new way of being church: a more connected way, and a more powerful way. As local churches, and church organizations, rapidly change and die around us; as our nation faces new challenges; this is a Moses moment. God is calling us to do a new thing; to be freed from old bondages and old sins, for a new future.

Recognizing together that God is our strength, our might, and our salvation, United Church of Christ congregations across southern New England can put our common mission above any individual, regional, or even denominational pride. The hope of this new conference is that in working together with one another, and strengthening our partnerships with those of other churches, those of other faiths, and those of no faith, we can amplify our efforts for justice and compassion, and glorify God.

I speak of this today as we at West Concord Union Church and Trinitarian Congregational Church begin our shared summer worship time as a way of saying:what if we begin here – in Concord?  I see incredible strength for good in the various congregations and organizations in Concord, and I think that strength could be multiplied if we were more connected around the values that we share.

Friends, God is holy. She redeems us, and guides us, through challenges both personal and political. Our ancestors in faith have testified to this for more than 2,500 years. So let us give thanks, for the wonders she has achieved; and open our hearts to the new possibilities she lays before us. Amen.

David’s Song of Praise

Last week in our exploration of songs of the bible, we heard a lament from David, that famous musician, and great king of Israel. Today we hear one of King David’s many songs of praise. This song is found twice in the bible: once in the book of Samuel after David and his army have won a military victory; and then again as Psalm 18.

The song starts with a beautiful passage honoring God with many names. David calls God his rock, fortress, deliverer, refuge, shield, stronghold, savior, and horn of salvation. He goes on to describe how in a time of grave trouble, he called upon God, and God hears him. God responds with a magnificent uprising of creation: moving the earth, sending forth flame, coming down from the heavens, flying on the wind, sending forth lightening, laying bare the foundations of the world.

David says, “God delivered me from my strong enemy…the Lord was my stay… God delivered me, because God delighted in me.”

So far in the song, I am with David. To be sure, we don’t always experience God helping us in such a powerful way. Sometimes it’s hard to be sure that God is with us at all. But I do believe that God hears us, and helps us, in ways small and great. God can be for us a rock, fortress, deliverer, refuge, shield, stronghold, savior, and horn of salvation. God works to deliver us, because God delights in us.

As the song continues, however, I begin to have less sympathy for David’s point of view. (more…)

David’s Lament

2 Samuel 1

Today’s scriptures give us a fascinating glimpse into the heart of one of the greatest figures in the Hebrew Scriptures, King David.  Perhaps you know some of his story. David begins life in relative obscurity as a shepherd. But the Prophet Samuel is moved by God to anoint this very handsome young man as the new King of Israel.  There’s a problem, however: Israel already has a King, its first King, a man named Saul.

King Saul is at first unaware that he has a rival for the throne. He comes to know and love David as a musician, and even invites David to become part of his royal household. But everything changes when David defeats Goliath, champion of the Philistines. David earns great popularity with the people, who sing: “Saul has killed his thousands, and David his ten thousands.” Even Saul’s eldest son and heir Jonathan is smitten with the beautiful young man. Scripture says: “the soul of (Saul’s son) Johnathan loved (David) as his own soul.”

The acclaim and affection that David receives makes King Saul very jealous. The relationships between Saul, David, and Jonathan, get more and more complicated as the story continues. Saul tries to kill David; Jonathan defies Saul and helps David to escape; and David bests Saul and spares Saul’s life, twice.

You wouldn’t have any idea how complicated it all was, though, listening to David’s song of lament after the deaths of Saul and Jonathan. David sings:

Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely! In life and death they were not divided;
They were swifter than eagles, they were stronger than lions.
O daughters of Israel, weep over Saul, who clothed you with crimson, in luxury,
Who put ornaments of God on your apparel…
I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me;
Your love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women.

Memorializing his greatest enemy, David says only good things. He praises Saul’s valor in battle; he claims Saul was close to his son Jonathan; he celebrates the wealth Saul brought to the country.

Something more honest, and more personal, is evident when David speaks of Jonathan: “I am distressed for you, my brother Jonathan; greatly beloved were you to me; your love to me was wonderful.” Scholars debate whether David and Jonathan’s relationship was what we could consider a romance today. It’s probably an unanswerable question. We know without a doubt that they loved one another profoundly.

Why is this story in our bible? It’s part of Israelite history, certainly. But it could have been told in so many different ways. Why is there so much time spent on this moment in David’s life? What does his grief tell us about our relationship with God?

David makes no mention of God in his song. But I witness God in this story in many ways.  God is in the love between David and Jonathan; all human love is a gift from God.  God is in the gratitude David has for Jonathan’s life; each human life is a gift from God. God is in the grief of David and his companions, too, in the tearing of clothes, and the weeping. I even find God in the pause in the action of the text: the time between the terrible news of battle casualties and the crowning of the new king.  There is something important, something holy, that happens when we take the time to grieve.

Yesterday we held a memorial service here at the church.  Some might have said it wasn’t a very proper funeral. Everyone wore really nice clothes, we gathered in our beautiful sanctuary, but what happened wasn’t very formal, or solemn.  Those who shared memories of the person who died included all kinds of stories, including funny ones, and colorful language.  There was lots of laughter in our church yesterday.

It may not have been formal, but it was holy.  There was holiness in the laughter as well as the tears. Holiness, in the honest outpourings of words, as well as in the silences into which no words were spoken. There was holiness, too, in the way people interrupted their lives, and flew in from around the country to be together.  There was holiness, in all the folks from our congregation who baked treats and set up tables, arranged flowers, opened doors, welcomed strangers, served food, and cleaned it all up: how this congregation showed up to honor someone they had never met, to offer up love for her daughter and her family in a difficult time.

Grief often makes us feel alone. But it is an experience all of us have. All of us are grieving. We have old griefs, and new ones. We grieve people who have died. We also grieve the deaths of dreams, and abilities, and illusions, and relationships. Some of us have more practice in grieving than others. There are those among us who are intimately acquainted with grief.

Whatever our losses have been, we are not alone in grief. We are surrounded by other grievers.  And among these grievers are those who make up our church.  This is an imperfect place to come when we are grieving. Folks sometimes say or do too much, or not enough, or not the right thing.  Still, here we try to allow one another to be broken, and honest, without cleaning it up too much. Here we practice showing up, one griever for another, to make visible, and tangible, the love of God.

Please pray with me. God, thank you for the gift of human companions, and for the gift of love. Bless us in our experiences of grieving, and bless us as we accompany one another in grief. Help us to recognize this work as necessary, important, inevitable, imperfect, and holy. Give us courage to be honest with ourselves, and with you, and with one another. Amen.






The Song of Deborah

Judges 4&5

So far in our series on biblical songs, we have heard the longest song and the most popular one. Both were songs of praise. Today we hear another song of praise, most often known as the song of Deborah.

Who, you may ask, is Deborah? You may never have heard of her, but Deborah was both a judge and a prophet in ancient Israel.  Deborah sits in the shade of a palm tree in the hill country, settling disputes between the people. She serves as a military leader. She receives messages from God for the people. What’s more, Deborah does all of these things so well that she is known as a Mother in Israel, a mother of the people. If Deborah got her due, we would all know her name.

Over and over again in Israelite history, the same story repeats. The people Israel abandon God; God allows foreign leaders to oppress them; the Israelites cry out to God; and God raises up a leader to guide them to freedom and peace. In our story this morning, that leader is Deborah.

This time, when the Israelites do what is evil in the sight of God, they become enslaved by King Jabin of Canaan, whose military commander is named Sisera. Deborah summons an Israelite named Barak and gives him a command from God: “Go to Mt. Tabor with ten thousand troops. I will draw out Sisera, and I will give him into your hand.”

Barak is not so sure that this is a good idea. After all, Sisera has nine hundred chariots of iron. Who would want to go up against that? Barak says to Deborah, “If you will go with me, I will go; but if you will not go with me, I will not go.”  In other words, put your money where your mouth is. Deborah promises to go with Barak. However, she warns him that his victory in battle will not lead to his glory; Sisera will be killed by the hand of a woman.

As the story continues, everything happens as Deborah has predicted. The army of Sisera is routed. Sisera flees, only to be killed by a woman named Jael. Soon, the Israelites are free of King Jabin.  Then there is a long song, praising God as well as many people for the victory. The song of Deborah: “ Lord, when you marched, the earth trembled, and the heavens poured… the mountains quaked before the Lord, the One of Sinai, the God of Israel.” And the land had rest for forty years.

I have to admit that I have profoundly mixed feelings about this story, and this song.  On the one hand, it is deeply refreshing to see a woman in leadership in the bible. Plus, Deborah’s not just any leader.  She does it all: adjudicate, strategize, command, and prophesy.  She does it all, and she does it all well.

On the other hand, I simply don’t believe that God operates in the way that the text describes. I don’t believe God enslaved the Israelites because of their mistakes. I don’t believe God slaughtered the Canaanites to free the Israelites.  The God in whom I place my trust does not cause suffering or violence. So, if we turn to the bible to help us learn who God is, and what God does, what are we supposed to learn from this passage?

It may help, here, to know that the song of Deborah is among the most ancient songs in our bible.  It comes from a time and place where each people, each tribe, had their own god. When the people clashed against each other in the quest for land and power, they saw their gods at work in whatever outcome emerged. As the Israelites, a very small nation in a vast sea of empires, saw their independence overtaken again and again, they explained their fortunes through the lens of divine retribution and compassion.

This theology is problematic in any time period, and certainly when applied to modern Christianity. We see it often here in our own context, as all too many people have come to believe that a Christian God has chosen the white people of the United States of America as his chosen people today. They imagine that those of us who fit that description are being oppressed, just as the Israelites (and early Christians) were. This fantasy of oppression allows folks to ignore the very real privilege and power of white Christians in America, and in the world. All too many folks see God at work in new forms of social, political, and military dominance.

I hope we can take a different lesson from the text this morning.

This story was probably recorded later, while the Israelites were in exile, under the power of the Babylonian empire.  From that moment in their national story, the Israelites turned to their history to ask critical questions: Did God forsake us? Has God forgotten us?

Retelling the story of Deborah and Barak and Jael, and celebrating the people’s release from slavery at the hand of the Canaanites, is a way for Israelites in the Babylonian period to reassure themselves that God does not hold herself apart from their history. Instead, God accompanies them through it.

What do we do when times get tough? What do we do when we see our people suffering? That is not the time to forget God, to give up on God, to despair. Instead, it is a time to remember God’s love, past and present. It is a time to cry out for help. It is a time to recognize the leaders God is raising for a new age. It is a time to support those leaders, and one another

This week has been a devastating one in the news for many of us who consider immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and laborers, to be kin to us.  It is natural to grieve for what has happened, and to fear what may yet come.

However, this is not the time to forget God, to give up on God, to despair. To be honest, I am sometimes ashamed of my own lack of courage, when I witness the determination and hope of those whose lives are much more immediately impacted by our country’s failures of justice and compassion.

What did the Israelites do in exile in Babylonia? They remembered another time of suffering. A time when they cried out to God, and God was still with them. A time when God raised up new leaders; surprising leaders, faithful leaders, skillful leaders; women, among them.  They remembered that story, and sang their old song of victory. “March on, my soul, with might!” as the song goes.

Beloved, have courage; we can go on. God is still with us; we have our stories of liberation, ancient and new; and we have one another. Thanks be to God.

Steadfast Love

1 Chronicles 16
Psalm 136

This summer we are exploring the songs of the bible, of which there are more than 185. Last week we started with Psalm 119, the longest song in the bible. Today we turn our attention to the shortest song in the bible – which also happens to be what we might call the bible’s #1 hit: the song most often sung over the course of the text.

If you read the bible from front to back, this song first makes an appearance in Chronicles (which is one book in the Hebrew, and has been divided into two in Christian translations). The ark of the covenant, the wisdom that Moses received from God, is being brought to Jerusalem, where the new King David is establishing a tent of worship.

King David is known as a great musician, and music is important in both the procession and in the installation of the ark. Along the way to its new home, the ark is accompanied by the sound of horn, trumpets, and cymbals, and by loud music on harps and lyres.

After the ark has been brought into the tent, and offerings have been made, a song of praise is sung. Newly appointed praise leaders sing: “O give thanks to the Lord… Sing to God, sing praises, tell of all God’s wonderful works.” Then, towards the end of the singing, we hear these words: “O give thanks to the Lord, for God is good; for God’s steadfast love endures forever.”

This short refrain shows up again in a later part of the book of Chronicles. Solomon, David’s son, has succeeded him in kingship and has built a great temple for worship in Jerusalem. It takes chapters of text to describe this temple: sixty cubits long, twenty cubits wide, one hundred and twenty cubits tall. The inside is filled with elaborately carved cypress wood, overlaid with gold, and set with precious stones. Within the temple is a most holy place, separated from the rest of the temple with a curtain made of blue and purple and crimson fabrics and fine linen.

Once it is all finished, Solomon calls the elders of the people together to bring the ark of the covenant to the temple. They bring the ark into the most holy place of the temple, underneath the wings of great carved cherubim. And the same lineage of singers that David called to the work of musical praise come in fine linen, with cymbals, harps, and lyres. They stand to the east of the altar with one hundred and twenty trumpeting priests. They raise up the song: “God is God, for God’s steadfast love endures forever.” And the new temple is filled with a great cloud, and with the glory of the Lord.

“God is good, God’s steadfast love endures forever.”  All in all, this song is sung at least 12 times in the bible. In addition to Chronicles, we hear it when the prophet Jeremiah tells a desolate people that this song will be sung again in a rebuilt Jerusalem. We hear it when the temple is rebuilt, in the book of Ezra. This song is sung in preparation for battle, and in celebration of a military victory. It is featured in at least 5 psalms, including psalm 136, which we heard this morning.

Why was this song so meaningful to our ancestors in faith?

At the heart of this song is the Hebrew word, chesed, translated here as “steadfast love.” Chesed is difficult to capture in translation. In addition to “steadfast love” it is sometimes translated as “loving-kindness,” “mercy,” or even “loyalty.” The love of chesed is not the kindness of strangers, but the love of two parties who are profoundly tied together. The love of chesed is not a brief expression, but a dedicated ongoing practice.  Chesed is a description of the sure, intimate, long-lasting, foundational love that God gives to God’s people. The closest word in our Greek scriptures, in the Second Testament, is Charis, or “grace.”

If our song for today is popular at 12 mentions in the biblical text, chesed by itself is off the charts: it’s used 248 times in the Hebrew scriptures.

It’s fascinating that this song is sung at the dedication of a new worship space at least three times in the life of the ancient Israelites. It’s as if this song answers a crucial question: why are we doing this? What is worship about?  Why all the people, the instruments, the songs, and the rituals?

This is why, the song reminds us: God is good, and God’s chesed endures forever. Those in our lineage of faith traditions gather around this truth when we worship. Indeed, the purpose of worship is for us to practice centering our lives around this truth.  We practice putting our ultimate trust in the presence of that good God, and in her steadfast, loyal, merciful, eternal, unbreakable loving-kindness.

Psalm 119, the bible’s longest song, focuses on God’s way.  This shortest and most popular song in the bible focuses on God’s self.

So let’s take a moment to to try to let this really sink in, this old news which is still good news: God is good, her chesed endures forever. I invite you to get comfortable in your body, close your eyes if that works for you, take a deep breath or two or three.

  • Perhaps you have a few things swirling around in your mind and heart this morning; anxieties, things to do, personal griefs and gratitudes; greet them with kindness.
  • Become aware, too, of concerns that may lie beyond your immediate circles of care; there are so many: needs for reunification of families; for clean water and air; for freedom from poverty; for healing of body and soul; for release from racism; for a radical realignment and redistribution of power.
  • It is almost too much to bear, if we allow ourselves to consider it. Breathe.
  • Now, in the midst of what has come into your mind and heart, make some space. Allow an awareness of a foundational love to arise. A love so ancient that it began before all time; a love as deep as a sea floor; a love as steady as a mountain. A love that formed you, and knows you, and loves you without limit. A love that fills your emptiness. A love that blesses your tender places with care. A love that wraps its arms around you whenever you feel shame, and when you have made a terrible mistake, and when you feel most alone, saying: y ou are my beloved child.

Let us pray. God, train our hearts to know you, to open up and to be filled by you, to grow and to be fueled by you. For, truly, you are good; and your amazing enormous unbreakable love endures forever. Trusting in that changes everything. Amen.

Your Promise Gives Me Life

This summer we are exploring the songs of the bible, of which there are more than 185. Among them are songs of triumph and songs of lamentation; personal songs and political songs; long songs and short songs. We begin today with the longest song: Psalm 119.

Perhaps you have forgotten that we have a hymn book as part of the library that is our bible.  Unfortunately, the music was not supplied, but we do have the words. The psalms were an important part of the worship life of ancient Jewish communities, and they have continued to be central to Jewish and Christian worship since then.

If you are paging through the book of Psalms, Psalm 119 sticks out.  It is the longest Psalm by far. In fact, it’s the longest chapter in the entire bible. Psalm 119 is also remarkable because of its form. This psalm has one stanza for each consonant in the Hebrew Alphabet.  A whole stanza of lines starting with aleph, then a whole stanza of lines starting with beit, and continuing on through the whole alphabet.  I can only imagine how hard that was for the writer.

No matter where it is in the alphabet, the psalm is focused on one theme: God’s word.  God’s word is mentioned so often that the psalm uses seven synonyms for it, often all in the same stanza: Torah, commandments, ordinances, precepts, decrees, promises, and statues.

If you try to take in the whole psalm all at once, it’s a little dizzying.  The lines are organized, alphabetically, but the sense of the lines circles around and around, using the same words and ideas again and again in new variations.  We only listened to 6 of the 22 stanzas; that was my guess about how many we could handle in one sitting.

So, I wonder: Why? Why write such a long song? Why write it in this way? And why on this topic – not the most thrilling one could have chosen: God’s instruction, commandments, ordinances, precepts, decrees, words, promises, and statues?

One important thing to note is that the psalm doesn’t actually contain the contents of God’s instruction. This psalm doesn’t include the 10 commandments, for instance; it doesn’t mention any commandments or ordinances at all. Instead, the psalm proclaims the importance of a way of life we find through immersing ourselves in the totality of God’s guidance.

Another thing to note: although we might find ordinances a dry topic, this writer definitely doesn’t. There is passion in their tone. “I treasure your word…my hope is in your ordinances… I delight in your way as much as in all riches… I will not forget your word.” And even, “My soul is consumed with longing for your ordinances at all times…I cling to your decrees…your promise gives me life.”

God has a beautiful way, the psalmist tells us. All of God’s instructions guide us towards life at its very best: a life worth living.

I’ve never heard anyone say their favorite psalm is 119.  But I wonder if this passionate longing that the psalmist describes lives, at least a little bit, in each of our hearts.  The psalmist writes of God: “You are good and do good.”  We long to live closer to good, closer to God.  At least some part of us longs to be good and to do good ourselves.

This longing that so many of us have, faces challenges from both within and from without. Inwardly, our longing for God and God’s ways competes with all of our other desires, many of them much less admirable: wealth, power, safety, attention, approval.  “Put false ways far from me,” asks the psalmist. “Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways.”

External forces of evil are also threaten us. There are so many who desire to lead us far from God’s ways in order to increase their own power and wealth. Environmental devastation; racial persecution; economic oppression; LGBTQ discrimination; inhumane treatment of immigrants — these are all are carried out and justified in the name of profit, privilege, or even in the name of our God – which is, by the way, blasphemy, a breaking of the commandment not to take the name of the Lord in vain.

“Redeem me from human oppression,” writes the psalmist; “My soul melts away for sorrow; strengthen me according to your word”

Maybe we need every letter of the alphabet; every possible synonym for God’s Torah; 22 stanzas and 176 verses to call us back towards God and God’s ways. In the rule of Benedict, the guiding document for Benedictine spiritual practice, psalm 119 is read in portions daily, so practitioners read the whole thing every week.  22 stanzas of course correction.  176 verses of redirection. Each piece a reminder of other, truer, more beautiful ways that God opens up for us.

The psalmist tells us that the outcome of continually surrendering to God’s way is happiness. As the first stanza says, “Happy are those who keep God’s decrees, who seek God with their whole hearts.” Happy may not be the best translation here. Better, perhaps, to say blessed; or content.

God’s way is a gift. We as humans so often get it very, very wrong about what we need, what kind of living will make us happy, and how we should be treating one another.  And that leads to unbelievable suffering: in our own hearts, and in the hearts and bodies and lives of others. There is another way, God tells us. There are so many better paths. Travel with me; open your heart to me and to each other. This is how you were meant to live; this is who I created you to be: to be good, and to do good. On the ways that I open for you, you will find contentment, integrity, peace, rest for your soul. Thanks be to God.