January 30, 2022
Psalm 98

What a pleasure to be together today, in-person – and on Zoom. We have been anticipating this day for months and weeks and days, the Sunday morning when we could come together for worship, inside. We have had to shift and reorient our expectations and hopes – over and over. Now here we are, back in the building, or at least some of us are in the building. I wonder if it is how you imagined it would be – to be here, to be on Zoom while some are in the building.

Today is the last Sunday of our series – a series that acknowledges the patterns of life that we can see in the Psalms: orientation, disorientation, reorientation. After last week’s “How long, O Lord, how long, will you forget me?” I was looking forward to a week of reorientation. I imagined bathing in hope all week. That was pushed aside with the unexpected and tragic death of Hyattsville mayor Kevin Ward. The other community chaplains and I were called upon to be available to city employees and council members as they grappled with the mayor’s death. It was a sad and immediate reminder that orientation, disorientation and reorientation are not a linear path. There are layers, and degrees of disorientation, depending on the situation, depending on the people.

There is part of me that wishes that we could just go back to the good ol’ days, how it used to be. Another part of me knows that it isn’t possible after the disorientation that we have lived through the past two years. We are not the same people returning to the same place. Just coming into the sanctuary we notice changes: no more blue hymnals in the racks, now it is the purple Voices Together. There’s a big new monitor on the wall (that we will use with great care.)

And there are new people in the congregation: on Zoom, through Zoom, and today in person. We are new people. After almost two years of separation from so much of what we know and love, the changes we have experienced are very real. Some  are painful: illness, death, relocations and moves, lost jobs, broken relationships. And some of the change is joyful: new babies born, new homes, new jobs and schools, new hobbies, new spiritual practices, even a new congregational mission statement. Will we sing a new song? What is our new song?

One of the remarkable things about this global pandemic is that so many of us experienced change, felt disoriented, at the same time, for many of the same reasons – the virus, racial injustice, climate change. For a few fleeting moments the world seemed to be one, in our pain together. Remember when the roads were almost empty, when the skies were clear in parts of the world that are usually thick with smog? The disorientation of the peoples began to create some reorientation for the earth itself. Now that is a new song.

There is a power and resonance to Psalm 98 when we read it as we emerge from a time of disorientation. It is easy to miss at first but this new song is a response to deliverance, a freedom that was granted not by the earthly king but by the God that cannot be contained. The writer notices that it is not just the people with all their horns and harps that sing. The earth itself, the seas and trees, the mountains and creatures all sing this new song.

This invitation, or is it a command, to sing a new song is not unique to Psalm 98. It is found in other Psalms, and in Isaiah 42. The vision in the book of Revelation includes people actually singing a new song. There is something about this new song that gives hope amidst what has been difficult. After what we have been through we see that the same old song is not as exciting as we once thought. It is time, there is room, for a new song. How appropriate that we have a new hymnal as we come out of this pandemic time: we can sing old songs we know and love, and new songs that can lead us into the new steps of faith and understanding. And how ironic that we are limiting our singing together because of the virus. Right now the new song is not sung. Or maybe the emphasis is on “new” and song is just a metaphor.

What if it is not just for safety reasons that we don’t feel ready to sing this new song? Can we even sing a new song when we are still in the midst of pain? Would that be hypocritical? Or is that part of the healing process, taking the risk to lean toward hope even in the midst of hardship? Not as a denial of the pain but as a way to remind ourselves that some day it will be better. The psalm reminds us that if and when our suffering is so great that our own voices cannot sing, we are not alone. The earth sings for us, the trees clap their branches, the leaves dance, the mountains and the hills will break forth before you.

The human community sings the song as well. When we cannot personally sing a new song, it is good to be part of a community where surely some are prepared to sing. When we are choked by tears and our body is tense with anger, there will be someone in the community that is ready to breathe deep and sing out. And when we are at our most real with each other, we understand that the new song can include, does include, must include the rumble of anger and hiccuping tears – at least for rhythmic interest.

So how do we know when it is time to sing a new song? As we read in Psalm 137, which describes the intensity of displacement and violence, how can we sing God’s song in a strange land? What if we don’t feel joyful? Certainly coming out of these past two years, it may be hard to find the joy. But Psalm 98 doesn’t start with a command to be joyful, just to sing a new song. Hear this paraphrase from Nan Merrill: (with a little help from me)

Sing a new song to God, who has worked wonders,
who has brought deliverance – from the virus and all the lies.

We just start where we are, the joy comes later, after we have done some remembering about our old life, what we need to be delivered from. Part of the new song is describing what we see now and what we will see, or at least what we hope to see, in the future.

Everywhere on earth we can see healing from God.
In unison let all people amplify the Beloved;
Let all voices blend in harmony to magnify Love.

The new song is all inclusive. It doesn’t only notice our own situation; it pays attention to the whole of creation.

Let the waters clap their hands
and the hills ring out with joy
before the Beloved
who radiates Love across the earth.

Once we begin to really see what is around us, once we begin to sing a new song, we start to notice what is possible. We are aware of what might be opening up right in front of us – if we are paying attention.

For Love will reign over the world with truth and justice
bringing order and balance to all of creation.

I have been surprised to learn a new song of flexibility the past two years. I still have some notes to learn and I don’t know the chords all that well. But the perfectionism that has bound me for so many years seems to be loosening just a little. The trick will be to keep singing this new song until it is in my bones, and until the improv parts seem fun and not scary. I am not sure it will ever be easy for me. But I can see that the freedom of this new song could be very life-giving.

As a congregation we have expanded our “singing” during the pandemic. Led by the racial justice group, we have joined with LAR and Court Watch to sing a song of new justice. Adult ed has taught us some new songs of understanding whiteness, anti-racism, abolition. The morning prayer group is learning a song of deepening prayer. I wonder what other new songs you hear the congregation singing, what new songs you have been learning.

When we choose to sing a new song, we are part of bringing that new song into the world. This is a corollary to the imagining that we did during advent: if we can imagine it, we can begin to make it happen. If we can sing the song, we can begin to hear it in the world. When we sing that new song, we begin to catch the sweet but far off hymn that hails a new creation.

Of course, we live in this complicated world so disorientation is bound to come back, disorder will return. Pain and suffering and tears (and sin) are part of our human experience in this world. But that does not have to be the whole picture. We don’t have to be stuck there. We can begin to hum a new song, we can choose to sing, no matter what our singing voices sound like.

And most importantly, we do not sing alone. The reign of God is not a solo; we are part of a choir with an orchestra and dancers and drummers and giant puppets and gorgeous backdrops. All God’s critters got a place in the choir. How can we keep from singing?