January 26, 2014 Psalm 149
There are 150 psalms in the Hebrew Scriptures. They are not just the products of pious individuals in ancient Israel and Judah. They are the liturgical materials used in ancient Israelite and Judean worship. The psalter represents the hymnbook or prayer book of the Second (and perhaps the first) Temple.
They are humanities words to God and God’s words to humanity. They’re as diverse in theme and message as the prayers we use today in worship. They praise God and also articulate God’s will for justice, righteousness and peace among all peoples and all nations.
Let’s listen carefully to Psalm 149, as interpreted by Jan Merrill. What is it telling us about God and the world we live in? What instructions is it giving us? Is it foreshadowing the Kin-dom of God that Jesus talks about in the New Testament? Notice how Merrill uses inclusive language.
Praise the Beloved!
Sing a joy-filled song praising
the Blessed One among
Be glad in the Creator,
rejoice in Love Divine!
Praise the Holy One with dancing,
with melodies and voice!
For the Beloved dwells within,
journeying with us through
all our lives,
Leading us in truth and love.
The humble are adorned with honor;
the faithful exult in glory,
singing for joy with
With truth on our tongues,
with gratitude as our friend,
We are in harmony with the universe,
as we hold hands with
all the people.
The chains of oppression are broken,
the fetters of injustice unbound.
The realm of Peace and Love shall reign!
Glory abides with those who are
Praise the Beloved!
All people on earth, welcome
Love’s Companioning Presence
into your hearts!
“Perpetual Praise” #1 in Sing, Prayer and Praise!
“Praise Music” by John Bell and Graham Maule
Thank you Jesus and Peter.
“What God loathes and detests is praise that comes from the top of the head and not the heart.” What does that say about our worship? Worship is not just an intellectual exercise. It should open our hearts and send us out into the world to serve others. It should change us and help us change the world. Worship, and our work as Christians are inextricably linked. They should feed into each other. They are in essence one. So worship, in whatever form it takes, should inspire us, move us, touch us on some deep, profound level, and carry us out into the world. How does this happen?
We’re all different. Like Peter in our little dialogue, we all like different music. And we’d probably like to believe that God likes what we like too. So it’s natural that we each respond to different aspects of worship. I took my father to a Christmas Eve service in Phoenix once where there was lots of music but no formal sermon. Now, my dad loves music, but he didn’t recognize a lot of what he heard, and wanted to know “Where’s the sermon?” It wasn’t a good experience for him without a sermon. Another friend of mine once commented that she could care less about the sermon, it was the music that moved her and connected her spiritually.
I attended a lot of worship services when I was on sabbatical two summers ago, two or three a day during my two weeks at the Abbey on Iona. Many of them were in languages I didn’t understand. So in those worship experiences I couldn’t respond to the Word, the prayers or sermon - things we normally respond to. And yet, in many of them I was still touched by the Spirit, sometimes profoundly moved. What caused that to happen?
Sometimes it was just the space itself. I’m a visual person so I respond to what I see, so the Abbey at Iona, lit up by candlelight, with a long communion table placed down the center aisle, covered in white with votive candles and flowers scattered around them, baskets of bread and chalices of wine set out, people sitting all around the table like at a banquet, filled me with a sense of awe. It was a sacred space I was entering.
Or the simple act of passing the peace with a group of Muslim women at an ecumenical service at the Dominican Church in East Jerusalem. It was organized by Sabeel in remembrance and support of the refugees and those who continue to suffer under the occupation.
For the first time they had asked three Muslims to offer prayers. They were sitting in front of us. I didn’t understand a word, but I knew salem (peace). One of the women who had been asked to say a prayer made eye contact with me as she returned to her seat, and the smile on her face brought tears to my eyes, and filled me with the joy she was feeling.
Or sitting on the floor of a small chapel with people from many different countries, holding candles and saying the Lord’s prayer in our own languages and ending exactly together, was magical - unity within diversity.
Many times it was the music. Like the mass we attended in a 12th century Crusader church in Abu Gosh outside of Jerusalem - the Benedictine monks, and nuns with white veils cascading to the floor, standing across from each other singing Gregorian Chant ac-cappella - filling that dark, stone space with heavenly music. The sound lifted and transfixed you. I didn’t want it to end.
Other times it was the ritual, like the mass I attended at the Vatican, wishing my Catholic parents could have been there with me, or a healing service with laying on of hands at Iona. Many of us left saying, “That was really powerful.” You can never be sure what is going to move you. We can only hope something will.
So I’d like you to take a minute and close your eyes and think of a worship experience that moved you. It might have been here in this sanctuary, or somewhere else. What was it that moved you - that lifted your spirits?
Now turn to someone sitting near you and for the next two minutes share what came to mind.
We did this exercise at Iona one day, and if you are anything like our group there, we all had different aspects of worship that we responded to (and rarely were they the sermon, which can be a little disconcerting to a preacher). In one of the workshops I attended we discussed seven different elements of worship that all need to be present in some form in order to reach everyone on some level. These corresponded to ones I had learned in seminary.
Thinking about them this week, I realized that they all can be traced back to our early Jewish and Christian traditions, and in some cases to Jesus himself.
The first is music and song. Psalm 149, like many of the psalms were written as a hymn or song of praise for a worship service. In early Israelite worship the women would dance in a circle playing drums and tambourines while the men recited prayers outside the circle.
The second element is prayer and silence. Jesus instructed his followers how and what to pray. He often retreated alone into the desert to find the silence he needed in order to pray. The Hebrew Scriptures are filled with prayers to be used in worship.
Words and preaching are an essential part of most worship. Jesus was an itinerant preacher. He paved the way for us to follow.
Another element, interaction and participation, is one that many seem to shy away from. But think of Jesus, even as a young boy, there he was engaging others in the synagogue. He didn’t often do monologues. There was interaction. Early Christians would get together in their homes to have a meal and talk about Jesus and what he had taught.
Movement and dance were mentioned in the psalm today, and in many other parts of the Hebrew scriptures. Miriam danced. So did King David - with abandon, we’re told.
And ritual; communion and baptism came to us from Jesus and John and the early Christian community, who practiced elaborate rituals when one was baptized.
And last is visuals and color. The temple was a visual masterpiece. From the earliest times, Christians incorporated symbols into their homes, like the loaves and fishes and later the cross. Elaborate frescoes and mosaics adorned the inside of churches so that those who could not read could learn the stories of their faith through pictures.
It’s important that as many of these aspects as possible be present in some form in worship. In the service today we’ve had prayers and times of silence, words and preaching, visuals and color, interaction and participation, ritual, music and song. All the elements are present in some form, some more prominent than others.
What happens when a major one of these is missing? How does it make you feel, especially if it’s the one you respond most to? How does it impact the worship experience?
These are questions the church has been struggling with over the centuries. My Catholic friends were all a titter over a few changes in the wording of their liturgy the summer I spent abroad. The Norwegians were planning major changes to theirs. Christians on different continents were asking themselves, “Is the way we’re worshiping God effective? Does our praise come from our head or from our hearts? And how does it translate into the work of being a Christian? These are questions we need to grapple with. So after fellowship today I invite you to join me for further exploration. I love worship! I hope you do too.