Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
Two weeks ago today we enjoyed a different sort of service here at church, one in which the entire order of worship was designed around favorite songs submitted by members of the congregation. Some of you loved how many old favorites you got to sing that day. Others of you may have found yourself trying to sing an awful lot of new songs at once. After all, not all of us have grown up in the Church, and even among those who have, we represent a wide variety of church backgrounds. My hope for each of you, though, was that you would resonate personally with at least a couple of songs, even as you heard others speak of what was most meaningful to them. My further hope is that the soundtrack of your life will come to include some of the beautiful hymns and songs of praise we sing here at church, if it doesn’t already.
One of the great gifts of modern technology is that we no longer have to wait around for our favorite songs to be played on the radio, or to purchase an entire album for that one piece we love. (Of course some in our congregation are young enough they can’t imagine living in such a world!) Instead, we can now construct elaborate, eclectic playlists of our own, pieced together song by song. So that whether we are working out, commuting to school or the office, dancing around the living room with the kids, or providing background music for dinner with friends, we can do so accompanied by music we love. I am certain we each have songs on our playlists that trigger powerful memories for us, too, and surely we could spend days on end swapping those stories with one another as we did in a smaller way for that handful of hymns on Music Sunday.
Whether or not you happen to have recordings of them at home, I hope you do find yourself from time to time calling to mind the music we sing together here at church too. I’ve found that simply by exposing myself to hymns, praise songs, and camp songs over so many years of my life, that this music too, has snuck its way into my mind and heart, and comes to mind at the most helpful times. And it absolutely makes my day when in between the latest billboard topping hits from the movie “Frozen” or the boy band One Direction, I catch my teenage daughter singing a favorite praise song or hymn at home too.
I remember doing an exercise with a newly blended music team following a merger of two very different church congregations a number of years ago. As an ice-breaker, to get at what each person most loved about church music, we asked the question: what will be the soundtrack when you get to heaven? The answers were as diverse as we’d imagined they would be, and then some. And the songs they imagined were accompanied by everything from the world’s most powerful organ to a gentle guitar, from harps, violins, and brass to a rockin’ gospel pianist. Having just returned from a sabbatical trip to Scotland, where I had the opportunity to enjoy the elaborate wood carvings in the Thistle chapel at Edinburgh’s St. Giles cathedral, I made sure to add bagpipe-playing angels to the list too!
At any rate, all of this got me to thinking about songs in Scripture, of which there are a great many examples, the largest concentration being in the Old Testament book of Psalms. The Psalter was a hymnal, of sorts, a compilation of songs of personal devotion and national hymns, songs of congregational praise and individual laments. By Jesus’ day the psalms were very familiar to the Jewish people, often memorized in their entirety, so that a single verse could call to mind a whole psalm. If they passed out hymn surveys in the synagogue in Nazareth, these would be the songs on everyone’s list.
Perhaps you have memorized Psalm 23 at some point in your life, our first Scripture reading this morning, which begins “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.” For some of you that psalm is an old familiar friend. For others, though, it may be far less familiar, or even a brand new gift you’ve heard only just this morning. If so, I invite you to borrow a page from people of faith who’ve gone before you and read and reread those words and begin to make them your own. Write them out several times to help internalize them, or post them somewhere you can see them everyday. They are words that have brought comfort to countless men and women of faith over the years. I hope they can do the same for you.
And whether or not you are familiar with Psalm 23 in particular, imagine memorizing all 150 psalms! It would take awhile, surely, but then what a gift, to be able to call to mind those words at any time. We’ve sadly lost the art of memorizing big chunks of Scripture, in our tradition today, when to have these words in our hearts, and on the tips of our tongues, could transform our lives.
So this summer, I am issuing us all an invitation. We’ll start rather smaller than a 150-chapter challenge, but I propose we reclaim the gift of Scripture memory work and learn at least a few verses from the book of Psalms together. Over the coming weeks I will introduce a number of psalms that have been on the playlists of women and men of faith for a great many generations. I will speak about them, but more importantly, we will have a chance to learn them together. We will sing them at times, and sometimes we will repeat key verses or find another way to move the words off the page and into our minds, and hearts, and spirits. We’ll try these words on for size, and by the end of the summer my hope is that at least one of these psalms will become so beloved that you will want to learn it by heart, so that you will be able to call it to mind again and again. A new song for your playlist, along your particular journey of faith.
I’ve mentioned that Psalm 23, The Lord is my Shepherd, has traditionally been a favorite for many in the Church. In our second Scripture reading this morning, Psalm 131, I wanted to introduce you to another beautiful psalm of trust that is less well known. If you’re looking for an easy one to memorize, it’s a good candidate, at just three verses long:
O Lord, my heart is not lifted up, my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me.
But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me.
O Israel, hope in the Lord from this time on and forevermore.
In seminary, I learned that the Hebrew in verse 2 indicates the weaned child may be “on” and not simply “with” the psalmist. That has led some scholars to believe this may actually be a psalm composed by a young woman, singing words of trust in God while holding her baby. What a beautiful image, to calm and quiet the soul like this, resting in God like a small child cuddling with its mother.
We’re going to try something a little different as we conclude the sermon time morning, and actually give you a few moments to reflect quietly on this morning’s psalms. Both are printed on the last page of your bulletin, and you’ll see a few questions there on the facing page too, for you to consider either right now or later on during the week. Or you may simply want to pick one favorite line from one of these psalms, and either write it out or say it to yourself several times, over and over again, to help you memorize it. Wayne will play something on the piano for us for a few minutes, while we are doing this, and when he is done, I’ll offer a prayer before we move into our next hymn. So let’s enjoy a few moments of quiet, and immerse ourselves in the words of these psalms…
PRAYER: What a gift it is to inherit from our ancestors in faith such beautiful, powerful words. Words of trust. Words of comfort. Help us so to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them” (Book of Common Prayer) that we may call them to mind on both good days and bad. Meet us in these words, Lord God, our Shepherd and our loving Parent. Amen.