Sermon, Proper 24, Year A 2023
Psalm 95, I Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22
Sing to the Lord a new song! Sing to the Lord, all the whole earth!
The times we live in certainly do call for a new song, and today’s scriptures help us to figure out how to sing the song that God wants the world to hear about the good news of God’s salvation.
During the readings today, we got to hear from the earliest book in the New Testament. Even before the gospels were completed, Paul wrote a letter to the church in Thessalonica which he had started.
The Thessalonians had it together—because they had become imitators of Jesus. They served the living and true God. News of their works of faith and labors of love and steadfastness of hope in Jesus spread far and wide. As Paul tells them, “The word of the Lord has sounded forth from you in every place your faith in God has become known.”
Through the way they were living their lives, the Thessalonians were showing the world who Jesus was by the way they were following him—by doing their best to be like him—to be people of faith, hope, and love in all that they did.
They were singing a new song of praise and joy, blessing the Lord and declaring the good news of God’s salvation, available to all who chose to listen.
And now, over two thousand years later, we also try to follow Jesus by serving God and doing works of faith and labors of love. We try to be steadfast in our hope that God’s kingdom will come on this earth.
It’s our turn to sing to the Lord a new song, to sing out to God and to bless God’s name and proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.
“I can’t sing,” you may be telling yourself. Yes, you can! The Holy Spirit can work through you, helping you to work continually to be the person God wants you to be.
Your life is your song.
When you live your life actively trying to be more and more like Jesus every day, you are singing that new song, and showing forth God’s glory and God’s wonders in this world.
Recently, Brad sent me an essay by Garrison Keillor. I was delighted, for I’ve missed Keillor’s wry humor, his gentle way of poking fun at the things we hold dear while he gets to the heart of whatever he’s writing about.
Keillor attends St John the Evangelist Episcopal Church in St Paul, MN. The essay Brad sent me is Keillor’s take on being Episcopalian.
The first sentence had me laughing.
“We make fun of Episcopalians for their blandness, their excessive calm, their fear of giving offense, their lack of speed and also for their secret fondness for macaroni and cheese.”
And this. “Episcopalians follow the official liturgy during the service and feel it is their way of suffering for their sins.”
He points out that Episcopalians like to sing, except when confronted with a new hymn or a hymn with more than four stanzas.
But then he goes on to say that “nobody sings like us,” including this example as evidence.
Keillor says that “It’s natural for Episcopalians to sing in harmony. We are too modest to be soloists, too worldly to sing in unison… By our joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other.”
And then he says this. “I do believe this, people: Episcopalians, who love to sing in four-part harmony, are the sort of people you could call up when you’re in deep distress. If you are dying, they will comfort you. If you are lonely, they’ll talk to you. And if you are hungry, they’ll give you tuna salad!”
As funny as all of this is, Keillor strikes a deep chord of truth. “By joining in harmony, we somehow promise that we will not forsake each other.”
Singing weaves us together, reaches deep into our souls, helps us to feel our emotions deeply and share them, and then to lift up all that is in our hearts up to God.
And music, when we share it, can bind us together despite our differences. Even if we don’t know the language of the words in a song, the music itself explains and pulls us in. As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “Music is the universal language of mankind.”
Melodies weave themselves through scripture. The earliest known song in the Bible is the one that Moses, Miriam and Aaron sang in celebration after crossing the Red Sea and escaping the Egyptians—“The horse and the rider he has thrown into the sea!”
King David and the elders of Israel, singing and dancing, and shouting to the sound of the horn, trumpets and cymbals, and making loud noise on harps and lyres, bring the the ark of the covenant into Jerusalem.
And it was on that same day that the ark was brought into Jerusalem that David first appointed people to be responsible for the singing of praises to the Lord—and the song that he sang that day followed very closely the words of today’s Psalm, Psalm 95.
“Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the whole earth!”
And so the psalms were born and became the hymn book of the Israelites. The psalms continue to be an essential part of our Christian worship today.
Every Sunday when I open the altar book with the words of the Eucharistic prayer that we will pray together, I say to myself, “This is the greatest story ever told,” the story of the salvation that God offers to us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, a story that can, if we truly hear it, call us to follow Jesus more faithfully day by day.
But we could also think of Jesus’ life as the greatest song ever sung, the song that reaches deep into our souls, touches our hearts, heals our sorrows, a haunting and poignant melody that draws us to follow, because we want to hear that song of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection over and over again.
In today’s gospel, Jesus sings a new song to the hypocrites who wish to trap him. They are living in an old world of fear, and they have a death grip on the power that they don’t want to lose.
They ask Jesus about whether or not it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor. At Jesus’ request, they bring him a coin with the emperor’s head on it.
As Jesus holds that denarius in his hand, he is holding the old world, the world that we live in right now, a world full of things that want to rule our lives—our dependence on ourselves rather than God, our mistaken belief that material things can make us happy or even save us from suffering, our mistaken belief that any power systems of the day can save us, that walls can keep others out and keep us safe within—Jesus was holding all of that, the old misleading song, in his hand when he held that coin.
The things of the old world buy our silence. When we hold onto the coins of the old world, we tend to become complicit with the powers that be. We frequently stay silent rather than to speak out for justice—it’s easier to keep quiet, go the way of the world rather than to risk losing all we think we’ve gained. Sometimes, it’s just easier to keep our mouths shut and not to sing the new song that God wants us to sing. Silence seems safe.
But Jesus asks us to give up our silence, and to sing the new song, the song of letting go, giving our lives and all we have to God, so that we can sing about faith, about hope and most of all about love, God’s love for us and for all that God has made.
I have wondered what I, as a Christian, can do in this latest awful situation in the Middle East. Fourteen of us gathered to pray on Tuesday, in solidarity with others praying around the world. Our prayers of lament help us to sing a new song of hope even as we despair.
Our songs can’t continue to be bland and calm. Jesus asks us to sing a passionate love song to the world. Now is the time for us to weave our new song full of the harmonies of love, justice, and mercy and the reign of God to come into the cries of hatred and violence and discord reaching up to heaven. Jesus asks us to sing our resurrection song for all to hear.
To borrow a phrase from James Weldon Johnson, “Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring” with the new song of God’s life giving salvation, for everyone who dares to join in the song.