Subway Prophet

…and the words of the prophets were written on the subway walls…


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Singing a New Song

(This sermon was preached at Memorial UMC in Fernandina Beach on 6-19-16. The text below is the preaching manuscript. The above audio was recorded during the 9:30am service.)

Psalm 40 is one of my favorite psalms in the psalter. The images are rich and beautiful, the trust and assurance of God’s faithfulness and redemption has lifted my spirits on multiple occasions in my life. The fact that it is the basis for one of my favorite U2 songs also does not hurt as well.

When the album War came out in 1982 it would become U2’s breakthrough album. Rolling Stone ranked it 223 in the top 500 albums of all time. “War” marked a shift for the Irish rock band from just making music that just entertained to making music that entertained with a message.  At the end of the album, “40” serves as a benediction of sorts. According to the lead singer, Bono, they needed one final song for the album, but their studio time was almost over and another band was coming in. So he pulled out his Bible, and wrote the song in 10 minutes, the band spent 10 minutes recording it, 10 minutes mixing it, and then listened to it for another 10. However, that has nothing to do with why it is called 40. It is rare to see a rock band use the text of Scripture for their lyrics, however, the verses about patient hope, and then the invitation we have to sing a new song draw the listener from protesting violence to actually working to build a more peaceful world.

The realities of violence and fear are just as real today as they were in the 80s and over 2,000 years ago when the psalms were originally written.

Last week as the details about the shooting in Orlando trickled in during worship, I will admit that I was at a loss for words to say or prayers to pray. The tragedy in Orlando lies at the intersection of many of the fault lines in our society. It happened at a gay club with most of the victims being members of the LGBT community. The shooter used legally purchased weapons and ammunition. And, the attacker claimed affiliation with ISIS. Sexuality, gun control, terrorism. None of these are easy ideas, but this is not a sermon about any of these hot button topics. They are important debates and faithful Christians need to talk about them in faithful ways, but not today. When confronted with tragedy, it is often our human tendency to pull away from the pain and try to fix the problem.

If we just had better laws, a more open society, or less open borders then maybe we could keep these bad things from happening. Unfortunately, none of these things are really true. We live in a violent world. Evil and brokenness are realities that cannot be eliminated by legislation, they will not go away by sheer force of human will, The only way in which evil, brokenness and even death itself is conquered is through the power of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

But where does that leave us with Psalm 40? In trying to find meaning in the murders in Orlando, I believe that it is significant that Psalm 40 does not begin with the problems he is surrounded with. Instead, the psalm remembers the faithfulness of God in the terrifying events of his past.  The psalmist tells us how God brought him out of the pit of despair and set his feet upon solid rock. In the midst of a crisis and tragedy, God did not leave him alone, but instead brought him through it.

It is often difficult to see God in the midst of a crisis. This is why memory is so important. In remembering God’s saving work in the past, the psalmist renews his trust that God will be faithful this time around as well. If we look back in our recent history, the deaths at the Pulse night club come in a complicated context. While it is one of the most deadly shootings in recent history, it was by no means an isolated event. Last year we saw 9 men and women die in a Charleston, SC church and 14 people die in San Bernardino, CA at the local Health Department. In 2012, 20 children and 6 teachers were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary school, and 12 people died in a movie theater in Aurora, CO. And that is to only name the shootings that got the most media attention in the past few years.

For the LGBT community the massacre is in a different context. According to the FBI, the LGBT community have become the most likely targets of hate crimes in recent years. For a group of people who are frequently targets for bullying, abuse, and violence, this shooting is a further reminder of how dangerous our society still is for them.

Throughout this history, however there are also examples of God breaking through the violence. Last week, Carrie Mac on our staff posted a quote from Mr. Rogers that is a good example of this. “When I was a boy, and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” What a great testament to God’s work in the midst of crisis. In the wake of the attack in Charleston, the church’s public forgiveness of their attacker was a powerful witness of the radical Good News of Jesus Christ. All too often these new songs of hope are drowned out by the old familiar verses of political partisanship, nationalism, racism, islamophobia, and fear.

Psalm 40:4 says that “Happy are those who make the Lord their trust/who do not turn to the proud/to those who go astray after false gods.” I believe that our beliefs and opinions can all too easily become for us false gods and idols. We put our trust in them to help us understand the world around us and how we can change that world to get what we want. Our trust needs to be in God and God alone.

When we trust in God, we need to have ears to hear the song God is directing for us. Verse 6 says “you have given me an open ear.” The Hebrew here is literally, “you have given me the ears you have dug for me.” I love this image of God digging out the dirt and junk which keeps us from being able to hear God’s voice and sing God’s song. Once we have cleaned out all of those false voices calling us against each other we can begin to sing the new song God is giving to us.

We need these new songs to sing. Songs that bring us together rather than fracture us into pieces. We need songs that inspire us to love each other and listen to each others’ stories. We need new songs that describe God’s presence in the midst of suffering. In the past week there have been the beginnings of those sorts of songs. Prayer vigils across the country stood in solidarity and support with the victims. At Annual Conference this week, we held a vigil Thursday evening to pray for each of the victims and their families. It was a powerful and moving service, and I am proud to say one of many provided by Methodist churches around Orlando.

One of the most surprising stories, for me from the attacks, however is the Chick-fil-a store that opened its doors that Sunday to feed people who were in line to donate blood for the victims. As I imagine most of you remember, Chick-fil-a and the LGBT community were pretty hostile to each other several years ago over the company’s statements about their traditional views on marriage and their donations to conservative organizations. Last Sunday, Chick-fil-a did not change their opinions. They remain a conservative company with traditional views on marriage, however, they lived out their Christian values in a powerful way. Seeing a group of people who suffering and in need of support they used the tools at their disposal to offer grace and love through delicious chicken and fries. This is a new song being sung. It is a song of God showing up in the midst of tragedy and bringing forth life, hope, and the promise of a better future.

God does not cause tragedies. God does not inspire mass murder, hate, or violence. If your reading of the gospels causes you to hate another person, or to celebrate in their suffering then you are reading them wrong. God is on the side of the oppressed, the marginalized and the overlooked trying to make sure that justice occurs. God’s love extends to everyone. And I mean everyone. God did not put the psalmist into the pit, but instead brought him out of harms way so that the psalmist could proclaim God’s goodness and faithfulness in times of crisis. God did not desire that the 49 victims in Orlando would die. Instead, our God mourns with those who mourn and weeps with those who weep and our God moves in such a way that light can shine through the darkness and hope can surpass the grief.

It is the light and hope that God brings into our despair which gives rise to the song we are given to sing. Like the psalmist, we are commanded to sing the song God has given to us everywhere we go. In our work and our play, in the street corners and all over town. In this world where death and tragedy fill our lives and despair can lurk around every corner, we are called to sing a new song. It is a song of hope because of God’s faithfulness. It is a song of trust in God’s goodness. It is a song of grace and forgiveness because of what God has done in Jesus.

The song we are called to sing is one that welcomes everyone to sing its chorus. One of my favorite parts of the U2’s 40 is the way they perform it in concert. It sits at the end of their set and after it is done, one by one they leave the stage until it is just the audience singing together the refrain, “how long, to sing this song?” Here are thousands of people, most of whom are probably not Christians, singing along to a song of our faith.

When we hear the new song that God is giving to us, and sing it out at the top of our lungs, we are called to invite others to sing along with us. We are called to draw others out of their darkness, and into God’s beautiful light. So how long to sing this song? We are called to sing the new songs of our God until the darkness has been eliminated by God’s light, until the evil and hate of the world have been transformed by God’s all-powerful love, and until all of God’s children have joined in the chorus. Will you join the song? How long, to sing this song.

 

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For All the Saints.

I remember distinctly the day I fell in love with tradition and liturgy. It was All Saints day, 2007 at Trinity UMC in Gainesville, FL. For as long as I can remember my church has had the tradition where the last Sunday in October we remember all those who died the following year by showing their picture and ringing a bell. If you knew the person, as the bell is rung, you silently stand in honor of them and their connection to your life. In 2007 I had only stood up a couple of times, and almost stood up a few others, but in general had not thought very much of it.

In 2007, our church lost a young man named Chris Neiberger. He was about my age, we had been in the same Boy Scout troop for a few years, and I had seen his family a bit around church. We had never hung out, and would not have put his name on a list of friends. Chris was an Infantryman in Iraq and died after an IED explosion in Baghdad. His death struck me in a very strange way. It is the first time  I personally knew someone who had died in war, and brought the US war efforts home to me. I had not been able to make his service because of school, however, on that All Saints Sunday as his name was called, I stood. In that little action, standing next to my parents, we honored his memory, a life well lived, and a deep and generous faith. I realized in that moment the power of liturgy and tradition which allow us to make sense of the world around us. What was for many people just a yearly tradition became for me the language I needed to articulate something deep within myself that I could not have otherwise.

As I thought about All Saints Sunday today, I remembered my grandmother who died last December. Yesterday at my church, her picture was shown and a bell was rung, but I could not stand. As much as I wish I could have been there to participate with my family and my church family, the liturgy and tradition which gave me comfort in honoring Chris’ death also gives me the comfort for Granny’s as well. That is the other power in traditions, they are consistent. It does not need me to be there for it to happen because those things are not for me in the first place. The bells are rung whether anyone stands or not because as Christians we stop belonging just to our families and friends; we join a family of believers most of whom we will never meet. Most of my church never met my grandmother. But yesterday they saw her picture, heard her bell, and remembered her for me. That gives me comfort.

Today I attended the funeral of a woman named Mildred. She died right before I began working with North Road and so I never got the chance to meet her though I had met her daughter, a church member, several times. She told me that her mom, who was the child of a methodist minister, would have wanted me there–that is just who she was. It is an odd thing to attend a funeral for a stranger. But, at the same time, there is something very affirming and Christian about it. Since the beginnings of the Church, we have been a people who remembered our dead and the eternal hope which Christ offers to us, so that even though we die, will be given a new life in Him. Christian funerals (and Christian lives) proclaim this hope and celebrate it. It was an honor to be there for Mildred’s service and I was encouraged by the testimony given about her life.

As we enter into the end of the Church’s calendar and prepare to celebrate All Saints’ Day, let us remember those people we have lost who are closest to us, and those we lost and yet never knew:

For all the saints, who from their labours rest,
Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,
Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, Alleluia!