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The Church in Song

June 23, 2017

A Sermon preached by The Rev. Jeffrey A. Geary at the White Plains Presbyterian Church celebrating “The Church in Song,” June 18, 2017

Psalm 100       1 Thessalonians 5:12-24

In her sermon last week, the Rev. Lynn talked to us about stories; in particular, the way stories give orientation and meaning to our individual lives and our life together. And she talked about how in worship, and through Scripture, our many different stories can be caught up in the great story of God in Christ working the redemption of all creation. It’s one of the reasons we come together each Sunday, to be caught up into something larger that moves us to both work and worship.

Just how important this is was driven home to me later in the week. On Tuesday Naomi Klein released a new book for our time. It is called No Is Not Enough: Resisting Trump’s Shock Politics and Winning the World We Need. In the first half of the book Klein describes ‘the shock doctrine’: how repressive political movements and corporations take advantage of our experience of shock and disorientation to push through social policies that would never stand a chance of being adopted democratically. Shock and disorientation can come through natural disasters, climate disruption, industrial failure, terror attacks, financial collapse, and war. As she puts it,

We don’t go into a state of shock when something big and bad happens; it has to be something big and bad that we do not yet understand. A state of shock is what results when a gap opens up between events and our initial ability to explain them. When we find ourselves in that position, WITHOUT A STORY, without our moorings, a great many people become vulnerable to authority figures telling us to fear one another and relinquish our rights for the greater good. (p. 7, emphasis added)

The only way to resist this, she writes, is to first understand how these shock politics work, and whose interest they serves, and then to tell a better story. Klein’s book tells a story about the global, branded, corporate takeover of our democratic institutions, and narrates an alternative path to a better world.

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Lynn asked us what stories we are telling right now. She said something like “story is that which you cannot not tell.”

And stories take different forms – not all stories are simply narratives of speaking or writing. When words meet music a thicker texture of meaning emerges – one that anchors the words in our memory, one that helps us pay closer attention to the words themselves through accenting or elongating syllables, one that sets a tone for the words of mystery or triumph, of inquiry or solace.

Throughout history, songs have helped cement the identities of peoples. Before it was known as a great text, the Iliad was a song. Before Psalms like the one we read together this morning were texts, they were call and response melodies; sung prayers that knit believers together and opened a wellspring of emotions that captured human experience of the divine. Sometimes insightful texts are made more memorable, like when Sweet Honey in the Rock transformed Kahlil Gibran’s passage from the Prophet “On Children” into a singable pneumonic of care.

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When we human beings become frightened, one way we calm ourselves, is to sing. We may hum, we may sing a phrase over and over, we may tap into a lullaby from childhood. And sometimes the best pastoral care comes through song.

Here I told a story about a person well known to the congregation who had a health crisis and was accompanied to the hospital by a person she had just met. It was a very scary situation. Through a series of stressful tests, the companion sang to her, including all the way through a forty-five minute MRI, transforming an experience of being scared into an experience of sacred blessing.

When has song moved you from scared to sacred? Who has sung the faith to you when you could not find your voice? What melodies and lyrics sustain you – in times of trouble? What songs give you courage to face that from which otherwise you might shrink? Perhaps it’s something personal or perhaps too you have found that empowerment when singing out at a time when you were standing up publicly for what you thought was right.

If we are not to succumb to what Naomi Klein has termed shock politics, if we are to maintain our moorings against attempts to manipulate us in our fear, we must nourish our singing as well as our speaking. And our church’s hymnal is a repository of strength that we can carry with us on the way – whether we are facing a health crisis or a political crisis, whether we are in the solitude of our own reflection or the multitude of a community seeking a way forward, the hymns of our faith are gifts to us.

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So today as we sing I invite you to learn some of these lyrics and melodies by heart. Let them nest within you, that they may be a well-spring for you in good times and hard. Let us teach them to our children that they may build a repertoire of faith that will reside within them no matter where life may lead. And do not worry whether you can carry a tune. All God cares about is that you make a “joyful noise!” So

Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth.
     Worship our God with gladness;
     come into God’s presence with singing…

For God is good;
     God’s steadfast love endures forever,
     and God’s faithfulness to all generations.

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