The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph
Plymouth Congregational Church UCC of Fort Collins, CO
Noise, Gladness, Singing OR EveryDay Miracles (EDM)
Will you pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be good and pleasing to you, O God, our rock, sometimes our rock band soundtrack, and our redeemer. Amen.
One of my favorite parts of attending a Methodist divinity program was the weekly chapel service: the noise, the singing, and the gladness of it all! Now, I was lucky because when I was at Emory it was a high point for that seminary as a place of music and noise. At that time, one of the heads of liturgy and music was Professor Don Saliers. Some of you may know of his daughter Emily, principle member of the Indigo Girls, who would sometimes appear in chapel as a surprise soloist! What made Emory’s chapel services great wasn’t only Rev. Dr. Saliers, Emily Saliers, or even the fact that every other seminarian (except for me) actually could sing really well, but that everyone sang with reckless abandon, conviction, and NOISE! This might have had more to do with Emory being a southern seminary more than a UMC seminary.
It was at my first chapel service that I discovered perhaps some of the theological rationale for this robust singing when I opened to the first pages of the red UMC hymnal and discovered John Wesley’s “Directions for Singing,” (which would be my reading during many a sermon for the next three years), and I have never been quite the same again. How many of you know what I am talking about? There are seven rules in total, and they vary from rules about singing in tune to keeping time and rhythm (basically… pay attention) to others about not turning yourself into a soloist in the midst of a congregational song, but by far my favorite two rules are numbers 3 and 4, which are as follows:
3. Sing All – see that you join the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.
4. Sing Lustily – and with good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half-dead or half-asleep; but lift up your voice with strength. Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sang the songs of Satan.
Setting aside that last part about the songs of Satan, John Wesley has a point! What are we so scared of? Is it the judgment of the person next to us? Is it the judgment of the music director? I promise Mark is nice guy. Is it the judgment of the choir? No, it is usually a lack of confidence in ourselves. Sing with good courage, Plymouth! What I love about what the Methodists have in the front of every hymnal is the reminder of what worship is all about. It is about not being dead (amen/praise God)! It is about being fully alive, embodied, and awake to what God is doing moving in our midst.
As Hal said last week in his sermon, quoting Irenaeus, “The glory of God is in a human being fully alive,” or as Wesley would say… please don’t sing as if you were half dead! Live life abundantly in each moment, especially when we are gathered in worship to praise God. Today’s Psalm is a classic and archetypical “Psalm of Praise!” This is the type of song, I see through reading the national news, that is most difficult for the UCC these days, and it is why we need to talk about it. We cannot because the denomination that only knows lament. Nobody want to join into that.
That is exactly what is happening today with Psalm 100, friends. This is a Psalm, a hymn, and a concert of praise at its very best: noise, gladness, and singing.
Scholars often describe the Psalms as ancient “hymns.” This gives us the unfortunate and false parallel to conveniently and comfortably think that the Psalms were used in a context that looked much like Plymouth. When we quietly sing Psalms or hymns, we feel like we are engaging the ancient. For my generation, and I bemoan this fact because I love hymns, the word hymn is often associated instinctively with something quiet, mumbled, spoken at memorial services and staid and quiet and sad. [Sing slowly while stomping foot in slow rhythm in the pulpit] “I went to the garden alone… while the dew was still on the roses”, and by the time the dew is on the roses you are asleep.
There is no passion, no noise, certainly no praise… and no heart in the word hymn anymore. Now before you jump to conclusions or stop listening, this doesn’t mean we should stop singing hymns (I love them), but we need to reclaim the passion of the Psalmist and bring back the fractured parts of our lives. The Sacred (on Sunday) and the Embodied (the rest of the week) should not be mutually exclusive.
100:1 Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth.
100:2 Worship the LORD with gladness; come into his presence with singing.
100:3 Know that the LORD is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.
100:4 Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, bless his name.
100:5 For the LORD is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations. [even the millennial]
Do we believe this radical statement about the universe and its meaning, church? Or is it just something we say at funerals and in bereavement seminars, church?
Verse 1: The word in Hebrew translated as, “Make a joyful noise,” is used 42 times in the Hebrew Bible. It is translated often as “shout, cry, scream, vocalize, raise a sound, give a blast…have a blast!” We are talking about embodied experience of being Christian not just acting like it on Sunday… and praising a God, a creator, beloved, giver, lover, essence, breath, sustainer, redeemer, healer.
It is completely in line with our Mission Statement here at Plymouth: “It is our mission to worship God [praise God] and help make God’s realm visible in the lives of people, individually and collectively, especially as it is set forth in the life, teachings, death, and living presence of Jesus Christ.”
The Psalms, in their ancient context, would have been used in the cultic, ritual, communal ceremonies and parties of the time that looked very little like our Sunday morning worship. In fact, they would have felt more like Red Rocks Concerts complete with the smoke effects coming from the offerings. Unlike today where we have created an artificial boundary between “high, church, sacred culture” on one hand and “low/ popular/ worldly culture” (a 19th Century Victorian distinction and construct we are still enduring today)—our lives lived on Sunday mornings on one hand and our lives lived singing at the top of our lungs in our cars on the highway on the other hand is false. It makes praise from the gut difficult or awkward. It is this artificial line and compartmentalization (in French Cartesian) that is killing the mainline churches. The worship settings where the Psalms were used were the concerts, the center, the pilgrimage, and the collective hope and aspiration settings—not ethical historical lectures.
Not only do we keep our church to ourselves proudly as Fort Collins’ “best kept secret,” but we also sometimes keep our passion for life and living and thereby our overwhelming praise for a God who makes all things possible a secret from ourselves…on Sundays.
This being the Sunday when Thanksgiving is now past, I want to ask a question. How many of you married, partnered, or have dated people whose families have different Thanksgiving traditions from your own? A ham instead of a turkey or perhaps lasagna? Vegetarian? Pickled watermelon? Stuffing vs. dressing in or outside of the turkey? Should Thanksgiving “dinner” be at lunchtime, midafternoon, or during the normal supper hour at night? Compromise and learning is a big part of being married. Amen? Aside from thanksgiving, this can also happen with music taste. While I am sort of a bluegrass guy, my husband is very much a fan of something called Electronic Dance Music or EDM. This is not a kind of music I have ever had a lot of tolerance for, but it matters a lot to him, so he will come with me to bluegrass concerts and folk music events… and I will go with him to his concerts. I do have a secret weapon though—these are earplugs [show congregation bag of earplugs used for concerts], because I need to hear you for my profession…even if I don’t always want to.
Aside from learning to appreciate a genre outside of my comfort zone, I have also learned something else. My generation has a lot of heart but not a lot of patience for BS! We are good, naturally connected to one another in some obstinate quiet hope. I have witnessed at Red Rocks 1000’s of young adults my age, many your doctors and lawyers and ministers (or soon will be), singing together. The lyrics are often about life, love, meaning, and even heaven. “Don’t forget about a thing called love.” “In your love I’ve built a home.” “We are all we need.” "On my way to heaven.” Like a spy in enemy territory who learns to love, I have witnessed that we in the church are trying to ignore what has happened for too long—cultural surgery of heart and soul, soul and mind, body and essence. We have forgotten, especially in the UCC, the language of praise in the midst of our lament for a world and a realm that we can’t control with even the best intellect. There is so much need for crying out together in joy and passion in this universe.
Radiohead, Jimi Hendrix, The Beatles, Daft Punk, The Colorado Symphony Orchestra, The Grateful Dead, John Denver, U2, Metallica, Rodrigo y Gabriella, Above and Beyond, Pretty Lights, Brandi Carlile, X Ambassadors can be messengers of good and have all played Red Rocks over the years. I think that Red Rocks might be the cultic center of Colorado that Psalm 100 refers to—it binds this place together in ways the churches haven’t managed to do yet.
But there is hope for the church yet to reclaim praise. I see evidence of it still:
When you are at Presbyterian gathering (General Assembly, etc.) and someone comes marching in with bagpipes—the frozen chosen… melt… and are suddenly transformed into embodied praises of God’s goodness over the hills and valleys of Scottish embodied, collective memory.
When you are at Plymouth on Easter morning and we get to the Halleluiah Chorus, we are all moved in the same way, choked-up, spirit-overcome that George the II of England was during its first performance when he was called to stand!
At Worship 3.0 [Sunday evenings] at Plymouth when we sing with passion the songs of Iona or Taizé, releasing our worry and looking up to heaven and singing the Celtic and ancient repetitions.
On this Christmas Eve, when we will sing in darkness… “Silent Night…[PAUSE] Holy Night [PAUSE]”—you know the feeling, right?
We don’t need to imitate the Evangelicals (some of the best and most embodied worship praise I have ever experienced have been Episcopal services) and change anything about our worship service to get there—we just need to remember our mission statement and the intent of the hymns and the Psalms and the call to sing as if we are indeed alive. We should bring our car singing, poetry reading, improve workshop, beer garden, rock concerts, conversations selves… whole selves to worship.
[Minister leaves pulpit and goes to the middle of the congregation asking everyone to please rise, as they are able and willing. Everyone stand looking to the middle, close eyes, singing together at full voice Amazing Grace verses 1, 2, and 3.]
Now, that was Thanksgiving! Amen!
 All of these are part of the Above and Beyond (http://www.aboveandbeyond.nu/about) label. Above and Beyond is a radio show and a collection of DJ’s in the EDM genre. All of this is new to me, and it is like learning a whole different language.
The Rev. Jake Miles Joseph ("just Jake"), Associate Minister, came to Plymouth in 2014 having served in the national setting of the UCC on the board of Justice & Witness Ministries, the Coalition for LGBT Concerns, and the Chairperson of the Council for Youth and Young Adult Ministries (CYYAM). Jake has a passion for ecumenical work and has worked in a wide variety of churches and traditions. Read more about him on our staff page.
Psalm 40.1-5, 9-10
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
August 13, 2017
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
1 I waited patiently for the LORD; [God] inclined to me and heard my cry.
2 [God] drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
3[God] put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.
4 Happy are those who make the LORD their trust,
who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.
5 You have multiplied, O LORD my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you.
Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.
9 I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O LORD.
10 I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.
Here in CO we don’t have too many miry bogs. Lots of rocks to climb, but not too many bogs. From my understanding of the Hebrew word translated here in Psalm 40:2 as “bog,” the Middle Eastern equivalent to a bog would be clay....more of a mud hole. Perhaps we can relate to that image better especially after our weather the last week or so. Perhaps we can relate to it given the state of our country and world, with violence and hatred erupting in VA in place of free speech and civil discourse, with our nation tense with the threats hurled between North Korea and the White House. We may feel more like we are stuck in quick sand this morning. Still I think we can relate on some level to the psalmist who was in a desolate pit, a miry bog.
There are a lot of bogs in Scotland. Between my sabbatical in 2009 and our pilgrimage this spring I have logged a lot of time bog walking. Bog walking is interesting and tricky as many of our Scotland pilgrims can tell you. The tricky part is that what may look like a solid piece of ground can suddenly sink you in squishy mud up to your shin.. The bog ground is springy, a verdant green of bog myrtle, covering hidden streams that make the squishy mud. One has to learn to move carefully, but also quickly and lightly between the tufts of solid ground. If you stay too long in one place you start to sink. Its not quick sand....you will not sink into oblivion. But you could momentarily lose a hiking boot. And as you seek to avoid the squishier places, bog walking does not happen in a straight line....sometimes you can follow winding sheep trails. Sometimes you have to blaze your own trail. There are no little cairns for rock set up to follow. Sound anything like life?
Yet in the midst of squish and winding trails there are beautiful wildflowers, wild yellow iris, bog cotton and tiny pink bog orchids, in the spring. Heather and gorse blooming purple and gold in the fall. The outcropping of grey rock and solid ground are welcome sites even if it takes a bit of effort and some high stepping to scale them. On the Isle of Iona they might be the foundations or remains of Neolithic forts or houses or a hermit’s cell. And there the bog can be the gateway to incredible views of the wild seas surrounding the islands of the inner and outer Hebrides leading you to the places saints prayed. Bog walking is beautiful but quite strenuous, even tedious at times. I have learned to love it. And it a metaphor for life.
I think the writer of Psalm 40 understood the metaphor I experience even if Middle Eastern bogs are different. The psalm begins with remembering how God has answered the psalmist’s pleas for help in the midst of troubles. I waited patiently and you drew me up from the desolate pit, the miry clay and set me on solid ground. Then the psalmist moves to thanksgiving and praise for that help. God has put a new song in her heart! And she pours forth praise about the wondrous deeds of God too numerous to count. She testifies, witnesses to God’s grace and mercy and deliverance in the presence of the great congregation! The curious part about this psalm is that if we were continue with it past the portion we read this morning we would discover that after this great song of praise, the psalmist returns to asking for God’s mercy. “Do not, O LORD, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever. For evils have encompassed me without number; my iniquities have overtaken me, until I cannot see; ... Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me; O LORD, make haste to help me.“
Life is like this....it moves from triumphant, exhilarating beauty to sinking into feelings of despair or overwhelm. We are walking along with energy and confidence. We feel close to God, walking in God’s ways. Then we are suddenly something changes and we are slogging through mud. And we wonder where God is! We go through life up hill and downhill, under sunny skies, then clouds and sometimes even pouring rain. We reach great heights and give thanks and praise. Then we are in the valley of the shadow again, in the miry bog, the desolate pit. We are moving along with ease and then suddenly the boggiest parts of humanity, the boggiest of our own souls present themselves. Still we affirm that life is a place of great beauty as well as uncertainty. I have found that to get to the best spots I often have to risk walking through a bog. Its always good to listen for God’s songs when you are feeling overwhelmed with the mud and twisting path.
While we were on the Isle of Iona this spring I took two bog hikes in one day. One early in the morning to following our archeologist guide to the site of a Neolithic fort. This one was finished in a downpour of thick Scottish rain. And the other was in the afternoon was a pilgrimage walk to St. Columba’s Bay, the legendary site of the saint’s first landing on the island. On this walk, we moved in and out of cloudiness...mostly in...we got lost a time or two and had to choose a new path. But we made it home together.
Being one of the leaders it was my job to keep spirits up when the way became rough. And to stop at times to introduce a moment of worship, prayer and some song. I had found on my sabbatical that walking rough terrain always seem to bring up a song in my head. Usually a prayer song....not always...sometimes a song from childhood....but often that was even a hymn. One of the songs I led the pilgrims to sing as we walked along was John Bell’s “Take, O Take Me as I am, Summon up what I might be, Set your seal upon my heart and live in me.” We often sing it more lyrically or meditatively in our 6 pm service. But it makes a great walking song, especially if you are trying to get home before the rain or in the midst of the rain or with wet squishy boots. “Take, O take me as I am, Summon up what I might be, Set your seal upon my heart and live in me.”
I like to think the psalmist would also delight in John’s song. It’s a song to get you through the toughest, darkest places. It can be sung in meditation or in defiance or in despair or in great wonder and joy. Like the psalmist’s song. “Draw me up from the pit of despair, from being stuck in the mud! Deliver me from evil and iniquity! Use me to proclaim your wondrous deeds and great mercy!” Both are songs for our times and our lives.
I asked you before the service began to pay particular attention to the words of the hymns this morning. Literally songs for this time of worship. I hope you ALWAYS pay attention to the words of the hymns because we choose them carefully to facilitate worship. They are always intended as God’s songs to lead us in whatever situation we find we are in midst of in life. But today the hymns we sing are some of Jieun’s favorites. I asked her to pick hymns and then I would find a scripture. Usually it works the other way around. Like the composer of Psalm 40 Jieun is leaving us with words of witness and testimony to God’s deliverance and grace for this “great congregation.” And I know they come from her heart of deep faith. Do you remember what we have sung?
“Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices; Who wondrous things have done....in whom this world rejoice....And keep us still in grace and guide us when perplexed and free us from all ills in this world and the next.” “All my hope on God is founded. Who else can my hope renew? Still through change and chance God guides me, only good and only true.” And in our last hymn, the one to come, a prayer for peace in these troubled times...”O day of peace that dimly shines through all our hopes and prayers and dreams, Guide us to justice , truth and love Delivered from our selfish schemes...Till by God’s grace our warring world shall see Christ’s promised reign of peace.”
Jieun has walked with Plymouth through the heights and depths of life....through mountaintop experiences and boggy mires. Joyfully and with great sensitivity she has offered musical testimony of God’s grace and love in our worship week after week. So as we part company, the best thanks we can give her is to continue to sing God’s songs, literally and figuratively, no matter where we find ourselves in life....one smooth paths or rough terrain. To testify to all we meet...in our own words, humble though they might be... of God’s saving grace, particularly the grace we know in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. To remember that “all our hope on God is founded” as “we gather together to ask God’s blessings, to give thanks and praise” and to pray for “Christ’s promised reign of peace.” To sing with the psalmist....”You have multiplied, O LORD our God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you. ... they [are] more than can be counted. We will not hide your saving help within our hearts. We will speak of your faithfulness, your steadfast love and your salvation to the great congregation of your beautiful, but hurting world!” Amen
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2017 and beyond. May be reprinted only with written permission of author.
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, Associate, Minister, is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. She is also the writer of sermon-stories.com, a lectionary-based story-commentary series. Learn more about Jane Ann here.