Texts: Micah 6:6-8, Psalm 33, Colossians 3:12-17
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as Christ has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in your richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God through him.
“Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs”–biblical scholars have long puzzled over this trio of terms. Some commentators have suggested that they name different types and that one of the distinguishing factor might be their age. Psalms, of course, had been around for centuries. Hymns might have been the songs of the new faith, which were already known well enough to be referred to in various New Testament writings. Spiritual songs were in some way more immediate–perhaps of the sort that “God gave me this song last night.”
I’m skeptical of this understanding. Given that the early church had a shortage of hymnologists, I don’t think we can assume that the writer was identifying discrete and exclusive categories. The use of multiple terms does suggest, however, that there might be variety. But, since musicologists were also in short supply, I don’t think the variety intended is primarily musical, but functional.
How do we apply this insight? Well, in an approach to scripture that is typically Baptist, we argue about what is obscure (the spiritual songs); we take for granted what seems apparent (the hymns, which is to say, the doctrinal songs); and we ignore what is perfectly plain (sing the Psalms!).
Well, let’s back up in the passage a bit. Some things seem self-evident. Christians sing. Especially, Baptist Christians sing. Like much that seems self-evident, this truism has survived a contentious history. At various times over the life of the church, including among early Baptists, there were disputes about whether “making melody in your hearts” was to be understood only metaphorically or if it might actually involve using your larynx and mouth. Fortunately, our forebear Benjamin Keach was successful in his argument that singing was not merely permissible but, as he argued, an ordinance of Jesus Christ for the church.
A more important part of the Colossians passage describes how we should approach singing: “with gratitude in your hearts.” Just before this long and complex sentence is a short and direct one: “And be thankful.” Following is the admonition that whatever we do “in word or deed” should be in the name of Christ, “giving thanks to God.” Thankfulness is a responsive virtue that recognizes God’s gracious generosity. And what does that have to do with such things as justice and mercy and humility? As McNeill Poteat wrote in his commentary on Psalm 50: “There is a deeply laid relationship between the honest experience and expression of thanksgiving and genuine righteousness.”
The Colossians passage is grounded in baptismal imagery. The verses before describe what we are to take off, to be done with. These tell us what to put on, what to show the world, beginning in the church, every day: “compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.”
What does it take to live together, to worship together, to sing together? The forgiveness that enables mutuality. At issue is not primarily the song, not essentially the singing, but the attitude with which we respond to God and encounter one another. The church’s song is not a performance but a spiritual exercise. This kind of singing is an integral and integrative aspect of the wholeness of the Christian community.
Above all, we must put on love, which holds it all together–which holds us all together. Even in the Christian community, if the motivation is not love, virtuous things can become destructive. The illustrations for that point, both in history and in the contemporary church, are numberless. We dress the outside not to hide what is within, but to display what lies at the heart.
Ah, but we do sing, and we should sing. Why? One reason is the power of singing to convey and retain belief. Our singing both forms and informs our faith. Our song characterizes us.
There is another reason. You see, my day job is teaching people to sing. And I know that singing, done well, takes the whole person.
Singing expresses will and intent: it includes the heart.
Singing engages the depths of being: it involves the soul.
Singing employs mental alertness and perception: it requires the mind.
Singing exerts physical energy: it demands strength.
Singing is a powerfully integrative act. It can help us practice the integrity of worship and witness that is a recurrent theme throughout the scriptures.
There is, of course, the reason given by Austin Lovelace. Austin, who recently turned 90, is a gift of North Carolina Baptists to the music of the larger church. He says: “If God gave you a good voice, use it to praise God. If God gave you a bad voice, use it to get even!”
In my typically contrarian way, I decided to choose an old song for today. I went to that most ancient of hymn books in our tradition, the Psalms, and turned to number 33. And what does it say, but “sing a new song.”
Of course, it’s not the only one in that collection with this admonition. Psalms 96 and 98–songs that describe both singing and justice on a cosmic scale–are better known. I selected Psalm 33 with the good folk of Pullen in mind, for it links the new song with beliefs that I know you cherish–and that I cherish you for holding.
Hear what this old song proclaims:
The righteous are invited to sing joyfully. Recall that in the Psalms “righteous” most often means not a moral standard but an awareness of ultimate dependence on God. That makes it worth hearing McNeill Poteat’s insight again: “There is a deeply laid relationship between the honest experience and expression of thanksgiving and genuine righteousness.” As a more recent commentator, Clinton McCann, observed: “Praise is appropriate to those who acknowledge their dependence on God, for praise is essentially the offering of the self to God, including one’s musical gifts.”
What does this psalm sing about? God’s goodness, God’s faithfulness, God’s love of righteousness and justice. “The earth is full of the steadfast love of God.”
God is creator of this world, of all worlds, of all creatures in all worlds.
God is not thwarted by the apparently powerful. God is more powerful than any king, any warrior, any horse (be that horse nuclear, chemical, biological, or disguised by stealth).
God chooses peoples; they do not appropriate God for themselves. Rather, by their living–and, yes, by their singing–they seek to emulate God and carry out God’s will for creation.
Finally, it is a song of hope. Like Shirley Murray’s hymn for your anniversary, it proclaims hope, not because we are somehow vaguely hopeful, but because we glimpse the world that God is creating and “raise up new hope for all.”
When we consider the Psalms, it’s hard to improve on Walter Brueggemann. This is his take on the matter at hand: “The empire tries to silence the doxology, because where praise is stopped, Yahweh is not so formidable and Israel not so open to a different future. Israel’s testimony, however, is that doxology cannot for long be silenced. The song breaks out in newness because Yahweh’s power for life will not be contained. Israel sings freely because God acts freely.”
How do we sing an old song “newly”? By investing our whole selves and the richness of renewal that comes from our realization that God is making all things new. When anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation–not merely a new person. As hymnwriter Brian Wren has put it, “the oldest thing we know about God is that God is always doing new things.”
And so we are glad–we are grateful–for those who have the craft of creating new song. That is one of God’s good gifts to this congregation. Through your century and a quarter, you have been unusually gifted with those who can write texts and music. And you have sought the best from outside these walls.
Paul Westermeyer says that good hymn texts “are neither nursery rhymes nor sonnets. They have to be sufficiently apparent initially so that assemblies of believers can perceive their meaning in such a way that they might say, ‘That’s exactly what I wanted to say, but I couldn’t find the words.’ Yet they have to encompass levels of meaning, which only become apparent on repeated singing.”
Like many other arts, hymn writing is easy to do poorly but difficult to do well. Shirley Murray, who does it very well, also has a fine sense of humor about her craft:
The hymn writer’s task takes temerity,
sincerity shot with dexterity.
Prepare for some pruning
and endless re-tuning
before you are sung by posterity.
(And I would observe that there aren’t many limericks that can be quoted in homilies!)
This congregation has sung new songs because it has needed them to comprehend the searches and the discoveries of its faith. You have found new wineskins for the new wine.
I urge you to keep singing, as an embodiment of what is most fully and wholly human. I encourage you to sing new songs–and old songs newly–that proclaim and respond to fresh encounters with God. I commend you for creating and commissioning new expressions of faith, in the life that you sing and the song that you live.
And I am grateful and privileged to join with you today,
as you sing justice, as you sing mercy, as you sing humbly with God.
May God, the Creator and Composer,
live in you a song that sings justice;
May God, the Word and the Music,
live in you a song that sings mercy;
May God the Breath of Song and the Breath of Life,
live in you a song that sings humility and community.
May the song in your own voice be the song of God’s own voice, (Murray)
a love song, a valentine, (Wren)
wide as the world and broad as humankind; (Poteat)
that as we follow God’s faithful people in this place, (Murray)
and join with witnesses of all times and places,
we may raise up new hope for all who are to come. (Murray)
Edwin McNeill Poteat. Exposition of Psalms 42-89. The Interpreter’s Bible.
J. Clinton McCann. Psalms. New Interpreter’s Bible.
Walter Brueggemann. Israel’s Praise: Doxology against Idolatry and Ideology (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988).
Paul Westermeyer. Rise, O Church: Reflections on the Church, Its Music, and Empire (St. Louis: MorningStar Music Publishers, 2008)