Sunday, May 29, 2016

A Song of Hope

Psalm 96: 1-4; Lamentations 3:21-25
May 29, 2016
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling IL
Christina Berry

We have two readings today, both from the Hebrew scriptures. Both are songs of hope.
Our first reading is a song of joy and praise for our great and glorious God: Psalm 96: 1-4

O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples. For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be revered above all gods.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

The second scripture selection is from the book of Lamentations. That’s an Old Testament book of only five chapters. It rarely shows up in worship, rarely gets preached. It is a book that is exactly what its name describes: a series of laments. The reading is from the middle of the book, and the basis for the hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness.”

(You can hear a great rendition of that song here:

Let’s listen for the poetry of lament and the song of hope in Lamentations 3:21-25:

But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope:
The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end;
they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
"The Lord is my portion," says my soul, "therefore I will hope in him."
The Lord is good to those who wait for him, to the soul that seeks him.

The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

God moves in mysterious ways, the saying goes.
Those of us who preach every Sunday sometimes discover that those mysterious ways accrue to our benefit, when we sit down to write a sermon. That happened this week. When I selected these scriptures for today, I did it thinking something like this, “Let’s see….May 29 is the Sunday of Memorial Weekend. That’s usually a low attendance Sunday – so many people traveling, so much going on. Maybe we can have a service with a lot of singing – lots of favorite hymns, maybe even more music than preaching. People like that. So I’ll pick some texts that lend themselves to a musical sort of Sunday.”

Psalm 96 was an obvious choice, and it was the Psalm in the Revised Common Lectionary for today. Lamentations 3 was less obvious, but more familiar than the rest of the book. But then I began to think about Memorial Day, and its importance in our collective lives.

In spite of the fact that Memorial Day originated as Decoration Day, a solemn remembrance of the war dead after the Civil War, it has become for many of us simply a day to cook out, a day to go to the lake, to have a picnic with the family. It seemed that some mention ought to be made of the observance. And here’s where the Holy Spirit got to work, I think, because these texts I chose are going to lead us there.

The opening words of Psalm 96 are a favorite among church musicians:“Sing to the Lord a NEW song!” We might quote the Psalm when we want to encourage church goers to learn some new music, to sing something other than all the familiar hymns. In reality, the ninety-sixth Psalm was an assertion of the need to sing even in the face of war and oppression. Singing praise to the glory and power of God above all other gods must have been hard for a people who had seen so much trouble – enslaved in Egypt, embattled in their homeland, exiled in Babylon.

Sing to the Lord a new song?
How can we sing the songs of Zion in a foreign land?
How do we declare the glory of God to the nations when we have been defeated in battle?
Because God is greatly to be praised, says the Psalm.
All the other gods are merely idols.
Not our God.
Our God is to be revered above all.

There’s a similar sort of turn in the reading from Lamentations. You don’t hear a lot of sermons from Lamentations. Because it is … lamentations. Most of us would rather not sing songs of lament. Maybe a new song, but not a new lament. The first two chapters of Lamentations are narrated by a poetic voice who is called “daughter Zion,” representing the Israelite people. The book begins with a mournful description of a devastated battleground:

“How lonely sits the city that once was full of people!... all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter. Her foes have become the masters, her enemies prosper, .. her children have gone away, captives before the foe….the enemy has prevailed.”

The second chapter continues in the voice of daughter Zion, the devastated princess, mourning her utter defeat. In the third chapter, the narrator’s voice changes. Instead of a grieving woman, it is the voice of strong man. It is the voice of a soldier. He, too, speaks of defeat and desolation. He is a prisoner of war. Enemy forces have not just conquered him; he is utterly crushed.

But then, this brief section from about the middle of the book suggests that even in a time of grief, there is hope – hope in the God who created the universe. It’s a hope that a soldier needs to cling to – the hope that we must cling to, the hope that people centuries ago were clinging to: the hope in God, the trust that God is faithful, the promise that God’s love is steadfast and eternal.

There was a time, I think, when many people placed that kind of trust in their government, or at least in some of their government. I’d venture to guess that fewer people nowadays feel hopeful about the elected leaders of this country. Though it may seem that way, it isn’t a new thing. When World War 1 began in 1914, it was called “The War to End All Wars.” People in Europe and the United States believed that it would be just that.

Four years and nine million deaths later, a disillusioned people looked across the landscape of Europe and lamented. “How lonely sits the city that was once full of people…”

The celebration of duty, of bravery, of virtue, seemed hollow.
What had it all been for?
The problems they had set out to solve still loomed large, as World War II would demonstrate so brutally. How could they possibly make sense of this devastation?

The poets and the musicians, like the Psalmist and the lamenting soldier, gave voice to their feelings. Benjamin Britten, Maurice Ravel, and Charles Ives, to name a few, offered up new music – perhaps not to the Lord, and mostly more as requiems than rejoicing.

But Ravel wrote six lighthearted pieces for solo piano, in memory of six friends.
When criticized for writing such sprightly and reflective music as memorials,
he said, “The dead are sad enough in their eternal silence.”

Canadian poet John McCrae wrote the immortal poem, “In Flanders Fields.”
You have probably heard at least the opening lines of that poem:
“In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row.”

William Butler Yeats wrote his grim and powerful poem
“The Second Coming,”

“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.”

These were new songs, indeed, but they were songs of lament, of desolation, of despair.
How could they sing the songs of Zion?

The previous decades of peace and prosperity,
the optimism that had carried them along,
all gone.
All gone.

But there were some in that era, even as there are some in this era,
who placed their hope in something greater than earthly powers.

Although the Americans entered the war in 1917, it was not until June of 1918 that General John Pershing’s forces arrived at the Western Front. Just a few days earlier, President Woodrow Wilson had called for a day of prayer and fasting on May 30, 1918.

Pershing’s forces assembled at the little French town of Chateau Thierry, where the initial battle was won in just three days. The battle of Belleau Wood which followed lasted for three weeks. But it was that decisive battle that turned the tide of the war and let to the eventual victory of the allied forces and the armistice in November of that year.

The world would never be the same, after that war.
But the unchanging love of God continued.

The optimism of the Western powers would never be what it had been,
but hope in God’s faithfulness could not be extinguished.

The poet Mary Gray wrote, in 1919, a poem about that battle,
a poem called Belleau Hill:

O WINDS that mourn the dead on Belleau Hill,
Cease wailing: blow a trumpet for the free
Who gave their lives for love of liberty.
O wind, shout forth their praise from Belleau Hill!

O STARS, shining upon the cross so still
That marks the summit and the battle’s end,
Light up our sky, that we may still defend
The hill he won, and all his hopes fulfil!

O FLOWERS that climb the top of Belleau Hill,
Give to my dead hopes life, and to them bring
The colors of the young returning Spring—
The faith that lives, the love no death can kill![1]

May we, as we observe this Memorial Day, continue to sing songs of hope.
May we remember and honor the dead,
and may we never glorify war, nor elevate flag above faith,
but continue to place our hope in God alone.

The church in Chateau Thierry in France stands out as a living memorial to the Americans who gave their lives for freedom.


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