Rev. Jane Anne preaches on Psalm 149 for Hymn Sing Sunday.
“Singing for Dear Life”
November 15, 2020
Plymouth Congregational Church, UCC
The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson
Praise the LORD! Sing to the LORD a new song;
sing God's praise in the assembly of the faithful!
2Let Israel celebrate its maker; l
et Zion's children rejoice in their the [Holy ONE, their ruler]!
3Let them praise God's name with dance;
let them sing [the Holy One's] praise with the drum and lyre!
4Because the Holy One is pleased with people of God,
God will beautify the poor with saving help.
5Let the faithful celebrate with glory; let them shout for joy on their beds.
6Let the high praises of God be in their mouths and a double-edged sword in their hands,
7t[for]revenge against the nations and punishment on the peoples,
8binding their rulers in chains and their officials in iron shackles,
9achieving the justice written against them.
That will be an honor for all God’s faithful people Praise the LORD! 
For the Word of God in scripture, for the Word of God among us, for the Word of God with us, Thanks be to God!
It seems that many, many years ago, during the time of the great Rabbi Shneyer Zalmon, that there was an old man who longed to study Torah. He had been orphaned as a child and was not able to complete his Hebrew school. As a young man he married and had a family, so all his time was taken with working to provide for his loved ones. Now his children were grown and had families of their own. It was just him and his wife and there was time….time to study. So, after searching for just the right teacher, listening to many scholars, he began to attend Sabbath school with Reb Zalmon.
On his first day he was so excited. He listened so intently, but as the lessons went on he grew more and more frustrated. His brows knit together. Big tears came to his eyes and even began to drip down his furrowed cheeks. As the lesson came to a close, he hung his head, shaking it sadly. The Rebbe had noticed this new one, this stranger, among the other students. He noticed his frustration and sadness. So Reb Zalmon called the man into his study after the lesson was over.
“Tell me your story,” said the Rebbe, kindly. And the old man poured out his longing to study the Torah, the obstacles he had encountered all his life, and his search for the right teacher to help him. “Many scholars have laughed at me for my inability to understand…but I heard that you befriend all men…so I chose you to be my teacher. I listened with joy today as you explained the Torah, yet I found that I still could not understand what you were saying. And my heart is broken. All my life I have been sustained by reciting the Psalms…but I long to understand the Torah. Tell me, what must I do to understand, Rebbe!” Tears were now streaming down the man’s face. Reb Zalmon put his hand on the man’s shoulder and said, “No more tears, my friend. It is the Sabbath and on the Sabbath we rejoice.”
The Rebbe continued, “What you heard today were the teachings on the Torah from the great Rabbi, may his name be preserved forever, the Baal Shem Tov. Since the words have not hit home for you, I will sing you a song that contains Baal Shem Tov’s thoughts.” And Reb Zalmon sang a sweet melody with beautiful lyrics and the man listened like a pillar of attention. He didn’t move an eyebrow. When the song was complete, his face was glowing with joy. “My soul has been transported. I understand, Rebbe! And now I feel worthy to be your student.”
And from then on Reb Zalmon always sang that melody at the end of his teachings as a way of clarifying the thoughts he had just shared on the Torah. And that’s the story of “The Rebbe’s Melody.”
As a preacher and one of your pastors, I wish I had a special song to sing at the end of each sermon to clarify all I have just said. But really isn’t that what hymn singing in our services can do if we listen carefully…. to the melodies as well as the words. Some of us don’t think of ourselves as singers…yet we can all be listeners and ponderers of lyrics. I venture to say that of some form or fashion music moves us all. Music teaches us in ways that mere words cannot…because it engages our bodies with movement and engages our emotions. It moves us from our heads to our hearts. Each week we, as a worship team, carefully choose the music to illumine the scriptures that we hear and the teachings in sermons. And I believe the hymns and songs and all the worship music stand along as mini-sermons/meditations on the word from scripture.
This week we heard Psalm 149, a psalm of praise to God, the Creator, the ultimate leader of all God’s people in the faithful assembly. In my progressive Christian theology that means to me ALL the people of the world, no matter their religious practice or lack thereof. And in this psalm we are reminded that because of all the faithful and beloved people of God, the poor and oppressed are “beautified”….therefore the faithful are given a “double-edged sword” to vindicate God’s ways of justice and peace and abundance, to defeat the nations and rulers whose ways are oppression and injustice. The war language is startling to us and is unusual for a psalm of praise. But I dare to read it this morning – even as I acknowledge the devastation of too many human holy wars down through the century – to remind us of the serious connection of singing and working for God’s realm of justice on this earth revealed to us in the Hebrew scriptures and in Jesus the Christ. We do not take literal weapons to work for God, instead we are called to acts of justice and non-violent resistance, kindness and sharing that are counter-cultural, counter-intuitive to the warring ways of humanity. And we are called to this understanding of our calling as people in the faithful assembly of the Holy One by a psalm, a song, a hymn!
What might the hymns we love, the hymns we sing – those familiar to us and those unfamiliar to us – be calling us to each week? How is God speaking to us, what is God speaking to us in our hymns? Comfort, yes….and also challenge! When we sing in worship we are singing for dear life! The dear life of God’s realm here and now among us and coming into being. I invite you as a preacher…if the scripture and the sermon do not make sense to you….look to the hymns!
Reb Zalmon knew about the mystery of God in scripture and the call of justice for all people when he sang to the old man. He knew it was an act of justice to illuminate God’ word for every person, so all may understand the love of God, when he sang:
All the angels, all the seraphim
Ask who God, [the Holy One], may be.
Ah woe, what can we reply?
“No thought can be attached to [God]
All the people ––– every nation –––
Ask where God, [the Holy One] may be.
Ah woe, what can we reply?
“No place is without God.” 
May it be so. Amen.
 Bible, Common English. CEB Common English Bible with Apocrypha - eBook [ePub] (Kindle Locations 24148-24157). Common English Bible. Kindle Edition.
 Yiddish Folktales, Beatrice Silverman Weinreich, ed., Leonard Wolf, trans.(New York, NY; Schocken Books, Inc., YIVO Institute for Jewish Research, 1988, 272.)
Holy One, sing to us like a mother lullabies of peace and comfort in our troubled times of pandemic, conflict and division. Sing to us your song of challenge and courage that we may stand against injustice and hatred with your fierce love. As we pray this morning with the words of our mouth, with the longings of our hearts and the music of our souls, we join you in lament for lives of loved ones lost, for the millions of beloved lives lost to the Covid 19 virus. We lift prayers imploring you to stand with us as seek to keep all safe from this illness, to heal all who are struggling with it, to protect those on the frontlines of essential workers who risk their own health and safety to serve other. We lift our prayers of lament for lives lost to the violence of racial injustice. Turn our hearts, Holy One, toward your realm of courageous love that is already here with us on earth. Open our eyes to see the joy of your love in Christ Jesus that is always present in beloved community, in the beauty of creation, in the eyes of your people.
All this we pray with the word of love Jesus taught us to use…
Our Father (and Mother) who art in heaven….
©The Rev. Jane Anne Ferguson, 2020 and beyond. May be reprinted with permission only.
Associate Minister Jane Anne Ferguson is a writer, storyteller, and contributor to Feasting on the Word, a popular biblical commentary. Learn more about Jane Anne here.
Rev. Carla preaches on the wise and foolish bridesmaids.
Rev. Carla Cain began her ministry at Plymouth as a Designated Term Associate Minister (two years) in December 2019. Learn more about Carla here.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning
Plymouth Congregational UCC
Fort Collins, Colorado
In some churches, Reformation Sunday was a time to bash our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters as being superstitious, naïve, corrupt…and the church as a whole, whether Protestant or Catholic or Evangelical or Orthodox has plenty of sin to confess. So often, we are not able to see the log in our own eye when we castigate others, and I’m not going to bash anyone today (especially since I’m going to spend four days in a Jesuit retreat center this week). Instead, I want to talk about parts of our tradition that still are informed by the experience and understandings derived from the Reformation: not just Luther’s break with Rome, not just Calvin and Zwingli’s experience in Switzerland — all of which informed our Evangelical and Reformed tradition in the UCC. And I’m not going to talk too much about the English Reformation that was kickstarted by Henry VIII’s withdrawal from the Roman Church and the formation of the Church of England, though that is where our Congregational forbears have their roots.
Instead, I want to talk about newness and transformation. Many Christian’s read this morning’s passage from Jeremiah and think, “Oh…a new covenant…he must be foretelling Jesus.” Jews obviously don’t read the prophecy that way. Isaiah relays the information that God is about to do a new thing (Is. 43.19), and again Christians may read that as a prophecy of Jesus’ messiahship, but Jews don’t read it that way. Perhaps what these two passage are saying to all of us is that God doesn’t stand still…that God is about finding new ways of being in relationship with God’s people…that there will be new ways that God’s people are faithful.
Reformation is about course-correction. When the armada of the church has steered into a storm, some ship captains recognize that it is time to take a new tack and get into clearer weather. Reformation is not just something that happened on October 31, 1517 when an Augustinian priest nailed 95 theses to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. It wasn’t the first reformation and it wasn’t the last. In the Congregational tradition, it happened in conjunction with the continental reformation, accelerated with Henry VIII and the birth of the Church of England, and with the idea that the state church, of which kings and queens were and are the head, was still stuck in the storm with the rest of the armada.
Even under the more Protestant reign of Elizabeth I, some thought that the extent of religious reform in England still had not gone far enough. They objected to religious vestments (surplices, robes, and other priestly garments), to making the sign of the cross, and to the observation of saints’ days. Another major objection was the use of prayer books at all and the Book of Common Prayer in particular. Instead, they thought that prayer should come only from the heart, not from the printed page. They wanted to do away with bishops and church courts, replacing them with consistories and synods as a means of church discipline. A recent history of the Plymouth pilgrims says that “around the turn of the 17th century, puritan became a common epithet in England,” [John G. Turner, They Knew They Were Pilgrims (Yale: New Haven, 2020), p. 9.] and the name stuck. Most puritans wanted to stay within the Church of England and to work on reform from within. Other more fervent puritans wanted to “tear down the Church of England and start from scratch” [Turner]. These were the Separatists, some of who eventually made their way to Plymouth, Mass.
As you can imagine, this was not well received by either Church authorities or the monarchy, and while some Separatists had the means and good sense to emigrate to the Netherlands, others stayed in England…some at their peril. Authorities raided Separatist congregations, arresting men and women. On one occasion in London, 21 Separatists were arrested. More than a dozen died in jail, and their two ministers, John Greenwood and Henry Barrow were hanged in 1593. What was so threatening was the idea of Christian liberty in the formation of local congregations that would preserve the freedoms of the laity in the admission of members, election of officers, calling ministers, and the exercise of church discipline.
Those early Separatists, who became Plymouth Pilgrims and later Congregationalists, had ideas of reform that challenged the status quo not just in their ecclesiology (their theology of what the church is and ought to be), but it also rubbed up against royal power. James I said succinctly, “No bishops, no king.”
Since this is the 400th anniversary year of the Pilgrims arrival in Plymouth, Mass., I’ll be saying more about them at the end of November, but I hope that this glimpse at our Separatist forbears in England helps you to understand some of the things about this congregation, and that ways that we keep transforming and reforming. If God is still speaking, we ought to be listening and responding.
During the Second World War, Swiss Reformed Theologian Karl Barth said that the church is always reforming (ecclesia semper reformanda) through self-examination and transformation, and that is certainly true for our UCC today. Can you imagine what the Pilgrims would have thought about being Open & Affirming? Or me wearing an alb and a stole? Or Carla and Jane Anne being ordained ministers? Part of the genius (and I use that in the classical sense, not meaning wicked smart) of the Congregational tradition is that it is willing to morph and transform. Think about it this way: The Puritans of Boston and the Pilgrims of Plymouth became the Congregationalists (now UCC) and the Unitarians, perhaps the two most progressive churches around today. Continual growth and reformation are in our denominational DNA.
I want to go back to Karl Barth for a moment. In the days leading up to World War II, the German church became nazified, wedded to the prevailing politics of hate, and some theologians, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, stood defiantly against the state controlling the church…and he died for that conviction. Others, including Barth, formed something called the Confessing Church and they wrote a statement called the Barmen Declaration, which is an integral part of the denominational heritages of the UCC, the Presbyterian Church USA, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, and of course the EKD, the German Protestant Church. Hear these words, and see if they ring true at this moment in history: “We reject the false doctrine that the Church could have permission to hand over … its message and of its order to whatever it itself might wish or to the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political convictions of the day.” I wonder if you can see these words, written in 1934, having any applicability to American Christianity that is so often in its history institutionalized racism and white privilege…that is co-opted by radical individualism and the prosperity gospel…that neglects the words and actions of Jesus in favor of empty slogans like “family values” and “pro-life,” while separating immigrant children from their parents, putting them in cages, and then being unable to reunite them with their families. These are “the vicissitudes of the prevailing ideological and political conventions” of America today. May God give us strength to stand up and make a change.
Last week, our strategic planning team had its first meeting, and you’ll be hearing more about that as we schedule online focus groups. We’ll be looking especially at who is our neighbor and what God is calling us to become as our congregation continues to reform itself and move forward. Even before the pandemic, I asked you to begin praying about and wondering about this question: What is your dream for Plymouth? And I ask you especially to think about that in terms of who Plymouth is called to become ask we ask the question, “Who is our neighbor?”
If you ever wonder why the role of the church in society is important, I hope you will remember our history, and that you will become a part of shaping the history our own time. May God’s law of love and compassion be written on all of our hearts.
© 2020 Hal Chorpenning, all rights reserved. Please contact email@example.com for permission to reprint, which will typically be granted for non-profit uses.
The Rev. Hal Chorpenning has been Plymouth's senior minister since 2002. Before that, he was associate conference minister with the Connecticut Conference of the UCC. A grant from the Lilly Endowment enabled him to study Celtic Christianity in the UK and Ireland. Prior to ordained ministry, Hal had a business in corporate communications. Read more about Hal.