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.