Come home to Calvary
Introduction. In the fifth century, the great African theologian, Augustine of Hippo proclaimed the words on the cover of your program: Qui cantat bis orat. Those who sing pray twice. Music is the transporter of the soul. Music beams us to a better place—a world closer to wonder, closer to God. In a moment, some old hymns will try on new tunes, and this will surely lead all of us to make mistakes.
Scripture calls us to offer our voices in praise because of what God does throughout history. The Psalms instruct us to make joyful noises and to try out new songs. Nobody sings a new song perfectly. There’s a period of figuring it out, trial and error. During the next hour, remember the saying of Martin Luther, “love God and Sin boldly.” What we do here is neither a recital nor a lecture serie. Properly, Sunday morning worship is called a sacred liturgy. From the ancient Greek word leitourgia, liturgy means “the work of the people.” Like another ancient Greek demokratia, democracy or “the will of the people”—liturgy improves the more everyone participates.
Generations of San Franciscans have praised God from exactly where you sit. They sang the very hymns we will explore today. Singing is more than praying twice. Liturgies, especially communion liturgies, activate the spirits of those who praise God across time and space. They wait for us at God’s table.
Psalm 139. Were we to lose the rest of holy scripture, Psalm 139 would be enough. We usually read the lectionary’s edited version of this Psalm, omitting the strong language of verses 7 through 12, which assure us that if we were to make our beds in Sheol, the ancient underworld—God would still be with us. That murky darkness is a light to our God, equally present everywhere and at all times. The lectionary also omits verses 19 through 24, where the Psalmist writes unfiltered, O that you would kill the wicked! Do not I hate those who hate you, O Lord? I hate my them with perfect hatred. I count them my enemies. But really Mr. Psalmist, what do you really think?
Am I the only one who can identify with these verses? I pray to find some spiritual value in my sin of hate. And I know that God is there with me, in that hell of my own design, and with God and in prayer, I can work through it and come out transformed, with a cleaner heart, as long as I am honest about my very human feelings, my sin. Lately, I pray Psalm 139 a lot, because I am furious at those who stand firm on the evil of white supremacy and intolerance, those who malign the poor, or belittle women, those who incite violence and spread deceit gleefully. Do they not self-identify as my enemies, O Lord, calling me out because I don’t conform to unrealistic craziness? Even in my fever, I can’t quite go so far as hate for them, but I am supremely perturbed. The vulgarities of intolerance and populism have led me to give up on some people. I hate the practices of willful dishonesty and white supremacy. I cannot rationalize them out of a position they’ve come to irrationally. The composer of Psalm 139 knows what I’m feeling. And this ancient song reminds me that God’s will has overcome fascism before, and it will again.
Psalm 139 balances humanity’s shortcomings against the God who keeps the stars in their courses and still puts up with the likes of us. This psalm encapsulates how the entire Book of Psalms explores human emotion. Sometimes it’s shocking, but every time, the Psalmist submits human emotion to the transformative Love of the Universe whom we call God, revealed to us through Christ Jesus. I’m trying to say that, for me, Psalm 139 is the greatest “hymn” of God’s people.
Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken, Words: John Newton, Tune: AUSTRIAN HYMN. The great hymnodist John Newton will be featured twice this morning. First, in “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken” Newton has us sing of Zion. In his day Zion meant the church, Zion’s city the broader church. The tune AUSTRIAN HYMN is more problematic. At the end of the last century, I taught in the music department of Emory University in Atlanta. The following story was still swirling around. In 1983, famous Nazi hunter and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, presented a paper at Emory’s Candler Seminary, which honored Wiesel during a liturgy in the futuristic Canon Chapel. The music included the AUSTRIAN HYMN, the Haydn tune we’re about to sing. The band leader called it “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.” What he didn’t realize—what was omitted from his education—was that this tune had been co-opted during WW2 as the Nazi anthem.
Methodist musician Carlton Young was there. He writes that Wiesel’s face became puzzled and wrought with pain, his Holocaust trauma triggered. Hitler’s storm troopers had sung this tune with the words “Deutschland Deutschland über alles”—which means Germany before all, or in current political language, “Germany first.” Perhaps the most politically incendiary song in the book but only when we reclaim its history honestly and repurpose our distaste of its tune for good, remembering that music has the ability to heal but also to trigger traumatic memories. Sing this hymn fully-informed, reclaiming the music with all its history of evil but thanking God that the vilest of sin is never too much for God’s mercy. This is too powerful to sit through, let’s rise in body or spirit to sing “Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken.”
There is a Wideness, Frederick Faber, Tunes: WELLESLEY, ST. HELENA, IN BABILONE. “There is a Wideness” could be a song about my post-pandemic body. But. Like the previous hymn, it’s a statement on the sovereignty of God, a core tenet of Presbyterianism. Like Psalm 139, this hymn points out the paradox of God’s sovereignty. Joann preached a beautiful sermon on God’s sovereignty last week: how God rules the universe and still bears with us. The words are by Frederick Faber, a 19th century Catholic convert who realized, after being influenced by the hymns of the Wesleys and others, that Catholics needed some good songs, too. It has been published to a number of tunes. Michael could not choose just one, so he has set it to three.
Mark 2:22, [Jesus said to them:] “No one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” Today, let’s try pouring this old wine, rife with new meaning, into new wineskins, three different tunes, remembering to sin boldly as we sing “There Is a Wideness in God’s Mercy.”
Amazing Grace, Word: John Newton, Tune: RISING SUN “Amazing Grace” is John Newton’s masterpiece, his testimony to the saving love that opened his eyes to the evil of slavery and the mercy that pursued him, dogged him for 34 years. God does not give up on us! The gospel of Jesus Christ transformed John Newton, slowly but surely, from “a wretch” of a slave trade investor into an ordained minister and an abolitionist, an activist for ending slavery. Thirty-four years after he left the slave trade, he wrote this “confession, which … comes too late … [and] will always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.”
The new wineskin into which we’ll pour “Amazing Grace” has been recorded many times. It was made popular by the1960s British rock band The Animals and covered by such greats as Nina Simone, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton (peace be upon her). When I was a child, every boy with a guitar tried to play this tune.
RISING SUN beams us to a gritty world, claiming the power of God in the fully human Jesus, one of us. He hung out with the disreputable. He didn’t have rent money and eventually made his way to the Roman Empire’s most wanted list. He was despised and rejected, a man of sorrows, acquainted with the blues.
RISING SUN transports us to the Deep South City of New Orleans and some archetypal trying times. I heard a congregation sing this version of Amazing Grace in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Perhaps you’ve heard it from the Blind Boys of Alabama. Today we could sing it, pray it twice, for the people of Jackson, Mississippi, thirsty for drinking water on the banks of the Pearl River, or for the people of Weed, California and all who are reeling from the Mill Fire, or for God’s children in Ukraine who, like Jesus, know firsthand the evils of empire. Pray your personal suffering to Jesus—a regret, a grief, a long-smoldering resentment, a need for healing. And cling to the words of that hate-confessing Psalmist who prayed for grace, saying: Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting. Let’s pray twice for God’s “Amazing Grace.”
 Hymn 446 in the pew hymnal.
 Deb Simmons, “Amazing Grace, Pt. III” Behind the Music: Every Song Has a Story, January 21, 2020, accessed online at <https://www.debisimons.com/amazing-grace-part-ii-how-did-a-hymn-written-by-a-former-slave-trader-become-an-icon-of-the-civil-rights-movement/>
Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
2 but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
3 That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.
4 Not so the wicked!
They are like chaff
that the wind blows away.
5 Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment,
nor sinners in the assembly of the righteous.
6 For the Lord watches over the way of the righteous,
but the way of the wicked leads to destruction.
For the director of music. Of David. A psalm.
1 You have searched me, Lord,
and you know me.
2 You know when I sit and when I rise;
you perceive my thoughts from afar.
3 You discern my going out and my lying down;
you are familiar with all my ways.
4 Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.
5 You hem me in behind and before,
and you lay your hand upon me.
6 Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain.
7 Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
8 If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
9 If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
10 even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
11 If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
12 even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day,
for darkness is as light to you.
13 For you created my inmost being;
you knit me together in my mother’s womb.
14 I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made;
your works are wonderful,
I know that full well.
15 My frame was not hidden from you
when I was made in the secret place,
when I was woven together in the depths of the earth.
16 Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be.
17 How precious to me are your thoughts,[a] God!
How vast is the sum of them!
18 Were I to count them,
they would outnumber the grains of sand—
when I awake, I am still with you.
19 If only you, God, would slay the wicked!
Away from me, you who are bloodthirsty!
20 They speak of you with evil intent;
your adversaries misuse your name.
21 Do I not hate those who hate you, Lord,
and abhor those who are in rebellion against you?
22 I have nothing but hatred for them;
I count them my enemies.
23 Search me, God, and know my heart;
test me and know my anxious thoughts.
24 See if there is any offensive way in me,
and lead me in the way everlasting.