A sermon based on Acts 10:44-48 and Psalm 98 preached on May 10th, 2015
The houselights dim. The people take their seats. A sudden hush falls over the theatre. All eyes straight ahead.
The conductor raises her baton slightly.
The cellists bring bow to strings. The flautists, the trumpeters, and the trombonists raise their brass instruments to their lips. Everyone in house feels that pregnant silence before the first note of a symphony and holds their breath.
Imagine the split-second moment before the universe was brought into being. It’s the pause before a tiny big-bang. Something’s about to occur—to come into being, to be born right in front of their eyes. And it will astound all who are there to see it.
The conductor’s baton moves. The concertmaster (the first violinist) begins her song. Each instrument will join her in their own time.
Every little thing can become something great.
The symphony begins.
The Psalms are like a symphony. When their words take the stage—when each one of them picks up their instruments and begins to play, whole worlds are created—new spaces for the faithful to move inside of are born.
That’s the nature of the Psalms. Every image they conjure, every emotion they confront God with—anger, joy, jealousy, ecstasy—they’re rooms we’re invited to live inside of, songs we can join in on, instruments we can pick up and start to play.
There’s nothing off limits in the Psalms. Every aspect of—the full range of our feelings are fair game in the Psalms. They’re real and authentic and vulnerable and loud and messy. The despair inside the desperate ones descends down to the depths of Sheol; and the praise inside the most joyful of them ascend to the heights of heaven.
That’s the nature of the Book of Psalms. No limits. No categories. Everything is expressed out loud and honestly in wide-open spaces where we can be free to be exactly who we are, wherever we are, and feel exactly what we feel in front of God and one another. No fences or boundaries.
There was a band back in the day whose name was Caedmon’s Call. They were a quote/unquote “Christian band.” A very popular one back in the 90’s and early 2000’s. The lead singer, Derek Webb, resurfaced a few years ago to share this thought out loud—he said,
There’s no difference between sacred and secular. The word Christian, when applied to anything other than a human being, is simply a marketing term.
We live in a world that likes to categorize things. Everything we encounter and everyone we meet needs to fit snuggly into one of our predetermined categories. But whenever we do that we ignore too much, we take away who or what those things are. We ignore the divine fingerprints that cover every bit of them whenever we do that.
The psalms teach us that there is no such thing as secular space—everything is sacred, everywhere is holy ground. The psalms laugh out loud at the false division we’ve conjured up in our minds that some aspects of our lives are holy and others are not. The psalms are absolutely opposed to the idea that we live in a fragmented world. Absolutely everything is sacred. Everything we encounter—whether it’s music or art, or story, or place, or people—it’s all imprinted with the divine. Every song everything sings is a divine one because our God is Lord over all of creation.
I remember Harvey Lake, in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. I was born there and so was my mom. She and my dad lived there until I was born before moving down to Richmond. We would visit several times a year, and over the summer, we might make our way down to my grandfather’s old fishing grounds.
Harvey’s lake was where I learned to skip stones. I was never really great at skipping stones, but I loved watching my mom and dad teach me. Sometimes the stones they threw would make it way out there.
I liked the kerplunk more than the skip. Throwing huge stones and hearing that sound was more my thing, but I would try to skim a stone or two. But what I liked the best was the ripple afterwards—water remembers wherever the stone sunk beneath its surface, and it sends out a wave that grows outward, getting larger and larger.
That’s what Psalm 98 is: it’s the ripple effect of our song of praise that we sing. It’s the first wave of the conductor’s baton, the first note of the concertmaster’s violin. It’s one voice singing that first opening line:
Sing to the Lord a new song…
Then, in verse 4, the invitation for others to join in. One voice becomes two:
Shout triumphantly to the Lord, all the earth!
And then 3. How can we keep from singing?
Sing your praises with the lyre. Trumpets, join in too. Then the horn—the shofar, why not—start your song also! Join the symphony of praise to our God!
And with each new sound, the ripple of this song grows larger—the circle of praise gets bigger—and even more join in. Let the sea roar. The world and all its inhabitants. The mountains jump in—rejoicing out loud.
Eventually all of creation joins in on the symphony and the music swells. The sound reverberates throughout all of creation, and what was once the song of just one instrument becomes the sound all the earth makes together. It crescendoes—spilling over from one voice to another—one instrument to the next. Praise to God is centrifugal—it’s not complete until all have joined in on the song. The ripple in a pond is always a complete circle. Praise is contagious.
Growing up in my home church, I always knew about Raymond Erb. Raymond’s parents sung in the choir while he sat in the back of the sanctuary and kept quiet. Raymond has Down’s syndrome. He kept close to his parents who loved him immensely and included him in every aspect of the church’s life.
One day, I remember my pastor talking to Raymond, and he asked him why Raymond didn’t sing along with the hymns in worship. Raymond had a loud and uncontained speaking voice—he declares whatever he has to say with an outdoor voice-a voice turned up to 11. Never a 1 or a 2. Our pastor got Raymond to say,
Yes, I’ll start singing in worship.
And he did. And it was loud and wonderful. You couldn’t understand and word he was singing, but he declared it joyously anyway. I’d hear Raymond sing from the other side of the sanctuary and weep tears of joy.
All God’s creatures have a place in the choir. Some sing low, some sing higher.
Raymond belted out his praise to God. And Raymond’s praise was contagious.
At some point, though, he stopped singing. I don’t know why he stopped singing, but not too long after that, he and his parents decided to join another church—they actually started on of their own. My fear is someone complained that Raymond’s singing disturbed their worship. I’m not sure about that, but it’s my hunch.
My heart breaks for that. It did then. It still does now. Our praise and his was cut off with just one sour note.
Whenever anything in creation is silenced, when any voice is muted, when any instrument is muzzled, the whole symphony feels the ripple effect—the crescendo breaks and the song falls apart.
Our Acts passage for the morning finds Peter realizing that more people than he ever could imagine are included in God’s embrace and in the symphony of God’s creation. Acts can be described as a book where the first followers of Jesus—all of them Israelites—begin to recognize that their circle of inclusion is a whole lot smaller than God’s. Here we have the leader of Christ’s church, Peter, the Rock upon which Jesus said it would be built, realizing that Gentiles are being called to be a part of Jesus’ church—that they are just as important and legitimate members of the body of Christ as any Jewish person is.
Friends, 2,000 years later, we’re still astonished by how big God’s circle of inclusion is. It’s much, much bigger than any circle we have drawn. And the circle of inclusion we draw ripples out farther and farther—growing larger and larger, and that expanding of our circle won’t be complete until all are inside, joining with one voice and singing together one song of praise to our God.
It’s almost reckless how this Psalm unfolds!
It’s author cuts loose on his praise. There’s no holding back a thing. There’s no self-consciousness or fear of what others may think. This psalmist proclaims loudly and doesn’t seem to care if he makes himself a spectacle. And everyone around him sees his joy and his complete and total lack of inhibition and they join in on the song—and it builds and builds, and swells and swells until even creation itself—the seas and the mountains can’t contain their praises. All the earth sings the same uncontrollable and uninhibited song of joy to God the Creator. And in this shared song of praise, all the categories that everything and everybody fit inside of—they’re gone, they disappear, no divisions, no classifications, no exclusions—just voices joining together to sing—because when we come together to worship God, everything that separates us and divides us falls away and there is only shared song, building and building into earthshaking crescendo.
That’s the thing about the psalms: Just by being exactly what it is created to be, everyone one of us and everything in nature, is invited to come together and spontaneously praise God and proclaim its purpose in creation.
Let that be the new song that the Church sings. A new song sung to a broken and fragmented world sung by a people once fragmented, but no longer; where every voice is heard, where all people have a place in the continuing symphony of a beautiful and ever-unfolding creation—our song building and building in praise to the God who creates.
All praises to the One who made it all and finds it beautiful!