Monroe Congregational Church
May 6, 2001 - Pastor Diane Schmitz
Psalm 23, Bobby McFerrin version (Click to hear)
I became very troubled at our United Church of Christ Conference Annual Meeting in Wenatchee last week. Sunday morning we gathered for our ending worship. The choir, made up of people from churches all over our region, had been practicing through the weekend to bring us inspiring music in the service. A men's singing group from Seattle had performed for us Saturday night. I was looking forward to hearing their wonderful acappella harmonies as they joined us for worship that morning.
As I sat down and perused the worship bulletin I was delighted to see that the choir would be singing Bobby McFerrin's version of the 23rd Psalm. I remember well the first time I heard it and how my heart soared with gladness to hear the feminine aspect of God named, an experience for which many women long but which seldom occurs.
The choir began to sing the psalm. In the midst of their voices rose a counter-voice. A man had walked up to the center of one of the aisles with his Bible in hand. "He makes me lie down in green pastures" he exclaimed. "She restores my soul" sang the choir. "He leads me in right path's for his name sake," the man read. From the back of the room the singing continued with voices from the men's ensemble, "She leads me in the path of good things and fills my heart with songs."
The faces of the choir members struggled to keep their composure; the choir director strained to hold their focus. People in the service looked around; and inside most of them conversations began to happen. "How dare he!" "What is happening?" "I'm glad he's taking a stand against this blasphemy!" "Will anyone stop him?" "How rude!" "Drown him out, choir!" "I can't believe this."
And all the while the choir kept singing and the man kept speaking.
I, too, had my own internal conversation. "How long, God, how long before woman are truly recognized as daughters of God. How long until we see our narrow imaging of a male God for the idolatry that it truly is?"
However I must admit, it wasn't all a theological discussion going on in my head. I was angry and frustrated. I wanted to go over there and tell him to leave the room. I wanted his voice silenced.
I wanted to stand up in the midst of it and invite other women to stand as a reminder that we, too, are made in an image of God; a God who "looks" like us. I realized, however, if I stood up it wasn't likely people would know what I was doing. I didn't want to look like a fool.
Then, as I looked over at the man again I had a different image. The voice in the wilderness crying out passionately for what it perceives as truth. And the courage or foolishness it takes to be a lone voice in the midst of a chorus of others. I could better understand what it must have been like for the prophets of old whom we hear about in scripture.
Yet what made this confusing for me is that I was experiencing the choir as prophets, people beholding and proclaiming God doing a new thing; God becoming revealed in ways that had previously been hidden.
I wondered how we hold the tension of the different voices; how we stay in communion with each other even as we hold our different perspectives of truth, of the Holy. I decided I would get up and walk over to where the man was standing and stand with him. Not in support of what he was doing but to stand there silently in front of him as a different voice, unwilling to be excluded, but willing to stand with another member of the body of Christ.
Lucky for me, and perhaps for the others present, by the time I had reached this conclusion the psalm was on its last line. I never had the chance to see whether I would really have gone there and what would have happened.
Nevertheless, that image has stayed with me since last Sunday morning. How do we stand with others in our differences?
These are troubling times for our churches; reflecting the troubling times of our culture. We live in such a state of change that it's difficult to know where to stand. We see new truths revealed but we don't know exactly what to do with them. Many are anxious with the new and cling to the old; others are eager to "remember not the former things." We get trapped approaching such change with an either/or perspective. A willingness to look at things with a both/and view gives more room for God to be known. There is wisdom in our tradition and we must be ever attentive to new revelations of God's Spirit among us.
We began our service today singing "Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise," a song familiar to many of us. It speaks of an invisible God hidden from our eyes and inaccessible. It extols a God who "rulest in might"; almighty and victorious.
At the conference annual meeting I also attended a workshop about hymns. In it we took the time to really ponder over some of the words we usually sing automatically without thought. We shared what the words meant to us. It readily became clear how the diversity of our life stories affects our engagement with the hymn. "Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise," was one we looked at. "I don't like this hymn," said one woman. "God seems so far away. And I don't like all the warrior metaphors. We see the daily violence by Christians against Christians assuming that "their" God rulest with them in might and victory. Is that kind of metaphor really helpful in our world today?"
"I love this hymn" said another woman. "I want a God who is bigger and mightier than me; my life seems so chaotic I want that kind of reassurance. I like the image of God the Father; my father was the strongest and wisest man I have ever known."
A teenager spoke up: "I don't care for hymns that use parental imagery. I'm a teenager and I fight with my parents a lot. Coming to church when I'm feeling discouraged and angry about my relationship with my parents and then hearing songs naming a Father or Mother God create a barrier for me that's hard to cross.
Different voices; different stories. But all of us struggle with how to make sense of a God we cannot see and how to be in relationship with others who experience God differently.
We are troubled sheep in need of a shepherd. And we have one. One who guides us and cares for us. One who loves us in our differences and in our struggles to know each other and know God. One who showed us the path to walk.
Jesus said, on the night he was betrayed, "I give you a new commandment. Love one another as I have loved you."
As he sat at the table with a disciple who would soon betray him, and with a disciple who would soon deny him, he nevertheless said, "Let us break bread together." He did not send Judas or Peter out of the room. What a powerful example of loving.
We are Christians in communion with one another. We stand by each other even if we stand in disagreement. I will sing a hymn with language that makes me shudder because Jack, my companion in Christ, loves the song with all his heart. I sing it because I am in communion with him. I ask Margaret to sing those songs in the New Century Hymnal, as unfamiliar and awkward as they are, because she is in communion with me and my heart is freed and soars anew when I sing a hymn that is inclusive and uses images of a God fully present in my everyday moments.
We join in communion with each other. We break bread together. We come again and again to the table, in our awkwardness and our confusion. With our troubles, anxieties and angers. We open ourselves to the power of God's love to heal and renew us so we are able to love one another as God loves us.
As we take communion together this morning, may it be so.