June 28, 2020
O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless God’s name; tell of God’s salvation from day to day. Declare God’s glory among the nations, God’s marvelous works among all the peoples. For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; God is to be revered above all gods. For all the gods of the peoples are idols, but the Lord made the heavens. Honor and majesty are before God; strength and beauty are in her sanctuary. Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due God’s name; bring an offering, and come into his courts. Worship the Lord in holy splendor; tremble before them, all the earth. Say among the nations, “The Lord is king! The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved. God will judge the peoples with equity.” Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for God is coming, for God is coming to judge the earth. God will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with God’s truth.
One of the most sacred song’s I’ve ever experienced in my life is by Aretha Franklin. It was my first year of Seminary, my first Easter away from the Presbyterian congregation that raised me, back in Tualatin, Oregon. My friends Andy Greenhow and Laura Colee and I piled into a car, and drove the 45 minutes from Princeton, New Jersey to Philadelphia, snaked our way through the traffic around City Hall, and headed south on Broad Street, down the Avenue of the arts. We made our way past the Opera, housed at the incredible Academy of Music, past the Wilma Theatre, and started looking for parking when we saw the home of the Philadelphia Orchestra, the Kimmel Center for the Performing arts. Tucked alongside the University of the Arts, we found Pine Street, parallel parked, and walked up to Broad Street Ministry. Mr. Elbert, the Ambassador of Welcome, greeted us with his kind smile and hearty handshake, and handed us a worship packet, full of announcements, prayers, poems, and the lyrics to that night’s worship music. After the Sermon, we reached the crescendo, as we prepared to share the Lord’s Supper together. I was still in the closet to all but my closest of friends, Andy and Laura included, but I couldn’t help but feel free in the ancient feeling sanctuary. All the Pews were gone, and the band and choir at the front, led by the immutable Tony Moore, a record producer, looked like a mix between a gay men’s chorus, a Black Church Choir, complete with Hats that couldn’t be more aptly named as Crowns, with a smattering of punk-band kids. And then the song started…
You better think about what you’re tryin’ to do to me
Think let your mind go
Let yourself be free
Hey! Think about it
People walk around everyday
Playin’ games and takin’ scores
Tryin’ to make other people lose their mind
Well, be careful you don’t lose yours
And then the Ballet Philadelphia dancers came in, all graceful limbs and sinew, at once sensual and deeply sacred, and I found myself dancing. I felt free, liberated, at home in the family of things, singing out with all I had inside.
You need me
And I need you
Without each other
There ain’t nothin’ we can’t do. OH Freedom.
Music can liberate us. Song’s can connect us to a truth that lies so much deeper within us, than the deepest scars this world inflicts upon us through systems of oppression, white Supremacy, toxic masculinity, Trans Phobia, Homophobia, and Sexism. So much deeper within us lies the truth that we are loved by the Holy, however we understand her, loved fully, and that this love has already overcome all that might oppress us. And so this Frozen, Chosen, Cradle Presbyterian, painfully closeted, found himself dancing, singing, Freedom, Freedom, OH FREEDOM.
The cause of Freedom and Liberation must have been bubbling up in the People of God when this morning’s Psalm was written, new songs are rising in the praise of God. Come, Holy One, and set the world aright. Judge fairly, set the world alright. The Trees of the field will sing out for joy, new songs will resound to the heavens from creation itself, people’s voices joining the strain. In this psalm It might sound odd to us to hear of judgment as being a cause for singing. Many of us were raised to think of God as a stern old white guy, part Santa Clause, part disapproving Professor Snape, who’s always looking to catch us doing the wrong thing, and judge us. For many of us, we were taught that this angry god, instead of punishing us, takes it out on Jesus, who, depending how you were raised might stand in for an older sibling or maybe a mother who gets in the way of an abusive father. Except that’s not the God the Bible gives witness to. The Holy One in the Old Testament, Her favorite word is Hessed, Gracious Loving-Kindness. Hessed frees and liberates people from oppression, from all that tries to reduce us; God’s grace works in an interesting way; it recognizes what hurts, what’s dimming the image of God in anyone, be they within the family of God or without, and then repairs relationships, families, communities, nations, so that all may live fully; This loving kindness keeps an eye out for those most likely to be overlooked; the widow, the orphan, the undocumented immigrant, people who have experienced or are experiencing enslavement, the poor, the sick, the dying, children, the aged. It’s a love that is combined with the strength of a mother, the ferocity of that librarian who stands up for the kid struggling with being bullied and having difficulty learning how to read, the righteous anger that moves teenage girls to organize and push back against hatred with power, grace, and steely resolve. This kind of grace isn’t to be messed with; it’ll tear tyrants from their thrones, flip tables in the Temple when economic exploitation happens. It’s the kind of liberation that is thrilling and fearsome and best expressed through song, poetry, and dancing.
I loved the Music at Broad Street, and it brought me to life, and helped me to step into queer liberation for myself. But the hardest part of hearing that music for me, was having to go back to Chapel at Princeton Seminary the next day. I went to chapel almost every weekday, and the music was incredibly skilled, and diverse, but so often, it didn’t make me feel free. Sometimes it was the lyrics that just landed wrong with my widening theological understandings. Or maybe it just sounded a little too much like the praise music that I associated with my High School classmates who spoke out against LGBTQ+ people, and in support of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that I looked at in horror. I had a really hard time with the music in Seminary sometimes.
Years later, I was working with Rev. Bill Golderer at Broad Street Ministry, and at our sister congregation, Arch Street Presbyterian Church. I was getting ready to preach at Arch Street for the first time, and was meeting with the Minister of Music, the incredibly talented Dr. Donald Dumpson. In a few years, Donald would be working with Aretha Franklin and the Philadelphia Heritage Choir when she came to sing for Pope Francis. At the moment though, he was trying to work with me to plan the music for the service, and we kept butting heads. I don’t remember what song’s it was I was asking for, or what he was suggesting. I probably wanted something by Beyoncé and another from Josh Ritter. Donald probably had some hymns in mind. Bill came in to help us get unstuck. He looked at me and smiled, and laughed. “I never told you about the rule of 25% did I?” My look of confusion answered his question. Bill went on to explain that when Arch Street Presbyterian was revitalized, and went from an older predominantly White, Welsh-American congregation to a multi-racial, multi-ethnic, LGBTQ+ Open and affirming congregation, Donald had come on staff, and he and Bill had realized that a majority of the Music should come from the traditions of those who might feel less at home initially in the community; namely, that music from Donald’s experience growing up Gay and leading in the Black Church, would make up a good portion of what we sang. Since the largest portion of the congregation was white, Bill and Donald discovered that it was helpful for the community for white folks to learn to take a step back and hear music that was familiar to them just under half of the time, so that everyone could worship together. All of this meant that, on average, most people in the congregation, as they learned new music from each other’s traditions would love about 75% of the music on any given Sunday. This made sense, but I had to ask Bill, “So what about the remaining 25%?” “That’s where Grace comes in David. When people don’t find the music liberating to them, or filling them with grace, those are the moments I invite them to look around the congregation, and see who is encountering the Holy. I invite folks to celebrate when a song isn’t feeding them, because that just might be the moment someone else needs to feel God’s Freedom.”
Beloved, we’re a unique mix of folks at MPC. The past two Sunday’s after worship, we’ve gathered to talk about our Music Ministry, and we are an eclectic bunch. We’ve got a diverse range of music that sets our souls to singing. Some congregations might be afraid of this kind of wide range of worship tastes. But we’ve got a lot of love for one another. So as we start the process of finding a Minister of Music here at MPC, as we explore different ways of Worshipping God, of encountering God’s Hessed through Song, I’d invite you to share the music that leads you to catch a foretaste of freedom, of liberation, of the Reign of God; maybe it’s from a musical, or from Beyoncé, Brahms, an old spiritual, a folk hymn. And when you hear something in worship that isn’t quite for you, I’d invite you to consider that maybe that song is part of your 25%, the grace you extend to someone who is getting their whole life in that song. I’d invite you to give thanks that they are worshipping with you, virtually, that we get to be one family together. In mutual love, seeking freedom as one diverse people, may we sing a new song to the Lord, who is making all things new.
Because some of us, mostly folks who are white, have often been socialized to think we should get our way most of the time…that our culture is the normal. Music can be a way of challenging white supremacy and the “othering” of LGBTQ+ folks, young families, and those who are seeking God’s freedom, but don’t find it typically in White European songs and hymns. When we invite God to come into our congregation, our experience, and lift up the voices that have been long silenced in Church, we can live into a new world, where we make sure all are spiritually fed, not just ourselves. It’s a small step, but as someone who has experienced the power of Music to remind us of God’s love, I can share that it can make all the difference.