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The worshiper in me wouldn’t change a thing about Psalm 100.
I love how it calls us to be joyful, to make noise, to be glad, to sing.
I love what it tells us about worship: that it is about giving God thanks and praise, that it is not about what we get out of it but an opportunity to respond to all we’ve been given, that worship is not some kind of heavy religious obligation but a joyful, Spirit-filled celebration. It also suggests (sorry, contemplatives) that, at least at the beginning, worship is a rather noisy enterprise.
Make a joyful noise! Come into God’s presence with singing!
This is about as close as our scriptures come to laying out an order of worship. The psalms are songs, after all. Sing, they say. Give thanks. Offer praise. Sing!
Clearly, singing is meant to be central to the worship experience. We see it again in the New Testament. In the letter to the church at Ephesus, then a thriving, cosmopolitan port city on the western coast of what is now Turkey, Paul says:
Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
He tells the new Christians in Colossae, about a hundred miles up-river, pretty much the same thing, saying:
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God. And whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God through him.
From the very beginning of Judeo-Christian history, we have praised God in song; our tradition of reflecting on our “place in the family of things” has evoked songs and hymns of praise; the mystery and grandeur of God has inspired us to make music. It seems that we are wired to sing.
As with so many things, at some point singing became specialized. As with so many aspects of our spiritual lives, we turned singing over to the professionals, the people who were really good at it.
And so it is that in the oldest, biggest, grandest cathedrals in the world one finds elaborate choir stalls—seats made of the finest, richest wood or stone, inlaid with precious metals, each one festooned with detailed carvings. The choir lofts are near the altar, far away from the people.
If you haven’t noticed, our sanctuary doesn’t have anything that is grand or fancy. There are no special seats for the choir; choir members sit in the pews with the rest of us until it is time for the anthem. They wear no robes to set them apart; even as they have formed a special community within our one community, on Sunday mornings they choose to identify with the whole.
And so it is that on this day, we celebrate their ministry of song, and we give thanks for all the ways their music blesses us. We give thanks for the basses and tenors, the altos and sopranos, for the ready soloists and the shy ones, the high notes and the low, the strong voices and the weaker ones, the flat and sharp notes as well as the perfectly pitched.
We give thanks not only for the ways their songs take us to places words alone cannot, not only for how the perfectly chosen anthem brings us closer to God, but also how their community reflects who we want to be: a place with room for everyone, where each person’s gift is honored and celebrated, where the strong lift the weak and the weak reveal themselves strong in other ways, where love grows in the midst of ministry.
And this is why we celebrate the ministry of Dick Matteson. It is not only that he is a talented organist, not simply that he is a gifted choir director—but that he is a minister of music, a creator of community, someone who leads the choir and other musicians not only in making music, not simply in making noises that are pleasing to the ear and the heart, but in leading us in worship.
Because, that is, after all, why we are here.
You see, that’s my one little beef with Psalm 100. It is beautiful poetry and inspiring worship direction, but the order is a little backwards. It first tells us what to do and only later tells us why to do it.
For God is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever, and God’s faithfulness to all generations.
Our God is in control, it says. God created us, and we belong to God. We are more than biological products of an evolutionary process; we are the people of God, beloved by the very Creator of all; and this same Creator cares for us in the same way a shepherd cares for sheep, as a parent loves a child.
Our God is good, all the time. God always wants the best for us. God is always giving us more than we can ask or imagine. God’s love for us never changes and never ends. God is faithful to God’s promise to love us always, not only us but generations yet unborn.
Even as we may worry about what the future holds, we can rejoice because we know God will be in it—loving, caring, healing, liberating, delivering, providing, reconciling, empowering, re-creating, doing still more new things, abiding.
Singing is wonderful. As you probably know, study after study is proving scientifically what we’ve always known: that singing is good for us. It makes us feel better, both physically and emotionally, lowering stress levels and blood pressure. And group singing does even more than that, decreasing feelings of loneliness and depression and increasing a sense of trust and bonding.
But this is not why we sing—at least not why we sing in church. We sing in response to God’s goodness; we sing because life is achingly beautiful and beautifully painful. We sing because God holds us in the palm of her hands, because no matter how far we roam our home is in God’s heart. We sing because life with God, and with the Spirit that lives in each of us, makes us glad. We sing because we have so, so much for which to be thankful.
For Dick, for the choir, the Joyful Noises, for piano and organ, guitar and drums, recorder and bass, horn and tambourine, we give thanks today.
We enter God’s gates with thanksgiving, and God’s courts with praise. We give thanks to God and bless God’s name. For God is good; God’s steadfast love endures forever, and God’s faithfulness to all generations.