It’s always nice to have a chance to celebrate our music program at the end of a church year. Much like we celebrated our children, Betsy and the teachers and volunteers of our children’s programs last week, today we get a chance to celebrate those who bring us our music; Adam, of course, and all the volunteers who sing and ring, or play an instrument, and for that matter, everyone who opens a hymnal and lifts up your voice and praise … just generally all those who help us to make a joyful noise to the Lord. On behalf of all of us … thank you all so much.
Music is vital to worship. Can you imagine worship without music? Something deeply important would be missing. We’d be left with a service that was all words. And much as I love words, it is not enough to simply talk our praise to God. We need to sing it. In his letter to the Colossians Paul wrote: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teach and admonish one another in all wisdom, and sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” (3:16-RSV) That’s a wonderful description of what we’re trying to accomplish in worship. We are meant to keep the wisdom of Christ at the center, of course, but we’re also meant to surround that center with the music of praise and thanksgiving.
This morning’s reading from the psalms captures that spirit in a beautiful way. It is a song of praise. “O Lord, our God, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” As we find them in the bible, the psalms are written poetry. But from the beginning, they were meant to be sung. The book of Psalms is actually a hymnal, but you wouldn’t necessarily know that unless you have heard them put to music.
When it comes to this morning’s psalm, I actually have a bit of personal history. Way back when I was a little kid I used to sing in our church choir. One of the pieces we sang was an anthem by Dale Woods that used Psalm 8 for the lyrics. I don’t remember most of the music we sang all those years ago, but I do remember this one. The reason I remember it is that right in the middle of the anthem there was a section that was meant to be dramatically spoken rather than sung. Whenever we did it, I always ended up feeling silly and self-conscious. Our choir director must have really liked it though, because we sang it a lot.
In rehearsals, he was always very intent on having us speak the words clearly and distinctly in the same rhythm. He wanted us to build to this mighty crescendo together, all the while overdoing the diction. It sounded something like this, if you can imagine about 20 voices all saying it together.
Thou hast made man a little lower than the angels.
And hast crowned him with honor and with glory.
Thou hast given him dominion over the works of thy hands.
Thou hast put all things under his feet:
All sheep and oxen and the beasts of the field,
The fowl of the air and the fish of the sea.
Oh Lord. Our Lord, how excellent is thy name in all the earth!!!
Little kids are easily embarrassed. But clearly, the words have stayed with me all these years, and I’ve grown to love them. It’s easy to picture the setting out of which the psalm was written. “When I look up at the heavens … the moon and the stars that you have established.” Have you ever done that? Have you ever sat out in a field on a clear night and looked up at the stars and wondered? Who am I? Where did I come from? What is my place in the universe? Is there a God, and does God really care for me?
I remember doing that one time with an Adventure Camp group I was leading out in Colorado. We’d driven all day, and arrived at the trailhead after it was already dark. But it was a beautiful night, so rather than putting up the tents, we just laid a big tarp out on the ground and everyone rolled out their sleeping bags on the tarp. Once everyone was settled, we lay there staring up at the stars, pointing out constellations and talking quietly. This psalm popped into my head. “When I look up at the heavens, the moon and the stars that you have created. I found myself wondering. Who are we, O God? And why do you care for us?
The more we learn about the universe, the more astonishing it becomes. Bill Bryson wrote a wonderful book some years back called, “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” At one point, he makes this wonderful observation about how big the universe is.
“The sun,” he wrote, “around which Earth orbits is one of perhaps 400 billion stars in the Milky Way, which is a piddling galaxy next door to nothing much. There are perhaps 140 billion galaxies in the still-unfolding universe. If all the stars in the universe were only the size of the head of a pin, they still would fill Miami’s Orange Bowl to overflowing more than 3 billion times.
What are human beings, that the creator of this enormous universe is mindful of us? And perhaps these days, a question that is even more to the point; Why does it matter?
There are a lot of ways we can answer that question, but one came to mind for me just this morning. I was reading an article about how much anxiety there is in the world these days. Part of what it said was this: “According to data from the National Institute of Mental Health, some 38 percent of girls ages 13 through 17, and 26 percent of boys, have an anxiety disorder.” The article was called “Prozac Nation Is Now the United States of Xanax.” (June 10, 2017, by Alex Williams) It’s a very sobering article.
I certainly don’t want to oversimplify things here. I know anxiety is a serious concern for a lot of people. But one of the things our faith tells us is that a big part of what makes so many people so anxious, is that they believe they are all alone in the universe. People are very quick these days to say that God doesn’t exist. But the problem with believing there is no God, is that it puts all the weight of existence right smack dab on our own shoulders. A lot of our anxiety comes from believing we are supposed to be completely in control of everything that goes on in our lives, right in the midst of a world that seems completely out of control. Even the simplest, everyday choices we are expected to make seem to carry life or death consequences. It’s frightening, and it’s paralyzing.
My friends, one of the most important things that people of faith have to offer an anxious world is the reassurance that we are not alone, and that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God. Regardless of how big the universe is, and how small we may feel by comparison, nevertheless, God cares for us as beloved children, and always will. That is the faith we come here to nurture in one another. That is the word of grace we have to share with the world. That is the song of praise that rises when, in our music, God is glorified.