A New Song

A sermon for January 16, 2011

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, ‘Look, here is the Lamb of God!’ — John 1:35-36

I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
— Psalm 40:1-3

It’s not polite to point, I know, but John the Baptist has never been one to conform to cultural expectations, living as he did in the wilderness and eating locusts and wild honey. It’s not polite to point, I know, but John as been pointing for quite some time now: You there, he shouts, the Messiah is coming, prepare the way. You there: time to get your life in order. You there: come on in, the water’s fine.

It’s not polite to point, I know, but John does it anyway, twice in this passage when he sees Jesus coming: “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world…. Look! Here is the Lamb of God!”

It’s not polite to point, I know, but I’m pretty sure that’s what we’re supposed to do, too.

Let me come back to that in a minute.

This week, in the wake of the shooting in Tuscon, there has been a whole lot of conversation about words, about rhetoric, about how we talk to each other and especially about how we disagree with each other.

And I have no doubt that the words we say matter. Words can be hateful and hurtful and in a country where we so dearly value our right to speak freely, we have all the more responsibility to speak carefully and respectfully. We’ll probably never know what words inspired Jared Lee Laughner to do what he did, and we’ll never know if there were words that could have been said to prevent it.

But I do know, that just as words can incite hatefulness, words can also inspire greatness. I have been moved and inspired this week by a number of voices that have used this moment in our story not to rile us up further but to encourage us to be better than we are, to behave better than we have been behaving. Tragedy does that sometimes – gives us new words, a new song.

It’s like the Psalmist who finds himself down in the desolate pit, down in the miry bog – as low as he can go, stuck in the middle of whatever tragedy and despair he has found himself – and God hears him there, puts a new song in his mouth – gives him a new song to sing.

Jon Stewart took a break from being funny on his Daily Show on Monday to talk about what had happened in Arizona. He said: “Crazy people will find a way; crazy always does. I refuse to give in to those feelings of despair. There is light in this situation.” For one thing, he said, “We haven’t lost our capacity to be horrified.”

And then he issued a challenge: “Someone or something will shatter our world again. Wouldn’t it be a shame if we didn’t take this opportunity, and the loss of these incredible people, and the pain that their loved ones are going through right now… Wouldn’t it be a shame if we didn’t take that moment to make sure that the world we are creating now, that will ultimately be shattered again by a moment of lunacy, wouldn’t it be a shame if that world wasn’t better than the one we had previously lost.”

He’s right, I think, and it’s the question we always ask after a tragedy like this: will this divide us further, or will this make us a better people?

The President, speaking to the thousands gathered at the memorial service in Tuscon Wednesday night, said what I think was maybe the truest words we’ve head all week: “We may not be able to stop all the evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us.” And there were the cheers of the people gathered there, rising up like a new song, a cathartic cry that let out grief and professing hope, proclaiming that even this darkness could not overcome the light.

And then there was Scott Kelley. Scott is the brother of Gabrielle Giffords’ husband Mark Kelley. He’s an astronaut, and he’s in space right now, serving for five and a half-month stint at the International Space Station. I’ve told you before, I think, how intrigued I am by space – by the vastness of our universe and the ways we find to explore it. (Someone accused me of being a romantic a few weeks ago, after I told you how delighted I was to find the constellation Orien shining brightly on Christmas Eve. Maybe so- and maybe I listened a little more closely to Scott Kelley because of that.) He said, “We have a unique vantage point here [on the space station]. As I look out the window, I see a very beautiful planet that seems very inviting and peaceful. Unfortunately,” he said. “it is not.” High above the earth, looking back at us, he said: “We’re better than this. We must do better.”

And I know this is cheesy, but I thought of that Bette Midler song from maybe the late 80s, called “From A Distance.” (And now you’re going to accuse me of being not just a romantic, but one with questionable taste in music.) If you know it, it’ll now be in your head all afternoon; sorry about that. The lyrics are all about how lovely the world looks from the distance – the blue and green earth, the snow-capped mountain. From a distance, there is harmony, there is no one in need, no guns or bombs or war. And, she sings, God is watching us, from a distance.

And I think – without getting into a theological interpretation of Bette Midler – I think that she is trying to say that that’s how God sees the world – maybe that’s how God created the world? In any event, I don’t think agree with her.

Because the earth isn’t all blue and green – some parts of it are dead and brown, and there isn’t harmony, and there’s too much war, and there’s too many people in need. There’s incredible injustice, and far too much pain. And God knows that, because God isn’t out there watching us from a distance… God is right here, walking around with us, in the middle of the incredible mess we’ve made of things.

And sometimes, what it takes is for somebody to sing a new song so we pay attention. Sometimes, what it takes is for somebody to point at the light that shines in the darkness and say: “Look: here is the Lamb of God.”

My mom had a friend some years ago – or really, not so much a friend as an acquaintance. She was the mother of my sister’s friend, so they got to know each other while attending school events and arranging carpool rides, but they were never really friendly beyond that. This woman’s husband was diagnosed with early onset Parkinson’s disease and died a few years ago. This was after my sister was grown and had long-since stopped needing carpool rides, so my mother had lost touch with the woman. She’d heard about the death, though, so she sent a card with her sympathies, probably writing something like, “My prayers are with you,” or “My God’s peace be with you.” The woman wrote back, thanking Mom for her note, and then not too long after, they got together and the woman sort of poured her heart out to my mother about the grief she was feeling, and then a couple years later, after my parents had moved away, this woman called her up when a business trip was taking her near where they lived and suggested getting together.

My mother was a little surprised, having mostly lost touch with this woman, and having never really been friends. But she realized that it wasn’t friendship that this woman was looking for – it was a connection to God.

It was that simple expression of care that opened up something for her friend. It was as if my mom, without even really realizing she was doing it, pointed to Christ in the midst of this woman’s pain and said, “Look: there is the Lamb of God.”

Madeleine L’Engle says, “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”

It’s not polite to point, I know, but it’s by pointing to the light – pointing to the Christ that lives and walks among us – that we sing the new song God has given to us.

I also found myself turning to some older words – not spoken this week, but remembered this weekend, words from Martin Luther King, who used his words to point to the darkness of his time and called on us to respond not with more darkness, but with light, because, as he said, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”

Sometimes we have to point to the darkness; that’s our job, too. Sometimes we have to point to the fact that there were too many homeless people out in the cold this week. Sometimes we have to point to the fact that there isn’t enough access to health care for children who need it. Sometimes we have to point to the fact that mental illness still has a terrible stigma and there aren’t enough resources to treat it. Sometimes we have to point to the fact that honestly, we just don’t treat each other very well.

And then we have to do better. We have to live better. We have to sing that new song that God gives us and we have to keep on pointing to the light until we can’t see the darkness anymore.

It’s not polite to point, I know, but Look! Here is the Lamb of God.

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