Grace Presbyterian Church
September 1, 2019, Pentecost 12C
When They Had Sung the Hymn
Obviously I am no longer part of the church or church tradition in which I grew up, but I should acknowledge that it did do some good things for me. It taught me to know my way around the Bible and encouraged me to sing early and often, among other things. But boy, it left me with some confusion for sure. For example, for years I was convinced that the song Jesus and the disciples sang at the end of the Last Supper was “Blest be the tie that binds.” Seriously, once the Lord’s Supper had been completed, the pastor always offered up the rough quote “and the scripture says that they sang a song and went out,” and then we would sing “Blest be the tie that binds.” Always. I promise you the first time I went to a church that sang something other than “Blest be the tie that binds” at the end of communion, I was as confused as I had ever been to that point in my life. If we had observed the Lord’s Supper more than four times a year I might never have unlearned that.
Of course I did eventually figure out that since that hymn wasn’t written until 1782, it couldn’t possibly have been sung at the Last Supper. In fact, most likely anyway, what they sang was some portion (or maybe all) of what came to be known as the Hallel, or in some cases called the Egyptian Hallel. The Hallel consists of Psalms 113-118, and had come, from a very early time in the observance of Passover, to be a significant part of the ritual. You might notice if you go back and look that the two hymns we’ve sung so far in the service nod towards that practice; the first one being an extremely amplified and expanded paraphrase of Psalm 117, and the second a paraphrase of Psalm 116. While it’s not certain, some suggest 113-114 were sung before the meal and 115-118 after.
That would make Psalm 118, a portion of which was our Responsive Reading, the last thing they sang before going out. Think about that. Jesus knows darned well what he’s headed into. He knows what Judas has been up to. And going into the darkest night, the night to come of corrupt trial and deep rejection and physical abuse and scorn, ultimately to culminate in crucifixion, this song is ringing in his ears: …his steadfast love endures forever…with the Lord on my side I do not fear. What can mortals do to me?…the Lord is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation…I shall not die, but I shall live, and recount the deeds of the Lord…the stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone…O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, for his steadfast love endures forever.
Many of the times that song is recorded in scripture the song is all about triumph. Psalm 118 has that quality; the “song of Moses” after the crossing of the sea and escape from Egypt in Exodus is another. But here is not a scene that seems all that triumphant. Of course, we know how the story turns out; triumph does come on the third day. It’s hard not to wonder if any of the disciples caught on to this when that third day came. Did any of them remember the song, either on that dark bleak night or on that third day?
There is something about song and singing that cuts through the darkest of fogs of memory. It is a well-known phenomenon now, the way that a person long lost to dementia or Alzheimer’s or some similar condition can awaken to vibrant life at the catch of a familiar song. Of course, preachers have known for a very long time that things sung stay in the memory a lot longer than things heard. Why do you think we sing four hymns in the service? With any luck, one of those hymns will stay in your mind far more and far longer than anything I say in this pulpit or from this table.
Song is a gift. It keeps popping up throughout scripture, not even so much in the form of instructing to sing or forbidding to sing, but simply in singing. Those experiencing triumph sing a song of praise; those in trouble sing a song of lament. It’s there, and it keeps on sounding in the church despite the worst efforts of some in the church’s history to stifle it or constrict it or rob it of its power. Song is a gift, and absolutely a gift of God to the people of God, and we need to cherish it and hold on to it and not rob ourselves of the comfort and strength it gives.
When they had sung the hymn, they went out. They went out into a night that was darker spiritually than it was physically. When we sing the hymns today, we go out into broad daylight, but indeed there is a storm on the horizon. God gave the gift of song for both the nights of darkness and the brightest of days. How dare we not live out that gift, no matter what we face?
For the song to sing; Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #327, From All That Dwell Below the Skies; #655, What Shall I Render to the Lord; #641, When in Our Music God Is Glorified; #611, Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee