Interfaith Council of Western MA Thanksgiving Service
Foster Memorial Church UCC & Grace Community Baptist Church, Springfield MA
Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God. It is he that has made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture. Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise. Give thanks to him, and bless his name. For the Lord is good, his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.
I confess that I didn’t much want to be here today, nor did I know what useful thing I could say to you. I’ve been more in the mood of wallowing and hiding, stewing and struggling. My major accomplishments over the past few days include putting on clothes and leaving the house, and not flipping off every driver that seems out to get me. Everything in me wants to burrow in my home, gather my family close, wall myself off from any more news of corruption or elections or the assaults on vulnerable people. Maybe you feel this way, too.
But I come here, to an interfaith Thanksgiving service, as an act of love, an act of power, and an act of defiance. I come here as an act of love, because I am convinced I need the rest of you to be fully human. I come affirming the power of people gathered in the basements of churches and synagogues and mosques to share the gifts of our communities. I come here as an act of defiance, because even as division and fear has been fueled across the country, our gathering is a counterwitness to all that fear and division. We are an act of love, power, and defiance, an example of peaceful coexistence and mutual delight in people who are very, very different from one another. I refuse to deny the goodness and necessity in this, in us. Maybe you came here today for these reasons too. Maybe you decided that putting on your clothes, leaving the house, eating some baklava and a hug from a neighbor was better for your soul than stewing and struggling on your own.
The dedicated organizing team of the Interfaith Council of Western Massachusetts shared with me the readings and theme, picked long in advance. A theme of “Giving Thanks?” Hard to do when you’ve just seen the blatant racism across the country unmasked. Our scripture is a psalm of thanksgiving? I’ll take a psalm of lament, some ashes and sackcloth. A joyful noise? I’d much prefer some communal wailing. I have “holy envy” for the Jewish holiday of Tisha B’Av, a day of corporate mourning for the destruction of the Temple and all that was lost since. I want to fast, and refrain from washing and work, and read hard texts and taste bread dipped in ash. I want to hear our grumbling stomachs and hold our aching heads.
But, the Psalms are a songbook for every season. The Christian scholar of the Hebrew Bible, Walter Brueggemann, maps out three movements of the Book of Psalms: orientation, disorientation, reorientation. First, the songs begin in describing the world and God as stable and consistent- orientation. Then, the songs shift to upheaval and a sense of God’s absence- disorientation. Finally, a shift to something else, acknowledging the disorientation, not returning to the former days, but moving to somewhere new- reorientation.
Some of us, especially us white folks, were severely disoriented this week. Our country wasn’t suddenly racist, sexist, homophobic, and xenophobic, but this past week exposed the extent of the disease. Many of you knew that all along.
Brueggemann counts Psalm 100 among the songs of reorientation. This Psalm 100 is an act of love, power, and defiance. And here is why it is absolutely right for us today, exactly what we need in a time of struggle. Psalm 100 it begins with a most provocative act: the praise of God.
Psalm 100 begins: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing. Know that the Lord is God.”
“To praise is to reject alternative loyalties and false definitions of reality. Praise is relentlessly polemical. As this God is affirmed, in the same act other gods are dismissed as irrelevant and denied any legitimacy. As Israel acknowledges to whom it belongs, it also asserts to whom it does not belong. “
To give thanks and praise, we orient back to our truest selves. To orient back to our truest selves, we give God thanks and praise.
After a recent visit to a church, I wandered around coffee hour, trying to find the least awkward way to talk to a hundred people I did not know. Start with the children.
I bent down to shake the hand of a small girl about 9, small enough to still bend down but large enough to stand on her own. “I’m Laura,” I said. She told me her name, in a language unfamiliar. I tried to repeat her name, my thick American tongue stumbling over the unaccustomed sounds. She noticed my struggle. “I wish I had an easy name like Laura,” she said, knocking the wind from my lungs. Her mother stepped in from another conversation. “This is how you say her name,” she taught me. “Dieulila, her name means God-is-here.”
God is here. God is here, and just because God is here, does not mean that people aren’t being hurt by clumsiness and misplaced anger. In the past week, I’ve seen many Christians proclaim “God is still on the throne,” but that doesn’t mean that God’s people aren’t being hurt. This past week, Jews have been targeted with Nazi graffiti, black students return to school to find signs of “white only” water fountains, Latinx students heckled with cries of “build a wall,” Muslims intimidated when their places of prayer have been desecrated, and women harassed in public spaces while our national election confirms that sexual harassment is not an impediment to public office. God is here, but we are far from behaving as such.
But when we start in praise of God, we reorient our view and our world. To center God as the object of our praise is to displace all else. No politician will save us. No patriotism will save us. No privilege will save us. Praise centers God when the center cannot hold. Praise reminds us that God is “Malik al Mulk (مالك الملك) The Owner of All Sovereignty.” When God is the Owner of All Sovereignty, nothing else can be sovereign.
- When political figures claim to save us, we “know that the Lord is God” (PS 100:3)
- When money becomes a god, we “know that the Lord is God.”
- When whiteness and maleness is deified, we “know that the Lord is God”
To know that the Lord is God is to remember that we are not God. The object of our praise is outside of ourselves. To praise God is to reject anything that might try to claim sovereignty over our bodies and our lives.
The secret of Psalm 100 is that it’s a communal song. Psalm 100 is not a prayer for a quiet corner, but for a public park. Psalm 100 is less a chant in a monastery and more a seventh inning stretch. When the Psalmist sings “Make a joyful noise all the earth,” the whole earth sings. St. Augustine heard the song, not in one country or “one particular corner of the earth, or one habitation or congregation of men…the good are mingled with the wicked throughout all lands. Every land is full of the discontented murmurs of the wicked, and of the jubilance of the good.”
And so we sing, all people that on earth do dwell
Brueggemann says, “To sing in this way to Yahweh is to abandon self-groundedness. A life without praise is more likely a life turned in on self. It is a life of autonomy and self-invention, which imagines that one is self-made, need answer no other and can rely on no other.”
To sing communally is an act of defiance against all who would say we can go on our own.
This is our Abrahamic tradition, and our American tradition. In defiance, we sing the Psalms, and sing Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” and Woodie Guthrie’s “this Land is Your Land, ” and Public Enemy’s “911 Is a Joke” and Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry.” We teach our children Yusuf Islam’s “Peace Train,” and learn the cords to Leonard Cohen’s “Anthem.” We shout Rage Against the Machine’s, ‘Killing in the Name,’ and dance Beyoncé’s “Freedom.” We lift every, every voice and sing.
St. Augustine wrote, “this Psalm giveth this exhortation to us, that we jubilate unto the Lord.” It’s a good verb, to jubilate. Let us jubilate as if our lives depended on it. And if you cannot sing today, your neighbor will sing twice as strong on your behalf.
We’re going to sing this Psalm in Latin, a language none of us are fluent in! We’ll sing Jubilate Deo. We’re going to practice being uncomfortable trying something new and leaning on each other.
I’m serious, we’re going to sing our praise to God, reorient ourselves with God at the center. Stand up, put your feet on the ground. Throw your shoulders back and your mouth open. Sing as if your life depended on it. Sing together as an act of love, an act of power, an act of defiance.