A New Song

James Gertmenian May 12, 2019

Psalm 33:1–5

Sing out your joy to Yahweh, you who love justice—
praise is fitting for loyal hearts.
Praise Yahweh with the harp,
and play music with a ten-stringed lyre!
Sing God a new song,
play with all your skill, and with shouts of joy!
For the word of Yahweh is true
and everything God does can be trusted.
Yahweh loves justice and right
and fills the earth with love.

John 12:20–26

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”

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First of all, Happy Mother’s Day! However you observe this day, be sure to remember the wisdom of the traditional Spanish proverb: “An ounce of mother is worth a pound of clergy.” Truer words . . . !

As everyone at Plymouth knows, it isn’t just Mother’s Day. It’s a festal day of thanks for Philip Brunelle! In being asked to preach for this occasion, I knew this one thing for sure: I’m a stand-in. That is, I’m here to speak on behalf of a host of people. I’m a stand-in for every person who has worshipped in this church over the past 50 years who has been transported by a thundering, joyous organ prelude . . . an intricate, filigreed fugue . . . a darkly moving chorale. I’m a stand-in for the legion of musicians—choristers, soloists, instrumentalists—who have been deftly led and boldly challenged to make sound more sublime than they ever thought themselves capable of. I’m a stand-in for all of the people who love to sing hymns—old hymns and new hymns alike—and who relish the experience of having their voices coaxed, lifted and inspired by an accompanist who knows how to undergird a congregation with the organ’s sound . . . but who also knows how to honor a congregation with the organ’s silence. I’m a stand-in for members of the broader Twin Cities community who have benefitted from Philip’s impresarial gifts again and again. And I’m certainly here as a stand-in for a long procession of Plymouth clergy who have found in Philip an extraordinary colleague and who (at least if my experience is any indication) know what it is like to have a decidedly mediocre sermon rescued by virtue of having it surrounded by great music . . . wreathed, as it were, with a laurel more beautiful than the head upon which it lies.

Now, there is no doubt that the public, visible qualities of this man—his virtuosity, his almost unearthly energy, his willingness to tackle big, daunting projects—are many and worthy of praise. But just as worthy of note, and perhaps more worthy of praise, are some quieter, less public of Philip’s qualities, among which I would count a pervading thoughtfulness, an unassuming kindness and a deep but very private generosity. Oh, I could tell you stories . . . of an elderly, ailing parishioner who wanted so much to hear a particular VocalEssence concert but who, due to infirmity, couldn’t sit with a crowd for that long . . . how without anyone noticing, a car was dispatched to his home to pick the older man up and how an upholstered chair was provided in the sanctuary so he could enjoy, without discomfort or embarrassment, a dress rehearsal of that concert. I could tell you (but many of you know) about a continual flood of thoughtful notes sent to remember birthdays, anniversaries and to offer condolences. I could tell you (if we talked about such things) which couple—every year—are found among the very top givers to Plymouth’s pledge campaign. And here, by the way, is a good moment to remember, lift up and celebrate—as we must—this partnership in which Carolyn shines bright and to which she brings a profound artistic gift of her own. Plymouth’s celebration of the visual arts—so important to this congregation’s identity—owes a primary debt to dear Carolyn. If only we could bless her in all the ways she has blessed us.

Now, I’m fully aware that my assignment today is not to give a testimonial but to preach a sermon, but before we turn to our scripture reading, bear with me for one, brief recollection. I met Philip in 1996. I had just been called as Plymouth’s new Senior Minister, and he arranged for us to have a quiet get-to-know-you breakfast at the New French Bakery downtown. We talked about a hundred things, and at one point I asked him about Plymouth’s use of the Pilgrim Hymnal, which, even by then, was, frankly, a little outdated. “Oh, that’s not going to be a problem at all,” Philip said, and he continued in his characteristic “can-do” voice: “I’ve been working for some time on creating a new hymnal for Plymouth. It’s very nearly done; we should be able to publish it sometime soon.” Friends, that was nearly a quarter of a century ago. But, not to worry! He told me again—just last month—that the hymnal is “nearly done.” So . . . I’m penciling in a Sunday in the year 2030 for a dedication ceremony. I suggest that you hold Philip’s feet—those feet that fly so exquisitely across the organ pedals—to the fire so we can all enjoy this great new work!

So, onward: The Psalmist says, “Sing to the Lord a new song!” and Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” Let’s see what we can reap from these two passages. First, will you pray with me?

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be ever acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock, our Redeemer and Friend. Amen.

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An anniversary is, of course, a Janus moment: From this singular perch that we call the present, we gaze—hopefully with gratitude—back on what has been . . . and at the same time we peer—hopefully also with gratitude, but more likely with curiosity, perhaps with anxiety—forward on what is yet to be. It’s the forward look that I want to focus on today. As some of you know, I’m involved in a project—for which we recently received a $1 million grant—to work with young, progressive faith leaders—Muslim, Jewish, Christian and others—all over the country. I’m enthralled with what this newer generation of clergy sees “out there, on the horizon”—let’s say it’s a 50-year horizon—for the life of faith and the practice of religion in America. And today I’m wondering what you see out ahead—for Plymouth in 50 years, for the church as a whole, for religious life in America—and how you feel about it. Just as important, I am wondering how it is for you now . . . how it is with you and God, with you and Christianity, with you and the changing church. God knows, these are big and urgent questions for me as well. As for the future of religion, I guess I’m listening for something faintly heard from a time I will not live to see . . . a hint, perhaps, of that “new song” that the Psalmist urges us to sing. The future of faith: it’s a long conversation, but let me see if I can get it started.

We begin with Gustav Mahler. That’s right . . . Mahler: the brilliant Viennese composer who died at age 50 in 1911. And yes, the early 1900s is an odd place to start when thinking about the future to be sure, but bear with me! Mahler’s late work, by most accounts, marked the end of the great symphonic arc that began with Mozart and Haydn a 150 years before. By the early days of the 20th century, the height of Mahler’s flowering, the foundations of classical music were being rocked in a seismic, profound way. The great tradition of tonal music, of tonality itself, was giving way to a host of atonal experiments, most vividly represented by the work of Arnold Schoenberg and Igor Stravinsky but found also in traditional strains of pre-classical and non-Western music. To illustrate: in Mahler’s time, this [Philip plays a tonal example] was giving way to this [Philip plays an atonal example]—tonality ceding ground to atonality. As Leonard Bernstein said so eloquently in his Norton lectures at Harvard, Mahler’s 9th Symphony, written shortly before he died, announced, with heart-rending pathos, the death of the old music; it was a “farewell” to long-standing musical traditions, and it was, for Mahler—whose health was fragile—also a farewell to life itself. Everything known in music was giving way to a new unknown. And, of course, what was happening in music was happening in other fields as well: Freud in psychology, Einstein in physics, Picasso in painting . . . all heralded a wrenching deconstruction of the old world and a disorienting thrusting-forward of the new. Of course, there was resistance.

I can easily imagine a traditionalist viewing Picasso for the first time, feeling saddened (or, more likely, offended) by his work, wanting to return to the old ways, and exclaiming, with righteous and nostalgic fervor, a fervent battle-cry: “Make Painting Great Again!” So, a similar response to Schoenberg’s atonal forays. So, the same, to Einstein’s bewildering quantum theories. A visceral longing for the old realities. But the very ground was shifting. These were no mere incremental changes. Nothing would be the same again. No way back. And beneath it all was the darkly haunting question: “Can life on Earth be saved?” or are these profound discontinuities signaling a great collapse: everything—everything—falling apart?

How do we understand religion in relation to all of this? We see in a glass darkly. But I would venture this: A hundred years after Mahler, it may well be that it is now religion’s turn to write our own version of the 9th Symphony: a farewell to the old ways of faith . . . and a hesitant openness to strange, new ways of belief and practice . . . ways that are not yet here but that may come. Now let’s be honest. No one in their right mind who cares about religious life and religious communities—communities like this one—will suggest that this transition will be effected without authentic grief and real pain. Our religions, after all, are where we have always looked for stability, a rootedness in that which is eternal, so when these foundations shake it is especially terrifying. And let’s be clear: when I speak of “new ways of faith,” I do not mean things like contemporizing our worship, bringing in some new hymns, colloquializing our liturgies. These are mere wavelets on a deeply moving tide, an irresistible current.

The new ways of faith of which we speak, the “new song” that the Psalmist enjoins are much more profound. They call for a foundational revolution of religious life: our language, our ideas about God, our moral practice, our very understanding of ourselves. Everything comes into question. Will this new tide moving beneath us carry us to something new and beautiful . . . or to the Abyss? We cannot be sure. But make no mistake: The changes ahead are definitely not about “Making the Church Great Again.” They are more akin to what Jesus said: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” We are not talking about restoration, but about revolution.

In regard to theology, the contemporary philosopher Richard Kearney put it this way: “After the terrors of Verdun, the traumas of the Holocaust, Hiroshima and the Gulags, to speak of God is an insult unless we speak in a new way.” All of post-Holocaust theology says the same: in the ash-covered aftermath of the crematoria, it is simply unacceptable to talk about God the way we used to. It is intellectually and spiritually dishonest, after the manifest tragedies of the 20th century, and after the revolution of knowledge of that same century, to continue to speak of an all-powerful, benevolent God. But what, then? Is God dead? Kearny’s approach is interesting. He proposes that there may be an understanding of the Divine that comes after we let go of theism (the idea of God as a distinct, powerful, conscious being) and after we move past atheism (the rejection of the idea of God altogether).

After theism and after atheism comes something that Kearney calls anatheism. This is not a return to the old God after rejecting God. It’s not a going back. It’s not “Make God Great Again!” It is, rather, a moving into the future to meet a God we cannot yet even imagine. That may appeal to you. It may not. But for any of us involved in the life of faith at this moment in history, it means standing naked on the precipice of time, stripped of religion’s old consolations (a heaven to look forward to, a doctrine to hold onto, an institution to give allegiance to) and without yet being clothed in the new consolations that are still to come. But faith is the understanding, the conviction—or as Kearney would say, the wager—that new consolations do await us, that new truth will undergird us, that new communities will enfold us and that new life will be stitched through with joy.

Some years ago, from this pulpit (and undoubtedly influenced by the spirit of Howard Conn, of blessed memory), I tried to say it this way:

I would suggest that many thoughtful Christians today are atheists—not in the sense that we deny the existence or presence of God—but rather that we have sailed out from the harbor of the God we knew and are on a voyage toward the God who is. The language of theism, which describes the God we grew up with—a being of omnipotence and apprehensible consciousness—is receding behind us. The language of atheism, which says there is simply nothing and no-one there, leaves our mouths dry, our souls parched. But ahead—ahead!—a horizon lined with the holy fire of a sun just rising . . . an expanse so unimaginably beautiful that even a hint of it breaks the heart . . . and in the end the utter joy of the journey in which God is not the goal but the very sea beneath us. God, we find after all, may not be a thing to be grasped, or a being to believe in, but a presence to be experienced. Again, I wonder what you think. For myself, I don’t think that God is dead. But I sense that God, in God’s great love for us, has taken from us of our old ways of understanding, taken our knowledge, taken our certainty so that we might once again be called out, there to stand in awe, and tremble, and, in the very end, be blessed.

That fiery horizon, at this point, defies clear description and understanding, but using equal measures of imagination, reason, memory (of which scripture is one element) and hope, it may be possible for us—in community—to make out the broad outlines of what is ahead. As Yogi Berra said, “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.” Still, I wonder. Might the new song—the new faith—the new church—have these attributes?

Humility. In the new faith, might we finally acknowledge all of what we do not know? No more imperious suggestions that we have God figured out, pinned down, sized up, wrapped neatly in a creed or in some systematic theology. In the Greek Orthodox tradition, Mary, the mother of Jesus, was considered to be khora akhoraton—a container of the uncontainable. The new faith could be just that: a container for what we know is uncontainable.

Multilingualism. Instead of claiming that our language about God is the only language, or the best language, and instead of, on the other hand, roughly amalgamating all of the various faith traditions into a crude and useless Esperanto, could we engage in a rich, challenging, multilingual conversation about God and about our common life? Could we make it our business to know one another’s God-languages so that each of us might more clearly speak our own?

Integration. Oh, the psychic splits that have wounded us and our world! Body versus soul, heaven versus earth, darkness versus light, sacred versus mundane. Every time we divide them, we wound ourselves. They aren’t meant to be divided! Might those splits, in a new faith, finally be healed? Might we see some new unity with them? Even the male/female split: Is it possible, in fact, that our transgender and non-binary friends are prophets of this unifying truth?

Communalism. Has the Enlightenment focus on individualism finally reached its saturation point and might we finally turn toward a new communalism? Not in the sense that we believe the same things, or that we erase personality, but in the sense of deep and mutual accountability, deep and mutual care. What would it be like to live in a community so embracing that when you stumble, my knee is skinned? That when you soar, I can see the world as though I were flying? That when you sin, I share in responsibility? That while you are hungry, I can never be satisfied? And that when God’s blessings arrive, they are neither mine nor yours, but always, always ours?

Groundedness. Imagine a new faith that would draw deeply from the earth’s language and its truth. A faith in which water and soil, flora and fauna, air and all the physical universe would help to teach us what is good. A faith in which our poor, wounded but indomitable earth would sing her song over the din of our rapaciousness and bring us to our senses: Literally “bring us to our senses.” South African cosmologist George F. R. Ellis suggests that ethics are built into the physical structure of the universe. That we do not decide what is right and wrong . . . that right and wrong are not human constructs, but part of the very nature of things. Imagine a faith in which Earth-truth and human-truth were the same Truth!

And finally, Justice. Imagine a future in which these truths come clear: Love without justice is not love. Compassion without deeds is not compassion. Faith without action is not faith. And religion without politics is not religion. Ah, imagine a future in which the church is no longer the handmaid of the state as it has been for most of our lives, but rather a firebrand of God’s justice bringing what Jesus said it should bring: good news to the poor, release for the captives, recovery of sight for those who are blind, liberty for those who are oppressed and the coming of God’s good time!

We don’t know about any of this, of course. We don’t know what is ahead for the life of faith . . . or for life itself, for that matter. I confess that like many of you, I’m disturbed by what I see around me. As Mahler felt about the music that he loved, I look at the church I love, the world that I love, and I know that much of it is passing away. Much of it is in trouble. I cannot deny the sadness of all this. But unless we let go of what has been, how can we ever know what may be?

“Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains alone, but if it dies it bears much fruit.” With tears in our eyes, with hope in our hearts, with firmness of step and openness of mind, let us join hands and move toward that promised, sacred harvest. Let the old song, long loved, recede. Let the new song fill the heavens and bless the earth!