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Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Can I get an "Alleluia," somebody? (B23O)

The responsorial psalm Sunday is Psalm 146, a Hallel, one of the psalms that begins with the word "Alleluia," a word meaning "praise the Lord," or "holler to Yah" or something like that. There is so much to like about Psalm 146, especially for a musician. Unlike its more famous neighbor, Psalm 150, it cites specific reasons for which the praise of God is required, which is good, because otherwise, we might get the idea that whatever "blessings" we may have received ourselves, health, a mortgage or two, a relatively functional family, a job that pays more than minimum wage, citizenship in a country that isn't actively trying to kill us, more cars than will fit in our two-car garage, enough discretionary cash to pay for a personal trainer, all of those things that constitute the status quo, is enough of a reason to say, "Praise the Lord."

Psalm 146 has a different idea. Like a pre-exilic foreshadowing of the beatitudes, it sings—sings!—that God should be praised because it is
  • God who is faithful forever
  • God who secures justice for all the oppressed
  • God who gives bread to the hungry,
  • God who sets prisoners free,
  • Our God who gives sight to the blind,
  • God who raises up those who are bowed down,
  • The Lord who protects the stranger,
  • God who upholds the widow and orphan.
And as if all that weren't enough, it was a songwriter who had the idea, who got so excited about a God who was in there with the poor, in the thick of it with the least powerful people on earth, that the troubador vows, in an ecstasy of thanksgiving, to "give praise to YHWH all my life, make music to Elohim while I live." I know that I have two published versions of this psalm, and I may have written another one back in times of yore, before I kept records. Not LPs, just any written evidence. Just getting in line with my ancestor in faith to keep the word alive, you know. Praise the Lord, and lose the ammunition.

Do you see what a marvelous act of faith it is, in a God who is truly distinguishable from all the other gods of earth, to sing about a God who not only is not aligned exclusively or primarily with the ruling class and priesthood but who is personally involved with the weak and wretched? This kind of spiritual groundbreaking in the Jewish scriptures made it possible for Jesus of Nazareth to suggest that "Blessed are the poor, the meek, the hungry, the sorrowful," announcing in his first "sermon" that the empire of God was gathered around him on the hill, tired, overtaxed, dressed for labor, stressed out worrying about where tomorrow's bread might come from. Not far away, not meritable, not a consequence of birth, not visible by way of the blessing of health or money, but already among you, close enough to grasp. 

These are the right words to sing this Sunday as Jesus crosses into the Gentile territory and heals a deaf man with a speech impediment, using, if the Revised New American Bible's footnotes can be believed, the same gestures and groanings that other healers of his time used. But this kind of healing was a sign of the God of Psalm 146 drawing near, the God of Isaiah, whose approach would be signaled by the healing of the desert and the bodies of those whose broken bodies are stumbling home from exile.

The letter of James, the "just," the "brother of the Lord," the leader of the church in Jerusalem, is a warning to anyone in the church (or out of it, or in any church) who thinks that the signs of God's favor and blessing are anything other than the ones delineated in the psalm or, to the point, in the teaching of "brother" Jesus. Showing partiality to the rich and entitled over the poor is roundly condemned, specifically because that's not what God is like. But (sarcasm alert) no need spend too much time analyzing James here, because we certainly don't have that problem in our time or in this country. Or in our church.

A friend of mine wrote on Facebook yesterday that he loved Pope Francis because "he makes me want to be a better person." Why do you think that is? Maybe it's because Francis mirrors for us God's predilection for the poor. Unafraid, he frequents prisons, embraces the sick, walks in the barrios and slums, inevitably with a smile on his face, radiating love, except in those moments when you can see anger flash across his face about the scandalous inequalities of modern civilization.

Maybe the "so what?" question remains. So what if Jesus healed a man who with a speech impediment a couple of millennia ago? What has he done for us lately? That's a fair question. So I'm saying thank you today to all my friends and colleagues over the years who have worked in hospitals and clinics, healing the sick and bringing the presence of Christ into the pain and fear that sickness brings. Thank you to Christ in the speech therapists, and I'm thinking of one particular one today, helping a musician maintain the ability to sing in spite of an illness. Thank you to Christ in the junior high school singer in my youth choir who gave a concert with her voice teacher at an eldercare facility, and who started playing "You Are My Sunshine" on her guitar, and was overcome with emotion as the residents took up the refrain with her, and brought the little house down.

Thank you to all of you, Christ in the alleluia-makers, Christ in the musicians, who week after week sing a word of healing to people who are told by "civilization" that they can never be good enough, that they're not beautiful, that they don't hate the right people; to you whose hands and breath intone the music of Ephphetha, and invite the chosen of God into the song that heals the universe. "Be strong: fear not! Here is your God, he comes to save you!" You and I may not always "do all things well," but God is strong in our weakness. May our song of God's gentle reign break the spell of greed and rivalry to which all are subjected through the week, and lead the world, one assembly at a time, into an "alleluia" for the One who raises up the lowly, and secures justice for the oppressed.

Here's what we're singing this weekend at St Anne:

Entrance: Open My Eyes
Psalm 146: Praise the Lord, My Soul (Cooney)
Prepration of the gifts: Turn Around
Communion: You Are Mine (Haas)
Closing: Over My Head or Healing River

We're also debuting these weeks at the choir mass a new (partly revised) mass setting called Mass of Christ the Servant. This is always nervewracking for me, not because I don't think it's singable or worthy, but because you just never know, as a songwriter, how other people will react to your music. It's utterly unpredictable. Nevertheless, "I will praise the Lord all my life, make music to my God while I live." Or die trying.