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"A New Song" -- Psalm 96 (Reign of Christ Sunday; Patrick O'Connor preaching)

Friends, as you may be aware from my children’s moments, I love a good reason to celebrate, and we have so much to celebrate this week as we look to the end of the church calendar holding onto hope and expectation that will carry us into the Advent season and soon into 2022. We’re wading into the part of the year where it’s so easy for our eyes to gloss over in the busyness of gathering and celebrating and remembering and grieving and looking to what new song might be coming next.

In our worshipping life, we pause to remember and commemorate what has traditionally, at least traditionally for only about the last century, has been known as Christ the King Sunday, or as some folks have begun to call it, Reign of Christ Sunday. The Feast of Christ the King originates with Pope Pius the 11th in 1925, and some scholars argue that it was established as a counter-protestant reformation feast that was celebrated on the last Sunday in October, which was then moved to the last Sunday of the ecclesiastical calendar by Pope Paul VI in 1969.

With so much to rejoice in this week in worship, I’ve really had a hard time processing the Christ as King imagery-- what does it have to say today? What does it have to say to own community? How might this help us understand God’s sovereignty? There are abundant images and examples found in our own tradition’s story in Scripture and in song that equate both God and Christ as King, but I’m also mindful and curious of the ways this image might miss the mark in proclaiming the alternative ways that God and Christ rule. So to wrestle with this, I’ve had to employ a good bit of question-raising, and I’ve had two questions that have helped me wrestle with it this week. The first is a question we ask in Godly Play, one of the ways that our young folks here at First Pres learn our tradition’s stories. After a story has been told in class, questions are asked that help us begin working with our story. The one that stuck out to me this week was this:

I wonder if there is any part of our story we can leave out and still have all the story that we need?

I have found it ironic that of all the metaphors and images we have in our tradition for looking to Christ- teacher, healer, helper, servant, radical, fisher- we’ve decided to single out Christ as King to help us mark the end of the church calendar. Now, it certainly helps us hold onto the understanding of God being the Alpha and Omega, beginning and end, and we understand that Christ rules like no other kings because the reign of shalom that Christ brings and is bringing into the world. “While kingship can evoke strength, longevity, and authority, it can also evoke abuses of power, servitude, and slavery”.

So, is the king imagery absolutely necessary for the story that we need? Can we maintain Christ’s sovereignty without it?

On Wednesdays this semester, I’ve been taking a class with the chaplaincy folk across the street titled “Dismantling Systems of Oppression in Pastoral Care” and this question bubbled up in class earlier this month. Rev. Laurie Garrett-Cobbina remarked that it reminded her of the story in the Hebrew Bible when God is doing a new thing with the Israelites and Samuel, and yet all the people want is a king (1 Samuel 8).

We are grateful to inherit this imagery from the ancient communities of which we are tethered to, but Biblical Scholar Jamie L. Waters warns us “we should recognize that certain images have the ability to be misused and might not be the best representation of God”[1].

While holding onto this question this week, and holding it up to our scriptures, I wonder how this wrestling with the king metaphor might be a part of this new song the psalmist calls us to sing. How is it that the psalmist connects God’s sovereignty with the new song we are called to sing? After all, the psalmist holds these two together but how?

What I think threads God’s sovereignty into this new song is how the psalmist describes who is singing- it’s not just some of us, but rather everyone! That is how big and loud this new song will be- God’s sovereignty is so full of love and justice that all of creation will be singing- the heavens, the seas, even the trees will sing of God’s redeeming justice.

If there is a new song to be sung, what’s the issue with the old song? Why do we need a new song? It makes me wonder what might be the issue with the song we’ve sung so far?

Could it be that the old song wreaks of patriarchy, of supremacy, of abuse of power, of hatred and dominance and control? Can you imagine singing this song with glad and generous hearts?

NO! The psalmist tells us this new song is one of greatness, grandeur, strength and beauty, of presence, of hope and love, of cajoling praise, of establishing justice. And it is Paul that reminds us that in Christ, the old things are passing away, and that everything is becoming new! Indeed, perhaps this new song is the song of Christ’s reigning shalom, and that in Christ, we are invited to be a part of it.

the psalm does not ask its listeners to wait passively for the establishment of justice on earth. The series of imperatives throughout the psalm remind listeners themselves to also act: to sing, bless, tell, and declare. These imperatives, all in the plural, demand that everyone act. And the inclusion of all throughout the psalm — all the peoples, families, nations, and, indeed, the very heavens, seas, fields, and trees — reminds listeners of how bound together creation is. Together, the psalmist says, hope, even in the face of misery. Celebrate. But together, too, work.

As we continue our church’s Annual Giving Campaign this month, we have the opportunity to participate in singing this new song “with glad and generous hearts”! As we continue to imagine and settle into our hybrid space, our sharing of time and resources gives us the continued opportunity to ensure that all are invited and welcome and part of this new thing Christ is doing.

Finding our part in this new song, I think, requires asking questions. Children’s author Kate DiCamillo recalls an encounter during a book signing where a fifth grader brought up his copy of her book The Tale of Despereaux. As she was signing his book, the student said, “My teacher said fifth grade is the year of asking questions.”

“Really?” Kate remarked.

“Yeah,” he said. And he brought out a notebook. “Every day we’re supposed to ask someone different a good question and listen really good and then write down the answer when they’re done talking.”

“Oh,” she said, “I get it. I’m someone different. Okay, what’s your question?”

“My question is how do you get all that hope into your stories?”

“That’s not a good question,” Kate said. “That’s a great question. Let me think, um. I guess that writing the story is an act of hope, and so even when I don’t feel hopeful, writing the story can lead me to hope. Does that make sense?”

“Yeah,” he said. He looked her in the eye. “It’s kind of a long answer. But I can write it all out. Thanks.” He picked up his copy of Despereaux, and walked away--writing in his notebook.

As we end the liturgical year, our celebration of the Reign of Christ is an opportunity to think about the ways that we promote God’s sovereignty in the world. And as we prepare to begin Advent and celebrate Christ’s birth, we should reflect on what we have been doing to sing our part in Christ’s new song that sings of loving God and loving neighbor. Perhaps it is a time for us to start asking good questions, a time to write down the answer, and a time to listen to each other really well.

© 2021 Patrick O'Connor


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