Sing a new song to the Lord

Dr Margie Tolstoy, Lecturer and Tutor in Ethics, University of Cambridge

22 October 2017

Readings: Exodus 22: 12-23 and Matthew 22: 15-22

May I speak in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen

In June of this year I was asked to give a lecture on the Scottish Reformation in Wigtown where I now live, because the author of the historical novel “Knox’s wife”, Janet Walkinshaw, who is also a Wigtown resident, withdrew two weeks before the event was to take place. It was pure hubris that I accepted, because to my shame, I knew next to nothing about the Scottish Reformation. Yes, I know about the Augustinian monk and powerful theologian Martin Luther and and about Zwingly and John Calvin. Having lived for so long in Cambridge, I know all about little Bilney knocking on Latimer’s door in Clare College and  Robert Barnes, head of the Augustinian community in Cambridge distributing the latest news coming from Wittenberg. My countryman Erasmus was in Queen’s college and pointed out the liberties the church of Rome had taken with the translation of the Bible. These two weeks last June in Wigtown, I read everything I could get my hands on and befriended many of the main characters, who played such an vital role in the Scottish Reformation, 500 years ago. Driving into St Andrews last night was actually quote moving. I remembered Patrick Hamilton and George Wishart, who so inspired John Knox and all the other brave and wise and possibly also foolhardy women and men. I remembered Cardinal Beaton, who was killed in revenge for the outrageous cruelty committed in defence of the status quo.

Reformations start out so full of hope. Looking back, is the word Reformation perhaps a euphemism? The actual process of re-forming the Christian church or indeed maintaining the power of the Church of Rome, has been self-righteously brutal, falling desperately short of vision and compassion. And the Protestant idea of a future, where everyone reads the Bible and  lives accordingly, is naive. People living in the Bible belt in America read the Bible assiduously, yet voted enthusiastically for Donald Trump . . . The Bible is an extraordinary, ancient, weird and wonderful collection of books and stories. For many of us, here this morning, it is indeed Holy Scripture. To engage with it sensitively and wisely is a challenge worth taking. Reading the Bible poetically and compassionately and cherishing the wisdom found, is a most wonderful experience.

In preparation for today’s sermon, and still fascinated with the Scottish Reformation . . . I read all of Exodus, instead of just our particular reading for today. A rich experience, so different from reading the carefully selected passages that appear in the Lectionary for use in church services and private reading.  You miss the real grit that way. It reminds me of Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence. He put together – what is now known as the Jefferson Bible – a version of the Bible that he compiled purely for himself. He completed it in 1820, but never told anyone about it. Discovering the manuscript many years later, it was published and became widely known. Jefferson called it: “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth”. Jefferson bought two Bibles, so he could use the front and back side of the pages, then selected bible passages he liked, cut them out and pasted them in a book with blank pages. He disregarded the Old Testament, despised Paul, and omitted everything that to him seemed dated, secondary or lacked credibility. Miracle stories and ‘healings’ were left out, as were references to the divinity of Jesus and the resurrection. What remained was a new gospel with Jesus as a man of great wisdom promoting the ethics of charity.

What a confident initiative and in a funny sort of way reflects the American “can do” – “yes, we can!” attitude. But how prosaic, how tedious and how self-serving . . . And it is still in print!

Reading all of Exodus brings you well and truly face to face with Moses. Moses’ double identity is subtly, ironically etched in his complex birth story. Son of two mothers, what does he know in his Egyptian life of his previous life? Does he remember his Hebrew origins? His life of leadership has been characterised by a certain ‘hardness’ in his relation to the people. While he passionately advocates ‘for’ them to God, he often speaks ‘to’ them with a kind of repressed anger. He was not a fluent speaker. What a story this is!

At the Burning Bush Moses is called by God. (you are still able to see that kind bush or shrub in St Catherine’s monastery at the foot of Mt Sinai in Egypt in the same place where they believed Moses encountered it. The fire extinguisher strategically placed nearby is both funny and sad)

But back to Moses. Exodus 3: “  . . . an angel of the Lord appeared to him as a fire blazing out from a bush. Although the bush was on fire, it was not burnt up. The Lord called him ‘out of the bush’: “Moses, Moses!” He answered “Here I am”. The Lord said: “I have witnessed the misery of my people and heard them crying out because of their oppressors. I know what they are suffering and have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians and to take them out of that country and bring them into a land flowing with milk and honey . . .”  “I shall send you to Pharaoh and you are to bring my people out of Egypt”. “But who am I”, Moses said, in other words, why me?   But the “I” of the “who am I” is not alone, because God answers him and says: “I will be with you”.

A powerful moment, a profound revelation! “Who am I” is intimately and fundamentally connected with “I will be with you!

That is the God- shaped world Moses inhabits. With that understanding and support, Moses has  the authority and the confidence to lead his people to the promised land.

40 turbulent years pass and we are back at the foot of Mt Sinai in the passage we read today: Exodus 33, verses 12 to 23.

The golden calf episode is now a thing of the past, Moses in a burst of anger smashed the Tablets he received from God on Mt Sinai and the Levites obey God’s command to kill brother, friend and neighbour. This is high drama! Who made this up and which part of the story did really happen? We will never know. Finally in Exodus 33, ‘all will be well and all manner of things will be well’, Julian of Norwich would have said. The Tablets with the commandments are restored and people are more confident now. God tells the Israelites: “I shall bring you to a land flowing with milk and honey, but I shall not journey in your company, for fear that I should destroy you on the way, for you are a stubborn people.” Interestingly and smartly Moses will have none if it.

For the first time, he speaks fluently and says if God does not come along, how will it ever be known that the Israelites shall be distinct from all the people on earth. Powerful and effective pleading here by Moses. God is persuaded to come along: his people will be distinctive, different, chosen . . .  God is interestingly evasive and says: “I shall be gracious to whom I shall be gracious and I shall have compassion on whom I shall have compassion . . . but my face you cannot see, for no mortal may see me and live.”

Walter Brueggemann, the American Christian Old Testament scholar writes: “What is it about the Old Testament that is so odd and disruptive and restless, that refuses to behave itself and act with civility. What is it about the Old Testament that is peculiarly crucial to ethics, especially to Christian ethics, and that is voiced nowhere else?” His answer is interesting and instructive. The Old Testament as an embodiment of that world of stories is odd and crucial because it makes us aware of what is right and wrong. Brueggemann observes that “it mediates ethical reflection through disclosures of hurt and articulations of hope”. Hurt and hope are the most characteristic aspects of Jewish experience and discourse. Hurt and hope . . .

That is a startling conclusion . . . sobering and profound in a post Holocaust world.

Two sets of ethical questions emerge:

  1. Who hurts and who causes hurt? (Vital questions for any community thousands of years ago in the Sinai desert or today in St Andrews University.)

And the second ethical question is:

  1. Who hopes and what makes hope possible?

Walter Brueggemann writes: “ The determination to silence the voices that speak of hurt and hope is a powerful temptation in any age, not least so in our own age. In our own contemporary task of ethical reflection and in our own context of ethical responsibility, this Israelite tradition of the rhetoric of hurt and hope is crucial because, if voices of hope and hurt can be fully and finally silenced, then the dominant voices can have their unchallenged, uninterrupted say . . .” The ideological power of silence and the disempowerment that silence causes, is formidable.

It is important, says Brueggemann, to speak out, to be agents of neighbourly rehabilitation and have a visible commitment to neighbourly fidelity. Moses was a remarkable leader, because he understood the role of discipline and compassion, of hope and fidelity.

We can hear both hope and fidelity in Psalm 96. It is one of the  enthronement psalms and its ancient message is timeless:

Sing a new song to the Lord
Sing to the Lord, all the earth
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvellous deeds to every people.
Great is the Lord and most worthy of praise
he is more feared than all the gods.
For the gods of the nations are idols, every one,
but the Lord made the heavens.
Majesty and splendour attend him,
might and beauty are in his sanctuary

Here is confidence and energy and justified hope.

Life is good. A song of celebration is possibly sung at the appearance of a new reality, new creation, new harmony, new reliability. It may be a new King or celebrating ancient memories. Christians read or sing this new song to the Lord remembering the gracious presence of Jesus Christ in their lives and at the same time remember that they are holding hands, when reading the psalms, with their Jewish brothers and sisters.

And what of that passage in the gospel of Matthew we read this morning? Do you recognise that wilful misunderstanding by the Pharisee of what it means to be a Christian? That one can be both “in” the world and not “of” the world in a mystical sense. As if Christians live in a separate reality, that is disdainfully regarded as unreality, illusion. How familiar we are with that misconception. So many people reject this long and special tradition of storytelling, of wisdom that is subtle and profound. It does, however, require a new power of seeing. Of course that wisdom also has to be lived, embodied and therefore ‘seen’ to be believed.

Singing a new song to the Lord is a celebration as well as the stuff of an ordinary life, lived well, lived graciously . . .

I will leave you with the poetic words of the remarkable 19th Century Scottish theologian George Matheson, who went blind when he was in his twenties. He prayed:

Son of Man, it is “more life and fuller” that I want from Thee – not more gardens, not more sunbeams, not more beauties, but more life . . .

Give me more nerve, more sinew, more strength. I ask not new sight; I ask new power of seeing.