"What new song are we now to sing?"

October 10, 1999 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon  Psalm 96:1 & 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Many of you can remember that Sunday in June eleven years ago when the addition to our church meetinghouse was dedicated. It was a time of celebration, with not one service of worship but two, in both morning and afternoon. It was a time of feasting, with a meal spread out in the "new" fellowship hall. Was this the first covered dish dinner in that room? I don’t know. I wasn’t here then. I’m sure, though, that it was a great day in the life of this church. Dreams had become blueprints, which lead to bricks and mortar, and then to a completed facility.

Burning a mortgage, I’ll grant you, is not as exciting as dedicating a new facility. However, today is also an important milestone in the life of this congregation. A good deal of financial planning went into this building project. Many of you gave sacrificially toward it, above and beyond your regular tithes and offerings. Your good stewardship made it possible for this church to structure the remaining debt into the yearly budget. The discipline of the various treasurers over the last eleven years kept us on track in repaying the loan. Stan mailed the last payment this summer, and now the facility belongs to the Brethren and not to the bank. Of course, the truth is that we are but caretakers of it - for it all belongs to God.

Burning a mortgage is significant not so much because it lifts a burden off our backs, but because it frees us up to be burdened by something else. Perhaps my choice of words is inadequate. After all, who wants another burden to bear? Any takers out there? Didn’t Jesus say, though, "Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Mt. 11:28-30)? When Christ takes away a burden in our lives, he usually adds another, though the exchange is one that gives us energy instead of taking it away, and in the process our backs are not bent over. Instead, we’re empowered to stand tall as we travel with his yoke.

Speaking of backs and burdens, those of you without school age children may not be aware of the latest fad. The backpacks our children carry their books to school in were designed to be worn with the straps pulled tight so that the pack would rest on the upper back. Furthermore, most have a waist strap to snugly fit the burden where it should rest, making it easier to carry, and not damage the back. Well, along the way of youth culture, some brilliant person(s) decided that these backpacks look better with the shoulder straps fully extended and the waist straps hanging toward the floor. The result is that we have young people walking around with backs bent in a direction they were not created to go, thus risking damage to the vertebrae. Do you think, however, that parents can convince their children of the danger? Not on your life!

Forgive me this digression. It’s been a pet peeve of mine. I sing that refrain to my kids over and over, but they don’t seem to listen. Perhaps you know a better song to sing that might get the point across... Speaking of songs, the time has come in the life of our church for a new song to be sung. Perhaps that’s a better way of speaking about the shifting of burdens, moving toward a new yoke from the Lord. It’s like singing a new song.

For the last eleven years we’ve been faithfully carrying this debt load, built right into our church budget. At times we tinkered with the straps. Like in 1993, when our proposed budget was much bigger than our income, and we needed to cut it back in various areas. Our financial outreach to others took one of the biggest cuts. Since then, we’ve been trying to inch these straps back to where we think they should be, so to speak, bringing the percentage of our giving to others higher up the scale in comparison to giving toward our own program. The repayment of this debt now frees us up for other things.

Granted, we have said farewell to some faithful members over the past few months. However, we are also saying hello to new persons whom God is drawing into our fellowship. That’s the nature of living where we do. People come and go. Life is not static. The world doesn’t stand still. It keeps turning, often faster than we’d like.

When a burden is taken away, such as we are celebrating today, it’s important that we follow up our joy with the question, "what burden, what yoke is the Lord now placing upon our shoulders?" As I said, when Christ takes away a burden in our lives, he usually adds another. In the process we need to recall his promise, "my yoke is easy, and my burden is light." To put the question I just posed in different terms, "what new song are we now to sing?" I like this way of asking it, for thinking about this "yoke of Christ" as a "new song" ties into the gift God has given me in music.

"Sing to the Lord a new song." That’s a refrain woven through scripture. It’s an imperative given to God’s people. In the 96th Psalm, singing a new song to the Lord means every day, in whatever way possible, telling of his salvation. It means, every day, in whatever way possible, declaring God’s glory and the marvelous things he has done - both what we have seen with our own eyes and heart, as well as what has been passed on to us by faith, what we’ve received in the old, old story of the Bible. Singing to the Lord a new song also means, every day, in whatever way possible, through our words or through our actions, saying that the Lord reigns, that God is sovereign over all the earth, including our own lives.

Now, the "newness" of the song isn’t a matter of it being a tune nobody has ever heard before, or words that have never been uttered in quite this way. Its substance makes it, in many ways, an "old, old song." Sometimes we can fall into the trap of thinking that we have to constantly reinvent the wheel, so to speak. On the other hand, there are times when some old ways do need to fall by the wayside, especially when those "old" ways become like an idol, when we worship our tradition rather than having our tradition aid us in worshiping the living and true God.

When we sing our new song and call people away from the idols of this age, we want to be sure we are not merely substituting another idol to worship. For instance, one of the gods of this age, that we seek to call people away from as an idol, as a graven image, is the almighty dollar. Yes, we "give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s," as Jesus said. But more important, we "we give unto the Lord what is the Lord’s." What belongs to God? That’s a rhetorical question. Everything belongs to God, including us. "The Lord is King!" Therefore, we need to be careful as we celebrate paying off our mortgage that we aren’t worshiping at a pagan altar. Who we are as God’s people isn’t defined by this building. If this building were not here, would we still be the Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren?

Please don’t misunderstand me. I love this facility. I well remember the joy of walking through it my first few months here, exploring its nooks and crannies, imagining what all had happened within these walls over the years - the babies crying in the nursery, the men falling asleep in the pews, the joining together of husbands and wives, the tears of hearts grieving loss or hearts full to overflowing, the excitement of children and adults exploring what it means to be loved by and to follow Jesus. Even now, as I put my hand on a pew, I wonder who has sat in it over time. Do you ever think about that as you sit there? Perhaps a life was transformed by God in the very spot you’re in right now. Maybe it was you.

I love this place. This has become like home to me. It is a hard question to ask, then, if this building were not here, would we still be the Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren? Our facility is just that, it facilitates the ministry God gives us. Any more than that and it comes near to being an idol. That’s why our Brethren forbearers called their buildings "meetinghouses," like their Quaker neighbors did. That was a new song back then, singing that the "church" was the people, not the building. That’s not a bad song for today. You see, so many people today define their value and worth as persons in terms of the house in which they live. In the long run, that’s an empty means of measurement, isn’t it?. There are many big houses in this community in which families are falling apart because they have put more energy into getting than giving. They are worshiping a false god.

What new song are we to sing, now that our mortgage has been paid? A temptation is to stop singing and just listen to the voices of previous generations. However, we serve a living and true God, who is calling us forth today to sing his song as a new creation in Christ, not just as yesterday’s leftovers. God calls us to sing as a people who have laid down an old burden and taken up a new yoke, the yoke of Christ. That’s true for us as individuals, as well as for us as a church. What new song are we now to sing?

I’m not sure I want to answer that question, but instead let it hang there for us all to ponder. I have ideas, some of which quite literally relate to music. I wonder, for instance, if I hear the refrain of a new youth and young adult choir. The Alleluia choir is ready to overflow its older members. Shall we have a vessel ready, one that might involve a place for young adults - a segment of our church overlooked for too long?... Music has always been an important part of this congregation. What new song could we sing in this area, perhaps something we have not tried before, something with the rest of us in mind?

Of course, not everyone is musically inclined. And my question is not limited to that realm. When the Psalmist called God’s people to sing out, he meant more than music. Singing involves telling, declaring, saying - using both words and action. Such a new song focuses upon God, upon his salvation, his glory, his works, upon who he is as sovereign over all the earth. If people are to turn from their empty idols to the living and true God, they need to hear the "new song." So, let me ask one final time a Y2K question to take with you and chew upon. What new song are we now to sing?

1999Peter L. Haynes

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