Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Psalm 47:1-2, 5-9 God’s Rule over the Nations
To the leader. Of the Korahites. A Psalm.
1 Clap your hands, all you peoples;
shout to God with loud songs of joy.
2 For the Lord, the Most High, is awesome,
a great king over all the earth.
5 God has gone up with a shout,
the Lord with the sound of a trumpet.
6 Sing praises to God, sing praises;
sing praises to our King, sing praises.
7 For God is the king of all the earth;
sing praises with a psalm.
8 God is king over the nations;
God sits on his holy throne.
9 The princes of the peoples gather
as the people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
he is highly exalted.
Clap one time if you hear me.
Clap two times if you hear me.
Clap three times if you hear me.
Clap four times if you hear me.
Now, I have taught you one of the greatest ways to get the attention of a room full of teenagers at a youth retreat. Ask them to clap along! Even if they don’t, it eventually gets too loud and distracting for them to keep doing what they were doing. There is something about clapping that gets people’s attention. And, there’s something about clapping that gets you to pay attention. Today’s reading opens with that exhortation: “Clap your hands, all you peoples,” and continues with an invitation that feels a little like an order, “shout to God with loud songs of joy.” If you were going to shout out a song of joy, what would it be?
In his commentary on this text, Joel LeMon says that Psalm 47 is an enthronement Psalm. That means it is part of a group of psalms that celebrates one particular way that ancient Israel understood its relationship to God... The people understood God to be what Dr. Wil Gafney calls “a sovereign monarch.” LeMon notes that it is possible that this Psalm was used as part of a regular ritual to celebrate God’s enthronement. There may have even been special procession with the Ark of the Covenant, which is known as the Throne of God, marching it up the temple mount and back into the temple. Now, I have never been to a parade celebrating a monarch, which, frankly, I’m a little relieved about. The legacies of many human monarchs leave me leery of the institution and of anyone who seeks the power of the authoritarian or supposedly “god-ordained monarch.” However, an Episcopal colleague of mine is fond of saying (and I’m probably paraphrasing), “I view God as sovereign, and no one else.” While it’s not my favorite of the many metaphors for God in the Bible, I can hang with my colleague’s sentiment. God is a sovereign worth celebrating. The party described in this Psalm? It’s worth attending.
In her commentary on the text, Wil Gafney clarifies why the celebration is necessary. It is rooted in the covenant between the people of Israel and God. Unlike our country, their nation was organized around a specific religious identity as the Chosen People of God. Others nations, including factions in our own, occasionally assert an identity as people adopted in to the Chosen-ness or even talking about replacing those who are Chosen. Unfortunately, too often interpreters use the idea that they are Chosen by God to excuse really terrible behavior on both individual and national levels. When powerful people start to claim God made them powerful, suspicion is a righteous response. We would do well to remember that God, throughout the Hebrew Bible and in Jesus’ ministry, sided not with the powerful but with the powerless. It is one thing for people who have been beaten down to remember that God is still in covenant with them. It’s another for those who are doing the beating up to claim they are doing God’s will.
The portions of Psalm 47 that Dr. Gafney suggested for the reading for today demonstrate a people celebrating God who has chosen to be in covenant with them, that is God who in relationship with them and has made promises to them. This isn’t a monarch who is disconnected and distant. No, this is a God who is with them, tending to their well-being and offering both support and accountability. The shouts and songs and hand-clapping are a celebration of God’s graciousness and the on-going relationship between the people and God. Dr. Gafney reminds us in her commentary that central to a covenant is an oath, a promise, with mutual obligations. God will tend to Israel’s well-being. Israel will tend to the well-being of the orphan, the immigrant, and the widow. And, regularly, they will gather to remember that covenant, give thanks, and importantly, celebrate.
Earlier, I asked you what might be your song of joy. As I was working on this sermon, I remembered a flash of something I’d heard about a song that I consider quite joyful and perfect for a procession through the city, the song “Dancing in the Street” by Martha and the Vandellas. You might remember the opening verse:
Calling out around the world,
Are you ready for a brand-new beat?
Summer's here and the time is right
For dancing in the street.
They're dancing in Chicago,
Down in New Orleans,
In New York City.
Now, I think of this as a joyous party song. But, somewhere... I think on a commercial for a tv series about music... I heard someone say that this was more than a party song. It was a protest song. I went to try to find more information because that is very interesting to me.
I found an interview with the journalist Mark Kurlansky, who wrote a book in 2013 where he describes “Dancing in the Street” as more than just a very good song of the summer. He called it a “protest anthem.” The song came out in 1964, right in the midst of the civil rights movement and literally two days before the War in Vietnam escalated due to the Gulf of Tonkin incident. Black churches were being burned and protesters were being arrested. Because of all the turmoil, people were looking for connections and for ways to find meaning in a confusing world. Kurlansky thinks that this song helps to do that. He said “Dancing in the Street” is powerful because “it makes you feel like doing something.” What you do depends on what you are called to do in that moment: have a party, go to protest, sing with your friends. “It doesn’t matter what you wear just as long as you are there.” Sounds little like church, doesn’t it? Sounds a little like a protest, too. Or a really good street dance. The Psalm and the song, when read and sung together, remind us that these three things aren’t really all that different.
There’s a part of today’s reading that describes God as a sovereign who actually loves all nations... is potentially in relationship with all nations, not just one. This is not a sentiment held by all the Psalms. But, it is the sentiment of this one. Come to think of it, it doesn’t seem all that different from “Everywhere around the world, they’ll be dancing. Dancing in the street.” If you’re like me, you’ll probably spend at least part of the rest of the day humming “Dancing in the Street.” Or, the Ode to Joy. Or this peppy version of “Breathe On Me, Breath of God” we sang today. I hope you will accompany this humming with a little clapping... you own procession to celebrate covenant with God. And, I hope you’ll hear the call to grab up a partner or two and connect with the world around you. The world needs our joy, our work, and our inspiration. God’s covenant requires it of us. So, clap your hands. And, get out to the streets!
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Joel LeMon: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/ascension-of-our-lord/commentary-on-psalm-47-3
Wil Gafney, "Proper 15 (Closest to August 17)," Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year W (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022)
Information about Dancing in the Street:
-Martha and the Vandellas singing "Dancing in the Street": https://youtu.be/CdvITn5cAVc
-Lyrics, "Dancing in the Street": https://www.lyrics.com/lyric/16308672/Martha+Reeves/Dancing+in+the+Streets
-Mark Kurlansky, Ready for Brand New Beat: How "Dancing in the Street" Became the Anthem for a Changing America (New York: Riverhead Books, 2013)
-In interview with Kurlansky about his book: https://www.npr.org/2013/07/07/199063701/how-dancing-in-the-street-became-a-protest-anthem
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Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.