A sermon on the occasion of the baptism of Alba Margaret Jean Andersen - Thanksgiving Sunday
Alba, I am not sure when you will read this sermon. But I am imagining that one day you will. And on that day you will understand why you have learned to sing the first twelve verses of Psalm 66. You see, this is the psalm that is set for the church to sing today. You have known from the very beginning that you belong to a singing family. Every since you first heard the muffled sounds that made their way into your mother’s womb you have felt the rhythms and recognized the sounds of pianos and violins and voices singing in harmony. So it is fitting that you receive your own song on the day of your baptism. And your song is Psalm 66 (vss. 1-12).
Your song - your Psalm - has three parts, three verses, three choruses. You can see how it is separated by the mysterious word “Selah” in your Bible. It is such an old word that we don’t know what it means. It appears to be an instruction to the musicians. I think that it means that this is the break between the verses, the place where your Grandfather can improvise on the piano or your Mom can fiddle on the fiddle. Notice how your song moves and changes through its three verses.
First there is the first verse (Ps. 66:1-4): “Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth; sing to the glory of his name; give to him glorious praise.” The song begins with joyful music, with glorious singing, with the whole earth like a field of sunflowers turned towards God as if towards the sun. You have been born into a family of music-makers and into a church of God-praisers. At some point you will come to realize that this is an unusual thing. In the days of your great-grandparents making music at home was common place. Now we mostly listen to music rather than make music. Your song reminds you - and us - to respond to God by making noise - joyful noise. Why? Because of God’s “awesome deeds,” because of God’s “great power.” If someone asks a singer of Psalm 66 “What is the meaning of life?” they will hear this answer in reply: “To glorify and enjoy God forever.”
This brings us to the second verse of your song (Ps. 66:5-7). The first verse is about making music. It is about sound. The second verse is about seeing what God has done. It is about sight. First you heard the sound of music being made. Then, when you were born, you began to see. This is how it is with us, here, in the church. First we hear the singing, the praising, the joy. Then we begin to “see what God has done ... He turned the sea into dry land; they passed through the river on foot.” This is the story that, at baptism, you are born into. It is the story of slaves liberated when the sea parts for their escape. And it is the story of a wandering homeless people crossing the Jordan river on dry ground, finding a home. You live in a time when it is often difficult to see what God is doing. Yours is a time when many people imagine that the reason it is difficult to see what is God is doing is because there is nothing to see. Psalm 66 is a counter-cultural invitation to keep our eyes open for the signs of God’s handiwork. We watch for moments when enslaved peoples and trapped families and chained souls find freedom. We see the God of your song at work whenever homeless wandering turns into festive homecoming. Then we remember the reasons for our joyful noise.
And now there is the third verse (Ps. 66:8-12). First there is joyful noise. Then we come and see. Now Psalm 66 instructs us to “Bless our God.” This is the most complicated verse of your song. It is the verse that I would love to talk with you about when you have lived a long life and can help me understand the song you have received on the day of your baptism. One thing that complicates this verse is that the song shifts from addressing us - the peoples - and becomes a song sung to God: “For you, O God, have tested us ... you have tried us ... You brought us into the net; you laid burdens on our backs; you let people ride over our heads; we went through fire and through water.” Maybe the song begins to address God because now the song names the trouble we have known. Maybe it turns to God because there is nowhere else to turn. This is another complication in your song: the God who has done awesome and mighty deeds has also - according to Psalm 66 - caused us great hardship and difficulty. To be honest, Alba, we have not always been faithful in sharing this part of our story with one another or with children like you. We have often tried to protect God by only reporting the days of liberation and of homecoming. If the truth is told their have been many hard days, many trying times, many heavy burdens. Could God have been the source of these hardships? Your song is not prepared to let God off of the hook for all of life. Your song is not willing to give up on God and so it dares to ascribe all of life - the awesome deeds and the trying times - to God. This is what I would like to speak with you about when you have lived a long life as a child of Psalm 66.
The third verse is the place where trouble is given a voice. It is also the place in your song where descriptions of past wonders give way to life with God in the here and now. You know how it goes: “We went through fire and through water; yet you have brought us out to a spacious place.” You know how it goes because on the day of your baptism I gave instructions to your family - to your parents and grand-parents, to your aunts and uncles - to teach you this song. I invited them to write their own version to sing when the family gets together. It would be Alba’s song. That’s why you know it by heart.
I wonder how you interpret being brought through trial and tribulation to a “spacious place.” I imagine that at different times in your life you will describe God’s spacious place differently. Right now it must look a lot like the lively, noisy, lovely family of sisters that you have been brought into. But there will be times when you do not find yourself in a spacious place - when your life and your world is constricted, hard, painful. In those days do not forget the crucial word “yet”. This is the surprising gospel word in your song. In spite of the trouble, through the trouble, when there seems no way out of the trouble there is yet a promised future called a spacious place, life eternal, kingdom of God, amazing grace.
Here, on this Thanksgiving Sunday, we have turned everything around and set the Lord’s Table in the middle of the Chapel. Here we see that Jesus’ banquet table is the spacious place where all manner of broken, troubled, aching lives are gathered in. This spacious place is home to souls that once were lost but now are found. It is the reason we call the feast of bread and wine “The Eucharist.” It means "The Thanksgiving". Here this unlikely company of souls being saved is invited by Psalm 66 to: “Bless our God.” To be blessed is to be given the gift of energy. God is blessed - God receives energy - when our lives welcome God and enjoy God and give God the glory. Today, Alba, God is blessed to welcome your precious voice to the chorus of voices that sing and live God’s praise. So are we.