June 27: Hymn Sing SUnday

From Rev. Chris: As I write this service, it was just announced about yet another mass grave found at a Residential School in Saskatchewan.  Today’s service was meant to lift our spirits in praise and thanksgiving with the songs of our tradition.  However, much like our scripture reading, perhaps all we feel is lament.  Knowing this, you may want to turn this off – sit in silence – light a candle that light may shine in this darkness, pray and offer words of sorrow as we discover that our Canada is not the one that makes us celebratory or particularly thankful this year.  This will, or should, continue all summer and for as long as it takes, to ensure that those still suffering from the loss of their children can finally find peace.  As a country we go forward, committing to do better, promising to treat one another better, living the beliefs that see life and love flourish, learning from the past in order that we do not repeat it, and especially in this time, giving space for those grieving and listening to their heartache.  It is up to us.  For our faith that assures us that we are not alone – even in profoundly devastating moments. As we worship today, we do so grateful for our God who doesn’t gloss over our faults or sins, but helps us find wholeness beyond them into new life.  And so, as we open our service with O Canada, we do so with renewed purpose to commit to stand on guard for all people. 

Readings from Scripture (The Message)  2 Samuel 1:1-2, 17-27

1 Shortly after Saul died, David returned to Ziklag from his rout of the Amalekites. Three days later a man showed up unannounced from Saul’s army camp. Disheveled and obviously in mourning, he fell to his knees in respect before David.

 17-18 Then David sang this lament over Saul and his son Jonathan, and gave orders that everyone in Judah learn it by heart. Yes, it’s even inscribed in The Book of Jashar.

19-21 Oh, oh, Gazelles of Israel, struck down on your hills,
    the mighty warriors—fallen, fallen! Don’t announce it in the city of Gath, don’t post the news in the streets of Ashkelon.
Don’t give those coarse Philistine girls  one more excuse for a drunken party! No more dew or rain for you, hills of Gilboa,
    and not a drop from springs and wells, for there the warriors’ shields were dragged through the mud, Saul’s shield left there to rot. 22 Jonathan’s bow was bold—  the bigger they were the harder they fell. Saul’s sword was fearless—  once out of the scabbard, nothing could stop it.

23 Saul and Jonathan—beloved, beautiful!  Together in life, together in death. Swifter than plummeting eagles, stronger than proud lions. 24-25 Women of Israel, weep for Saul.
    He dressed you in finest cottons and silks, spared no expense in making you elegant. The mighty warriors—fallen, fallen in the middle of the fight! Jonathan—struck down on your hills! 26 O my dear brother Jonathan, I’m crushed by your death. Your friendship was a miracle-wonder, love far exceeding anything I’ve known— or ever hope to know.

27 The mighty warriors—fallen, fallen.  And the arms of war broken to bits.


This summer, we’ll be joining with other local United Churches to explore the story of our faith together.  Beyond the words on the page, when we fill in the nuances of stories with our humanity, we recognize ourselves all the better.  Because of that I’ll be retelling the stories of Rebekah (mother of Esau and Jacob), as well as Delilah (and Samson), in addition to this week’s story of David and Jonathan. 

As we finish off pride month, there’s common thought that that the king of Israel (who is also its chief psalm/ hymnwriter) might have been gay or bisexual, yet at the hands of the Biblical writers, this detail has been carefully removed.  One wonders the tale that might be told of one of Israel’s greatest heroes if it were written today.  Regardless, the real love that David expresses at Jonathan’s death (and Saul, his father, as well) is palpable.

A little backstory before we begin, because these feelings weren’t always there for David.  Saul had it out for him – David’s popularity, and “chosenness” by God has sent David to hide out, ducking the current king as he tried to protect his life.  Saul was jealous that God turned towards David, and as he was facing an impending war with the Philistines, losing “divine favour” has left him vulnerable.  Saul was desperate.  He communes with the ghost of Samuel, the prophet.  No answer comes to tell him what he wants to hear.  So he pushes forth into the war with the Philistines, dragging with him his sons and his whole army.  And backtracking just a few pages in the Bible (before today’s reading) we learn as the messenger tells it, that everyone is destroyed. 

So when David learns of this, he is heartbroken.  We can debate his feelings towards Saul, but to the rest of his kinsmen, to his best friend Jonathan, David feels genuine loss.  If we were to look back on our own lives I’m sure we can remember the moments of sorrow far greater than even the happy ones.  There’s something about how we’re wired that enables us to learn more from our sorrow than from our joy.[1]   I can tell you where I was when I learned the news of my father’s death, the days leading up to my grandparents’ deaths …where we were on the morning of September 11, 2001 is burned in our collective memory. 

Grief leaves us forever changed.  And David facing his grief allows it to be; this passage doesn’t capture the movement of time as much as it does the depth of his grief.  For he is left transformed by the experience of sorrow.  When that grief washes over us – be it a loved one, or the discovery of yet another gravesite, it consumes us – it fills us, many of us unable to do the basic things of life like sleep or eat.  Someone shared with me that grief fills the circle of your life.  Often we segment our lives out in all the things that fill our days – sleeping, eating, work and play, hobbies and family and loves, all the things that give life meaning.  Grief consumes us, overshadowing all of that.  We remain there as long as it takes.  And this isn’t just death – it could be a dramatic life change, health change, anything that provokes feelings of loss.  Allowing grief, much as David does, gives validity to our feelings, honours the relationship(s) shared, and begins the process of healing.  But that grief is never gone from us.[2]  David never “gets over” Jonathan’s death, just as the Indigenous people who had their children taken from them,[3] haven’t gotten over their trauma.  Those with grief have learned to grow around it, sometimes growing into new life, developing in ways that acknowledge the grief and do not pretend it isn’t there, others filling that extra space with habits or addictions that numb the ever-present grief that has profoundly shaped their lives.

In the immediacy of grief we find David, lamenting over Jonathan and Saul.  It’s even more surprising that his first reaction is to sing.  David, so moved to tears, is moved likewise to lift his laments to the God who hears all cries.  Sometimes with grief, “doing” something feels better than nothing, but I love that David is moved to song. 

There’s comfort in our music sometimes – when I meet with a family to plan a funeral, music is one of the most important questions for me – as it becomes a reflection of not just what they would have wanted, but a reflection of who the person was.  In the most emotional scenes in movies or tv, a song will start that encapsulates the characters’ feelings in the scene, compelling you to feel likewise.  Even when we’re having a bad day, it’s amazing how a song can change all that – both a sad song to help us sit with our feelings, and an upbeat one to change them.    

David’s sorrowful song captures his love, respect, and honour of these two important men in his life.  It stands as a testament to his feelings, and is the start of his “growing around” the grief that he feels.  The rest of the story plays out that David becomes king and rules Israel, and his impact is so profound that even to this present moment, Israel yearns for the Davidic rule to return for David ruled with both joy and sorrow, silence and song.  If David didn’t grow around his grief I’m not sure what would have happened.  Grief leaves us forever changed, and so long as we continue to grow, the song of faith goes on. 

It’s the power of music, and why we choose to have hymn sing Sundays a couple of times a year.  It’s not just to get me out of a sermon (clearly!!) but there’s so much meaning behind our music – both in the notes, the words, and especially in the memories attached to them.  I’ve been asked to not include Amazing Grace before because of difficult memories.  Or I know how quick a pink slip would come if we didn’t include Christmas carols in our Christmas celebrations. 

But I’ll tell you, I can’t wait, for that first time that we can all sing together again.  For it won’t be long now. 

For we know the power of song, but really, I need confess how in awe I am of Colin Watts, one of our amazing choral scholars, who have all worked profoundly hard this year.  If this year’s work and all the stress involved wasn’t enough, Colin took it upon himself to record the well-loved Leonard Cohen song, Hallelujah…his own arrangement, singing, guitar and bass playing…it’s all him. 

For David (and I hope you’ll agree Colin too) played that secret chord that pleased the Lord, that in holiness and brokenness we bring ourselves before God, for

“There’s a blaze of light in every word;
it doesn’t matter what you heard,  
the holy, or the broken Hallelujah…

For even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of song,
with nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah…

[1] https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2018/11/01/why-we-often-remember-bad-better-than-good/

[2] In the video version, I drew a circle, and segmented it into the things that fill our days (loves, habits, etc).  Then when grief came, I coloured over all of that.  Then in the “grow around it” comment, I draw a larger circle around the first, leaving the grief “as-is” as we fill in the extra space with that which fills our days (loves, habits, etc).

[3] I believe in a previous sermon I said that the United Church ran a small number of residential schools.  I was wrong.  We were responsible for 15 schools, and have since turned over all of our documents to the Truth and Reconciliation commission in hopes that we can help the healing required.

One Comment

  1. What a BEAUTIFUL offering of Hallelujah, Colin. Much appreciated as this is a very difficult piece to sing well.

    I have not heard Amazing Grace sung to a Celtic rhythm before.


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