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I remember. I remember the first time I ever heard the song “Feeling Good.” I was on my way home from the Early Ministry Institute in Stony Point, New York. I was a pretty new pastor, less than a year in, and that first year had been a rocky one. Another minister I met at the institute had made me a CD, the 2004 equivalent of a mix tape. And as I drove home, on an extraordinarily bright and beautiful May afternoon, I decided to pop it in the CD player.
“Oh,” I thought when it started. “She’s singing a capella!”
And then the band came in, and I almost ran off the road in sheer glee, for the incredible sounds I was hearing. You can’t really put a “genre” on “Feeling Good.” Its Wikipedia page describes it as “Show Tune/ Jazz/ Blues.” But what you can put on it is the mood it evokes in you—and for me, that means, absolute exhilaration. I believe Nina Simone when she tells me, “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, and I’m feeling good.” What’s not entirely clear is why she’s feeling good.
Love is always a likely culprit… as we heard two weeks ago with “Happy,” it was the source of the happiness; as you heard last week in “Who Will Love Me As I Am” (paired with Psalm 89), it was the source of angst and anticipatory loss.
Artists interpret songs as the individuals they are, and, I suppose, interpreters interpret artists as the individuals they are. Here’s my interpretation, influenced, I have to admit, on viewing a recent documentary on the artist: Nina Simone’s interpretation hinges on words buried deep in the fourth verse: “freedom is mine.”
Simone recorded this song smack dab in the middle of the Civil Rights era. After the shocking death of young activist Medgar Evers, Simone wrote a song whose title I can’t say in the pulpit, and which was banned throughout the South. But her commitment as an activist on behalf of the value of black lives was sealed. When I hear her singing “Feeling Good,” I am convinced she is seeing what Martin Luther King Jr. described in his famous “Mountaintop” speech: she had gone to the mountain, and was looking over the mountaintop at the Promised Land, that land where equality and justice and the right to live in the United States were guaranteed to all its citizens, regardless of the color of their skin. “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, and I’m feeling good.”
We are pairing the Psalms with songs again this week, and, as promised, a little more on the psalms in general, that incomparable songbook/prayerbook at the heart of the Bible. Scholar Walter Brueggeman has a wonderful little book on the psalms, in which he lays out the following schema. The psalms, he says, speak to us of orientation, disorientation, and re-orientation. In life, he says, we move through a pattern of ups and downs. Orientation is that period when life is stable, and the world seems trustworthy. Disorientation is when the bottom drops out, and everything we have been taught to believe about God’s love and faithfulness, feels like a lie. In reorientation, we re-discover our faith in a trustworthy God and creation, but we don’t forget what that disorientation felt like. We are changed. Older and wiser, perhaps.
Psalm 113, a classic psalm of praise, is without question, a song of that feeling of orientation… just like “Feeling Good.” “Praise God,” the psalmist urges us, “God rules from on high! ” In other words, God’s in heaven, and all’s right with the world. But, even better,
“[God] has to come down to even see heaven and earth.
God lifts up the poor from the dirt
and raises up the needy from the garbage pile
to seat them with leaders—
with the leaders of his own people!”
God is not merely ruling from far away…God has come to earth.
God has not merely come to earth…God has come to lift up the poor and needy… you might say, “the least of these”… into equality with those of high status (our NRSV translation says, “the princes of his people.”
God has not merely come to earth in judgment, God has come in welcome, in embrace… much like God comes to us in baptism.
Reformed theology forms the foundation of the Presbyterian way of thinking about our faith. One of its truly great hallmarks is the fact that we believe our sacraments highlight for us the things God is already doing in the world—in fact, what God has already done. In the Lord’s Supper, we find out that God has already welcomed us to the table, and joined us in communion with Jesus and with one another. In baptism, we learn that God has already welcomed us and declared once and for all God’s power over sin and death.
But God has done even more than that. God has called us beloved children. In her recent book, Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans declares that in baptism, the Christian proclaims, “I am a beloved child of God and I renounce anything or anyone who says otherwise.”[i] Whether you are the poor one or the prince, whether you come to the font in someone’s arms or stand in a river waiting for the preacher to dunk you, whether the Crayola color that most closely matches your skin is black, sepia, peach, apricot, white, tan, mahogany or burnt sienna, your cry is the same: “I am a beloved child of God, and I renounce anything or anyone who says otherwise.”
This morning we baptized little Elijah Michael. But we believe that God put a claim on his life, called him “my beloved child,” long before July 19, 2015. We believe that God did this long ago, longer than makes sense to us, probably.
We don’t remember. We couldn’t. But today, I hope each and every one of you will remember your baptism, and remember that as the day you learned that you were God’s beloved child… even if you were a babe in arms, and that was something someone had to tell you later. Remember it, I beg you, even if no one ever told you. Remember that part of the promise of baptism is that God loves us without regard for the things the world seems to care so much about, whether they be race, or social status, or age, or ability, or education, or the shape of our body, or the sharpness of our intellect. I hope you will remember, each and every one of you, that God says to you, said to you, you, personally, “You are my beloved child: renounce anything or anyone that tells you otherwise.” And I hope that, truly, has you singing along with Miss Simone. “It’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, and I’m feeling good.” Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church (Nashville, TN: Nelson Books, 2015), 20.