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15-43 149th Street
Whitestone, NY 11357


The First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone has been at work in northeast Queens since 1871, seeking to proclaim God’s Word and live out God’s justice and peace in our lives and our community. We welcome all to join us for worship, fellowship, learning, and service in our small but vibrant community of faith.


Songs I Can’t Get Out of My Head

Andy James

a sermon on Isaiah 42:10-12; Acts 16:16-34; Psalm 98

If I had to guess, I think I walk around with a song stuck in my head at least half the time. Sometimes it is a hymn from Sunday that manages to stick around through Wednesday or Thursday, sneaking up on me when I least I expect it. Other times it is a song that we’ve been singing in the New Amsterdam Singers, where one song once got stuck in our heads so easily that several of my friends and I dubbed it “The Song That Shall Not Be Named” because even the name would get it started! And other times it is something I hear on the radio or from the computer that I end up listening to over and over again because it is in my head anyway!

When songs get stuck in our heads like this, I am reminded that song is one of the main pathways to the depths of our being and at the core of what makes us human. So it is no surprise, then, that the Bible talks a lot about singing, and that singing has been at the center of the worship of God since the beginning. There are a lot of interesting and different perspectives about singing in the Bible, and our Bible readings and psalm this morning are ones worth getting stuck in our heads in some way!

The prophet Isaiah gives us a vision of what it might look like if all creation broke forth into song, with sea and coastland and desert and town singing God’s praise in a new and joyous song. The story of Paul and Silas singing in jail shows us the power of song to break down barriers and inspire people to a new and different way of life. And the beautiful words of Psalm 98 give us yet another version of the repeated call to “sing a new song to the Lord” and offer our praise to God in so many different times and places and ways.

As lovely as it is to talk about singing, it is even more beautiful to actually do it! Now some people say that they simply can’t sing, but I am convinced that a good number of those people have either never tried or never been taught by the right people! One of my favorite teachers of congregational singing, the Scottish pastor and hymnwriter John Bell, blames this fear of singing on a culture that overvalues performance and so easily tells people that they can’t sing.

When people are told they can’t sing, they feel that there is a label round their neck or a mark on their file indicating a permanent disability. What they need to do is move from that negative assumption or label to a positive one. And this transition is a very biblical thing, because God is in the renaming business…. People who have been told in front of others that they can’t sing have to be encouraged, in the presence of others, to sing. (The Singing Thing, p. 103, 106)

We have been truly blessed over the last year and a half by the presence of Sandy Babb, who not only offers her beautiful voice in our worship but also teaches other people how to sing every day. As part of our time together today thinking about singing, I’ve asked her to give us some simple and practical advice about how we can sing better and offer our voices in praise to God in our worship together.

(Unfortunately Sandy’s thoughts on singing are not included in the manuscript for this sermon.)

So today I have two songs I can’t get out of my head that are worth sharing with you. The first one got stuck on Friday night, when I settled in to watch President Obama’s eulogy for the murdered pastor of Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, Clementa Pinckney. If you didn’t get a chance to hear it, go home this afternoon and watch it online—it is a far better sermon that what I am offering you from this pulpit today! But the song that stuck in my head from that incredible sermon is the very familiar hymn “Amazing Grace.” Our president used the incredible imagery of those words to call us all to a new way of thinking about and acting out the grace we have received. He reminded us that the shift from blindness to sight is more than just a spiritual shift, for God’s grace transforms how we see one another and our world, how we act in relationship with one another, and especially how we see the sins of our past and work to make the world different as we live out that grace in new ways. Then he made that vision of God’s grace so very, very clear as he broke out into song, using his remarkable baritone to lead that arena full of mourners in that beloved song of confidence and hope. I sure hope that song—and that incredible challenge that it offers us—stays stuck in my head for a long, long time.

The second song I just can’t get out of my head is a little newer and likely a little less familiar to many of you, though I’ve probably been singing it for longer than I have sung “Amazing Grace”! As a member of the Sesame Street generation, many of the early songs I learned were from that great children’s show, but the classic “Sing, Sing a Song” never seems to be able to escape my head. Its words gave voice to the philosophy and theology of singing for me long before I ever could:

Sing, sing a song,
sing out loud, sing out strong.
Sing of good things, not bad;
sing of happy, not sad.

Sing, sing a song,
make it simple to last your whole life long.
Don’t worry that it’s not good enough
for anyone else to hear;
just sing, sing a song.

Sing, sing a song, let the world sing along.
Sing of love there could be,
sing for you and for me.

Sing, sing a song,
Make it simple to last your whole life long
Don’t worry that it’s not good enough
for anyone else to hear;
just sing, sing a song.

So may these songs of grace and hope never get out of your heads so that you might sing praise and thanks to God and live out God’s hope in these joyous tones until all things are made new in Jesus Christ our Lord. Alleluia! Amen.