Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sunday Sermon

"Seeing God’s Big Picture: From Whom All Blessings Flow"
Ephesians 5:15-20

In my family, one of our favorite stories is about the time when a bunch of us cousins all went to the old TV show "Dialing for Dollars" sometime during the Christmas season.
We got to be in the studio audience that day, a very big deal indeed – I think my sister, my cousin and I all harbored secret dreams of being discovered in some way or another.
Lo and behold, the host was asking children in the audience to get up and sing a Christmas song that they knew by heart.
My sister, my cousin and I sat there, thinking about raising our hands while other little kids raised their hands and pretty much all sang the same song: "Jingle Bells."
We knew plenty of other Christmas songs! Why wouldn’t they pick us?
We raised our hands, but not very high, probably, and we were sitting in the middle to the back of the audience.
Then, much to my surprise, my little brother, who was about 4 years old at the time, and was sitting in one of the front rows with my dad, raised his hand.
The host picked him.
He stood up under the bright lights of the TV studio, and belted out the song: "Santa Claus is coming to Town." He knew all the words. I mean – ALL the words.
And he won a prize – which made us jealous enough to think to ourselves – we didn’t want one of those plastic horses and cowboys, anyway.

Let me testify here for a moment – music and singing is important in my family, have always been important in my family – although there is not one professional musician among us.
Since I was a little girl, I remember singing songs around the piano, singing songs in the car, singing songs along with the records that played on the record player.
And music and singing are important for my life of faith, too, from the songs and hymns I learned in church and at home, to the songs learned around the campfire at church camp, to the Christian popular music that started to take shape when I was in college.
That’s how it has been for me, at least – music and singing have been an integral part of practicing my faith – how has it been for you?
There are certain songs and certain melodies that I have known for so long that even though the words might change a bit, I still know them, and can join in when I hear

Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise God all creatures here below
Praise God above ye heavenly host
Praise Father Son and Holy Ghost

The apostle seems to have a similar view. After spending three chapters of Ephesians reminding us and extolling us and painting a picture for us of God’s great vision,
God’s great love which is going to bring all things together, all things in heaven and on earth – the apostle gets practical.
He starts teaching the Ephesians about what it means to practice our faith.
He wants us to know that practicing our faith has much to do with our relationships with other people – how we treat each other, how we great the strangers among us, how we treat our enemies.
So, today, he also urges us to "Make the most of the time that we are given."
Important words from the apostle, who was sure that the world was going to end soon – and for us,
for every time we live in is an important one, and every time we live in has urgent issues,
and in every time we live there is the threat that evil might overcome us, and there is the opportunity to overcome evil with good.
So, he says – don’t get drunk, that’s a waste of our time, but instead – sing. Sing songs to God. Sing songs to one another. Sing songs to yourselves, even. Does this strike you as odd in any way? Singing is an essential activity?

That is not the way many of us would imagine it, these days.
Oh, music is still important, music is background music for our lives, and it’s everywhere – in our offices while we work, in our car, on elevators.
But listening to music, as important as it is, is not as important as singing, actually lifting our voices out loud, whether we sing in tune or not, whether we are confident or not, whether we sing soprano or bass or don’t know what part we sing.
As the apostle writes: "be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts."
This is an important, a crucial, an essential activity even. Something happens to us and in us when we come together and sing

Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise God all creatures here below
Praise God above ye heavenly host
Praise Father Son and Holy Ghost

It does seem that, like with so many other things, though, we don’t sing together much any more.
We mostly let the "experts" do our singing for us – the people who we listen to on the radio, on our ipods, on our CDs, or even live in concerts.
They do most of the singing any more, except in church.
Oh, there are a couple of exceptions, of course: you can usually get a rousing chorus of "Happy birthday" going no matter where you are – and there’s also usually a good response to "Take me out to the ball game" during the seventh inning stretch.
But other than church, those are the only times I can think of that people get together and sing any more.
We go against the grain, it seems, in more ways than one here.
We go against the grain in our singing, and we go against the grain in our living, in the values that we hold, values that call us out of isolation into community, and our of our fear into a greater hope.

Lately, though, even singing together in church has gotten more difficult.
It’s partly that everybody doesn’t know the same songs any more.
Maybe in this age of recording perfection, we are more self-conscious about our singing voices. I recently worshiped as a guest at another Lutheran congregation.
We attended the late service, which was the contemporary worship one.
There were many things wonderful about the service: great music, good preaching, friendly people – but we noticed that many people didn’t join in on the congregational songs.
I’m sure it wasn’t the intent of the very excellent worship team to intimidate people by their excellence, but people just weren’t joining in as enthusiastically as I expected.
Even in the church, people are starting to get used to music being a professional activity, not an act of the gathered community.
But just like our faith is not a spectator sport, all of us and each of us practice living out our convictions about God’s grace and justice – so also music and singing is not just for professionals, but it is for all of us to lift our voices, because something happens to us and in us and among us when we sing:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow
Praise God all creatures here below
Praise God above ye heavenly host
Praise Father Son and Holy Ghost.

Yet the apostle warns "do not get drunk with wine.... but be filled with the Spirit, singing songs and hymns and spiritual songs...."
Now I don’t think the apostle means to say that abusing alcohol is the only thing he is worried about, or that singing is the only good.
But I think he means something like this – People sometimes say that they "drink to forget".... but singing helps us to remember.
The apostle believes that in these important times, we cannot to afford to forget – who we belong to, where our true hope lies, and what is the purpose of our lives.
And so he urges us to sing, for when we sing the truth from outside us gets way down inside us, forming us and giving us hope and comfort and yes, even courage.
Singing forms us as individuals in the life of faith, and singing forms us as a community, a community who can stand up together for the truth of God’s love for us, and for the truth of God’s justice and the truth of God’s mercy for all people.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with one of the older members of our congregation, a mature Christian with much to teach and share.
This person has had his share of ups and downs in life, his share of times of blessing and also times of grief.
He shared with me the importance of the old hymns, especially times when he was feeling low.
He said he knew all of the words to "Love divine, all loves excelling" by heart, and sang the verses to himself when grief threatened to overwhelm him.
Think about the message of that hymn, learned by heart and taken to heart over many years, and think about how the words become part of us, giving us comfort and courage at the times when we need:

Come, Almighty, to deliver, let us all thy life receive
Suddenly return and never, never more thy temples leave.....

They are words from outside us, it is hope from outside us, but over the years and years of singing this melody and these words, they have gotten deep inside us, and transformed us more and more into the kind of person God wants us to be.
We learn scripture verses and we learn about the kind of God we have when we sing, and we share this with one another.

I also had the opportunity recently to be a part of a group that went to the State Capital together.
I mentioned how as we advocated for transportation jobs for women and minorities, we also sang songs together, songs about God, but also songs about our resolve to keep working for justice and dignity for all people.
And I thought about how many of the Civil rights songs were first gospel songs, church songs: "Keep your eyes on the prize.... Hold on, hold on,",
the people sang as they marched to places like Selma and Montgomery and Washington, DC
and as they remembered that they were God’s children and that the work they were doing was important work.

Do not get drunk with wine, but be filled with the spirit...singing songs and hymns and spiritual songs.
Sing songs and hymns and spiritual songs, the apostle urges.... because, one day, perhaps soon, perhaps not, the lights will be on us, and we’ll want to raise our hands.
Someday, perhaps soon, perhaps not, we’ll be called upon to speak, or to act the wide wide love and mercy God has for us.
Someday the lights will be on us and someone will ask us to stand up, and we’ll stand up ... and the song and the words will come out from deep inside us, and we’ll know that the saints from all of the ages of ages sing with us, but, most of all, we’ll know that it is the love of God that carries us, we’ll be able to stand up and sing. ....

"Praise God, from whom all blessings flow,
praise God all creatures here below
praise God above you heavenly host
praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost. AMEN


MikeF said...

Glorious! (Literally...!)

Thank you for this, truly.

Nancy said...

Oh my!! Thank you!

I'd felt silly carrying around a copy of a page from the hymnal -- Breathe on me, Breath of God. Couldn't seem to learn all the verses. I will learn now and will sing with joy.

Thank you for your wisdom.

Lindy said...

Diane, I think you are right on target. There's a reason that the musicians march into battle with the rest. Music unites us, and gives us courage. This is a beautiful sermon.

robert said...

Great piece of writing. (Enjoyed the Dialing for Dollars story immensely.)

And as someone involved in church music for about 50 years (!) I concur with your concern about the weakness of congregational singing. There are many reasons why this is so. And thankfully it is not always the case.

Recently, as part of a seminar on church music, I shared 30 ways to improve congregational singing. I must post them as a blog one of these days, and invite other suggestions from readers. I don't think the condition is past remedying, if we work at it.