Sunday, February 2, 2014

This Week's Sermon: "Worship: The Musical"

Colossians 3:12-17

12 Therefore, as God’s choice, holy and loved, put on compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. 13 Be tolerant with each other and, if someone has a complaint against anyone, forgive each other. As the Lord forgave you, so also forgive each other. 14 And over all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity. 15 The peace of Christ must control your hearts—a peace into which you were called in one body. And be thankful people. 16 The word of Christ must live in you richly. Teach and warn each other with all wisdom by singing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. Sing to God with gratitude in your hearts. 17 Whatever you do, whether in speech or action, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus and give thanks to God the Father through him. (Common English Bible)

“Adventures in Churchland: A Visitor’s Experience of Mainline Worship,” Week Two

The Swedish town of Lulea sits in Lapland, on the northern coast just below the Arctic circle.  Population-wise, it is about the size of Longview and Kelso combined, and like us, they boast a community orchestra.  Every year during concert season, you can travel to their auditorium, buy a ticket, sit down, and listen to them play, and if the online recordings of their soloists are any indication, there is a lot of talent in this group.

But it is also unlike any symphony or band you might ever have gone to see play…because all of their instruments, to a one, are made almost entirely out of ice.  It means that the auditorium is, essentially, an igloo, and instead of gowns and tuxedos, the musicians wear parkas and scarves.  And it means the instruments melt in springtime and are carved anew every autumn by an American ex-pat sculptor.  And he’ll tell you all about how people view ice instruments as straining the very bounds of their credulity—after all, how could you potentially coax any kind of decent sound from such a concoction?—only to attend a performance and see, and hear, and realize that the constant maintenance (the instruments must be tuned anew after every song, such is the effect that the performer’s and audience’s breath has on them) is entirely worth it.  This is a powerful form of art—even if the violins must be suspended by strings from the ceiling in order to avoid having their performers hold them to their warm-blooded shoulders and chins.

And above the etherealness of sound vibrating off of ice, you could probably hear the objections of a particularly cantankerous, Sam the Eagle-type of character, muttering to his seatmates, “This just isn’t the way music used to be played!”  Which, of course, misses the point entirely.

This is a sermon series that will take us all the way up to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the church season of Lent.  And this is a series about something that may or may not be new in the slightest to us: Sunday worship.  For those of us who were born and raised in the church and have lived in the church our entire lives, worship may be second nature to us by this point: some tunes, some prayers, some preachin’, some bread and juice, and it’s off to Sunday brunch.  But for those of us for whom church is an entirely new experience, this may all come across as one tin-foil hat away from something utterly bizarre to you.  I think I can safely say that after reading Dan Kimball’s 2013 book, “Adventures in Churchland,” in which at one point he conveys, in vivid detail, his initial worship experience at a church that I instantly recognized as a mainline Protestant church—a church like ours with a pastor in robes and an organ in the sanctuary and the serving of communion—none of which are typical trappings in many evangelical churches.  And Dan, having come in off the street, was both bemused and confused by everything this church did as a part of its worship…but we do some of the exact same things, and so it stands to reason that perhaps our worship is confusing for newcomers as well.  So, the point of this sermon series is to not only explain why we worship the way we do, but hopefully to equip you to do the same when other folks ask you why we worship the way we do!  Last week, we began by simply talking about where we worship—our sanctuary, the church building.  This week, we begin to talk about the order of worship itself, specifically music, as Dan’s account continues:

The people at this gathering were solemn and serious.  Everyone kept their voices to a whisper.  I found myself staring at the carpet.  It was this orange-red color, and they must have recently had it cleaned, because it had a strong chemical odor.  After staring at the carpet for several minutes, the combination of the color, the odor, the whispers, and the depressing sound of the organ left me feeling a bit light-headed.  And then it began.

But I also want to offer up a passage from later in his book, where he talks about worship music:

I was once given a copy of a letter that was written by a church member to a music leader in the church who was trying to change the musical style of the worship service.  It read, “I am no music scholar, but I feel I know appropriate church music when I hear it.  Last Sunday’s new hymn—if you can call it that—sounded like a sentimental love ballad one would expect to hear crooned in a saloon.  If you insist on exposing us to rubbish like this—in God’s house!—don’t be surprised if many of the faithful look for a new place to worship.  The hymns we grew up with are all we need.”

You might assume that this letter was written recently, but the irony is that it was written in 1863, and the song this person was so concerned about was the hymn “Just As I Am.”  Today, that hymn is considered a classic and is sung in many different churches around the world.  Yet when it was introduced into the church, people were upset.  It was different, a change from what they normally sang.  Sadly, the person writing this letter…felt threatened by change.

So let’s talk about worship music for a little bit today.  Paul, in this passage of his letter to the Colossians, makes it abundantly clear that worship music—psalms—have an important place not just in the communal church life (ie, the entire assembly at Colossus who would be listening to someone read Paul’s letter aloud to them), but in the spiritual life of their homes and families as well, because right after this passage, Paul begins giving instructions to married couples and families (I exercised editorial control here by stopping at verse 17…my sermon on verse 18, “Wives, obey your husbands,” would take a very different tack to say the least…).  Keep in mind as well that right *before* this passage, Paul emphasizes the universality of the church by repeating a common refrain that we see elsewhere in his letters: that in Christ (or, in this case in Colossians, in the imago dei, the image of God), there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, for Christ is in all things and in all people.

So…what if Christ were in all styles of music, too?  I don’t mean *every* song—you will face an uphill battle trying to convince me that Christ is in, say, “The Thong Song” or “Hips Don’t Lie.”  But whatever genre of music, be it classical hymns or rock and roll or jazz or rap, all of it has the equal capacity to bear the message, image, and love of Christ.

Which makes it all the more painful when we complain about how any given church does music.  Now, I’ll be the first to admit that contemporary Christian music went through the freaking Dark Ages of music composition during the 1990s, when every song was the same, about God’s love for them or their love for God (while important, there seriously is way more to sing about than God’s love.  God’s relationship with us cannot be reduced to a single dimension).  Nowadays, Christian music artists compose their music on a variety of topics, with a variety of influences.

And that is probably the way it should be, especially if we remember that refrain of Paul’s—in Christ, there is no Jew or Greek.  Well…music is in no small way a product of one’s culture, and so it stands to reason that if in Christ there are all cultures (that is to say, in Paul’s dichotomy, both Jewish and Gentile cultures alike), then so too in Christ there are all forms of music.

Which means, honestly, that we ought not to be, as this congregant from 1863 was, adamantly frightened of new forms of worship music.  The first part of that is because I really, truly do feel like fear is the antithesis of faith, far more so than doubt is.  Doubt can sharpen a person’s faith by causing them to wrestle with their beliefs, and beliefs that are hard-won are, I think, far more durable than beliefs that are simply spoon-fed to us.  But fear prevents us from acting or changing whereas faith is all about us acting and changing—and acting after we have been changed by God’s transformative, earth-quaking, life-shaking grace.

And the second part of that is that while God may be unchanging, we, His children, emphatically are always changing, which means that our means to express and communicate the Gospel must be ever-changing as well if the church is to remain effective as the bearer of that message.

This is why, really, I rather like the setup we have with our praise team—not simply because they’re incredibly generous with their time as an all-volunteer band and are extremely dedicated to their ministry for us—but because I can say from firsthand experience how highly they prioritize searching out and trying out new music on a regular basis.  To be honest, it is not something you usually see in churches that rely on hymnals—even if you bring in special music once in a while, the hymnal is conducive to an attitude of “all our songs are in this book.”  It arbitrarily limits the repertoire of a community’s musical praise of God to two bookends.

That does not mean that hymnals should not be used, or that they do not have a place in the church—there is a reason why we always use them when our praise team needs a Sunday off: I’m a big believer in experiencing a change of pace to our usual style now because the last thing any church wants to do, but often still does despite itself, is to get into a rut.

After all, Paul doesn’t exhort us to sing only psalms, or only hymns, or only spirituals—he calls us to sing all of them.  So as we sing hymns, we also sing psalms in the form of many of our praise songs whose lyrics are rooted in the verses of the Psalms—if you don’t believe me that our praise team is learning spirituals, all the more reason to come to their Saturday jam sessions!

“Psalms, hymns, and spirituals” is Paul’s musical equivalent of “neither Jew nor Greek.”  It is meant to be encompassing.  So, too, then, must our praise for God.  It cannot, and must not, be delivered only one way, or with only one instrument.  We are praising a Somebody who is universal, so our praise for Him should follow suit.  It means that if we are in Hawaii, we should be thrilled to sing “Amazing Grace” accompanied by a ukulele, and that if we are in sub-arctic Sweden, we should be exciting about singing “Just As I Am” backed by a string quartet carved out of ice!  Because, in the end, the same language is spoken: the language of the glory of God.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
February 2, 2014

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