Jesus said, “In a certain city there was a judge who neither feared God nor had respect for people. In that city there was a widow who kept coming to him and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent.’ For a while he refused; but later he said to himself, ‘Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, yet because this widow keeps bothering me, I will grant her justice, so that she may not wear me out by continually coming.’” And the Lord said, “Listen to what the unjust judge says.”
Jesus says that’s what God is like. Not like a widow who persistently goes looking for justice. Not like a bailiff dutifully following orders. Not even like a stenographer observing and recording every little detail of a trial.
God is like the unjust judge.
Jesus is saying to us here, in ways both strange and captivating, that God is willing to do for us what we need for no other reason than the fact that it will get all of us off of God’s back.
Jesus spins the tale and we are left with the bewildering knowledge that God is content to fix all of our mess even while we’re stuck in the midst of it.
In other words: While we were still sinners, Christ died for the ungodly.
There are few sentences in scripture as unnerving and beautiful as that one. It’s beautiful because its true and it includes all of us. But it’s unnerving precisely because it includes all of us!
We might like to imagine that God is waiting around hoping to dispense a little bit of perfection like manna from heaven if we just offer the right prayer or rack up the right amount of good works.
But Jesus’ story about the unjust judge screams the contrary. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Do you think it makes the least bit of difference to God whether or not you are right, or if your case is just? Truly I tell you, God isn’t looking for the right, or the good, or the true, or the beautiful. God is looking for the lost, and you are all lost whether you think you are lost or not.”
Jesus tells this parable as Golgotha and the cross get clearer and clearer on the horizon. The cross is God’s mercy made most manifest. Just like the unjust judge, God hung up the ledger-keeping forever while Jesus was hung up on the cross. The cross is God, as the judge, declaring a totally ridiculous verdict of forgiveness over a whole bunch of unrepentant losers like the widow, like me, and like you.
The cross is a sign to all of us and to the world that there is no angry judge waiting to dispense a guilty verdict on all who come into the courtroom – there is therefore no condemnation because there is no condemner.
The old hymn has it right: “No condemnation now I dread; Jesus, and all in him, is mine; alive in him, my living Head, and clothed in righteousness divine, bold I approach the eternal throne, and claim the crown, through Christ my own!”
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
We might not realize it, but we often “sing our faith.”
Well, at least we did back in the days we actually got together in-person for worship.
Nevertheless, in the United Methodist Church we take seriously the act of singing and how much it teaches us about who we are and who we are.
There are some hymns that, even if I just sing part of verse, you will probably be able to fill in the rest:
Jesus loves me this I know ______
Amazing Grace how sweet the _____
O come, o come, Emmanuel _____
Jesus Loves Me, known among Christians and nonChristians alike, was written in 1860. I learned it from my great-grandmother who would sing it just about every time I visited her, it’s one of the de facto songs of Sunday school classrooms, and I can even remember it being used in Preschool as a way to get all of our attentions.
But Jesus Loves Me, for all of its lovely qualities, has only been around for 160 years.
Amazing Grace, known among Christians and nonChristians alike, was written in 1779. It’s ubiquity cannot be overstated. I can’t think of a funeral I’ve done where it wasn’t the number one requested hymn – it shows up in the background of hit Television shows, and I’ve heard it quoted from the lips of more politicians than I can count.
But, even with all the amazing qualities of Amazing Grace, it’s only been around 240 years.
Ah, which brings us to O Come, O Come, Emmanuel. It’s one of the preferred songs for the season of Advent, it has been covered by bands from the likes of Pentatonix to Sufjan Stevens, and it was written in the 9th century.
It’s over 1,000 years old.
I mean, think about that for just a moment…
Christians have used these words to articulate our faith for a very long time.
The hymn is older than the United States, the printing press, and even Timbuktu!
And there’s something notable about Christian hymns and how they’ve changed over time. For, if you take a gander at O Come, O Come, Emanuel, the hymn is largely about Jesus, and only secondarily about us. That is, those who follow him.
But as the years and the centuries pass by, the hymns start to flip, they focus more on us and only secondarily about Jesus.
It’s why you can tune to a Christian radio station today and the subject of almost every song is us.
“I’m so in love with you Jesus!”
“Our God is greater, Our God is stronger!”
In our singing, we’ve become the subject of our own worship.
St. Paul, in his letter to the church in Philippi, written from behind bars, contains one of the most interesting elements of any of his letters: a hymn.
The so-called Christ Hymn is tucked away here in the second chapter and it predates Paul’s letter.
It’s older than the epistles, it’s older than the gospels, it’s a song the earliest Christians used to articulate their faith.
Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
It might not sound as catchy as something you can experience on YouTube or on the Radio today, but it’s radical.
It’s meant to shock us, this little collection of verse that Paul shares with the Philippians. Most of us, however, barely respond to it at all because we’ve heard it all before.
But listen again to this: Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend… and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Again, those lines aren’t original to Paul, in fact, the early Christians who put the hymn together got the words from Isaiah 45 which contains one of the Bible’s fiercest statements against idolatry.
Idolatry is whatever happens when we worship any of the little g gods in our life rather than God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Idolatry is when we hold up a political candidate as if they will be the ones to save us.
Idolatry is when we are willing to sacrifice people’s lives so long as we can keep the economy stimulated.
Idolatry is when we are so wedded to the powers and principalities of this life that we no longer notice the sin we’re in.
So what is it that Paul does with this song against idolatry. Or, better put, what did the earliest Christians do with it? They stuck Jesus right in the middle.
They, to put it in theological terms, violated the Law with the power of the Gospel.
It’s as is Paul is saying, or perhaps singing, “Jesus knew that power and might aren’t things to be taken but instead given up. Jesus emptied himself of all things. Jesus made himself poor even though he was rich. Jesus gave up his royal robes for a servant’s towel. Jesus humiliated himself to the point of humility. Jesus blessed those who persecuted him. Jesus turned the other cheek, went the extra mile, and forgave no matter the cost. And because that who Jesus is, God exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name.”
And that’s shocking – it’s shocking because the name that is above every name is Yahweh – I AM. It is the One who spoke from the burning bush to Moses, the one who delivered a people enslaved all the way to the Promised Land, the One who turned the world upside down.
Paul mics drops through the centuries this frighteningly Good News – The Lord is Jesus.
John Wesley, founder of this crazy thing we call Methodism today, said that if God wanted to, God could’ve been Sovereign. That is: God could’ve controlled us like puppets and made us do every little thing that God wanted. God could’ve smacked us into shape for stepping out of line or rewarded us with little prizes for making good choices.
But instead, Wesley said, God chose to be Jesus.
God chose to come across the great chasm between Creator and Creature to dwell among us in the muck and mire of life.
God took on flesh, in humility humiliated God’s self to come and be with us.
God became Jesus for us.
It happens a lot in my line of work – the unannounced drop by, the casual (but not really) phone call, the email filled with ellipses. Someone shows up in my life, offers a few remarks that really have little to do with anything, when they finally share what they’ve kept all bottled up.
A wife who’s been cheating on her husband.
An individual who fled the scene after a hit and run.
A kid who made one too many bad choices at a party.
And almost every one of those conversations ends the same way – with a question.
Having emptied themselves of the baggage, having confessed the condition of their condition, they then ask, “Do you think I’m a sinner?”
“Do you think I’m a sinner?”
And one of the great privileges of my profession is that I get to answer that question like this:
“Of course you’re a sinner… but so am I. And Jesus happens to loves sinners.”
What do we really think God is like? Is God angry with us, is God a totalitarian dictator who is willing to torture us into better behavior? Is God keeping a ledger of every little mistake we make in order to determine where we should end up in the end?
Or, is God like Jesus?
Is God the One who, in humility, takes on flesh just to welcome outcasts and sinners?
Is God the One who, time and time again, describes the Kingdom like a wedding feast to which all of the wrong kinds of people are invited?
God became what we are. That’s what the Christ Hymn is all about, it’s what Paul is banging over the heads of the disciples in Philippi – God became what we are.
It is in God’s unending graciousness that God travel into the far country, into the brokenness of this world, our world, which is not God and is so often against God. And God made, and makes, that journey to us, for us.
Jesus is God, says the hymn that has articulated the faith longer than any other hymn.
And, in Jesus, God refuses to cast stones.
God says to the woman caught in adultery, “I don’t condemn you,” even though scripture condemned her behavior.
God says to the sinning tax collector, and the murderer, and the fill in the blank, “I’m feasting with you tonight,” even though scripture calls them unclean.
God says to the thief hanging on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” even though scripture claims the opposite.
God in the flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, forgives those who haven’t a clue in the world and those who know exactly what they’re doing. God eats and drinks and cavorts with the very people we wouldn’t be caught dead with.
Which is kind of the whole point.
God chose to die, even death on a cross, out of love for the sinners we are.
Contrary to how we often discuss it, both publicly and in secret, God doesn’t respond to the crosses we build in this life with more crosses. God doesn’t abide by an eye for an eye. Instead, God’s answer to our brokenness and our sinfulness is Easter.
And that is humiliating.
It’s humiliating because we don’t deserve it.
We worship a crucified God, hanging dead on the cross because we put him there.
And God comes back, to us!
Jesus, whose name is above all names, Jesus is the one to whom we owe our allegiance – the one we worship. Jesus is God. And God, knowing our sin, chose to be with us and for us.
That’s the faith we sing.
Not some version of our own progress toward better-ness. Not some repetitive chorus about where we become the subjects of our worship.
The faith we sing is that God humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross – for us. Amen.
This week on the Strangely Warmed podcast I speak with Tim Tate about the readings for the 3rd Sunday of Advent [A] (Isaiah 35.1-10, Psalm 146.5-10, James 5.7-10, Matthew 11.2-11). Our conversation covers a range of topics including relational leadership, Advent Hymns, highlighting tension, tempering the holidays, divine reversal, the Bible on a bumper sticker, opening prisons, The Wesleyan Covenant Prayer, burning Christmas trees, and churchy expectations. If you would like to listen to the episode or subscribe to the podcast you can do so here: Advent Is A Little Lent
This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Depending on where you grow up in church, there are some hymns that are so familiar you just know them deep down in your bones. All you need to hear is the first note, or the first word, and before you know it the rest of the hymn comes floating out. And, more often than not, you get the hymn stuck in your head all day long after worship.
However, for as many hymns as we know deep in our bones, there are an equal number of hymns that are so unfamiliar, that if we were to hear the entire song, we’d wonder if it was in our hymn book at all.
Throughout my life I went to church on Sunday; I prayed when I was supposed to, I listened when I was supposed to, and I stood up to sing when I was supposed to. There are hymns in our hymnal that immediately draw me to a particular time and place when I can remember it being used in worship. But prior to becoming a pastor, I had never heard the hymn “This Is The Day.”
I’m not sure how’s it possible, but I can remember being at one of my first clergy events having just been assigned to my first church, and everyone started singing it together and I had no idea what was going on. Embarrassed, I started opening and closing my mouth as if I knew the song, and spent most of the rest of the session looking for it in the hymnal and pondering how I could’ve missed it.
Fast forward to Sunday, when our choir both began and ended worship with “This Is The Day.” After half a decade of ministry I’ve used “This Is The Day” to start more worship services than I can count, but yesterday was the first time I ever heard the hymn at the end of a service.
And it was perfect.
This is the day that the Lord has made! Let us rejoice and be glad in it! What a wonderful way to be sent out into the world to be God’s people. The words are not meant for our orientation to worship alone. They can be a tremendous blessing and reminder that God has made each day, that we can rejoice and be glad in it.
Can you imagine how differently we would live if we started and ended every day with these words? Can you picture how wonderful it would be to contemplate the blessing of life every morning, and express gratitude for the joyful day every evening?
As we take steps closer to the end of Lent, as we prepare to enter into the darkness made manifest in the shadow of the cross, as we wait for the promised joy of the first Easter morning, let us give thanks to the Lord our God for each and every day, knowing we can rejoice and be glad.
O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.
I love the so-called “good ol’ hymns.” I love them because I grew up with them, because they remind me of particular people in particular places, and because the theology behind them is remarkable. All I need are the first verses of “Amazing Grace” to draw me to all of the saints that have gone on to glory during my life, or the opening melody of “Jesus Calls Us O’er The Tumult” will bring forth memories of my grandmother humming the tune in her kitchen, or I’ll read through the words of “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” and it will give me goose-bumps thinking about how Christians have used those words for over a thousand years.
The “good ol’ hymns” are called as such accordingly; they are good and they are old.
In the church today, however, there is a strong temptation to employ something new simply for the sake of being new. Rather than relying on tradition or theology, we’re inclined to pull out the shiny new songs in hopes that they will bring about some sort of change or transformation. And, though many new songs are ripe with good theology, many of them fail in that particular category. New songs can have catchy melodies, and stir up emotional responses, but if the words we proclaim are unfaithful, we have to ask ourselves: “Is this the new song God wants us to sing?”
Over the last few weeks I’ve been talking with the choir at Cokesbury about new and different ways to praise God through voice and song; but not necessarily with new songs. So, we prayed about it, and on Sunday morning I got out my cajon and started playing along with our pianist to the tune of “I Surrender All.” For what it’s worth: “I Surrender All” was written in 1896 and it has been a favorite of Christians for more than a century. But for us on Sunday morning, it felt new. It felt new because we did not somber along with the verses, we did not say the words devoid of meaning. Instead we passed around a microphone to members of the choir, some over 70 and some under 17, and let them sing the verses as the Spirit led them.
It was beautiful, it was powerful, and it was new.
What songs from the hymnal move you the most? What is it about those particular hymns that resonate with you? How has God used a particular song to speak a new word at a particular moment in your life?
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” So he told them this parable: “Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
Today marks the conclusion of our Sermon Series on The Power of the Parables. A favorite rhetorical device of Jesus’, a parable is a story that illustrates a lesson or principle usually without needing explanation. They are simple and life-sized with familiar characters and they are supposed to drive us crazy.
Over the centuries the parables have become so watered down through the church that they no longer carry the same weight and punch they once did. The familiar parables are beloved to us: The Feast, The Mustard Seed, The Prodigal Son, The Good Samaritan, The Lost Sheep. But during the time of Jesus they were frustrating and confusing. During this month we have attempted to recover this sense of strangeness and re-encounter the power of the parables.
Now all the rich and broken were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. And those with power were frustrated and saying, “This guy hangs out with the nobodies, and he eats with them.” So he told them one of his parables.
“Which one of you, having a hundred children to watch during a summer camp, and losing just one of them in a museum, does not leave the ninety-nine in the lobby and go after the one that is lost until you find the kid? And when you find her, you offer her your hand and rejoice. And then when you bring the little girl back down to the lobby you call for everyone to join together to rejoice over the one who was lost. Truly I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one who returns, than over ninety-nine who need nothing.”
On Monday morning, after traveling to Raleigh, North Carolina immediately after church last Sunday, we woke up at 6:30 am to get the day started. We spent time preparing our breakfasts and lunches, the adults drank our coffee while the youth rubbed their eyes, we spent intentional time with God in prayer, and then we were sent off in groups to our different work sites. I was in charge of a group of 8 youth from here in Staunton and Chapel Hill, NC and we were tasked with working alongside Helping Hands, an organization that provides a camp atmosphere for underprivileged children.
While driving through Raleigh to our assigned location, we wondered aloud about what kind of work we would be doing with the kids. Perhaps we would sit down and help them with their reading comprehension, or we would gather with them inside of a gym and talk about Jesus, or any number of activities. Instead, we were asked to make sure they stayed outside in the oppressive heat, within a strict set of boundaries so that they would not wander into the road. My 7 youth had to keep track of 30 children running all over the place, and who wanted nothing more than to go exactly outside the area they were supposed to stay in.
After a few hours of running around and participating in what could only be describing as shepherding sheep, we took the kids to the Museum of Science downtown. The hope was for them to glean a little bit of information from the exhibits, but more so for them to experience air-conditioning for at least a few minutes.
However, upon arriving, the shepherding metaphor became that much more relevant. With the totality of the museum at our disposal, I had to do my best to keep an eye on our kids while they were keeping their eyes on a whole bunch of other kids. We walked and walked, we talked about things like dinosaur bones and bumblebees, we saw fish swim back and forth in a replicated ecosystem, and we even played with North Carolina Clay. At some point, while on the second floor, I was walking our group through a fictionalized version of a dark aquarium tunnel with dead dinosaurs swimming above us. Most of the kids were “ooing” and “ahhing” and as we approached the end I stood and counted off all the heads as they passed.
When I counted the last head, fear percolated through every fiber of my being; someone was missing. I begged our youth to step-up and watch over all the kids while I went back for the one that was missing, I broke the protocol of leaving church youth with summer camp youth all by themselves, but I did not know what else to do. And I went looking for the lost sheep.
I retraced our steps through the tunnel, making sure to look in every shadowed area until I found who was missing. And standing right at the entrance to the tunnel, with tears in her eyes, and her knees shaking back and forth, was a girl named Miracle.
Miracle was afraid: afraid of the strange dinosaurs floating above her head, afraid of the other whispering adults who were pointing at her while she stood by the entrance, and afraid of the fact that she was left there all alone. Before I even had a chance to do something, she reached out for my hand and immediately began to calm down. She was lost, but was now found.
Now all the elite and prideful people were gathering around Jesus to listen to him. And those with all the influence were frustrated and saying, “This guy hangs out with people who no longer matter, and he eats with them.” So he told them one of his parables.
“Which one of you, having an entire Nursing and Rehab center filled with residents near the end of life who are completely alone, does not do everything in your power to go after them until they rediscover themselves? And when you find that opportunity, you grab them by the hand to celebrate their joy. Truly I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one aged person smiling in joy than over ministering over countless people in the height of life who need nothing.”
After working with Helping Hands for the first three days, we were then assigned to the Hillcrest Nursing Center. Those same youth and I traveled to the facility to help lead the activity center where residents could play bingo, exercise, and respond to trivia questions. It was quite a shock to the youth having to go from keeping track of little kids running all over the place to sitting in a room full of people with remarkably limited responses.
We tried pulling out the bingo cards and reading out the letters and numbers. I even encouraged the youth to dance around the room to get the residents involved, but most of them just stared off into space. We tried leading them through an exercise routine to the music of Michael Jackson, but most of them just stared off into space.
We felt pretty worthless. Having traveled all this way to help the community of Raleigh, it was hard for the youth to feel so unsuccessful with those near the end of life. But then I saw a hymnal and I started flipping through the pages until I found “Amazing Grace.”
“Amazing grace! How sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me! I once was lost but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”
All eyes in the room, though previously locked onto the walls and the floor, had all turned to the center of the room where I stood with the hymnal in my hands.
“’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved; how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”
The youth moved closer to me and started singing and humming along with the familiar tune that they have heard so many time before.
“Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; ‘tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”
The residents started perking up in their wheelchairs even the ones who had nothing to do with what we had done earlier, and some of them even started to mouth the words with us.
“The Lord has promised good to me, his word my hope secures; he will my shield and portion be, as long as life endures.”
The aides and employees who were wandering the halls started gathering in the door way to watch what was happening, and a few of them even opened up their hands and prayerfully joined in one voice.
“Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess, within the veil, a life of hope a peace.”
Everyone in the room was singing or humming along, every resident who was previously lost to the recesses of their mind were found by the time we all joined together for that final verse.
“When we’ve been there ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun, we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, than when we’d first begun.”
It was abundantly clear that for many of the residents this was the first time they had participated in anything for a very long time. From the tears welling up in the eyes of the employees while watching the people they served each and every day we were caught up in the Holy Spirit bring us all together. From the smiles and wrinkles on individual faces the Lord was making good on the promises of grace to lead us home even when we are lost to our minds.
From there we continued to flip through the hymnal and joined together. Softly and Tenderly, Stand By Me, I Love to Tell the Story, O Come O Come Emmanuel, and we ended with Victory in Jesus.
In a manner of minutes we had gone from a room full of people lost to the weight of time and loneliness, to a people united together through the joy of song. With the finals words of Victory in Jesus, with fingers snapping and hands clapping, the Lord brought all of us home.
The power of this parable is in its effective portrayal of God’s love; the Lord is the one who leaves everything behind to come find us when we’re lost.
We like to think of ourselves as Jesus in the parable, going after our friends who are lost and bringing them home. When in fact, it is God who works through us to go after the lost sheep. God is the one who pushes us to find a little girl who has disappeared in a museum. God is the one who fills our lungs and sings through us in a nursing home to call people back into the faithful community. God is the one who will never rest until we are found. Amen.
Praise the Lord! Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty firmament! Praise him for his mighty deeds; praise him according to his surpassing greatness! Praise him with trumpet sound; praise him with lute and harp! Praise him with tambourine and dance; praise him with strings and pipe! Praise him with clanging cymbals; praise him with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!
I am a creature of habit. I like routines, I like order, and I like preparation. I asked Lindsey to give me three examples of how I am a creature of habit and her response was: “only three?” I like my coffee a certain way, I enjoy sitting in a particular chair to read books, and I have rhythms for most of the events in my life. Sundays are no exception.
Most Sundays I arrive here in the sanctuary hours before some of you are even awake. Of course I start with the practical things like turning on the lights and unlocking the doors, but then I make my way back to the sanctuary to prepare for worship. First I pray on my knees from the third pew on the right hand side and confess where I have fallen short and how I have sinned. I pray for God’s forgiveness, and ask God to show up in my words in worship, even if I don’t deserve it. I then make my way up to the altar and praise God for the mighty acts revealed in scripture and in my life.
When I turn around I walk down the center aisle and I pray over every single pew asking for God to turn them into avenues of connection rather than walls of division. My hand touches every pew and I pray for God transform all of the people who will inhabit them through our worship.
From the Narthex I pray for the ways that we greet people on their way into the church, and I even go out onto the front lawn to give thanks for Staunton, and ask for God to send to us all who need to feel God’s love.
All in all it takes some time to prayerfully prepare for worship, but it’s worth it. When I finish praying, I make my way into the pulpit and read over the bulletin one last time. I check to make sure that the theme of worship is present throughout the entire worship service and, before I read my sermon out loud, I pull out my hymnal.
Like I said, I am a creature of habit. Every Sunday before any of you get here, I pray in this sanctuary and I sing through the hymns by myself. When I’m alone in the church I can belt out the hymns without the deep sighs from our organist Rick in response to me not keeping the pitch, I can let my emotions get the best of me without being judged by some of you from the pews, and I can just be myself up here jamming.
One Sunday, after going through my whole prayer routine, I stood up in the pulpit and looked at the bulletin to the hymn number for “Have Thine Own Way, Lord.” And I did what I always do. And I got really into it: (sing Have Thine Own Way)
Of course, when I sing, I often close my eyes and just let the words flow. So here I was singing from the top of the lungs from the pulpit, and you can imagine my surprise and terror when I finished the last note and someone shouted, “sounds okay from back here!”
A visitor to the church had arrived hours early, walked in through the narthex, picked up a bulletin, and sat down in the farthest back pew, and was listening to my solo. I stood up here in shock without knowing what to say and I fumbled through trying to explain myself when the man raised his hand to stop me and said, a little too sarcastically, “I’m sure other pastors do this kind of stuff all the time.”
I am a creature of habit and, even though I was embarrassed that one morning, I still sing all the hymns before you get here. Singing the hymns and reading over the lyrics is incredibly important, because when we sing from this hymnal, we are articulating our faith. When we sing from this hymnal we are reentering the world of scripture. When we sing from this hymnal we are praising the Lord.
So let’s go to that hymn that I embarrassingly belted from the pulpit; number 382 Have Thine Own Way, Lord. (Sing together.)
Is this a familiar tune for you? Can you remember singing it when you were younger? Maybe you’ve heard the version that Johnny Cash performed. This is a beautiful hymn. The words quote Jeremiah 18.6 about clay in the potter’s hand. The tune is easy to follow and the theology behind it is great: It is an honest and prayerful desire for God’s will to be done in our lives.
I have always enjoyed singing this hymn, but when I learned the story behind the hymn it became that much more precious. If you look to the bottom left hand corner of the page, you will see that Adelaide Pollard wrote the hymn in 1902. The story goes that Adelaide was going through a rough period in her life and was unsuccessful in raising enough funds to make a trip to Africa for missionary work. In the depth of her struggle, she went to a tiny prayer meeting one night for the local community. She listened to person after person make their prayer requests for medical issues, material possessions, and a slew of other things when an old woman stood up to make her prayer request. Bucking with the trend of the evening the old woman simply said, “Have thine own way with me, Lord.” Impressed by the faith of the old woman, Adelaide went home that night and wrote the words to the hymn.
Psalm 150, the final one of the entire psalter, compels us to praise the Lord through music. Praise God with trumpets, lutes, harps, tambourines, dance, strings, pipes, and cymbals. Toward the beginning of the hymnal, we can find John Wesley’s directions for singing, that pair so well with Psalm 150:
“Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing. Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature. In order to do this attend strictly to the sense of what you sing, and see that your heart is not carried away with the sound, but offered to God continually; so shall your singing be such as the Lord will approve here, and reward you when he cometh in the clouds of heaven.”
So we are going to follow the words of Psalm 150 and the words of John Wesley, we are going to praise the Lord. I would like all of us to take out our hymnal and turn to our favorite song. When you find the one you love shout out the number and we will sing the first verse. (We’ll probably do this for five hymns) Together we will praise the Lord. And as we do, take the time to soak up the words and the let the tune flow over you so that the Lord will approve our singing and reward us when God comes in the clouds of heaven. Amen.
Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God; for he is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.
Selecting the hymns for worship on Sunday mornings is a pastoral privilege. Each week I pray over the words for the sermon and seek to find hymns that fit with the general direction of worship. Our hymnal is an invaluable resource that helps us to discover God’s majesty in ways that are powerful and beautiful.
Growing up as a United Methodist, I cherished our hymnal and learned to “sing my faith” on a weekly basis. Though I regularly listened to secular music, is was the tunes from the likes of “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” and “Be Thou My Vision” that I found myself whistling and humming during the day. When I became a pastor, and therefore received the responsibility of selecting our hymns, I was very thankful that some of the previous pastors at St. John’ penciled in the dates for hymn selections in the office copy. I immediately knew which tunes were familiar, and which hymns would be a little harder to sing.
Yesterday our worship service was focused on the importance of love being greater than knowledge. I went through my usual sermon preparation and then went to the hymnal and decided that #617 “I Come with Joy” would be a great way to start our worship service (particularly since we would also be feasting at the Lord’s Table). I processed down the center aisle with an acolyte as the organ moved along and the gathered body was singing, but when we arrived at the 4th verse, perhaps by a push from the Holy Spirit, our organist stopped playing and allowed for us to sing a cappella. The words resonated throughout our sanctuary in such a way that I felt shivers in my body: “And thus with joy we meet our Lord. His presence, always near, is in such friendship better known; we see and praise him here, we see and praise him here.”
The psalmist writes that is good for us to sing praises to our God for he is gracious. When the gathered body is together and we can sing the hymns with every fiber of our being, we are truly praising the Lord! However, singing praises to God is not something that is limited to Sunday morning alone; every day is a new opportunity to sing praises to our gracious God. We can do this through our actions, our prayers, and our conversations with others. So long as we remember that God is the source of goodness in life, singing God’s praise will be as natural as breathing.
This week, as we seek to love God and neighbor, let us explore the many different ways we can sing our praises to the Lord. It can be as easy as humming one of your favorite hymns, and it can be as simple as thanking God for something wonderful in your life. Let us praise the Lord!
O sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth. Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples. For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised. he is to be revered above all gods.
I love being a pastor. I love getting to spend time each week contemplating the Word of the Lord, reading from numerous texts, spending time in prayer, and working on a sermon for Sunday. I love getting to go out into the community to visit those who are sick, alone, afraid, or no longer able to attend church. I love representing St. John’s within Staunton through various organizations and events. I love the fact that people feel comfortable enough to spend time with me and share their stories. I love getting to participate in the life of this faith community as a pastor who serves the church and its people. But one of the things that I love most about being a pastor, is the fact that our church has a Preschool.
Every morning (while the school is in session) I make my way down to the classrooms and I try to greet every child and parent that comes in. I visit each room during the day and help the children with their letters, build giant block fortresses, and ask them questions about whatever I can think of. Most of the children “know” who I am, and they call me Pastor, but I believe they think thats my first name. Some of them are often confused by this adult who comes in to play with their toys regularly, and perhaps they see me as a giant kid (which I am).
Last week the Preschool children put on a pageant for their parents and families in our sanctuary. I was blessed to be offered to the role of narrator and I dressed up as a shepherd for my role (the kids were in costume as the various animals from the manger scene). After they had remembered for us the Christmas story, and performed a number of Christmas themed songs, they went to the social hall in order to change out of costume and wait for the parents to join them for a reception. My job was to talk for 5-10 minutes to all the adults so the teachers would have enough time to get everything ready.
Now, bear in mind, that many of the people in attendance that night do not attend any church. Their children are affiliated with a Preschool from a United Methodist Church, but that night might be the only time of the year that they step forth into a sanctuary.
So, I gave a very brief sermon about the meaning of Christmas and the importance for everyone in the room to love their children; not just with presents, but with real and tangible love; caring about what they’re interested in, supporting them throughout their lives, and taking the time to show them they are loved. When it was clear that I had expended my theological and homiletical thoughts, I did what any good Methodist would do, and I picked up my hymnal.
I encouraged everyone to stand and join together with Hymn 246 “Joy to the World” and those people belted their hearts out! I couldn’t believe it. Here I was standing with a bunch of random adults, most of whom do not attend church, and they were singing Joy to the World in harmony and with gusto!
The psalmist writes, “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.” For many of us, Christmas Eve is that one day where we get to sing some of our favorite hymns in church: Hark! the Herald Angels Sing, Angels We Have Heard on High, Silent Night, O Come All Ye Faithful, Joy to the World, etc.
Whether church attending or not, whether filled with faith or doubt, whether excited for Christmas or afraid, there is something about singing that allows the truth depth of our souls to break forth into the world. Wherever you are on your faith journey this year, I hope the words and the tunes of your favorite Christmas songs can help to reignite the flame of faith in all of our hearts.
“He rules the world with truth and grace, and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness, and wonders of his love, and wonders of his love, and wonders, wonders of his love!”