Sunday, January 20, 2008

Third DMin Project Sermon

Pity our friends south of the border. Not only do they need endure months of endless political campaigning, but the music is pretty awful too. Imagine touring with Hillary Clinton, hearing the same talking points repeated endlessly, and then being subjected to “You and I,” a Celine Dion standard that proves musical taste should not be the test that qualifies someone for high office.

Or imagine the embarrassment of the Obama camp. Campaigning through Iowa, the constant anthem was the U2 classic “You look so beautiful tonight.” Who could resist such flattery? By New Hampshire, his tuned changed, and suddenly emboldened Obama was playing Stevie Wonder’s “Signed, sealed, delivered, I’m yours!” Not quite yet, but we live in hope.

Music, of course, sets the mood. It creates the kind of atmosphere that helps form a message. It puts us in a certain headspace and may open us up to hearing new things. When Bill Clinton chose “Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow” in 1992, he seemed to find the right message for the right time. Same for 1932, when Roosevelt chose “Happy days are here again” to speak to Americans at the height of the depression.

And just in case you think I’m doing too much pandering to my American friends who’ll watch this tape, I give you our not-yet Prime Minister in 2006. “Can’t stop this thing we started” was the campaign song: words that proved scary in their accuracy.

Here in worship, it is music that becomes the glue that holds everything together. From reminding us that everything begins with praise, to summarizing the scripture, to completing the sermon and sending us out with gladness, the music in worship links melody and message to carry us home.

Beyond Sunday, music still fills this place. Music brings people down the aisle and takes them away. St. Paul’s best-known poem to love is spoken or sung, proving that he is much more than a sounding gong or a clanging cymbal. When we say goodbye to our departed friends, we do it best through music. Psalms best-known poem to comfort is spoken or sung, proving “death’s dark vale we fear no ill, with Thee, dear Lord, beside…”

Whatever the worshipping occasion, music remains at the centre. Like Israel’s long-ago temple, music locates God at the centre of our life together. We sing of God’s many gifts, we sing of justice and healing, and we sing of a world made new. We “ascribe to God” what belongs to God: honour, glory, strength and beauty. With our temple friends we sing to the Lord, bless his name, and speak of salvation day by day.

Encouraged, we sing, but the psalmist adds another stanza: “Sing to the Lord a new song. Sing to the Lord, all the earth: It is to this new song that we turn our attention, the new song that tune our ear. It is both invitation and challenge, it is both discipline and guide. We’ll begin with a staff and some measures, and build it note by note.


One of my wise sermon helpers asked this question: ““If this congregation wrote a hymn, what would they say?” All I could think of was Donny and Marie:

Girl: I'm a little bit country

Boy : I'm a little bit rock n roll

Girl: I'm a little bit Memphis & Nashville

Boy : With a little bit of Motown in my soul

When you merge a couple of congregations, you are merging two congregational cultures. Sometimes you discover (as we did) that one congregation is a little bit country, and the other a little bit rock and roll. Of course, Donny and Marie don’t resolve their musical conundrum by the end of the number, but they do sound nice together. And while hardly a hymn, Donny and Marie are churchgoers.

Suddenly I was inundated with song as I recounted the path from there to here. When renovating, it turns our “all you need is love,” and a “let it be” attitude rather than the urge to “shout.” I worried that we would still be renovating “when I’m sixty-four,” but “with a little help from my friends” we got through it.

Back to Connie’s question, our new song, the one we would compose today, would certainly be more joyful. It would reflect the well-earned distance we traveled through change, and on to the newness we witnessed as recently as new member Sunday a week ago. The new song we sing already includes new voices, a stronger chorus to sing the praises God deserves for adding to our number.

And like the psalm, the new song we sing describes a just God, judging the earth with equity, asking the church to care for the least of these my sisters and brothers. Raising our voices, again we can joyfully sing of the hungry ones fed, the naked clothed, and the cause of justice served. We have much to celebrate, and as the old hymn says, “how can I keep from singing?”


As authors of this new song, we live with the challenges that every songwriter must face. Every song has a setting, both the musical kind and the location of the song in time. Some songs are timeless, but too many fail to speak beyond the immediate audience. Times change, and the heartfelt ballad of one generation may become the “silly love song” of another.

Take the automobile. A generation from now people will marvel at the number of popular songs written about cars. Songs about particular models, about driving around all day, about certain highways, and even about parts of cars (dashboard lights?). Hundreds of hit songs dedicated to a car culture that still seems to have us by the throat.

Maybe in the future there will songs about hybrids and electric cars, or perhaps we will sing the song of the earth, recognizing that the obsession of the last century cannot be sustained in this century. This new song, if we sing it, will have an ancient friend in the very psalm we heard today:

Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;

let the sea roar, and all that fills it;

let the field exult, and everything in it.

Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy

We seemed to forget that the earth could rejoice and the seas could roar and the trees could sing. We seemed to forget that the earth had a song at all, until the thermometer registered that something was off key. Suddenly the ancient song recorded in scripture becomes a blueprint, a goal we must work toward if we want to hear the trees of the forest sing for joy once more.


The final challenge for the songwriter is finding a subject. For a time it was very popular to write a song to the smallest of subjects: to write to Diana, or Mandy, or Norma Jean. Songwriters used a single subject to speak to the experience of others, and sometimes (rarely) they pulled it off. Still others spoke of wider experience, describing love in such universal terms that it just ended up sounding vague and a little trite.

Searching the work of other songwriters, we find one working away, his song in the form of a prayer. “Glorify me, God, as I have always sought to glorify you.” The song continues:

I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. (John 17.22-23)

We discover that we never write alone. We write with a Saviour-Songwriter named Jesus, who gives God the glory first, then writes a long song to everyone in need. The song of Jesus begins with God and sings of a love that will never end, a love that draws us together and makes us one. The song of Jesus is the one that lives within us and never falls silent, that knows the rhythm of our longing and the hope of our hearts. We write a new song to God, and we cannot keep from singing. Amen.