Introduction to the Series:
In her introduction to her study resource on “Being the Church,” the Rev. Emily Bisset begins with this reflection:
“Sometimes we, as the church, wonder what we can offer to our wider community – a community that is increasingly functioning without the church as a significant influence. As a denomination, The Presbyterian Church in Canada has been reformulating a common mission and vision statement with a strategic plan to move our congregations and ministries into the future. We have been asking questions: What is the church called to do? What is the church called to be? What will this look like in the communities where we live?”
But reflection led Emily to a different line of questioning: “What does the church offer – what can it offer – that is not available in our communities? What essential teachings of the gospel are at work in congregational life that are not present in our communities because the teachings have been lost or contradicted?
“Questions such as [these] place the emphasis on a ‘present tense’ exploration that highlights components or qualities already existing in many congregations. As a result, good news stories emerge. The church already values and tries to offer particular qualities as part of its mission and purpose. However, sometimes valued components of congregational life are endangered: taken for granted, they may be neglected; during periods of depleted resources, they may be put at risk; not having been named and recognized, their contribution may be overlooked.”
Rev. Emily goes on to name and explore five specific qualities that are present in many congregations, including our congregation here at St. Andrew’s. They are Singing Together; Loving with empathy and compassion; Creating safe space; Welcoming all ages; and Believing in life beyond death.
These qualities are not the whole of what it means to be church, and other people might come up with a slightly different list. But they are qualities worth reflecting on, celebrating to the degree that they are already present in our church, and working on to the degree that some of them may need to be strengthened in our church so that we can “be the church” more fully and faithfully for one another and for the community in which we live.
These are the qualities of “Being the Church” that we will reflect on over the next five Sunday worship services, beginning today with the theme “Singing Together.”
Revelation 5:6, 11-13
The sermon I am going to share with you today was written by the Rev. Emily Bisset. Emily is a Presbyterian minister in Ontario, and a friend of mine. Like me, she loves to sing, and I can relate very well to her reflections on singing in worship.
Both Emily and I learned to sing in church. Church is where we learned first how to follow music as a guide, and where we learned how to read music. And hymns are where we learned the basic story of Christian faith, along with some of the complicated, sometimes contrasting nuances of Christian faith.
Oh, we went to Sunday School and Youth group. And yes, we took piano lessons and then learned to play other instruments as well. But church was where we learned how to be singers, to sing as part of a larger whole, and the hymnody was our earliest teacher of theology.
In our hymnbooks, we don’t just have a book of poems or pretty rhyming verses. It is a compilation of statements of faith, dating from the 3rd and 4th centuries to the 20th century. It is a book of theology – what we believe about God. It is a rich treasury of gifts for the church.
Someone once said, “When a parent invites a child to ‘find a page’ in the hymnal, that child is leafing through hundreds of short but profound lessons in the Christian faith that can inform them about who it is that we worship and about who we are as the people of God.”
In the days of the Reformation, you may remember, that two of the great Reformers, John Calvin and Martin Luther, both believed very strongly in the power of music. Calvin believed that what you sing sticks with you. Therefore, to be on the safe side, when it comes to forming, shaping, and influencing the people, it would be best to only sing the psalms.
That does not mean that worship in Calvin’s churches was dismal or dusty. The psalms were set to tunes that were memorable, and in some cases even danceable, or at least toe-tappable. In fact, they were so toe-tappable that Queen Elizabeth refused to have them sung in the Church of England, referring to them as “Genevan jigs.”
But Calvin thought that we dare not compose songs of our own making, because what we sing sticks with us, and who wants to take a chance that some heretical notion written by just any old bloke, could be the song that sticks in your head for days.
Luther, too, believed in the power of music. He believed in it so strongly, that he took bar songs and popular folk songs, and wrote Christian lyrics to them. He figured that if you already knew the tune and were singing it elsewhere, a good teacher of the faith could capitalize on that and find a way to get you singing religious truth instead.
And so, he used hymns – set to bar tunes – extensively to teach the German people about the truths of the Bible and the Christian faith. In fact, during his lifetime those in the Catholic Church who were opposed to him declared that “the whole German people were singing themselves into Luther’s doctrines, and that his hymns ‘destroyed more souls than all his writings and sermons’.”
Singing — and singing together – whether you have a great voice or an average voice or cannot carry a tune at all, is one of the ways that we teach our faith, and one of the ways that we build community in the church. That is why it is so very important for congregations to be extraordinarily careful about what we are teaching through the songs we choose for worship.
And furthermore, the church is one of the few places in common society, outside of formal lessons or choirs, where people learn to hear parts, create harmony, read or follow music, and celebrate the human voice as God’s best instrument of praise. Not the classically trained voice, or the soloist, or even the confident voices – but simple voices lifted in praise and joy – together.
This kind of singing together isn’t about performance. It isn’t about being on display. In fact, it is kind of the opposite, we fade into one another, blending our voices. What results is praise worthy of God’s hearing.
When Emily was pastor of a small, rural church in Northwestern Pennsylvania, her church had a very small choir that tried very hard. There was sometimes a man, but mostly it was made up of about five older women whose voices used to be very lovely, I am sure, and one younger woman who had a monotone voice. The choir director’s name was Joy. She was a delight and was always very encouraging. But, she confided in her pastor, once in a while, that she got discouraged with such a small, and rather off-key group.
During a Bible Study that they were doing on Sunday mornings on the book of Revelation, they read from Revelation 4 and 5, as we did this morning. Emily proposed that worship does not begin or end, but rather it is always happening. We join into it for a while and then we step out. But the worship does not end. We don’t create it – we simply add our voices to the praise that is ongoing. We join our voices with all those voices and when we sing, we join in with all those who sing to God – the eternal elders, the angels, the creatures of every time and place.
Joy, the choir director, beamed when she heard that. She said, “So, when we sing in worship, God not only hears our choir but hears all the beautiful choirs of heaven – with the eternal elders, the angels – the creatures of every time and place all blended together in worship?”
Well …. Emily hadn’t thought of it that way – but “yes,” she said. Joy remarked later that such a vision changed her whole outlook on worship and her little church choir.
The church has many gifts to offer the community around us – giving people access to something that they otherwise would not have the means to do. And one of those gifts is something we do every week – in some form or another – something every church can count among its strengths, whether there is a choir or not, professional musicians or not – and that is that we are a singing community.
If we are being stewards of that gift that God has given to us – mandated to us even – then we are in fact doing something extraordinary. We do have to be mindful and careful – or we will lose this gift. Seeing the music – and teaching it to our children – is a precious part of this gift.
Teaching harmony, allowing our hymns to tell complicated stories and not just simple refrains, following how the music notes go up and down, even if we don’t all read them – that’s part of being good stewards.
And most of all, we have to be mindful about how we steward each other within our singing communities. We probably all know someone like the friend Emily had in high school, who loved God, and loved the church and loved to sing. He was one of those people who sings with a whole heart, and you can see it on his face.
But – he could not carry a tune. AT ALL. It was awful. He said, “When we are in church and the hymns come, I sing loudly, because I love to sing. But my mother always nudges me and whispers, ‘John, be quiet.”
No, no, no, no! Sing John! You are a good steward of the song the morning stars began at the start of creation.
The church is called to be a singing community. Whether we have a few singers or a lot, a choir or not, instruments or not – being a singing congregation where all can gather and sing, on a weekly, informal basis, where all are welcome, and human voices are joined together is a true gift – and a rare one – in today’s society. Let’s not underestimate it, but celebrate it and steward it.
When we teach hymns and spirituals, we shape our identity in Christ. When we lift our voices together, divisions and difference sound out harmony, not dissonance. When we sing for God’s glory, God’s heart is glad and our souls are nourished.
May we be the church that God is calling us to be. Amen.