A Hymn, A Song, A Sermon!
Jeremiah 18: 1 – 12; Luke 14: 25 – 33
This week’s sermon is not strictly a sermon. It’s about a hymn, a song and a few little sermons. Let’s begin with the definition of a hymn: it is a song of praise. The songs we sing in worship services are very important to us. In the first place they have a physical impact on us releasing endorphins, strengthening our immune system, forming natural anti-depressants, lowering stress levels and providing a work out. Secondly and most importantly our songs build community and our faith. The songs we sing help us understand the reality of our faith. When we gather for worship our songs help us reflect and reinforce our faith: in other words our songs express our thoughts and knowledge about God. So when we are singing we are theologising. Theology doesn’t belong to the halls of learning: theology begins with our words in worship about our faith and experience of God.
When singing during a worship service I often wonder why I need to preach when the words of the song say it better. Today we are going to sing our sermon. After each verse I will offer a brief reflection and pose a question. The song I have chosen is from Lambeth Praise, a British songbook, and it is called ‘God is here’ (No. 165). This song is what I call a modern Christian hymn composed by Fred Pratt Green (1903-2000) in the second half of the 20th Century using the concepts and expressions of the time. Let us sing the first verse while we sit or if you prefer to, stand.
God is here! As we his people
meet to offer praise and prayer,
may we find in fuller measure
what it is in Christ we share.
Here, as in the world around us,
all our varied skills and arts
wait the coming of His Spirit
into open minds and hearts.
It begins with a faith statement – God is here. That is what Abraham and Sarah discovered as they entered their nomadic life to which God had called them. They lived in a time when they believed their god lived in a particular time and space. However God taught Abraham and Sarah that ‘He’ was with them wherever they went. The next sentence picks up the essence of worship – praise and prayer. But the sentence alludes to two profound truths. Firstly, as we meet refers to the understanding that where God’s people meet to praise and worship they form the temple – that space where God is present. Secondly, there is the truth that when we are together our Christian life finds its fuller measure. Christianity like Judaism and I imagine Islam, does not promote individualism and independence but community. The second long sentence beginning with ‘here’ reminds us of the variety and diversity of what we bring to this community – the church. But the experience of God is here crescendos as we wait with open minds and hearts inviting the Holy Spirit to work in our lives. That’s quite a lot of theology in that first verse, isn’t there.
What struck you while singing this verse?
Here are symbols to remind us
of our lifelong need of grace;
here are table, font and pulpit;
here the cross has central place.
Here in honesty of preaching,
here in silence, as in speech,
here, newness and renewal,
God the Spirit comes to each.
The second verse is filled with practical wisdom and reminders. The symbols in our worship centres are reminders of our lifelong need for grace. The table recalls the Last Supper that Jesus celebrated with his disciples and his directive that we celebrate this meal – the Eucharist or Holy Communion – as a reminder that our journey together needs nourishment. The font speaks of the baptism that marks the beginning of our Christian life and God’s action of including us as God’s children – sisters and brothers in Christ. We say a little more about the pulpit in a moment, but first the Cross that has central place. Although we worship the risen Lord Jesus it is nevertheless the risen Crucified Lord Jesus. The Crucifixion is vital to our faith. Not because it means that Jesus paid the price for our sins. I have said elsewhere that the Cross is not primarily a sacrifice offered to appease an angry God. Personally I am not sure it is about that view at all which is the view expressed in the final two older style hymns in our service today. The Cross tells us that Jesus confronted the ugly face of evil with absolute love. Jesus’ absolute love destroyed the power of evil and sin, because you can’t destroy evil with evil, only by the power of love. Jesus’ self-giving love broke Sin’s power and through acceptance of Jesus we share in His victory. Secondly, the Cross of Jesus reminds us that self-giving love is the taproot of the Church. We are called to love with sacrificial love and have compassion for this world. We are not called to like each other but love as Christ Jesus loved us remembering that Christ gave his life for our well-being.
The second sentence enlarges on the role of preaching. It reminds us that preaching should be done with honesty. If the preacher is to be honest – what a task – s/he may well have to tell the truth and the truth can be confronting as well as being comforting. It is through such honest preaching we find newness and renewal.
How do you feel about honesty of preaching, or for that matter anything else in that verse?
Here our children find a welcome
in the Shepherd’s flock and fold.
Here, as bread and wine are taken,
Christ sustains us as of old.
Here the servants of the Servant
seek in worship to explore
what it means in daily living
to believe and to adore.
This song of Fred Pratt Green encompasses the essence of the Christian Faith. Firstly, we are welcomed as children and form part of the Shepherd’s flock and fold. That is what our membership means. We are God’s children, brothers and sisters, and part of Jesus’ group. As the good Shepherd would lead his sheep to still waters and green pastures so the Great Shepherd, Jesus, provides nourishing drink and bread at the table, which sustains us.
Secondly, this verse, reminds us of our role. We are servants of the Servant. How beautifully put. We’re servants of the Servant Christ. Christ Jesus doesn’t lord it over us, he serves us and so we are to serve. Furthermore the service we offer one another and the world is explored and understood through our worship. Worship is important because it is where we gather to be with God and each other and seek the wisdom and nourishment that sends us out into the world. I find in Green’s words the sense that it is not my interpretation of what the world or others need, but it is the discernment of the community of Christ to explore what it means in daily living to believe and to adore.
What does this teach us about our worship services?
Lord of all, of Church and Kingdom,
In an age of change and doubt,
keep us faithful to the gospel,
help us work Your purpose out.
Here, in this day’s dedication,
all we have to give, receive:
we, who cannot live without You,
we adore You! We believe!
Finally Fred Pratt Green reminds us that our task is to pray to the Lord of all so that we may be kept faithful to the gospel and be able to understand God’s purpose. The phrase, in an age of change and doubt, reminds of the times we have lived through and are living through in the past fifty years. This phrase more obviously than any other in this song tells us that we are in the 20th Century entering the 21st Century. We have lived and are now living through one of the most rapid and dramatic periods of change this planet has possibly ever experienced. We older ones hearing/reading this sermon will have memories of the horse drawn cart and certainly know that in our time travelling to another continent meant a long journey by sea. Now the horse is reserved mainly for recreation, sea travel is mainly about holiday cruising, and we fly to far away places. A hundred years ago that would have been absurd. We are now possibly at the dawn of space travel and we hold the world of knowledge and communication in the palm of our hand with our phones. (Show iPhone) Needless to say that in this day and age all this change begs the question – what are God’s purposes? We can’t simply go back to the old expressions of mission! And with the enormous changes we are witnessing comes uncertainty.
The song concludes with an affirmation of faith and a dedication of ourselves to God and each other. We are reminded that we cannot live without God who is in Christ Jesus, and our living is about giving and receiving grace. So although we may be beset by uncertainty and doubts we go about our daily business giving and receiving love.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 08/09/2019