All THE VERSES, ALL THE PEOPLE, ALL THE FAITH, ALL THE TIME–
This year, our stewardship theme is All The Verses! Beginning October, 2016 up to October, 2017, we will be traveling through a year of reflection and consideration of the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. In keeping with that, our gifted Stewardship Director, Laurie Jamieson offers our stewardship theme based on a celebration of our musical history: ALL THE VERSES. More important, ALL THE VERSES is based on our understanding that the gift of God’s grace permeates our lives, allowing us to embrace all of life. God’s grace gives us strength and faith to live the lives we are called to live. Thank you, Laurie, for the gift of your preaching.
Laurie’s sermon for October 16th is reprinted here.
All the Verses
When I first came to St. Paul I remember someone telling me that Lutherans are often not the first people to jump up and dance in the aisles at Church when the music starts. Maybe it’s because we’re a bit shy or self-conscious. Maybe we’re waiting for others to go first. Such hesitation, however, does not apply to our singing. No, it was explained to me, Lutherans always sing all of the verses…no matter what. In choir we were once scheduled to sing an anthem that included both happy and sad verses. Someone suggested that we might sing only the upbeat words to keep things light, but in the end we agreed to sing all of the verses. We sang with smiles with a few tears. A few Sundays back we sang a hymn that was quite long but rather than skip any of the verses we sang them all – three at the beginning and three at the end. Maybe we needed a break in the middle but in the end we stuck it out and sang ‘em all. Why do we sing even when it makes us cry? Why do we sing even when our feet won’t move? Why do we continue to sing even after the novelty has worn off? I believe we sing because we’re called to praise God!
When I came up with this year’s theme for stewardship – and I use the term “I” loosely as I know now that the stewardship themes I claim as my own are actually messages from God – well, I thought the theme was a pretty simple one. But I think I was wrong. That may sound a little odd but let me continue and you’ll see what I mean…
To me the theme of “All the Verses” means more than a willingness to sing all the lines in a hymnal, it reflects an ability to handle whatever comes my way – happy or sad. Because God’s Word flows through my heart I keep on going. Singing “All the Verses” means having faith when it’s hard and sharing my faith even when others around me feel a bit uncomfortable.
Singing “All the Verses” means welcoming others who are different from me – who practice another faith or no faith at all. Singing “All the Verses” means inviting the community outside into this sacred space and going outside to offer hope to others and to share in their lives. Singing “All the Verses” means being generous with everything I have knowing it comes from God. All the Verses, All the People, All the Faith, All the Time.
So far the theme seems pretty simple and not a huge revelation biblically speaking – but maybe perhaps rather than being a biblical revelation “All the Verses” is part of a biblical “reformation.” Maybe it’s not a new theme but one that has been around for years. Maybe we sing all the Verses not just because we want to sing them but maybe we sing all the Verses to honor those who made it possible for us to sing them at all. Maybe we sing all the verses because we are free to practice our faith and praise God in our own way.
This year our Church is beginning the lead up to the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation. In October 2017 we’ll observe the anniversary of the date on which Martin Luther posted his “Ninety-five Theses”. When I first studied the reformation I had this image in my head of an angry Luther stomping up the church stairs, waiving his hands and hammering a nail into the door with some aggression. In doing a little research I discovered that in fact Luther’s action was a not an uncommon practice at the time for teachers and rather than being an aggressive act was really an invitation to debate. Luther felt that parts of Church doctrine and certain Church practices were worthy of discussion. He believed the Bible, and not the pope, was the way people understood God’s word. He believed that salvation was granted by faith alone and that good works and atonement were not necessary in order to be saved. He once said that the reforms he proposed that day on the door of the Church in Wittenberg could be summed up as follows: “Let everything be done so that the Word may have free course.”
And so what does ‘free course of the Word’ have to do with “All the Verses”? In Martin Luther’s time, singing at mass was performed only by the priest and the choir and never the congregation. Songs were performed in Latin and not in the local language. Church music was a reflection that the church was as an institution separate from and above the congregation. Luther viewed music differently. He viewed music as an expression of community and of faith, a vehicle of prayer and praise. Luther understood from personal experience the power of music to move the hearts and minds of the listener. He once said: Music is a fair and lovely gift of God which has often wakened and moved me to the joy of preaching. …I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the devil and makes people happy; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance and the like. Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor. I would not exchange what little I know of music for something great. Experience proves that next to the Word of God, only music deserves to be extolled as the mistress and governess of the feelings of the human heart…My heart bubbles up and overflows in response to music, which has so often refreshed me and delivered me from dire plagues.”
Because of his beliefs Luther included more music in the Lutheran liturgy to inspire and educate. He believed that voices raised in song in a community are a gift from God. So if you think about it, we have learned to sing from Luther himself and in singing we are participating in the reformation nearly five hundred years after it started.
Some of you may remember that a few years ago a Lutheran Minister spoke at the ELCA Youth Gathering in New Orleans. Her name was Nadia Boltz-Weber and while she may be notable for her tattoos and her less than conventional writing style, I believe she is more notable for her clarity of thought. I just finished reading her new book “Accidental Saints” and was struck by a passage in which she recounts a Good Friday service during which members of her congregation actually sang the story of Jesus’ trial. As the voices floated out over the darken church she heard the words “crucify him” and “I am thirsty” sung by two women sitting next to her. In listening to them she writes that words are different when they are sung. She follows by saying “Sometimes things just have to be sung to be heard”. “Sometimes things just have to be sung to be heard.” How true.
In the spirit of a little experimentation, let me read you something:
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.
Now let’s try something: cue Ted (the organist)… [Ted plays the first line of Amazing Grace and the choir begins singing; the congregation joins in]. Did it feel different when we sang it?
Amazing Grace was a hymn chosen by the congregation as a favorite. We’ve been collecting favorite hymns during the past few weeks and along with Amazing Grace, the hymn we sang as the Gathering Hymn Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee and the hymn we’ll sing as the Sending Hymn My Life Flows On in Endless Song were chosen by members of the Church. Chosen I suspect because they’re familiar but also because when we sing them we feel different. If he were here I bet that Martin Luther would hear in our voices the free flow of the Word. Because God is here I know he hears praise and thanksgiving in our voices.
When I prepare my sermon for stewardship I usually work with the readings that have been pre-assigned but this time I requested a special reading. The second reading this morning from Romans is a reading Pastor Anne and I affectionately refer to as the “Sisu” reading or the reading that represents the stick-to-it-ness of the Lutheran faith. Let me read it again:
“Therefore, since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand; and we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God. And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”
This passage more than any other is the passage that inspires the theme of “All the Verses,” and in Luther’s own words, the free course of the Word. One can almost hear the passage set to music. I am sure Ted will tell me it that it has been…The passage is sometimes sad and sometimes happy but always filled with hope. This passage may be familiar to you, it’s often read at funerals. I think it’s read then because it acknowledges that life is tough and we endure it and become stronger because we know that God’s love is poured out through us and that we have hope. I imagine that some of that pouring and some of that hope is reflected in song. Perhaps next time at a funeral we should all sing it…
I know some people who when asked to sing in Church or with the choir often say “I can’t hold a tune” or “No-one wants me singing loud.” But I can tell you that that is just not true! God wants you to sing! The reformation made it possible for you to sing Amazing Grace, Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee, My Life Flows On in Endless Song and the lines from the Psalm today “The LORD will watch over your going out and your coming in, from this time forth forevermore.”
There are often anthems that the choir plans or hymns included in the service music that neither the choir nor the congregation get through the first time. Some of you may notice that before each anthem I look up and mumble something. I’m asking God to give me the power to hit the notes and get the timing right. I sing loudly no matter what so I have to pray that it goes as well as it can. If music is about praise it is also about persistence. The old saying is practice makes perfect – in my case practice builds endurance and then character and then hope. Hope that when I open my mouth the right thing will come out.
In our readings today we also heard the story of Jacob and his wrestling with the unknown man from whom he seeks a blessing and how he leaves the encounter with a limp. Singing is not unlike Jacob’s meeting at the river. Sometimes a hymn feels comfortable like an old shoe and we know when the music swells and when it quiets. We know the words and we know the rhythm. This is comforting and sometimes it’s exactly what we need. But sometimes we need to wrestle a little bit with our hymns. Sometimes we need to get out of our comfort zone. We need to sing loudly even when we think we are off key. We need to sing the hymn we don’t know because perhaps we need to hear those words. Perhaps those around us need to hear those words. Like our prayers to God, we sing to thank and glorify God and He is not a music critic. He just wants to hear us sing! We might leave the pew musically limping but if everyone else is limping we will all limp together.
“All of the Verses” is about persistence in prayer and persistence in faith and for me particularly, persistence in stewardship in the care of this community. In the parable read this morning Jesus speaks of such persistence. Perhaps not in singing but in believing and repeating your beliefs over and over – which when you put it to a tune is a song. In the reading we learn about “our need to pray always and not to lose heart.” The story is one of a widow who keeps coming to a judge and saying, ‘Grant me justice against my opponent. Grant me justice against my opponent.’ She comes back to him over and over and over… and if her request were put to music it would have too many verses to count. At first the judge refuses to listen but eventually he relents and grants her justice. The reading continues that “the Lord said, “And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who cry to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them? “I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.” What if we substituted the word “sing” for the word “cry”:
“And will not God grant justice to his chosen ones who sing to him day and night? Will he delay long in helping them. I tell you, he will quickly grant justice to them.”
God hears our singing…God hears us even when we are off key and threaten to wear out ourselves and others with our persistent faith …God hears us in each and every verse we sing. The happy and the sad, the crying and the laughter. God hears us welcoming the stranger, feeding the hungry, serving the poor. God hears all of the verses we raise up to him. All the Verses, All the People, All the Faith, All the Time.
As we continue through this time of stewardship we will continue to celebrate the congregation’s favorite hymns and we’ll celebrate the voices of our children, we’ll have a dedication of the piano and a pick up choir on October 30th with our community of givers and neighbors and we’ll sing our lungs out. I hope you’ll have endurance and hope, that you will embrace and the familiar and wrestle with the unfamiliar, that you’ll join in with the choir and bell choir when possible and with the congregation each Sunday. Your generosity of voice, of gifts, of heart and of the Word keep this Church going. All I ask is that you cry and sing out your praise and thanksgiving to God unceasingly. I hope you’ll sing All of the Verses in support of this community, this Church and our faith.