Hymns To Swear By, Part 2

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“Be filled with the Spirit, meditating on psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making music to God in your hearts.” Join us this Sunday for a Festival of Hymns – both old and new. Learn the stories behind some of your favorites, and sing a new song to God.

Sermon Video

This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Exodus 15:20-21 (See image, left)
Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. And Miriam sang to them: Sing to the Lord, who has triumphed gloriously!”

James 5:13 (Choral Anthem[1])
Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise.

Colossians 3:16 (Choral Anthem[2])
Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God.

Psalms 33:3, 42:10, 96:1, 98:1, 144:9, 149:1, etc., etc.
Sing to the Lord a new song!!

[1] “Is any afflicted?” by William Billings, available online at <http://www2.cpdl.org/wiki/images/sheet/billings/bill-isa.pdf>

(August 8, 2016)

[2] Ibid.

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Full Text of Sermon

The choir sang[1] today’s scripture lesson, including these two questions from the book of James: Is anyone here afflicted, sick, suffering, worried, anxious?  Okay then, we’re going to pray.  Is any among you cheerful or at least a little happy? Alrighty then, let’s sing songs, and make melody in our hearts to God.

Swedish researchers at the University of Gothenburg studied the heart rates of high school choir members engaged in making music. As the singers joined their voices, their heart rates calmed down. When they sang in unison, their heartbeats actually began to synchronize. When we sing together, we breathe together before the phrase begins, and we exhale words and music — together.[2] And, no matter if we have come carrying afflictions or happiness, our hearts begin to beat as one.

Prayer for Illumination

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of every heart make sweet melody pleasing to You: O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

God’s Alto

My Grandma Midge’s house stood right by the railroad tracks. When the Southern Railway clamored past, she had to stop conversations in mid-sentence and pause for the roar. She would, literally, hold the phone while the train passed. All my people lived near the railroad tracks, and to this day, when I hear the strange music of a locomotive, it triggers feelings of home, and I experience a physical relaxation. How can sound do that?

At the end of her life, Midge had memory issues. Eventually, she forgot my name—her youngest grandson whom she’d taught to read the hymnal while sitting in her ample lap. Then, she forgot my father’s name.  She drifted between this world and the next, wondering and describing what she was experiencing. Who’s to say she was hallucinating?  Her words seemed to describe memory fragments just out of usual order, reappearing here and there, composing her new traveling story.

One day as we sat with her, my Aunt Gretna suggested that we sing to my grandmother. My Aunt Gretna did not accept no for an answer. Ever. Although I was still weirdly shy in my early twenties, I began, softly, to sing a hymn, and Grandma Midge sang with me. Rather than the tune, she sang her alto part, like always.

Music is stored in the parts of the brain that remember the longest.[3] The songs we learn in our hearts are the songs we will sing for our final journey. “What we sing shapes the way we understand and think of God.”[4]

Wednesday night, at “Hymns to Swear By, Part 1” we sang upwards of 20 hymns. I cannot adequately describe the feeling of transcendent beauty that followed us all home from the chapel. This morning, we will share the stories[5] of four great hymns, the fourth hymn leading us to communion.

Hymnody: Amazing Grace [6]

Beginning in the 1400s, West Africans were captured and exported to the New World in such high numbers that until the time of the American Revolution — that’s over 300 years — Africans comprised the majority of immigrants to the New World[7]—a majority of chattel slaves. In 1748, Captain John Newton’s slave ship was struck by a violent storm off the shores of County Donegal, Ireland. The story goes, Newton called out to God for help, and God’s still, small voice of confrontation replied.  John Newton shrugged off God’s instructions, as people do, and he kept on trading enslaved people for another six years. Here’s the thing, once we know God is trying to tell us something, it’s hard to just go on about our business, remaining complicit with unjust systems. John Newton tried to ignore God, being human and all. Sixteen years after his conversion at sea, Newton was ordained to the Church of England and began to write hymns. “Amazing Grace” was written as a sermon illustration for New Years Day, 1773. One of the most beloved songs in the world, please rise in body or in spirit, and let’s sing of God’s redeeming grace.

Sing a New Song: Why?

On your bulletin cover is a picture of Miriam, who, after making it through the Sea broke out into a spontaneous song and dance for God. We sing new songs because God is always doing a new thing.[8] For Calvary, “O God We Bear the Imprint of Your Face” is a “new” hymn. It is unfamiliar. We are going to follow the many biblical commands to sing a new song to the Lord.[9] Friends, nowhere is it written “sing an old song” or “please just sing something people know.” Nowhere.

Applied Hymnody: O God We Bear the Imprint of Your Face [10]

The hymn is by New Zealander hymnodist Shirley Erena Murray.[11] Born in 1930, Murray writes almost exclusively in what I call ‘the prophetic voice’[12]—and tackles difficult topics, like racism and inequality, something the church is called to do. This Thursday morning in Calvin Hall, you are invited to hear San Francisco’s Chief of Police discuss the current goals of our police force. I am grateful for the police.

I also support the goals[13] of Black Lives Matter.  Now, I am not unmoved by the uneasiness I’ve heard expressed in this congregation. Thank you for caring enough[14] to disagree and then taking time to articulate what you are feeling and thinking.  I thank you especially if you have done so without berating me personally! Some of you have heard me say this already: for me, the Black Lives Matter movement embodies Christian theology[15], recalling how Jesus stood by the side of the vulnerable and unpopular.[16] On Sunday, August 14, following worship, our pastor/head of staff, John Weems, returns to lead an open dialogue on why the LGBT and Black Lives Matter banners currently hang at Calvary.

Until then, ponder this statement from the Black Lives Matter website: “within the statement [Black Lives Matter] is an…implied ‘[also],’ —‘black lives matter, [also],’  [a] statement…of inclusion…”[17] for a left-out and historically[18] vulnerable people. Please remain seated to sing the meat of this sermon in the words of Shirley Murray.

Hymnody: It Is Well With My Soul [19]

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 financially ruined lawyer and investor Horatio Spafford, a devout Presbyterian. Further demoralized by the economic downturn of 1873, Horatio and wife, Anna, decided to travel to Europe with their children. A late-stage change of plans (which concerned zoning problems following the Great Fire) prompted Horatio to send Anna and the children ahead to cross the Atlantic without him. At sea, the SS Ville du Harve collided with another vessel, it and sank rapidly. All four of their daughters drowned. Anna Spafford survived and sent Horatio a telegram which read plainly: “Saved alone . . .” Anyone here lived survived a loss and felt “saved alone”? Horatio jumped on a ship and sailed to see his wife. He wrote this hymn as he neared the place where his daughters had drowned. The Spaffords went on to have three more children, one of whom died from scarlet fever. When their church told them that their tragedies were due to their sins and God’s evident anger against them, they left that church, praise God, and they started their own church which the American press called “The Overcomers.”[20]  The Spafford Family overcame the depths of tragedy and went on to join a peacemaking ministry in Jerusalem, working alongside Muslims and Jews—overcoming.

Invitation to Communion

At this table, we celebrate the great overcoming. Christ dies, Christ overcomes, and lives again[21] in each one of us. The Lord be with you; and also with you. Lift up your hearts; we lift them to the Lord. Let us give thanks to the Lord our God; it is right to give our thanks and praise.

Eucharistic Hymnody: Now Thank We All Our God [22]

Another term for communion is eucharist—which means thanksgiving.[23] Did you know that the thanksgiving hymn “Now Thank We All Our God” was originally written as a table blessing? Lutheran minister Martin Rinkart came to Eilenburg, Germany[24] at the beginning of the Thirty Years’ War. Eilenberg, a walled city, became a sanctuary for political and military refugees. This resulted in overcrowding, disease and poverty. Our current global refugee crisis is not unlike the story of this hymn whose author opened his home to refugees, aliens, immigrants. During the Plague of 1637, Rinkart, the only surviving pastor in town, performed over 4000 funerals, including that of his wife and mother of his children for whom he wrote this song.

Hymns are love letters, sacred documents of faith that witness how the dead are not lost to us. At this table, the saints and angels live and sing in God’s company a never-ending hymn of thanksgiving:

Now thank we all our God with heart and hands and voices,
who wondrous things has done, in whom this world rejoices;
who from our mother’s arms has blessed us on our way
with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.


[1] Ibid.

[2] Anna Haensch, “When Choirs Sing, Their Hearts Beat AS One” accessed online at <http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2013/07/09/200390454/when-choirs-sing-many-hearts-beat-as-one> (July 29, 2016) Thank you, Rev. Joann H. Lee, for sharing this.

[3] Makini Brice, “Scientists Confirm that Memories of Music Are Stored in Different Part of Brain than Other Memories” Medical Daily (August 22, 2012) accessed online at <http://www.medicaldaily.com/scientists-confirm-memories-music-are-stored-different-part-brain-other-memories-242104> (August 3, 2016)

[4] John L. Bell, The Singing Thing: A Case for Congregational Song (Chicago, GIA Publications, 2000), 59.

[5] Although much hymnody is available online and through hymnal “companions” I prefer the simple devotional book by Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1990) 170, 202, 351.

[6] Bonus stanzas of “Amazing Grace” available at <http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/a/m/a/amazing_grace.htm> (August 8, 2016)

[7] Phillip Curtain, The Atlantic Slave Trade (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1969), 1-58.

[8] Isaiah 43:19 “Thus says the Lord… ‘I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.’”

[9] As commanded and embodied countless times in the Psalms and as modeled by Miriam’s impromptu song and dance by the Sea of Reeds

[10] For lyrics and more, visit <http://www.hymnary.org/text/o_god_we_bear_the_imprint_of_your_face>

[11] I studied with Shirley Erena Murray for a week in 1997, during the Montreat Worship & Music Conference, Presbyterian Association (PAM) of Musicians. More info on PAM Conferences: http://presbymusic.org/conferences.html

[12] Priestly Voice vs. Prophetic Voice: Priestly voice comforts the afflicted. Prophetic voice afflicts the comfortable.

[13] Black Lives Matter: About, accessed online at <http://blacklivesmatter.com/about/> (August 3, 2016)

[14] Elie Wiesel quote: “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference.”

[15] “What is Liberation Theology?” accessed online at <http://www.gotquestions.org/liberation-theology.html> (August 8, 2016)  Note: The term “theology” refers to the language we use to characterize God.

[16] John Dear, “Gustavo Gutierrez and the Preferential Option for the Poor” National Catholic Reporter, November 8, 2011, accessed online at <https://www.ncronline.org/blogs/road-peace/gustavo-gutierrez-and-preferential-option-poor> (August 6, 2016)

[17] Black Lives Matter, 11 Major Misconceptions…, accessed online at <http://blacklivesmatter.com/11-major-misconceptions-about-the-black-lives-matter-movement/> (August 4, 2016)

[18] See the story of “Amazing Grace” above.

[19] Just listen to Abigail Zsiga sing “It is Well” — wow! <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5_UEIVYdbY>

[20] “It is Well With My Soul” article <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/It_Is_Well_with_My_Soul> (August 3, 2016)

[21] Echoing the Catholic Memorial Acclamation: “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again.”

[22] Words and more at <http://www.hymnary.org/text/now_thank_we_all_our_god> (August 8, 2016)

[23] from eukharistos: grateful, thankful

[24] Eilenberg is about 13 miles NW of Leipzig.


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