Singing Out: A Festival of Hymns

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Tune your heart to sing God’s praise! This Sunday, Calvary’s world-class musicians will join forces with Rev. Victor for a look at the stories that led to some of our favorite hymns.

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This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

James 1:17-25

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above,
coming down from the Father of lights,
with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.
In fulfillment of his own purpose [God] gave us birth by the word of truth, so that we would become a kind of first fruits of his creatures.

You must understand this, my beloved:
let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;
for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness.

Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness,
and welcome with meekness the implanted word
that has the power to save your souls.

But be doers of the word,
and not merely hearers who deceive themselves.

For if any are hearers of the word and not doers,
they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror;
for they look at themselves and, on going away,
immediately forget what they were like.

But those who look into the perfect law,
the law of liberty, and persevere,
being not hearers who forget but doers who act—
they will be blessed in their doing.

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Full Text of Sermon

Why Examine a Hymn[1]

No one has ever left church humming a sermon. On the contrary, we learn our theology through song. The hymns we sing prepare us for living in the world, growing in faith and, ultimately, meeting Jesus face to face. Perhaps we “know” these hymns already, but rarely do we know the context that brought them into being. Context is everything. Without context we know only what we see. We assume that the surface is all their is. Now, decontextualized interpretation is still interpretation, but when we get into the history of something, we can better understand the conditions that brought it into being. Eventually, we realize that the history of our faith is the stuff of theology. We remember hymns as we are dying. Music is often “the last thing to go” when our bodies and memories fail us.


#466 “O For a Thousand Tongues” [2]

The words were written by Charles Wesley (1707-1788) the 18th son of Susanna and Samuel Wesley, famous parents of Anglican revivalists John & Charles, also known as the fathers Methodism. One of Charles Wesley’s friends once said to him, “You know, Charles, if I had a thousands tongues, I would praise God with all of them.”[3] And he wrote that hymn, not about a thousand people praising God but about one mouth with a thousand tongues praising God. I hope this will be a topic of discussion at youth… because it’s kinda gross: one mouth with a thousand tongues.


#194 “Peoples, Clap Your Hands (Psalm 47)”

When we look at a hymn in the hymnal, we can read clues about where it came from and who might have been part of its story.  Under the title, you’ll see which tells us that there are six lines of poetry with ten syllables in each line.

The tune for this hymn is dated 1551 and then the other notes (harmony) came in1564, the year John Calvin died, in Geneva, Switzerland. French-speaking Jean Cauvin (“John Calvin”) is the Reformer who gave rise to the Presbyterian tradition. He was raised to be a lawyer, but, like Martin Luther, he wanted to bring understanding to a Catholic church in turmoil.[4] Calvin allowed only texts from the Bible to be sung in worship. He enlisted poets to set the Psalms metrically. This made hymns, once only sung by choirs of nuns and monks, accessible to the people. The words of Psalm 47 were paraphrased especially for our hymnal by Joy Patterson in 1989.

Some of the tunes Calvin used were lively, even joyful — odd that’s not how we remember him, lively and joyful. Queen Elizabeth I was not amused at Calvin’s Genevan songbook, calling Calvin’s psalmody “those ghastly Genevan jigs.”[5] After pushback from a somewhat illiterate public, British Parliament issued a decree directing the whole congregation to join in singing the psalms as directed by clergy, hopefully learning to read words and music, and the clergy directed them like this.[6] [We sing the hymn.]

So, that was our one look at the theology (or history) of the music. The remainder of our time, we’ll look at the words. As my church music professor said many times, “In church, the words and the music are equal, but the words are equaller.”[7]


#210 “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past (Psalm 90)”

Isaac Watts (1674-1748) ministered in the 17th-century Independent Church in England. Breaking hymns free from the austerity-grip of Calvin’s Genevan Psalter, some called Isaac Watts “the liberator of English hymns.”[8] Others were not amused. High-church critics called his hymns too simplistic, too predictable, too sensual, appealing to emotion rather than intellect. Watts learned what all if us in church-work finally confess: there is no accounting for taste. In the tradition of Calvin, this next hymn is based on the psalm that begins: Lord, you have been our refuge from one generation to another. Before the mountains were brought forth…from everlasting to everlasting you are God.


#356 “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing”

One in five adults suffer from some form of mental illness. Robert Robinson was, perhaps, of that one in five, like many of us here today who live with depression, mood swings, unprocessed grief, anxiety — the human condition. Robinson described his soul as “prone to wander” — a feeling of wandering away from all that is good. Do you ever feel like the world is trying to steal your peace-of-mind?  Have you ever misplace your joy?

Well, the story goes that one day, back in the late 18th century, Robinson was riding through England in a stagecoach. A woman, studying a hymnal, was humming “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” which Robinson had written years before. He is said to have told her through his tears: ”Madam, I am the poor unhappy man who wrote that hymn many years ago, and I would give a thousand worlds, if I had them, to enjoy the feelings I had then.”[9] In solidarity with all who live with psychological and emotional challenges, let us STAND and sing “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing.”


#400 “When We Are Living / Pues si vivimos”

In 1931, Roberto Escamilla was born in the Texas border town of Monterey, Mexico. He learned the first stanza of this traditional song as a child. It is based on Romans 14:8: “When we live, we live to the Lord, and we we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or whether we die, we belong to God.” Escamilla completed this hymn with three additional stanzas.


More Than Singing: “Be Doers of the Word”[10]

To apply this hymn to our lives today, we may consider that Monterey, Mexico is just across the border from Loredo, Texas and the Rio Grande Detention[11] Facility, a privately-owned[12] facility where some of the separated immigrant families members are in imprisoned[13] for profit.[14] Around five-hundred children are still separated from their families, twenty of them under five years old.[15]  Currently, lawyers are cold-calling Central American villages, asking pastors and school teachers to help fix the immoral mess our government’s “zero tolerance” policy has created.

How appropriate that, after a week where US citizens of Latino descent have been denied entry[16] to the United States, the country of their brith — how fitting that we should sing this song of God’s long-suffering lovingkindness for humanity.[17] It is because we all belong to God that we can transcend all differences to serve one another in God’s name, welcome the stranger as we would welcome Jesus, and go to where the pain is greatest, knowing that “just as [we do] it to one of the least of these, [we do] it to unto [God].”[18] [19]Vamos a cantar — whether in English. Or Espanol or Spanglish. Just sing out!


Invitation to Holy Communion: Shall We Gather at the River?

Tradition teaches that, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the veil grows thin, and we are able to join in the songs of the angels and saints in light.

In1864, a typhoid epidemic swept through the boroughs of New York, killing many of the Robert Lowry’s friends and congregation. Lowry (1826-1899), a Baptist preacher, was vexed by the pervasive question, “Will I see them again?” Faith is the only answer to that question. Earthly rivers split and take us away from one another, but all streams converge by the throne of God.

[1] The study of hymns is called hymnody.

[2] Hymn numbers refer to the Presbyterian Hymnal: Hymns, Songs and Spiritual Songs, Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990, which we use at Calvary.

[3] Hal Hopson, A Festival of Hymns: The Writers Tell Their Stories (Los Angeles: H.W. Gray & Alfred Music, 2000), 30. I draw on this resource extensively during this service of worship.

[4] Hopson, 20.

[5] Hopson, 20.

[6] The practice of “lining out” a song, I sing the tune, line by line, having the congregation repeat after me.

[7] Dr. Robert Jones, Rome, Georgia

[8] Hopson, 22.

[9] Indelible Grace Hymnbook, accessed online at <> (August 27, 2018)

[10] Today’s message from the epistle of James

[11] Rio Grande Detention Facility, ICE website accessed online at <> (August 27, 2018)

[12] The GEO Group owns Rio Grande Prison <> (August 29, 2018)

[13] Beatriz Alvarado, “Migrant detention center: Not much room for kids to play in the warehouse-like facility” USA Today, June 17, 2018, accessed online at <> (August 29, 2018)

[14] GEO stock prices, Market Watch <> (August 29, 2018)

[15] Maria Sacchietti, “Still separated: Nearly 500 migrant children taken from their parents remain in U.S. custody” The Washington Post, accessed online at <> (September 1, 2018)

[16] Kevin Sieff, “U.S. is denying passports to Americans along the border, throwing their citizenship into question” The Washington Post, August 29, 2018, accessed online at <> (August 30, 2018)

[17] esed (Hebrew)

[18] See Matthew 25:40.

[19] “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” James 1:27


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