Although there are exceptions, most of our worship services in the Methodist and other Christian traditions include a sermon – perhaps designated as a message, homily, commentary, or meditation. The idea is that a pastor or other preacher or speaker will draw from prayer and scriptures ideas that he or she shares with a congregation. The purposes include some or all of the following, always with the intent of helping participants improve their relationships with God and their neighbor:
- Interpreting the scriptures and helping us understand how they apply to our lives.
- Providing reassurance and appreciation of God’s love and covenant with us.
- Enhancing our appreciation of the glory and wonder of God and inspiring our obedience of the first Great Commandment.
- Assisting us in sorting out our relationships with each other so we may obey the second of the Great Commandments.
- Encouraging expansion of our commitment to Christian values and adherence to our God-given ideals.
- Stimulating further study of the scriptures and search of other sources of spiritual nourishment.
While a preacher may augment a sermon with projected images and text and include dramatizations and other art forms, most sermons are primarily spoken prose. What we are suggesting today is that to an extent that we often fail to realize, God has inspired persons with the gifts of poetry and musical composition to produce works that are in many ways similar to traditional sermons in what they have to offer. I believe most of us appreciate much of what these two art forms, components of our religious music, contribute to our worship and communions with God, formal and informal.
The scriptures urge us to come to God with song. There are at least 64 verses in Psalms alone that implore us to sing or otherwise worship God with music. The same messages appear in other books of the Bible. Near the beginning of our hymnal, on page vii, you will find John Wesley’s Directions for Singing. You are likely to be amused by much of what he wrote, such as, “Sing lustily and with good courage,” and “Beware of singing as if you were half dead or half asleep,” and “Sing modestly. Do not bawl….” But these are good directions along with, “Above all sing spiritually. Have an eye to God in every word you sing.”
Charles Wesley, fellow minister and brother of John, performed much of his ministry through the composition of over 6000 hymns. Approximately 40 of his hymns are in our hymnal. These include O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing, Christ the Lord Is Risen Today, and Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.
Church music comes in a wide variety of forms and is capable of stimulating, entertaining, reassuring, warning, comforting, and relaxing those who participate, even as listeners. The breadth of the orientation of just the hymns in the UMH is impressive to peruse. In addition to special days, seasons, and events, categories go alphabetically from Adoration and Praise to Zeal, and emotionally from Joy to Grief. Some music is stimulating, other, relaxing and serene. Calmness and Serenity is a very relevant category in our frantic society.
Like any art form, religious music can be powerful in its effect on us spiritually and intellectually. It can even effect us physically. In fact, singing is physically beneficial in many ways.
I remind you of these familiar qualities of religious music to encourage your appreciation and enjoyment of this aspect of our worship. However, as I suggested earlier, my primary purpose is to bring to your attention how religious music offers us more than we realize. It can not only complement and enhance a sermon, but it can provide powerful messages of its own.
Perhaps you don’t have this problem, but when I try to maintain the tune and cadence while reading and singing the words, I must admit that I find it difficult to give adequate thought to the lyrics. Even with familiar tunes like What a Friend We Have in Jesus, I get the gist of the message, that Jesus is my friend. But do I feel the impact of being told that I am enduring anxiety when I could be at peace? Am I persuaded that I am bearing pain I don’t need to bear? Do I learn from these words what to do with overwhelming worries? Am I comforted, as I become aware of friends’ lack of loyalty? This hymn is a powerful sermon, which if fully embraced can immediately make a significant change in any of our lives. In taking the hymn from the hymnbook page to our voices, we must take care not to skip our hearts and minds. We need to draw from the hymn all it has to offer.
A people who readily recognized the theological substance of religious music were African slaves and their descendants. They created a genre of music called the Spiritual that incorporated the best known major theological concepts of Christianity. They created over 6000 Spirituals. Go Down Moses tells the encouraging story of God’s liberation of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, especially relevant to these people. Sweet Little Jesus Boy laments the world’s failure to adequately recognize and respect Jesus at his birth – a lack of recognition and respect that persists to this day. Were You There? imposed the reality of the crucifixion onto their consciousness, and now, if we let it, our consciousness.
Another powerful piece of music in our hymnal has a unique quality. The words and music of Lift Every Voice and Sing were written, respectively, by two African-American brothers. If you know its history, you will find the words carry a powerful message from the perspective of African Americans. The history of slavery and oppression are clearly referenced and addressed.. But the recognition of the past is accompanied by the declaration of a powerful hope and determination emerging from gratitude toward and faith in God.
If, on the other hand, one disregards the anthem’s origin, the unique perspective of the African-American disappears. It becomes a sermon we can all sing and embrace as fully applicable to any patriotic Christian. Who among us does not have struggles and even oppression somewhere in our background? Who among us does not cry for and treasure liberty? What Christian is not filled with hope and committed to seek victory over the forces of evil? What Christian is not sometimes tempted by the “wine of the world” to forget God? And who among us does not pray to “forever stand true to our God [and] true to our native land”? I believe this dual orientation was deliberate and ingenious.
The stories behind some of our hymns, rich pieces of art that they are, are inspiring. Two hymns come to mind immediately. Tommy Dorsey, the jazz and blues pianist and choir director regarded by some as the father of gospel music wrote the hymn Precious Lord, Take my Hand. Earlier, he had elected to keep a performance engagement that required him to leave his pregnant wife. While he was away his wife died in childbirth, and the baby died shortly thereafter. He was filled with grief and guilt. Some time later, Dorsey found himself at peace and playing a melody that became Precious Lord, Take My Hand (#474). In Dorsey’s words, “As the Lord gave me these words and melody, he also healed my spirit. I learned that when we are in our deepest grief, when we feel farthest from God, this is when He is closest, and when we are most open to His restoring power.”
After a series of personal tragedies, Horatio G. Spafford lost his four daughters in a shipwreck on a trip to England. As he travelled to England to join his wife, in severe grief, he wrote It is Well with My Soul”(377)
An issue for many is that some religious music has a military quality. As advocates for peace, many Christians are bothered by hymns that are perceived as being associated with violence and war. Onward Christian Soldiers and the Battle Hymn of the Republic are hymns that some Methodists would prefer not to have in our hymnal. I like both pieces of music and am pleased to enjoy both of these “sermons” in appropriate contexts.
The sermons we sing fall into many categories, to name a few:
- Recognition of the majesty of God such as Holy, Holy, Holy and How Great Thou Art.
- God’s saving grace exemplified by two hymns with the title Amazing Grace, the traditional one and one to the tune of Londonderry Air.
- Faith as presented in Standing on the Promises and Lift Every Voice and Sing.
- Evangelism as illustrated by This Little Light of Mine.
- Our relationship with our triune God as defined by What a Friend We Have in Jesus and Sweet Hour of Prayer.
- Christian aspirations as expressed in Lord, I want to be a Christian.
- God’s world view as in the lyrics of This is My Song, which urges us to avoid national chauvinism.
- The promise of the resurrection as delivered in, “Because He Lives.”God communicates with his children in a variety of ways. Perhaps we can make better use of one of his methods, the sermons we sing.
- May it be so.
- The hymns we sing during worship are in many instances excellent religious messages provided within high quality artistic media – poetry and music. This delightful combination benefits from mutual enhancement to provide a rich religious experience that is both aesthetic and thought provoking – nourishment for the spirit and the mind. We should be intentional about availing ourselves of the full benefits of these treasures. We can give more attention to understanding and appreciating these precious resources. Individuals can choose to spend more devotional time browsing through hymn books. We should also take John Wesley’s instructions to heart and participate more enthusiastically in this part of our worship.