The Gift of Music

Sermon by Bill Chadwick | February 2, 2020

“Celebration of New Hymnals”

Today we are introducing our new hymnal. A couple of hymn stories. There is an old joke, not really suitable for contemporary sensibilities, but I’m going to tell it anyway. The little congregation was trying to inject some life into their stewardship program, and they decided to offer a prize to the church member who raised his or her pledge by the highest percentage. Not a trip to Hawaii, just that the person could, on Stewardship Sunday, pick his or her three favorite hymns to sing that day. The day came to announce the winner and the pastor called to the front a little old lady, long-widowed, who had tripled her promise of giving. “Mabel,” said the pastor, “thank you so much for your leap in giving, tops in the congregation. So now you get to pick your three favorite hymns. Which hymns would you like?”

Mabel looked out at the assembled congregation, beaming, and then she pointed and said, “I pick him…and I pick him…and I pick him.”

Second story. This one actually happened. As you know, I retired from full-time ministry at the end of May. I now have a number of part-time jobs: I am delighted to serve as Designated Pastor for you folks and Calvary Pres in McGrath. I am also marketing my book and also I do visitation one day a week for the First Presbyterian Church of Stillwater. A couple weeks ago I was calling on an elderly gent from the Stillwater Church and we were having a nice conversation. At one point I asked if there was anything the church could be doing for him that we weren’t doing. He said, “No. I’m good. My daughters take good care of me. The one suggestion I would make for the church though is, “Get rid of the hymns! We sing too many and we sing all the verses. I love the choir and the organ, but the hymns…!”

I was quite astonished.

You have heard me say before that one of best parts about being a pastor for me is selecting the hymns we sing in worship. I’m very excited for you to get to know our new hymnal. My previous congregation has used this official Presbyterian hymnal, Glory to God, since it came out about seven years ago and they—and I—love it! I am fully confident that you will, too.

Our previous hymnal had a lot of good hymns in it, but it had holes. It came out forty years ago and there are so many good hymns composed since then. In addition, the previous hymnal was missing a number of what I, at least, think of as long-time favorites, including “Be Thou My Vision” and “For All the Saints.” Plus, it had Christmas carols, but it did not have any Advent hymns at all, including “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.” The new hymnal has 25 Advent hymns.

So, we have a new hymnal, but let me assure you, we will continue to sing the old favorites as well as new hymns.

Before we walk our way through some of the hymns in our new hymnal let’s think together in general ways about the wonderful gift God has given us in music.

The ability to make and enjoy music is a wonderful gift from the hand of God. Prehistoric flutes made of bone have been found dating back 57,000 years. Scientists say that “the musical instruments were more complex than the hunting tools” (Joelle Atema, Biology Professor at Boston University in an article in Science Magazine). A more civilized time than today. To my knowledge every human society on the face of the earth employs and enjoys the gift of music.

In the early days of Israel, music was an integral, organic part of everyone’s daily life, from birth to death. The contemporary idea of some people that music is a luxury, an add-on or a non-essential part of school curricula would be unthinkable to the biblical peoples. Everyone made music. (Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible, vol. 3, pl. 457)

Throughout scripture, music is mentioned many, many times, for merrymaking at family parties, to acclaim heroes, enthrone kings, entertain at banquets and at court, in occupational songs, dirges and laments, and incantations and worship. (Ibid., 457-458)

Today we use music in many ways as well.

We sing lullabies to our children. Nothing comforted our daughter Anji like me singing “Hush, little baby, don’t say a word…” It was amazing. Of course, years later I learned that her older brother Andy had told her, “If you pretend to be asleep, he stops singing.” And I remember my brother John saying, “Wow. I sing to my kids the songs that Mom used to sing to us and it’s magic. I’m out like a light.”

We nurture loyalty through school songs and national anthems.

Young adults use new types of music to distinguish themselves from the old fogies just ahead of them, you know, people over thirty. I think it would be fun to learn about people’s favorite music—either musician or style of music, classical or country, Bach or Blake Shelton, Lizzo or Liberace or Garth Brooks, Tom Jones or Taylor Swift. Tell us who your favorite musician or type of music is.

This reminds me of an interesting quote… I don’t know anything about music. In my line you don’t have to. Anybody know who said that? Elvis Presley.

Back to ways in which we use music. The vast majority of religious groups use music as an integral part of worship.

And of course, when we are super-happy we love to sing and dance. Sometimes it seems like we might explode if we don’t.

And then, music to comfort. From exiles in Babylon singing the songs of Zion 2700 years ago, to African-American spirituals, to singing the blues, music helps us to get through the down times.

Here’s an amazing story told in the video Song of Survival, c. 1985. Imagine being in prison in a very hot climate. You have very little food, sanitation. You are filthy, literally starving, subject to every sort of humiliation. That was the situation a group of women found themselves in during World War II. Imprisoned on the island of Sumatra by the Japanese, these women were mostly Dutch and British colonials—nuns and missionaries—and Australian nurses.

Although they often sang to divert themselves, two of the women decided, after a year and a half of imprisonment, that they needed a more serious and disciplined pursuit: they would sing classical music without words; they would form a vocal orchestra. Margaret Dryburgh, a British missionary, had an extraordinary recall of the classical music she once studied, and without the aid of music or even of lined paper, she reconstructed over two dozen classical pieces in four-part harmony for women’s voices. Another British woman, Nora Chambers, who had studied music at the Royal Academy of London, agreed to conduct.

Practicing mostly in small groups whenever they could spare the time and avoid the attention of the guards, these women brought to life the works of Bach, Dvorak, Brahms, Schubert, Sibelius, and Grieg among others. Just before Christmas in 1943, they held their first concert. As the women began to assemble, some of the guards became agitated and one approached them carrying a bayonet; there was a rule against gathering in a large group. Before the guard reached them, Nora Chambers raised her hands and the choir began to sing. The guard stopped, then sat down and listened. The concert went on. Many in the audience wept.

Looking back during a reunion of survivors held forty years later, …one of the women said that because of “having and doing the music, you weren’t just in a dirty, little, scruffy, tatty prison camp in Sumatra. You were way out, out in the open. You just seemed free.” (From a sermon by Rev. Linda Hansen United U&U Society of Mukwonago November 14, 2010)

Well, I have one more story, but let’s sing the first verse of some hymns first.

#21. “Many and Great, O God, Are Thy Works.” Native American from MN over near Lacquiparle. Interesting information about each hymn at the bottom of the page.

#22 “God of the Sparrow”. I think it’s interesting that people at Oak Grove often chose this for memorial services.

#26. “Earth and All Stars.” Written by my friend, Herb Brokering, amazing Lutheran pastor, poet, author, junk sculptor, retreat leader and songwriter.

#69. “Here I Am, Lord”

#157. “I Danced in the Morning”

#158. “Born in the Night”. This begins a number of hymns about women—161, 173, 178, 324. We won’t sing these today.

#203. “Jesus, Jesu, Fill Us With Your Love”

#246 “Christ Is Alive”. Read notes at bottom

#250. “In the Bulb there is a Flower” (memorial services)

#301. “Let us Build a House”

#399. “God Welcomes All”

A final story, from Robert Fulghum, author of the best-selling All I Really Need to
Know I Learned in Kindergarten…

Talking with a nice lady on the phone, she has a case of the midwinter spiritual rot. And a terminal cold she’s had since September. “Well,” rasps she, “you don’t ever get depressed, do you?”

“Listen. I get lows it takes extension ladders to get out of.”

“So, what do you do?” asks she. “I mean, what DO YOU DO?”

Nobody ever pinned me down quite like that before. They usually ask what I think they should do.

My solace is not religion or yoga or rum or even deep sleep. It’s Beethoven. As in Ludwig van. He’s my ace in the hole. I put his Ninth Symphony on the stereo, pull the earphones down tight, and lie down on the floor. The music comes on like the first day of Creation.

And I think about old Mr. B. He knew a whole lot about depression and unhappiness. He moved around from place to place trying to find the right place. His was a lousy love life, and he quarreled with his friends all the time. A rotten nephew worried him deeply – a nephew he really loved. Mr. B. wanted to be a virtuoso pianist. He wanted to sing well, too. But when still quite young, he began to lose his hearing. Which is usually bad news for pianists and singers. By 1818, when he was forty-eight, he was stone-cold deaf. Which makes it all the more amazing that he finished his great Ninth Symphony five years later. He never really heard it! He just thought it. Imagine that!

So I lie there with my earphones on, wondering if it ever could have felt to Beethoven like it sounds in my head. The crescendo rises, and my sternum starts to vibrate. And by the time the final kettledrum drowns out all those big Fs, I’m on my feet, singing at the top of my lungs in gibberish German with the mighty choir, and jumping up and down as the legendary Fulghumowski directs the final awesome moments of the END OF THE WORLD AND THE COMING OF GOD AND ALL HIS ANGELS, HALLELUJAH! HALLELEJAH! WWHHOOOOOOOOM-KABOOM-BAM-BAAAAAA!!!

Thank God for Beethoven, and for the choir and accompanist, and every one of us. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all ye lands!”

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