A United Methodist Pastor's Theological Reflections

"But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory (nikos) through our Lord Jesus Christ." - I Corinthians 15:57

Sunday, December 13, 2015

Sermon (December 13/3rd Sunday of Advent) by Rev. Robert McDowell - "Music to Our Ears"

     Maybe you heard of the story of a lady whose name was Gladys.  Gladys Dunn.  She was new in town and decided to visit the church nearest to her new apartment.
     She appreciated the pretty church and the singing by the congregation, but the sermon just went on and on and on.  Worse, it wasn’t even very interesting.  Glancing around, she saw many people in the congregation nodding off.
     Finally, the sermon was over.  After the service, she turned to a sleepy looking gentleman next to her, extended her hand and said, “I’m Gladys Dunn.”
     The man replied, “You and me both!”
     And this is why music is so important on Sunday mornings. Even when the sermon is below average, there’s always the music. There’s always the music!
     Last winter, Penny and I visited a church for worship. During the sermon, the folks that were sitting in front of us didn’t seem to appreciate the sermon that was being delivered.
     I don’t think it was anything the preacher was saying that bothered them. It was more of his style. He was just too loud for them. Several times during the sermon, we could see them whispering to each other in displeasure.
     Following the service, these same folks who were seated in front of us, turned around to greet us. One of them said, “It was so nice to sit in front of you, because you have the most beautiful voice. You sing like an angel.”
     And I said, “Well, thank you. That’s so nice of you to say.”
     And this woman said, “Not you. I was referring to her!” pointing to Penny.
     She’s right. Penny does have a beautiful voice. She loves to sing out her faith!
     The little known prophet Zephaniah, tucked away in our Old Testament, has a prominent role on this third Sunday of Advent.  He teaches us to keep on singing, even while we are waiting for God’s promises to be fulfilled.
     Zephaniah lived during a terrible time in Israel.  The Assyrian Empire was known to be a cruel empire and was now threatening the people of God.  And in the midst of this frightening time of Israel’s history, we hear these words from the prophet:
     “Sing aloud,” Zephaniah cries out.  “Rejoice and exalt with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!”
     Zephaniah is calling for the people to sing out because the Lord is in their midst and he will renew their love.
     Yes, even pre-Christmas, we are summoned to sing aloud and to rejoice.
     The Apostle Paul says something very similar in Philippians chapter 4.  “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.”  Why should we rejoice?  Paul tells us.  Because the Lord is near.    
     We are now only a few days away from “Joy to the World” and the opening of Christmas presents, but even on this mid-December Sunday, we are called to sing out in anticipation of what God is about to do.
     Now, since we’re Methodists, we even have a method to the way we’re supposed to sing.  John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement, called these, “Directions for Singing.”  He had seven of them.  Here they are.
     1. He tells us to learn these tunes before you learn any others; afterwards, learn as many as you please.
     2. Sing them exactly as they are printed here, without altering or mending them at all; and if you have learned to sing them otherwise, unlearn it as soon as you can. 
     3. Sing all.  See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can.  Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you.  If it is a cross to you, take it up, and you will find it a blessing.
     4. Sing lustily and with good courage.  Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength.  Be no more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan.
     5. Sing modestly.  Do not bawl, so as to be heard above or distinct from the rest of the congregation, that you may not destroy the harmony.  But strive to unite your voices together, so as to make one clear melodious sound.
     6.  Sing in time.  Whatever time is sung, be sure to keep with it.  It is high time for us to sing all our tunes just as quick as we did at first.  By the way, John Wesley wrote these in 1761, several decades after the inception of the Methodist movement.  So he’s saying, no matter how long we’ve been attending church, let’s not lose our passion and energy in singing.
     7. Above all sing spiritually.  Have an eye to God in every word you sing.  Aim at pleasing him more than yourself, or any other creature.
     So those are John Wesley’s method for how we should sing.
     I received a phone call from a church member one day.  This person told me,  “I can’t tell you what this church means to me, Pastor Robert.  Without the people in my small group caring for me and loving me, I don’t know what I would have done during my illness.”
     My hunch is that this person has no problem singing out loud in church, because she has experienced the saving love of God in her life.  She knows that she is not alone.  The gift of God’s grace always leads to singing, even if we can’t carry a tune in a bucket.
     I think it’s amazing that even though we are all so different in terms of age, backgrounds and experiences, that we are still able to come week after week and sing songs and hymns which point us to a God who is coming, a God who wants nothing more than for us to be at home with Him.
     One summer, I was at a week-long conference meeting with Christians from all around the world.  I happened to have lunch one day with someone who was attending the conference from Singapore.
     It was difficult to understand each other because of the language and cultural barrier.  But somehow, he figured out that I was United Methodist.  And he said, “I’m a Methodist too.” 
     And then he said, “We are a people with hearts strangely warmed.”  He laughed as he said it because he knew that this famous Methodist saying would connect us and overcome our difficulties in trying to understand each other.
     I nodded in agreement and said, “Yes.  We are a people of warm hearts.”  And he smiled back at me.  In that moment, I was not from North America and he was not from Singapore.  We were brothers in Christ.
     In a similar way, music has a way of uniting people.  Have you ever been with someone when a song comes on the radio or on a playlist and you say, “Oh, I love this song?”  And the person with you says, “Turn it up!” 
     The prophet Zephaniah is telling us in this Season of Advent – That’s how God wants you to sing.  Turn it up! Put your windows down and sing out!  “Rejoice and exult with all your heart.”
     We sing our faith because God has promised to come.  He will save the lame and gather the outcast, and he will change our shame into praise and will bring us home.  This is the good news announced by Zephaniah.
     It’s amazing how hymns can help us to feel at home with God.
     I remember one year when our church sent out Christmas carolers to our members who were homebound. They loved hearing the Christmas carols.
     We went to the home of one of our elderly church members and told the care givers who we were. She invited us in, but said, “Leah probably won’t know you’re here because she often gets confused, she's very weak, and she’s been sleeping, but please come in and sing to her anyway.”
     So, the five to seven of us went into her room there in her home. We noticed right away that the house was extremely warm. Even in that toasty room, Leah still had several blankets covering her as she slept.
     So, we started singing a carol. “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie. Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by. Yet in thy dark street shineth, the everlasting light;..”
     It was at this point that Leah, abruptly woke up, raised her head, and finished singing the song along with us, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
     Even though Leah scared the bejeebers out of us in that moment, isn’t it amazing how a familiar carol can awaken our faith and lead us to “sing aloud” like Zephaniah calls us to do.
     Many of us have enjoyed hymn sings in the church. Three and a half years ago, I was part of several hymn sings, but they weren’t held in a church building.  My mom, who was 82, passed away in June of 20012 at my brother's home in Pennsylvania where her two sons and two daughters were gathered by her side.

     My brother and two sisters and I were keeping vigil with our mom, knowing that she was nearing the end of her life. During one of our evenings with mom that week, we decided to sing some hymns without accompaniment.  My brother sang harmony and I struggled to keep the melody, but those old hymns still sounded great. 
     From our mom's perspective and in her weakened state, she probably was thinking that God had mysteriously transported us into a heavenly church sanctuary where all of God's people were singing out God's praises, even though this was all taking place in my brother's family room.  At the close of our last hymn, mom managed enough energy to clutch her hands in front of her in a posture of prayer.  
     The next hymn sing was two evenings later when my brother pounded out the great old hymns on the piano so that our mom could hear them from the bedroom where she was now confined.  Each hymn spoke of the assurance we can have through our faith in Christ.  "This is my story.  This is my song.  Praising my Savior all the day long."

     Around 3:15 in the morning, we experienced our third and final hymn sing of the week.  This one had a much different feel.  Instead of loud praises, our sister, a retired nurse who was with mom during those early morning hours, gently woke us up to join in singing a beautiful song offering our mom to be with the Lord.  We sang her into heaven at 3:36 am to be exact.
     As we struggled to sing the song over and over again to our mom, we could sense that our voices were being drowned out by the angelic heavenly voices who were now welcoming her to her heavenly home.
     In this season of Advent, this season of waiting, the prophet calls us to sing out loud, even in our brokenness, even in our grief, and even if we have heavy hearts. “Sing aloud, for I will bring you home,” the Lord is telling us.
     Keith and Barb were members of one of my previous churches. They served on Epiphany weekends.  Epiphany is a weekend in which Christians from a variety of churches and denominational backgrounds come to a prison and share the love of Jesus Christ with young adult women inmates. 
     They’re not there to find out why these young women are in prison or to offer judgmental comments regarding their past.  They are simply there to say, “God loves you.”
     Keith and Barb shared a story with me about one of their weekend experiences.  They gave a birthday cake to one of the inmates to celebrate her birthday.  It was a beautiful cake with lit candles and they sang happy birthday to her.  When they were done singing, this young woman just sat there staring at her birthday cake. 
     And Barb and Keith finally said to her, “Well, you can go ahead and take a piece.  It’s your birthday cake.” 
     And she said, “No. I just want to look at this cake for a while.” She paused, and continuing to look at that cake, she said, “Nobody has ever given me a birthday cake.”
     I wonder if this is the song that John the Baptist is calling for us to sing this morning, a song that calls us to reach out to the least, the last, and the lost.
     Actually, if we read our passage from Zephaniah closely, we discover that God is singing right along with us.  To be honest, I never pictured God as a God who sings. I just thought that’s something we do.    
     We are told that God is singing about saving the lame and gathering the outcast.  And it’s a song about welcoming us home.

     That's music to our ears!

1 comment:

Al DeFilippo said...

Thank you, Pastor McDowell, for the post featuring Wesley. He was an amazing man of God. If you interest, I have recently published the opening novel in a trilogy about Francis Asbury. Black Country features both John and Charles Wesley. Even the "singing technique" rules show up in one of the book's scenes. If you interest, please visit the website at www.francisasburytriptych.com. Enjoy the numerous articles about the early Methodist movement.