January 23, 2016

[Special thanks to Rev. Fran Hayes. She is the pastor of Littlefield Presbyterian Church in Dearborn, Michigan. I borrowed a lot of great information from her for this sermon!]

Today we are dedicating our new hymnal. First a quiz:

Finish the lines of these hymns:

God of the Sparrow, God of [the whale]

Here I am Lord. Is it I, Lord. [I have heard you calling in the night]

I’m Gonna Live so [God can use me]

Morning Has Broken [Like the first morning]

You did pretty well. These songs and many others are part of us. They may be “heart songs” — songs that have found a place in our hearts. Here is the deal. All of those hymns plus many others were unfamiliar to Presbyterian congregations before the 1990 hymnal. Many of the songs that were new to us in 1990 are now favorites—heart songs.

Why do we need a new hymnal? What is the matter with the old one?

Nothing of course. There is nothing wrong with the old hymnal. It served us for a generation. There is nothing more wrong with the 1990 hymnal than there is wrong with the photo album you put together in 1990 of your family. It is a great photo album. It is great looking through the pictures of the family from 25 years ago.

But since 1990, the family looks a little different. The existing members have become a bit more mature. Some are not there. There may some new family members. Good thing we didn’t stop taking pictures twenty-five years ago. We have tended to grow fond of some of these new family members. So we ought to take their picture with our cell phones and load them on our computerized photo album. That was something we didn’t do in 1990.

My mother has stacks of photo albums of photos she took from the 1950s up until a few years before she died. She also inherited albums from her mother and her husband’s mother. When I made a family history book about 15 years ago, I took many of those old photos and reproduced them as well as new photos and made a new album. I had to be selective. In doing so I was creating our family’s story. It is probably time to do that again.

In a similar way, the church’s hymnal of our larger Presbyterian family gets updated about once per generation. We look different that we did 25 years ago. We have grown. We have changed. Our photo album, our hymnal reflects that change.

There is nothing wrong with our old hymnal. There is something right about a living vibrant tradition that continues to re-create itself. Many of the hymns have become like our theology, less focused on beliefs and more metaphorical. More hymns reflect our multi-cultural reality. More inclusive in language. More hymns focus on social justice. These have been added over the years.

Singing has been part of our religious and spiritual practice since well the beginning of religion and spirituality. One of the oldest texts in the Hebrew Scriptures is a song. Miriam, the sister of Moses, sang a victory song after crossing the sea escaping from the Egyptians. The Psalms are a collection of songs for worship.

Likewise, music has been part of Christian worship since the church began. One of my favorite Bible stories is of Paul and Silas singing hymns in jail. They have inspired more than one protest movement.

Throughout the medieval period, the Gregorian Chant was the music that shaped worship. Mostly sung by choristers.

Martin Luther gave the church an upgrade, in part by enlivening the music. He took popular tavern tunes and put theological words to them. When you think of it, you can imagine singing loudly “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” while waving your beer stein.

Luther realized that people would learn their theology through music. He wrote many congregational songs. While Luther would allow any text to be sung in worship unless he deemed it unbiblical, Calvin was a bit more stern. Only scriptural texts put to music were good for him, such as the Psalms put to music with no accompaniment.

There are songs from our new hymnal from the Genevan Psalter of 1551, such as number #330, “Our Help Is In the Name of God.” As Presbyterians moved to Scotland they formed their psalter, the Scottish Psalter. An example is on page 168 “Within Your Shelter Loving God.”

Presbyterians sang metered songs from the Psalter until the early to mid 1800s. Some branches still sing only metered psalms. Other traditions were a bit more creative. We have a number of hymns in our hymnbook created by Isaac Watts, the “Father of English Hymnody.” #32 “I Sing the Mighty Power of God.”

Presbyterians have since allowed Methodist heresy to make it in to our hymnals. One of my heart hymns is by Charles Wesley, “Love Divine: All Loves Excelling” is in our hymnal #366.

The Second Great Awakening led to gospel songs. Fanny Crosby and others made music for revivals and camp meetings. We sing some of those such as “Blessed Assurance”, “To God Be the Glory” and “Open My Eyes that I Might See.”

There have been seven hymnals in our stream of the Presbyterian Church in the United States. The first was in 1831. This was the church’s first move away from singing only psalms in worship.

The next hymnal came in 1874 when the new school and the old school reunited.

The next was a hymnal published during the heat of the fundamentalist-modernist controversy in 1911.

The next was the green hymnal published in 1933.

In 1955 the red hymnal was published following World War Two and the height of the Cold War about the time Southminster started.

In 1972, Presbyterians came out with the blueish gray Worshipbook. That was about the time Jim Peterson arrived. Jim was here for over a generation and the hymnal we have just finished using was published when he was here in 1990. That hymnal came out when I was in seminary and was the hymnal that nurtured by own children.

Since 1911, it has been about every 20 years or so, a generation, that the church feels the call to revise our “photo album.” There is only so much room. You need to add new pictures. What to do with the old ones? Some are keepers that you never want to lose. Some were interesting for a time but they can be replaced. When our Presbyterian family needs to update its “photo album” of hymns it wrestles with what hymns are our “heart songs,” that have been with us, what hymns are we as a new generation singing, and how do we put it together.

The formation of this committee for the new hymnal began in 2004. The new hymnal was published in September 2013. None of the members of this committee, not one, is completely happy with it. What that means is that no individual person agreed with all of the decisions of what hymns to include and what to leave behind. Each of us would do better for our own selves in choosing our own favorite hymns! This congregation could not create a hymnal for itself that everyone would like. But, it isn’t about that. It is about the breadth of songs that speak to our hearts. It isn’t so important that I always sing my favorite heart song. It is of more importance that I am in community with the person next to me who knows and loves different heart songs. If we each learn each other’s songs our hearts might be touched even more.

This new hymnal has about 800 hymns. Half of them are new, that is, that have not been in previous Presbyterian hymnals. About 60% of the 600 hymns in the 1990 hymnal are in this new one.

The order of the hymnal is such that the saga of the Christian story is seen in its fullness, so as we sing the hymns we sing the theology of the church.

Some songs will be new. People write hymns every day. Some will be from the global church. These are hymns from different cultures. These will have different rhythms. They will help us recognize that we all are neighbors.

The first two hymns in our mini-hymn sing are from that 19th century American gospel tradition, “I Love to Tell the Story” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” I sang them growing up Baptist. You may have known them as well.

“Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” has been made popular by Iris Dement and Alan Jackson. They bring a little of the American South to the Pacific Northwest.

For the rest of the worship service we are going to have a mix of hymn singing and a few poems. I will make a brief introduction of the hymns as we get to them. Get our your hymnal and let’s sing!

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[Part 2]

Here are three new songs for our photo album.

Our theology changes as we change. One of the huge changes that have happened in the last 25 years is theological language for God. Our metaphors for God reflect the variety of the human experience. Thomas Troeger’s hymn, Source and Sovereign, Rock and Cloud, uses a variety of images for God. These images shine a different hue on the traditional metaphor of the Trinity.

Glory to God is the title of the hymnal. This hymn may be the hymnals’ signature song. These words are the words of the angels to the shepherds sung to a Peruvian tune.

This third song, Give us Light, Give us Life, Give us Peace, is a beautiful song from India.

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[Part 3]

Inclusivity is a major theme of the new hymnal. So the committee was intentional about including hymns that celebrated diversity and inclusion

The words to the hymn “For Everyone Born, A Place at the Table” were written by Shirley Erena Murray. The hymn was ‘evoked’ as she put it “by the UN Declaration of Human Rights” and her involvement with Amnesty Internationsl. She said “it should be sung at a spirited pace.”

The second song, When Hands Reach Out and Fingers Trace” was written by Presbyterian minister Carolyn Winfrey GilletteThis hymn celebrates the breadth of human diversity and the variety of gifts and abilities through which God’s people serve the church and world.

The tune, O WALY WALY is a traditional English melody associated with the song “O Waly, Waly, gin love be bony.” It is also well known in the Appalachian region of the United States.

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[Part 4]

We take a final peek at our photo album with more new hymns.

“He Came Down” is Christmas song celebrating the incarnation. It is a traditional Cameroon piece.

“As the Wind Song Through the Trees” is another beautiful song by Shirley Erena Murray. The music was composed by Lim Swee Hong of Singapore. He is the author of the book “Giving Voice to Asian Christians.”

“Heleluyan, We Are Singing” is a Muscogee hymn. “Heleluyan” is the Muscogee (Creek) word for “Alleluia.” This Muscogee hymn is a Trail of Tears song, a testimony that their Christian faith was more powerful than their mistreatment by those who took away their ancestral homelands. Revered and cherished, it remains the most popular Muscogee hymn sung in churches in Oklahoma.

The closing hymn, “Siyahamba” is Zulu for “We are Marching” or “We are Walking.” This hymn from South Africa has been popular since the 1990s and now in the new Presbyterian hymnal.