Saturday, May 29, 2010

How can we keep from singing? May 30, 2010

This week, I have again included much of the liturgy, which provides context for the sermon  . . . Ian


Welcome to Sunday morning worship at Knox United Church. My name is Ian Kellogg and I am a student supply minister here at Knox this spring. Today is Trinity Sunday, which is probably not the best known date on the Christian Calendar. So I have a few words to say about it.

Last Sunday we celebrated the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost; and with Pentecost, the Season of Easter came to a close. We have now entered the long and awkwardly-named Season After Pentecost, which lasts until Advent in December. The Season After Pentecost takes about half the year; and some might consider it to be the "boring" half of the Christian Year. The other seasons -- Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent and Easter --  relate to events in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Observing those seasons allows us to reflect on our own life's journey. But this other half of the year, which we begin today, doesn't serve the same function. It might then seem a bit formless and a time in which our focus as a church jumps around a bit.

Indeed, using the first Sunday of this Season to celebrate the Trinity is very different from celebrating an event in the life of Jesus. The Trinity is not an event but a Christian teaching. The church suggests that we begin this six-month season today by reflecting on the nature of God -- in particular on the central Christian belief that God, while One, is also a community of Love between God in three "persons:" Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is the doctrine of the Trinity.

While this service follows that suggestion, we hope that it won't feel like a classroom! Instead, like any other service, we hope that the prayers, readings, sermon, and hymns might provide us with an experience of God or the Sacred more than teach us about God. And as always, we hope that all will feel welcome and met during worship and also during coffee hour after the service.

This morning we begin worship by lighting a candle. The light of this candle represents the light of God, who is both the Holy One and the Holy Three. In lighting this candle, we might remember that God grounds us, heals us, and inspires us. This morning we gather to remember, reflect, and recharge . . .

* CALL TO WORSHIP (said together)

When Creation inspires,
when Wisdom calls,
and when Spirit dances,
we gather in praise.

* OPENING PRAYER (said together)

Holy One, Holy Three,
Help us to celebrate creation,
be renewed in Christ,
and live by the Spirit's rhythm.

THEME CONVERSATION: Finding God in song

I now invite those kids who would like, to come and join me on the front steps for a minute before church school. Good morning, I am glad to see you all here today.

So this morning in church we are talking about what God is like, which might seem difficult. But here is something that might help. Some our ideas of God come from important and special times in life. These might be times with family, or feeling loved, or being in a favourite place. And you know that I like to sing, eh? So for me a lot of those great times happen when I sing.

Here is how it might work. When we sing a hymn in church, sometimes it feels so good that it helps us to feel God's love. Here are three things that could happen. As we sing, we might feel that it is a Sacred moment. This might remind us that God is within us. And when we sing, we also notice other people around us, how we are singing in harmony and how people are helping one another. And this might remind us of God moving between us. And as we sing, we might also give thanks for the many things that allows us to sing: the earth, our bodies, the people who wrote the music, the people who published and taught the songs, and the tradition of our church and its hymns. And this could remind us of God as a support, who is always underneath us.

So I think that times like singing might give us some of our ideas about God -- perhaps even that while God is one, we can seen God from three different angles: there is God within us, God between us, and God beneath us.

Soon I hope we can test this idea. After our prayers, I want us all -- kids and adults together -- to sing the next simple hymn and perhaps see if we can also get a glimpse of how we can experience God in an everyday activity like singing. OK?

So . . . I hope you enjoy  church school this morning. But before you go, I have a brief prayer, then we will pray again the prayer that Jesus taught us, and then we will sing that hymn and see what we feel while we sing it. OK? Let us pray . . .

Dear God,

We give thanks for another day to be together as family and friends.
We give thanks for music, songs and singers.
We give thanks for your presence, O God,
whether we feel you as a spark within us, a spirit between us,
or the ground beneath our feet.
Help us to know your love, your friendship and your Spirit. Amen.

And now let us pray again together the prayer that Jesus taught us, saying . . Our Father  . . .

So when we sing the hymn before church school, "Be Still and Know," I hope that you  notice what you feel and what you experience as you sing. The choir sang this hymn as an anthem in March and it has been sung by the congregation at Knox before. And today we are going to sing it as a simple two-part round. First we will review the hymn. Doreen will play through the melody once, then we will all sing it once through together. And then we will sing it as a round without the piano. Doreen will lead the south side of the church to begin, and then I will lead the north side including all the kids in the other part. And when we sing it as a round, we will sing it twice.

* HYMN: "Be Still and Know That I am God" #77 MV. .


Proverbs 8: 1–4, 22–31        Wisdom calls
Romans 5: 1–5            Peace through Christ
John 16: 12–15            Spirit of Love

SERMON: Experiencing the Sacred

Where do our ideas about God come from? And why do these ideas sometimes sound so strange?

Christian practice can be wordy and intellectual, and as such it might not always feel relevant. And yet wars have been fought over different ways of talking about of God.

In doing research on Trinity Sunday, I came across a website of a Lutheran congregation in the U.S. that on this Sunday recites a Creed called the Athanasian Creed. Usually this congregation, like thousands of others, recites the Nicean Creed, which was developed in the year 325  by a Council called by Emperor Constantine. But today, this Lutheran congregation switches to this other Creed because it focuses on the Trinity.

Here is a bit of the Athanasian Creed: "We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Spirit. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Spirit. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Spirit uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Spirit unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God."

Whew! I am reminded of a song from the musical "My Fair Lady" which says, "words, words words! I'm so sick of words. Don't talk of love, show me!"

On the other hand, I can also appreciate the Athanasian Creed. It feels grand and resonant. But I am also glad that most United Churches use our 1968 Creed instead. It is the one that begins "We are not alone. We live in God's world." At Knox, we recite this Creed at baptisms and sometimes during Communion. The United Church Creed outlines the doctrine of the Trinity in a single sentence:

"We believe in God: who has created and is creating, who has come in Jesus, the Word made flesh, to reconcile and make new, and who works in us and others by the Spirit." It might not be as impressive as the Athanasian Creed, but it is simpler.

The doctrine of the Trinity is not found in the Bible, though some passages in the Bible contain hints that might lead to it. Our readings this morning include some of those hints. Paul's letter to Rome says "We have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ;" and later "God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit."  God-Christ-Spirit.

Today's reading from Proverbs is about the mysterious figure Wisdom, which many Christians see as a description of Christ, co-eternal and co-equal with God the Father in the creation of the world. And finally in the reading from John, Jesus talks again about the coming the Spirit and then says, "All that the Father has is mine." Father-Son-Spirit.

Still, the Christian teaching of Trinity does not come from the Bible. Rather it comes from the worship life of the first Christians. They had experienced Jesus Christ risen from the dead. As devout Jews, these first followers of Christ believed in One God. Yet they also found themselves worshipping Christ as God. So if Christ was God, and his Father was God, were there two Gods or still only one? And what about the the Holy Spirit, whom God sent on Pentecost, and who gave them power to worship and serve?

It was their experience of worshipping Jesus as God through the power of the Spirit that led early Christians to think of God as both One and Three at the same time. The experiences of new life and worship came first. The fancy words came later.

The same is true for us. We don't believe in God because of the creeds that Imperial Councils concocted 1600 years ago. Nor do we believe in God just because of the stories in the Bible. We believe in God because of our life experience: experiences of brokenness followed by new life; experiences of love; even experiences of loss and grief. When, with grace, we remember our deepest values, we are aware of how much in life is sacred to us. And from the heart of experiences of the sacred -- within, between and around us -- we develop our image of God.

Our sacred moments might include the pure joy of being physically alive. They might be experiences of working with others to try and make the world a better place. They might be experiences of falling in love, getting married and raising children. And as for the first Christians, for us these sacred moments come in various ways.

Some of these moments are internal: quiet prayer; walking alone on a wooded trail; or reading an inspiring book. Some of them are communal such as joining our voices in song in church. Still others might feel cosmic: being aware of how vast and intricate the universe and the web of life are within which we live and move and have our being.

And so as Christians, we both gratefully accept the stunning vision of our Jewish brothers and sisters that God is One and Almighty; and we also experience new life in Christ through the power of the Spirit. Together, these insights lead us to understand the Sacred, the Divine, or God as a unity within diversity; a unity that might best be described as a One in Three, or a Trinity.

Here is yet another way to speak about the Trinity from a 2006 statement of faith of the United Church. It is called "A Song of Faith," and it begins:

"God is Holy Mystery, beyond complete knowledge, above perfect description. Yet, in love, the one eternal God seeks relationship . . . With the Church through the ages, we speak of God as one and triune: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We also speak of God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer; God, Christ, and Spirit; Mother, Friend, and Comforter; Source of Life, Living Word, and Bond of Love; and in other ways that speak faithfully of the One on whom our hearts rely, the fully shared life at the heart of the universe. We witness to Holy Mystery that is Wholly Love."

I recommend the entire "Song of Faith." For one, I like the fact that it uses the metaphor of song as both the source and the expression of our beliefs.

In preparing for my final service here at Knox in two weeks, which will celebrate the 85th anniversary of the United Church, I found the following statement about hymn singing written in 1912 by the Methodist leader Nathaneal Burwash. Burwash was a central figure in the Canadian church union movement and he observed that "our hymn books fashion our religious thinking and feeling more powerfully than either articles of religion or confessions of faith."

Burwash noted that singing the same hymns had made it possible for Methodists, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists to reach agreement on a basis for union. By singing these hymns, he said, "we had been learning and absorbing all that was truest and best in our neighbour’s ways and thoughts until we found that in every essential we were one."

This statement echoes what I said to the children earlier: we often experience the sacred when we sing together. Sacred songs lead us to feel what we believe rather than what we think; and such feelings are perhaps more important to us than our attempts to articulate the Holy Mystery, which we name as God.

The 2006 "Song of Faith" several times repeats the line: "And so we cannot keep from singing." This refrain echoes the great 19th Century American Hymn, "How Can I  Keep from Singing?" Here are the words to that hymn's first verse: "My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentation I hear the sweet though far-off hymn that hails a new creation: through all the tumult and the strife I hear the music ringing; it finds an echo in my soul -- how can I keep from singing?"

Now of course, not every hymn sung in church will connect us to the sacred, any more than will every moment with our children, every moment volunteering at the Thrift Shop, or every walk in the woods. But we know that with God's grace, sacred moments occur again and again. In those moments, we are able to remember that our lives are supported by God, the Holy One and the Holy Three: and this support comes from the God who is within, between, and beneath us.

And so we cannot keep from singing.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Our hymn of response is  . . .

* HYMN "Praise With Joy the World's Creator" #312 VU


And now let us pray . . .

Let us pray,
    for the whole people of God in Christ Jesus
    for all people everywhere according to their need
    and for the entire web of life . . .

God of Life, help us to be aware that you are with us every moment;
help us to give thanks for this and all our blessings.

For sacred songs that lift our hearts up to you, we give thanks.
For people who uphold the traditions of the church, we give thanks.
And for experiences of the Sacred, which reconnect us to you, we give thanks.

God our Father,

Help us to remember that your creation sustains us every moment.
Help us to enjoy and praise your creation and to remember that we are created in your image.
God our Saviour,

As Christ you came to blaze a trail of faith, hope and love, which we follow.
You come to us again and again as new life born out of brokenness.

God who is Spirit,

As wind and fire, you blow where you will.
Help us to humbly follow the promptings of your Spirit and so become the Body of Christ on earth that always seeks to do your will.

God of Healing,

May we feel your healing touch during times of physical and emotional pain, in times of loss, and when we feel afraid and alone.

God, we need your loving presence.  We raise up for support and love those that we have named aloud and those whom we now remember in silence . . .

Gracious God, these are our concerns, these are our joys, these are our prayers. We lift them up to you.

All of this we pray in the name of the Risen Christ, our Redeemer and our Hope. Amen.

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