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Making Change: Sing to the Lord an Old Song

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Psalm 96:1-9

When I started here as your senior pastor five years ago, I did my best not to change things, particularly in worship. Since you’d had one pastor for nearly 24 years, I figured that me just being me was quite enough of a change! So my theory was “Add, not change,” and I slowly tried introducing things, particularly for special seasons like Advent and Lent. I would change things for a season, and then change them back. You have been surprisingly open to trying new things. Occasionally I’ll get complaints that you didn’t know the songs we sang on a particular Sunday, but for the most part you’ve been very patient with me, and open to the small changes I would introduce.

Over the last 12-18 months, I’ve been playing around with where I stand when I preach. When I started, I always preached in the pulpit. The pulpit grants an authority, and as your first female senior pastor, I felt like it was important for me to stand in that place, to claim it and be claimed by it. But I found that sometimes I just need to be closer to you. This is particularly true when I’m preaching a hard sermon, and I need to have nothing between us. On those occasions it feels more natural to me to be closer. I went back and forth, preaching more in the pulpit than out, depending on how I was feeling and what kind of sermon I was giving. Nobody complained except those who thought they could hear me better from the pulpit—except I use the same microphone wherever I stand.

Of course I was on sabbatical this past summer, but in previous summers I usually did away with the robe. Black polyester, an un-air-conditioned sanctuary, and a middle aged woman are not a good combination! Those of you who attend church in the summer grew accustomed to seeing me preach in regular clothes during July and August.

But this fall, I combined those last two changes. I started preaching exclusively from the center, and I stopped wearing my robe except on communion Sundays. I underestimated how much that would matter to some of you! Several of you have been bothered by these changes, and I think it’s partly because of the changes and partly because you didn’t know why I was making them. So this morning I want to talk about why.

This summer I read a book that helped me name what I’ve been feeling recently. I asked some of our leaders to read the book also, and now over 25 members of the congregation have read it. It’s called Vital Vintage Church. The author is a UCC minister who once pastored the largest church in our denomination, now pastors a smaller church he has turned around, and serves as a consultant with churches around the country. His book is to help churches like ours—progressive churches in traditional buildings with aging membership—to consider what we need to do to still be thriving in thirty years.

I don’t agree with everything he says, but he has some really good points. This book, combined with some other books I read and other experiences I had this summer, have led me to look at some changes I think we need to consider.

The first and overarching need is for us to look at our mindset. Most of us in U.S. culture tend to think of church as a commodity, and members as consumers. We choose a church based on what meets our needs, and there is nothing wrong with that. We should attend a church that meets our needs. But when we start thinking the church should meet only our needs, we’re getting too consumer-focused. The author of the book I mentioned talks about our need to move from being guests, where everything is about us, to being hosts, where we focus on what others need. The people we’re trying to attract to our church—what do they need? What do they need in terms of childcare? What do they want in worship? How do they want to be involved? The author says that in worship, there should be something for everyone, but not everything for anyone. Let me say that again. There should be something for everyone, but not everything for anyone. So worship should contain elements that you like, that minister to you, that feel comfortable to you, AND worship should contain elements you don’t like . . . because that thing you don’t like is exactly what somebody else needs in order to feel at home.

This summer I had the opportunity to worship in lots of different churches, and I got a good taste of worship from different perspectives. So when I came back, in addition to asking Council members to read the book, I also invited Stan Jordan to my office. Not that Stan needs an invitation, nor does anyone else! But I set up a meeting with him because about once a year Stan comes and asks me, “What are we going to do to build this church? Why are the big churches bringing in the multitudes and we’re not? How are we going to survive when the old folks die off?” I knew that Stan shared my concerns and my passion so I asked him to gather a few folks and visit some other churches in town, so that he and others could experience what I did this summer, and so they could see what lessons we could learn. Well, Stan went beyond my expectations. He pulled together a team of a dozen people who visited 7 churches around here during September and October. He gave the visitors a multi-page questionnaire to complete about each visit, and then we met to discuss what they saw—and more importantly, what they saw that could work here. None of us want to do away with the choir, get a praise band with electric guitars and a drum set, or install colored lights and a smoke machine. Nobody wants that here, so you can relax!

But what we did see in thriving churches was energy and a less-formal style of worship. We saw energetic worship and sermons that sent people out to make a difference. We saw a focus on welcoming guests. Although we did hear some praise and worship type of choruses that were trite and redundant, we also heard some contemporary hymns that were nice tunes, easy to learn, yet with strong meaning—what one couple called “theological integrity.”

This group of people made some recommendations for things we need to do in our church to catch up with the times a little bit. They have suggestions about how we welcome visitors, how we follow up with newcomers, how we can make our building friendlier, and how we can enliven worship. Today we’re talking about worship.

We are blessed here with an amazing Minister of Music. Shirley is so gifted, and almost every week we get to hear three fabulous pieces of music on the organ—the prelude, the offertory, and the postlude. But now we’re starting to ask questions: what if someone doesn’t like the organ? The person who does like the organ gets three pieces, but the person who doesn’t like the organ doesn’t get any. What would it be like if one of those songs was on piano? Or guitar? Or sung by one of our teenagers? How would it feel if we got some of our members who play the guitar to play along with some new hymns? How would it feel to add some new hymns? I’m not talking every song. We currently sing three hymns and two prayer responses every week. Surely one or two of those could be new without causing too much resistance, right? None of what we’re suggesting is completely new—we have done all of these things occasionally. We just want to be more intentional about it, and do it more often.

When these worship suggestions were shared with Shirley, she didn’t resist. She didn’t ask why. She asked how. How can we make this happen? How can we get church members to step forward to share their gifts? If we need to hire people, how do we find them and how do we pay for it?

For me the question is, how do we make the changes we need to make so that we’re still a thriving church in thirty years? I know change is hard. I know it’s uncomfortable. I know because I’m doing it right now—with where I preach from, and what I wear.

As I already said, preaching from the center allows me to open up the space between us, so that I don’t feel like there is this barrier between us, or like I’m put on a pedestal. But standing out here also feels more vulnerable. I can hide behind a pulpit, and sometimes have. The robe actually does the same thing. It sets clergy apart, and in some ways that is very appropriate. We do have a unique calling, and, ministers must embrace that calling. Sometimes the symbol of that calling is important—like, for example, when serving communion or performing a baptism. The sacraments of the church seem to call for at least a stole, and often a robe. But preaching is different, and it is especially different for younger generations.

Now, I’m going to make some huge stereotypes here, but in general, younger people don’t care for as much formality. Folks of older generations wanted their clergy to be set apart. They wanted the expert in the academic robe to interpret scripture for them. Younger folks don’t want an expert in the pulpit. They want a real person, someone they can relate to, someone who shares their struggles. Again, I acknowledge that I’m speaking in generalities here, and you may be the exception. But the theory is valid. So I stopped wearing a robe because I don’t want you to see me as a real person, not just a role. And I want to bring down the formality a notch.

This has not been a comfortable change for me. I would much rather wear the robe all the time. Now I have to worry more about what I wear, and whether it will work well for sitting on the steps with the children. Plus, battery packs were made for men’s clothes, so that’s always a challenge. But I want to make this change because I think it’s helpful to go along with these other new directions, and because I want to demonstrate my willingness to be uncomfortable in worship if it’s helpful to somebody else. I will wear the robe on communion Sundays or when I perform a baptism, and I will still occasionally preach from the pulpit. But more often, I will preach from the center, and without the robe. And I will help us learn some new songs.

Our scripture for today talks about singing to the Lord a new song. We need to learn to sing new songs, both literally and metaphorically. But that doesn’t mean we forget the old ones. Carol Zechman said recently, “I love the old hymns. I need to sing them because I remember singing them growing up, standing next to my mother.” I know the feeling. My favorite hymn for many years was It Is Well with My Soul. When we get to the chorus, when the sopranos sing the line and the other parts sing it back, my voice rings out and my heart soars. That first verse and chorus are powerful to me. But I really dislike the theology of the second verse! I need more than the old. I need the new, as well.

So let’s take a closer look at that psalm about singing a new song, and the history behind it.

“In the Ancient Near East, people gained protection, livelihood, prosperity, and justice by giving allegiance to the king who ruled over a particular district. Being subject to the ruler guaranteed safety and way of life. If you traveled outside your own district, you were immediately at the mercy of a different ruler…. Such was life for the people of Old Testament times.”[1]

It’s no wonder, then, that “When the Israelites left Egypt under the leadership of Moses and settled in the Promised Land, one of the first issues that surfaced was that of leadership. The book [of Judges] closes with the words, ‘In that day, there was no king in Israel; everyone did what was right in their own eyes’ (Judges 21:25).

“In 1 Samuel 8, the people come to Samuel and demand, ‘Appoint for us a king to govern us, like other nations’ (verse 5). When Samuel prayed to God, God answered with these words: ‘Listen to the voice of the people in all that they say to you; for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them’ (verse 7). Samuel anointed Saul and then David, and we read in the book of Kings about the reigns of the kings of the Davidic dynasty. They were a rather mixed bag of the good and the bad.

“When the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem and took the Hebrew people captive, such a protected and guaranteed life disappeared. Israel no longer had their own king — their own protector. They were subjects of a foreign king. And even when they were allowed to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the temple under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, they were still subjects of foreign rulers — the Persians, the Greeks, and then the Romans. Try to imagine the fear, the questions, the searching. Who would protect the Hebrew people, guarantee their livelihood and survival as individuals and as a people, and who would administer justice?”[2]

This is the setting for this psalm. But this psalm is what’s called an Enthronement Psalm, a psalm that celebrates the reign of God over all creation. How is this possible? The people are exiled in Babylon. The Davidic kingship is no more. They did not know how to maintain their identity as the people of Yahweh. How could they sing about God reigning over all creation? “How does God — the God of the heavens and the earth — reign in the midst of this messiness called the present reality? The answer is what some scholars describe as a ‘democratization’ of kingship, when the people of God join together to bring about the reign of God on the earth — what Jesus continually referred to as ‘the kingdom of God.’

“Each person must consciously strive to be fully human, human in the way that God created them to be — in rightness and faithfulness to the human community. Each person much strive to create a world in which all are cared for, provided for, lifted up, satisfied, and have an opportunity to be all that God created them to be. And how does the kingdom of God come about? By each of us who acknowledge God as sovereign in our lives becoming the arms and legs and voice and conscience of God in our world…the embodiment of the kingdom of God.”[3]

So to summarize, the people asked for a king, someone to protect them and lead them, and God new it was because they did not trust God to fulfill that role. So God gave them a king, and then another, and then a couple more. But when they lost those kings, God went back to God’s original plan: “I will be your leader. I will guide and protect you. But since I’m not there physically, you have to join me. You have to be part of the kingdom of God, to join with others to bring about the world that I envision.”

This is the new song the people are being called to sing. It’s not new words to a familiar tune. it’s not even a new tune. It’s a new era of history. The people “are not called to sing a new tune, but to sing of a new time.”[4] A time when we democratize the kingdom of God.

The world needs us to sing this new song. The world needs us to accept God’s vision of love and mercy. The world needs us to enact that vision, to work for it, to march for it, to speak up for it. To sing it into being.

What does this new world have to do with changes in worship? Well, if we can embrace God’s call to change the world, surely we can embrace a vision that welcomes more people into this space, to find what we have found. If we’re the ones who can bring God’s kingdom into existence, then adding a few more instruments to worship should be a piece of cake! If we can preach about the reign of God in the midst of the messiness of our present reality, then surely we can sing a new song.

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1170

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-4c/

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