Songs of Faith

    May 17, 2015

    Passage: Philippians 2:5-11

    Preacher: James Hoke

    Detail:

    Philippians 2:5-11; Exodus 15:19-21

    When he realized I would be preaching for Music Appreciation Sunday, Tex suggested that I come down and choreograph my sermon…which almost made me abandon the pulpit entirely! So, he said I didn’t have to do that.

    But, then, I realized that this special Sunday gave me the opportunity to look at some different texts and think about some different themes—ones that I think are especially fitting since Tex just finished his series on our vision and values—and now, before returning to the lectionary next week for Pentecost—we can perhaps also think scripturally and theologically about music here in our church. Appropriate for Music Appreciation Sunday, we can reflect on the ways in which music has blessed and guided our lives—and our appreciation for it.

    Our scripture readings have come from songs across the Bible, and not just the obvious ones found in Psalms. The first reading, from Exodus, is Miriam’s song of praise to God after the Israelites safely crossed the Red Sea out of Egypt. She—and the women of Israel joining with her in song and rhythm—sings for joy of God’s power, of God’s work to safely bring her family home. Her song expresses emotion and it expresses what she and her community believe about God. It is, in that sense, a “song of faith,” and it is one of many in the Bible…and one of many that we hear in our lives as believers.

    So, today I want to think about “songs of faith”—hymns, broadly speaking, though not always coming from a hymnal, not always containing lyrics. They are songs that teach and remind us about what we believe, songs that express our deeply felt beliefs, our doubts, our joys and sorrows, our favorite stories. They challenge, remind, move, and comfort us. Whether it is the organ prelude, a New Horizons song, the choir’s anthem, or the congregation joining to sing a hymn: these “songs of faith” express, perform, and embody what we believe. They help us to express together—and to remember—our shared beliefs.

    I’m personally excited to get to do this on Music Appreciation Sunday because music and singing have always guided my own faith journey. Very specifically, church music here has shaped my journey: it was Laura Kosmich’s invitation to join the choir on my first Sunday here that drew me into the life of this church—and I’m so glad for it!

    But more broadly, I would not be here today if it were not for church music. Church music shaped my calling, from the early days of excitedly getting to sing in children’s choir (where every week, we each got to sing a solo of a phrase from “Doe, a Dear”), to spending a week every summer at a Worship & Music conference in Montreat, NC, where I sang with hundreds of other Presbyterian youth in chamber choir. It was there I saw the power of glorifying God through music, in a space set apart. It was in Montreat that I got drawn into conversations about what it meant to be Presbyterian and how to be a leader in the church, conversations that drew me into deeper involvement in my church and led me to feel called to go to seminary—all the while, singing proudly with my church. Like many of you too, I suspect, church music has been important to my faith journey, and I can express many of my deepest beliefs about God through songs I learned in church.

     

    And so, we return to the Bible, a place full of hymns and singing. The passage I just read from Philippians is actually a hymn: most scholars who study Paul’s letters agree that these six verses are actually older than Paul’s letter. They are an early Christian hymn. Like many writers or preachers, Paul quotes the familiar lines of a hymn in order to help make his own argument. Because his audience would have known the hymn, it helps them to understand and remember his point.

    “Who while existing in God’s form,
    He did not consider it an ill-gotten gain
    To be equal to God”

    It was important to this community that Jesus was close to God, but he didn’t use his proximity and power for his own gain, to benefit himself or a small group.

    “But he emptied himself,
    He took the form of a slave
    He was in the likeness of humans
    And he was found in shape as a human”

    Instead, this community proclaims, he trusted that God had a plan for him, and he lived humbly, he denied the benefits of his power and allowed himself to live as a human—not just any human, but one of lowest form, one who was not exalted by society.

    “He humiliated himself
    He was obedient to the point of death
    Indeed, the cross’ death”

    But he went further: he trusted that God had a plan for him, and he followed that plan, submitted to it and obeyed God, even though this meant that the state put him to death, on the cross, the punishment for slaves and foreigners who were a political threat to the state.

    “Therefore, God uber-exalted him
    Gifted him a name
    The name that is above every name
    So that in Jesus’ name
    Every knee bends
    Whether in heaven, on earth, or under the earth
    And every tongue agrees that
    Jesus Christ is Lord
    For God’s glory”

    And all of this is why this community believes in Jesus, why this community gathers together, sings this song of memory, faith, and praise. Because Jesus’ action led to his being exalted: his trust in God’s plan allowed everyone to be able see his example and trust in God’s amazing plan. Through Jesus’ example, this community learned that they could follow his humility and also come into God’s glory, live into God’s reign, create a just world.

    By singing this song, the early church in Philippi joined together and expressed their beliefs. They joined their tongues with other early churches in praising Jesus and God. And through this melody, they taught their beliefs—about God, about Jesus’ example, about their community—with each other and helped it to spread.

    This hymn is traditionally called the “Christ hymn” because it celebrates Christ’s example and Jesus’ faith that inspired early believers to follow him and spread the good news. It tells us some of the things that were important to early believers. Things they sang about: while they worshipped, before a meal, while working or walking, when they were in joy or in mourning.

    I love this passage because, in the New Testament, it is the longest and most complete hymn that we have. And it gives us so much insight into the real lives of some of the earliest communities who believed in Jesus. Furthermore: we see that they sang hymns about what they believed, they sang for joy about what was important to them, they sang so they could remember their beliefs.

    Just like us!

    Every time I read this passage, I get excited. I imagine women and men gathered together, eating together, laughing, sharing their ideas of Jesus—and most importantly, singing! Taking these ideas and putting them to music: every voice an equal part, whether they are loud or soft, high or low, in tune or out of it, they sang together about what was important to them. They passed their beliefs on to others by sharing these songs.

    This has been my experience of church, and I imagine it is the same for many of you—a place of gathering together with people who love Jesus, love community, love fellowship. People who sing their faith, who express different beliefs with different rhythms and melodies. Music is one way we share our beliefs, a way we express them together. For me, it is a way I remember that I am part of a community—a church, both here and universal—one that extends across a wide world, throughout many times and experiences. It is my memory of hymns that has taught me important lessons, helped me remember them as I’ve gone out, comforted me when I needed it…

    It was in Vacation Bible School that I learned that God had a plan for me, and that God loves all God’s children, no matter what: “Kids under construction, maybe the paint is still wet. Kids under construction, the Lord may not be finished yet.”

    It was through children’s choir that I learned and remembered biblical stories of women and men who we often forget, like Hannah in 1 Samuel, who gave her son to be God’s prophet: “Small deeds, done with great conviction…small deeds guided by the hand God.”

    Songs of faith guided me in difficult moments. When my grandfather passed suddenly while I was in seminary, it was the words of a favorite youth choir anthem that helped comfort me: “Be not afraid for I have redeemed you…you are mine, you are precious in my sight.”

    I am sure many of you also have songs of faith, just like me, just like the early Christians who sang their beliefs. Those songs that you keep coming back to in times of celebration, in difficult moments, at times when you need a comforting memory. As we celebrate our appreciation of music today, I encourage everyone to think of those songs—now and throughout the week: what is the tune? what are the words? who taught it to you? who did you sing it with? What feelings and memories does it evoke?

    “When in our music, God is glorified…”

    God inspires us in many ways, and today we celebrate the many ways music has helped to us learn about, celebrate, and glorify God. We appreciate those leaders who help us sing for joy, who teach us that the Holy Spirit moves through everyone when we sing together. We remember that “all God’s children have a place in the choir.” We give thanks today—we sing for joy—for all the songs of faith we know, and for how these songs, singers, composers, conductors, and listeners, have shaped our lives and taught us how to glorify God.

    Because: From the early church singing of Christ’s example, his humility, God’s glory—through centuries of faithful believers singing the faith—music has helped us to glorify God, to inspire belief, to teach, comfort, and rejoice—all, of course, in God’s name.

    Alleluia! Amen.