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St. Paul’s Congregational Church

June 16, 2017 (Trinity Sunday – Church Music Sunday)

John 16:12-15; Romans 5: 1-5; “Acts of Love”

The Rev. Cynthia F. Reynolds

Let us pray: may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

So, this is Trinity Sunday – it always falls on the Sunday after Pentecost – it’s not one of the most well known of the feast days of the church year. I’d guess that most of us don’t give much thought to the doctrine of the Trinity – we sing the doxology each week – Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. We sing the Gloria Patri most weeks too – Glory be to the Father, and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost – and almost always on this day we sing the beloved old hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty”.

If we try to really understand this doctrine, it can turn us into mush – like it did back in my Systematic Theology classes – like it always does in Confirmation Classes – but I always hold onto something my professor in seminary said. At the end of the class, he’d take off his glasses, lean over the podium, and say, “This is all very important to your education – for hundreds of years people have struggled with this doctrine. And it’s important for you to struggle too. But. At the end of the day, it’s all a mystery. We don’t know. We can study early writings, make statements, but we can’t know.

That’s the nature of mystery, isn’t it – a sense of wonder. Wonder expressed through praise. See, it’s in our hearts that we really know anything. Not in our heads. Wonder grows in our hearts, not in our heads.

So today on Trinity Sunday, let’s experience the mystery of God, the fact of God, the wonder of God – let’s focus on the sacred itself. And know that the Trinity was originally formulated to give words to the faith. To give expression of our experience of God: what God has done among us, what God is doing now, and what God promises will be accomplished.

Today we celebrate Choir Recognition Sunday, a day when we give thanks to God for our Music Ministry - the ministry of our Choir. It’s a ministry that requires many hours, much commitment from each participant – rehearsals every week, arriving here early on Sunday morning to warm up and rehearse again, as they lead us in worship on Sundays – all to the glory of God as this dedicated group leads us in our liturgy. Thank you all for your presence among us!

Music touches us on a level that’s hard to put into words, doesn’t it. And maybe it’s through music where we get a glimpse into the mystery. I’ve always believed that the great festivals of Christmas and Easter are best celebrated through music – words alone just don’t touch the mystery of these awesome and mysterious stories of our faith.

There are so many examples in our Bible stories – Mary sang “my soul magnifies the Lord”, when the angels announced to the shepherds the birth of the child Jesus, a heavenly chorus joined in the news; when the crowds met Jesus as he entered Jerusalem they sang an ancient psalm of Hosanna; on the last night of his life after they had shared the meal with his disciples, they all sang a hymn and went out to Gethsemane. And earlier still, the book of Psalms was the songbook of the Hebrew people. Our tradition here of singing the Psalms is special - we hear their words in a deeper, profound way when they’re sung, I think.

There are examples today as well of music touching us deep in our soul, indeed right here at St. Paul’s: I’ll never forget, indeed still get goosebumps, as I remember the anthem following Freeman Palmer’s stirring sermon last month when the choir sang “How Great Thou Art” – we all knew something special was happening then – the Spirit was crashing through our worship. It was breathtaking – and brought tears to my eyes as well as to others here. Those tears are sacred water: an expression of being touched by the mystery of God.

And when we sang “Here I Am, Lord” on Confirmation Sunday – same thing happened then – that song touches our hearts in ways words do not. How many of us have been stirred by the prelude, the postlude in our service? Music can bring us into the presence of God in ways words just can’t.

Our worship is a package – I know Iah and I hope each week that something in the service will touch you and bring you closer to God – for that’s the sole purpose of worship – to help each of us have an encounter with the living God. And I know some are distracted when we sing an unfamiliar hymn, but please pay attention to the words – hopefully you’ll see why we picked that particular hymn.

Worship is about God alone – but it’s not a spectator sport – it’s up to each of us to engage in the worship experience – whether touched by word or song, prayer or scripture, something in the children’s moment, by strains of music or by silence. What engages you in worship? What lifts you out of your everyday into the presence of the divine?

Worship is a dialogue with God and those around us. All that we do in worship is known as “liturgy”. Literally this means the work of the people.” We are all in this experience together - a community of individuals who play different roles as we actively participate in worship together. We’re all called to active participation in worship.

When have you felt that you truly worshipped? Felt the breathtaking awesomeness of God’s presence that brought you maybe to tears, or at the very least to humble praise and thanksgiving?

When a group from Glen Ridge returned from a mission trip to South Africa they spoke over and over again of their worship experiences there – in two different small churches where they didn’t know the spoken language. But that didn’t matter – the music, the dancing during worship was the common language and they knew they were in the midst of God’s presence – that’s what made their worship alive and so meaningful.

Then there was the time I was invited to preach at the Bethel Church of Love and Praise in Bloomfield – when I asked how long the sermon slot usually was, they told me, about 45 minutes. I don’t know many other churches with that expectation for sure – but it was awesome! When the two hour service was over, there was no question that we’d had a profound worship experience. Lots of music, lots of singing – I was at the same time exhausted and energized and I knew all of us gathered had been in the presence of God through that community.

Remember when the Souls of Integrity Choir was here? Our worship experience was different, wasn’t it. There’s a profound shared energy in worship with these folks – a deep sense of joy and gratitude in being alive in God’s presence. Their excitement is contagious, isn’t it, and my experience says that the excitement builds on itself, enabling all of us to have a better experience of connecting to God and to each other.

Music touches our feelings, sets a mood in our worship: think about how you feel when we sing, “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord”. Compare that experience to how we feel when we sing “Joy to the World.” Who among us isn’t stirred by the candlelight singing of “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve? And on Easter Sunday when we sing out, “Jesus Christ is Risen Today?”

What happens when we walk in the doors of this place? I’ve heard people call it a safe place – we don’t call this room a sanctuary lightly, do we. Does it feel different when we walk in? Do we feel the sacred, safe place? Of course we bring our joys and concerns, celebrations and worries with us – and isn’t this the time to offer them to God? What we do during the week doesn’t matter for this time of worship and it doesn’t matter what we’re going to do after this time of worship - what matters is that we bring our full selves into the presence of God. Every part of our liturgy is designed to help us make that connection with God, to come into God’s presence, all to God’s glory.

Back to your experience of a time when you truly felt in the presence of God in your worship – what did the examples I used have in common? Music. It was the music that engaged members of our congregation in South Africa – all of them spoke of it with a sense of awe. It was music of joy, of celebration, of praise to God. It was the music at Bethel Love that pulled us all into the presence of God, opening us in ways to worship we hadn’t imagined. It was the music of the Souls of Integrity that touches us in profound ways. And all the traditional holiday hymns bring us into our faith stories in wonderful ways.

Talitha Arnold writes in her book, Worship for Vital Congregations, “In ways not even science can explain, music connects with the deepest part of our souls. Its rhythm and rhymes are often the earliest things we can remember – which is why preschoolers memorize their ABCs in song and advertisers come up with catchy jingles. Music is often the last thing we forget.”

I’ve visited people in nursing homes who can’t remember her name or the names of their children but still know “Silent Night” by heart. When I lead worship at Crane’s Mills in Caldwell, we sing at least 4 hymns – old, familiar ones mostly – every person participates – even when they may appear to be unaware of their surroundings or seeming to be sleeping through the worship service.

Talitha continues, “Music can take us out of our everyday lives of paying bills, earning a living, chauffeuring kids, and immerse us in a universe of the eternal. Not only does it express our praise and longing for God, but it gives us an experience of God’s divine beauty.” And I’d add, it gives us an experience of the mystery of God.

Today we celebrate those who lead us in our music ministry and the profound gifts they bring; but we in the congregation aren’t off the hook. The act of singing binds us together, makes us one – points us toward the presence of God. We’re a congregation on a faith journey – we need each other – and when we come together and sing, we are one: we share an experience, we become so much more together than when we are alone. That means all of us are called to participate in the singing of the hymns, the responses.

Maybe some of us can barely carry a tune in a bucket so we’re reluctant to sing out: but, you know, that really doesn’t matter to God. Maybe it’s because we are so used to being audience – but think about what happens, how you feel, when you’re at a concert and the artist encourages you to sing along! What an awesome sound everyone makes! And what joy that brings, what a sense of community that brings! And isn’t that what worship is all about – being together in community praising God for all our blessings. Let’s remember that praising God, worshipping God, doesn’t have to be in tune. So sing out to the glory of God! It’s God who is the subject and object of our worship – we praise God by singing to the best of our ability.

Our inward journeys are not enough. Our lives are tangled up with everyone else’s in ways beyond our knowing. So as with our singing, as in all practices of faith, we need one another. Only then, can we sing praise to our God with one voice. Let’s make a joyful noise – together. And maybe, just maybe, that’s a partial answer to Jesus’ prayer that we may all be one and know his glory as we enter the mystery together. Thank you, choir, for leading us in music, and for showing us the way! God bless you now and always. Amen.

Let us pray: