Delivered at Ames UCC on September 3, 2017
©The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
Sermons are written to be heard rather than read.
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Our church spent this Sunday almost entirely in song, and old classics at that: “This is My Father’s World,” “Spirit, Spirit of Gentleness,” “Just a Closer Walk with Thee,” “When Peace, Like a River (It is Well with My Soul),” “This Little Light of Mine,” “Lift High the Cross,” “I Love To Tell The Story,” “How Great Thou Art,” and “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms.” It was an opportunity to remember who we have been and see who we are still becoming.
Some of you know that I grew up in two churches. There was my family’s Lutheran church plus the church that was the Episcopal school I attended from 3rd through 12th grade.
At that school, I attended chapel services once a week. The chapel is a beautiful space, one of those 60s-built blonde wood designs with loads of light and space. I remember not being impressed when the chapel’s congregation—because there was one separate from the school—installed stations of the cross on the wall. I thought it was too cluttered. There is an altar, rather than a Communion table, so when we received Communion we did so at a railing, on our knees. The same was true at my home church.
In that chapel we celebrated the start of school and the end of school. We had a rowdy Christmas tradition of singing the twelve days with each grade doing their corresponding verse. Seniors partnered with first graders to help them be loud. We also mourned there when several of our classmates and a teacher died in an accident. But mostly I think that we fidgeted there. We would flip through the books of worship and giggle as we read the marriage vows to each other.
I also remember a period of time when we had a music instructor, John Hoffacker, who is now a choral director in Minnesota.
LIFT HIGH THE CROSS
Mr. Hoffacker had us meet in the chapel for several weeks, at least, to learn the hymn we just sang, “Lift High the Cross.” I don’t remember the occasion—maybe a bishop visit?
But I do remember how he taught us the hymn: First, we just sang it in classic mainline white Protestant teenager style. Commonly known as monotone: “lifthighthecrosstheloveofchristproclaim.” Then he hollered at us for sounding like a bunch of White mainline Protestant teenagers, telling us to belt it out. So, compliantly, we screamed it: “LIFT HIGH THE CROSS, THE LOVE OF CHRIST PROCLAIM.” We all thought we were hilarious.
But in the end, after practicing and studying the words, were able to sing it with meaning. And any time that memory surfaces, I am filled with love for my school and love for the God who inspires such resounding joy.
So why haven’t I ever picked this hymn for worship now that I have that ability? Why do we ever sing new songs or songs from different traditions when there are already hymns that we know in our bones and can sing together so well? Because song is part of our dialogue with God and a dialogue repeated is one that risks death rather than new life.
Last week, in the midst of the chaos of Harvey, a group of Christians, many of whom struggled earlier in the summer to reject their denomination’s historic racism, released a statement of hatred against people who are queer.
My initial reaction was to roll my eyes: It is 2017, people. Are we really still there? Do we not know enough about biology know to put this question to rest? Are LGBTQIA people really such a threat to you that you had to spend all this time making a statement? How small a faith do you have that you need spend your energy policing the doors of the church rather than flinging them wide? Is there really no room for learning and discernment in your faith?
Learning and discernment are at the core of our denomination’s identity. We constantly (maybe exhaustingly) engaging the stillspeaking God, to hear what we have not yet heard, to unlearn what we must, and to share that good news.
The outcomes of that process have included our formal repentance for our colonialist past; our transformation of mission work from brute conversion to respectful, supportive partnership; and the lifting up of marginalized people into places of leadership, including the pulpit.
And as we have done that, through our Congregational and Evangelical and Reform forbears, and over the 60 years as the United Church of Christ, we have found a need to sing a new song.
The faith that the man, murder, and mystery invites us to leap into with our whole lives is dynamic. It talks to whirlwinds and wrestles with angels. It touches the leprous and eats with the loathsome. As a result, we are required to wrestle and reach out, ourselves. And like Sarah, Abraham, and Jacob, who all received new names after encountering God, we will be changed. So, too, will our church and our worship. The triumphalism of a hymn like “Lift High the Cross” now feels too contrary to the boundary-shattering peace found at the table of God to sing very often.
But I sure loved singing it with you today. I love the memories it has brought back and the opportunity to reflect on my spiritual journey and that of our church.
I hope that as we have sung and will continue to sing today, you find yourself meeting old friends and family in memory. I hope that you feel in your diaphragm and your vocal chords and your abdominals, God’s lifelong presence in your very being. And I hope that you feel renewed in your commitment to keep listening, keep responding, keep acting on the next new thing God calls us to do.
Because if the week’s nonsense in Nashville tells us anything, it is that there are still a whole lot of people who need to hear the good news that that we need not be conformed to the world or her lethal traditions, but we can be set free, transformed again and again, through God in Jesus Christ.