This is the sermon I preached today at Putney Methodist Church. Today, we were thinking especially about the music we sing and exploring some of the newer hymns in our latest hymn book, Singing the Faith. The Bible texts was Luke 5:1-11, the call of the first disciples.
Christians have been singing about their faith since the earliest days of the Church. The first disciples continued the tradition of psalm singing and it quickly became part of all Christian worship. We know that the earliest churches also sang other hymns, several of which seemed to have been preserved in Biblical texts like Philippians 2 (2:1-11), although sadly without the music. The writer of Ephesians, hopes that his readers will:
be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts (Eph. 5:19)
In the subsequent 2,000 years of Christian history, church music has gradually changed and developed in an incredible variety of ways, as Christianity itself has spread across the globe. Chant, plainsong, polyphony and countless other ways of praising God were found.
In our corner of the world, the biggest change perhaps came at the Reformation, where hymns began to look much more like those we would recognise today, with a musical note being allocated to each word or syllable. In turn, that tradition came to be developed by the great hymn writers of the 17th and 18th Century. People like Isaac Watts (the author of ‘When I survey the wondrous cross’, ‘O God our help in ages past’, and many others greta hymns). Allegedly, he complained about the dullness of some psalm singing and was told to write something better, if he was so unhappy – and he promptly did! Along with people like John Newton, Charles Wesley (of course) and many others, he wrote hymns that explored every aspect of faith and human life. They often used vernacular language and made direct appeals to the singers’ emotions and senses. Their hymns bore witness to the incredible power of music to inspire and encourage people. Many were very controversial in their time, and even considered rather vulgar and sentimental. My favourite example is perhaps Charles Wesley’s hymn ‘Jesu, lover of my soul, let me to thy bosom fly‘, which his brother, Jesus, thought far too risqué (because of the offending word ‘bosom’) and refused to publish!
Amazing as it seems, though, the history of hymnody did not end with Charles Wesley! The following 200 years have seen an enormous flourishing of hymn writing, covering every conceivable subject and area of human life. There is far too much to talk about here but two of the most encouraging trends have been the growth in the number of published female writers, and the greater appreciation of hymns from around the world and from different Christian traditions. (One of our most popular hymns ‘I the Lord of sea and sky’ in fact comes from an American, Catholic writer, Dan Schutte.)
Sadly, although perhaps inevitably, none of these changes and developments in the life of our church music have been without controversy. Thomas Hardy’s beautiful novel Under the Greenwood Tree, reminds us that change is always hard and usually unpopular: the new vicar earns the ire of many in his congregation by the introduction of a new-fangled pipe organ!
However, although I have no evidence whatsoever to support this claim, the last 50 years or so of Christian music have arguably been some of the most controversial.
Growing up in church, the music we sing together has probably given rise to more arguments than any other subject of which I can think. (With the possible exception of pews!) Nearly every congregation in the last few decades has seen real tension between different traditions: choruses versus hymns; old versus new; worship bands versus organs. The conflict has led to stereotyping and caricature on both sides, with some claiming that, “All choruses are boring and repetitive.”, while others opine that, “All hymns are boring and fuddy-duddy”. I know of churches with delicately worked-out compromises and, sadly, congregations where all-out war has broken out, and members have felt that they have no option but to leave.
The reasons behind this are numerous and multifarious. Inevitably, musical taste and preference play a part, as do the quality and style of what is being offered. In part, though, the differences bring us back to our gospel reading this morning and the challenge of embracing the new, and leaving behind what is comforting. We have all heard many sermons on this passage, emphasising the enormity of what Peter and the first disciples did that day: “they left everything and followed him” (Luke 5:11). Today, though, it is also worth noting two other aspects of the story.
First, Jesus managed to keep all twelve apostles in the same boat! They clearly were very disparate personalties, from a range of backgrounds. It included not only people like Peter and Andrew, but also Matthew, a hated tax collector, and Simon the Zealot, who may well have been associated with a quasi-terrorist organisation. Somehow, they recognised that what united them in Jesus was worth setting aside their many differences and divisions.
Second, while they embraced a new life in Christ, they took the very best of their old tradition with them: their belief in the one true God; their knowledge of his great works in creation and throughout history; and, not least, their wonderful tradition of psalm-singing.
Wonderfully, I believe that our newest hymn book Singing the Faith (from which nearly all our hymns come today) attempts to do the same. Finally published in 2011, the book’s compilers and editors had an horrendous job, trying to preserve the best of the old, while also introducing some wonderful new material to Methodist congregations. Crucially, they tried to keep us all in the same boat, singing from the same book. While many will bemoan the loss of old favourites, there is undoubtedly something here for everyone, if we are willing to engage with it.
As we look at the state of our nation, and the world around, I feel there is so much we could learn from the attitude of those disciples, and the example of this hymn book. We are all only too well aware that we are increasingly only singing from our own hymn book these days. With Brexit, attitudes to immigration, and many other issues, there seems to be no mood for compromise or a common meeting place. Instead, we are occupied by hurling insults at each other about our choices and, perhaps even more worryingly, arguing that different styles and choices cannot even co-exist anymore. It is perhaps the greatest challenge facing our nation and planet at this time: how do we live with difference? How do we keep everyone in same boat, singing from the same book?
If we are to succeed, then we will need to learn some lessons from Jesus and those first disciples. We will need to acknowledge that we do not possess all truth, and reject arrogance and pride. Think of Peter, believing that he knew far more about fishing than Jesus ever could (“we have worked all night long but have caught nothing”! – Luke 5:5). Only by recognising that he did not have a monopoly on the truth, could he begin to grasp the infinite horizons Jesus was opening up for him. In the same way, generations of Christians have had to learn that the Spirit never stops inspiring new outbursts of creativity in our music. And in the same way, we must recognise that God has new truths to reveal to us each day about God and our world.
Like the disciples, we must also move beyond the kind of prejudice that closed so many minds to Jesus. Think of Nathaniel’s shocked response to the idea that Jesus could be the Messiah: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46). How much church music has been similarly condemned out of hand because it came from the wrong tradition, the wrong singer or the wrong instrument? Actually, we have some wonderful old hymns in our hymn books, and some great new music being written every single day of the year. And we similarly have so much to learn from voices to whom we may not immediately wish to listen.
Finally, like those first disciples we too need to be brave, stepping out of the familiar to take up the way of Christ. It was not easy for them and it is not easy for us. Fear of the unknown and the different has led to such terrible violence and hatred in our world, and continues to do great harm today. We need to witness, through our hymnody and every aspect of our lives, that the words of Jesus are as true for us as they were for Simon so long ago: “Do not be afraid”.
As we sing these new songs this morning, let us bear witness to the faith of those disciples and be an example to our world. Let us show that we can come from every corner of the globe yet be united by our love for God and one another. As one of our older, and my favourite, hymns so beautifully puts it: “singing songs of expectation,
marching to the promised land.” Amen.