We sing together.

The church is one of the only places in our culture today where people of all ages, backgrounds, and abilities gather together for one hour on Sunday mornings and sing as a group. Throughout the rest of the week, we mostly listen to soloists singing songs that highlight their skill as individuals, whether it’s pop, country, rock, even contemporary Christian radio, or we watch soloists compete on shows like The Voice; even if we go out to listen to live music, it’s all lead-singer driven.

This increasing cultural focus on the solo singer, and the pursuit of flashy, individual talent and show-offy singing to the exclusion of all else (e.g. the national anthem at ball games), is tragic inasmuch as it marks the demise of group song. Singing with a group is one of the most profoundly unifying activities in which we can engage. Singing together unified and empowered the Civil Rights Movement of the last century. Singing carols brought together the two sides of the Western Front during the cease-fire on Christmas Day in 1914. And lifting our voices together in worship unites the church in the same way: it is an essential practice that strengthens the community of the church in a way nothing else can, which is why from its very beginning, the church has sung together.

When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. (Mark 14:26)

John Wesley, like the other hymnists of the Great Awakening, realized the power of a singing church; from the beginning, the people called Methodists were known as “a singing people.” In his 1761 hymnal Select Hymns, Wesley included “Directions for Singing” to encourage congregational song, and these can still be found in the front of our hymnal today.Read More »

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Whatever I do, wherever I be…

You can find today’s hymn at #128 in our 1989 Methodist hymnal. It’s a crowd-pleaser, and it’s one of my personal favorites (I know, I know, I say that about all the hymns…)

He leadeth me: O blessed thought!
O words with heavenly comfort fraught!
Whate’er I do, where’er I be,
still ’tis God’s hand that leadeth me.

He leadeth me, he leadeth me,
by his own hand he leadeth me;
his faithful follower I would be,
for by his hand he leadeth me.

Dr. Joseph H. Gilmore gave this account of the inspiration for his famous hymn:

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“The shadow proves the sunshine.” –Switchfoot

This week’s scripture comes from Luke 13:1-9, and causes us to ask, who are we really? Is there a difference between our public persona and our private life? Does who we think we are match up with what we actually do?

Some who were present on that occasion told Jesus about the Galileans whom Pilate had killed while they were offering sacrifices. He replied, “Do you think the suffering of these Galileans proves that they were more sinful than all the other Galileans? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did. What about those eighteen people who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them? Do you think that they were more guilty of wrongdoing than everyone else who lives in Jerusalem? No, I tell you, but unless you change your hearts and lives, you will die just as they did.”

Jesus told this parable: “A man owned a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for fruit on it and found none. He said to his gardener, ‘Look, I’ve come looking for fruit on this fig tree for the past three years, and I’ve never found any. Cut it down! Why should it continue depleting the soil’s nutrients?’ The gardener responded, ‘Lord, give it one more year, and I will dig around it and give it fertilizer. Maybe it will produce fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down.’”

In this passage, Jesus preaches the hard call to repentance and obedience, and then tells a parable that says it isn’t too late. This is the Christian experience lived in the beautiful tension of both/and. We are simultaneously sinner and saint. We need the law that tells us the truth about our sinfulness and the gospel that tells us we are a new creation in Christ, freed and forgiven by God’s grace.

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“Comfort ye my people, saith your God.” –Handel’s Messiah; Isaiah 40:1

This Sunday’s sermon focus is all about fear. The scripture of the day comes from Luke 13:31-35:

At that very hour some Pharisees came and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” He said to them, “Go and tell that fox for me, ‘Listen, I am casting out demons and performing cures today and tomorrow, and on the third day I finish my work. Yet today, tomorrow, and the next day I must be on my way, because it is impossible for a prophet to be killed outside of Jerusalem.’ Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you. And I tell you, you will not see me until the time comes when you say, ‘Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.’”

In Sunday’s sermon, we’ll be asking ourselves: where are we afraid? What are the fears that inch their ways into our lives? Not things like heights, or the dark, but the things that we let have power over how we live our lives– fear of rejection, the loss of influence, health, prestige, etc.

In one of the images in this Sunday’s scripture, Jesus laments that the children of Israel won’t let him gather them under his wing, to comfort and protect them as does a mother hen. We are not so different today: why do we so often cling to our fears rather than run to the comfort and safety of Jesus?

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The Temptations—or is it “Just My Imagination”?

How fun is it to sing along to “My Girl”? We all have those songs that when they come on the radio we can’t help but roll down the windows, crank up the volume, and jam out; and I have to admit, The Temptations’ hits definitely make that list for me 🙂

This Sunday’s scripture is Luke 4:1-13, all about the temptation of Jesus:

Jesus returned from the Jordan River full of the Holy Spirit, and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness. There he was tempted for forty days by the devil. He ate nothing during those days and afterward Jesus was starving. The devil said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.”

Jesus replied, “It’s written, People won’t live only by bread.”

Next the devil led him to a high place and showed him in a single instant all the kingdoms of the world. The devil said, “I will give you this whole domain and the glory of all these kingdoms. It’s been entrusted to me and I can give it to anyone I want. Therefore, if you will worship me, it will all be yours.”

Jesus answered, “It’s written, You will worship the Lord your God and serve only him.”

The devil brought him into Jerusalem and stood him at the highest point of the temple. He said to him, “Since you are God’s Son, throw yourself down from here; for it’s written: He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you and they will take you up in their hands so that you won’t hit your foot on a stone.”

Jesus answered, “It’s been said, Don’t test the Lord your God.” After finishing every temptation, the devil departed from him until the next opportunity.

As we study this scripture passage this week, this Sunday’s sermon focus will be centered around the exploration of our personal temptation points. What are our priorities? Where do we spend our resources, our time– what demands our allegiance: pride, self-worth, envy, ambition?

I don’t know if we usually consider music as having much to do with temptation. Maybe it’s because it’s not tangible: we can be tempted by a jelly donut, and if we give in, eventually we won’t fit into our jeans. But if we’re tempted by music that glorifies things we know aren’t in line with our faith, can we see the consequences in the same way? A steady diet of that won’t make our jeans fit differently… but it might make our faith fit a bit differently.

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What does “burying the alleluia” mean?

On this Ash Wednesday, I wanted to talk about the practice of some churches of “burying the alleluia” during the season of Lent. Since Middletown UMC doesn’t practice this, it may be a tradition with which some of us are less familiar. Essentially, when a church “buries” or “hides” the Alleluia, they avoid using the word in their music and their liturgy during the Lenten season. And it starts to make some sense if we ask ourselves the question: Should our praise and prayer be the same during Lent and on the Sundays of Lent as they are in the rest of the year?

I think the answer is, well, yes and no. Lent is a season of reflection and abstention, but it does not mean we need to morosely plod along for six weeks as if we were at a funeral. In fact, the Sundays in Lent are not counted in the forty days of Easter; rather, they are considered “Little Easters” within the season. That’s why the Sundays during Lent are named as “Sundays IN Lent” rather than “Sundays OF Lent.”

And yet, altering our Sunday worship practice during this season can enrich and shape our prayer and our sense of discipline as we anticipate Easter Sunday. Abstaining from Alleluia is a kind of fasting from “ecstasy” and ecstatic praise, letting the word lie dormant for six weeks before we again burst out in joyful and ecstatic affirmation of the Resurrection. When we retire something familiar, recovering its use has a way of making it “new” for us. It has a way of giving emphasis to what precedes and follows it. Taking a rest from something gives shape and rhythm to life, to worship, to relationships – even to our relationship with God.

Unlike some denominations, our United Methodist worship resources do not call for this practice, and do not offer directions for doing so. However, there is a long tradition within more formal liturgical United Methodist congregations for suspending the use of Alleluia from either the Last Sunday after Epiphany or Shrove Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday) until the first service of Easter. Some churches dig a hole in the ground and make the burying literal; others get children involved in the process, having them yell “Alleluia” and closing a box where it is trapped within, and bringing that box back out on Easter morning to release the Alleluia.

MUMC, like many other churches, will not officially “bury” the alleluia during the Lenten season this year. But whether or not a church observes this practice, what’s ultimately important is our reflection on that earlier question: how should our prayer and praise change during Lent, to reflect the changes we are making in our hearts as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter?

(Some of the background of UMC practices was found on umcdiscipleship.org.)