Hymns and Our Worship

The Rev. Professor Peter J. GomesThe Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes



The Reverend Professor Peter J. Gomes's sermon on Sunday, October 21, 2007 in the Memorial Church.

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be found acceptable in thy sight, oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer. Amen.

In the second lesson from St. Paul's letter to the Corinthians, you may well with good reason have wondered what is St. Paul nattering on about tongues and voices and prophecies? Some of you looked properly confused. Others looked as if you were pretending to understand. Most of you were simply being polite, another obscure lesson about something nobody knows anything about. Well, we actually do know something about this, and my job is to tell you a little bit about it this morning.

In the Corinthian church, there arose a great debate about what was the most sincere form of spiritual discourse. The debate came down to speaking in tongues, prophesying, speaking in tongues, language which no one really understood. You have seen this. Not here, I hasten to assure you. But if you have watched a lot of religious television, every once in a while you'll come on to a show where somebody who, in a religious moment, bursts into some kind of incomprehensible language. This is speaking in tongues. This is inspired speech, which presumably the Holy Ghost Himself is giving to the person. One likes to think that God might have a clue as to what is being said. Clearly, nobody else does.

The more intense and peculiar this speech is the more one appears to be infinitely touched by the Spirit. This is an old business, and it was one of the things that was dividing the worshipers in the Corinthian church. St. Paul decided, as he usually did, that he was going to make a clear statement as to what should be done here. These, after all, are letters from the chief pastor to his people. He goes on to tell them that he would rather understand what was going on, other than be impressed by the incomprehensible beauty and perhaps even intimacy of the language of some of the people.

If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, how will people know how to go into the battle? In other words, if people don't understand what is being said in church, what good is it? Why bother? I preached in a foreign language, which some of you think I still do, what point is there in my standing up here and you're sitting out there if I cannot communicate, if you cannot understand what I'm saying and I cannot say what you understand? So St. Paul is at pains to point out that in church, in communities like this, we are meant to be understood. You are to make sense of what I say, and I'm trying to say sensible things. That's the deal. That's why this big pulpit stands here.

It is meant to be a symbol, not of obscurity, but of communication of clarity. St. Paul extends it even into the musical idiom where he says in the words of our text, the 15th verse of the 14th chapter, "I will sing with the Spirit. That is, I will be inspired. But I also will sing with the understanding." I will sing because I'm moved to sing and I'm moved by the singing. But I also will sing with my mind. I want to make sense of what is going on. Words and music are meant to go together. One is not superior to the other. Both are meant to communicate with the listener. "I will sing with the Spirit and sing with the understanding also."

That text is very precious to me because my mother was a choir director, and I was brought up listening to her trying to make musical silk purses out of very unmusical sows' ears in our little church. This was one of her favorite verses, "I will sing with the Spirit." She wanted them to be inspired, but they needed to be inspired with the right notes and the right words, because she wanted them to sing also with the understanding. So all of that is to frame this very busy morning in the life of Memorial Church. We have done one of the two things we are going to do today. The first was to affirm these young people in the Christian faith who are busily reading their Bibles as I speak. This is very good.

This is what I told them to do. There are other things they could be reading, but they are reading these Bibles, and they should. They're very expensive, and they're very good. So carry on. Keep reading. We affirm them in the Christian faith. We brought to a point this morning years of prayers, years of preparation. It's a peculiar thing because this is not a normal church. I mean we don't have a bishop come in to confirm people. We don't have the usual apparatus of the parish church, but we do the best we can. One of the things that we do is affirm the Christian faith in the young people who have been prepared at our school and whose parents worship with us every week. That is a very important thing.

Of course, the second thing that we will do later on this afternoon is to introduce the new hymnal. Now, the question is, are these two events related? Of course, they are. Everything here is related. Everything here is done with careful premeditation. Of course, they are related. Just how they are related, you'll need to come back this afternoon to find out. But I will tell you right now they are related. It is no accident that we gave these young people, in addition to their Bibles, the hymnbook of this church. I will tell you why in a few minutes.

Our old and late colleague, Amos Wilder, who used to grace us from time to time in these pews, once said in a line I have never forgotten. He said, "Hymns are to Protestants what incense is to Catholics. They are reminders of the presence of God." Think about that. "Hymns are to Protestants what incense is to Catholic, reminders of the presence of God." I could no longer think of church without hymns than I could think of anything else that goes with something else. All the illustrations that come to mind are vulgar, so I shouldn't raise them here. But you know what I mean. I cannot imagine going to church anywhere, under any circumstance and not singing hymns.

That's why I would be a terrible Quaker. I've never even tried to be a Quaker. I couldn't do it. Can't stand all that silence and no hymns. It would be terrible. Hymns are important. They're not just optional fillers. They are important to us because they give us a sense of the presence of God. That is why we have given these young Christians hymnbooks in addition to the Bibles. Hymns summarize the faith. They invoke God for us in efficient language that no preacher and no theologian could possibly begin to imagine. Singing is the most natural and the most intimate thing that we can do together in public that is legal. Singing is very important for those reasons. Singing brings us closer to God.

There are those who teach voice production. I remember Robert Gartside, professor of voice at Boston University, was frequently in these pews many years ago. One of the things that he told me, which I found astonishing and wonderfully believable, is that when we sing all our reserves, and they're considerable reserves, all of our reserves are down. They relax. In a funny sort of way, we are when we sing at our most vulnerable. We receive all sorts of signals. We give off all sorts of signals. Singing does it for us. The hymns of our childhood. Those are the things that stay with us. Most of us remember very little from the Sunday schools of our youth, unless you went to our Sunday school, where you'll remember everything.

But most of us who didn't have the privilege of a Memorial Church church school don't remember very much from it, except for the songs. We remember the songs, the silly little ditties that we were taught at daily vacation Bible school, all the songs that we sang during devotions in Sunday school. Or if we were fortunate or regimented as I was, the songs that we sang at the evening service and the mid-week meeting, songs which we never sang on Sunday morning because they were too much fun to sing. I grew up in a church where we weren't supposed to have fun in church on Sunday. God would not be amused. I think they confused God with Queen Victoria, but that's another story entirely.

The hymns of our youth stay with us. How do I know this? I have presided over dozens and dozens of memorial services in this church of the good and the great and the ancient, and the most important decision to be made on those occasions is not what to say about the deceased. We can make that up easily. It is what are the hymns that we will sing? What are the hymns out of this person's past? What are the hymns that will invoke this person's presence with us? What are the hymns that will suggest the life that we are celebrating? We all have these hymns in our lives.

You all know the story. When the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth was asked, "What is the summary of all Christian theology? What is the sum total of everything that has ever been said, thought, or written by a Christian theologian?" He replied, "Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so." You need a theological education for that? You need a Harvard degree for that? You need a PhD for that? Jesus loves me. We learned that the first thing we ever heard, ever remembered from Sunday school. Jesus loves me. This I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to Him belong. They are weak, but He is strong. Not a bad thing to remember, especially as we go through life and we discover that we are among the little ones, not quite so big as we once thought.

Karl Barth, "Jesus loves me. This I know." The second evocation of a hymn that opens up vast quantities of memory and hope and promise, you will notice that every ordinary Sunday service at the Memorial Church begins with hymn number one, the Doxology, Old 100. It is our signature tune. It has been done in this church probably almost 200 years. I would argue. Most Protestant churches used to begin their services with the Doxology. The more sophisticated ones no longer do that, but we do. I'm grateful that we do because one of our boys in the military over in Iraq told me that over there, somewhere, one Sunday, over the course of the last two or three years, he heard the Doxology being sung somewhere.

Maybe it was a shipboard chapel service or something. I don't know what it was, but it was Old 100. He said he broke down in tears for the first time because it reminded him of Memorial Church where he had been an usher. Hymns have tremendous power to shape how we think, how we move, how we act. I know that wherever I go and I hear Old 100, I think of 30 years+ of worshiping with you in this church. Now, we like to pride ourselves in this congregation, and visiting preachers have always told me, "Your people," they call you my people. I don't waste time correcting them. They say, "Your people certainly sing well at Harvard."

Then they'll try to suggest why that might be the case. They say, "Well, you have a great choir back there and a great organ and a decent hymnbook." But those are not the reasons. We sing because it is in us to do so. It is what we do together in worship. Not everybody preaches. Oddly, everybody listens. But everybody sings. That is what we Protestants do best. Tongues, according to St. Paul, these are signs of ecstasy being caught up in the Spirit, filled with spiritual electricity. It's great for you, a little confusing for everybody else. What Paul is interested in is clarity and understanding. Do you ever look at the words of the hymn as you sing?

Somebody once said to me, "It's amazing. Sometimes the hymns have something to do with the lesson and the sermons. How does that happen?" We do give a little thought to those things. Singing is meant to edify in our enterprise. It is meant to be another means of grace. If you get nothing out of the lessons, and I can understand that sometimes. I choose the lessons and sometimes you don't have much choice. They're pretty grim, and you got next to nothing on the sermon. The hymn might redeem the morning. I have had many people tell me that at daily prayers where sometimes the messages are riddles wrapped in ecstatic enigmas. The last hymn is the thing that makes the day for somebody.

The text and the tool and the experience of doing this thing together publicly has a redemptive effect. It's one of the great gifts of the Protestant Reformation. Singing is meant to edify. It is meant to instruct. It is meant to inspire, and it is meant to move us. It is an exercise in communication. Don't just think you're serenading God. I mean whoever thought that God is sitting up there waiting for the collective hymnody of the West or the East or the whole world to charm Him on Sunday morning? I think not. It's for us, we sing, for one another that we sing. It is with one another that we sing.

The point of Pentecost, which I have made on many a Pentecostal Sunday service here when Pentecost comes to us, is communication, clarity. They understood each in their own language what was said or sung. Communication, the beautiful, the exotic, these are meant to communicate truth. They are meant to communicate the truth about God and ourselves. That's why words and music together are an incomparable enterprise in our theology. Music and learning go together. They help us grow. They are a part of our very being. They are the most remarkable of shared experiences.

Now, there are some of you, I don't count myself among them, who may well either have been or wished they had been at Woodstock. I don't remember Woodstock. It was not on my screen then and hardly is now. But those who do remember it, remember it as this incredible communion, this extraordinary moment at which a generation came together. What brought them together? It was music. Some will say it was the mud, but the music transcended the mud. The music provided the definition for a whole generation, in some cases, that has never quite gotten over it. Music is shared experience, the experience of hundreds, in our case, or thousands singing together. It's just overwhelming.

I have never been to a Billy Graham crusade, but I have watched enough of them to know that what really gets the thing going, the juices flowing are the thousands of people in a stadium singing together. I like George Beverly Shea. A solo is a solo is a solo. But when 20,000 people are singing something, that is quite an extraordinary moment. When I have had the privilege, as I've had frequently, of being a part of great cathedral services where hundreds and thousands of people are singing together, there is nothing like it in the world.

When we sing in times of peril, times when things are not going well, times when things are going badly, that is as powerful and efficacious as when we think sing in times of joy and happiness. When you come down to think about it now, hymns are not just rational pieces of work. They are not irrational either. They are super rational. They are above mere reason. They go to the head, and they go to the heart of the matter. When you sing, you feel as well as think. You are engaged in a total union of mind, body, and spirit. Hymns manage to evoke something. They open up reservoirs of thought and experience.

They either remind us of things we once did that we wish we hadn't done, or they remind us of things that we have done that we rejoice in, or they remind us of things yet to come, yet to happen. They remind us and they take us beyond ourselves. Some of you may be sad to know that this morning will be the last time we will sing from the old book. When you come next Sunday, there will be a new book in the pews. They will look remarkably like the old book, but it's bigger, more hymns in here, wider variety. You might try to figure out what is the rationale behind this book. Give you something to do during the sermon. Take a look at the new book. Next Sunday, you will see it.

You can get a preview if you come this afternoon. I urge you to do so. I pray and beg that you will come this afternoon and bring a friend so that we can introduce this in the setting in which it is meant to be introduced, the public worship of God. Hymns become symbols of our worship. They become symbols of our place as believers and our hopes as believers. Have you ever wondered how it is that the hymn, Amazing Grace, seems to have become a kind of unofficial national anthem? Who decided that? How did that happen? You can't go to a funeral of football game or anything without somebody wailing away on Amazing Grace. Not that I don't like Amazing Grace. I do like Amazing Grace. It's in the new book, you'll be pleased to know, I hope.

But I don't quite figure it out, except that it evokes something about ourselves and what we hope for ourselves and what we hope for others, that no other mere words can do. In the old westerns of the '40s and the '50s, when they tried to evoke a religious scene in those little dusty Western towns where the sheriff was about to be shot to bits, they had somebody sing Rock of Ages. That used to be the kind of signature tune, religion is coming on the scene. Amazing Grace has taken its place. When Winston Churchill presided over the rededication of the House of Commons after it had been bombed during World War II, the members of the House of Commons stood as one body and sang, "Oh God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come," the hymn that we sing so frequently at funerals and memorial services.

It evokes this sense of constancy, the sense of abiding, just as our Doxology is our signature tune for the continuity of public worship in this place. We read Psalm 100 this morning. It is a hymn, one of the earliest hymns. The whole custom of singing hymns comes from the Jewish custom of chanting the psalms as liturgical expressions for the gathered body of believers in the temple. We owe our whole hymnody to the psalter, to the psalms. It is an exercise of worship and praise, a self-contained act of praise and celebration.

Where would we be at Christmas without song, for example? Where would we be without Oh, Come All Ye Faithful or Hark the Herald, Angels Sing or Silent Night? Where would we be without those things? Where would we be at Easter without Christ the Lord is Risen Today? I'll tell you where we'd be. We'd be speechless. Sermons, expositions, testimonies cannot carry the day. Our song carries the day and us with it. Music in general and hymns in particular, I'm persuaded, not theology is the language of the church. Even my divinity students don't remember much of their theology. The little they do remember, it would be a sin to impose upon the innocent unsuspecting congregations.

I tell them, "Choose your hymns very carefully. You might redeem both yourself and your sermon." Somebody else has done this better than we can. Why not take advantage of it? In the hymns, we find acts of praise, acts of prayer, acts of petition. We find the whole cycle of worship contained in the hymnbook. We could follow the whole year through the hymnbook. We can follow all of our emotional needs through the hymnbook. We can follow every serious point of doctrine and theology through the hymnbook.

For some reason, we have been persuaded that God is more likely to hear our prose than our song. I rather think God is rather delighted by our song and tends to ignore our prose. He's heard it all before. That is why a hymnal is indispensable. It is the essential ingredient in Christian worship. That is why when the congregation gets to play with a new one, what a great opportunity it can be and ought to be. I would argue that a hymn is the most valuable piece of equipment for the believer. I suspect when I am at death's door, I will remember more hymns than I will verses of scripture or creedal formulations.

I'll go out with one or two of them on my lips. I know that. When I go home on Sunday, whether it's gone well here or not, what I usually do after lunch is I sit down and I play through the book. It gives me joy, pleasure, and satisfaction. Reminds me of the things I didn't say and the things I should have said, or the things that I didn't say as well as I might have. "Too bad that hymn wasn't in our book," I say. Well, it is now. What a great joy it is to be able to have a book in which the faith is represented.

When you go to a funeral and you hear Abide With Me, no one needs to tell you why that works, why that is effective in some way. I remember when my dear friend, Archie Epps, died and this church was filled to the doors with his friends and his mourners at that funeral. We sang Abide With Me, and very few of us could get through with it because the evocation of the man and the message of that text, so overwhelmingly powerful. No eulogy could equal that. This last Friday, we had a memorial service here for one of our great stalwarts whose face I miss up there in the gallery right now. That was Alfred Chandler.

We sang, as we often do on these occasions for people who wish it and have some connection with the US Navy, we sang Eternal Father Strong to Save. There wasn't not a dry eye in the house. Why? Because it evoked a whole life, a whole career, a whole sense that none of the addresses, my own included, could begin to meet. But that hymn did it. It too now, I'm happy to say, is in this book. One of the great new hymns I'm happy to say that we put it in this book, we sang a couple of Sundays ago. Some of you thought it was very good. You actually sang it as if you knew it, and you didn't because it wasn't in the book.

It is the text by Fred Pratt Green. In the new book, it's hymn number 25. "When in our music, God is glorified and adoration leaves no room for pride, it is as though the whole creation cried, alleluia. That every instrument be tuned for praise, that all rejoice who have a voice to raise. And may God give us faith to sing always, alleluia." There are five verses. It's a wonderful evocation of what we're about. My colleagues and I thought that any book worth having, had to have that text in it to a good, robust tune. It's there. We shall sing it often and frequently.

For many years I have had the responsibility for conducting a song service in the evening at a little chapel in the country in Plymouth, South Pond Chapel. Some of you have come to those services and have adopted them for your own. It is there singing these hymns that many have found an expression of their faith, which they can't find in any other way or place. Some of these are old gospel thumpers. The theology they represent does not speak to the theology that some of these people are contending with today. But the whole aesthetic thing is an evocative powerful thing. It opens us up to the power of the Spirit. Music has the capacity to do that.

God uses music for these purposes and in this way. I find it difficult to trust a church that doesn't take music seriously, or a congregation that refuses to sing. For in the words of one of our hymns, "Let those refuse to sing who never knew our God." We who have a slightest acquaintance with our God have every reason to sing, and we do till the cows come home. I've just written another book. Some people say it's the same old book. "You just keep producing the same old stuff." Well, I do. Like Billy Graham says, "I have one sermon. I just preach it over and over and over again." I have one book. I keep writing it over and over and over again. As long as people buy it, I'm going to continue to write it.

In that book, I devote an entire chapter to the power of hymns. I was inspired by an English book I picked up in the airport coming back last time called My Favorite Hymn. A whole bunch of British celebrities were asked to write a little essay on their favorite hymn. A fair number of atheists and agnostics are represented in here. After all, they do went to public school and had to sing certain hymns. Those hymns mean something to them. It's a wonderful book. It'd be an exercise for any of us to take some pleasure in. List the three best hymns for you, not simply from a musicological or a theological point of view, not even from a poetical point of view. But something that does something for you that has made a difference somehow in the inner recesses of your minds.

One of the things that we try to do in singing hymns is open up all the intricacies of our hearts and minds. So there is no place unexposed to the power of God. There is an essay called Hymns in a Man's Life. I can't remember who wrote it. Somebody here will doubtless remember it. But it was written about 40 years ago, Hymns in a Man's Life. This was a rather rough and ready literary type who wrote about the effect of the remembrance of hymns in his life during the war, during the Depression, at times of exalted joy, at times or sorrow. This became, for this person, a compendium of meaning. Hymns were able to do it for him.

So I want to suggest to you, and particularly to you folks to whom I've just given these books, make the hymnbook your own. Own it. Open it up. Read it. Even if you can't read music, you can see still read the prose. Read it. Read the notes in the back. Read what these things are trying to say. If there's a biblical reference, look it up, because we usually cite it there. If it's a paraphrase of something in the Bible, check it out, see what's there. Make the hymnbook your own. Treat it as you would a prayer book. We're not Episcopalians here.

We don't have the Book of Common Prayer. But you do have a hymnbook, which is to us what the Book of Common Prayer ought to be to those who are blessed with a prayer book. This is our prayer book. Make it your own. It is also our book of theology. There's enough theology in here for practically everybody. Nearly every opinion is gated to it in one way or another. This is, after all, a university hymnbook. It's a university church. I record here in my introduction remark, Professor Giles Constable once bade to me one day, trying to find a suitable hymn in that little room for daily prayers. He was leafing through the hymnbook furiously.

He said, "Peter, your book full of advice to God." Well, I suppose it is. The old one was. It still has some advice to God. But it has a lot of advice for ourselves, lots of words of encouragement, lots of words of inspiration, lots of words of contemplation. What more does the thoughtful believer need than that? This is it. Take it as your own. Cherish it. Use it. It is a companion to the Bible. It is your guide to worship and praise. It will introduce you both to the Spirit and to the understanding. It is, in some sense, the summary of the gospel. It is a book full of good news. You ought to cherish it as your own. That in itself is good news, indeed.

So this afternoon we will open this book as yours. We will place it in the pews. From next Sunday onward until my successor comes, we will sing from this book. We will sing with the Spirit, and we will sing with understanding. I hope that somewhere between the Spirit and understanding, we will also sing with joy and gladness of heart. I should like you to realize that the best of the old is contained here. A lot that is new will become cherished among us by usage over the years. Do come this afternoon and see what is in store for you. And then join us over the years to own it, to transform it, and to make it your book.

Let us pray. Gracious God, we give you thanks for the gift of song, for the splendor of music, and for our ability together to sing your praises in this place. Help us to use these gifts only for the glory of your name and the instruction and edification of all your people. This we pray through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

See also: History