On my first foray to Africa, I preached in a church in Malawi in a major city. This is code for “there were 5,000 people in worship.” I preached with a translator and fell into the hypnotic rhythm of offering a few words and waiting for them to be echoed in a different language. The text was a line from the Apostle Paul where he spoke of what it means to be “face to face” with God. Taking my seat, I was relieved, and in awe, of the mass of people all gathered to worship. Then something confusing happened.
A man rose from among the people and started to sing. His acapella song seemed to go on and on and on. He sang in a manner similar to chanting, but also rapping. It was almost spoken, and almost a song. When he finished, the congregation broke into wild applause. The Malawian pastor next to me could sense my confusion. He leaned in close and said, “that man . . . he just sang your sermon; he sang your entire sermon back to you.”
Needless to say this is not a moment I will forget. There have been times where my children have quoted back lines from one of my sermons, but it was always with an intent of humor or with a need to make a point. I do believe people listen carefully to sermons, and I believe what is written should be chosen carefully. Yet, for the most part, I don’t see the sermon as the key to worship, or the point, or even the focus.
To me, the sermon should be something that helps you sing better or pray with greater clarity. That is its role in worship. It could offer food for thought, or even irritate you enough that you ask a good question. But in worship, on Sundays, it is there to aid in song and prayer.
This view was not where I started. It took years, decades even, before I began to see a simple distinction. Someone might remember a line from your sermon, or a story. But the chances that they will sing it during the week or be able to conjure the tune of it years to come, this is very low in terms of potential. I believe the best thing a sermon could be in the future is faithful prayer. This is not so with song. Hymns stay with us for decades; the tune is woven in our heart. An anthem is a common voice; a sermon is solitary.
In no time at all First Presbyterian Church of Metuchen will experience a profound moment of celebration. Brenda Day will lead her final anthem, and with this, forty years of ministry will find a moment of completion. The chances are good that the role Brenda has played all these decades has become a bit invisible because she was always there. She was there leading you, teaching you, cajoling you, and, at times, even chastising you. She has given a whole generation to this church. Being here in this way can make her remarkable gift an expectation—simply how things are here.
Yet, as I shared with the Search Committee and Personnel, what Brenda has done is rare and unique and, in many ways, the very heart of our worship. You might remember a line from a sermon I wrote, but she helped people transform their memory with song, gave voice to their hopes and played the melody of their prayers. This is something I hold in the utmost esteem.
Consider for a moment how many people heard the gospel in the hymns she played; how many young people offered their emerging faith in the children’s choirs she led. Even more, one of the most fascinating of all her gifts: imagine how many people found courage, the courage to rise up and sing for joy because she gave them the confidence and assurance. As we prepare for her final Sunday, I want you to pay attention to worship in a new way. Look to the way our hymns are the real communion, and the choir is an image of the kingdom. Consider the preludes and the offertories and the postludes as the way music leads you to the presence of God. Music is the heart of it. And them remember the gift you have been given.