Today we continue our series of sermons on hymns. Music is an integral part of worship, as today’s reading from Isaiah tells us. “For you shall go out in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” From earliest times, music has been central to praise.
Yet, as Father Barry pointed out last week, we sometimes tend to treat hymns as nothing more than traveling music, or something to fill time while we process, or collect the offering or prepare the altar. But that line of thought cheapens our experience, because hymns are far more than that. They are poetry, they are prayer, they are far more than simple words on a page, or catchy tunes. In fact, a hymn is far more than words and music alone. Hymns are an excellent example of the idea that a whole is sometimes far more than the sum of its parts. Sometimes one and one can equal three. Let’s test that.
Hymn 523 “Glorious things of thee a re spoken, Zion city of our God. He whose word cannot be broken formed thee for his own abode”.
A pretty poem; it rhymes, almost. The words are actually based upon the text of Psalm 87, but rearranged a bit. By themselves they are nice, but sometimes poetry by itself doesn’t actually speak to all people. In know this because I am one of those people. But when you put it together with the music, now you have something. The music by itself may not move you, the words by themselves may not move you, but the combination of the two creates something more than either of them alone. (sing) Do you see how the combination of words and music make it more than just words and a tune?
But hymns are even more than just the words and the music alone or the combination of them together. You can listen to the radio or go to a concert if that is all you want. For hymns are not simply music; they are not simply lyrics; they are a form of corporate worship. What do we do with hymns? We sing them. Together. We join our voices with the organ or the piano or the guitar and we create something together. It makes no difference if you sing like Pavarotti or if you sing like a broken down washing machine. For each of us adds our own individuality to the experience. It is a shared moment that is here and gone, and we experience it together.
But that is still not unlike a chorus coming together to sing with an organ or even an orchestra. So how are hymns different? Because at its core, each hymn is a prayer to God. They may be hymns of sorrow, pleas for help, songs of thanksgiving or prayers of joyful gratitude; but every hymn that we sing together is a shared worship experience. The phrase has been ascribed to many people, but I think it was St Augustine who said that “He who sings, twice prays”. The act of singing a hymn in a community of believers is a prayerful experience as we lift our voices together to God.
By now I hope you are developing the sense that there is more to our experience of hymns than mere traveling music.
So let’s talk about the hymns themselves for a moment. Did the tune to Glorious Things sound a bit familiar to anyone? Pull out your hymnals and look again at 523. Now turn to 379, God is Love. Notice anything? For those who don’t read music I will answer my own question. The tune is the same. The words are different, but the tune is the same. If you don’t believe me, turn to 511 Holy Spirit Ever Living and you will see that this too is the same music. If you look at the end of the hymn you will see that the authors of both the words and music are listed, and in italics is the name of the tune. This one is called Abbot’s Leigh, and is named after the village in England where the Reverend Cyril Taylor was living when he composed the tune. It is a lyrical melody and works in a rhythmic pattern for each set of words.
You will notice though that the words and the music to each of these are written by different people. Cyril Taylor wrote the music, but didn’t write any of the words. In fact, some were written long before he was even born. This is not unusual, as composers will often write music to poems or stories written by other people. This particular tune was written as a hymn tune with the express purpose of applying it to many different words, and that is exactly how it has been used over the years.
So now we have Rev Taylor’s tune firmly in our heads. But did anyone notice anything unusual about the gradual hymn when we sang Glorious Things? Abbots Leigh is beautiful melody, but did it seem at all strange to you? Perhaps this would be a bit more familiar. (Austria)
Did that feel a little better for you? Now we see that while the same music can be used to accompany different words, the same words can be set to different music. But why did one setting feel better to you than another? While words and music can be interchangeable, another aspect of a hymn is the affect it has on you personally. If you came here today never having heard this hymn before, you are not sure what I am talking about. But if you know this hymn, you likely have a preference for one tune or the other. You have an expectation of what the hymn should sound like. You may even associate it with an event in your life.
Glorious Things was written by John Newton. Newton was a very reluctant Christian. He had a difficult life; raised by an indifferent stepmother, he was sent to boarding school, was conscripted into the Royal Navy, then become a slave trader. He was a vulgar man who was anything but a Christian. And then he had an experience. His ship was in a dreadful storm; winds tossing them about; waves pounding the ship, threatening to capsize it at any moment. And Newton, who had never cared for anyone or anything, found himself praying to God for salvation. Salvation for himself AND for his shipmates. The storm subsided, the winds diminished, and Newton promptly returned to his vulgar ways; all pleas and promises to God forgotten. But not completely. For while it didn’t happen in a flash, this experience marked the beginning of his conversion and he ultimately became a believer. He eventually went to seminary and became a priest in the Church of England. And he began to write.
Deeply ashamed of his participation in slavery, he became a passionate advocate for abolition and worked with William Wilberforce to help eradicate the African slave trade. In fact, his experience of being saved helped him to write another hymn which you may have heard.
“Amazing Grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind, but now I see.” Familiar words, but now that you know a bit more about them, perhaps you can see them from a different perspective.
But that too is part of the equation. As I said, hymns are based upon our personal experience of them. We experience them based on how they make us feel, or when we first heard them, or we equate them with places and times of our lives. Besides being one of everyone’s favorite hymns, Amazing Grace has become synonymous with funerals and services of remembrance. While it was actually written about a conversion, it is often played on such occasions and indeed was played at my mother’s funeral. It was more than a year before I could hear the song without tearing up. I want my hymn back! I want to reclaim amazing grace as more than a funeral hymn. I want it to be a celebration of life and a recognition of how the free gift of Grace changes us in ways we could never have imagined. Perhaps now that we know a bit more about what caused John Newton to write the words, we can begin to do just that.
Hymns are much, much more than mere traveling music. In fact, it is hard to think about worship without Hymns, of one kind or another. They are a tangible expression of our faith, a touchstone to the past, and a communal expression of our love for God. Think about that as we raise our voices together in prayerful song today, and praise God for the gift of fine music.