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Sermon - Voices Together and the Worlds Worship Creates
Speakers: Joel Miller and Katie Graber
Texts: Isaiah 42:10-11 (VT 106); Revelation 7:9-12 (VT 110)
Joel – For a while now we’ve wanted to have a worship series featuring our new hymnal. For a while now, conditions have been less than ideal for a full communal experience of these new, familiar, and thoughtfully reworded, songs and liturgies.
After several postponed attempts, we’re going for it.
Our last hymnal, the blue one, Hymnal a Worship Book, served the church well for the last 28 years. If you want to get dramatic and deep time about it, we could say the last hymnal, since its publication in 1992, brought us through the end of the 20th century, into the new millennium. And now Voices Together has been conceived in that new millennium, born in the pandemic, with an expected life span similar to the previous one. So imagine yourself a quarter century older, holding a well-worn purple hymnal from which you’ve sung through all the joys and hardships between now and then.
Hymnals create a shared field of language and song where we meet one another and God.
These seven weeks will be a chance for us to not only go deeper into the new hymnal, but to take a wide angle view of what worship is in the first place. And thus the title of this series and this sermon: “Voices Together and the worlds worship creates.”
Katie – We each bring our own worlds to worship - we bring the lives we live, and we bring the week we’ve had. We might come to receive or to participate in a world of hope or strength or comfort - we may each need something different when we gather.
As we compiled Voices Together, we knew we would need to draw from many worlds in order to have the building blocks to respond to all of our different worlds. We drew tunes and texts and readings from history and the present, as well as from cultural traditions around the world.
During this time of Zoom worship, when singing together is perhaps not the most satisfying experience, it is worth reiterating that Voices Together is not just a songbook. The new songs might be what people were most anticipating, but there’s much more to see and experience here. We can connect to each other, and to God, and to worlds beyond ourselves through artwork and prayers and readings.
One powerful connection we can feel through this book is the deep history of Christian wisdom. I’ll give three examples.
VT 1030 is from the 4th century, by Anthony in Egypt. He rejected wealth and a church he thought was growing too powerful; instead, he lived on his own in the desert for many years, and is considered the founder of monasticism.
In 1030, we can hear his call to simple living and contemplation:
Grow us slowly, persistently, and deeply, God, to be people who watch without distraction, listen without interruption, and stay put without inclination to flee.
800 years later, in the 12th century, Hildegard of Bingen was a nun, composer, and mystic. She wrote prolifically about many subjects (about religion and beyond), and she illustrated them based on visions she had. You can find these online; they are quite spectacular. We have several songs by Hildegard in Voices Together, and #900 is a prayer she wrote that uses vivid imagery of a “fiery dragon within me that eats away at my soul.” She asks God for strength to help herself and others; she writes:
I want to be like the strongest sword, fashioned by you, with the sharpest blade that will cut through the dragon’s scales.
And as I slay the dragon within myself, I want to offer a safe refuge for all, who like me are frail and vulnerable,
So they may slay their own dragons, and together we may live in peace. Amen.
Voices Together also includes many writings by 16th-century Anabaptists. One that will speak to many at CMC is Pilgram Marpeck’s prayer to “Gardener God” (VT 1002).
Gardener God, you have planted and protected us by your faithful hand.
Send us the sap of your grace from Christ, the true Vine,
And make us blossom and bear the fruit of love as a sign of your life in us.
Let the sweet fragrance of the shoots you have planted give you praise forever. Amen.
Joel – When I got my copy of the hymnal I was curious what the first hymn would be. VT 1. My hunch was that this opening hymn would be intended to be representative of the whole in some way.
This hunch was informed by a conversation I remember having with Rebeca Slough, Managing Editor of the previous hymnal. HWB 1 was, anyone remember?...What is this place? What is this place, where we are meeting, only a house the earth its floor…Yet it becomes a body that lives when we are gathered here, and know our God is near.
Rebecca had said that was an intentional location for that hymn for three reasons. It reflected Anabaptist worship theology. It was a previously unknown song so it wasn’t showing partiality toward any group’s favorite. And, it was written by a Roman Catholic, set to a Dutch hymn tune, striking an ecumenical tone.
Voices Together 1 is called “Summoned by the God Who Made Us.” And here is the first verse: “Summoned by the God who made us, rich in our diversity, gathered in the name of Jesus, richer still in unity. Let us bring the gifts that differ and, in splendid, varied ways, sing a new church into being, one in faith and love and praise.”
To my theologically trained but musically untrained eyes, here are three observations I have about this song.
One is that the text is making a pretty bold statement about the kind of church we hope to be. Another line starts with “Trust the goodness of creation, trust the Spirit strong within.” These are not things the church has necessarily done well. We’ve often preached the very opposite.
Second, these are new words set to a familiar, even beloved tune. Bum bum bum, Bum bum bum bum. Come thou fount of every blessing. So I’m getting this vibe of the fresh woven in with the familiar which likely shows up throughout the hymnal.
And third, I’m seeing the text is written by a woman, Delores Dufner. And like other positions of spiritual leadership women have been under-represented in our hymn texts, and this perhaps speaks of an intentional effort to seek out and amplify underrepresented voices for the benefit of the whole.
So, Katie, am I reading a little too much into all this? Why did the committee select this song as number one and is it saying something about the whole?
Katie – Yes, those are great observations. Like the 1992 committee, we also wanted to make sure #1 doesn’t show partiality. It’s in English so that it wouldn’t favor another specific region of the world, and this familiar North American folk tune also works well in many musical styles. Congregations can sing this song a capella, or with folk or bluegrass instruments, or with a contemporary worship band.
And yes, inclusion and representation of women was a question we returned to many times throughout the process of compiling Voices Together. We do not have equal gender representation yet, unfortunately. Half of the material in Voices Together is from previous Mennonite collections, and those and other published sources of church song still tend to be overwhelmingly written by men.
But Voices Together has made strides in adding more women’s voices, including early Anabaptists and contemporary women from many traditions. Interestingly, we’ve noticed that Mennonite worship leaders are disproportionately women, and therefore we have many worship resources that are written by contemporary Mennonite women. Hymn texts are fairly equally written by men and women, but tunes (especially published tunes) are still mostly by men (we have lots of theories and I would love to hear others…). I only know of a couple nonbinary people writing worship material, and VT does include one song by a nonbinary person. However, there is plenty of work for the next hymnal committee to do on gender representation.
It’s a coincidence that Voices Together #1 is also by a Roman Catholic writer (like HWB), but the idea of ecumenical value is similar. It’s good for Mennonites to remember that we borrow from other traditions, that we’re not the only ones to have great ideas (or good music), and yes, these Catholic writers can articulate grand themes that Mennonites can aspire to! There are many other wonderful traditions represented in this collection as well.
Joel – So we’ve already hinted at the whole, the bigger arc and frame of what’s going on which that first hymn gets at. And I want to stick with this bigger picture for a bit, wider than the hymnal itself, with the question of what it is we’re actually doing when we worship. Or, just Why Worship? Why do we do this?
And this question actually makes this a great time to have this series because worship for many of us has been a routine, in the best sense of the word, a holy habit, and the pandemic has been highly disruptive of routines and habits. So why worship and what is it we’re doing?
First and foremost, I would point to something other than the idea of worship as a routine or habit that we’re doing right now and not other times. Which is this: When it comes to worship, we don’t really have a choice. We definitely have a choice what and how we worship, but we don’t have a choice whether we worship. It is baked into our humanity. Devotion, loyalty, allegiance, awe and wonder, these are fundamental features of conscious awareness.
It’s not a matter of whether we have devotion, but what we have devotion towards. It’s not a matter of whether we give our loyalties and energy to a particular system, but what that system is, even if we’re not conscious of it. For example: the invisible hand of the so-called free market.
Some scholars like to refer to the book of Revelation as a worship manual. Granted, it’s one of the most bizarre worship manuals out there. The scripture that we heard comes from Revelation 7 when that great multitude is gathered around the throne, giving praise and honor to the lamb. The peaceful yet powerful lamb is in direct contrast to the beast who rules through violence. It’s a not so subtle take down of Roman emperor worship, proposing an alternative allegiance to the crucified yet risen Christ. And a broader proclamation that everyone worships something.
Our modern era has created a split between religious and secular life, which can give the impression that worship only has to do with the religious. And since you can choose whether or not you’re religious, you choose whether or not you worship.
The 20th century theologian Paul Tillich suggests otherwise in his book Theology and Culture:
"You cannot reject religion with ultimate seriousness, because ultimate seriousness, or the state of being ultimately concerned, is itself religion. Religion is the substance, the ground, and the depth of man's spiritual life. This is the religious aspect of the human spirit….”
After which he points toward the end of the book of Revelation:
“According to the visionary who has written the last book of the Bible, there will be no temple in the heavenly Jerusalem, for God will be all in all. There will be no secular realm, and for this reason there will be no religious realm.
Religion will be again what it is essentially, the all-determining ground and substance of man's spiritual life."
In short, worship creates worlds, and reinforces worlds that have been created for us. Which leads to another and perhaps more fruitful question: What kind of world does our worship seek?
So, Katie, what kind of worship is Voices Together inviting us into?
Katie – Voices Together invites us into worship that does something and that connects to the rest of our lives. The committee thought about what songs and worship resources do, both consciously and unconsciously. If you look at the table of contents (or the headings at the top of the pages), you see a series of actions: gathering, praising, praying, sharing stories, etc. These are some of the conscious actions.
When we talk about the worlds worship creates, we are also talking about retraining our biases. How can our worlds be created and recreated through worship? As Joel was just saying, we should think about where our awareness and loyalty is focused - and what factors consciously and unconsciously focus our awareness toward different things. So this is about mindfulness and about the way we orient ourselves toward the world. It takes effort and practice to see the divine spark in every human we meet. It takes effort and practice to notice everyday beauty in the world. It takes effort and practice to work toward justice.
We come to church on Sunday mornings to be inspired to do these things well, and therefore, the words and songs we use in corporate worship need to support this work.
So, part of our work in compiling VT was to think about how words and music could retrain conscious and unconscious biases. Our goals for inclusive and expansive language included thinking about how humans and God and the world are represented. We asked questions about darkness imagery, gendered images of humans and God, ability, class, age, creation, other religious traditions, and more.
Gendered images of God is one example that demonstrates our deeply held biases. Number 71 in Voices Together is the doxology [sing] “Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” and it includes 3 text options. The first option is ungendered, a new version of this text: “Praise God, the Source of life and birth. Praise God, the Word who came to earth. Praise God the Spirit, holy Flame. All glory, honor to God’s name.” The second option is the traditional version that says “Praise him all creatures here below” and ends with “Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.” And the third option says “praise her above, praise Mother, Son, and Holy Ghost.”
Repeat that phrase after me: Praise Mother, Son, and Holy Ghost. How does that feel? It might feel weird, especially for anyone who grew up hearing “He/Him.” Even though I logically - heartily! - agree with diversifying our images of God, the first time I sang this it felt odd. I loved it, but still, my emotional and physical responses had been trained since I was young. But, as I’ve been living with it and singing these songs in committee meetings over several years, I’ve noticed my biases being retrained in interesting ways: the new imagery has also allowed me to encounter older imagery - the “Fathers” and “Kings” - with fresh eyes. And that’s what Voices Together is trying to do - to balance and revitalize our traditions. We didn’t try to remove any particular metaphor, but we did what we could to balance out metaphors that have the potential to create negative biases.
VT 675 is another example: Abana in Heaven is the setting of the Lord’s Prayer that we sang earlier. It was written by a woman from Lebanon; the text is originally in Arabic. We have so many negative stereotypes of the Arab World in our culture today; I think it’s powerful to even have Arabic script on the pages of our hymnal. We also constantly hear stories and implications that Arabic-speaking men are violent, they imprison their daughters and wives, and so it’s powerful to imagine God as Abana - the Arabic word for father, an Arabic-speaking Father. It’s a new way to think about God, and it’s a new way to think about humans.
There are also stereotypes of Arabic music as exotic and even sinister in popular culture - think of the seemingly harmless song “Arabian Nights” from Disney’s Aladdin [sing Arabian Nights]. It has an interval called an augmented second that has become a stereotype of Arab World music. In 1992, that song originally had a line “they’ll cut off your ear if they don’t like your face … it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” Within a year, they removed “they’ll cut off your ear,” but it took until the live action remake in 2019 to change “it’s barbaric” to “it’s chaotic.” All of those words were supported by those musical stereotypes that made it pleasurable to consume those images. There are many other examples of movies about wars that use Arabic music and even the Muslim call to prayer as a backdrop to violence and terror. So, it is powerful to for us to sing this Lebanese music with the words of the prayer Jesus taught.
It has an augmented second, and it sounds a little different from Western harmonies. Singing those sounds - bringing them into our voices and our bodies as a prayer - is a profoundly different way to encounter the Arab World.
And that is perhaps our ongoing task in worship, to bring these ideas and encounters and connections into our own worldviews. It will take practice and repetition, but that is how worship can help create our worlds.
Joel – I’m glad we’ve got six more weeks for this series because it feels like we’re just getting started. We are going to end with a prayer from Voices Together that we might already know something about. It’s a prayer that we have already repeated many times as a congregation as our worldview was impacted these last four years being a sanctuary church. We wrote this prayer to include in our worship and now it’s a shared prayer for everyone who uses this hymnal. So please turn to VT 1040. You will notice the 1235 sticker. This is a reminder that there is a very particular story behind this prayer that has formed our worship and work. Edith was spent 1235 days in sanctuary here. So, as we close this time, Edith is going to come forward and lead this with Katie.