Posted in Worship

Serving WCUC

On January 12th, we heard three members reflect on why they do what they do at WCUC.

From Ellie Garvey:

My father used to tell me I had an affliction, like my mother. He called it “the rising arm syndrome.” It manifests itself when I hear the words, “Would anyone be willing to…?” or “Could someone…? And my volunteer arm rises up. I don’t consider this an affliction. Helping and volunteering are part of who I am, and I like it that way.

West Concord Union Church has no shortage of volunteer opportunities, and I have thrown myself into the community with abandon. In addition to singing and ringing in the senior and bell choirs, I hold an elected position on the Worship and Welcome Ministry. I have served on this ministry for 6 years, and that means my time is up. In accordance with the church’s constitution, I have to step down. While I am a bit sad about that, it does give me the opportunity to tell you about everything that I love about serving on this ministry.

Most of what you see up here in the sanctuary on Sunday mornings is under the auspices of the Worship and Welcome Ministry. We guide the ushers and greeters, we prepare and serve communion, we assist with Joys and Concerns, and we review Sunday worship services to improve on our dedication to making them welcoming and inclusive. In the summer, we coordinate the outdoor services, and we are in charge of hospitality and fellowship, from coffee hour to funeral receptions.  And I love all of that. My favorite parts are serving communion and helping with fellowship events. And the best part of the Ministry is the team of leaders that I have had the privilege of working with.

The first time I set up the communion table was way back when I was on the board of Deacons, the precursor to Worship and Welcome. As I laid out the bread and juice, it occurred to me that I was setting Jesus’ table. And that was a pretty cool thing to be doing!  For those of you who are wondering if you could serve on Worship and Welcome in the future, the answer is yes! Please speak to me after worship today and I will be happy to fill you in on the details of this vital service to the church. 

It has been a privilege to serve WCUC in this capacity for six years, and I thank God for this community of volunteers. I’ll take a year off, and then we’ll see where my rising arm takes me next. 

From John Fossett:

I joined WCUC in 1988, after being introduced by one Maynard Forbes. What I found here was a vibrant church, teeming with vitality and activity, and it has been, and surely will continue to be, a congregation that is a living affirmation of God’s call to service, providing innumerable opportunities for each of us to serve the church in some way. Some such roles require an ongoing commitment throughout the year, while others are those I call one-off or time limited commitments. Over the past several years, I have focused my efforts on the latter, serving as a member and Chair of the Investment Committee, as a greeter, usher, and coffee host, and helping with outside grounds cleanup and periodic setup for special events.  One of my most favorite “roles” has been to provide rides to church for Annie and Fran, not easily able to get themselves here otherwise.

Over the years, service to church has given me pause to contemplate my formative days at the Wellesley Village Church, and how my late mother, Jane Fossett, taught me the power of individuals to help others through a helping hand or other simple acts of kindness. Her work was quite similar to what I see here: A quiet, yet abiding concern for the well-being of others, answering His call.  Jane would be so pleased to know that I had re-established a faith connection with a place that shares her values and that pursues God’s call for us to serve others.

One of the major reasons I pursue volunteer activities at WCUC is the satisfaction I derive from the joy of strengthening personal connections with others, not only while greeting or ushering or hosting coffee hour, but also during the enjoyable rides to church with Annie and Fran. Any of these time-limited roles may be perfect for those of you unable to take on longer term or ongoing commitments, but wanting to serve the church in some way.

From Joanna Swain:

I’ve been participating in our Sunday Fellowship ministry for adults of all abilities since our family moved to Concord – more than 12 years now. In fact, the SF program is one of the key reasons we visited this church, and also why we never visited another! My involvement in Sunday Fellowship has ebbed and flowed through the years as my other commitments have come and gone. Sometimes I just go to a biweekly worship services and help with whatever job needs doing, like collating music sheets, writing down joys and concerns, or passing out name tags. Other times, I have helped to organize a specific event, like a dance complete with DJ and a photo booth.  Recently, I’ve been sitting on the SF Team, along with several others from within our church and some from other faith communities. The SF team meets every couple of months to review past events, plan for new initiatives, and generally serve as a sounding board to Melissa Tustin, who is our paid and incredibly qualified SF Director.

Why is SF so important to me?  To tell the truth, most of us here at WCUC are pretty good at presenting the best of ourselves on a Sunday morning. We are buttoned down and pretty self-contained, am I right?. But SF worship services are different. They are really “come as you are”. You can’t sing on key?  Who cares! Did you have a fight with someone you live with?  Who hasn’t! The services are rambunctious and sweet, with big emotions, and God’s love is palpable. I praise God for our Sunday Fellowship program, and the opportunity to participate and help make it happen.

Epiphany Pageant Photos!

Thanks to everyone who came together to make our 2020 pageant possible!

How Shall We Sing?

  • December 29, 2019

A brief reflection from December 29th.

It has become a tradition on this Sunday after Christmas Day to sing carols by request. Those of you who were here on Christmas Eve will have noticed that we sang from the black (New Century) hymnal this year for the first time – at least, the first time since I’ve been here. There are a lot of reasons why we tried this, and why we tried it this year. These beloved carols from our red (Pilgrim) hymnal have, embedded in them, language for both people and God that we avoid during the rest of the year in worship.  We had another option available to us, right in our seats, in our black hymnal, which, though it may seem radical, is already 25 years old.

This was hard for some folks, and begs more conversation. As we struggle with the question of what we feel called to sing in this season, I’d like to lift up for your prayers this interesting conundrum, which I am wrestling with myself.

On one hand, we love to know the words of hymns: to know them by heart; especially on holidays.  There is a lovely sense of homecoming in returning to what we know. It can be disconcerting and distracting to have our memories interrupted by word changes; I experience that myself.

At the same time, I wonder if worship is only about our own comfort, our own preferences, even at Christmas. The more I learn about hymns, the more I learn how much they have changed over time – all in search of a song that better fits the beliefs of those who sing them. Hymns both reflect and form our faith.  What words would be best for our faith today? What version of these hymns do we hope our children and grandchildren will have memorized?

I’m not sure how to resolve this conundrum, and we don’t need to accomplish it today.  I invite you to pray and reflect on it. The Worship & Welcome Ministry and I are happy to hear your feedback, and we’ll talk more in that ministry about what to do in the future. As we sing today, feel free to request hymns from either hymnal. If we sing a hymn from the Black Hymnal that you know in a different version, feel free to sing the version that speaks most to your heart.

Repeat the Sounding Joy

Luke 2:1-20

The story of the birth of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke is a story full of holy messengers and holy messages.

An angel visits a priest named Zechariah to announce the coming of a child named John, who will turn many people towards God. An angel visits a young woman named Mary to announce the coming of a child named Jesus, whose holiness and power will be greater than any who have come before.  Angels visits shepherds, bringing good news of great joy for all people, announcing the birth of a longed for Messiah, a baby who bears God within.

These holy messages of our Christmas story began spreading over two thousand years ago. Once a year, we gather to heed them again.  

We gather tonight to receive the holy messages of Christmas in scripture, and perhaps even more, in song. Hymns and Carols are such an important part of what it means to celebrate this feast. Perhaps the most famous Christmas Hymn is Joy to the World, this year celebrating its 300th anniversary.

Joy to the World was written by the prolific English hymn writer Isaac Watts. Watts draws on Psalm 98 and several other pieces of scripture to share his exuberant belief that through Jesus, God brings about righteousness and equity in the world.  This is such good news, that he encourages all of creation to break into song. Let heaven and nature sing! Let fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains, repeat the sounding joy!

Set later to a tune that echoes Handel’s Messiah, this hymn returns each year to proclaim: Joy to the world! The Lord is come!

We gather tonight to receive holy messages in scripture and in song. What will we make of them? These messages are very familiar to some of us; but familiar or not, they are quite strange.  How could the birth of one baby, or even two, change the world so very much? How could the presence and person of Jesus somehow liberate us from all that is evil? If these events so long ago were really so momentous, wouldn’t things be different today?

For, of course, though we are all cleaned up for the holiday, there are some here among us tonight who are bearing great loss or pain. There are so many with unmet needs around us. Every nation and culture and community on this earth struggles to live in justice and peace.  Creation itself is groaning due to the destructive acts of humankind. Where is the righteousness and equity in our world today? Where is the joy? Where is our God?

We may long for a quick fix Christmas, for s sudden holy intervention, setting everything aright. But Christmas has never been about a quick fix.  Contrary to what we often pretend, Christmas is not about “be cheerful, no matter what” or “pull up your bootstraps” or “just pretend that everything is fine,” either. Instead, on this holiday, on this night, we gather to ponder the mystery of how holiness can dwell even in humanity; how hope can coexist with oppression and pain; how good can slowly emerge even in the most difficult circumstances. 

When those first holy messages of Christmas arrived, the human recipients didn’t jump for joy.  Zechariah, Mary, and the Shepherds all reacted with uncertainty at first, if not terror.  The invitation to holy hope in the midst of our everyday realities can be scary. It is only with time, with companionship, with prayer, that those the angels visit begin to trust in the holy messages they have received, and then share them with others.

Perhaps it is as if a great, beautiful bell was struck all those years ago, on that night when angels were thick in the air; when a baby was born to Mary by the Holy Spirit; when that baby was wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger.  A great, beautiful bell was struck, to drive out fear, and to offer hope, and to make way for change. The vibrations of this bell hummed in the hearts of those around the manger in Bethlehem. The tremors were so great, the rumbling even reached people in far distant places. 

The echo of that first bell is dim, now, but also pervasive, diversified. So many have received and shared its sound, again and again, over time and through space, that it shimmers around us now in wondrous harmonies.  If we open our hearts to prepare Christ room, we may find that it begins to pulse with sounding joy; with the whisper that Love is real and present among us; with the murmur that a different way of life is possible.

We are here to receive holy messages tonight, and We, too, can be holy messengers; instruments in the great orchestra of God’s creation; part of the praise band; part of the bell choir. Tonight, may the clarion call of God’s wondrous love born into this everyday world reverberate in you, driving out fear and despair, making room for healing and hope. Perhaps, in time, we will each find a way to join in the chorus, to magnify the message, to swell the song that bursts into our broken world again tonight, proclaiming glory and peace. May it be so.

A Visit with the Holy Family

  • December 23, 2019

Psalm 80:1-3

How shall we receive the Holy family as they come into our midst this week? The brief lines of their biblical stories have been layered over by so much art, so many hymns, so much tradition, that we may forget what is actually written there.  The story that we think we know has become so familiar, it may not feel like something that could touch and change our lives today.

But we long now, as folks have longed for generation upon generation, for God to come close to us, and to change our world.  The psalmist cries: “Stir up your might, and come to save us!… Let your face shine, that we may be saved.” Christians are invited to find God’s response to this longing in the events of this week.  Let us make our hearts ready to receive God, shining and saving, arriving in the form of a human child.

Luke 1:26-38

We know very little about Mary of Nazareth, the mother of Jesus: but that hasn’t stopped us from celebrating her.  There are so few women with names in scripture; so few who speak; so few who are portrayed as taking an active role in making way for God’s work on earth.  And so, Mary has become in our traditions almost everything we can imagine a woman to be, and particularly those things that our cultures have desired women to be, even when that contradicts the biblical record.

Mary is almost always portrayed as beautiful, though the scriptures make no reference to her appearance. Mary is, all too frequently, portrayed as white, when we know her skin must have been some shade of beautiful brown.  Mary is cherished as an example of a strict sense of morality; though she would have been, at the time, a great scandal: an unwed teenage mother.  Mary is treasured as an example of female docility, meek and mild; when her brief appearances in scripture point to instead to bravery. Mary talks with an angel; she agrees to take on an overwhelming task of being the mother of God; she survives brutal gossip. According to one gospel, Mary travels while pregnant, and gives birth in a stable, all because of the dictates of colonial bureaucracy. According to another gospel, Mary travels post-partum with an infant, and becomes a refugee in Egypt, in order to escape the brutal violence of a tyrant.  Mary raises a son who leaves his family to become a traveling preacher, risking his life in open defiance of political and religious authorities. She accompanies her son through his execution.

Mary’s story is not glamorous.  I can’t imagine that she could have survived it without deep faith and unbelievable courage.  But perhaps the best proof of Mary’s character we get in scripture is in her longest speech, proclaimed to her cousin, Elizabeth. This outpouring of faith is known as the Magnificat because it begins, I magnify the Lord.  The words of the Magnificat are truly revolutionary; and that is beautifully captured in the version of it made by Rory Cooney; let’s sing together, the Canticle of the Turning.

Matthew 1:18-25

Joseph is the neglected member of the holy family. We hardly remember he was there. When we set up our nativity sets, he’s usually somewhere in the back, holding a staff, looking solemn. There’s only one hymn in our hymnal that has much to do with him; that’s the one we’re singing.

But Joseph, like Mary, must have been a remarkable person. He is visited by an angel in a dream, and decides to believe that holy message, and marry an already pregnant woman, despite the scandal.  He has an incredible lineage, including King David and traceable all the way back to Abraham and Sarah.  We can only imagine that he must have been proud of that.  Still, he accepts that his firstborn son will be adopted: that love is more important than genealogy.  Joseph goes on those same journeys as Mary, supporting her, pregnant on the way to Bethlehem; supporting her and the child Jesus on the way to Egypt, and back again.  And in Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph is the one who receives all the angelic visits and instructions: the one charged by God to keep this little family safe.  Like Mary, Joseph does not really fulfill his stereotype as a perfectly “traditional” dad.  He is something better, a partner and parent who is brave, flexible, self-sacrificing.

Let’s sing together, Gentle Joseph, Joseph Dear.

Isaiah 7:10-15

When we try to imagine who Jesus is, we often turn to the Hebrew Scriptures.  This is strange, of course, because we share the Hebrew Scriptures with many who do not understand Jesus as the realizations of Hebrew Scriptures depictions of a coming king, a suffering servant, a sign for the nations, Emmanuel, God-with-us.

But the gospels do not tell us what Jesus was like, especially as a child.  A hymn assures us that “no crying he made” but really, Jesus could have had colic, or been one of those babies that just had to be held and jiggled all day. Did Jesus get diaper rash?  Was he fussy about eating, prone to spitting up? Was he a toddler full of laughter, or maybe, instead, an old soul with a deep seriousness only certain two-year-olds can muster?

We know more about Jesus as an adult, but even then, he’s still a bit of a mystery.  We don’t know much about what he looked like. We don’t know whether he had a romantic partner – plenty of commentary on that one, especially in popular culture, but no real answers. We get only tiny glimpses from the gospel of how Jesus felt, or what he needed. We are witnesses of Jesus’ public face: his wisdom, his stories, his questions, his final public protest and execution.

But Jesus was human, as well as divine. He was, once, a child: born poor in a little village, in somewhat questionable circumstances, in dangerous times.  He was loved and cared for, and grew up brave: ready to bring the best of himself out into a complicated world, and let it shine.  He was God, with flesh on; God among us, knowing human life and death: God with us, our Emmanuel.

Let’s sing Born, in the night, Mary’s Child, giving thanks for God’s gift of Jesus.

Singing Our Faith, Part 4

An image of Mary’s visit to Elizabeth from the community of Taize.

This year we have been taking one Sunday of each month to explore the music we sing together.  So far it’s been an extremely condensed historical survey, considering the Hebrew psalms, ancient Christian canticles, and the birth of hymnody as we know it during the Protestant Reformation.  In the years that followed the Reformation, more and more folks embraced its musical impetus. Congregations around the world sang in their native languages, with music that fit their cultures, and that was easy to sing all together.  We could spend a lot of time exploring all this music. But today, I invite you to jump another 500 years or so, to the mid-20th century, to another era of great religious, political, and musical change.

As nations faced the consequences of first one, and then two world wars, Christians of many denominations and nationalities became impatient with the divisions among them. There was a desire for unity and common mission in a broken world.  At the same time, many Christians began to feel dissatisfied with their modes of worship. Much of Catholic worship was, for some, too antiquated and formalized, disconnected from modern people and from everyday life. Much of Protestant worship was, for some, too prosaic and intellectual, disconnected from the senses, from ritual, from a sense of holy mystery. The division of the Western Church in the Reformation had led both Catholic and Protestant branches to dismiss those forms of worship that they characterized as belonging to the other. But now, after a break of about 500 years, they were curious about each other’s gifts, and about the gifts of even more ancient Christian worship, their common ancestor.

In the midst of all of this came the second Vatican council, or Vatican II.  This international conference of the Catholic church, held in several sessions during the years 1962-1965, marked a major shift in Catholic practice. For the first time, the mass could be held in the vernacular, not only in Latin.  There was greater openness to lay leadership and ecumenical partnership. A few women were invited to attend the conference – a small gesture, but a significant one.  Most relevant for our discussion today, this Council called on church musicians to adapt Latin hymns into vernacular languages, compose new texts and melodies, and create church music with contemporary musical styles.  This call generated the folk music still used in many Catholic settings, some of which has crossed over into Protestant use as well.

The opening of Catholic tradition to Protestant collaboration led to extraordinary developments.  A shared lectionary was designed, with readings for each Sunday of the church year, for use in Catholic settings as well as many Protestant ones.  New conversations revealed that we don’t disagree as much about the sacraments as we thought we did.  Denominations began to recognize each other’s processes of ordination and baptism. Christians across denomination began to explore the importance of worship space, sacred seasons, and the order of worship.

These innovations happened in local congregations, and at seminaries, and in denominational bodies. There were particular storms of creativity in special Christian communities around the world that don’t fit into any of these categories.  Today we’re sampling musical gifts from three of those special communities: the Iona Community in Scotland, the Taize Community in France, and Holden Village, a retreat center in Washington State.  All three have cultivated the development of innovative forms of music and prayer which reflect a fascinating mix of denominational, historical, and geographical influences.

We started worship today with a hymn from Iona (Who Would Thank That What Was Needed).  This community was founded in 1938 by a pastor in the Scottish Reform tradition.  The Iona Community is famous for its retreat center on Iona Island, but also for its publishing house, Wild Goose Publications, as well as one of its most prominent musicians, John Bell.  Through the generosity of Helen Sayles, we were able to host John Bell here several years ago. We sing music from this community throughout the year, such as: Halle, Halle, Halle; Cloth for the Cradle; and The Summons.  Iona has become a center for musical renewal in the church. Its music includes unexpectedly modern language set to traditional tunes from Scotland and the British Isles, as well as short worship songs gathered from around the world.

The Taize community in France was founded just two years later than Iona, in 1940, by a Catholic man who became known as Brother Roger. This community welcomed refugees during World War II and offered hospitality to orphans after it was over. Taize has become an interdenominational Christian monastic community of men which has a particular calling to nurture spiritual growth in youth and young adults, who often make pilgrimage there. Their worship style includes periods of silence and simple, evocative prayers, as well as repetitive chants, set to music. Much of Taize music was written by one brother, Jacques Berthier.  Both the brothers of Taize, and their worship style, have travelled around the world and blessed many other communities. Let’s sing together a chant from Taize, In the Lord I’ll be Ever Thankful. (Here’s a video for those who weren’t there to experience this!)

The third community I mentioned, Holden Village, is by far the most recent, and least well known of the three. It was founded in the 1960s, and is rooted in the Lutheran tradition.  I mention it not only because I went there last summer, but because it has developed music and worship that is similar, yet distinct, from the other two communities; right here in the United States. The most well-known of its musicians is Marty Haugen, a Lutheran who grew up to join the UCC and who also composes for Catholic congregations.  Marty Haugen writes hymns, call-and-response litanies, and full mass settings, as well as the evening prayer setting that we are using pieces of throughout our worship in Advent. We’ll sing another one of his pieces together, in a moment.

But first, I want to take a moment to reflect on the significance of the shifts in sacred musical development that these three communities and their artists represent.  I find in this music, and the theology of worship that undergirds it, a weaving together of head and heart, of ancient and new, of high and low liturgical styles, with a profound emphasis on accessibility and participation.  This is music whose DNA and whose goal is a unification of Christians with one another, with our common history, with our common faith, and with God herself. I give thanks for this music, and all those who have made and shared it with us, and to the God who inspired it.

Let’s sing, then, a piece from Marty Haugen. This is a version of the O Antiphons, the calling of many names of Jesus, to come among us, in this season of Advent.

Music of John Rutter

Many thanks to Music Minister Jim Barcovic and the Senior Choirs of both West Concord Union Church and Holy Family Parish for the beautiful music this past Sunday!

Wake Up to Hope

The season of Advent, this season of preparation for Christmas, begins with Prophets. Prophets are people who have a special ability to understand God’s longing for our world.  Prophets are people who are willing to share God’s longing for our world with others: to share it loud, to share it strong, no matter what the consequences.  The Prophet Isaiah says:

God will make justice among the people, and they will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. (Isaiah 2:4)

No one will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea. (Isaiah 11:9)

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. (Isaiah 35:1-2)

Isaiah was a prophet. He also spoke of another prophet who would come after him, someone who would be a voice crying out in the wilderness, saying, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Some people think the prophet Isaiah described was a man we call John the Baptist. He preached and baptized out by the Jordan River, saying:

Turn around, change your ways, for God’s heavenly way has come near. (Matthew 3:2)

Many people feel that John’s work made way for the ministry of Jesus.

Another person who bears witness to God’s truth in this season, and who makes way for Jesus, is Mary of Nazareth.  Mary accepts a frightening invitation from an angel and agrees to bear a special child. She says:

O God, your mercy is for those who fear you from generation to generation. You show your strength and scatter the proud. You bring down the powerful from their thrones, and lift up the lowly. You fill the hungry with good things, and send the rich away empty. You help your people, remembering to be merciful, as you promised our ancestors. (Luke 1:50-55)

I wonder if you can think of people today who bravely share their ideas about how our world should be, how our world could be, how God longs for our world to be.

This season between Thanksgiving and Christmas, there are so many ways that we could use our time and energy. If we listen to our television, and our email inbox, and our postal mail, and our calendar, they may tell us to do things like:

  • Make a list of all the things that we wish we had.
  • Spend lots of time and money shopping for things we think other people might like to have.
  • Stay up late and attend lots of parties
  • Get really busy with planning and wrapping and travelling and cleaning and cooking
  • Eat lots and lots of things, including lots of sugar
  • Drink lots and lots of things, including lots of alcohol (for the adults).

Now I’m sure that many of us will do many of the things on that list. Most of them can be fun in moderation for most of us.  They can also provide some distraction from the fact that it’s cold outside, and dark at 4:30 p.m..

But the season of Advent, and the prophets in it, invite us to include something different in this season. They invite us to:

  • Find a moment to get quiet: by ourselves, or with a few people we really care about.
  • If it’s already dark, to light a candle.
  • Breathe in and out, and become aware of the moment we are living in.
  • Be honest about what is difficult or painful in our lives, and in the life of the world, not trying to cover it up.
  • Wake up our sense of hope for healing, for change.
  • Pay attention, to all those who are working for beautiful change around us.
  • Begin to imagine how we could be a very small part of that great big beautiful change.

I hope you’ll get some resources from this church to help you do these things, this season; or that you’ll spend some time today considering how you might make this a season of holy preparation, of spiritual nourishment.

At the service, we went on to learn a new (to us) version of Mary’s Magnificat by Ray Makeever, complete with motions learned at Holden Village!


A Reformation of Worship Music

Psalm 100, Philippians 4:4-9

This year we have been exploring the history of the music we sing in worship. So far, however, we have mostly discussed the music sung by choirs. During the first fifteen hundred years of the Western church, singing was mostly for select groups and cantors, and sung in Latin. Hymns for all to sing were only used outside the central worship service, where they existed at all.

This story changes during the Protestant Reformation.  In fact, many of the theological heroes of the reformation were also musical innovators and champions of congregational singing. As Christians began to read the Bible in their own common languages for the first time, as they began to understand themselves as part of a universal priesthood, it seemed only natural for them to begin to share in making worship music.

The earliest hymn books during the Reformation were mostly Psalters: collections of psalms translated into metrical vernacular, to be sung to simple tunes. The first was the Genevan Psalter of 1539, written in French. It was produced by John Calvin, who wrote:  “it is a thing most expedient for the edification of the church to sing some psalms in the form of public prayers … so that the hearts of all may be roused and stimulated to make similar prayers and to render similar praises and thanks to God with a common love.” Another famous early Psalter is the Bay Psalm book of 1640, the first book printed in what was known by many as British North America. 

As songs for congregational singing became more popular, both their form and content began to develop. Some were translated from existing Latin songs, often with additional verses added to emphasize the theological points most important to reformers. Other hymns were new scripture paraphrases set to popular secular tunes. Although this was a clever idea for spreading the faith, these combinations didn’t always work; Martin Luther reported that some songs just had to be given back to the devil. Some Reformation hymns were entirely new, in both text and tune. 

These songs were designed to be easily sung by anyone. This fact alone shaped how they were written and revised, and which became most popular. Much of the new hymnody had rhyming verse, which was catchier, more memorable. Over time, more and more tunes had a set and predictable rhythm, so that they was easier for many people to sing them together.  One fun bit of trivia: at first, the melody line of a hymn was most often located in the tenor part.  It was only after 1586 that giving it to the sopranos became standard practice. Techniques of harmonization also developed over time, enriching earlier melodies, thanks in large part to J.S. Bach.

Some reformation-era hymns are still among the best-known in many of our churches. They form a significant portion of many hymn books, including the Pilgrim Hymnal.  With an original copyright of 1931, the Pilgrim hymnal claims as its source texts the Geneva Psalters and the Bay Psalm book, as well as Isaac Watts, often known as the father of English hymnody.  The Pilgrim hymnal was originally made for Congregational and Christian churches, predecessors to the current United Church of Christ.  Later revisions of this hymnal, like the 1958 version that we have, are claimed by the then new United Church of Christ, and added some music from the ancient church, and a wider range of denominational sources.

But perhaps a better way to tell this story is by exploring the music itself.  Let’s take a brief tour through a few hymns.

Our opening hymn today was Our God, Our Help in Ages Past, the first hymn in the Pilgrim Hymnal and a defining one. This is perhaps the greatest hymn written by Isaac Watts (as I just mentioned, the father of English hymnody).  The British were latecomers to the Reformation hymn-writing party. Isaac Watts did his best to make up for that, writing hundreds of hymns in English. This hymn was written in 1714, a time when there was anxiety about the royal succession.  It was later played on BBC radio as soon as WWII was declared, and speaks to the theme of faith as a source of stability in times of uncertainty.

At the end of the service we will sing “Now Thank We All Our God,” which was also formed by a context of conflict.  The text’s author, Martin Rinkart, served as pastor in a small walled city in Germany called Eilenberg. Eilenberg became a refuge for those fleeing violence and plague during the 30 years war. Eventually, Rinkart was the only pastor left there, burying as many as 40 or 50 people a day, including, eventually, his wife.  This context makes a striking background for Rinkart to celebrate the wondrous things God does.  This became a defining hymn in Germany, and is sung for days of national thanksgiving there. The tune, written by Johann Cruger, was used by J.S. Bach in his Reformation cantata.

I can’t talk about this time period in the formation of our hymnody without mentioning the OLD HUNDREDTH, perhaps the best known and most widely used of all psalm tunes. It was first published in the Geneva Psalter of 1551, oddly enough as the tune for Psalm 134.  We don’t know it as the Old 134th, however, because its first English words were a translation of Psalm 100 in 1561. Many of us know this tune best with still more recent words, but we’ll sing a version of this first English setting today during the blessing of our offerings.

One thing that surprised me over and over in learning about these hymns is how many versions they often went through before becoming the classics we now recognize. One such adaptation occurs in the hymn “O Sacred Head, Now Wounded.” The text was originally written by Bernard of Clairvaux, in Latin, in 1153.  Like other beloved texts, it was translated during the Reformation and set to music that was popular at the time. In this case, it was a secular piece by Hans Leo Hassler. He wrote it in 1601 and it had been unsuccessfully paired with several hymn texts before being matched with this one in 1656. This tune is also found in Bach’s works, and we borrow the current harmonization from him. Let’s sing v. 1&3, Pilgrim (Red) Hymnal #170.

We can’t talk about this time period without including Charles Wesley, an Anglican priest who helped to spread the Methodist movement founded by his brother John. He wrote the words to over 6,000 hymns.  In 1747, he published a pamphlet titled: “Hymns for those that seek and those that have Redemption in the Blood of Jesus Christ.”  One of those hymns was “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” arguably one of his best. The tune we know wasn’t written until 1870, 120 years later, by a German-born man named John Zundel. Zundel served as church organist for 28 years in the Brooklyn church where Henry Ward Beecher was minister. Thus, this popular tune is most commonly (and quite unfairly) known as BEECHER. Let’s sing Pilgrim Hymnal #228, Love Divine, All Loves Excelling: 1st & 4th verses.

Perhaps the most famous hymn writer of the reformation was Martin Luther. A theological and political leader, Luther also loved music from childhood. He worked with musicians to create new music for Christians in the common language. His most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” written in in 1529, is a paraphrase of Psalm 46.  Unlike many other famous writers I have mentioned, Luther wrote both text and tune. Reflecting on this hymn again, I was struck by the similarities of the theme it expresses to others we are singing today.  During the Reformation, a time of great religious and political conflict and change, the steadiness and strength of God was a particular focus of hymnody. Perhaps it is not surprising that these same hymns rang true for those forming and revising the Pilgrim Hymnal, following the first and second world Wars.

This beloved hymn has been translated from German to English many times. It has also changed in both rhythm and harmonization over time; you can find both old and new versions next to each other in the New Century Hymnal. In a moment, Jim will play the tune in the old way, then I invite you to rise and sing the form familiar to us.

But, before we sing, after all that information, I invite you to take a deep breath. Consider the gift we have received, in the faith and artistry of so many writers and musicians, and the bravery of Christians living through so many challenges.  Through the grace and inspiration of God, and the labor of many, we have music to share together that people of faith have been singing in many different forms for 3, or 4, or 500 years. Thanks be to God.

Congregational Giving Celebration

Thank you for your presence, prayers, and labor to bring this service and fellowship together! It was a wonderful day!