Sermon by Rev. Deborah Sunoo
It’s been a surprisingly busy summer here at church! With so much else going on, I haven’t had a chance to report back on a terrific conference I attended last month. My takeaways from that event fell into several categories, but today I specifically wanted to mention an excellent series of workshops on Formational Worship.
The premise was this. Anything we do regularly can’t help but form us (that is - teach us, influence us, mold us), so as weekly worship planners we want to be as intentional as we can be aboutwhat sort offormationwe’re actually offering. Through our words, our music, our actions, what are we actually teaching one another on Sunday mornings? Where are we focusing our attention? What kind of people are we inviting each other to be?
To give a practical example appropriate to the occasion today, it matters a great deal, for instance, that we not plug in a bunch of songs on a given Sunday just because they happen to exist, or because they’re composed in a certain musical style. We want to consider the lyrics carefully: are the songs we sing together helping us step away from our human tendency to self-absorption long enough to worship the One who made us? Are they helping us learn what it means to be faithful followers of Jesus? Are they inspiring us to step up and step out and take important stands for what we believe? We also want them to be sing-able enough to allow us actively to praise God together rather than simply enjoying a series of performances.
So we talked a lot in these workshops about the importance of balance. Balancing multi-verse hymns full of important truths with simpler melodies and minimalist lyrics. Balancing tunes that allow us to celebrate with tunes that allow us to quiet our hearts to pray. Balancing songs that soothe us with songs that call us to action. Balancing music from our own cultural background with music that reminds us God is praised around the world in every culture and language. It all has its place and its purpose, and I’m not going to lie; it can be a little tricky to keep all of this in mind simultaneously. I may not always achieve an ideal balance as I select the songs we sing together each week. But if you’re invited now and then to try something that’s a little newer or a little older than you’re used to, or a little faster or a little slower than your preferred musical style, or if we sometimes invite you to sing a familiar tune with less familiar lyrics, know it’s generally done for a reason. Things we do regularly can’t help but formus, and it matterswhat sort of formation is happening when we gather every Sunday for worship.
An old church creed, the Westminster Shorter Catechism, asks the question, “What is the chief end of man?” We’d want to update the wording a little, but it’s a still question well worth asking: What is our primary purpose? The catechism’s reply: it’s “to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.” In other words, whyare we here? Both here in this sanctuary, and here on this planet at all? We’re here to glorify God in all we say and do. Some of you may remember last week we talked about every person on earth being a beloved child of God in whom God delights? In worship, I suppose you could say we get to return that delight, enjoying God as we sing our praises.
It’s that sense of delighting in God I find in our Scripture text today. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.” (Psalm 100:1-2a)
We talk a lot about joy and rejoicing in the Church, so let’s be clear that feeling cheerful is never a prerequisite for coming to worship. The Bible’s full of honest talk to God from the heights andthe depths of human experience. You don’t have to be overflowing with happiness in a given moment to participate, for surely we are no less God’s “people, and the sheep of his pasture” (Psalm 100:3) when we’re hurting, or discouraged, or depressed, than we are when we happen to be bubbling over with joy. In fact there’s a lot to be said for worshiping God together in every season of our lives, the awful ones right along with the good ones.
But while it feels sometimes like this church family has seen more than its share of heartache, I’ve been privileged to share many wonderful moments with you, too, times when our hearts were so full of thankfulness that we couldn’t help but sing to the Lord with gladness.
It’s in that spirit – for he so clearly lives out this biblical call to make a joyful noise to the Lord – that I want to express our gratitude to Andrey Spichak for the three years he’s served as our Music Director here. You impressed us immediately at your interview, Andrey, with your devotion to sacred music that’s open to everyone. You obviously enjoy worship yourself and delight in singing your praises to God. And because you want all of us to enjoy these things as much as you do, you’ve not only done the more visible tasks of directing our choir and teaching us new songs as a congregation. You’ve poured considerable time and energy into less visible, behind the scenes activities like quietly slipping downstairs to Sunday School with our children every week so that you could share your contagious enthusiasm with them. Even when you have sung for us yourself as you did today, you’ve been careful to model both that a musical offering can be as simple as singing a favorite hymn, and that sharing a piece of music in worship should be about making an offering to God, not about glorifying the singer. Though your own background was in the Russian Orthodox branch of the Body of Christ, week after week you have taught us the meaning of that line from our Reformed creed: that our purpose in life is “to glorify God and to enjoy God forever.” We thank you for that gift.
As you might imagine, with Andrey’s departure your church leaders are giving careful thought to what’s next for us in our music ministry. Our top priority will of course remain giving glory to God in our weekly services of worship. We’ll continue to embrace your rich tradition of tapping into musical talent within the congregation, too, so that everyone who gathers here is invited to “enter [God’s] gates with thanksgiving, and [God’s] courts with praise.” (Psalm 100:4) And we’ll certainly update you as we go along.
We’ll also continue talking together about Formational Worship. Again, anything we do regularly can’t help but form us (influencing us, teaching us, molding us), so we want to be as intentional as we can be about what sort of formation we’re providing on Sunday mornings. Through our words, our music, our actions… through the mix of faces and voices and ages that lead us, what are we teaching one another and our children when we gather for worship? Where are we focusing our attention? What kind of Christians are we inviting one another to be?
I told Andrey last week how clear it was that God had called him here “for such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14) You were the right person for this position in this season, and as fully as we understand your reasons for stepping down, we’re sad to see you go.
But whatever this next chapter holds for us here, there’s no doubt in my mind that God will continue to provide this congregation with beautiful, meaningful worship music. Formationalmusic that quiets and comforts us, inspires and uplifts us, challenges us and calls us to action us as we seek to be ever more faithful followers of Jesus.