Bless, O Lord, us Thy servants who minister in Thy temple. Grant that what we sing with our lips, we may believe in our hearts and what we believe in our hearts, we may show forth in our lives, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Singing: Jesus loves me! This I know, for the Bible tells me so. Little ones to him belong; they are weak, but he is strong. Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me! The Bible tells me so.
As long as I can remember, the love in my heart for God, my passion for ministry and service in the name of Jesus, my profound sense of being held by God’s holy church and its possibilities of love have lived in me as music.
I grew up literally in the lap of the church. My father was a preacher, and my mother did what many preachers’ wives did in those days—she played the piano for worship. This was in the day before churches had nurseries. So as soon as we would arrive at church, my parents would hand me over to some unsuspecting man or woman. And in their lap, I would join God’s people in worship.
My father would serve seven churches before I reached first grade. And those churches sang from a small, red cloth bound hymnal. The hymns were written out in shape note; the verses lined out for those folks who could not read. And the best loved hymns had choruses. Choruses that even a child could learn. No one was ever excluded from the singing.
My mother tells me that the first hymn I ever learned from beginning to end was one of those hymns. It was a harvest hymn: sung by farmers tuned to the cycles of nature; of wind and rain, sunshine and its effects on green and growing things and on their cows, pigs, and chickens.
The hymn had a rousing chorus: Robust, like a marching song. Singing: Bringing in the sheaves, bringing in the sheaves, we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.
Whenever the pianist—my mother—would strike the first note of that hymn, she says I would climb up and stand on the pew, trying to make myself as tall as everyone around me. There, I would belt out with all the strength my four-year-old body and voice could muster. “Bringing in the cheese, bringing in the cheese, we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the cheese.”
Cheese, I knew; sheaves, not so much. That the hymn writer would suggest that God would bring in a harvest of God’s faithful people, like a harvest of wheat or corn—I missed that.
And yet, here’s the interesting thing: no one ever corrected me. No one ever said, “You’ve go the wrong word.” Or, “Little girls shouldn’t stand on pews.” Or, “Our preacher’s daughter has a lot to learn.” Nope, I heard ladies in their Sunday best, with gloves to cover their work worn hands and hats to cover their frizzy home permanents say to my parents: “Lawse, that child loves to sing; Never seen a child like to sing like that. The Lord Jesus has his hand on that gal. Praise Jesus.”
Music creates communities. In our Friday gathering for prayer, I asked the girl choristers what they experienced singing with the men, who work all day and come prepared to sing, week after week, year after year. One said, “It’s like having the weird older brother you’ve never had. They’re funny.” “One day,” another said, “I lost my place in a solo, and one of the men sitting behind me hummed all the notes until I found my place.” “It’s like having an extra backbone,” said another, “real support, to keep us strong.”
Music creates communities. It helps to sustain them as well. In my thirties, now a member of the clergy, I served on the staff of the Southwest Texas Conference of the United Methodist Church under the leadership of Bishop Ernest T. Dixon, Jr. Steeped in the cadences and rhythms of the African American church, regal, possessed of a contagious, knee slapping laugh, Bishop Dixon had a voice as deep as the ocean.
It was the 1980s and social issues kept people stirred up in the 300 plus churches entrusted to Bishop Dixon’s care, not the least among them being the fact that he was the first African American to serve as their bishop. Not everyone was pleased.
Tempers flared often and rancor prevailed on many an issue before us at large church gatherings. Bishop Dixon would take it for as long as he could. And yet when you saw him to rise to his feet, all 6 foot 6 of him, you knew what would happen next.
Singing: There’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place, and I know that it’s the Spirit of the Lord. There are sweet expressions on each face, and I know they feel the presence of the Lord.” The chorus ends with the promise that gathering together will revive us. Revived, indeed, restored, moving forward together, feeling sheepish—and just a little bit chastised—and yet agreeing to disagree for the sake of Christ’s holy church.
Music creates communities. It sustains them; and sets a pattern for belonging to one another, for participating in the community of God’s people, for offering love through service.
Two years ago, a young man left the choir after a very short tenure as a chorister. He grew tall in a hurry. His voice dropped just as quickly. “I was devastated,” he said, “depressed: having been in the Cathedral community long enough to appreciate its togetherness. I thought long and hard on how I could continue to belong. And I remembered the kids in white vestments carrying the cross and torches. The idea of becoming an acolyte, to be in the worship services and to be a spiritual leader in the community again took hold of me.” We installed him this morning as one of our newest acolytes.
Music sets a pattern for belonging, leading, and offering service. And something about singing the songs of God releases tremendous energy, beauty, and creativity into the world.
You may remember last fall, we celebrated Mr. McCarthy’s ten years of service to this Cathedral Church. I asked around. What does Mike’s love of music release in this place? One of the men wrote: “With Mike McCarthy, even the simplest of musical compositions is a journey. A journey of new, interesting, and exciting ways to uncover the beauty present in the masterpiece or the mundane anthem. Michael challenges you to feel and live every single note and word with your heart and soul; to transport those with whom he makes music with words and graceful gesture, to explore more, feel more, and create art to the glory of God.
Writer Kurt Vonnegut once said, “Let this be my epitaph. ‘The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music.’”
That’s what a great hymn does, a sweetly sung chorus, an anthem, mundane or masterpiece. They convey and allow us to experience something of the glory of God’s energy, creativity, and Spirit; released through the body of Christ at song. A song of love, we can never forget.
Singing: Jesus loves me still today, walking with me on the way, wanting as a friend to give light and love to all who live. Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me! Yes, Jesus loves me! The Bible tells me so.
These are homily notes and are not intended for the purposes of publication. —Gina Gilland Campbell
Jesus Loves Me, as printed in The United Methodist Hymnal.
Chorister quotes to remain anonymous
Other sung music is from memory