Archive for the ‘Music’ Category

“My God” – Stuart Townend


My God, full of mercy,
Heard our weeping, came to bring us home again.
My God takes the broken and makes them whole.

My God touched the outcast,
Raised the lame man, and He caused the blind to see.
My God takes the broken and makes them whole.

My God stood for justice,
Shamed the prideful, but He called the sinner ‘friend’.
My God takes the broken and makes them whole.

My God felt the anguish
Of the soldier, made his child to live again.
My God takes the broken and makes them whole.

My God, mocked and beaten,
Crushed and bleeding, yet crying ‘Father God, forgive.’
My God became broken to make me whole.

My God, on the third day,
In the morning broke the shackles of the grave.
My God takes the broken and makes them whole.

My God knows my failures,
Speaks forgiveness, gives me strength to try again.
My God takes the broken and makes me whole.

The Power of the Cross – Stuart Townend  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P22lpnmgJbs

Jesus Christ is Risen Today https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_6sj9ljVsfk

Thine Be the Glory https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UPH7-dNrwb8

Crown Him with Many Crowns https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kPkjghup8E

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All My Hope on God Is Founded
Words: Joachim Neander (1650-1680)
Music: Herbert Howells (1892-1983)

All my hope on God is founded;
He doth all my trust renew,
Me through change and chance He guideth,
Only good and only true.
God unknown, He alone
Calls my heart to be His own.

Pride of man and earthly glory,
Sword and crown betray his trust;
What with care and toil be buildeth
Tower and temple fall to dust.
But God’s power, hour by hour,
Is my temple and my tower.

God’s great goodness aye endureth,
Deep His wisdom, passing thought:
Splendor, light, and life attend Him,
Beauty springeth out of naught.
Love doth stand at His hand;
Joy doth wait on His command.

Still from man to God eternal
Sacrifice of praise be done,
High above all praises praising
For the gift of Christ His Son.
Christ doth call one and all:
Ye who follow shall not fall.

We sang this little-known-in-America hymn in church yesterday and it reminded me how much I love it – both the music and the text.  There is a grandeur in the sound and a passion in the words that are hard to match.  I wondered aloud to the senior pastor and one of our choir members: “what inspired this song?” None of us had heard of Joachim Neander or knew why his life was so tragically short: he died at only 30 years of age.

Neander, originally from the city of Bremen, is probably best known for the hymn Praise To The Lord, The Almighty, The King Of Creation.  Like many upper-middle-class men of his time, Neander studied theology at university but wasn’t exactly on fire about his faith at first.  Hymnary.org writes: “German student life in the 17th century was anything but refined, and Neander seems to have been as riotous and as fond of questionable pleasures as most of his fellows…

“In July 1670, Theodore Under-Eyck came to Bremen as pastor of St. Martin’s Church… a Pietist and holder of conventicles. Not long after Neander, with two like-minded comrades, went to service there one Sunday, in order to criticize and find matter of amusement. But the earnest words of Under-Eyck touched his heart; and this, [and] subsequent conversations with Under-Eyck, proved the turning-point of his spiritual life.”

As for the inspiration behind this particular hymn text, history leaves us no specifics. But Hymnary.org writes: “Many [of his hymns] are of a decidedly subjective cast, but for this the circumstances of their origin, and the fact that the author did not expect them to be used in public worship, will sufficiently account. […] But the glow and sweetness of his better hymns, their firm faith, originality, Scripturalness, variety and mastery of rhythmical forms, and genuine lyric character fully entitle them to the high place they hold.”

There’s an interesting footnote to Neander’s family history: the family name was originally Neumann (“New man” in English) but Joachim’s grandfather changed it to the Greek Neander.  Before he was given his own church to lead, Joachim, who was a nature-lover, would hold gatherings and services and preach in the valley of the Dussel River.  The word in German for “valley” being “thal”, this area became known as Neander-thal or “Neander’s Valley”.  It was in this valley, in the 1800’s, that the remains of a man were found that became known as “Neanderthal Man”.




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John Lodge, bass player and one of the front men of the Moody Blues, recorded a new album this year. The album is his first solo effort since the 1970s and was released within months of his 70th birthday.

Asked about his thoughts behind the making of the album, Lodge commented “obviously you need songs. But you need a way… the right way for you to record the album.” He explained that with this work he was returning to the way the Moodies developed albums “like in the early days… as a band… all creating together…”

In the ‘early days’ the Moody Blues were famous for arranging songs not so much in a studio (with the musicians on one side of a glass wall and a producer in a control room on the other side) as around a coffee table. In fact the coffee table in the Moodies’ offices became legendary among fans, an iconic representation of how the band members worked together.

The coffee table was lost to history around the time the Moodies took a break from recording in the late 1970s, and fans have often commented that the band’s sound – and musical teamwork – was never quite the same afterward. Later works were good, yes… but they never quite felt like the same band; they felt more like collections of solo and duet efforts.

Lodge continued his recent interview by saying he wanted to “get out of a control-room situation and back into a creative mold where you can be creative with other people…”

Where it comes to the Church: Juxtapose this with comments like “Why should I bother going to church on Sunday mornings? I can worship God just as well rafting down a river and being one with nature.”

Yes – and a musician can create and record music without a band too. Many do. All it takes to make an album these days is one musician with a recording studio and a bunch of electronics. Everything else – instruments, drums, backing vocals – can be synthesized.

But something important is lost in the process: the creative gifts and talents of others. Nothing can replace what happens when band members bounce ideas off each other, play in response to each other, even get on each others’ nerves and then work to resolve differences.

Juxtapose Lodge’s comments also with people who say “what the church needs is programs that appeal to young people” (or whatever the target demographic of the day might be).

Top-down leadership leaves little room for inspiration, just as control-room recording leaves less room for musical teamwork. Where it comes to the church, the One in charge is not sitting in a glass booth. God works within hearts, and the institution needs to find ways to teach, support and inspire Holy-Spirit-directed creativity and collaboration.

So I submit for your consideration: the Body of Christ works a lot like a band. We need each other. We need to inspire each other, challenge each other, build together. And we need to learn how to be guided by God’s Spirit in working together.

The word “symphony” is a combination of two Greek words meaning to “sound together”. We can’t sound together alone.


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The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures; he leads me beside still waters; he restores my soul. He leads me in right paths for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff– they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD my whole life long. – Psalm 23

[Jesus said:] “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand, who is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and runs away– and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. The hired hand runs away because a hired hand does not care for the sheep. I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just as the Father knows me and I know the Father. And I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that do not belong to this fold. I must bring them also, and they will listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd. For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again. I have received this command from my Father.” – John 10:11-18

As some of you know starting this past fall I have been a chaplain trainee at a retirement home in the east end of the city. One of the things I’ve learned there (not from experience thank goodness!) is Psalm 23 is not something you want to read at the bedside of an elderly resident. It makes people nervous, because Psalm 23 has become connected in many people’s minds with funerals and death. The verse that says “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death” might have something to do with it! But that’s not really what this psalm is about.

So today I would like to steal Psalm 23 back, away from the funeral parlor, and put it in a happier place, because I think this psalm is meant for the living.

“The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want; he makes me to lie down in green pastures…” These words have moved people’s hearts for over 3000 years. The words give us a feeling of comfort, of being at home.

Speaking as a musician, I can’t hear the 23rd Psalm without hearing music, because it’s been set to music so many times, and because the Psalms themselves were written to be sung – the Psalms were the hymnal of ancient Israel.

And I think there’s another connection to music that can be found: in the larger setting of Psalm 23 within the book of psalms, though it’s kind of unusual to talk about ‘context’ where it comes to the psalms. A hymnal is basically just a collection of songs, not in any particular order. The songs in our hymnal, for example, aren’t in alphabetical order or organized by composer. On the other hand our hymnal is loosely organized by subject matter: Christmas songs in one place, Easter songs in another, and so on. And I think to some extent the people who collected the psalms and put them together into one book tried to do a similar thing.

Here’s the thought. In classical music there is a form, a structure for composition, called the concerto. If you’ve ever been to a Pittsburgh Symphony concert you’ve probably heard one. (And if you haven’t been to the Pittsburgh Symphony, what are you waiting for? The Pittsburgh Symphony is to classical music what the Pittsburgh Steelers are to football. But I digress…) The concerto is a long piece for solo instrument with orchestra typically in three movements, or three sections. And the movements are usually arranged Fast – Slow – Really Fast. The first movement is usually upbeat and cheerful and draws the listener in; the second movement is usually quiet and introspective; and the third movement is a grand conclusion that sweeps the audience to its feet in applause.

And I think that’s basically what we have in Psalms 22, 23, and 24: they’re like a three-movement concerto. I call it the Concerto of Our Salvation.

OK so… a concerto, first movement, usually opens upbeat and bright. Usually. But every now and then, a composer starts the first movement in a minor key: dark and brooding. This is a signal to the audience that what they’re about to hear is serious and needs careful attention.

That’s what we have in Psalm 22. Grab a Bible and follow with me. The psalm opens with a darkness that takes our breath away: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Words that plumb the depths of human sorrow. And we recognize the speaker: Jesus, who quoted these words from the cross, identifying Himself as the person King David was writing about in this psalm.

Psalm 22 goes on to describe the scene at Calvary, 1000 years before it happened. Look at verse 8: “He trusted in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him.” These exact words are found in Matthew 27:43, spoken by the chief priests and scribes as Jesus was hanging on the cross. Look at verse 16: “They have pierced my hands and feet; I can count all my bones…” David is describing crucifixion, a form of capital punishment that wasn’t invented until around 500 years after David’s death. Look at verse 17: “They divide my garments among them; they cast lots for my clothing…” – exactly what the Roman soldiers did in Matthew 27:35.

So the Concerto of Our Salvation begins with the suffering and death of the Son of God. That’s the first movement.

The third movement, the finale, Psalm 24, ends with a rousing victory. Take a look at verse 7:

“Lift up your heads, O gates!
and be lifted up, O ancient doors!
that the King of glory may come in.

George Frederick Handel quoted these lines in his oratorio Messiah. The psalm (and the oratorio) continue:

“Who is the King of glory?
The Lord, strong and mighty,
the Lord, mighty in battle.

Who is the King of glory? The same suffering servant we met in Psalm 22. He has been raised from the dead and God has made him king over all creation. And so the greatest concerto ever written ends with the greatest victory the universe has ever seen.

And in between these two movements… in between the pain and darkness of the first movement and the shining victory of the third… is a tender song, Psalm 23, the song of the shepherd. Actually it’s the song of the sheep, singing about the shepherd. It’s the song we sing in between the cross and the crown.

Psalm 23 is where we live. It’s a song of trust and quiet confidence. It begins and ends with the Lord: verse 1, “The Lord is my shepherd”; verse 6 “the house of the Lord”. In the same way our lives begin and end with God.

David says the presence of the good shepherd gives us a number of things. The first is confidence. “The Lord is my shepherd: I shall not want.” We are confident that God will provide all we need, because God has been faithful in the past. David wrote: “I have been young and now am old; yet I have not seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging bread.”

The presence of the good shepherd also gives us rest and refreshment. “He makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters.” God’s provision is abundant, and good, and we rest in safe places. “He restores my soul…” David says. At the end of a long day or a long week when we’ve had the mud of the world tramped through our souls we can come to the Good Shepherd and he will restore us.

The presence of the good shepherd also gives us guidance. “He leads me ‘in right paths’ for his name’s sake” – for His name’s sake. Not because we deserve it, but because God is our creator, and God leads us in what is right because doing so is part of who God is.

The presence of the good shepherd also gives us life. “Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” Notice David doesn’t say if I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. He says “though I walk…” He’s already there, and so are we. That’s the reality of living in a fallen world, where addiction and abuse and violence and persecution are everywhere.

In spite of the darkness, (David says) “…I shall fear no evil, for you are with me. Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” The shepherd’s rod was used as a club for fighting off wild animals, and the staff was a crook for guiding the sheep. As we pass through this world we have nothing to fear as long as we are with the shepherd.

David focuses his attention on God and not on his fears. I want to stress that point, because so much of what we hear and experience these days is designed to cause people to fear. If you can scare people you can motivate them – whether it’s to buy more insurance, or to do something morally questionable in order to keep a job, or villainize people who vote for the ‘other’ party, or to look the other way when someone’s being bullied. That’s why I pray every Sunday, when we pray for our nation, that God will raise up in our nation people whose hearts trust in God and do not fear. We fear no evil – not because evil doesn’t exist but because the good shepherd is here with us.

The presence of the good shepherd also gives us eternity with God. “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies…” and what a feast it’s going to be! The prophet Isaiah tells us, “On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of wine on the lees…”. This feast is going to make a 5-star restaurant look like McDonald’s by comparison. And David continues: “You anoint my head with oil, my cup runs over”.

“Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life; and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.” Goodness and mercy will follow me… the meaning there is ‘chase after’ – goodness and mercy will pursue me’. As the great old English preacher Charles Simeon put it: “Are you bold enough to carry this confidence beyond the grave?” If so, he says, “while all the [world is] following after happiness and it eludes their grasp, those who believe in Jesus have happiness following after them.” God’s loving kindness runs after us like the father of the Prodigal Son runs to meet his son.

And when our time on earth is done, by God’s goodness and mercy, we will move from Psalm 23 into Psalm 24 – ascending the hill of the Lord and celebrating his victory. In the meantime, Psalm 23 is the gentle, quiet second movement in the Concerto of Our Salvation. No matter what happens, no matter what we see around us, we can trust Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who has given his life for our protection, our restoration, and to bring us safely into our eternal home. Rest in Him. AMEN.

Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church, Crafton United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church on 4/26/15


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Scripture Readings: Isaiah 40:21-31 and Mark 1:29-39

Have you ever had the experience of walking in on the middle of a conversation and completely getting the wrong end of the stick? I know I have. Here’s an imaginary example: I walk into a room and hear my doctor talking to my husband, and the doctor is saying, “oh… she’s in terrible shape… I don’t think she’s going to last more than another month or two.” I start to imagine the worst… when my Mr.-Fix-It husband pipes up and says he’s going to be working on the doctor’s old car.

Today’s scripture readings are like that. Both of them start in the middle of a story, and it would be really easy to get the wrong end of the stick. In both passages God comes across sounding almost like He’s scolding, like a father who’s annoyed with his children. In Isaiah it’s “Have you not known? Have you not heard?” and in Mark we see Jesus doing all he can to get away from the ever-increasing demands of the crowds.

To interpret these passages that way is to get the wrong end of the stick. The fact is both of these passages are about the comfort and confidence God’s people find in a God who is infinitely great and infinitely loving and who is the King of all creation. Both passages are about good news, not bad news.

Starting with Isaiah, for the proper meaning and context we need to back up to the beginning of chapter 40.

As you came in this morning you were given a copy of the text of Handel’s Messiah and you can refer to this if you like. The beginning of Isaiah 40 also happens to be the opening words of Handel’s Messiah.

I’m including Messiah in today’s sermon because there are some really interesting connections between this piece of music, and the scriptures for today, and the Methodist Church. For those of you who are not classical music buffs, bear with me, I need to back up and fill in some historical detail.

Messiah is probably best known today for its Hallelujah Chorus. You all know the piece: (singing) “Hallelujah!” But like the Mona Lisa, Messiah is one of those famous masterworks that everyone’s heard of but few people in our day actually know well.

Messiah was written in the early 1700s. It’s a large work for orchestra and choir, and the words the choir sings are all taken from the Bible.

The man who selected the scripture passages and strung them all together like pearls on a necklace, Charles Jennens, had a purpose in his choices. He chose the scriptures as an argument against Deism – a popular belief in the 1700s (and today as well) that God is somewhere out there, far above and far away from creation, and has nothing to do with the day-to-day functioning of the world.

In other words, Deists believe God does not get involved with the affairs of human beings. It’s the same idea as in the song “God is watching us… from a distance.” Jennens disagreed (and so did Handel) and so he compiled the scripture texts of Messiah in such a way as to present the gospel, in a way that shows God is involved in the world God created.

Jennens chose Isaiah chapter 40 as the place to begin telling the Gospel story. Let’s take a look. You may recognize these words as a passage often read at Christmas-time:

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, says your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her,
that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned…
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness,
Prepare ye the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low:
and the crooked straight, and the rough places plain:
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together:
for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.

So the message of today’s reading from Isaiah is one of comfort. God’s words are meant to encourage, not offend.

There are two other meanings behind Isaiah’s words that Jennens pulls out of this passage. The first is that Isaiah is talking about Jesus. Isaiah’s words are not just about ancient Israeli history. This is also prophecy. The second meaning is the message of God’s involvement in the world. God will reveal his glory and all people will see it. The mouth of the Lord has spoken. And when God speaks, things happen.

There are a couple of footnotes to the history of Messiah that I wanted to share, not because I’m a history buff but because history tells us something about who we are, how we got where we are.

When it was first performed, Messiah caused a scandal. It was too controversial to be performed in the churches, so it was sung in opera halls, in front of nonbelievers and the ‘common rabble’ as they said back then. It scandalized people who thought scriptures should only be taught in church. But the press and the public loved it, and the concerts were sell-outs everywhere it played.

But the very first performance of Messiah was a fund-raising concert to benefit a debtor’s prison and two hospitals in Ireland. The performance sold so many tickets that 142 people had their debts paid and were released from prison and returned to their families. Even in music, the name of Jesus sets the captives free!

The second footnote is this: The only time Messiah was ever performed in a church during Handel’s lifetime, John Wesley was there. The founder of the Methodist movement remarked he had never seen a congregation so attentive to a sermon as they were to Messiah. And John’s brother Charles, who wrote many of our hymns, said where it came to music he “preferred Handel to all the world”.

There is a deep connection – probably not fully realized at the time – between Messiah and the founding of the Methodist church. They’re both cut from the same cloth. They’re both products of the same era. And they both address many of the same issues and needs. Messiah’s words being taken from Scripture, and relying so much on scripture, is in total agreement with John Wesley’s teaching on the importance of lay people reading and studying scripture for themselves. And Messiah’s focus on the Kingdom of God, and on the message of God’s grace to all people through Jesus Christ, was absolutely central to the Wesleys’ faith and teaching.

Because of all this, I felt it would be appropriate for you to have the words of Messiah to look at, and I encourage you to do so this week. It only takes about ten minutes to read through (as opposed to listening to the music, which takes over two and a half hours… but if you’d like to hear it, click below). Guaranteed you’ve never heard the gospel presented quite like this anywhere else.

So Isaiah chapter 40 begins with comfort for God’s people, who are invited to rest in God’s power, and trust in God’s provision.

Isaiah tells us about a God who “stretches out the heavens” to create a tent for people to live in. Isaiah tells us of a God who brings down the mighty but who counts each one of us and calls us by name; a God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, who is the King of Kings, and we are citizens of God’s kingdom. And Isaiah 40 ends with the promise that those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength, mount up with wings as eagles. This is good news.

Moving on to the gospel from Mark – our reading for today begins with the words “as soon as they left the synagogue…” which tells us we’re in the middle of the story again. We need to go back to the beginning for meaning and context.

In the synagogue at Capernaum, on the shores of Galilee, that day, Jesus had not only taught from scripture in a way that made people marvel at his authority, but he had also cast out a demon from a man who was suffering. Talk about what Jesus did spread all over the region like wildfire. When worship was over, Jesus and the disciples walked down the street to Peter’s mother-in-law’s house for a meal and they found her not well. Jesus heals her, and she gets up and gets a meal ready. Meanwhile a crowd starts to gather outside, so many people that Jesus spends all night healing and freeing people from unclean spirits

Before I move on to the end of the passage, one thing I’d like to point out: Peter’s mother-in-law didn’t do anything before she was healed. She didn’t ask for anything, and she didn’t offer anything. After she is healed she gets up and serves; but the healing itself was a gift, unasked-for and un-earned.

This kind of jumped off the page at me because it tied in with something else I read this past week. It was an article in the Leadership Journal by pastor John Ortberg. Ortberg was writing about a problem many of us have, in that we’re so busy trying to do good things we neglect our souls and our relationship with God. He says that while it’s true that a healthy soul is marked by generosity and service, he says, “Jesus calls those who are weary and heavy-laden and promises ‘rest for your souls’”.

He goes on to say that Jesus said, “If you abide in me and I abide in you, you will bear much fruit.” Jesus did not say, “Try to find a balance between abiding and fruit-bearing.” Jesus did not say, “Work hard to produce much kingdom fruit but try… to make your life sustainable so you don’t end up in a moral ditch.” Or, as my old pastor once put it, if Jesus is the vine and we are the branches, we don’t have to push fruit out… we just have to stay connected to the vine and fruit will happen.

Jesus said, “Abide.” We live in Jesus, and Jesus lives in us. (We tend make it more complicated than it really is!)

At the end of today’s passage from Mark, we see Jesus following His own teaching: he gets away from the crowd and spends time with God in prayer, doing some ‘abiding’ of his own, and setting an example for us. And from there Jesus goes on to continue doing what he came to earth to do. He avoids the trap of the cult of celebrity that is starting to form around him, and moves on to the next village to preach the gospel, the good news of the arrival of the Kingdom of God.

And those are our stories for today: Isaiah, comforting and encouraging God’s people; and Jesus, setting people free and preaching the good news that God is king and God’s kingdom has come.

At this point in the sermon preachers usually plug in something we’re supposed to do, some way to apply the lesson of the day. But these two lessons talk about what God has done for us, and will do for us.

Which leaves us with the hardest lesson of all: To learn to be still and just receive. To rest in God’s truth; to abide in God’s love; to give up the thought that anything we do could make God love us more… or make God love us less.

It may be more blessed to give than to receive… but for many people, myself included, it’s harder to receive than it is to give. But that’s what God calls us to. To stay connected with God. To rest in God and receive all that God has to give.

How do we go about doing this? I think it’s different for everybody. It may mean prayer, or eliminating a thing or two from busy schedules to sort of carve out a Sabbath somewhere in the week. Or it may be something as simple as, saying to God, in the words of Samuel in the Old Testament, “speak Lord, for your servant is listening”. The important thing is to be connected to God, as God leads us. AMEN.


Preached at Carnegie United Methodist Church and Crafton United Methodist Church, 2/8/15


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Today in church our Scripture lessons and sermon were about the journey to the Promised Land – both metaphorically and literally in terms of preparing ourselves for Heaven.  As I was choosing hymns I was surprised and thrilled to find the song above in the United Methodist hymnal.  It fit the scriptures and sermon perfectly.

Just two problems: (1) I suspected very few in the congregation knew it; and (2) how on earth does one explain what Mary’s weeping and Pharaoh’s army getting “drownded” has to do with going to heaven?

Here’s what I shared with the congregation. May it be a blessing.


O Mary Don’t You Weep is an old African-American spiritual that has to do with arriving in heaven. But that’s not immediately obvious from the text of the song. Let’s take a closer look at it.

The verses are meant to be sung by a song-leader or soloist, with the congregation singing the chorus (“O Mary don’t you weep, don’t mourn…”).  And there are many verses (I know of about a dozen) that can be interchanged as the song leader chooses.  We won’t be using a song-leader today — I’m not going to ask anyone to sing a solo! – so we will sing just the three verses in the hymnal.

So what does Mary weeping and Pharoah’s army getting “drownded” have to do with going to heaven?  Hang onto that thought, I’ll come back to it.  But first…

African-American spirituals often talk about crossing rivers. Here are some well-known examples:

Michael Row the Boat Ashore
“River Jordan is chilly and cold, chills the body but not the soul”
“River Jordan is deep and wide, milk and honey on the other side”

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
I look over Jordan, and what do I see? A band of angels comin’ after me.

Deep River
Deep river, my home is over Jordan
Deep river, Lord, I want to cross over into Campground.

The river represents death, and crossing the river and arriving safely on the far side represents arriving in the promised land — in heaven.

So in this song, the writer of the hymn is standing by Mary’s side. [I assumed it was Jesus’ mother Mary, but it may also be interpreted as Mary Magdalene at the tomb on Easter morning.]  The song writer is telling her, “Don’t cry. Remember the Red Sea? Remember how God’s people ended up safe on the other side, and the river they crossed became the death of Pharaoh’s army, their enemies? Jesus is doing the same thing.  Jesus is crossing the river of death right now to make a way for God’s people, and the enemy (which is death) is being destroyed. So Mary don’t you weep.”

So this hymn is about looking through life’s challenges to the joy in God’s saving power and the celebration of our arrival in heaven.

Let’s sing!

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Scripture Readings: Romans 14:1–12 and Matthew 18:21–35

Before I dig into the scripture readings from Romans and Matthew, I want to mention three notes on these readings.

First, there is a third scripture reading assigned for this morning, from the Old Testament, that we did not read, that gives a great context to the words of Paul and Matthew. The Old Testament reading would have been from Exodus chapters 14 and 15, which tell the story of Israel’s liberation from slavery, crossing the Red Sea while God holds the waters back, and then the song of freedom and victory when they reach the other side. This picture of God setting his people free gives us a proper background for these two New Testament readings, because it gives us a picture of God’s mercy and power to set us free from sin and death.

When Jesus talks about forgiveness in the reading from Matthew – it is humanly impossible to forgive the way Jesus says to forgive, unless we know we are God’s people and God is with us. When Paul talks about not judging others – it is impossible to not judge others unless we know our own sins have been forgiven. It is human nature to point out the flaws of others; but as Christians we have been set free from the power of sin and death, through the mercy and power of God, and because of this we are able to live lives of mercy and compassion. So I recommend to your reading this week Exodus chapters 14 and 15.

Second, these two readings from Matthew and Romans are related to each other. They are both close to the very heart of the gospel. Jesus started his public ministry preaching, “the kingdom of God is near – repent and believe the good news.” The word ‘repent’ means to change course, or to change direction, or to change one’s mind. Repentance is not about regret or guilt or shame, it’s about facing into a new direction. So Jesus is saying basically, “The kingdom of God is near – change course and believe the good news.” The coming of the King, the coming of the Messiah, is what makes it possible for us to have changed minds and changed direction.

Third, both of these passages – from Matthew and from Romans – are difficult. They’re difficult to hear, and they’re difficult to live. This is going to be one of those sermons where I’ll be preaching to myself as much as I am to you.

With all that said, let’s dig in. We’ll start with the reading from Romans. Paul is writing to the church at Rome because the Roman church is on the brink of a church split (something that seems to happen a lot throughout church history!) Paul is writing to correct the attitudes of the people who are tearing the church apart.

The division in the Roman church is over the subject of eating meat. Should Christians eat meat or shouldn’t they? That’s the question. This is not about vegetarianism; the issue in the ancient world was that most of the meat a person could buy in the open market – not all, but most – came from religious sacrifices. In other words, these animals had been sacrificed to false gods. Some people said meat sacrificed to a false god was tainted by false religion and was therefore evil and should not be eaten. Other people said a false god isn’t a real god and therefore has no power to harm the meat or the person who eats it. The people who said the meat was tainted by false religion started to question every piece of meat they came across – at a dinner party, for instance, they might ask the host, “where did this meat come from?” You can imagine people started to take offense to this. On the other hand, the people who saw no harm in such meat tended to flaunt their freedom, deliberately eating meat in the presence of the non-meat-eaters in order to offend them.

To give a somewhat more modern parallel, there was a similar kind of debate in many churches when I was growing up. Some of you may remember it. The issue was rock n roll music, particularly its use in the church, and the argument went something like this: one side said, “rock music promotes sex and drugs and a godless lifestyle… and besides the Beatles claim they’re more popular than Jesus… so rock music is evil and must be avoided.” The other side said, “a musical style is not in and of itself good or evil. Rock music can be good and can be enjoyed.” Cliff Richard even wrote a song about the debate called Why Should the Devil Have All the Good Music?

It’s the same species of argument, the debate over eating meat and the debate over rock music. People who are against, are concerned with holiness – they want to do what pleases God and avoid what doesn’t please God. People who are for, are concerned with freedom and justice. They know we are set free from sin by the death of Christ on the cross, and therefore we don’t need to live in fear. So both sides start out with legitimate concerns. But then the arguments quickly devolve into name-calling and finger-pointing and arguments at church councils and nasty messages on Facebook.

It’s interesting to note that Paul describes the abstain-from-meat argument as being the weaker of the two. In Romans 14:2 he says: “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.” So on this particular issue Paul sides with the meat-eaters. But Paul does not press that point. He goes on to say each person must obey their own conscience. In other words, if a person believes eating meat offends God then for that person it would be wrong to eat meat.

And more importantly, whatever a person does, whether abstaining or enjoying, it is to be done (v. 6) “in honor of the Lord, [giving] thanks to God.” Those who eat meat are not to despise those who don’t… and those who don’t eat meat are not to pass judgement on those who do. The most important issue is the attitude of the heart towards God and toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. Paul nails that argument down by saying (v. 4), “Who are you to pass judgement on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”

Paul says so much in that one little verse! Every one of us is someone else’s servant. Each of us answers directly to God. Each of us belongs to God. It is before God that each of us stands or falls.

This is where Jesus’ parable from Matthew chimes in. Jesus says, “the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wishes to settle accounts with his slaves.” One slave owes him 10,000 talents. We don’t know exactly how much money that would be in today’s terms, but scholars generally agree it’s far more than a person could earn in a lifetime. So the slave and his family, and all that he has, is to be sold to pay off the debt. The slave begs for mercy and the king forgives the debt. Erases it completely. The slave then goes out and sees another slave who owes him about a day’s wages. This other slave begs for mercy, but the first slave says ‘no’ and has him beaten. The king is furious – he says to the first slave “I forgave you all that debt just because you asked me to, and you won’t forgive the little bit your fellow slave owes you?”

We forgive each other, not because it’s a nice thing to do (though it is), but because we know our forgiveness has come at a higher price than we could ever pay. How can we possibly demand payment from a fellow slave?

Having said this I need to step back for a moment and point out some things people sometimes say about forgiveness that need to be addressed. Three notes, and the first two are caveats:

  • Caveat #1. Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness is often misinterpreted and mis-applied where it comes to people who are in danger. Are we expected to forgive someone who threatens us? Are we expected to forgive someone who deliberately hurts us or bullies us? Are we expected to forgive someone who is self-destructive and is pulling family and friends down into a vortex of self-destruction? The Christian answer is “Yes, but…” Yes, but forgive from a safe distance. Get away from danger first. And know it may take a long time before we’re able to forgive these kinds of things. Christian forgiveness does not mean being a martyr to someone who may injure you or someone you love.
  • Caveat #2. Jesus’ teaching about forgiveness is not a command to look the other way or let people off the hook where it comes to immorality or injustice. As much as it is possible, as Christians we need to address issues and concerns without attacking persons.
  • Third note (not a caveat) : Alcoholics Anonymous gives us one of the world’s best examples of Paul’s teaching in Romans, so much so that I would like to spend some time with it.

Most of you have heard of AA’s Twelve Steps. Step Four of the Twelve Steps has to do with “making a searching and fearless moral inventory” of one’s life. This step is essentially a confession, in which the person in recovery writes down everything they’ve ever done wrong, as best they can remember, with the purpose of making reparations where possible. In the process of recovery, the inventory is shared with God and with one other trusted person, and that’s it. As you can imagine this inventory is extremely personal.

What Paul is describing in Romans – the way people were passing judgement on each other – is what AA calls “taking someone else’s inventory”. And it’s a huge red flag in recovery. Focusing on someone else’s inventory is more than just fault-finding. It is one of the primary characteristics of addiction. On a spiritual level, when we’re taking someone else’s inventory we’re not leaving room for God to work in that person’s life – or in our own.

The apostle Paul didn’t have the Twelve Steps to pull from, but he’s got the idea in spades.

So where does this all lead us?

First, where there is disagreement between Christians on an issue, each one of us must do what our own conscience dictates, as best we are able, based on what we know. It helps to be informed on the issues, but ultimately the questions are spiritual, and we will answer to God for what we choose.

Second, we need to remember that our Christian brothers and sisters are someone else’s servants. They belong to someone else, and they will answer to Him. Our job is to do whatever we do “in honor of the Lord, giving thanks to God.”

Third, we need to remember God has already forgiven us far more than any person will ever owe us. Therefore we are in a position where we can afford to show mercy to others.

Fourth and finally, above all we need to remember that the kingdom of heaven is near, and our salvation is already secured. Just as the Israelites passed through the Red Sea to freedom, Jesus has passed through death into life, giving us freedom from sin and death.

Therefore the victory is already ours. We have nothing to fear, and we have nothing to lose.

Lord, help us to forgive and be forgiven. Help us to remember the price you paid for us… and for our brothers and sisters in the faith. Help us to include… understand… confront fairly… and listen with compassion as we seek to follow You. AMEN.


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 9/14/14

Soli Deo Gloria



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A friend posted this on Facebook today and I had to re-post it here.  It’s a blast from the past, part of the soundtrack of my young adult life. Glad to have it where I can find it and share it with friends.

Without further ado… comedian/musician/mathematician Tom Lehrer.  Enjoy.






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As a church music director I’m always listening for new (and new-to-me) music, and every now and then I’ll come across a song that hits the sweet spot: a solid Christian message and good quality songwriting.  This is my latest discovery.  Give a listen to Not Guilty Anymore by Aaron Keyes.

It doesn’t matter what You’ve done; It doesn’t matter where you’re coming from
Doesn’t matter where you’ve been, Hear me tell you I forgive

You’re not guilty anymore, You’re not filthy anymore,
I love you, mercy is yours
You’re not broken anymore, You’re not captive anymore
I love you, mercy is yours

Can you believe that this is true, Grace abundant I am giving you
Cleansing deeper than you know, All was paid for long ago

There is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Jesus

You are spotless; You are holy; You are faultless; You are whole
You are righteous; You are blameless; You are pardoned; You are mine


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Psalm 8: The Majesty and Glory of Your Name by Tom Fettke

Recorded by The Brethren Southern ACDA 2010

~ Enjoy a moment of peace and beauty ~

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Sharing a moment of serendipity.

I was Googling “ember days” to find out when this year’s Ember Days are and tripped over this site.  It’s entitled “Faith and Family: Resources for the Liturgy of Life” and it is jam-packed full of creative ideas for making the liturgical year come alive in everyday life and with kids of all ages.  Even non-Roman-Catholics can find lots of worthwhile suggestions for reading and activities to bring the reality of God’s presence into daily living.

It’s worth a visit just to spend a calming and peaceful moment with the background music.


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Just tonight on the drive home from work I discovered this gem of a song on the 12th track of a CD I haven’t listened to in years.  The video quality is awful (sorry I couldn’t find a better one) but the song needs to be shared.  This is pure worship, in lyrics that paraphrase the Shepherd’s Psalm… Mark Tedder’s There Is a Place… enjoy…

There is a Place

There is a place where water flows
And runs into the sea
And I want to go
I want to go
Where the river flows

There is a place where mercy flows
And runs into my heart
And I want to be
I want to be
Where Your mercy flows

So lay me down in Your green pastures
Let me rest beside Your streams
When I walk, guide my footsteps
I won’t be afraid, I won’t be afraid

And there is a place where glory falls
And covers the earth
And I want to be
Oh I want to be
Where Your glory falls

I want to be  (I won’t be afraid)
I want to be  (I won’t be afraid)
Where Your glory falls


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Signing off for the holidays — I’ll be back in the New Year.  Wishing all a very Merry Christmas and many blessings in 2010!

With love,

P.S. Here’s Celtic Woman singing O Holy Night to start off your celebrations…

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This gorgeous and little-known song was written by Ray Charles, arranged by Peter Knight (of “Nights in White Satin” fame) and recorded by Karen and Richard Carpenter back in the 1970s.  I’m amazed and pleased to find it in video form!  In the middle of the holiday hustle, enjoy a moment of peace and serenity…

It is he, Christ who is born today
Hear him crying in the manger
King of Heaven, Son of God
Alleluia, Alleluia

There he lies, there with the lambkin
Only swaddle for his garment
With his Holy Mother Mary
Alleluia, Alleluia

Glory, Glory to almighty God
And on earth peace to all men
Hear the joyful angels singing
Alleluia, Alleluia

He is born, let us adore him
Christ the Lord, King of Kings
Prince of Peace for all the universe
Alleluia, Alleluia


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Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is a powerful juxtaposition of Grace and Law represented in the lives of two men.

Valjean represents a life lived by Grace: an ex-convict and parole breaker longing to be innocent, angry at a world where he can never get a fair shake.  He is shown kindness and mercy by a stranger who has “bought his soul for God”.  The circumstances in which this happens confront Valjean with his sin, and he chooses to die to his old self and begin a new life of faith.  From that point on he spends his life and fortune in helping the injured, the poor, the orphaned, the downtrodden of the world.

Javert represents a life lived by the Law: he is an officer of the law, and when Valjean breaks parole Javert makes it his life’s work to hunt down and capture a man he sees as a law-breaker and a thief.  He takes no notice of Valjean’s change of heart or his mercy and generosity to others.  Javert is right, but his righteousness is cold and hard and could never redeem anyone; in fact he’s not interested in redemption, he’s interested only in justice.  In their final confrontation Valjean says to him: “there’s nothing that I blame you for; you’ve done your duty, nothing more.”

In the musical version of Les Miserables, each man sings a song at THE pivotal point in his life.  Valjean’s song starts with the words “What have I done?” after which he begins a new life; Javert’s starts with  “Who is this man?” and ends in his suicide.

The fresh insight is this:  both songs are sung to the same music.  They are two verses of the same song… or more accurately, the two possible responses to Grace upon being confronted with one’s own sin.  Valjean responds with confession and faith; Javert also confesses but cannot bring himself to bend the Law and chooses suicide rather than a life in which there is something greater than the Law.

It’s the choice all of us need to make, sooner or later.  As Javert sings, “It’s either Valjean or Javert“.  It’s either Grace or Law.  The Law kills, but Grace redeems.  It’s either life or death.  God says: “come, let us reason together“.  Which would a reasonable person choose?

Here are the two songs side by side (WordPress permitting!).  Note the richness of the parallels and how often the two men sing the same or similar words, yet end in totally opposite places.


What have I done?
Sweet Jesus, what have I done?
Become a thief in the night,
Become a dog on the run
And have I fallen so far,
And is the hour so late
That nothing remains but the cry of my hate,
The cries in the dark that nobody hears,
Here where I stand at the turning of the years?

If there’s another way to go
I missed it twenty long years ago
My life was a war that could never be won
They gave me a number and
murdered Valjean
When they chained me and left me for dead
Just for stealing a mouthful of bread

Yet why did I allow that man
To touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other
He gave me his trust
He called me brother
My life he claims for God above
Can such things be?
For I had come to hate the world
This world that always hated me

Take an eye for an eye!
Turn your heart into stone!
This is all I have lived for!
This is all I have known!

One word from him and I’d be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?

I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
And I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin!


Who is this man?
What sort of devil is he
To have me caught in a trap
And choose to let me go free?
It was his hour at last
To put a seal on my fate
Wipe out the past and wash me clean off the slate!
All it would take was a flick of his knife.
Vengeance was his and he gave me back my life!
Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I’ll yield at the end of the chase.
I am the Law and the Law is not mocked
I’ll spit his pity right back in his face
There is nothing on earth that we share
It is either Valjean or Javert!

How can I now allow this man
To hold dominion over me?
This desperate man whom I have hunted
He gave me my life.
He gave me freedom.
I should have perished by his hand
It was his right.
It was my right to die as well
Instead I live… but live in hell.

And my thoughts fly apart
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?

And must I now begin to doubt,
Who never doubted all these years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles
The world I have known is lost in shadow.
Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?

I am reaching, but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I’ll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean.
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on….

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