Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sending Song

The congregation stood for the final hymn. There was a long, lush, legato orchestral introduction using motives from the hymn tune, followed by the tune, then the motives again. I stood in the chancel with the choir, looking out at the congregation. People's bodies moved slightly with the music. They looked up from their programs, glanced around, anticipating their cue. Their faces said, we're going to sing soon, we're going to sing this beautiful tune.

It was a vesper service on Reformation Day, and the church was packed with Lutherans. But we'd already sung the big German Lutheran hymns for the day. In the morning we had sung "Salvation Unto Us Has Come," theological statements set to a Renaissance dance tune. In this vesper service we'd sung "Lord Keep Us Steadfast in Your Word" with ritornellos from Dietrich Buxtehude, and we had Luther by way of Bach in the cantata "Ein feste burg."

We arrived at the final hymn, "The Church of Christ in Every Age." The tune is Wareham, in long meter, from eighteenth-century Englishman William Knapp. The text is from Fred Pratt Green, twentieth-century Englishman, copyright 1971.

The Church of Christ in ev'ry age/Beset by change, but Spirit led,
Must claim and test its heritage/And keep on rising from the dead.

It definitely seemed suitable for Reformation. Wareham is a sublimely singable tune. One easy skip, everything else in stepwise movement. This afternoon's congregation of enthusiastic Lutheran chorale singers felt at home here, moving smoothly from one pitch to the next, downward, turning around and rising again. The movement goes with the text, a church always testing and searching, prodded and led by the Spirit. Yes, we can be a part of that church.

But in stanza two, the challenge appeared:

Across the world, across the street/The victims of injustice cry
For shelter and for bread to eat/And never live before they die.

Whoa. This is not a Bob Dylan protest song. There were no scratchy voices and guitars to go with these lyrics. We were still in long meter, still singing Knapp's Wareham, though inverted and given to the choir by Paul Weber, the composer of this setting. But even upside down, it's a firm, smooth and singable tune. What kind of subterfuge brought these elements together?

Lyrics more typical of a hymn appeared in the third stanza:

Then let the servant Church arise/A caring Church that longs to be
A partner in Christ's sacrifice/And clothed in Christ's humanity.

The text appeals to our longing to be like Christ. We long to be like him because he was human and bled and died for us. It is the old Christian story, and that traditional melody, with its slurs of longing, feels more at home here. A fourth stanza is about Christ healing us and showing us how to "feed the starving multitude."

At this point the setting of the hymn moved into a long 30-bar interlude, strings and trumpets all preparing the congregation to make this remarkable statement of faith:

We have no mission but to serve/In full obedience to our Lord;
To care for all, without reserve/And spread his liberating Word.

What does this mean? (An appropriate question for Reformation Day.) Those first two lines do not equivocate. God has commanded us to serve one another. That is why we were saved-not to make music, not to preach, not to hang out with out people just like us who make us feel good. Was anyone in this church full of committed singing Christians caught by surprise? Did anyone rush out and sign up to work at a soup kitchen? If we have no mission but to serve, there must also be tasks and temptations that distract us, that are unrelated to "full obedience to our Lord," stuff we just should not do. Did we somehow end a Reformation Service with Law rather than Gospel, with a command to get our priorities in order?

Or are we too easily shamed? Too quick to think we can never do enough, and therefore too quick to give up entirely?

Fred Pratt Green used up four syllables in the last line of the hymn with the word "liberating." Fitting that big and awkward a word into a meter of simple pairs of unstressed and stressed syllables is not an easy task, and this word is very obvious at the end of the hymn. He's making a point, and it's one that goes beyond the liberation of oppressed peoples. God's command to serve others is liberating for the servant as well as the served, and Christ sets us all free to praise God--in acts of love toward one another and in singing praise.

Weber's setting of "The Church of Christ in Every Age" winds up with the doxology. May praise in music inspire praise in every dimension of our life as Christians!

Go in peace. Serve the Lord.

Take that into Monday morning.