Last weekend I had the opportunity to participate in the annual Laurelville Music and Worship Leaders retreat weekend. People from across the country, and even a few from Canada, gathered together for a weekend of singing, music making, and exploration of worship resources together. This event began 30 some years ago when Hymnal: A Worship Book was being created. The retreat weekend initially served as a testing ground, a place to workshop some of the new hymns and resources that would be compiled into that collection. Once Hymnal: A Worship Book was published the weekend continued as a space of celebration and on-going exploration of making music together and learning with and from each other about ways to enhance the act of worship taking place in local congregations.
For the past three years the weekend has once again become a space of workshopping and testing new materials which will be compiled into a new collection called Voices Together. This is a new hymnal that will debut in the fall of 2020 (this year). The creation of Voices Together has been a group effort put forth by a 13 person hymnal committee. That group of people has put in countless hours of effort (mostly volunteer) since 2016 and has concluded it’s official in-person group meetings for this stage of the process. At their final meeting last fall, the group spent a week together singing through the more than 700 songs that have been selected to be part of this new collection. Their efforts and intentionality have been phenomenal.
When the hymnal is released it will be put to use in a diverse and wide variety of worshiping contexts – this can be seen in the pre-order numbers alone. MennoMedia was planning on an initial print run of 25,000 copies and were hoping for pre-orders of 10,000 of those. Pre-orders have already surpassed 30,000 copies. People seem to be excited about this new hymnal. As the resource begins to be used, the work of the hymnal committee will be celebrated and criticized. People will love some of the new works included in the collection. Some will grieve the loss of their preferred favorites. Some will celebrate the editing that has been done by the text editors (efforts lead by Adam Tice) to change wording in some familiar hymns to expand the theological statements of those pieces. Some will balk and cringe at those same lyric changes. Some will be pleased with the inclusion of a certain type of musical style, while other communities will roll their eyes and say – what is this doing in here?! Most likely all of us will have a moment or two when we encounter something we are not sold on and ask the question: I wonder if they thought about this…
Hymnal committee members that were at Laurelville last weekend assured those of us who were also in attendance that, yes…they thought about it. And they worked as faithfully as they could to create a collection and a resource that will offer something to every community – without trying to offer everything to any specific community. A very challenging task – the efforts of which will, more than likely, be under-appreciated once we all get caught up in using, celebrating, and critiquing the collection that will be ours to explore.
The theme for the weekend at Laurelville came from Psalm 136: God’s Steadfast Love Endures Forever. As the visual artist voice for the weekend, I used that Psalm as a starting point for the series of cutouts I made for the weekend. You can see that series here this morning.
In thinking about the theme and how to interact with it visually, I heard the phrase God’s love endures forever and my mind immediately went to the concept of time. Forever is impossible for our human brain capacity to fully grasp. What we do grasp, though, is a structure of time that makes some sort of sense to us. We experience it as a line – a trajectory that moves from the past to the present and looms before us as the future. We can wrap our heads around a timeline.
And so that is what is here on the wall: a timeline.
Within this timeline you will see a recurring image. I call this a visual refrain. It is my attempt to ground this timeline in the refrain from Psalm 136: God’s Steadfast Love Endures Forever. I love the structure of this Psalm – an event – an affirmation of God’s love – an event – an affirmation of God’s love – an event – an affirmation of God’s love – on and on it goes.
How does one represent that message and structure visually? I knew I wanted to include a repetitive visual image to evoke that refrain and so I created this wonky mashup of an infinity symbol and an ampersand.
An infinity symbol for the more obvious reason – God’s love endures forever. The ampersand I chose to include based on my own theological leaning towards God being a God of: yes, and. You may have heard me speak of this before – but for those who this concept is not familiar – it is rooted in improvisational theater techniques.
The first rule of improv theater is that you always say yes to whatever is offered in a scene. If someone says they are throwing you a banana – you are not allowed to say – no – that’s not a banana – saying no breaks the momentum of a scene; which is why no is a sometimes a really important word to use in our lives outside of improv theater – however in the context of improv you don’t say no – you accept what is offered…but if you really don’t want to be stuck holding a banana you are welcome to say yes, and…and add whatever you want to the scene to shift it in some way or another.
I have long found this to be a helpful approach to thinking about how life flows – and how God is present with us. Whatever the moment we find ourselves in, God is present [God’s steadfast love endures forever] and if we find ourselves in rough moments, hard moments, challenging and painful times, as happen in life, we are invited to accept that moment as what it is…yes…this is rough, yes, this is hard, yes, this is challenging, yes, this is painful, and Love is with us here, now, and will be with us in whatever the next moment brings. Yes, and. [God’s steadfast love endures forever]
This symbol, for better or worse aesthetically, is a visual attempt to embrace yes, and. And the way I ended up crafting this particular image allowed me to use both the positive and the negative spaces to reflect that shape – so each pairing of the light and dark image repeated here is one whole, as in complete, sheet of paper. In the positive and the negative God’s steadfast love is present.
The larger images in the timeline served a dual purpose in concept. First, they were created in order to build out the timeline – to show the ongoing flow of life in the world as a reminder of God’s steadfast love being present in all times. The first being a nod to creation – the beginning of tangible time as we can understand it – the creation of this world on which we live and encounter God.
The rest of the images were created as explorations of the themes for the morning and evening prayers throughout last weekend. These sessions were small spaces for worship resources from the new hymnal to be showcased. The themes – in order of their placement on the timeline – moved from baptism,
to covenant life & the weaving together of our stories,
to death & eternal life,
to conversion/new life & following Christ,
and on Sunday morning we shared communion together as represented by the image on the table.
In these images we can see some of what it is to be people of faith seeking and living out God’s steadfast love in the world around us.
Tomorrow our nation has set aside a day to remember, honor, and celebrate the ways Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Jr lived out and called forth God’s steadfast love into the world. MLK’s ministry in his lifetime cried out for justice and for the changes that needed and still need to take place in this country so that all people, particularly people of color, have opportunities within the human institutions and structures we have created to live in the freedom, justice, and peace that God’s steadfast love intends and leads us towards. And we have not made it to the promised land of all people living wholly in the justice of God’s steadfast love. There is still work to be done. And while we continue to commit ourselves to and dig into the ongoing work of living out God’s steadfast love in the world, we are also rooted in the enduring presence of that love. It has been here all along, it is here now, it will be here as time moves on; and, we are called to be helpers in continuing to make space for that love to grow, flourish, and be experienced in the world.
The voice of MLK still rings with truth today, calling forth love and justice and moving people to continue to be about the work of anti-racism and equality for all of God’s beloveds. The work of God’s love isn’t bound by time and space, or to the lifetime of the individuals who commit to creating space for it in the world – it moves in and through and beyond all time and space as we understand it. We can catch glimpses of this mysterious reality when we see the ripples of MLK’s ministry still in action today.
I caught another glimpse of the expansive life of God’s love this past weekend at Laurelville when we sang a song brought to the global community by the Rev Pablo Sosa – a pastor, teacher, musician, songwriter, and composer from Argentina who’s life work included a passion for creating eccumenical worship settings – through actual gatherings and through the spreading of musical creations from one community and culture to another through translation and teaching. It has been said of his work that: “For Sosa, the challenge of ecumenical worship [does] not end with adding some shakers and a drum; it entail[s] embodying the theology of another, and in the process understanding more clearly how we [are] shaped by our presumptions.” Pablo Sosa died last Saturday, January 11, and so at this gathering of musicians at Laurelville we took time to honor his legacy by singing a song he shared with the world – number 15 in STJ Santo (Holy) and as we sang it – I sat amazed in the presence of a piece of God’s love offered to the world through one individual that will continue to live on each time this song is sung. I have asked Cindy to lead us in that song here as part of this sermon.
[Bird Decal Application – as the congregation sang several people came forward and applied bird silhouette decals to the wall around the timeline images]
God’s steadfast love endures forever. It is not bound by time or space as we understand them. God’s love has been, is, and is to come. Nor is God’s love restrained by the seasons of life we may find ourselves in – for we live in many seasons of life.
The more literal seasons of stages:
In childhood, God’s steadfast love endures forever.
In youth, God’s steadfast love endures forever.
In adulthood, God’s steadfast love endures forever.
In aging maturity, God’s steadfast love endures forever.
And in the complex seasons of experiences:
In joy, God’s steadfast love endures forever.
In depression, God’s steadfast love endures forever.
In busy-ness, God’s steadfast love endures forever.
In grief, God’s steadfast love endures forever.
In oppression, God’s steadfast love endures forever.
In relief, God’s steadfast love endures forever.
And sometimes – most of the time – season layers upon season in the same moment and we find ourselves experiencing many things at once. Through it all the refrain rings and rings: God’s steadfast love endures forever. Soaring with us in the now, and with us in all things.
As people rooted in God’s love, we are invited to be seekers of and witnesses to that love. We see this in the John 1 passage read today. John the Baptizer seeks and declares Jesus to be one who is fully connected with God:
I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed.
And how was Jesus revealed to John? By the Spirit descending on him like a dove and remaining with him.
And not only did John seek out Jesus, when he found him, he became a witness to the presence of God’s love in Jesus and he encouraged others to seek and find the love of God made known in and through the life and teachings of Jesus for themselves.
Two of John’s disciples do take off and follow Jesus and Jesus turns to them and asks them a question. “What are you looking for?” – or – “What are you seeking?”
For those of us fresh off an advent season of living into and celebrating questions – it seems pretty important to take note of this moment. The first time Jesus speaks in this Gospel text – he asks a question. He doesn’t offer anything, he doesn’t expect anything, he asks a question: what are you seeking?
And to those curious about where he abides (for this is what the disciples ask him: where are you staying?) he says: “Come and see.”
This is how God’s steadfast love is revealed over and over again in the world: through people accepting the invitation to seek it. Once the presence of the Spirit has been sighted, we are invited to linger in it and also to share that love with the world around us so that others can also experience it and so that it’s transforming power has space to soar.
A sighting of the Spirit from this week: Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley came out this week as a woman with alopecia – hair loss. As a woman of color in a position of power, her hair styles have always been politically charged – not because of her choice to make them so – but because of cultural and systemic racial biases. The vulnerability she offered in showing the world her beautiful and fully bald self this week was powerful and stunning. In a video that was released telling of her journey to acceptance and revelation about herself she says: “I am not here just to occupy space. I am here to create it.”
May we all, in our own ways, be seekers, witnesses to, and creators of space in this world for God’s steadfast love to continue to abide, grow, and thrive.
In closing, I want to offer you this poem written and spoken by Reverend Alissa Bender, pastor of Hamilton Mennonite Church in Ontario, Canada, as a blessing for the Voices Together Committee at the music and worship leaders retreat last weekend.
A Poem for Planting
By Alissa Bender
To bless the Voices Together Committee, January 2020
I’m not a gardener, God.
I’m a city dweller
A farmer’s market shopper
A grocery store bouquet buyer.
I buy flower seeds sometimes in hope
In unreasonable optimism
In dreams of what could be
But they stay on the shelf
They stay in their package
They stay asleep
And sometimes I do too.
Sometimes I’d rather not grow.
The planting might be fine
If it weren’t for the falling and dying
Into the earth
Into the darkness
Into the waiting season
If you plant us like a seed, God,
We want to know:
What will fall?
And what will die?
But you want to know:
What will grow?
What will live?
What will be seen that has never been seen?
What will soar?
What will sing?
What will echo in the hearts of all who hear?
But you don’t answer
You will show us
In our living.
In our planting,
In our releasing.
In our growing,
In our blooming.
You are here
And you are there
And we are yours.