I am at Hankins UMC this Sunday. (Location of Hankins – the church is just past the intersection of NY 97 and NY Co 94 (on church road)) The service starts at 10:30 and you are welcome to attend. The Scriptures for this Sunday, the 3rd Sunday of Easter, are Acts 9: 1 – 6 (7 – 20), Revelation 5: 11 – 14, and John 21: 1 – 19.
A couple of years ago I wrote a piece for my blog entitled “A Rock and Roll Revival”. In it, I set down an order of worship based almost entirely on 60s rock and roll music. It was done partially because of a piece that I had written that earlier week (“Are You Ready?”), partially in fun, and partially because of how I felt about the music being passed off today as modern worship music.
Now, let me say that there is some very nice modern worship music in the world today and when it is played properly, it adds to the service as it should. But most of what I hear does little for me and I truly believe it only exists because someone thinks that the only way to get the young people to come to church is with guitars and drums and rock and roll sounding hymns. It doesn’t work for me and I am not certain for how many people it does work.
There is much to be said about the place and role of music in the worship service. Throughout my life I have had an appreciation for music of all ages and kinds. I appreciate the beauty and workmanship of a Bach cantata or a Mozart oratorio as much as I appreciate the guitar work of Eric Clapton. I can hear the power of God as much in a modern jazz piece or rock and roll as I can in a traditional choral piece or an organ composition.
I wrote two other pieces about the use of rock and roll music in worship services and one of the things that I discovered was that the Irish rock band, U2, allowed certain pieces of their music to be used in a music liturgy (see “Rock and Roll Revival Revisited” for further information about that liturgy and when it can be used.) As Sarah Breuer pointed out, if you are going to use modern music in a worship service, it helps to see what resonates with the congregation.
And that is part of the reason for my choosing the particular title for today’s message and the change implied in the Scriptures for today.
One of the pieces that I suggested in the original worship piece was “Good Shepherd” by Jefferson Airplane. I did it because there are clear references in the song to the Gospel reading today, especially the part where Jesus challenges Peter to “feed my sheep”.
Out of curiosity, I checked out the history of this song. Jorma Kaukonen, the guitarist for Jefferson Airplane, who wrote the arrangement that I am familiar with was introduced to one variant of the song in the late 1960s. It had evolved from a 19th century Gospel hymn into a mid-20th century blues-based folk song. But what was interesting, at least for me, was that the roots of this song come from an early 1800s hymn written by John Adam Grande, a Methodist preacher from Tennessee.
Now, I cannot speak to what others hear when the song is played or if they even see the connection to the Gospel passage that we read today. But as recently as 2004 Kaukonen and others continue to find a meaning in the song and other such songs where religion is celebrated in one context or another without preaching. Kaukonen has said this material has given him a doorway into the scripture: “I guess you could say I loved the Bible without even knowing it. The spiritual message is always uplifting.” (Adapted from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Good_Shepherd_(song); see http://mtdalton2.blogspot.com/2008/02/good-shepherd-jefferson-airplane.html for additional thoughts on this song.)
It is interesting to note that some can hear the call from God through rock and roll music. Such a thought is almost contradictory to the ways of the church, or at least the way that many people see the church.
The problem is that too many in the church have a legalistic, formalized view of the church. There is a fixed way to do things and the call that one receives is the same for all, no matter who they are. But the Old Testament reminds us that we were created in the very image and likeness of God. And God will not call us to do something that has nothing to do with what brings you alive in the world today? It may not fit within the category others may have but that is their problem, not yours.
Can we not respond to God’s call through rock and roll music? Are there other ways in which people can even begin to hear God’s call?
Far too many people sit in the church pews across this country every Sunday, the very place where the perception of God’s call and response to it should be of the utmost concern, and have no idea what to do with the experiences they’ve had that bring them alive in this world. They have no idea because, for the most part, the church couldn’t care less what they are feeling.
I think part of the reason is that the church itself doesn’t know how to respond. It is locked into a mind-
set, if you will, that says there is only one way to read the Gospel and there is only one way to sing the music of the church. And battle lines are drawn when it comes to doing things in new and different ways, so much so that when a new way is created for doing something, it has a way of quickly becoming the old way and not to be touched.
Christianity in this country is a part-time thing, a hobby to occupy our time on Sunday morning. It is something to be stored away during the week and brought out on Sunday for a few short hours.
And in all of this, the message of the church has gotten lost. I came of age during a time when the church was a powerful voice for civil rights and against the war in Viet Nam. But the meaning of this message has, sadly, been lost over time.
The message of the church has become a message of the church that existed before Jesus, a legalistic and controlling entity that told the people what they could and could not do, that created myriad mazes of laws that made it impossible to find hope in the world. That is the church of today as well.
It has been replaced by a Gospel message that requires little but promises a lot. It speaks of exclusion rather than inclusion, of hatred instead of peace, of violence and retribution as the answer instead of peace and justice. It demands an acceptance of knowledge without question; it provides no answer for the myriad questions that many people ask today.
It fosters a belief in the Bible that says the Book of Revelation presents a message of destruction instead of the celebration of a loving God who sent His Son, Jesus Christ. It is lost on many today, Christian and non-Christian, that the total destruction of the world, so often portrayed as the product of John the Seer’s vision is actually the result of several 19th century ministers who interpreted Revelation according to their own world views. If this is the true ending for humanity, then Jesus suffering and death on the cross was for naught. But because the message of the Gospel has been lost, many believe in this final vision of the world.
We expect our music to be traditional music and the reading of the Scriptures to be in the traditional language that we heard growing up. There are many today who say that the only true Word of God is the King James Bible.
Now, I have never understood that reasoning. I am sure that Jesus, the disciples, and members of the early church did not speak in 17th century English nor did they see the “divine right of kings” as an outcome of the Gospel message. If anything, the message of the Gospel spoke against any divine right of any individual to govern the people. What Jesus, the disciples and members of the early church did speak was Aramaic and I doubt that there are many among us today who speak that ancient language. Once again we have someone, notably the monarchy, using a translation of the Bible to validate their own worldview and justify their existence.
What should matter is that we hear the Word of God is such a way that it has meaning for us, not worry about the translation. I have come to enjoy reading the “Cotton Patch Gospels”, a translation of the Scriptures by Dr. Clarence Jordan from Greek into the language of the south. To be honest, if you spoke to me of Corinth, Shiloh, Athens, or Mount Moriah, I am more likely to think of towns and places in the South rather than places in the Middle East and the Holy Land. In Dr. Jordan’s translation, I hear the message in a way that adds a little more meaning. I would have used his translation this morning but he died before completing the translation of the Gospel of John.
And though today’s churches may have lost the Gospel message it has not been lost to the people. God is still calling them and there are people who are striving to hear that call. To hear God means that you need to be open to the moment. It means hearing the scriptures read in a different translation or hearing an old hymn sung in a new way; it means singing with a new voice and seeing with a new vision.
When Saul left Jerusalem for Damascus that day some two thousand years ago, it was with the intent of destroying a movement that threatened the established church. But, on that journey, he encountered Jesus in a way that was truly unexpected. It was an encounter that would change his life so much so that he took a new name.
Our encounters with Jesus, our responses to God’s call may never be so dramatic. We may hear the call in a new song or in a new version of the Scriptures. But it is certain that as we see this unexpected light of Christ, we will find the freedom from the smallness of vision and the limited obedience that strangles us and confines us in this world today. In this revival we find the freedom that we need — the freedom to accept Christ as he comes to us from the world of which He is the Lord; freedom to be with Christ as we answer the call.