Worship Blog

The cutting room floor: Easter Monday

  Worship Worship Blog Chandler Stokes
Monday, April 21, 2014

by Rev. Chandler Stokes, senior pastor

On Easter, we read the story of Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus outside the tomb (in John 20:11–18).

In the sermon, I talked about the old King James translation. In that 17th century translation, after Mary recognizes Jesus, he says to her, “Don’t touch me.” It is a mistranslation, which was corrected in the RSV to read, “Don’t hold on to me.” The newer translation is very helpful.

On Sunday, I said that it is clear that Mary embraces Jesus; it is a sign of her relief and joy at seeing him after she lost him to death—and that her embrace is a sign of her love. All that is true, but there is more. 

The old KJV translation suggests that there is something too holy about Jesus, something so otherworldly that Mary should not touch him. Nothing could be further from the truth. Especially in the narrative world of John’s gospel, Jesus, as the Word made flesh, is utterly touchable, embraceable. Consonant with that view, in the next story in John, Jesus explicitly invites Thomas to touch him, to touch his wounds. The divine invites our touching; the divine has become human flesh in Jesus. The old translation suggests some gulf between us and God; contrariwise, the Incarnation is the bridging of those gulfs. 

As I said on Sunday, Jesus asks Mary to let go so that he can be in more than just one place, so that he can not only be present in a garden in Jerusalem but on the road to Emmaus and here in GR. That is the only reason he asks her to let go, so that he can be more available to more of his beloved children. He invites her holding him—love wants to hold on.

It is too bad that there has persisted a kind of reticence to touch the holy. In particular, we try to communicate this intimacy that the holy invites at the Lord’s Supper, but the promise of God's intimacy is always there. God has become flesh in Jesus; it is a promise of holiness in all of our lives. The preaching series that begins on May 4 will explore holiness in our lives and how we may seek holiness in an unredeemed world.

But, before that, we have one more exploration of the resurrection texts: this time Mark’s story in Mark 16:1-8, which will be lead by our talented intern Ryan Donahoe from Western Theological Seminary.

Sermon preview: ‘Maturity as Freedom’

  Worship Chandler Stokes Maturity
Wednesday, March 26, 2014

A reflection on this coming Sunday’s sermon, from Rev. Chandler Stokes:

The text

As Sunday, March 30—the Fourth Sunday in Lent—approaches, I want to share with you where my thoughts are turning.

A short time ago, I preached on this very same text. At that time I spoke of Israel’s naming their hard past “Massah and Meribah” as a healthy response to their failures. The words mean “trouble and strife” or something to that effect. Israel didn’t try to sugar-coat its past; they openly said, “This was a place where we failed.” And then in that sermon I talked about some of Westminster’s past failures.

This time I want to open up the same text and put it into another part of the Bible’s narrative context. There are two aspects of Israel’s journey in view. One dimension of their journey is that this quarreling that they name was part of their adolescence as a people. They did move on from that place. They grew beyond those particular quarrels. That is the larger theme of our Lenten series—Christian maturity: the gospel assumes that we can grow and mature. A second dimension, more particular to this Sunday, is their location: they have been released from their bondage in Egypt and are now in the wilderness. They’re no longer shackled, but they are in the wilderness. Freedom is part of being in the wilderness. This is how my colleague, Doug King put it: “Freedom is a brand new mindset.”

Freedom is a brand new mindset. The prayer of confession that we will pray this coming Sunday touches on this theme:

Holy God, we find it hard to trust your promises. You invite us to trust your love and to trust that perfect love casts our fear. We are still afraid to love, afraid to risk sacrifice for someone else. We fear the unknown that comes with risking love.
We admit that we would rather repeat the misery we know than risk an unknown future; to risk a new future, even if it promises freedom, grace, and life. Lord, hear our prayer.

Freedom is a mindset, and it is not an easy one to embrace—note Israel’s complaints in the wilderness.

While writing the prayer, the grace of the gospel, the grace that is essential to the art of preaching, began to emerge for me. First it led me to 1 John 4 where we find this:

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear…

Quite often the way we experience the freedom of the gospel, the way we experience our personal liberation, is through love. Love assuages the fear that keeps us from freedom, from the maturity that is freedom. Sometimes we seemingly experience that love from God. And sometimes (far more commonly) God’s love seems to be mediated through others.

So, as I begin to work toward the sermon for Sunday, I feel I will want to address our experience of love. I will want to offer some insights into the character of love. Ultimately, I will want to find a way for us to be embraced by that liberating love in our worship. That’s where we seem to be headed this Sunday.

The music

A few more thoughts on the music this week—March 30, 2014:

One of our young people, Karl Falb, will be playing at the 8.30a service on Sunday. He is very gifted. He’ll be playing a Bach solo piece and the well-known Meditation from the opera, Thais, by Massenet. They are both substantive pieces that Karl plays with great confidence, depth, and expression.

At 11a, the sanctuary choir will be singing, I Would See Jesus—I will have more to add here.

Although these words often come to me just as I am heading into the choir room to pray with the choir before we lead the rest of the congregation in worship, at this early point in the week, I am imagining that I will ask of them something like this: “Today we hope as we all turn our attention to God, we hope that one of the collateral blessings will be that we experience something of the love of God. So, as we go into worship, I ask you simply to trust that there is a perfection in love, a perfect love in God that holds you right now, that is more true and more real than anything else. Trust it. Lean into it. Allow it to be your ground and your inspiration for offering your gifts of singing today. Let that true love be the very ground on which you stand and which you breathe in and breathe out.”

The hymns

We considered many, many hymns before we finally settled on these. We will open with What Wondrous Love is This. It’s a traditional Lenten hymn that speaks of God’s extraordinary love that Christ offered in suffering. The notes in the hymnal say, “With its ballad-like repetitions before and after each stanza’s central narrative lines, this meditative needs performance in order to be effective. Its haunting melody proves the means of convincing us that the only adequate response to ‘wondrous love’ is to ‘sing on.’” That’s another thought I might share with the choir before worship also. But Helen and I also chose this hymn, because it will be the first hymn we sing since we closed down the organ a few weeks back, and we want to give some room for the colors of the organ to be meaningful and expressive. This hymn fits that bill too. It’s not always possible to offer a hymn, the text of which links us to one of the main themes of the service, and works so well musically.

The closing hymn is a new text to a well-known tune. The tune is “My Shepherd Will Supply My Need”—so it can invoke the text of Psalm 23 without our singing that text. Instead the text is Psalm 126—a beautiful psalm that is often read on Christmas Eve. This is the Psalm.

1 When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
3 The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
4 Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
5 May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
6 Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.

Now, what this psalm adds to our understanding of freedom and love is illuminating. Psalm 126 is about the end of the exile. If ever there were a moment in Israel’s history that opens up the themes of freedom and love, it is the return from exile. Israel was reluctant to return from Israel. They needed to trust God’s love in a way that they really had never had to do in order to give up their relative comfort in exile for the freedom and risk of return. The hymn includes these lines:

When God restored our common life, our hope, our liberty, at first it seemed a passing dream…
We praise the One who gave the growth, with voices full and strong…

Thus, in addition to the theme of God’s unbelievable love offering liberty, now the theme of singing links the opening and closing hymns.

As I reflect on what these hymns might evoke, I am reminded of a conversation not long ago. I was telling a friend just the other day how amazed I am at the worship on Sunday mornings at Westminster. I said something like this: “When I look out over the sea of faces, I know quite a number of people who are suffering, well, suffering in a hundred different ways: just from the common stresses of making ends meet while keeping their sanity… All at once sometimes I simply know that his wife is getting chemo; her mother just died; those two are fighting off divorce; they are in agony over their child’s illness or stress. The list of woes goes on and on, but here they are. They’ve figured out how to get here, through all the obstacles of time and emotion, of burden and distraction. They come and they sing. And when they sing…, when they sing, it’s as if they were all saying, ‘I don’t know what else to do but sing,’ and they just pour out their voices into the hymns, praying that that is one of the ways that God will hold them together and help them through the week. I am amazed at the faith, the hope, the dedication, … the singing.”

The word

As I work the theme of freedom and love, the complexities of how we experience love arise. I’ve been introduced to the poet, and now professor at Yale Divinity School, Christian Wiman. I find his insights unflinching, honest and deeply insightful. These are excerpts from a piece upon which I’ve been meditating. And I offer it to you:

I was reading Hans Urs von Balthasar, who suggests that this is the case: God obstructs man, pursues man, haunts him with “a love that runs after him, pulls him out of the pit, casts aside his chains and places him in the freedom of divine and now even human love.” And now even human love. For Balthasar, the man pursued by God may very well have loved another person, but not fully, not in the freedom of ultimate love, which scours the ego and urges one toward the spark of divinity within another person. It is those sparks that must unite; that is the only fire that time and change will not snuff out. (Wiman, By Love We Are Led to God)

[Speaking of his experience of love, he says]: But it was human love that reawakened divine love. Put another way, it was pure contingency that caught fire in our lives, and it was Christ whom we found—together, and his presence dependent upon our being together—burning there. I can’t speak for other people. I only know that I did not know what love was until I encountered one that kept opening and opening and opening. And until I acknowledged that what that love was opening onto, and into, was God. (Wiman, same)

God pursues and haunts humanity with “a love that runs after us, pulls us out of the pit, casts aside our chains and places us in the freedom of divine and now even human love.”

What I’ve been thinking is that love really is the only way to true freedom. I know somewhere in my bones that, if I offer forgiveness, acceptance, grace—all those colors of love—to Karen, her most beautiful self emerges. I think she feels free; she senses that the way is clear for her heart to open. When I don’t, she experiences much less freedom; I think she can feel suffocated, cut off from life.

Of course, it doesn’t work evenly or perfectly. I do think that my actually leaving room for her heart to expand gives her the opportunity to love. It doesn’t mean that, if I love her this way, she will love me that way. There is no mathematical equation, but the math can’t even emerge if I don’t risk love to start with. And where does that ability of mine (albeit a meager ability) come from? Her having love me… no doubt, from God’s having loved her and me, ultimately.

Sometimes it seems that the degree to which I can love, I can assuage another’s fear. Some fears take years and years of loving to undo. Some take but a moment… but they take a real moment of love.

Concluding thoughts

As I still work toward Sunday’s sermon on God’s liberating love that moves us to the maturity of freedom, there are some other quotations that are feeding my reflections. These two are quite close to the heart of the matter:

...the idea of love is not enough.  The idea of justice is not enough.  Even the face of the other, as compelling as that is, is still not enough. The simple commandment to love does not transform our lives until it becomes the enacted story of Jesus’ own suffering unto death, out of love for those in need.  Not just 'love your neighbor as yourself', but 'Love one another as I have loved you.’ (Rev. Dr. Arthur Holder, “Whitby and All That” address at Epiphany West 2002)

Holder’s understanding of love makes sense to me. The love that sets others free is sacrificial. It is setting aside one’s own stuff for the sake of another person. Some weeks ago I quoted my colleague, Michael Lindvall on this: In order for people to really change, something must die: Old habits of the heart must die, fear and self-centeredness must die, complaining and peevishness must die, anger and hatefulness must die. When fear and self-centeredness die, when complaining and peevishness must die, anger and hatefulness die, love becomes possible—the real love, the love that really is enough, as Holder puts it.

The truth which makes men free is for the most part the truth which men prefer not to hear. (Herbert Sebastian Agar)

This line is what makes the confession so important. We have to lift up our reluctance to be free and to be honest.

Introducing the new Presbyterian hymnal

  Updates Worship hymnal Music
Monday, February 3, 2014

(from the February 2014 issue of Chimes)

Glory to God! is the name of the new hymnal of the Presbyterian Church (USA), which will make its debut at Westminster this month, replacing the previous hymnal, which dates from 1990.

Last year, Helen Hofmeister, minister for music, and Bruce Klein-Wassink, outgoing elder for music, attended a national workshop on the new hymnal, which explained the process through which the new hymnal was created as well as the reason why its hymns were selected.

Following from that workship, Helen and Bruce present a list of commonly asked questions and answers about Glory to God:

What about my favorite hymn?

Chances are pretty good it’s still in there. The new hymnal retained 65% of the hymns in the old one.

Why do we need a new one? I like the one we have.

A hymnal is like a family album. You keep adding to it over the years. We also don’t want to miss any good music that has been composed in the last 25 years.

Were there any young people on the hymnal selection committee? We want them to be involved.

There were 15 people on the selection committee, and two of those were under the age of 25.

How did they choose the hymns that are in the hymnal?

That’s a long answer. You’ll need to come to the presentation between services on February 9 to learn more. However, they committee went through 10,000 hymns before they decided on 853 of them.

What are the new hymns like?

There is a variety of styles. Some are global; some are very old hymns which have been re-introduced, and some are new hymns in a traditional style. There is both new poetry to old hymns and new poetry to new hymns.

Are there any of the new hymns that we would sing at Westminster?

After a quick first look at Glory to God, Helen found 50- 75 new hymns not in the 1990 hymnal which we could use at Westminster. After looking at it more carefully with Chandler and Sherrill, we found many more!

When we will get them?

They will be in the pews on February 9.

How much do they cost and how will we pay for them?

$25 per hymnal, which is quite a bargain considering how much music is in them. If you wish to donate a hymnal in memory or in honor of someone, that information will be printed on a plate which will be affixed to the hymnal. You may donate as many as you wish!

How many hymnals are we getting?

We are buying 950 hymnals: 750 for Westminster, and 200 for Camp Henry. We are also purchasing hymnal companions, accompaniment editions for Westminster and Camp Henry, and an online resource edition for the worship planners.

What will happen to our old hymnals?

If you donate a new one, you can take an old one home!

These new hymnals are for the use of Westminster Presbyterian Church and Camp Henry. If you would like a personal copy, you may order one at presbyterianhymnal.org.

This hymnal will help us as a congregation grow in our worship of God.

A Visible Sign of the New Humanity

  Updates Worship lgbt Ordination Task Force
Sunday, February 2, 2014

In this Sunday’s sermon, Rev. Chandler Stokes referenced the report from our Ordination Task Force, ‘A Visible Sign of the New Humanity.’ We present this document here again, hoping that it will be as illuminating today as it was eight years ago when the report was first written.

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This Sunday in Worship: The Rehabilitation of Creation

  Worship Baptism of the Lord
Friday, January 10, 2014

Join us this Sunday for The Baptism of the Lord Sunday and a sermon on Isaiah 42:1–9 and Matthew 3:13–17. Matthew announces the ministry of Jesus in terms of his “bringing justice to the nations…” But the message is even more comprehensive, as Walter Brueggemann suggests, in that the “Creator’s intent is that the [whole] creation should be rehabilitated to full, fruitful function”—which surely involves us somewhere in the effort.

We invite you also to come for the education hour at 9:40a for ‘The Story of Jonah—Who Gets to Judge?

Bring a friend and join us as we celebrate creation and the Creator who rehabilitates it.

This Sunday in Worship: Hymns: Tradition and Change

  Worship hymns Music hymnal new hymnal
Friday, January 10, 2014

This week we begin a new series looking at the hymns of our faith alongside Scripture.

Winter tends to be an introspective time, and so our worship in January and February has become a time when we focus on “basics”—the core of our tradition.

The hymns in the series are those that this congregation has sung consistently for at least the last decade. We want to point out what the hymns say about God and about us—even us specifically at Westminster. In this series, we both celebrate “old standard” hymns as well as introduce a new hymnal.

Join us this Sunday at 8:30a and 11:00a as we sing, pray, worship, and learn together.

Worship and Communion

  Updates Worship communion
Tuesday, January 7, 2014

This past year, the Worship Committee took a discerning look at the many elements of our worship services at 8:30a and 11:00a. Knowing that the proclamation of the Word—the sermon—is the cornerstone of a Reformed faith worship service, we began our work around that.

“What is happening in the life of the church?”

This is a question we hear a great deal from our congregation. The value of the information shared on Sunday mornings remains a primary communication tool. The worship service, especially at 11:00a, includes many instances of “sharing the life of the congregation,” e.g. minutes for mission, stewardship, recognition of service, dedication of members/missions, etc. In addition to these moments, we also include our fantastic music program—which include participation from all ages. The Sunday morning service provides all of us a platform for our living faith in the world.

Keeping in mind all these elements, the Worship Committee wanted to distinguish between the services at 8:30a and 11:00a in order to maintain the sermon, and to allow additional flexibility in the timing of 8:30a service. The intention was to celebrate communion weekly at 8:30a, and maintain purposeful placement of communion at 11:00a when the sermon included an invitation to the table.

The Worship Committee heard from the congregation of regular 8:30a attenders that the 8:30a service—while reverent and respectful—felt vacant from the congregational interaction they embraced prior to the introduction of weekly communion. Considering this input and other input it received, the Worship Committee heard and adjusted the 8:30a service. The 8:30a service worship now includes the sacrament of communion on the first Sunday of every month as before, rather than weekly. Most other elements of the 8:30a service remain unchanged.

The placement of communion at the 11:00a service still remains a question. During Advent, we did not celebrate communion on the first Sunday, nor did we celebrate communion during Lent—other than during the Maundy Thursday service. No other element of the 11:00a changed during these parts of our calendar year.

The Worship Committee continues the work of defining the elements of the service for this year, and welcomes the input of the congregation.

The PCUSA Book of Order states that “whenever the Lord’s Supper is observed, it shall be preceded by the reading and the proclamation of the Word.” It is to be celebrated regularly and frequently enough to be recognized as integral to the Service for the Lord’s Day.

Pray with us as we explore the timing of the celebration of this sacrament.

In Christ’s name,
David Abbott, elder for worship

This Sunday in Worship: The Land of Beginning Again

  Worship Worship
Thursday, January 2, 2014

This week, we offer a clean slate from 2 Corinthians 5:16–21 to start the year: “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!”

The title for this week’s sermon, ‘The Land of Beginning Again,’ comes from a poem of the same name by Louisa Fletcher, which begins this way:

“I wish that there were some wonderful place
In the Land of Beginning Again.
Where all our mistakes and all our heartaches
And all of our poor selfish grief
Could be dropped like a shabby old coat at the door
and never put on again.”

Join us at 8:30a and 11:00a this Epiphany Sunday as we celebrate the revelation of God the Son in Jesus Christ.

This Sunday in Worship: Hide and Seek

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Join us this Sunday—only one service at 10:00a—for a sermon on Matthew 2:13–23.

The hidden years of Jesus Christ seem like a missed opportunity to address the journey from adolescence to adulthood. Why is it that these years go missing in the gospels? What can we learn from the hidden years? And what will we find when seeking Jesus Christ where he may be found? Join us as we explore these mysteries alongside beautiful music and liturgy as we continue our worship of our Lord.

This Sunday in Worship: What About Joseph?

  Worship Advent Will Willimon virgin birth
Thursday, December 19, 2013

Join us as we celebrate the fourth Sunday of Advent and plumb one of the mysterious stories in the Advent journey and look at Matthew 1:18-25.

A student once asked theologian Will Willimon if she had to believe in the virgin birth to be a Christian. “No you don’t,” he said, “But if we can get you to swallow that without choking, there’s no telling what we can get you to believe.”

“Come back next week,” Willimon continued, “and we’ll try to persuade you that the meek will inherit the earth, that it is better to give than to receive, that your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions, and that it’s not nations, empires, or the United States, but God who rules the world. We start you out with something fairly small, like the virgin birth, then work you up to even more outrageous assertions.”

We’ll also have wonderful music and reflection, so gather with us as we anticipate the coming of Jesus Christ the Lord this Advent season.

This Sunday in Worship: Has Nothing Changed?

  Worship Advent
Friday, December 13, 2013

This Sunday in worship: Has Nothing Changed?

We’ll worship with a sermon on Matthew 11:2–6. John hears what’s going on with Jesus; he looks around and says, “Has nothing changed?” So, John asks Jesus if he’s the one. But John already said earlier that Jesus is the one—he’s made his confession of faith, and now he’s wavering. He’s saying, “I thought you’d be liberating us; I’m still in prison.” Jesus says, “This is what’s going on: Mercy, healing, and hope.” Maybe John was hoping for something more …and aren’t we, too?

We’ll also have wonderful music and reflection on this third Sunday of Advent. Join us as we anticipate the coming of Jesus Christ the Lord this Advent season.

This Sunday in Worship: Nothing to Fear?

Join us this Sunday as we continue our ‘What Love Requires’ Advent series and look at the familiar story of Luke 2:8–14.

The angels in the Christmas story say to the shepherds, “Don’t be afraid.” One of our responses to fear is ritual and its formative, creative, life-giving role in our lives. We’re called to fashion a meaningful response to God, and in doing so we become a part of the story of God. We’re not here simply to watch or be the audience; instead, we’re making this happen—together.

We’ll have wonderful music to accompany our worship. At 8:30a, Andrew Wilkinson will play the classical recorder with Janlee Richter on harpsichord, and at 11:00a, the Cantus, Cherub, and Carol childrens choirs will sing, and the Chapel Ringers will ring handbells. Be sure to come early to get a good seat!

This Sunday in worship: What Love Requires

  Worship Advent
Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Join us this Sunday as, together, we look at Isaiah 2:2–5 and begin the Advent journey.

We sometimes have a hint or an echo of something profoundly beautiful—something of God in this life—and it’s important to seek it out. But, by and large, the world is not the way it’s supposed to be. To this situation, Isaiah offers God’s promise of love, and God also brings us love in Jesus Christ. Love: That’s it. That’s what we're to be looking for, seeking out, witnessing and witnessing to: Love.

We’ll hear music from the Sanctuary Choir at 11:00a, sing a song from the new hymnal, and have a discussion of Catching Fire, the second movie in The Hunger Games trilogy, during the 9:30a education hour.

December Chimes: The Light of Worship

The December issue of Chimes is now available. In this month’s issue:

  • How and why we worship
  • Our music program
  • Resources for Advent
  • Youth ministry assessment
  • Christmas Joy offering
  • Core mission updates
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This Sunday in worship: Thanksgiving

  Worship Thanksgiving
Monday, November 18, 2013

The annual, national Thanksgiving Day is a metaphor for thanksgiving as a daily practice of our faith for our time.  Both can be responses to the message of this, the last Sunday of the liturgical year—the Reign of Christ Sunday. Come for a sermon on Colossians 1:11–20.

We’ll hear wonderful music from the Action Brass quintet at both services and the Sanctuary Choir at 11:00a.

Join us this Sunday as we celebrate—and give thanks for—the reign of Christ.

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