A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church
a new church for a new day, in Fremont, California,
on Sunday, July 14, 2013, by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer.
Scripture:  Acts 16:16-30 and Matthew 26:26-30
Copyright © 2013 by Jeffrey S. Spencer

Worship planning poses certain challenges.  For instance, some weeks finding time to do all the reading and prep for sermon writing can be hard.  Other weeks, I can find myself challenged by picking hymns or writing prayers for the bulletin.  This week, it was about current events.

For the past few months, the Pastor Parish Relations Committee and then the Ministry of Spiritual Life Team have been discussing with your pastors various pieces of feedback we have heard about worship.  Together, we decided that we would offer a survey about two of the topics and that the survey would be given as part of a sermon.  This Sunday was picked for the survey.

Then last night, the jury’s verdict in the Trayvon Martin homicide case was announced.  George Zimmerman was found not guilty of all the charges presented to the jury.  Even after a decent enough night’s sleep, I’m feeling sad and angry about this decision.

It may have been the correct legal outcome, given Florida’s laws and the way the case was presented.  Yet, it feels unjust to me.  Based on no evidence, Zimmerman decided that Martin was “up to no good,” so he trailed him.  I don’t know who initiated the confrontation, but if it was Martin, wasn’t Martin just standing his ground when this adult stranger was trailing him?  And if it was Zimmerman who initiated the confrontation – after being told to stay in his car by the police department – doesn’t he bear responsibility for the results of that confrontation?

And I can’t help but wonder if we as a society will really acknowledge how white-skin privilege played a role in this tragedy.  If Martin had been white or Zimmerman black, how would the story have been different?  After all, fourteen months ago, a woman’s “stand your ground” defense was denied in Florida after she fired warning shots to defend herself from her abusive husband.  She was sentenced to 20 years in prison.  And, yes, she is an African American.[i]

So, last night, I wrestled with the question:  should I chuck the sermon I had planned and talk about the Martin homicide and the Zimmerman trial or should I go along as planned?  What I decided is that, because today’s sermon includes the surveys in your bulletins and we’re planning to share the survey results with you in August, I’ll go ahead as planned today.  Then next week, instead of preaching on the subject announced in your bulletins (that will wait until August), we will have a conversation about race, privilege, and justice.  I hope you’re okay with that decision.

Now, let me turn to today’s scriptures.

We’re familiar with the reading from Matthew.  It’s Matthew’s retelling of the Last Supper.  The thing about Matthew’s version of the story that struck me for today is what happens immediately after Jesus and the disciples share the meal.  The NRSV says, “When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”  Right there, as part of their community practice, was the singing of a hymn.

And then, as I looked closer, I was really excited.  “When they had sung the hymn, they went out …”  The hymn.  Maybe hymn selection won’t be as hard any more.  Just figure out what the hymn is and sing that every week.  So I checked other translations, and all the other reliable ones say, “a hymn.”  I’m no Greek scholar, but looking at the Greek, I don’t see an article at all.  So, I guess all we can say is that hymn singing was a practice of the community of early Christians.

Our second reading probably isn’t as familiar.  The book of Acts tells stories about the disciples after the crucifixion and resurrection.  Today we heard about Paul and Silas getting into trouble for interfering with a business that was exploiting a female slave.  That’s essentially what the beef was.  When Paul exorcized the “spirit” that gave her the ability to tell fortunes, he took away her ability to make her master money.  And Paul’s motivation wasn’t all that pure.  He was annoyed with her.

Well, you mess with commerce, you go to jail.  So Paul and Silas were thrown in jail.  And what did they do in jail?  They prayed and sang hymns.  And in the midst of their praying and singing, God caused an earthquake that was severe enough to unlock the door and chains that held the prisoners.  The jailer knew he was in trouble, so he decided he’d better kill himself.  But Paul stopped him, essentially saying, “Yeah, we could have run away, but we didn’t.”

I’ll come back to other aspects of this story in another sermon.  Today, I want to focus on what Paul and Silas did when they got thrown in jail.  They prayed and sang hymns.  [Sung to The Beatles’ “Let It Be”:]  “When you find yourself in times of trouble, maybe pray and sing a hymn.”

And metaphorically, the story is saying that prayer and singing hymns is powerful.  God’s intervention didn’t come by getting the slave to leave Paul and Silas alone.  It didn’t come when they were arrested and charges were leveled against them.  It came when they were in chains in the innermost part of the prison – once they started praying and singing hymns.  Well, our survey is going to focus on these two aspects of our worship:  our worship music and our prayer time.

Colleagues have heard it.  I have heard it.  It’s a common suggestion:  “We need contemporary music in worship.”  Sometimes it comes as a curative to a lack of “young people” at worship (whatever ‘young people’ means).  Sometimes it comes as a plea for personal connection.  Sometimes it comes simply because someone wants to have something to complain about.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that people aren’t always exactly clear on what they mean by “contemporary” music.  Most of the time, I think people who say this are talking about musical style, but what musical style?  Are they asking for electric guitars and drums?  And if they’re asking for electric guitars and drums, are they talking about the Beatles or Guns and Roses or Justin Bieber?

Or maybe they mean Big Band.

Hymn 10, “Bring Many Names,” was written – words and music – in 1987.  There are almost as many years between the Beatles release of “Please Please Me” and the writing of “Bring Many Names,” as there are between the writing of “Bring Many Names” and today.  I think that makes “Bring Many Names” a contemporary piece of music.  But it is appropriately accompanied on the organ.  Is it what someone means by “contemporary”?

Question 1 of the survey offers a very incomplete list of musical styles.  I invite you to think about what musical styles you like and to list one as your favorite – not necessarily for worship – just your favorite style of music.  Then, I invite you to list three styles of music that you think are appropriate for worship and Niles Discovery Church.  Go ahead and do that now.


Musical style is just one consideration when it comes to selecting music for worship.  You’ll see in question 2 that I’ve identified six things to consider when selecting worship music.  Let me explain what I mean by each of them.

Theological content focuses on the lyrics of the music.  As a church that identifies itself as being “progressive,” the music we sing should reflect that theology.[ii]  In other words, the music should emphasize praise and justice and the fullness of human experience.  Not that every song has to do this all at once, but in the worship life of the church, the music can’t focus too much on just one of these.  The music should use inclusive language – language that includes all people and is expansive in the images used to describe God.  Including all people goes beyond avoiding “Rise up oh men of God” because it excludes women.  It also means including people from various walks of life and positions in society.  And expansive God language includes avoiding “he” for God, since (as a t-shirt put it) “God” is not a boy’s name.

Having a progressive theological content also means the lyrics need to avoid penal substitutionary atonement theology and associated buzz words.  Penal substitutionary atonement is the belief that says that someone had to suffer horribly in order for God to be able to forgive our sins, that Jesus was the perfect substitute for us, and that when he was crucified, suffering of the cross, spilling his blood, the “price was paid.”  Since that belief has been rejected in Progressive Christianity, we shouldn’t sing about it.

Similarly, progressive Christian worship music needs to take the Bible seriously, though not literally.  It needs to respect other religious traditions beyond Christianity.  It needs to focus on the joy of being loved and received unconditionally by God, and on the gift it is to be called into a loving and radical response to the amazing grace of God.  It needs to emphasize both the individual and the community, moving from “I and me” to “us and we.”  And it needs to have fresh images, ideas, and language.  So, the theological content of the lyrics are one consideration.

Another is musical style, which I’ve already talked about.

Another consideration is language style.  Some worship music is filled with ‘ye’ and ‘thee’ and ‘thine’ and ‘thou.’  Are we comfortable using archaic language in our hymns?  Put another way, ideally, our songs will use contemporary English so they are accessible intellectually and emotionally.

Another consideration is emotional attachment.  Let me use a personal example to explain what I mean.  When I graduated from Seminary, we had a class photo taken.  As we stood on the steps to the PSR chapel and the photographer started arranging us and we started getting bored, I started singing “Amazing Grace.”  That song is meaningful to me for many reasons, one of which is my emotional attachment to it because of that day.  My bet is that many of you have hymns you love even though, if you really looked at them, you wouldn’t like much – because of their theological content or language style or maybe even musical style (though musical style and emotional attachment are often linked).

Another consideration I have as someone planning worship is thematic consistency.  If I’m preaching on the songs we sing in worship, then I’d like the songs we sing in worship to have something to do with singing or worship.  Once today’s service is over, you can decide how good a job I did.

Finally, there is the consideration of singability.  Consider Hymn 7.  “When in our music God is glorified, and adoration leaves no room for pride, it is as though the whole creation cried, ‘Alleluia!’”  This would, thematically, be a great hymn for us to sing today.  But I have a note in my office hymnal on this page in big letters:  “Very difficult to sing.”  So I didn’t pick it.

In questions 2 and 3, I ask you to rank from 1 to 6 these considerations in order of importance – for question 2, when it comes to picking hymns that the congregation is going to sing; and for question 3, when it come to picking other music (that the congregation does not sing).  Let me give us a couple minutes to complete that.


Now, I’d like to turn to prayer.  To start with, for question 4, I’d like you to simply write down some words or phrases about what you need to connect with God in prayer.  I’ll give you a little time to jot those down.


There are many times when we pray in our worship services.  We have unison prayers printed in the bulletin.  Sometimes our hymns are addressed to God, and in those cases they are prayers, too.  We pray at the communion table.  We recite the Lord ’s Prayer.  And we have a time of prayer that is longer and more free-form.

This time of prayer has three movements to it.  It starts with people being able to give voice to their prayers.  It moves into quiet.  And then there is a pastoral prayer.  My suspicion is that, because we are all different, different parts of that time of prayer are more important to different people.  And that’s what question 5 is getting at.  So, please answer question 5.


I wish I had included one more question, and here’s why.  To my ear, sometimes the prayers of the people sound more like announcements than prayers.  If we remember who we are speaking to, that we are addressing God, that probably helps.  I don’t need to introduce myself, because God knows who I am.  And I don’t need to give all the details, because God knows them already.  My prayer can be, “Thank you, God, for the opportunity to connect with an old friend.”  I don’t need to add, “from high school that I got to see as she flew from New Zealand to Maine, stopping over in San Francisco.”

But, the more we move away from announcements and toward prayers, the less we will be sharing details with each other.  That doesn’t bother me, personally, because my assumption during the prayer time is that you’re talking to God, not to me.  If you want me to know the details, you can find a time to tell me.  In fact, I don’t even need to understand what you’ve said to say in response, “O God, here our prayer.”  I trust you, so I can support your prayer even if I don’t understand it.

But that might not be true for you.  So, I wish I had added one more question.  If you don’t mind, would you add a number 7 below the spot for your name, and then write a letter next to the number 7 for the statement that is most true for you about our time of prayer in worship?

a)    It is important to me that I hear and understand the content of the prayers others in the congregation offer.

b)   It is important to me that others hear and understand the content of the prayers I offer.

c)    I would like for there to be a time to share joys and concerns separate from our prayer time.

d)   I do not need to know the details of what people are praying about; being in prayer with them is enough.

I really appreciate you taking the time to answer these questions.  Please answer question 6 if you want to, and read the instructions about getting follow up and including your name.  You can turn in the questionnaire by placing it in the offering plate or you can give it to me or Pastor Brenda during coffee hour or the Town Hall Meeting.

And now, I invite us to turn to God in song and prayer, as we sing hymn 70, “God of the Sparrow.”

[i] CBSNews, “Fla. mom gets 20 years for firing warning shots,” http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-201_162-57433184/fla-mom-gets-20-years-for-firing-warning-shots/ (posted 12 May 2012; downloaded 13 July 2013).

[ii] This list comes from Bryan Sirchio, “My New ebook In One Chapter,” http://www.progressivechristianworshipmusic.blogspot.com (posted 8 May 2011; downloaded 13 July 2013).