First Congregational Church
September 30, 2018
19th Sunday after Pentecost
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
"For the Beauty of the Earth”, S 38
One has only to look out the window these days, and just by the look of the leaves and the sky, and even the wind, you can tell it’s fall. One has only to look and/or listen, and you can know that it’s a very complicated world these days, and that can be wearying to the soul and heart. So this morning’s worship service has been designed as a bit of a soul-retreat, to take a step back, or a deep breath, to recharge the batteries.
One of the ways to reset broken internal clocks - what is otherwise known as the body’s circadian rhythm - is to go camping. Since nature is presenting such a show in the coming weeks, it seemed logical that we can reset our spiritual clocks - in a little camping trip with singing and worship. And since it’s the fifth Sunday of the month, it seemed the right time.
Our first hymn this morning paints a picture of gratitude embodied in different aspects of God’s creation. Originally written with eight verses, the verses in our spiral book picture gratitude in the earth - verses 1 and 2 - human love - verse 3 - and the church - in the original, “thy Bride” in verse 4.
The story goes that Folliot Sandford Pierpoint, of the later 19th and earlier 20th centuries, is said to have been inspired by the view of his native city of Bath on a spring day in the writing of “For the Beauty of the Earth” at the ripe old age of 29. History tells us he was a teacher of classics at Somersetshire College, the writer of seven books of poetry, contributed hymns to various publications and published at least two song books.
If this hymn has a familiar feel beyond learning it as a kid, it may because it is also the tune for the Christmas carol, ”As with Gladness Men of Old.” While we would be inclined to classify “For the Beauty of the Earth” as a hymn of thanksgiving or praise, Pierpoint wrote it originally as a Eucharistic or communion hymn.
Perhaps the best aspect of this hymn, for this morning, is that it reminds us that all that we are, all that we have, all that there is, is a gift from the One made us, also, making it the perfect way to open our worship with grateful praise. Let us stand and sing number 38 in the spiral books.
"Earth and All Stars”, S 34
The writer of our next hymn, “Earth and All Stars,” was one busy person. Dr. Herbert F. Brokering served Lutheran pastorates, was a pilgrimage leader, popular speaker, hymn writer, playwright, poet, and author with over 40 books. He collaborated with Dave Brubeck, taught Navy and Air Force chaplains and received honorary doctorates from four Lutheran higher-education institutions.
Apparently there are basically two groups of opinions regarding this hymn: those that like it and those that don’t. Those that don’t may not appreciate his lack of rhyme, his use of the word “loud” and it’s complementary phrase, such as loud boiling test tubes or loud sounding wisdom.
But Dr. Brokering grew up in rural German-Lutheran parsonages in southeast Nebraska where there is an abundance of sky and land. And he wrote this text for the ninetieth anniversary of St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota, so it is easier to appreciate the references to the academic world. And what institution of higher education isn’t in a continual building mode, so even the references to limestone and beams make a little more sense when understanding their context.
And then there’s David Johnson, the writer of the music for this hymn. He was no schmo, either. He was an organist, composer, educator, choral clinician, lecturer, organ instructor and music department chair at St. Olaf. Johnson served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps/Air Corps in India, Burma, and China, receiving a Meritorious Service Award and campaign ribbons. His career includes the writing of over 300 compositions, mainly for church use.
In all the verses, there is reference to the first verse of Psalm 91, “Sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth.”
Then there is the reference to Psalm 98
Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him. 2 The Lord has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations. 3 He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to Israel; all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. 4 Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music; 5 make music to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and the sound of singing, 6 with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—shout for joy before the Lord, the King. 7 Let the sea resound, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it. 8 Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy; 9 let them sing before the Lord, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the peoples with equity.
And we can’t forget Psalm 150.
1 Praise the Lord. Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens. 2 Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness. 3 Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, 4 praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, 5 praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals. 6 Let everything that has breath praise the Lord. Praise the Lord.
You may remain seated as we sing number 34 in the spiral books.
"As the Sun Doth Daily Rise”, S 12
Our next hymn is shrouded in mystery. It is not really known who actually wrote the words or composed the melody, although it was originally discovered in Latin. In the sparse information available about “As the Sun Doth Daily Rise,” apparently a person by the name of J. Masters translated the hymn and The Rt. Hon. Horatio Nelson, a British politician and the 3rd Earl Nelson - Earl being a title - adapted the hymn - basically into what we have before us on page 12 of the spiral books. Yes, this Horatio Nelson is related to the great Horatio Nelson of sea-faring fame.
There is also a potential connection of this hymn to the English King, Alfred the Great, who came to rule in 871. Edwin McKean Long wrote a book called “Illustrated History of Hymns and Their Authors,” in which Long credits the King with the creation of the lyrics.
The story goes that “after many conflicts with the Danes, who invaded his land, the King was at last compelled for a time to abandon his throne, and conceal himself in disguise in a cottage of one of his herdsmen. While performing menial service in his hiding place, his hostess gave him a severe reprimand for permitting some oatmeal cakes to be burned, which, while baking, she had directed him to watch; sayin, “No wonder thou art a poor houseless vagrant with such neglect of business. I shall set by all the burnt cakes for thy potion of the week’s bread, and thou shalt have no other till they are all eaten.” Dependent thus on others for his daily bread, although a King, he could in after years feel the import of his words addressed to the King of Kings in the second verse of his hymn, - Day by day provide us food, For from thee comes all things good; Strength unto our souls afford From thy living Bread, O Lord.
In defense of Alfred’s country, he was compelled to fight no less than fifty six battles by sea or land, in which he exposed himself to innumerable dangers, and no doubt often uttered the prayer contained in the third verse.
Not being any sort of slacker, Alfred translated the Psalms into English, and constantly carried a copy, as Mr. Long cited, in his bosom, so the fourth verse is said to be in the language of his heart.
All that being said, The Canterbury Dictionary of Hymnology states that “‘There is no proof that any part of the Latin text is by King Alfred, neither have we found the Latin text elsewhere.’” So there you have it - the non-story behind the story of our next hymn, which is still a good hymn, especially when you wake up in the morning and the sun is shining and this hymn or “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” from Oklahoma rolls into your head. You may remain seated as we sing number 12 in the spiral books.
“Sing to the Lord of Harvest”, S 140
“Sing to the Lord of Harvest” is maybe one of the top six Thanksgiving hymns of all time - at least in our modern day. It was written by John Samuel Bewley Monsell, an Irish Anglican clergyman and poet. Although he received an academic degree in law, he was ordained as a priest two years later.
During his career, Monsell was responsible for the building or rebuilding of three of his churches: one in northern Ireland and two in southern England. While inspecting the rebuilding of one of the English churches, Rev. Monsell fell from a boulder, and subsequently died in 1875 from an infected wound at the age of 64. Before that happened, however, he managed to write 11 books of poetry and compose 300 hymns, many that celebrate the seasons of the church year.
The tune for our next hymn was written by a gentleman who served his city in Germany as town clerk, cantor and organist in the Lutheran church, was a notary public, mayor, and secretary to the Elector of Saxony. Somehow, Johann Steurlein found time to rhyme both the Old and New Testaments in German.
It is said that the tune was originally a love song and when I looked it up, it is rather close to that which we will sing shortly, except a lot fancier. A comment from the Psalter Hymnal Handbook suggests that the tune can be sung in harmony by agile voices, but congregations may prefer to sing in unison. At first I thought that the microphone had been dropped - a modern way of stating a challenge. But when I listened to the German “love song” online, well let’s just say that we’ll sing it as it appears in our spiral book.
Lest anyone think that the song sounds less relevant to this morning’s service than the title suggests, I give you the scriptural reference, from Psalm 65:9-13.
9 You care for the land and water it; you enrich it abundantly. The streams of God are filled with water to provide the people with grain, for so you have ordained it. 10 You drench its furrows and level its ridges; you soften it with showers and bless its crops. 11 You crown the year with your bounty, and your carts overflow with abundance. 12 The grasslands of the wilderness overflow; the hills are clothed with gladness. 13 The meadows are covered with flocks and the valleys are mantled with grain; they shout for joy and sing.
Let us stand and sing “Sing to the Lord of Harvest”, number 140.
“Let All Things Now Living”, S 92
The composer of “Let All Things Now Living” was one of the pioneers of women composers in the early 20th century. Beginning piano lessons at an early age, composing at 15, winning not only the Billings Prize for Composition at Wellesley College, but a position at Wellesley as piano and theory instructor at the grand age of 22, Katherine Davis eventually went to Paris to study briefly with iconic music pedagogue Nadia Boulanger, instructor to such icons as Aaron Copeland, Philip Glass, Daniel Pinkham, and Virgil Thomson. For those of you who don’t recognize those names, it was a really big deal that Katherine got to study with Ms. Boulanger.
One other tidbit about her life; Ms. Davis was at one time a Congregationalist.
Of her over 800 music compositions, Katherine’s mega hit came with her piece, "The Little Drummer Boy,” although it took the Trapp Family Singers of Sound of Music fame to bring it to public awareness. And to give everyone their due, it didn’t hurt the popularity of “The Little Drummer Boy” - or Katherine Davis - when Bing Crosby and David Bowie sang it as a duet.
Back to the hymn at hand, like the great Martin Luther, who used familiar folk songs in creating new hymns, Ms. Davis used the familiar Welsh folk song “The Ash Grove” when she put her verses to music.
A scriptural reference for this hymn comes from a seemingly odd book, but it surely fits. From the book of Job: (Job 26:7-10)
7 He spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing. 8 He wraps up the waters in his clouds, yet the clouds do not burst under their weight. 9 He covers the face of the full moon, spreading his clouds over it. 10 He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters for a boundary between light and darkness.
Let us join our praise to that of the entire universe as we sing number 92 in the spiral books.
“My Shepherd Will Supply My Need" S 112
The next composer is no stranger to this congregation - at least to my recollection of memorable and impressive worship services. That’s mostly because Isaac Watts is to Congregationalism what Martin Luther is to Lutheranism and the Wesleys are to Methodism.
Perhaps it is the non-conformist part of our religious heritage that makes it a good thing - in a strange way - but before Isaac was even born, his father was a “respected Nonconformist” schoolmaster.
Isaac Watts’ education began with Latin at the age of 4, writing “respectable” verses at the age of 7, and by age 16, he was off to attend a Nonconformist Academy. He preached his first sermon at the age of 20 and by the time he was 28, he was an ordained pastor, eventually preaching to the likes of Cromwell's granddaughter, Lady Haversham and other distinguished Independents.
There is no disputing the basis for the hymn we will sing next from the spiral books. And there is no disputing the power of Psalm 23. Even people who looked dis-engaged with the world, will move their lips when this Psalm is read. Despite how the sentiments are arranged, the meaning of God’s guidance, presence and hope is as strong today as it was all those centuries and centuries ago, when it was first composed at the hand of the great King David.
One has merely to take a drive around the county to find green pastures in the summer time, quiet waters in the early mornings, hills and valleys and trails and fauna all over the place. And like a good walking stick, God’s rod of promises are there for leaning, just like the staff of community comforts us. Whether we sing or say or read or hear the words, just taking a look around us, listening to that that surrounds us, whether outside or within the walls of this church home, we get clues and nudges and lessons on the magnitude of blessing that is given freely, without strings or requirements, other than to take care of what we have.
I invite all of you to grab a pew bible and turn to page 862, that we can all speak the words of truth aloud and together before we sing them.
1 The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing. 2 He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, 3 he refreshes my soul. He guides me along the right paths for his name’s sake. 4 Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. 6 Surely your goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
Now let us turn to number 112 in the spiral books, that we may sing the words down into our souls and DNA.
“Bringing In the Sheaves”, S 20
I don’t know about anyone else, but I’ve always wondered about our final hymn this morning - in terms of where its inspiration came. And low and behold, I discovered it was Psalm 126, verse 6: Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.
Psalm 126 is thought to be penned by the scribe or priest Ezra or by some of the prophets. It was likely written as a song to be sung by worshippers as they ascended the road to Jerusalem to attend the three pilgrim festivals or by priests as they approached the altar in the temple. Interesting words for such activities: Those who go out weeping, carrying seed to sow, will return with songs of joy, carrying sheaves with them.
Despite the serious nature behind the scripture reference, “Bringing In the Sheaves” has been used a lot in the world of film. Several movies, including Texas ChainSaw Massacre used it in some part of the story, they were singing this hymn every time the Ingalls family went to church on Little House on the Prairie, and Granny Clampett used to sing it in the Beverly Hillbillies!
Maybe the spirit of those instances comes from the fact that the writer of the hymn, Knowles Shaw, was a popular fiddler at dances in his teen years. He later became known as the singing evangelist, in part because of a fine singing voice, in another part because of being a good preacher - an even better preacher than the great Dwight L. Moody - and in third part because he would effectively intersperse his sermons with his own singing. It is also said that he baptized over 11,000 people, but I’m guessing he had help on that account.
The real greatness of this hymn is note really due to any of the above, but because of it’s scriptural and practical message. Most of us don’t have so much experience with the sowing of seeds in our own lives, but back in the day, when the weather was right, farmers would sow and reap in the dark early and late hours as well as in the daylight hours, because so much depended on that crop. There was an urgency in dealing with that crop, because the time for planting and harvesting was not unlimited.
And then there is the picture of the sowing of seed that Jesus described - seeds that fell onto the hard path, rocky ground, and thorny places - and the seed that fell on good ground - yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Later on, Jesus talked about the harvest being ready and the workers being few.
All these images come after the opening line: “Sowing in the morning, sowing seeds of kindness.” What a beautiful way to start a day, because isn’t that really where grace and love start? With a kind word. A kind action. An act of forgiveness that opens the door to share the good news of Jesus. And if it comes in the morning - at the start of the day - talk about potential to change the world exponentially. So let us stand and sing our last hymn today, number 20 in the spiral books, knowing that in the end, all will be well.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.