Worship, Music, and Spirituality: Variations on a Theme
While in his nineties, the Rev. T., a preacher I admired, told me that he only had one sermon in him, which he developed about 40 variations on each year, depending on the liturgical season, biblical text, and the pastoral needs of his community. His sermon was one of assurance. In every sermon I heard from him, I knew that despite the trouble, God was with me and God was with us; we were never alone. I love to imagine what the “one sermon” of some of my friends might be: “Be still and know.” “Peace in the storm.” “The strife is over.” “God isn’t finished with you yet.” I often think of it as their heart’s proclamation, and I am grateful for the opportunity to hear as many variations as I can.
I would like my one sermon to be “God loves us, and there is nothing in all of creation that can be done about it.” But over these past few years, I am afraid that my leitmotif has morphed into naming, addressing, and sometimes reluctantly accepting evils. I appreciate that we live in a time when it feels like the brokenness of the world is on full display. Personally, I admit to feeling defeated and overwhelmed by the multitude of evils that feel fully outside of my control, the mounting expectations to resist evils that I cannot fulfill, and the lofty dreams of overcoming evils that I cannot yet carry. Communally, I admit to being overwhelmed by the church’s role in the propagation of evil and my part in that as a member of the institution. These struggles seep into my work; I talk a lot more about systems of oppression (evils) than I talk about love.
In my heart, I want my ministry to leave people with the steadfast assurance of God’s love, but I am just not there. I have no clue how to preach redemption within systems that have committed irredeemable acts, how to teach anti-racism within an institution that still perpetuates racism, or how to act toward reconciliation in spaces where breaches in relations feel close to irreconcilable. So, I continue to name the evils as faithfully as I can, like an aria stuck on repeat in an interminable third act of an operatic tragedy.
At least all operas, good, bad, and middling, have a finale. The trick is to stick with it until the leitmotif breaks through like the first dawn, transformed by the events of the long night, announcing the end in triumph (or relief). I may be stuck in the third act of my ministry, but it doesn’t mean that I have lost that original theme. When I think of the heart sermon of the Rev. T. and of friends and colleagues, I probably know their one sermon from their actions more than their words. Despite my overwhelming feelings about the brokenness we live in, I am humbly committed to my ministry because I believe that, somehow, the theme of God’s love will return in glory. The words may be failing me now, but perhaps my action of staying will suffice as a proclamation of my belief in the power of God’s love, a love that has already claimed the victory over every evil—there is nothing we can do about that. As followers of this love, our job is to hasten the arrival of the victory already won.
Thanks be to God,
Alydia Smith, Program Coordinator, Worship, Music, and Spirituality