"This song, 'Joyful, Joyful,' comes from Beethoven's Ninth," said a man to the woman next to him as he perused the bulletin before the service began. Apparently, she had sung the Ninth before, in another setting: "You should remember it -- you were at the extreme edge of your range, note after note." The bell tolled and the service began. "Joyful, joyful, we adore thee," sang the choir as they processed up the two sets of steps to the choir stalls next to the altar. "Thou our Father, Christ our brother, all who live in love are thine..." The choir was not large, but neither was the church -- a cozy, unfussy, Craftsman interior -- and so their layered harmonies, together with the sharply played organ, enveloped the space. (Their station next to the altar gave them a sort of liturgical status -- when they turned to face the brass cross on the altar at the sung Gloria Patri and the Doxology, their prominent shift of attention served to direct the congregation.)
It was Father's Day, and the Call to Worship extolled the quality of God's fatherhood: "The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love." This was picked up again in the sung trio before the readings, voice on top of voice resounding the phrases: "Like every father, filled with compassion, pities all his children/ So the Lord has mercy on those who fear Him." (A later hymn praised God the Father-Author: "This is my Father's world, and to my listening ears all nature sings and round me rings the music of the spheres...")
But it was also a day welcoming Reverend Nancy McMaster, who was on vacation and visiting her home church. During the children's message, minister Sam Greening told the five children assembled on the steps that when Reverend McMaster was their age, "she used to sit in this church, and she would go to Sunday school, just like you do. She is the only person from our church who was actually raised here and who went on to become a minister.... You never know what you're going to be when you grow up.... As far as God is concerned, there's nothing you can't be.... You might even become a minister, just like Reverend Nancy."
Greening and McMaster traded verses during the Offertory Psalm, which again lauded God the (caring) Father: "Sing to God, sing praises to His name/ Father of orphans and protector of widows..."
The readings dealt with the great commandments (the love of God and neighbor), rebirth in the spirit (source of the term "born again"), and John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that God gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him may not perish but have eternal life." (In an interesting aside, Greening read a verse from Deuteronomy in Hebrew and then offered two possible translations for it.)
McMaster's sermon began by wondering what God was thinking when, after His own children blew it, "as children often do," He gave them children of their own. That drew a hearty laugh from the congregation. "Maybe God was hoping, like all parents, that things would get better. Seems that God has been doing that from generation to generation."
But her outlook was not bleak. "God wants us to have life, and life abundantly.... God continues to have faith in humanity, despite our humanness.... God wants us to be a people who love, who hope, who forgive.... If we pass on our faith, we'll pass on God's love. Children learn what they live, and we are Christ's living example in their lives." To this end, she encouraged fathers to be patient and encouraging. Without nurturing and praise from older men, she said, "many young men are not in a place to learn what it is to be male in our society."
The men and women took turns during the final prayer. Men: "God, our everlasting Father, God of Adam, made in your Image, God of Abraham and Isaac, Jacob and Joseph...we ask for your blessing." Women: "Help them to be good sons and brothers...good fathers and grandfathers... Keep them steadfast in your word; in the midst of struggle, give them patience and strength...." Men: "May we not be conformed to this world, but be transformed...so that we may discern what is the will of God."
"Faith of Our Fathers" served as the final hymn: "Our fathers, chained in prisons dark/ Were still in heart and conscience free/ And truly blest would be our fate/ If we, like them, should die for thee/ Faith of our fathers, holy faith/ We will be true to thee till death."
What happens when we die?
"If we belong to the Lord, we go to be with the Lord," said McMaster. "Actually, I think most people somehow belong to the Lord, because 'Creator of heaven and earth' -- that means 'everything.'"
1216 Cave Street, San Diego
Denomination: United Church of Christ
Founded locally: 1897
Senior pastor: Sam Greening
Congregation size: 150
Staff size (including teachers): 11
Sunday school enrollment: 10--15
Annual budget: n/a
Weekly giving: n/a
Singles program: no
Dress: semiformal to formal
Diversity: mostly Caucasian
Sunday worship: 10:30 a.m.
Length of reviewed service: 1 hour