Music Matters

A sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at St. Paul’s Church, Bantam, Connecticut on Sunday, August 17, 2003.

I’ve been talking all summer about St Paul’s letter to the Christians in Ephesus,  our second reading for five weeks now, and I pointed out a while back     that Paul’s letters typically have two main sections: Part I: what God has done for us, and Part II: what God asks of us in return. So halfway through all his letters,  you usually come to a “Therefore.”

Last week we were into the “therefore” section of Ephesians  and we had Paul laying out some basics:  “Don’t steal, don’t cheat, don’t lie.” But what God expects of us  is not all negative and this week we have Paul saying,  “Because God has done so much for us, we need to sing.” Here’s my free translation of what we heard:

“Be careful; these are bad times; so don’t be stupid about it but pay attention to God’s will for you.  Don’t go and get drunk, but be filled with God’s Spirit and sing out loud and sing in your heart, giving thanks to God always  in Jesus’ Name.”

You have to sing.  Christians have to sing. If you’re tone deaf, make a joyful noise  but do something to praise God with your voice. Don’t be left out.  Music matters.

But why is music so important?  Think how important it is in our world.  Stores use music to put people in a mood to buy; (two more weeks to Labor Day and we’ll start  to hear Christmas carols); restaurants use music to put you in a mood to eat; Dentist’s offices use it to keep you calm.  Music has many uses.

But how does music work?  What’s it’s appeal?  Why does it do what it does? Does music shape society or does society shape music?  Or does music, maybe, not shape society but reflect it? Does the music of Mozart  tell us something about the harmonies of his world or does it maybe offer us a vision  of a world we have yet to see? On the other hand,  does the volume and noise of contemporary music  tell us something about our world,  about the clash and conflict we hear about all the time?  These are not easy questions to answer  but critical.

Think how important it is  in our worship – especially in service planning where Gary Evans and I  spend a lot of time thinking about whether hymns are familiar or not,  whether they fit with the readings or not, whether they would be better at the beginning or middle or end,  whether they say something worthwhile or nothing much. We have a couple of less familiar hymns this morning  because they fit so well with the sermon. If you have trouble with the tune, at least pay attention to the words.

Music matters.  It changes us. Paul sums his message up this morning  as two different kinds of inebriation, two kinds of drunk: alcoholic and spiritual. He says “don’t be drunk with wine . . . but be filled with the Spirit,  singing and making melody in your hearts.” In fact, if you go down the street singing,  people may think you’re drunk! They’ll be asking, “Don’t you watch the news?  What is there to be happy about? You must be drunk!” The crowds in Jerusalem said that very thing  on the first Pentecost and Peter had to tell them, “We’re not drunk; it’s just a new Spirit.”

But these are two opposite kinds of inebriation:  one that dulls the senses, one that heightens them;  one that we pour in, one that God pours in; one that closes us out of reality,  one that opens us up to a new reality; one that isolates us,  one that unites us with each other  and with God and with the universe.

So think about music and the role it plays in human life. They say that a bird sings to stake out territory and human beings have used music that way too  by chanting war songs, singing national anthems; music can divide us from them.  I kept wondering during the Olympics  whether or not it was a good idea to keep playing the various national anthems and make it a matter of national pride  instead of individual accomplishment, maybe deepening national divisions  instead of overcoming them.

Church music can also divide.  A lot of the great church music actually came out of the Reformation  and served to unite the new Reformed churches  on the one hand, and separate them from Rome on the other  with its music centered in the monastic tradition At its best  music is deeply unifying; it shapes congregations and brings them together.

But even in the church today music can be divisive.  There’s a whole new style of church music  closely associated with the so-called renewal movement  that seems to speak better to a new generation than the music of the last few centuries. There are some congregations that actually have separate services with different styles of music  to attract different age groups. So you may have separate congregations but whatever the style,  the particular congregation is united through music and feels that unity  in a way nothing else quite matches.  Music unites.  Music lifts us out of ourselves.

Music helps us express ourselves.  It’s another of those odd things about it that the words and music are usually provided. Someone else wrote them.  And yet we feel that it wells up from within ourselves. That’s probably why some people fuss so much  about unfamiliar music. It isn’t “theirs.”  They haven’t yet let it possess them.  Someone else may write the music but we have to make it our own  and the whole congregation  has to make it their own  so that we find everyone else expressing what seem to be our own thoughts in the exact same way we’re expressing them ourselves. Nothing else makes that possible.

And yet church music isn’t spontaneous;  it can’t be. We don’t all just naturally express ourselves in exactly the same way. That kind of unity takes discipline and commitment.  If the organist introduces a new hymn with no rehearsal,  it’s likely to be a disaster. Human beings are not ants or honey bees;  we’re not programmed for cooperative effort. We have to learn how to do it. Human life depends on our ability to work together,  but it takes training  and a certain amount of work  and discipline and paying attention to others to make the result worthwhile.

And yet the unity of music  isn’t just a dull uniformity either. In a hymn or choral music  there are always several parts.  Even if everyone sings melody, it’s usually enhanced by organ accompaniment  to provide a depth and richness that unison voices can’t achieve.  And that’s appropriate too.  The church is not a lot of Johnny-one-notes, especially the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion. We sometimes think it would be nice  to have everyone on the same page at least, but the trick is not just that, at least it’s not about getting everyone on the same note. It’s about making the various voices blend. And sometimes even dissonance  somehow enhances that richness of harmony. That’s one of the strangest things about music.  Even discord can add richness. Certainly contemporary music knows that  but Mozart knew it too:  there’s a creative use of dissonance  that enriches the effect. There’s a place in the old tune for  “The King of love” where the tenor sings a C and the melody slides from a dissonant B to a harmonious A.  It’s a lovely effect. Maybe the Episcopal Church can learn to do that too:  to resolve the dissonance into a harmony enriched by overcoming dissonance.

So music is creative; it builds community;  it can include discords. And it’s also expressive  and that’s perhaps the greatest mystery. Why is it that words plus music  say more than words alone?  Someone once said:  “He who sings, prays twice.” If you look it up, some sources say it was  Saint Augustine and others say it was Martin Luther. But whoever said it, it’s true  and it’s worth remembering:  “He who sings well, prays twice.” And that, I think, is why music is so essential a part  of Christian worship. It helps us say more and say it better. To speak about God adequately  requires more than words; we also need music. Why do we find it so difficult to talk to others about our faith? Maybe it’s because words are so inadequate.  Maybe we could sing it better.

Music enhances words. A stage play or movie or television drama gives us a slice of life,  but a musical or opera moves the same story into a whole new dimension, somehow enlarged, enriched, deepened.  It’s like the difference between black and white on the one hand and technicolor on the other. There are times when black and white is enough,  but other times when the color, the music, somehow enlarges and enriches the story and makes us go home singing it over to ourselves, appropriating it  in a way we don’t do, can’t do, with words alone.

You might think of baptism  as the initiation of a new voice in the chorus. It’s a very undisciplined and demanding voice  in the early stages  but gradually the baby learns  to imitate the sounds of others, to express herself, and finally to join in civilized conversation,  Parents instinctively sing to a child, maybe just a wordless humming or crooning,  to soothe and quiet them. There’s even been some research to indicate  that a pre-natal infant can be influenced by music.  We seem to know that children  need to begin learning from the very beginning how to respond to music,  how to use music to express themselves. It’s part of becoming who we have the potential to be, not just here but hereafter.

It’s worth noticing that the one place in the Gospel,  in fact in the whole New Testament, where the word “music” is mentioned  is in the story of the Prodigal Son. He comes home at last  and his father throws a party and as the elder son comes in from the fields  and comes near the house, “he heard music and dancing.” And of course the parable  is giving us a picture of heaven where prodigal sons and daughters  are welcomed home  and the Father throws a huge party to welcome us in –  and there has to be music.  What else could bring us together in the same way?  One of the few things we know about heaven is  that music is a major activity. I’ve often said my one plan for hereafter  is to learn to play the cello because I would need an eternity  to master it. But also because it would be another way  to take part in the music of praise that is heaven’s major activity. Actually the word “music” itself doesn’t occur in the book of Revelation with its vision of heaven but almost all the references to singing and songs in the New Testament  are in that one book  that gives us our primary vision of heaven.  There at last we will be able to express our praise perfectly  in unity and harmony and even, the Bible tells us,  sing a new song without complaints. There at last we will be able  to say what we need to say to God and each other  and say it with music to say it best.

We have no real idea, of course, what heaven will be like  and what heaven’s music will be like.  But we do know this:  that here on earth  music is the best means we have  to unite us all in doing what we were made to do: to praise and worship God.

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