The Music of Heaven – and Earth

IncarnationA sermon preached by Christopher L. Webber at Christ Church Seikokai on August 16, 2015. 

Last Sunday I went to a concert at Incarnation, my neighborhood Episcopal Church. One of the members sings with the San Francisco opera company and she brought three colleagues, so we had a soprano, a mezzo, a tenor, and a bass, and we had wonderful music from Mozart to Gershwin and I sat there with sound waves coursing through my ears, the air vibrating in different ways, and came away feeling better about life.

What is it about the vibrations of vocal cords and piano wires and the reed of an oboe or clarinet or the vibrations of an electronic organ that has that effect on us?  Today’s second reading talks about it and it’s worth thinking about it. What is music and why does it matter?

We’ve been reading Paul’s epistle to the Ephesians pretty much all summer and 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 Paul’s 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 giving us a different kind of “therefore”, “Because God has done so much for us therefore we need to sing.”

Here’s my free translation of what we heard:  “Be careful,” Paul writes, “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.” Be filled with God’s Spirit and sing.  Sing out loud and sing in your hearts.  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.

So I want to talk about that this morning because I think we tend to take music for granted in church, especially the Episcopal Church and we don’t stop to think about why we have it.  So why is music so important?

Think first how important it is in our world. In two or three weeks it will be Labor Day and we’ll start to hear Christmas carols; music puts us in a mood to buy; 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?  And why do we have the kind of music we have. 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 they’re critical. Think how important music is in our worship, especially in service planning. Angela 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. I gave Angela a list of hymns at the beginning of the month that I thought were a) familiar and b) tied in with the sermons I was planning and Angela went from there. If they’re not familiar to you and you have trouble with the tune, at least pay attention to the words because they have meaning and maybe will say more clearly what I’m trying to say in the sermons. Music matters. Music 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.” So 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 to 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 remember wondering during the last 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.

And church music can divide too.  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 plainsong music centered in the monastic tradition But at its best music is deeply unifying; it shapes congregations and brings them together. At its best – 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 there may be 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.

It’s another of those odd things about it that the words and music are usually provided. We don’t make them up ourselves. Someone else wrote them.  And yet we feel that it wells up from within. When we sing “America the beautiful”  I think it feels as if it comes from deep within and maybe “Amazing Grace” is like that and some of the great Christmas and Easter hymns. “O God our help in ages past” would be in that category. 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 it 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 priest or 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.  I like to sing the bass or tenor line when I can, not to be different but to add a richness that comes from the harmony. 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 but that’s not easy these days.  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 composers know 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 and melody line call for a dissonant B and C, but then the tenor slides down 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 music is 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 or she who sings, 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.  There are no words adequate to speak about God. It requires more than words; music helps a lot.  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.

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. In some visions of heaven we all get to play harps, but I’ve often said my one plan for hereafter is to learn to play the cello Guts Pie Earshot IIbecause I would need an eternity to do that. 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 but it does talk about singing and songs and, in fact, 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 which is to praise and worship God.

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