Our Musical Heritage

This sermon was preached on the weekend of October 21, 2018. The Scripture texts are Psalm 98 and Ephesians 5:15-21

Anyone ever get anxiety dreams?

The most famous one is, of course, going to school or work with no clothes on.  We will not be talking about that one in church.

Thankfully, I never had that one. When I was in school, I had used to have one about forgetting about never attending a class and there being a test the next day. Today, mine are over mundane things, and usually involve this stupid microphone in one way or another. 

Public speaking isn’t a fear of mine, all things considered. Nor is it, is and this has happened to other pastors for real, going to the bathroom with the mic still on and broadcasting. And yes, it is apparently as mortifying for all parties involved as you might thing.

No, one of the things I am most frightened of actually is forgetting to mute the mic when we sing our hymns together. It’s completely and utterly irrational, as many anxieties are.

Especially because I love loud singing. I love to do it.

Especially in my car: I have a thirty-minute drive to church from home in Wallingford, so if I’m not listening to an audiobook, I’ll rock out to some soul classics- some Marvin Gaye or Prince, or some Rock and Roll or Outlaw Country.

No, my fear about having the mic on is that I’ll be too loud, and make some people think that its not worth the trouble to sing.

That frightens me.

For singing in church is one of the gifts of God.  Singing in church reminds us of the primal freedom that we have in and through Jesus Christ, and lets us become more open to the power of the Holy Spirit which binds us together.

Our scriptures both describe this gift in different ways. In our psalm, Psalm 98, God is to be glorified for the work of salvation, the vindication of his love and power to and through the ends of the earth.

This salvific work is powerful enough and good enough that it should spontaneously cause us to shout and sing for joy. In Psalm 98, the community that praises God is not only the human family over the whole earth, who the Lord reigns over, but also the earth itself. 

When the seas roar, they do so in praise of God.  When the forests and hills sing for joy with birdsong and the wind whistles through the trees, it is in praise of God. If some of the imagery and in the psalm seems familiar, they should.

Does anyone know the popular hymn that is based on psalm 98? No lifesaver today if you do, but that’s ok. Let’s take a listen for a second, and I think you’ll get it.

It’s the basis for the hymn “Joy to the world”!

Let’s listen for the second verse and its direct connection to the psalm: Hear that second verse- Joy to the earth, the Savior reigns! Let men their songs employ, while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains, repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy, repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

All of creation is resounding for joy for the presence of God on earth, and the work of salvation. And if you were wondering how Joy to the World ties into our musical heritage, this song is our musical heritage. Isaac Watts, who wrote Joy to the World, was a Congregationalist in England.  He knew of the power of song, and wanted to make sure his people knew it too.

He knew that singing brings communities together, and gets us in tune with our creator and the rest of creation.  That legacy has come down to us through our traditions of choir, of solo singing, and especially, in congregational singing.

It is a tradition that has been passed down to us through vastly different musical eras and technologies, from the psalmist who urges the people to sing alongside lyre and cymbals, to the organ and piano on we play at our Sunday services, to the guitar and drums as heard through a Samsung tablet at our Saturday afternoon services.

The psalm reminds us that we sing for the Glory of God because there is something primal, free, and untamable in singing.  Before humanity invented even the most rudimentary of instruments, we had our voices.

We can imagine our ancestors singing in the dark around a fire, much as we still do when we’re out camping, or when our children and youth are at Silver Lake Conference Center, keeping warm and chasing away the darkness.

And for those who through the terrible accident of birth, war or conquest, were enslaved, who were stripped of as much freedom and human dignity as was possible, song was one of the things that could not be taken away.

Miriam, Moses’ sister, sings a song of freedom and thanksgiving after the Pharoah’s army is drowned after they escape across the Red Sea from the Land of Egypt.

For African slaves in the Americas, as much as the Israelites, treatment was even more brutal, as slave owners, and the wider white community, especially in the south, sought to dehumanize African Americans to a degree never attempted before. However much they tried, however, they could never take away the power of song that slaves possessed. 

We know that many of the old Black Spirituals sung by slaves were coded messages about liberation and freedom, sometimes metaphorically as messages of hope, but also sometimes functioning as actual codes during escapes.

Harriet Tubman would sing use different songs as codes, which would tell folks if they were supposed to stay, go, cross a river, find shelter immediately, or run.How more poignant or direct example of the liberating value of song than its use in bringing people to freedom! Literally.

What of our Ephesians reading then?

It is also about the power of the Gospel, but not through the primal forces of the earth, or the individual and collective liberation from bondage into freedom promised to those who believe, but about the power of the gathered community, and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in that community.

It’s a call for the people of God to not just be the people of God, but to do the hard work of being the people of God.  

It calls us through four sets of contrasting pairs, three of which are conventional: Be careful in your living- live as wise people do, not as the unwise do.  Be careful of your time, for the times we live in are evil. Do not be foolish, but try to understand the will of God. 

These are pretty common exhortations in the Bible, which we can finds roots of in Proverbs, in the Gospel stories.

It’s the fourth pair, though, that I find most interesting: Do not get so drunk you lose yourself, but instead fill yourself with the Holy Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts.

I find it interesting because I believe it says something very interesting about the power of community and the universal power of music, and the Gospel.

Here’s another question, and I promise it won’t end with Christmas music: Does anyone remember a New Testament story that involves a joke about wine and the Holy Spirit?

Here’s a hint, it’s not in one of the four Gospels, but it probably gets read every year, usually sometime in June. It’s the story of Pentecost, featuring one of my favorite jokes in the Bible.

Pentecost is the story of the birth of the church, which takes place in Acts chapter 2. 

Peter is preaching to a mixed nationality and multi-lingual crowd, and through the power of the Holy Spirit, every person is able to understand him in their own language.

And there’s a great line from Peter who says, “those of you who thought we were drunk this morning, why would we be drunk, it’s only 9 AM out here!”

Apparently Mimosa and Bloody Mary drinking technology had not advanced to the point we’re at today. In all seriousness though, this contrast (or maybe comparison) between drunkenness and the Holy Spirit happens in the context of the universality of the Gospel message, and its ability to cut across cultural barriers.

As a brief aside, wine, for its part, was the civilizing drink in the Greek and Roman world, able to unite people of different cultures into a same shared space, which is part of why it is mentioned here.

I believe that that music has the same Pentecost power.

Music is one of the channels that the Holy Spirit works through, binding us together, and turning our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, which help us to grow and learn as Christians.

As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, singing together has been scientifically proven to help bring people together into community.

But perhaps more importantly, music softens our hearts, preparing them to respond to the word of God, not only in our bible readings, and hopefully, in the sermon, but also in the prayers of the people around us, and the faces of every child and adult in this community.

It helps us to notice Jesus more clearly in our midst, to know and remember that we, along with the whole of creation that sings out to God, will eventually return to his embrace.

And I don’t know about all y’all, but I could use that reminder pretty often these days.