Sermon by Rev. Todd Weir
Cantata Sunday, May 13, 2018
Scripture: Psalm 96
My mornings have changed dramatically the last few days. Since November, the house has been shut tight against the cold, and therefore the sounds of the outdoors. Now we open our windows a crack for the fresh air, and very early with the rosy, fingered dawn, the birds begin to chirp and sing. (figure out who is first, and what calls) Mornings now begin with music.
Imagine for a moment if the writer of John’s Gospel had thought to write, “In the beginning was the tone, the note, and then the cord, the scale, (play these on the piano as you say them.) I wonder which came first, the words or the music?
What if the writer of Genesis had thought about music, on what day was it created? I would say before humans and animals. If you have sat on the beach and listened to the waves crescendo and decrescendo, there is the beginning of music as the land is separated from the sea. The first harmony is the bass clef of the waves, and the treble clef of the wind.
Intellectual history might be different if Descartes had said, “I make music therefore I am.” Then perhaps our emphasis on reason and being right, would be more balanced by the need for song and music and dance and joy.
The Psalmist understood this.
“Sing to the Lord, all the earth….let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
12 let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
In the beginning was the tone, then the chord, then the song. I am reminded of the spiritual, “Over my head there is music in the air. There must be a God somewhere.”
I went to a Quaker meeting for a few months, and greatly enjoyed the silence of worship and the space for God, but I missed the sweets sounds of “Amazing Grace” and Christmas Carols, that reach deeper in my soul.
Music is an essential survival skill. It calms our fears and steadies our nerves. Music gives us courage in the face of danger, and when we share songs we are united together in purpose and belonging. We all need to sing “Kum ba Yah” sometimes, or sway to “We are the world” “Imagine” “We shall overcome” “I’d like to teach the world to sing, in perfect harmony.” Music can bring us together and help us feel connection, empathy, unity.
I am struck by the Psalmist saying to sing a new song. Why a new song? The music of the earth from the seas and fields and forests are very ancient. What is this new song all about? (Sounds like new hymnal, and we know how that song plays out.) The point of the song in Psalm 96 is that God is exalted, powerful and God’s purposes are moving forward.
For God is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with his truth.
What kind of song is that? Does it involve bagpipes? Lots of drums? Is it rap music? Apparently, music has more to say to us than bird song, Christmas Carols and New Age/Muzak. I did news and weather for a “light and easy listening” station for 2 years in college, and the eight-hour shifts got so dull, it was hard to stay awake. We always need new songs about God, and sometimes this is a wakeup call, a revele. (ba-bump-da-da-bump-bup!)
At First Night his year Jeanne and I came here in the sanctuary to hear Evelyn Harris, our local Gospel singer who was with Sweet Honey in the Rock. Harris often does a show that has some fun cabaret, Gospel and bluesy, fun music for New Years. But this year she did a history of Motown protest music. She sang from Fats Waller, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder “I Aint going to stand for this.” I realized that I knew a lot of these songs but had totally missed the context (since I was in rural Iowa hearing them on the radio), the context of what was really happening to black people. When Aretha belted out R-E-S-P-E-C-T, it wasn’t just about dating and working out differences.
Marvin Gaye was not asking his girlfriend “What’s going on?” He was asking America. Gaye is especially interesting because he went through a transformation in his music in the 60s. He was famous for love songs like “I heard it through the grapevine.” And “Aint Nothing Like the Real thing Baby.” But he was deeply affected by the Watts riots and King’s assassination, and his brother was sending him letters from Vietnam. Gaye struggled with addiction and depression, and he almost committed suicide. Changing his music to reflect his social reality was his salvation. In 1971 he produced his own “What’s going on?” album, which told stories of a Vietnam veteran returning home, seeing racial strife, and wondering what he was fighting for. The songs included titles like “Inner City Blues” “Save the Children” and “God is Love.”
The music of that era was about change, challenge and living up to higher ideals. Is this what the Psalmist meant when he said sing a new song? If we listened to the music of the sea and fields and forests today, what would we hear? I can hear the song birds these wonderful mornings because when I was a boy people paid attention to Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” about the dangers of chemicals in the environment. We always need new songs, not because the old songs are bad, but because the world is ever changing, and God is ever on the move and acting to love us.
I love the oldies, both in hymns and popular music, and I am reaching the age where all my favorites are actually oldies, and my favorite musicians are rapidly dying out. (David Bowie, Tom Petty) In church, I could live very well on a diet of Isaac Watts “I sing the might power of God”, Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress”, Handel’s Messiah, spirituals like “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” and of course, Christmas Carols. I’d be happy with the joy and comfort, endlessly singing “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee” and “It is Well With My Soul.”
But just like the Motown music, where I missed the context and therefore the whole point, let’s not forget that when Luther wrote “A Mighty Fortress” his life was in danger, because he had challenged the papacy, and John Newton wrote “Amazing Grace” to express his repentance at captaining a slave ship. We don’t think of these hymns as “protest” songs, but they were. So, as I hear the words of Psalm 96, and as we celebrate the essential role of music in our spiritual life today with the Cantata, I’m trying to listen deeply for the subtle harmonies and undertones I might miss. If we think of the Psalms we love, they are not only about joy and wonder, but also lament in times of injustice, crying out in grief, (My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me) and celebration and confidence in the acts of a God who liberated people from slavery in Egypt, so we also need the songs of those from Alabama and Georgia as well as the cantitos from El Salvador and Ecuador, South African Freedom music.
I thought of this story from a friend who went to Nicaragua with a group called Witness for Peace in the 1980s. They went to be in solidarity with coffee pickers when the US funded Contras were attacking the farmers to destroy the Nicaraguan economy. The group gathered at the border between Honduras and Nicaragua to stage a protest and the Americans had their signs, “US out of Nicaragua” etc. and made statements to reporters and took photos for newspapers back home. Then the Nicaraguans had brought guitars and a picnic and wanted to sing and eat. And the Americans resisted because this was a very solemn duty. But they slowly realized that this is how Latin American protests worked, with a mix of joy and hope and justice.
In the beginning was the note, and then the chord, a melody and a harmony. The Golden oldies teach us the survival skills of life, joy and hope, as well as a place for our grief and lament. There are endless new songs to sing, so let the beat go on.