Sometimes on Sunday mornings there is a convergence of spirit and intention so splendid that it dare not be ignored. We have set aside today to thank God for this splendid new organ and for all the voices it will help raise in praise of God. We celebrate eagerly, gladly, happily, the musical arts and their gift that enables us better to worship God.
Maybe the best way to demonstrate how vital music is to our worship is to conduct a service with no music at all. No organ prelude to calm your mind or disguise your gossiping. No choir to ease your heart away from its anxiousness or entertain you. No hymns to stir your soul or melt the coldest heart. No Mozart at the offertory to sweeten and soften you up. Then, perhaps— and only then—we would realize how much we depend upon music to express the inexpressible. To turn our spirits from the ordinary to the extraordinary. But if we were to conduct such an experiment this morning we would waste all this talent and all these gifts.
I imagine that throughout human history music was always a part of the worship of the holy—even before there was a collective human memory. Though there have been times when idiocy has overtaken us, it may surprise you to know that organs were not invented for Church use. Indeed, they were popular instruments banned by one pope and only grudgingly granted admittance to holy sanctuary for use. Now, of course, it is hard for us to imagine worship without them. Did you know that the early church banned instrumental music from its worship? It was a little like Prohibition in the United States. Music went underground until we found we could not do without it.
One of the reasons there has always been tension where music and religion is involved has to do with the fear that music itself is so powerful on its own terms that rather than enhancing the worship of God, it will in itself, and on its own terms, become a substitute for God. The power of music is very real and has been in every generation. My son plays in a modern rock band. I do not understand the sounds that come out of his guitar, nor the words that his lead singer sings. Yet I can tell you that the effect of that music on his life is very great indeed.
We may be charmed, thrilled, inspired, entertained, and moved by music. But of course we cannot worship music, only the Lord of life whom music serves. Remember that. We’re never too young or told old to get that straight.
Music has enormous power to open us to the Holy. The music of the Church is intended to help us transcend to a place where we can pay homage to God, who is beyond and behind all, even if we don’t know it or believe it. Music is a human means that helps us see the Holy. It endures not because of the immortality of the composer, the creativity of the composition, or even the perfection of the performance; but because of the Truth to which it speaks. Music lasts not simply because it is good and we like it, but because it speaks the “Truth.” J.S. Bach is called the fifth evangelist, not because he substituted his music for the truth of the Gospel, but because his dedication helps the truth of the Gospel to be better seen, heard, understood, and shared.
The enduring quality that remains after musicians themselves have gone and their last notes have wafted heavenward is the opening of our eye to the soul. Music is the gift of a third eye and inner eye to see beyond ourselves into a great mystery of interconnection that weaves particularity into a communion of experience. Thus we can all sit in our seats and hear its beauty, whether it be in church, or at the symphony or at a rock concert, and it can transport our souls, all at the same time, into places we didn’t know existed. It opens up the religious imagination where we can see what is invisible, hear that which is beyond sound itself, and know something of the reality that is beyond our own limited experience. What music does for Christian worship is to liberate us from the tyranny of the explained and the experienced. It is not a luxury; it is a necessity. God uses it to transform us and call out of us pieces we have hidden away, to warm hearts that have grown stone cold, and to renew us with courage.
There is a Russian, female composer named Sofia Gubadulina. When she was asked to explain her art, she gave a most unexpected answer: “I am convinced that serious art can be distinguished from ephemeral art by whether it finds a form that connects to God.”
Every time we sing in church we are engaged in a sacramental transaction, whether the hymn is familiar or not. It is sacred stuff! It is indeed an outward and visible sign that bespeaks of an inward and invisible grace. A sacrament is very much an exercise in the religious imagination of the Divine reality. And no one is more important in shaping that for others than you, who make music your art in the church, whether you are composer, conductor, singer, organist, or musician.
The prose of this morning’s scripture resounds in our hearts like sweet, familiar music turning even the sleepiest mind and most tired heart to hear God’s word. From Micah: “What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” Although Micah was not thinking of liturgy or music when he wrote those words, few words could more clearly express the reason why music abounds in liturgy. Is it not to stir our hearts to justice, to melt our pride to kindness, and to help our inner eye see the great and unbounded grace of God raining upon our lives?
A very rich and generous man once taught me that you cannot say “thank you” too often. And so thanks to Mark and Virginia Whitmire for their extraordinary ministry of music, to the Fisk architects and builders of this organ, to everyone who served on the Organ committee or gave so generously of their time and wealth so that we might share this magnificent instrument. Most especially I want to thank our choirs, whose music never fails to transport me into the presence of the Holy One. Thanks be to God to whom be all glory now and forever. Amen!