This morning, I want to give you a challenge. If you had to name your top five musical experiences, your top musical memories, what would you choose? This morning, we are talking about the shared practice of singing and playing music. And by way of introduction, I wanted to tell you what my top five favorite musical memories were. The top five musical experiences I have had throughout my life. And of course, the hardest part was to limit it to five! But, nonetheless, here goes. In no particular order:
- When I was in college, our campus ministries group took a trip to a Experiencing God weekend in southern Kentucky. During our free time in the afternoon, a bunch of us decided to zip down to Nashville for a couple of hours. We wandered around a bit, and ended up on the campus of Belmont University. There, we saw a flier for a fundraiser event for Belmont featuring some of their most famous alums. If you don’t know, Belmont was home to some of the most popular names in Christian contemporary music: Charlie Peacock, Steven Curtis Chapman, Michael W. Smith. And they were all going to be there in what was basically a high school-sized auditorium. So, we immediately agreed to skip the evening session, bear the wrath of our leaders, and experience one of the most amazing concerts we had ever seen, just a few feet away from our heroes.
- Back to high school, and this is not one memory, but a series. My last couple of years in high school, I was in the school jazz band. And it was there in fourth hour that I absolutely fell in love with jazz music. We would listen to Coltrane or Miles Davis, Count Basie or Jay Jay Johnson. And then we would play big band standards like In the Mood or Girl from Ipanema. It turns out that I am a pretty horrible jazz trombone improvisationalist. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t transformed by the experience!
- Back to college again, this event took place on a Friday night. Things were particularly dead on the campus of Georgetown College, dead enough that we decided that we would go to one of the campus-sponsored CEP events – a concert by a Celtic group called the Tannehill Weavers. The crowd was small, and the band had every reason to mail it in. But they did the opposite. They played bagpipes and uelean pipes and whistles and huge drums, and they shook the walls of the John L. Hill Chapel. Easily one of the top five musical experiences I’ve ever had.
- Much more recently, I had the opportunity to hear the Punch Brothers at Liberty Hall. Again, in an intimate venue, I was able to hear some of the most gifted and creative bluegrass musicians alive. Chris Thile, the lead singer and mandolin player, has received a McArthur genius grant for his musical contributions. The group is an all-star group – Noam Pickelny on banjo, Aoife O’Donovan sang with them. And since the venue was small, they were talking and interacting with the audience and it felt like you were hanging out in their living room. A top five for sure.
And, of course, I could list so many more, if time allowed. Each one a powerful story and a powerful memory. My guess is that as you have been sitting here you have thought of your own top five – or top one hundred – musical memories. Music touches us, does it not?
We are in the fourth week of our series on “Life Together,” led by the work of the same name by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We’ve been talking about the shared experiences and spiritual practices that help us form community. Bonhoeffer talks about what he calls “the day together.” He speaks of prayer – being with God. Scripture – telling an alternative story to the one that the world says about reality. Communion – recognizing our part in the ongoing narrative of God’s redemption. And today we talk about music, about singing. Bonhoeffer stresses the importance of singing together, suggesting that “our spoken words are inadequate to express what we want to say.” It is a critical piece of our worship, and a critical piece of our faith.
Unfortunately, not everyone agrees. I remember several years ago, we had someone visit a couple of times, and eventually didn’t stay. But they told me once, “we really like your sermons, but why do we spend so much time on the ‘warm up act?’ Why don’t you preach more and we sing less?” Of course, my heart sank. Because so much of worship happens in the music. A lot of Baptists, and really a lot of the revivalist tradition of worship places the sermon at the pinnacle of worship; everything leads up to the sermon. But just because a sermon takes up a big chunk of the service doesn’t mean that the rest of the stuff is the “warm up act!” Music is a critical way of understanding who God is and who we are together. It is foundational to the way that we “love God with our heart, soul, mind, and bodies!” How many of us in our “top five music experiences” have a worship experience or Christian music event? Music matters.
Let me try and make the point another way. Today we read from Philippians 2. The book was a letter from the Apostle Paul to the church at Philippi. It was a community especially important to him, and seems pretty healthy and unified compared to some. But all was not perfect in Philippi. Paul seems to suggest that some of the faithful were preaching out of envy or rivalry. Paul speaks of internal strife as well as external “opponents.” It seems that there was some degree of division and disunity and mistrust in the congregation.
So in the face of this contention, Paul writes his letter. In the passage that we read today, Paul urges the Philippians to have the “mind of Christ.” He uses the example of Christ to show that if he who was the very incarnation of God did not exalt himself, but instead humbled himself, even unto death on the cross, then who are we to let envy and division and arrogance motivate us? Instead, it is this “mind of Christ that should motivate and empower and challenge us.”
Now, being good individualistic Americans, what we usually assume that Paul is talking about is our minds, as if he said “the brain of Christ.” But that isn’t what Paul seems to mean. Think more about a shared mind, a “hive mind” perhaps. Richard Spaulding points out that this “mind of Christ” is not just an individualistic, cognitive, intellectual set of principles. Instead, when Paul speaks of the church having the “mind of Christ,” he is speaking in communal terms. They are to share together one mind, one heart that brings them together in unity and helps them worship and work though divisions. Paul speaks in terms of faith, of trust of God and one another, and of shared community. So Paul teaches the importance of sharing the mind of Christ in the Church. I wrote down a quote from the Two-Way this week (but I didn’t write down who wrote it): “the mind of Christ must be in you: sharing his Spirit, following Christ, worshipping Christ, loving Christ.” This is Paul’s message in a nutshell!
But if you look deeper, you find that Paul communicates not only through the message, but also the medium. In the passage, Paul is actually quoting a hymn – the words of a familiar song that sang about Jesus and his sacrifice. It was a hymn that he assumed they all knew, and thus he didn’t even reference it as a song. It would be like me preaching about “amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see.” People would have known what he was doing and probably would have finished the lyrics as the letter was read out loud.
In other words, Paul was using music to make a multi-layered point. The unity and trust that I desire for you is demonstrated in the shared singing of this song that you all know well. When you sing this together, you are providing an alternative to the story of division and boasting that exists all around you. Again, it is Spaulding that comments about Paul’s use of this song:
“Why did Paul, never at a loss for his own words, let a hymn speak for him at this point? Perhaps because the act of singing is, itself, a way of supplanting fear with audacity. The act of singing together is a form of conspiracy, a breathing together that gives words of faith and confidence their wings….The church’s habit of singing is one of the oldest ways of reaching down into the depths of its honesty to tap the wellspring of its abundance. Even on the cross, the words that rode upon Jesus’ final breaths came from the Psalms.”
Music matters in our faith, and in our church, and in our shared practice! It humbles us, it unites us, and it gives us voice of conspiracy against the brokenness of our world.
The Freedom Riders were those who marched and sat-in and gathered against the racist laws in our country, in to fight the racist laws during the Civil Rights era of the 50’s and 60’s. They were ridiculed and taunted. Attacked and bombed. They felt the pain of the firehoses and the dogs. But in spite of their fear, of their pain, of their oppression, they sang. At every march, on sit-ins, even in the buses on the way to the next rally, they sang:
This Little Light of Mine
Let us Break Bread Together
We Shall Not Be Moved
We Shall Overcome
They were songs of faith. And songs of audacity. What audacity to think that were God’s children, made in the same likeness of God as whites were. And the songs gave them hope. The singing that gave them hope.
Perhaps you realized that I only gave you four of my top five musical experiences. One last one this morning. When I was in seminary, my seminary church hosted a conference called Reconciliation Now. It gathered people from various parts of the world to tell and hear stories about reconciliation in the face of the deepest divisions on the planet. Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland. Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda. Blacks and whites in our own country. Day after day, story after story, I was amazed by the power of God to bring people together in spite of their differences.
And then, on the last day, in the final worship service, there was a parade of flags. From every country represented. For what seemed like forever, flag after flag entered the sanctuary in equality and mutuality. Then, the service paused as a new song began: Lift High the Cross. The orchestra played. The organ boomed. We all sang together in one voice. Then, at the end of the parade, a large cross was lifted high and brought into the sanctuary. And the power in that room was almost palpable. It was hard to sing the words through the tears. The orchestra director said he lost almost all the woodwinds in one fell swoop. But somehow we found a voice, and we sang. And the cross of Christ brought reconciliation and hope. And so we sang.