With all the excellent music already sung this Advent and still to come in Christmastide, I share this out-of-season sermon in thanksgiving for the discipline and commitment of our many devoted musicians here at Christ Church Greenwich. Soli Deo gloria!
A Sermon Preached on the Sixteenth Sunday after Pentecost, September 8, 2013
Texts: Philemon 1-21; Luke 14:25-33
May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Amen.
On this, the last Sunday before the official start of our program year, I’d like to take some time to talk about Church music. Now it may seem odd to you that I would choose to talk about music the week before our choirs return from their summer break. But this timing is not accidental. Our parish is blessed with a very long and rich tradition of excellent music offered by talented musicians. For generations, our choirs have been a source of pride, a well of inspiration and devotion, and indeed a resource for church growth: I know that many of you in the congregation today first entered the life of Christ Church Greenwich through the Music Department.
And yet that same long tradition can become for us a crutch. If we are not careful, we can allow the strength of our choirs to become an excuse for half-hearted singing from the congregation. If we think too often or too readily of the music program as something separate from the life of the parish, we may well forget that music is something that we do together. Our well-trained choristers do not stand here week after week, great feast after great feast, offering concerts. Rather, our fine choirs are leaders, inviting the whole congregation to join together in the praise of Almighty God.
This is true for great anthems and beautiful service music, when the choir sings and we are invited to be active listeners, lending the wings of our prayers to the ascending songs of our singers. But the deep unity that music can achieve among us is most perfectly manifested in the work of congregational singing. The singing of hymns in praise of God is one of the great privileges and gifts of the whole Church. When we stand and sing together, all barriers fall to the ground. When we stand and sing together, we are no longer clergy and lay people, no longer choir and congregation, no longer member and visitor, no longer insider and outsider, but we become one people, one Church, one Body, with our hearts and minds fixed on the one Lord.
That unity extends far beyond the walls of this building. The hymns and music we sing together as one congregation lift us up, and bid us join in the great unending hymn of praise that echoes through eternity in the nearer presence of our God. When we stand together before the Lord’s Table today, think of the invitation—think of the unity through time and space—that we share when we “join our voices with angels, and archangels, and all the company of heaven.” Music invites us to take our place in that assembly, as the Church still walking its earthly pilgrimage unites with the Church Triumphant before the throne of God.
But more than this—more than this work of inviting and uniting the whole people of God—Church music is actually part of what creates the people of God. The music that we hear and sing in worship has tremendous power to form us as Christians. The great hymns of the faith and the great anthems of the choral repertoire are among the most effective and profound teaching tools available to us as we seek to communicate and comprehend the Good News.
A few weeks ago at Choir Camp, I heard one of our choristers say that she gets most of her religion from the music she sings in our choirs. As a preacher, I was dismayed. But as her priest and pastor, I was delighted. So often, music can be the key that unlocks the difficult places of our hearts and the doubting passages of our minds. A moving tune can unclench our tightly shut souls and let the freeing words of the Gospel sink deep down into us.
And not the freeing words only. The passage we have heard this morning from St Luke’s Gospel is surely among the most difficult and unsettling in all of Scripture. “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple.” I have read many commentaries on this passage, and they can do but little to soften the explosive force of Jesus’ demand for absolute devotion, absolute commitment.
And yet, through the power of great music, you and I have this very day sung our affirmation—our acceptance—of Jesus’ words. The hymn that accompanied our opening procession included these lines in the fourth verse:
Let goods and kindred go, This mortal life also.
The body they may kill, God’s truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever! 1
That verse expresses the whole substance of Jesus’ difficult teaching this morning. That verse calls us to acknowledge the complete and utter claim that God makes on our lives. That verse calls us to recognize that no relationship, no matter how intimate, must draw us from the call of Christ. That verse invites us to realize that no possession, no wealth, no treasure, however hard-won or precious, can approach the surpassing value of knowing Jesus our Lord.
Beloved, that verse reminds us that the cost of following Jesus may be great. It may even come at the price of our lives. Indeed, that was precisely the price paid by many of the early Protestants for whom Martin Luther wrote “A mighty fortress is our God.” But those who had sung these words—those who had sung any of the great hymns that gave life and power to the Reformation message—died in the sure and certain knowledge that God’s truth abides forever. They faced the flood of mortal ills from within the never-failing bulwark of God’s sovereign promise. They counted the cost, took up their crosses, and passed from death into life with the praises of God on their lips.
But for all this, the last point I wish to make this morning is that music is unnecessary. That may seem to contradict much of what I have just said, but let me explain what I mean. For all that music adds and accomplishes, it is perfectly possible to worship without hymns and anthems. We do not need instruments, whether organs, pianos, guitars, or anything else, to offer praise to God. More importantly, God does not need our praises. God stands far above our poor power to add or detract. He does not need us to remind him that he is great. God does not need us to recall to his mind the mighty acts by which he wrought for us life and salvation. Music is unnecessary.
And yet this morning, through the quiet grace of the lectionary, we have known the power and potential of unnecessary things. Today, we have heard almost the entirety of Paul’s shortest letter, the Epistle to Philemon. It is brief, to the point, and a masterful display of rhetorical power. And it is also unnecessary.
You see, a runaway slave named Onesimus met the Apostle Paul while Paul was under house arrest. Through the Apostle’s teaching and influence, Onesimus became a Christian. The name Onesimus means “useful.” It was a common name for slaves in the ancient world, and we can gather from the letter that Onesimus was indeed a useful companion for Paul during his imprisonment.
That might’ve been the end of the story. A useful former slave becomes a companion of Paul, and helps him in a difficult time. But Paul takes an additional, unnecessary step in his relationship with Onesimus. The reason we even know about this useful slave is that Paul wrote the letter we have just heard to Philemon: a fellow Christian, and Onesimus’s erstwhile owner.
Paul already had Onesimus’s companionship and assistance. There was no reason to send him back to Colossae to reconcile with Philemon, his former master. No reason, except that Paul wanted to go beyond what was necessary to what was good, holy, grace-filled for all. Paul writes to Philemon, “I preferred to do nothing without your consent in order that your good deed might be voluntary and not something forced.” Paul wants Philemon to do something great, and difficult, and unnecessary. He wants the slave- owning Christian to receive his runaway slave back as a brother. Paul wants to make Philemon, not a victim of lost-property, but a participant in the salvation of a soul and the work of the Gospel.
Brothers and sisters, when I say that music is unnecessary, I mean that it is unnecessary like Paul’s Epistle to Philemon. Music carries us out of the realm of bare- minimums and bottom-line thinking, and lifts us up into what is good, and holy, and gracious. Music invites us to become participants in what God has accomplished. Our songs in worship are a loud “Amen!” to God’s great hymn of redemption. The text is his, as is the tune. But our deaf hears have been opened to hear it, and our dumb tongues have been loosened to join in that great song. True, God does not need our praises. And yet, he relishes them. God does not demand our hymns. And yet, he accepts them. In our music, God receives an offering that he does not require, but that he delights in all the same.
And in making that offering, we are changed. As we tune our hearts to sing God’s grace, we become alive to his promises and power. As we seek to offer the very best of ourselves through music—as we present the fullness of who and what we are—we become imitators of God, who gave of his fullness for our salvation in the person of Jesus our Lord. In thanksgiving for that precious gift, and in the joy that is ours through the Holy Spirit, may we raise our voices to the praise of God the Father. In the singing of our choirs and in the songs that we offer together, may we always rejoice to find ourselves united as God’s people, transformed as the Body of Christ, and lifted up into the abundant life of the Holy Trinity, to whom be glory now, and forevermore.
1 Verse 4, “A mighty fortress is our God,” Hymn 688, The Hymnal 1982. Words and melody by Martin Luther.