Scripture in Song

This sermon was offered by Polly Jenkins Man on October 22nd, 2017.

Matthew 22:15-22

A man was being challenged by members of the establishment who were ardent defenders of the faith. Attempting to trap him with well-rehearsed questions, they were eager to discount his teachings and perhaps even find a way to arrest him. He was becoming too popular: they noticed that more and more people were following him, being led astray by what these men regarded as heretical ideas.  Their power and influence, even their livelihood was threatened.

A familiar gospel story; the Pharisees confront Jesus. Actually no, it isn’t.  The event I just described occurred in Leipzig, Germany, almost 500 years ago. Germany’s master debater, Johann Eck, a Dominican friar with some other theologians, invited Martin Luther to discuss the doctrine of free will and grace.

But it does have the familiar ring of the gospel passage. It’s a timeless story of a radical, an innovator coming up against an establishment that is terrified of losing its power and influence.  Jesus, a master debater himself, was able to wiggle out of the Pharisees’ grip with a brilliant object lesson.   “See this coin”, he said, “whose image is on it?” “ The emperor’s,” they replied,  “All right then, give it to the emperor since it his.”  “But give to God those things that are God’s.”

How long do you think it took before the Pharisees, scratching their heads as they walked away, figured out that giving to God what was God’s, meant giving that which bears God’s image, that is, themselves, him, us and all children of God.   Scholars of the Torah, they knew very well what Jesus meant: “God made humankind in God’s image, male and female God created them”.

However, the debate between Luther and Eck took a slightly different turn. Like Jesus, Luther was challenged to defend his belief. Yet, unlike Jesus, he could not find a way to satisfy his listeners and stand by his conviction at the same time.  In the end, he stood by his conviction: scripture, he declared, is the only true authority for Christians; not popes, councils or theologians. The head of the church is Christ, No one occupies his primary position.

Sola scriptura, scripture alone, became the watchword of the new movement.  All anyone needs; all wisdom, instruction, words of promise, solace and hope; God’s love and God’s anger, all are in the words of the Bible.

It was a lovely idea…and a huge problem, because very few people could read. And even fewer, Greek and Latin the languages of the New Testament and the church.

Education in reading and writing was available only to priests, monks and scholars, which had been true since earliest times, yet, even then, church leaders sensed that it was important for the laity to have direct access to the Biblical story.  Which is why, as early as the 2nd century, there began to appear frescoes on the walls of the catacombs, later Byzantine mosaics, then reliefs and statues, culminating with the flowering of the great art of the Gothic cathedrals.

These amazing buildings, are like Scripture in Stone.  Figures carved into the façade tell the stories of both testaments, saints and prophets marching up and over the arch, covering every inch. Inside the cathedral, stained glass windows glow with  figures of the patriarchs and matriarchs, and  stories from the gospel. People learned all this as they entered for Mass and stood through the service.  Visual instruction.

But then, along comes reformation theology with its desire to distance itself from all popery, of anything that smacked of connection to the Roman church.  Reformers began to remove   art, which, they viewed as distractions from the power of the Word.

Yet here was another problem for Luther.  His translation of the New Testament into German would suffice to fill the teaching gap for those who could read, what about all the others?

And so he went the next step.   In addition to everything else that he was: monk, theologian, preacher, translator and reformer; he was a fine musician, who sensed that music could reach a place in people’s hearts and minds that words alone could not.  He began a mission to bring more music into the church; with congregational singing and by giving the pipe organ a central role in worship.  Those two changes opened up the field for the great composers who would follow. Someone once said, “If there had been no Luther, we would not have Bach!”

The Roman church did have music, although not for the crowd. Priests, monks and a choir sang the Mass. Giovanni Palestrina was a Renaissance musician and composer who wrote for them. His setting of Psalm 42, the motet “ Sicut cervus ” expresses the longing of the soul for God as a deer longs for flowing streams. To get a sense of this music, I ask you now to visualize our choir as 16th century monks while we sing a brief excerpt from his motet.

(Choir sings the excerpt of “Sicut Cervus”)

Luther had always been fond of church music.  Now he wanted to expand its role. A pioneer once again, he believed that if everyone could sing the words, then the Word would become integrated into people’s hearts, would become part of them.

He began to write hymns, often setting them to familiar folk tunes, even drinking songs. Jim is playing two variations this morning on one of Luther’s hymns: the prelude and the offertory; and every hymn in today’s service is a Luther hymn. Still though, was the old problem:  many who couldn’t read words, let alone music.  So what does he do? He calls the congregation together during the week to learn the hymns. He’d sing a line, the congregation would sing it back.  That’s exactly what we would have done this morning, if we were in a 16th century reformed church. Lauren would have sung one line, we’d repeat it back, and so on through the whole hymn.  Luther was the father of congregational singing. Thank you, Martin Luther! It’s where the Protestant byword “the priesthood of all believers” received its fullest expression.   Scripture in Song.

He was a man before his time because it is now well known how music affects us. Science has proven what music lovers already know: listening to music can improve your mood by lowering the stress hormone cortisol.

Music also stimulates the brain hormone oxytocin   I call it the love or the bonding hormone because it’s the chemical released when mothers give birth… it’s better than any happiness drug. (fun fact: females usually have more than males)

A swab of a chorister’s mouth immediately after a 2 hour rehearsal showed a significantly higher amount of endorphins than a sample taken just before they sang. This neurotransmitter is part of the pleasure-reward system.  It’s the brain chemical responsible for the feel-good states obtained from runner’s high, sex, and eating chocolate.  I mean, seriously, isn’t that a great reason to join the choir?

Serotonin also weighs in here.  Our senior choir rehearses every Wednesday at 7:45 pm and we get home about 9:30. Many of us are tired at the end of a long day. Can we really get up and go again? But we do because we know that after an hour and a half of singing we could almost fly home. That’s serotonin, better than therapy, cheaper and whole lot more fun. Convinced yet?

Music reaches into our hearts and souls, lifting our mood when we sing and even when we just listen.

More than all of that, though, is the power of music to heal. It’s apparent in the psalms,which were originally always sung and in many reform traditions, still are.   Psalm 96, “O Sing to the Lord a new song” is a song of joy, praising God’s glory.   There are so many like that.  And just as many about despair and sorrow, when the psalmist pleads to God to rescue him.  Think of Psalm 22.    David cries out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me ..trouble is near and there is no one to help”… then, ultimately, at the end, he is reassured, remembering that God has rescued him in the past.  God heard him when he cried out to him.

I like to think that it was in the sound of his voice and the music of his harp that seeped into his despair and gave him hope.

As it did for Michael Gruenbaum in 1943, a prisoner in Terezin, a German Nazi camp in occupied Czechoslovakia.  “There wasn’t much good in Terezin, he said, “it was a pretty miserable existence. 33,000 died there and another 800,000 were shipped to death camps elsewhere.” When Gruenbaum was 12 years old in the camp, those prisoners performed a childrens opera which ends with the chorus, “We’ve won a victory over the tyrant mean, sound trumpets, beat your drum and show us your esteem” Sounds a lot like a psalm.  75 years later Gruenbaum reflects, ‘We were free singing.’

The power to heal…after Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was shot in the head by an assassin, she began the brave and long journey to heal her body.  But speech wouldn’t come. One day a guitarist came to sing to her.  Before long, Giffords began to sing along, the tune and the words. A woman who had not yet uttered any recognizable word.  Music had reached in to a place where nothing else had, and healing began in earnest.

What is that place? Where is it? In our heart, our brain, our tendons or nerves which vibrate like a strings of a harp?  Or is it in our soul, a spirit which resonates with the Spirit planted deep within us by none other than God, attuned to the joy and the hope that is part and parcel of being made in the divine image.

Thanks be to God.