Have you seen the video of the toddler who hears his mother’s voice for the first time? Born deaf, the boy receives cochlear implants. The camera catches his expression when, sitting on his mother’s lap, he hears her voice for the first time. What wonder! What joy! Like the look on Paula Roberts’ face when she saw our new piano for the first time.
Today we’re celebrating Epiphany. It’s the part of the Christian story where the wise men finally arrive and recognize the toddler Jesus. “We Three Kings of Orient are. Bearing gifts we traverse afar. Field and fountain, moor and mountain–Following yonder star.” Usually on Epiphany, we focus on seeing, on light, on visual aha moments, or epiphanies.
But this year? We got a piano! It was delivered on December 16th– Beethoven’s birthday. And because it’s alive–it’s made of wood–it has to sit at least two weeks before it can be tuned. It will be tuned this Tuesday, January 6, which is–drum roll, please– Epiphany. The piano will be tuned on Epiphany!
When I learned the date for the tuning, I thought immediately of that little boy’s face the moment he heard his mom’s voice for the first. Then it hit me…I guess you could say I had an epiphany: Epiphanies aren’t always visual, are they? Revelation isn’t only about things coming to light. Revelation also comes on sound waves.
The writer of John’s Gospel knew about aural revelation. Just look at how he begins the Gospel story: “In the beginning was the Word…” Not, “In the beginning was the light,” or “In the beginning was the very pretty sunrise.” No. “In the beginning was the Word.”
And if you go back to the first “In the beginning” in the book of Genesis, you see from where John stole, I mean, got the idea: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” God spoke, and there was light. Once God’s word created light, only then did God see it. “And God saw that the light was good.”
So, sound comes first; it precedes sight. It’s the same with babies before they’re born, isn’t it? Before the fetus even has eyes, it can hear–or maybe feel is a more accurate description– its mother’s heartbeat, its father’s singing. One of my music profsrelated something that happened at a workshop she was leading. At the break, a very pregnant woman with a guitar came up and began playing. Then she moved the guitar to the other side of her body and played. When she did, her whole stomach moved. The baby was drawn to the music, to the sound, to the vibrations.
Yes. In the beginning was the Word, the sound…
After his word about the Word, the Gospel writer moves quickly to a word about light: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people”….but it is clear that the writerunderstands sound to be the thing that creates: “In the beginning was the Word.” After exploring the idea of light for a bit, the author comes back to the Word and says: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The Word, the creative force, the sound that reveals light–that creative Word became flesh and lived among us.
If we think of the Word as sound, it makes sense that it comes to dwell among us. That’s what sound waves do, right? The sound is created and sends the waves out, so that, sound becomes something you hear AND feel.
After college, I taught school for two years in Lawton, OK, where Ft. Sill is located. Ft. Sill is a big artillery place for the US Army. Occasionally, when the big brass were in town, the Ft. Sill personnel would give a demonstration of their weaponry in an event called a Firepower. One time, the Firepower blasting was so loud, a picture literally was knocked off the wall of my apartment. Oh, yeah. Those sound waves came and lived among us…and how!
Sound waves coming to live among us….that’s part of why I’m so excited about our new piano. The digital piano we’ve had for so many years—we’ve made some wonderful music with it! And I LOVE the transposing feature–especially for trying to sing those hymns at 8:30. But with a digital piano, the sound is created electronically. If you turn the sound way up, it might cause a little vibration…but there’s a gap between the experience of striking a key on a digital piano and the sound that’s created. You press the key and you hear the sound, but you don’t feel it. When you strike a key on this piano–no matter how softly–you feel the sound. That’s why we’re able to hear this piano better in this room. It’s because real live sound waves are emanating from the instrument—from the keys, from the strings—out into the room. When you strike a key on this piano, the sound literally comes to dwell among us.
The same thing happens when we sing, especially when we sing together. This summer on sabbatical, I thought a lot about song as a sacrament, about how God shows up when we sing together. I am convinced that much of the tension that happens among people of faith–all people, really—happens because we stay in our heads. We draw a line in the sand, create an “us” and a “them,” and spew words at each other until we’re blue in the face.
But when we sing together? It’s hard–maybe even impossible–to fight with someone when you’re singing with them. Part of the reason, I believe, is that communal singing gets us out of our heads and into our bodies. When we talk, we do that mostly out of our heads. When we sing with each other? Our voices and lungs, our entire bodies become involved.That’s what happens each week when we sing “Let There Be Peace on Earth”—we get out of our heads and into our bodies. And regardless of what’s going on in the community or in the world, joining hands and singing that song grounds us. It—literally–holds us together.
Though I don’t know that he would have called it a sacrament, folk singer Pete Seeger believed something powerful happens when people sing together. In fact, he believed– deep-down believed–that people singing together could create world peace. His biographer, David Dunaway writes: “Pete made friends through music and discovered side effects of community singing: the trust between song leader and singers, the chesty warmth that comes from strangers resonating in harmony.”Once the song “If I Had a Hammer” became popular, people would sing it “in unplanned harmony” at his concerts. Dunaway writes that Pete “couldn’t stop talking about this, insisting politicians could learn from it.” (K 2673)
One of the gifts of church communities is that we sing together. In how many other places in your lifedo you sing together with others? I’m not talking about rehearsal situations– choirs and theater and such. I’m talking about just singing with others. At rock or folk concerts… maybe? Maybe Scouts or summer camp.Happy Birthday in a restaurant? (…if you call that singing… One of the sad commentaries on the 21st century is that we leave the singing to professionals and children.
Not here at Pilgrimage, though! Every week in worship, we sing together. Sometimes we sing new songs or hymns, but a lot of times we sing the same songs, sometimes every Sunday. We do that especially at 8:30. Why do we sing together? Because song is a sacrament. When we sing together, God shows up. And if we sing familiar songs, we can stop worrying about whether or not we know it, and just sing. (Singing new songs is important, too, though. Just think, all those familiar songs once were new to us, too. J)
Now, I know that some of you don’t sing in worship. And that’s fine. There is no judgment in that at all. Everyone engages worship and the community in the ways they are able. I will say, though, that if you’re not singing the songs, you’re missing a powerful experience of worship and of connecting with the community. You might also be depriving yourself of an experience of the divine. Of course, now that I think about it, even if you’re not singing, the sound waves created by everyone else’s singing fill the space…so whether you sing or don’t sing, song still can be a sacrament. It still can be a means of revealing God. But, oh, it’s so much more fun when you join your voice with others!
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And that Word became flesh and lived among us. Word, sound, song–sacraments…ways of meeting God. Is there any other way to end this sermon than by singing together? [Community sings “Amazing Grace” together.]
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2015