Welcome. Welcome to worship with First Congregational in Asheville. I usually try to begin our services on an upbeat note. I’ll get there eventually today, but I want to say some other things first.
We are living in dire times. The devastating effects of climate change are killing us and our planet. We have several climate refugees in the group of new folks who have joined us. Welcome! Our fellow humans in Afghanistan, where every city except Kabul has fallen to the Taliban, are suffering terribly. The people of Haiti, who absolutely didn’t need another disaster, have been shaken by yet another earthquake. The Delta variant of Covid is knocking us for another loop. I just got word that one of my Women Touched By Grace sisters, Yolande, is in the hospital in Houston with double pneumonia because of Covid. I’m terrified for her.
Yes, we are living in dire times. AND (here comes the upbeat part) We are living in dire times AND we have a community of friends with whom to navigate them. If you’re here in the sanctuary, take a minute to look around at all these people. If you’re watching online, take a look at the backs of these people’s heads. 🙂 Or the members of the choir. Or, if there are others watching with you at home, look at them. Or maybe if you’re sitting here in the pews, you might like to turn around, maybe even stand up and turn around and wave at the camera. Go ahead and do that. We see you, online people! Well, we don’t actually SEE you. We see you metaphorically. And we’re glad you’re there.
Here’s what I’m trying to say: We have something special here in this community. We have a place to bring our questions, our joys, our griefs. We have a place where people know our names…and remember them when we wear our name badges. We have a group of friends with whom to worship and serve and march for justice and play and sing. (Personally, I think we need to play a LOT more than we have been!)
As the world goes topsy turvy, we have a community–are you hearing me? We have a community to help us stay steady and calm and to weather any storm that comes. And here’s what I want to pledge to you today–to all of you here in the sanctuary and to all who are watching online–this community will be here for you…if we can meet here in the sanctuary, we will. If we have to meet online, we’ll do that. We will do whatever it takes to keep meeting. Because this community is precious. This community is what will help us navigate the dire times in which we’re living. This is the community that will love us and pray for us and play with us and challenge us and inspire us. This community is precious.
As we breathe God’s love in and out today, I invite you to look at or think about the people who are breathing with you–people in this room, people online… and, on a personal note, please breathe for my friend Yolande in Houston.
Together, we breathe in God’s love…we breathe out God’s love…we breathe in…we breathe out…
I know a nun whose drink of choice is gin. She doesn’t drink it often, but she does enjoy a gin and tonic on occasion.
For all of the good tidbits in this passage, my guess is that the words that stuck in our minds were “Do not get drunk with wine…” Oops, we might think. Too late. Or, for those of us in recovery–Oh, yeah. I get it. Or, Why in the world is this in the Bible?
My first thought when reading the next sentence– “But be filled with the Spirit, meditating on psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making music to God in your hearts”–my first thought when reading that is, Um…it’s not the same. Sing instead of drink? What kind of advice is that? Do you have to pick one or the other? Some of us are good multi-taskers; we can sing and drink at the same time!
A second reading of these two sentences reveals a deeper truth. For those who might have experienced drunkenness, what happens? It takes the edge off, right? It lays a thick blanket over whatever you’re feeling and mutes it. When we’re drunk, we’re not quite our authentic selves are we?
The author’s invitation to be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to God in your hearts…it’s an invitation to do the opposite. Being filled with the Spirit (and not spirits) as we make music together is an invitation to become more ourselves. To sing meditatively, quietly…so that our hearts might be open, both to ourselves, to God, and to others. It’s impossible to fight with someone when you’re making music with them. Singing meditatively, singing to God in our hearts…it heals us.
Today, even as we’re back to wearing masks and where most of our singing does need to be done in our hearts, we’re going to explore some of the ways music helps us and heals us. We’re going to start by singing together…and open ourselves to being filled with God’s Spirit.
In his memoir/novel, Night, Elie Wiesel describes a scene in one of the barracks at Auschwitz. “It was pitch dark,” he writes. Someone was playing violin. “I could hear only the violin, and it was as though Juliek’s soul were the bow. He was playing his life. The whole of his life was gliding on the strings–his last hopes, his charred past, his extinguished future. He played as he would never play again…When I awoke, in the daylight, I could see Juliek, opposite me, slumped over, dead. Near him lay his violin, smashed, trampled, a strange overwhelming little corpse.”
In a lecture on the problem of evil in my systematic theology class in seminary, the graduate student who was guest lecturing asked the question: “What does Juliek’s violin represent in this scene?” My hand shot up. “It symbolizes beauty and hope, even in the midst of suffering caused by evil.” The graduate student just shook his head as if he still had so much to teach us theological neophytes. He said the scene didn’t represent hope, but rather the pointlessness of beauty in the midst of evil and cruelty. What good was Juliek’s music if he was just going to be dead the next day?
I’m still bothered by that conversation. Now as then, I am sure that grad student was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Right? I mean, right? Juliek’s holy, sacred music touched the teenager Elie so deeply that he included the scene in his book. And now we–and myriad others–have experienced that music, even after Juliek’s death. Did Juliek’s music that night mean nothing?
Back in 1989, I didn’t have access to the internet, so this week, I googled it: What does Juliek’s violin in Wiesel’s novel Night symbolize? Somebody, I don’t know who, but someone obviously very wise says Juliek’s violin is “a symbol for hope, passion, faith, and even optimism.” Case closed!
Something happens with music, doesn’t it? Something deep inside calms down (well, I guess, depending on the music ;-)). When we started singing hymns together again in May… remember how overwhelming–and healing–that was? And how about hearing the choir members singing that first hymn? We’re not sure yet if we’ll be able to keep this up, the choir singing in worship, but today it sure is nice, isn’t it?
A few months ago, I ran across a choral anthem whose beauty and simplicity knocked my socks off. I thought the choir could pull it together in no time and create a beautiful offering for us. We rehearsed it for three weeks. Then we used it as the piece for Music Director auditions. (We’ll be making an announcement soon.) We rehearsed it one more time this past week and again this morning. This piece has been worked up and over, inside out, all the way around and then some. At this rate, the choir might be able to sing two, wow, maybe even three anthems a year! Cool.
Mark Miller is one of my favorite choral composers. I met him at Wild Goose a couple of years ago. A brilliant musician with a gentle spirit. Mid-July 2015, Mark was in Montreat when he heard the news about the massacre at Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. His co-collaborator, Lindy Thompson, had just written a poem, “I Choose Love” that he was inspired to set to music in response to the shooting.
So often, music says what we are unable to say. It stirs us deep inside and helps us express the inexpressible. The choir shares with you today the song Mark wrote in response to the Mother Emanuel shooting.
Prayers. Back in 2015, I wasn’t able to watch the memorial service for the 9 people slain at Mother Emanuel. When I heard about President Obama singing “Amazing Grace,” I was so sorry I missed it. What a surprise it must have been. How healing it must have been to have our President sing in his own natural voice, “Amazing Grace.” Did you see how the faces of the clergy around him lit up?
Music can heal us. It can bring us together. It can bind our hearts together as one. As can prayer. Let us pray.
Holy One, the circumstances of the world are dire. Our hearts break at all the suffering we see. It boggles our minds that human beings can be so cruel to each other. We are grateful to have a community of friends with whom to laugh, sing, grieve, and work together for justice. We are grateful that we do not have to navigate life alone. Thank you for this First Congregational community. GM/HP
We offer prayers for our fellow human beings across the globe who are suffering, especially the battered people of Haiti and Afghanistan. Regarding Afghanistan, may we learn from the devastation that’s happening there to reflect critically on the effect of actions our country takes in the world. As we are learning, our decisions can have devastating consequences for the people of other nations. Help us, Holy One, to encourage, to insist that our civic leaders only make decisions for the common good. GM/HP
We take a moment now to speak aloud–or to write in the chat–our joys, concerns, and hopes. Hear us. (Responses) GM/HP
We take a moment now to pray for ourselves. (Silence) GM/HP
When writing his Rule for community life, Benedict said communities should pray the Prayer of Jesus at least three times a day…mostly for the line that says, “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who have sinned against us.” Hmm… Let us pray.
Offering. We have been given an abundance of riches. We’ve also been given the gift of sharing those riches with others. It is a gift to give today. We all are invited to give as we are able.
We are living in dire times, but all is not lost, not by a long-shot. Why? To quote Amanda Gorman… Because “There is always light…If only we are brave enough to see it. If only we are brave enough to be it.” Let us go from this place and be light for the world. Amen.