A sermon by Randy Hyde, Pastor, Pulaski Heights Baptist Church, Little Rock, Ar.
June 2, 2013
Note: As a part of the church’s Centennial celebration, today was designated as Organ Sunday. Our music worship was centered on the pipe organ, installed in the church in 1967.
Psalm 104:24-34; Romans 8:18-25
Heather Wilson is a teacher in Benoni, South Africa. I met her on my recent trip when I was accompanied by Sam Chaffin. You may recall that Sam and I traveled to South Africa on a Rotary club mission. One day, after touring the John Wesley Center, where children from the local squatter’s camps go after school to receive help with their studies and practice their music, Heather and her friend Chippy Walker took us to lunch. In the course of our fascinating conversation, she told Sam and me about her school’s football team. For us, of course, it is called soccer. They had been invited to play a series of exhibition matches in China, and Heather was one of the chaperones.
None of the boys had ever traveled outside South Africa, so certainly they had never before flown on an airplane. As they waited for their flight to board, the mothers of the boys, for security purposes, were forced to wait in another area of the airport after having said their goodbyes. If that had been us, we would probably have just left the airport, right? Not these mothers. As far as they knew, they might never see their boys ever again, so they waited in an adjacent area of the airport until the plane left the ground.
As you may know, African culture is filled with singing. Much of the music we know today has its roots there. Heather told us that the mothers began to sing to their sons, loudly enough not only for the boys to be able to hear, but for everyone in that area of the airport. It was a song they had sung to their sons as babies, when they would tuck them in at night. Heather said it brought tears to her eyes as she heard the mournful yet beautiful sounds coming from the impromptu choir of mothers’ voices, bidding farewell to their children, filling the airport with its harmony.
Sometimes music speaks when the spoken word simply won’t do.
Consider what our worship would be like if we didn’t have music. If there were no music there would be no need for the choir or instruments. And let’s face it – okay, I’ll face it – there are times in our worship when the music inspires us far more than any sermon possibly could. There is a certain rhythm to worship, the rise and fall, the movement, if you will, of the various elements of liturgy. Imagine how destitute our worship would be if we did not have the music which gives us that rise and fall, the resonance and rhythm, that good worship must have.
Singing is as old as worship itself. Picture in your minds the wanderings of a nomadic people called Jews as they struggle day after day in the hot, and seemingly endless, desert. At night, when they finally have an opportunity to stop and camp, and the cloudy pillar, representing the presence of God which led them through the day, would settle down into the desert sand, the people would gather together. Perhaps they would talk about the events of that day, and what kind of impact it had made upon them. Then Moses, their leader, would recount for them how Yahweh, the one true God – the God who calls himself “I AM,” the God of their Fathers Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – would hold true to the promises he had given them if they would just be faithful and not rebel against his wishes.
And surely, just as surely as you and I do when we worship, the people of Israel would sing their songs; songs of deliverance, songs of praise, songs of confession and devotion. And the night air would tingle with the sounds of their faith.
Are you aware that our modern rock-and-roll had its origins in Africa? The beat of rock-and-roll comes from the blues and jazz, as well as gospel songs, that originated when the slaves would sing in the cotton fields of the Delta. We are surrounded by music, of all kinds, some considered to be quite good to us while some of it we wouldn’t walk across the street to hear.
When it comes to worship, some of you like the old gospel songs while others prefer a more liturgical approach to our music… which, ironically, is older than the gospel songs. When you say, “Let’s sing the old songs,” generally you mean the familiar gospel songs. The old songs are the ones you don’t generally want to sing. The point is, that despite which direction you tend to lean in, when it comes to musical tastes, your response to faith is largely found in what you hear.
I know that some of you don’t sing in worship. Maybe you don’t sing at all, even in the shower. You may have the philosophy of a man who was in my previous congregation. One day, after worship, I was teasing him about his refusal to sing in church. He took one of the hymnals, opened it to one of the songs, pointed to it and said, “You see that word right there? It says ‘refrain.’ That’s what I do!”
Some of you may not sing because you don’t think you can carry a tune in a bucket. And it doesn’t make any difference at all when you are reminded that the psalm does not say, “Make a perfect sound unto the Lord,” but “Make a joyful noise…” That argument is not going to sway you; you’ve heard it all before. For whatever reason, you’ve not sung in church in years, if ever, and you’re not about to start now.
Okay, okay, I won’t try to convert you, not when it comes to this issue anyway. But may I suggest that even if you don’t sing, you might at least think about how it is that you hear? After all, faith comes by hearing.
In the final chapter of the Gospel of Luke, the scene is depicted of the risen Christ suddenly appearing amongst his disciples. At first they are frightened, thinking they are seeing a ghost. So he asks for something to eat, to prove to them that he is indeed fully human. They give him a piece of broiled fish, and as he eats it he begins teaching them how he is the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. Luke then says this: “He opened their minds to understand the scriptures…”
I can never think of this passage without remembering the way Fred Craddock describes it. “‘He opened their minds…’” Craddock says. “ He opened their minds… Do you get the surgery of it?” Jesus was able to teach them, to open their minds, only because they were able to hear what he had to say to them as his parting words. Faith comes by hearing, and this place where we have gathered this morning is the operating room.
If you did not have the gift of sight, which of the other senses do you think you would depend on the most? Chances are it would not be touch, as important as that is. Nor would it be smell or taste. You would depend most on your ability to hear, wouldn’t you?… to the point, I am sure, that your hearing would become more acute than ever before.
In all my years here as pastor of this congregation – seventeen last March, I remind you – what do you think has been the one, overriding complaint I have had to field? More than any other, it isn’t about my sermons, or that the carpet is dirty, or there wasn’t coffee available for Sunday school, or even our lack of adequate parking; though all of these have been issues at times. No, more than any other consideration or complaint is that our sound system at times is not adequate for you to be able to hear what is being said from the pulpit.
Friday morning I received a Facebook post from one of our church members. It is a cartoon. The minister is standing in the pulpit and says, “There seems to be something wrong with this sound system.” And the congregation responds, “… and also with you!” Evidently, we’re not alone in this.
Can you see okay? Good. Are you comfortable in your padded pew? Good. But that’s not enough, is it? You want to hear!… hear what is being said and sung. Take away your ability to hear, and your experience of worship is diminished indeed, to the point that it becomes an exercise more in frustration than in worship.
Recently, when we held the memorial service for Mike Beard, his ninety year-old mother was in attendance. She is almost totally deaf, but we fitted her with one of our assisted listening devices. Following the service, she expressed to me how thrilled she was to be able to hear what was said in tribute to her son. Hearing is a vital gift, that when taken away diminishes our ability to function in a meaningful way.
I will never forget the Sunday afternoon we were conducting the monthly service at Woodland Hills. We have been doing this the second Sunday of each month for more than sixteen years. Craig Savell was leading the devotional when one of the residents, sitting in her wheelchair and not more than six or seven feet from Craig, began saying loudly, “I can’t hear!” Craig bent over closer to what admittedly was then and still is an inadequate microphone (you think our system is bad, go to Woodland Hills). Craig continued, only to be interrupted again. “I can’t hear!” she said loudly. So I walked over to the portable sound system and turned it up even more, almost to the point of getting feedback. I took it as high as it would go, then I went over to the lady, leaned down close to her ear, and asked, “Can you hear better now?” “WHAT?!” she screamed right back.
Hearing is important. In fact, faith comes by hearing.
Paul, in his letter to the Romans, and admittedly in this rather arcane passage, talks about how the whole creation is groaning. He likens it to labor pains. He says we also groan inwardly because we’re still waiting, waiting for our final redemption. It is a picture of the tension that exists in the lives of those who have chosen to follow Jesus as the model of life here on this earth and of the eternal life promised in him.
Jeremy Begbie, in an articled entitled “Sound Theology,” talks about the tension found in music.1 He illustrates that tension, however, not with music but with an alarm clock. It is early in the morning. “You are deep in a dream,” he says. “The alarm goes off, and your head explodes. After much desperate fumbling, you manage to get your sleepy hand on the right button. A tension is resolved.”
Music, he explains, is like that. It builds tension, then releases it. It is in the releasing of that tension that we are inspired by what we hear. For example, when we listen to The Star-Spangled Banner being sung at public events, how would we feel if our national anthem stopped after the words, “through the perilous fight”? But it doesn’t stop there. The tension is resolved with the words, “the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.” The song is resolved and given a fitting conclusion. The tension lasts for just a moment and then is removed.
That’s what music does, he says. His point as well is that the scriptures, like Paul’s issue of the creation groaning, are filled with this kind of tension. A promise is made, like the one God makes to Abraham. The tension builds until that promise is fulfilled. What do we have available to us until the promise is fulfilled? We have hope.
As Paul said in his letter to the Romans, “Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”
I heard just this week, on the Golf Channel of all places, that every person needs at least three things: something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to. That is what music does, especially in the context of our faith. It gives us something to look forward to.
The purpose of our focusing this morning on the organ is not to impress you with our beautiful and quite expensive instrument. Okay, there might be some of that. If you’ve got it, flaunt it. Right? The real purpose, however, is to show you that inspiration can indeed come by hearing, not only through words but also in the art that is inspired by faith. And then, having heard, we are called to go out and share what we have learned.
Sometimes, not hearing is the blessing. The noise of our world would have you give it all your attention, not to mention your devotion, and the life of faith becomes an exercise in tuning it all out. But more often that not, it is in the hearing that eternity can be found; especially when God chooses to speak to us in a still, small voice.
The sound of our organ this morning was not still, nor was it small. But our hope is that it will fill you with the desire to hear what the Spirit has to say to you, and in that hearing you choose to respond to God’s good grace.
Lord, some of us hear better than others. But all of us can give better attention to what you say to us. May the sounds and rhythm of our worship bring us closer to you, and in that worship may you find us ever faithful. Through Christ our Lord we pray, Amen.
1Jeremy Begbie, “Sound Theology,” The Christian Century, November 13, 2007, pp. 20f.