Music Appreciation Sunday 2013

In recent years it has been the custom that I get to preach on Music Appreciation Sunday. This year it took place on September 22. The gospel reading was Luke 16: 1-13.

I began at the organ console, at the back of the church.


(while moving from organ console to pulpit)
Man, I thought I had it made: skim a little here, slice off a piece there—no one would ever know. Perhaps I could have managed things a little better. It’s not like the boss would ever miss what I took… Besides, everybody does it! If I don’t look out for number one, who will?

What am I going to do? I don’t want to work for a living… Ah, I know: I’ll make people love me.


(after reaching the pulpit)

I’m standing here today because this is Music Appreciation Sunday, when we acknowledge and thank those who lead us in worship through music. But I can’t ignore today’s scripture any more than I can avoid breathing. To be a church musician is to be intimately involved with scripture. So let me return to today’s Gospel for a minute, because it speaks to both what it is to be a church musician and—beyond that—to what it is to be a person of faith.

If this parable were like most parables, we would assume that the owner is a stand-in for God…and that the steward is us. I have a problem with that, because it suggests that the ends justify the means. Even though the steward cheated and manipulated and most likely embezzled, it was OK because he cleverly set things up so that people would cheerfully take him in after he was fired—and these same people would have a lot of good will for the owner because he, thanks to the steward, was perceived to have forgiven a significant portion of their debts.

There certainly are people who live like the steward and his boss—there are too many examples of scandal and misuse of economic and political power in recent years that make the point. The “children of this age” are alive and thriving today. The challenge before us, as people of faith, is to live differently. The ways of the faithful are not the ways of the world.


Church Music

When I started studying today’s gospel, and as I read commentaries and sermons that were written on this scripture, the more confused I became. A number of sources suggested that the point of the parable is that we are to forgive, even if our reasons are suspect. That still sounded to me like trying to buy one’s way into heaven.

I had several good discussions and exchanges of email that were helpful, especially with a friend who said that it was all about relationship. If we don’t feel a sense of connection, of relationship, with someone, it’s easier to take advantage of them, as the steward did. He actually tried, through his kickback scheme, to create relationship. His boss understood that it was a scam, but gave him high marks for his manipulation.

The more we can expand our sense of relationship, enlarging our understanding of family, of clan, of those we should care for, the more we can counter the world of the steward and his boss.

And that brings me to music: Specifically church music and musical instruments.

Church music is different than worldly music. We would expect that, to some extent—at least as far as the content goes. We sing to, and about, God. We sing our faith; we sing the dreams and visions and lives of the great cloud of witnesses that have gone before us. We sing to build up the body of Christ, of which we are part, and we sing to the world, even though what we sing may not be of the world.


The Instruments

The musical instruments we use reflect this distinction between sacred and secular. The pipe organ and its digital and electronic cousins are increasingly found mainly in churches.

The organ dates from about the third century B.C., found in its earliest forms in Egypt and Greece. It took about 1,000 years before it came to be used in church. Initially it was used for public entertainment. It also served as an excellent early warning system as enemy armies drew near, since organs can be quite loud.

As cathedrals were developed, they needed an instrument that could lead large groups of people in song. The organ did the job quite nicely. Up until relatively recently, municipal auditoriums usually boasted of an organ, but changes in music technology and taste, with a few exceptions, have pretty much put an end to that. In 19th-century America, homes would often have reed organs, until they were pushed out by the piano and, later, the phonograph. (Remember the phonograph?)

Handbells predate the organ, going back to China in 1600 B.C. The English handbell, played by most bell choirs, developed as the much smaller cousins of English church tower bells. The bell ringers wanted to practice the peals, or changes, that they would ring. On cold days, it wasn’t much fun standing around in the tower, so they made smaller instruments…and then moved their practice sessions to the nearest pub.

The Voice

And how can we keep from singing? At the last supper, they sang a hymn. The Hebrews in the Old Testament sang during worship. The psalms come to us from this worship practice.

There’s a specialized literature of hymns, chants, sacred song, anthems, cantatas, oratorios, and so forth that has been developed over the last 1,000 years or so. Most of us don’t remember back that far, often finding our inspiration from the latest denominational hymnal.


Not of the World

Today we recognize our singers and handbell ringers who enliven our worship. They bring us music from the rich tradition of our spiritual forebears, and keep us singing new songs that speak to our faith today. They don’t do it as the world does: while we enjoy music with a beat, our music won’t be confused with the latest in pop music. Even though the clever steward in the Gospel felt justified for his misdeeds, we sing a different tune.

Saint Teresa of Avila wrote

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
No hands but yours, no feet but yours,
Yours are the eyes through which is to look out
Christ’s compassion to the world,
Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good;
Yours are the hands with which he is to bless now.

Our singers give voice to Christ’s message; our handbell ringers are his hands; even organists try to play as though their hands and feet are his. As we all lift our voices in prayer, praise and song, we offer our voices as his voice, our music as his music, reaching out to our neighbors and beyond to the world as his hands, feet, eyes and body.

Explore posts in the same categories: Choir, General, Handbells, Music, Sermon

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