Music and Me’odechoh — Sermon First Presbyterian Church of Skaneateles
September 20, 2020
A few years ago, the Masterworks Chorale put on a concert at St. Mary’s Church in Auburn. Katie and I didn't know anything about it, but that morning, Sandy Nichols asked us after church, “You do want to go to the concert in Auburn at 4 PM this afternoon, don’t you!” Sandy is a persuasive woman. We said, “Yes,” and she gifted us with two tickets to “Mendelssohn, Mozart and More”. We headed off to Auburn on that clear, cold afternoon and were rewarded with an extraordinary experience.
In that beautiful church, much like our own, with picture-less but beautifully colored and patterned stained glass windows, we experienced something extraordinary. Extraordinary not just in a musical sense, but in a worship sense. And that’s what I want to talk about today. The powerful, even mighty role music has in our worship experience.
By way of background, here is a quote from Jesus. The Gospel of Luke tells us Jesus was asked which was the most important of all the Jewish laws. Jesus said, in his own words and language,
Which means, in Skaneateles language, “And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your might.”
Most translations have Jesus adding the words, “and with all your mind.” That may be because the word for mind and the word for soul can be the same in Hebrew. Nefesh. But the Hebrew Jesus was quoting from Deuteronomy 6 is clear. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your Heart, and all your Soul and all your Might.” Might is Strength. Muscle. Sinew. Power. me'od. To love God with all your heart, lev, means with all our loving affection. To love God with all our soul, nefesh, means to love God through and through in our innermost true self, without reservation. And to love God with all our might, all our power, me’od, means, “Put everything you have into it.” There is a physicality, a “body-ness” to me’od.
Me’od can take many forms. It is a connection of intimacy and intensity. A connection of body and spirit and will. It’s sort of “being in the zone.” Champion athletes play me’od. Great musicians perform me’od. Great prayers pray me’od. Living with power and all our might, nothing held back, letting it all hang out risking all, doing it anyway. Me'od
Music can be an entry to me’od. In every religion I know of music is a key part of worship. Sufi Islamic music and dance; Taizé worship; Christian plainsong; Protestant hymns; Catholic Gloria, Agnus Dei; Jewish chants, song and dance; Eastern Orthodox music and chant; Afro-American spirituals; Pop Christian Rock; Rastafarian Ska; Buddhist heavenly chanting and drums; Confucian musical benevolence; Baha’i music; Shinto music; Hindu ragas. The Shakers danced, and today even Quakers sing. Music is central to every worship experience. If there was or is a religion without music, I can’t find it.
St. Paul in our reading today talks about living as a gift to others and himself, living as an action. Life in Christ as powerful action. Me’od.
When I was in first grade, way back when, we were seated alphabetically. With the last name “Weiss” I was of course in the last row. Not knowing I needed glasses, I thought the world was naturally a blurry place. The blackboard was something I heard being written on but couldn’t see. When it was time to assign groups for singing, we sang a simple song. Based on singing ability, we were assigned to one of four groups; nightingales, larks, robins and, my group, crows. The good news was I didn’t have to change my seat when it was time for singing; all the crows moved to the back. So come music period, Carson Clark joined Barbara Whittaker and me in the last row.
Knowing I was a crow, singing was not part of my early religious experience. The first Christian Church I joined was Congregational, and as a crow, I just mumbled the unfamiliar words of the hymns. I didn’t realize the worship power of religious music until a few years later in an Assembly of God Church. One bright morning the congregation sang the old Swedish Hymn, "O store Gud." or, How Great Thou Art.
O Lord my God! When I in awesome wonder
Consider all the works Thy hand hath made.
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.
Then came the Refrain:
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee;
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!...
When we sang that refrain, something happened. I experienced for the first time the liberating, power of worship music. My eyes filled with tears as my body filled with sound. Not just my voice, but the whole congregation, as one joyful, grateful organ of the body of Christ. “Then sings my soul…” My soul sang. The crow’s throat opened and my voice changed. This was something new. Something wonderful. I sang and worshipped with all my might. Not just with my heart and with my inner-most soul; I blessed and adored the Father me’od, with all my might.
There’s a big difference between knowing about God and knowing God. And, the difference between knowing about faith and experiencing faith. Experiencing faith is a different matter from quoting its definition. Paul wrote, this is not a matter of words, but of power, your power, me’od—e’choh.
The power of faith, like music, involves both body and mind. It’s a physical, somatic, body thing as well as a matter of trust. But it isn’t “work,” or physical effort. It’s more a matter of letting go, relaxing into it, letting go of yourself. Trusting God’s love in you, in others, all around. Sort of like floating in water. Letting yourself relax and float in the lake is a matter of immersion and trust, not thrashing around. Get in the zone. God will do the work.
What has this got to do with music? Everything. I believe God put standard operating principles for the Universe in place, and these operating principles underlie all of physics and psychology, all of matter and all of mind and emotion. Jesus, through parable and teaching was explaining the operating principles, and urging us to understand and live by them. Modern physics views the universe as constructed of fields of tiny, invisible vibrating strings. Think of angel harps or cherub violins. When we play or live out of tune – you know it. When we are in tune, you feel it.
Music in worship helps us tune, to attune ourselves with the glory and power of the gifts God is extending to us. Music helps us open up, tune in and relax into something greater than our self. Music can help release us from our rational selves, out of the practical box we are in, let go of our carefully wrapped selves. To act and feel and move with me’od, with all our might, in the zone. It’s hard. Too often we’re worried about being crows or we think church is about what we believe, not how we live in love. We lock ourselves up with what we think is possible.
We don’t dare reach outside of ourselves to God and to our neighbors. But music, music can lift us out of our blindness, our imprisoning chains. It takes power and energy to let the captive free.
The Holy Spirit is power, waiting and ready to fill us with flame. But our dampers are shut. The flue is closed. We are airless. There are some things that open us up. Music is one of the miraculous elements that break us out of our self-imposed shells and help us let the spirit in. We join the dance! We lose ourselves and open to possibilities. And, yes, this happens in Church. This is the role of music. It’s not a concert. Sure, scripture tells us to make a joyful noise unto the Lord, to please the Lord with cymbal, and 10-stringed lyre and harp, and bells, and song. But, does God need this? Of course not! God doesn’t need the sound of music any more than God needs the fat of the burnt sacrifice. This is for us. For each other and ourselves. Our task is to praise God and love one another in prayers, sacrifice and music. It doesn’t matter if we come early or late to the vineyard, it is all for us.
God wants for us to make the music and to hear the music and to be transported by the power and meaning of the music. And, when we are transported out of ourselves, opened up and awakened by the music, by making it, hearing it with open heart, then the Holy Spirit can transform us, can move us. We can take action, throw our cloaks aside and stand up, expecting, expecting our souls to be healed!
The wind of the Spirit blows in ways we do not know, and our sails aren’t always set to catch it. Worship music can help us un-reef and set our tightly-wrapped sails, and let the power of the Spirit fill us and propel us. Haven’t you been moved to tears? Haven’t you found yourself singing with full voice and tearful eyes and heart? Haven’t you felt yourself lifted outside of yourself as you put your heart into the song, whether playing or singing or listening?
A final thought: Jesus taught the first and most important commandment is, You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul and with all your might, me’od. Then, we are in tune for the second commandment. Love your neighbor as ourselves. And what better way to love our neighbor than to make music with him. Live our faith. If your neighbor needs to be fed, feed him. If he needs to be clothed, clothe him. If he needs to be released from his prison, help to set him free. And then, and then, make the music of life with him. Me’od. Let the Spirit blow us as all away.