August 16, 2015 – Making melody to the Lord in our hearts

Pentecost 12   August 16, 2015 (Psalm 111, 1 Kings 3:5-14, John 6:51-59) Ephesians 5:1-2,15-20   Making melody to the Lord in our hearts

******************************************************

The word of God in the letter to the Ephesians says “sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts.” Alleluia! We’re doing at least one thing God says to do… Today and every Sunday. Singing to the Lord and to each other, from the heart.

How we hear this counsel to sing is interesting, because it comes to us in a letter that’s a rich mix of prayer, exhortation, and wisdom teaching. Our reading from Ephesians starts off telling us to be wise, not foolish – and Wisdom is a theme that runs through all our readings today…

The last verse of our psalm says “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” The word fear here is best translated as ‘awe and wonder.’ And the psalm continues, saying, of wisdom, “those who practice it have a good understanding.” Concluding “His praise endures forever.”

Then in our next reading, King Solomon asks for wisdom above all other gifts when God says go ahead, ask me for whatever you want most. Solomon asks well, and gets a very good answer from God… and…

God’s wisdom is the theme of the whole letter to the Ephesians – (and the whole gospel of John also in its own unique way). And God’s wisdom is very different from the world’s wisdom.

And our psalm and the letter to the Ephesians both tell us – Wisdom takes practice. And the wise and those who want to be – practice praising God and thanking God… And thanking and praising God is often best done through song.

(The words of Jesus in John chapter 6 that are hard for his first hearers to digest…become much easier to ingest… as we sing his message in song, as we’ve been doing, the past several weeks… Eat this bread, drink this cup… Come to me and never be hungry… Eat this bread, drink this cup, trust in me and you will not thirst.)

Singing helps us understand the language of God… Miriam leads the people of Israel in song as they cross the Red sea waters… Music was a big part of worship in the Jerusalem temple. When the temple was destroyed, 70 AD, Jewish synagogues began to rely on cantors, along with rabbis, to lead congregational worship, with cantors leading, usually, all the singing and liturgy. Later Christian churches began to do likewise. (Bach was employed as a Lutheran cantor.) Sacred singing is a bridge between the languages of heaven and earth…

We’re told specifically to sing the psalms – the sacred poetry of Israel, written to be sung. The word psalms comes from a Greek word that means “songs” – and the Hebrew title for the Psalter is Tehillim which means “hymns” or “songs of praise.” Many of the psalms come with instructions for musical accompaniment. And as scripture the psalms are also for teaching.

Ephesians sounds like a psalm at times, telling us to sing God’s praises… and practice wisdom by imitating God (Ephesians 5:1-2)… Look to God above all human role models… And be wise in all our communicating – choose our words carefully, appropriately. Communicating with God and one another by singing spiritual songs. Making melody in our hearts to God… Giving thanks to God always through Jesus. Living in the Spirit with thankfulness…

And maybe this is a dream – but sometimes God does speak in dreams – (that’s how Solomon speaks with God today after all). So dream with me. Imagine – communicating with God and one another entirely in song. Like opera. Doing all our communicating musically. Singing to God and one another. Making melody within our hearts continuously. (Even if we don’t think we can sing, sing with our hearts. Train our hearts to sing God’s praises…)

And now already…This is a direction we’re trying to go in… Singing sacred songs is an essential part of our Sunday worship – and I hope of our home practice also. And there’s no clear border between psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs. The first three hymns we’re singing today are all inspired by psalms. Praise my soul the King of heaven, to the throne thy tribute bring… is based on Psalm 103.

The hymn we’ve just sang comes from a verse of Psalm 119 – Thy word is a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path…Our next hymn draws its inspiration from a verse of Psalm 46. “Be still, and know that I am God.” In response we sing as Be still my soul, the Lord is on your side… Often our best singing arises, just as the psalm says, from the practice of holy stillness…before the Lord…

The psalms communicate virtually every human emotion… Many psalms are songs of joy and praise…Many psalms express deep sorrow, anger, pity, and hope…The full gamut of human and divine emotion and feeling is here. (The voice we hear in the psalms is often the voice of God…God the Father speaking to God Son speaking to God the Holy Spirit. God speaking to God… and to us…) And the whole theology of the bible is in the psalms in miniature, saints of old have said…

Our hymnals and our choral archives are filled with a great abundance of beautiful psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. And there’s always new songs to be learned, new songs yet to be written. The psalms (96, 98, 149) tell us Sing a new song to the Lord… And we can sing, because the Lord has made us in the image of God…And God is a God who delights in singing…(Listen to the symphony of birds singing every morning… And remember…)

God asks Job notoriously from the whirlwind, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?… When the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy…” (Job 38:4-7) Creation, in the beginning, was accompanied by divine song… So it’s not a big stretch when CS Lewis imagines in The Chronicles of Narnia, Aslan the lion, the Christ figure, singing the Narnian universe into being…

And it’s not a big stretch for Martin Luther, the Reformer, to say, “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of Music is the greatest treasure in the world.” When our music communicates the Word of God from the depths of our hearts…We’re surely drawn closer to the heart of God…

As St Augustine writes: “For he who sings praise, does not only praise, but also praises joyously – he who sings praise, is not only singing, but also loving Him whom he is singing aboutin the song of the lover… there is deep love.”

Music is a gift of love from God that can sometimes get in under our radar… and allow the Word of God to penetrate beyond where our hearts and mind’s fire walls are set to block out changes we’d rather not think about…. And things we consider too good to be true…

This is why we sing…at least three or four congregational hymns every week… Why we love to hear our choirs singing and special music offerings. This is why we sing Shalom to you now, shalom my friend as we greet each other every week… This is why we sing Praise God from whom all blessings flow… after our offering… Why we sing God be with you till we meet again at the conclusion of worship every week… We sing because, like song sparrows that can’t stop singing, we too have been designed by God for song… The song of new creation in Christ.

Do I hear someone say ‘Oh, but not me. I can’t sing a note?’ (Don’t believe it.) Maybe somebody told you that once upon a time. That’s what I was told, back in third or fourth grade by our elementary school music director. My teacher had put me into the school choir, for some reason – either because she liked me or to keep me out of trouble. At the first rehearsal I wasn’t singing in key or keeping the beat, or singing the melody correctly… I’m not sure of the details but I’m sure, from a purely technical perspective, that choir director was right. I had no business singing with the choir. I knew it. And when I was told to leave the choir practice and go back to my classroom, that was enough to convince me on the spot not to try singing in public again… for a very long time…

Only years later, in high school, listening to the radio playing rock and roll every day now, as part of my daily routine, did I begin to try singing again… First with no one listening, then with a few friends… adding my voice tentatively on a familiar chorus of a tune. Sadly, the lesson learned was that rowdy parties were much more encouraging of group singing… than school choirs.

The early Methodists knew about this kind of experience. It was actually very common. John and Charles Wesley noticed that the same kind of thing said to me by our school choir director was being said, directly and indirectly, to many people in the church, on many kinds of levels. Some were told they couldn’t sing worth a hoot, so keep quiet. Some were told they couldn’t understand the holy scriptures, so don’t even try. Many had no experience singing, many were illiterate, so on a technocratic level, maybe the nay-sayers were partly right. But this kind of technical correctness (of course) completely misses the whole point of biblical faith and biblical worship.

So John Wesley wrote out some instructions for how to sing, saying, “Sing all. See that you join with the congregation as frequently as you can. Let not a slight degree of weakness or weariness hinder you. If it is a cross to you, take it up and you will find a blessing.

“Sing lustily, and with a good courage. Beware of singing as if you were half dead, or half asleep; but lift up your voice with strength….”

“Sing lustily, and with good courage…” Sing the best you can, no matter how well you or anyone else thinks you can sing. Sing till you can sing a little better. Then sing because the more we sing, the better we can sing. As with wisdom – singing takes practice…

When I first met Reah, when we’d sing together, I’d apologize for my singing and say, “I can’t sing well.” She’d say, “You can sing. Open your mouth. Say each word clearly. Sing.”

Singing with Reah, and singing in church, singing in the shower, singing to the trout while fishing… I gradually learned, slowly, with practice, to sing a little better. I still don’t sing well compared to many… I’ll be learning to sing better as long as I live. But that won’t stop me from singing, best I can, now.

And the Wesley brothers, John and Charles (God bless them!) nurtured the early Methodist movement with lots of bible reading, lots of prayer, lots of small groups, and lots and lots of singing. (We’re not called ‘singing Methodists’ without good reason.) Charles Wesley wrote over 6000 hymns in his lifetime. Many set to melodies of popular songs of the day – folk songs, work songs, pub songs – 18th century equivalents of the pop songs I began to learn to sing with. Melodies people already knew became the vehicles for the new Methodist hymns – spiritual songs that taught the great themes of the bible and the church…

O for a thousand tongues to sing my great redeemer’s praise…became now our Methodist Transnational Anthem… The first song in every Methodist hymnal ever published since 1780…

These songs still sing wonderfully well. Just over a week ago some of us spent more than an hour singing hymns together non-stop (here) at our annual hymn sing (at Cataumet). When we finished, no one seemed at all tired… A warm feeling of community lingered in our church long after… (I’d invited the twelve step group that met upstairs that night to join us for ice cream after, and a few did. One of them said, “I was listening outside for a few minutes, and your singing really sounded good.”)

God’s songs are contagious…When we sing from the heart…. There’s something about opening our mouths, employing our tongues, lifting our hearts together in song – singing our great Redeemer’s praise – that makes it easier for the Holy Spirit to enter in… And teach…and encourage…and nurture us in the life of faith… the life without end we enter into as we learn to eat, sleep, drink, breathe and sing Jesus…

So let’s give God all our thanks. Let’s lift every voice and sing to God’s glory.

In all we do by word or deed let our every breath give thanks to our gracious God.

Thanks be to God. Amen.