MUSIC SUNDAY-Fifth Sunday of Easter
Church of Our Redeemer Episcopal
“Finding a fountain, and crowing…”
by Bernadette D. Colley, Music Director
Back in January, at a concert of the DeVaronistas chamber choir, I heard for the first time a delightful spiritual, which the choir walked in singing to open their second half. It was a catchy tune with a joyous affirmative refrain. I asked one of the members I knew for a copy of it, I went home with the song stuck in my head for the rest of the evening, and on Monday morning put the score in my “definitely use this someday” folder. The choir just sang it for you as this morning’s anthem, “His Name So Sweet.”
In mid-March Kate invited me to give the Music Sunday sermon. With a nod toward personal growth and ‘stepping out of my comfort zone’, in a moment of weakness, I said “Why not? sure I’ll do it. ” Even though I felt honored to have been asked, less than 30 seconds after staff meeting while walking back to my office, a voice inside was screaming “WHAT were you thinking?”Because, - generally, I am uncomfortable talking publicly about so personal a subject as religion. Nonetheless, I got a hold of today’s scriptures, read them, read them again – let a few days go by, read them again. Nothing jumped out of me that could have anything to do with music.
Seeking advice, I approached Kate and Sabeth, who both said it was fine to pick another scripture to focus on – one specifically about music, or to speak about something that’s personally meaningful to me theologically or spiritually. And, in one handy little volume on preaching - I found a useful metaphor - it advised readers to think of the scripture as an oyster, and “find one pearl, clean away all the sand and, imagining yourself as a waiter, present it to the congregation on a platter.” (1) As a seasoned research presenter I had taught myself, and scores of doctoral students, over the years, to find the “story in the data”. How much harder could it be to find the pearl in the oyster of scripture? I read today’s scriptures again. Again, nothing.
I tried the “personal theology & spiritual practice” tack. The two teachings I can say I have retained, and that do sustain me, from my Roman Catholic upbringing are a faith in a guardian angel, and a belief in the existence of a soul, which I believe really does “reside” physically, somewhere near the heart. So back I went to the scriptures, urtexts, and “experts.” I read up on the role of angels in the bible, and what my favorite theologians, mystics, and philosophers had to say about the concept of soul. Great reading. Still, no light bulbs. I considered graciously backing out, but instead put the scriptures and stacks of books aside for a week, and just planned all the music today – returning to my comfort zone.
When I sat down to plan, and opened my Episcopal Church Musician’s Handbook for Easter Sunday 5, there – as one of the officially approved hymns for today was the very same spiritual I’d heard in January, LEVAS Hymn #127. AHHAA!! crowed, aloud, ...a sign! a musical kernel to start with maybe as a sermon centerpiece. I examined the other 35 hymns listed for Fifth Sunday after Easter, played and sang through those unfamiliar to me as I usually do, and what do you know? – there … in LEVAS Hymn #50, was today’s first lesson verbatim, set to a hymn. This was too good to be true… A second sign, another puzzle piece…the pearl was, at last, beginning to reveal itself…and inside - I crowed again quietly, because I could felt I was on my way.
….so, now-today--- with lots of waitressing experience behind me, my musical and scriptural pearl on a platter for you this morning is…
“Finding a fountain, and crowing…”
Philosopher Jeanette Winterson (2) contends that the calling of the artist, in any medium, is to make the past new – not to repudiate the past but to reclaim it, and make it new… to re-state it, and then re-instate it. Thus, she says, Leonardo is present in Cezanne, Michelangelo flows through Picasso and on to David Hockney, that Handel and Purcell find voice in Vaughan Williams, and J.S. Bach channels Stravinsky. This is the lineage of art. It is not so much influence as it is connection…and we’re not talking about great artists here, but true artists – major or minor – , names well known, obscure, or even, I would add – as with spirituals, anonymous. True artists are those who are connected to the past and who themselves make a connection to the future. The true artist is connected to the past in order to study art as a process – to know the creation, the struggle, the excitement, the energy, and the being of the arts as they have found expression in a particular way. The true artist, many say, is more interested in the problem itself, than in its solution.
In relation to musical arts in worship, consider the art of hymnody, for example. The “problem,” if you will, is … What makes a moving hymn? Which hymn is the most appropriate to sing at which point in the arc of a religious ritual? Well, that depends on what we think hymns are for, really... The performance notes in our pew hymnals point out that purpose rather than musical styles unite hymns into musical genre. In the 7 we sing today, our processional and recessional hymns stoutly proclaim. In our gathering rite we claimed that “When in our music, God is glorified, and adoration leaves no room for pride, it is as though the whole of creation cried “Alleluia”; And in our closing hymn, we’ll proclaim the mantra that “GOD IS love” repeatedly – 6-8 times through the course of the hymn. Our two communion hymns are intercessions - petitions that god will intervene on our behalf. Vaughan Williams sets 17th c Welsh poet and Anglican priest George Herbert’s – “come my way, my truth, my light, such a way as gives us breath” to a meandering melody with harmonies much less sure of their direction -- rendering a far more contemplative mystical aesthetic, than the second communion hymn which follows it - Ye Holy Angels Bright – what I call a four square, angular 19th century chestnut of a hymn. Boldly and forthrightly its music pleas for God to work: “through angels to assist our song”, “through souls at rest to behold the Savior’s face,” “through saints toiling below to adore the Heavenly King,” and “through each of our souls to bear our part triumphing in God above.” The plea is insistent and the universe of God’s spiritual conduits broad, as are the tune’s insistent steady driving rhythm, and its expansive melodic contour.
Winterson describes the process of art as a “series of jolts, or”, she says “perhaps I mean volts, for art is an extraordinary faithful transmitter. Our job is to keep our receiving equipment in good working order…”
So, what do this morning scriptures have to do with jolts, faith, transmission, transformation, and music?
I asked Kate if we could sing our first reading this morning because the hymn so beautifully exemplifies a third purpose of music in ritual, the narrative. I coupled this narrative hymn with the African-American spiritual to speak about, because one line of scripture describing the eunuch - “and he went on his way, rejoicing…” did strike me as this morning’s scriptural pearl, i.e., – that spiritual transformation can, and does, occur, deep within our souls when we find, and tap, our spiritual fountain, or when our receiving equipment is in good enough working order, that we allow the fountain to tap us. We can be so moved, tickled, excited, that we must go on our way, rejoicing, crowing, … even evangelizing.
Bill Clinton was asked in the first few days of his presidency what he felt to be the defining social issue of our time. Without skipping a beat he replied, “Race.” I felt he was right about that then, and we only have to scan recent headlines - ranging from speculations on the reasons for the tragic death of Tray von Martin in Sanford Florida, to the 20th anniversary of the Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King beating, to local fallout from racist tweets of a few Bruins fans in reference to Joel Ward, the Caribbean Washington Capitols player to score the winning goal in last week’s hockey finals, -- to conclude that race, indeed, still matters, and that race relations continue to define who we are as a society.
Also, in 1993, The Rev. Canon Harold T. Lewis introduced a new category to Anglican hymnody in the publication of LEVAS II – that of Black Saints. Hymn #50, the last of seven such hymns in this hymnal, is the story of Philip, claimed to be the first Christian evangelist, one of seven original deacons chosen to care for the poor, and sent by the Lord to introduce the gospel to
hence Christianity to Ethiopia Africa. Sent by an angel
of the Lord, Philip helps a lowly Ethiopian eunuch, - a nameless, chariot-driver-slash-treasurer
to Queen Candace, to interpret an Old testament reading. We are not told what Philip said, only that
he explained the Isaiah text, and proclaimed the good news of Jesus. The resulting success of his evangelism,
however, is clear. The scripture says, “They
continued on their way, and passing a stream, the eunuch, excited, said ‘Look,
here is water! I do believe! What is to
prevent me from being baptized?’ ” In other words, “Why
not me”?, “Why not here”, and “Why not now?” He
commands the chariot to stop, they both go down to the water, and there Philip
baptized him. Philip disappears. Transformed,
the eunuch “went on his way, rejoicing.”
When I first heard this morning’s anthem, “His Name So Sweet,” I knew neither the scripture nor story that spawned it; the connection between the fountain and the refrain “His name so sweet” was not entirely clear, but the image that came to mind was vivid - somebody walking along with some exciting news that was just bursting out of every fiber of his bones and being…” I jes’ came from the fountain…” what actually happened there? Well, we’re not told. We’re just witness to this crazy little fellow extolling “his name so sweet.” [sing] Mi-Re-Do – musically, couldn’t be simpler. The original spiritual, or the arranger Hall Johnson (we’re not sure which) lands us on the tonic of the major scale, for the sweet “tonic” of Jesus name each time. In traditional call and response form, the little fellow challenges those around him to witness, and elicits the consistent excited response each time…”yes, yes, I do love my Jesus.”
The scripture, and the spiritual, ask us to be satisfied with knowing the result, without having explanation – satisfied with belief itself, and the excitement and positive energy that flows, like a fountain, from belief… belief in the power of the spirit, in the transformative power of tapping the fountain within ourselves, or allowing the fountain to tap us, an experience so transformative that we sometimes have to crow about it. For me, that’s the driving liturgical purpose this morning’s spiritual - to convey the eunuch’s unbridled, irrepressible, emotional ecstasy of his baptism.
The narrative hymn Philip the evangelist celebrates Philip for answering God’s call to, to teach, to explain, and to bless, through baptism. In its final verse we sang…”O may we share Thy fervor and press on toward the prize; and heed our Lord’s commission, to teach, preach, and baptize.” Or, returning to Winterson, and substituting artist for evangelist – to heed our commission to take the past, make it new, re-state it, and then re-instate it in its original vigor. It was the eunuch’s vigor that spoke to me. Armed with spiritual food, he went on his way, rejoicing…crowing. What is it about “the fountain” “the wellspring” that made the eunuch want to crow, dare I say NEED to crow? Music, and all other expressive art forms, provide such fountains, be they inside us, or external.
Whether the reasons have to do with how, and where, music is contextualized worship ritual, whether music expresses faith, proclaims a belief, pleads God’s intercession, or narrates a story, is, really “im- material.” What musical style best connotes piety? What constitutes a vocal tone pleasing to God? I don’t know, and as an artist, honestly, I am suspicious of those who profess to know. Because whether an individual soul is moved by the toe-tapping African-American spiritual because of its persuasive rhythmic syncopation -- despite simple repetitive lyrics, or by the George Herbert’s florid introspective poetry set in Vaughan Williams’ sophisticated 20th harmonies, in the big picture, matters not. Water flowing from numerous musical fountains strikes each of us in different ways at different times, and in different sanctuaries.
A piece of music can remind us of feelings, thoughts, experiences we are not even aware we have forgotten. It need not have text. Our guest organist’s Geoffrey Wieting’s 20 fingers and toes all working in concert during this morning’s Praise Fanfare, without aid of scriptural exegesis, certainly attest to that.
120 years of research in music psychology confirm two basic facts - first, that music and sound stimuli have the power to influence bodily systems. Tomes of experimental research report significant correlations between various pieces of music and changes in such measures as galvanic skin response, heart rate, and blood pressure. But did we really need quantitative research to prove the chills on our spine, the goose bumps on our skin, the lump in our throat, or tears in our eyes, the quickening of our pulses, or skipped heartbeats when a provocative hymn, a ethereal flute solo, an organ fantasia, or a solo trumpet sounding taps from a distant hillside elicits such responses – beyond our control, in a spontaneous instant? I don’t think so.
Second, music psychologists have concluded that, while music has such capability of altering our psychological, affective, and physical, states, experimental research has yet to concretely show why.
I don’t begin to claim to know why, or how, music, and the other arts are transformative, but we all know that they are. That’s why they are arts – by definition expressive arrangements– not necessarily logical, or rational, or even organized, arrangements, but expressive arrangements of elements – pitches, rhythms, sonorities, and textures. Their most intrinsic and intriguing value, to me, is that one never knows when they are going to work their transformative power on us, despite all of our efforts, skills, planning, and talents. I suppose that’s why my favorite theological question to ponder has always been not “Who is God,” or “What is god,” but “WHEN is God?”
It’s enough for me, but it’s nevertheless essential I think, that we do find a spiritual fountain in music, and likewise in that quest, we also keep our receptors open also to the fountain finding us, if we want to fully experience art’s transformative power. Because, we never know WHEN we’re going to be passing that stream…and we’ll want to point to the water turn to our guardian angel, and say “Why not me?” “Why not here?” and “Why not now?” And then, having taken the plunge – and run that race, passed that test, quit that job, taken that job, apologized to that person we hurt long ago ---- whatever personal threshold that that plunge represents….we will have been blessed by the fountain’s spirit…. And like the eunuch, go on our way, rejoicing, and crowing from the depths of our soul.
(1) Untenor, Ken. Preaching Better: Practical Suggestions for Homilists, A Hands-on guidebook by a bishop who preaches and who teaches the art of homiletics: what to do, how to do it, and for heavens sake, what to stay away from
(2) Winterson, Jeanette. Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, Vintage, 1997