Sunday, October 7, 2012

Free Harmonics

Free Harmonics
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
October 7, 2012
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Romans 12:16a
Luke 13: 10-17
Exodus 32:15-20 

Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside our minds
Help us to be more than our lives
            For your eyes show us the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

I want to get right into it this morning because I'm excited about this sermon. I've been thinking a lot about it this week, and the week really lined up to help me put some things into perspective. So as we continue with our "Marks of a True Christian" series with this week's passage verse 16a, "Live in Harmony with One another" looking back at where we've been: Romans 12:9: 

9 Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; 10 love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. 11 Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. 12 Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. 13 Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another.[1]
I chose to compliment it with Luke 13: 10-17: 

10 Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. 11 And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. 12 When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, “Woman, you are set free from your ailment.” 13 When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. 14 But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, “There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.” 15 But the Lord answered him and said, “You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? 16 And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?” 17 When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing. [2]

To me the idea of living in harmony is a pretty cool one. The musical metaphor really literally sings of truth, but I want to unpack it a little bit this morning because it really gets at one of my favorite theological ideas about the way the world is and just how beyond our scope big God is. I've asked the choir to help me out a little bit with showing exactly what harmony is. According to the dictionary, harmony is "any simultaneous combination of tones," so that means if all of us decided to sing at once, all on different notes that would technically be harmony, but harmony tends to have the connotation of also being a simultaneous combination of tones that is pleasing to the ear. We call these chords. I've asked to choir to give an example of such a chord. If you will, one note all, (choir sings one note in unison) then in harmony (choir steps in to a 4 note chord)  quite pleasing to the sound, and if they change one of the notes (change the Alto note to one that would cause disonance) not pleasing sound. The other idea that I've asked them to help me with is the concept of resolution. In order to show this I've asked them to sing the last line of a hymn from the "Lent" section. I've chosen a song that does not resolve, to show you what I mean be resolution. Again if you would (choir sings last line of lenten hymn without resolution) Do  you hear how that is hanging at the end, and it seems like it is missing something? Now sing another one (with resolution). Do you hear the difference between unresolved and resolved? Now keep those in mind as we go forward.
So if we are called to live in harmony together the first thing that it suggests is that we are not all the same. We can't all be the same and be in harmony. There needs to be that simultaneous combination of different tones, but as we saw today, as well, just because all different notes are sung simultaneous there is not necessarily going to be beautiful pleasing music. That is why in music there is always a composer, who puts together the notes, placing them in order, in time, and in place, so that the notes are pleasing to the sound, and so there is that beautiful sounding resolution at the end of a phrase. I found in my research this week, as I was looking for a God as the composer metaphor, the passage I used as the "Prayer of Preparation" from Jesuit Priest Father Peter Ribes Take a look at it.
There was a wonderful melody which God himself had composed from eternity. It was the most beautiful and captivating of melodies, one that no man could dream of listening to.
One day, God said to himself: "I want to build an orchestra to play my tune in a harmony of the most enchanting music. I want all men and women to play in my orchestra. Yes, I'll prepare for them all sorts of sweet melodious instruments, yes, a unique instrument for each man suited to his unique abilities. Thus, one and all will create with them the most wonderful symphony ever."
God distributed all the instruments among all peoples of earth, and told them: "Now, let us play all together my eternal song of love, joy and peace, It will be the most wonderful symphony ever."
So, all men, God's orchestra, began playing along with God. And this is what came out of God's beautiful and most charming tune: A jarring din! A cacophonous sound! A raucous noise! 

So God's got this amazing symphony for us, if we would just learn to play it, but one of the weaknesses of his metaphor is that he doesn't really get at why human beings created that cacophonous and raucous sound. What is it? Did God not teach us well? Why can we just not play it? I think this, our passage for this morning is a part of why? We don't live in harmony with each other. We do not have a concept of our role, and how our lives fit in with the overall symphony. Somewhere we lost it. We may have been given instruments to play, but we seem to not understand what our instrument is, when to play it, and how it fits in with the rest of the orchestra of humanity. So you get this cacophonous sound that we hear resonating all around us in our world filled with strife and discord, the very antithesis of harmony. So the question becomes then, how do we learn to live in harmony? We have to go to the composer.
We have to go to God, the author of our gifts, the one who, according to the metaphor, has distributed our instruments, but what is God's style of music? Is he a classical composer, with every note meticulously arranged? Many think so. It seems that the Pharisees in our Gospel passage thought so. They had dedicated themselves to a return to the strict laws of the Pentateuch, looking to return some identity to the Jewish people, believing that their song had been written, and that the people needed to simply read the music of old to find their place again. But then in comes Jesus, and he heals a woman, who had been crippled for 18 years, and he chooses to do it on a the Sabbath. What are you doing Jesus, the music says you should rest, and yet you play a note, what gives? Jesus uses an interesting word in his response. After calling them hypocrites, as he typically does, he says, "and ought not this woman." Ought is an interesting word, especially when looking at law, because it seems to be a judgment call. There is some lee way in ought, and in this case the ought goes against the letter of the law, or to keep our metaphor going, the notes on the page. It is rare in music for there to be optional notes, at least not in classical music. Have you ever heard the acronym for Bible? I've heard it named Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. I know right wow. I'm not sure there is anything basic about a book that proscribes some laws, and then poses some moral dilemmas, like a woman who has been crippled for 18 years, and you've got to break a law to save her. As Alice in Wonderland said often, "Curiouser and curiouser." God is bigger than what the Pharisees thought, and the Bible is far bigger than that acronym.
So there are some optional notes, but how many? How does that work? How can an instrument player have options, but still be in harmony with others? Is there flexibility and freedom within God's symphonic masterpiece? How can we ever play in harmony with that kind of freedom, or are we always doomed to cacophonous unresolved dissonance? How will that ever work? How can harmony be created in an atmosphere of uncertainty? Is there music like that? Yes.
I've been playing the harmonica for years. Basically you have ten holes, and the way it is set up is that each hole is a note, and they are spaced in such a way that they are within the chord of the hole around it, and then if you breath in instead of out you get an entirely different sound, but yet still in harmony with itself. (Show this on harmonica). Now I add my guitar, it works like this, there are certain chords that I know will sound good if I am blowing out and certain I know will sound good if I am blowing in, all within harmony. (Play a few chord changes to show how it works).- Now it works like that, I don't really have to plan what notes I will play but they are all in harmony as long as I am within the framework of the two instruments together. Basically I can make the notes up as I go along, as long as I understand how it works together. Now obviously it's only me playing, but the same concept would work with a group. That is the basis of jazz and other forms of modern music.
What does it take then to play jazz effectively? You have to know the rules, and how the instruments work together. You have to have a sense of the other people you are playing with, and you have to know your place, your role. It becomes then not about what note you have to play in each place, but instead, how well you understand your place in harmony with each other, and then there are no limits to the amazing music that can be created.
I've been surrounded by football analogies all week, so I'd like to take a step outside of my jazz metaphor for a moment. As some of  you may know we are on a roll. 5-0 as of yesterday, and in some unknown water for our team and for our school. Blue Ridge has always had good players. In the three previous years I have coached we have had a winning record each season, and we have made the playoffs 2 out of the 3 years, so we've always been good, but greatness has eluded us. And before coming to Blue Ridge, coaching against them, it was much the same. There always would be something that would pop up that would divide the team, some piece of adversity that would arise, and the team would fall apart, the players would get down on each other, and implode. We, the other coaches and I, were trying to figure out how we could keep that from happening this year. How can we mold them together so that no matter what, through the hardest games, up against the wall, after a bad call, after a silly penalty, or when someone wasn't putting in enough work, or something happens off the field and our players are missing, or a star gets hurt. How can we teach them to get through those hard times? We decided we'd raise the stakes at practice. We decided that we would push them and push them and push them, raising the level of intensity up to a game situation, an uncomfortable situation, a situation that was unfair, and unjust. They were running for mistakes, they were running for penalties, they were running for walking, they were running for having to run it seemed. At the end they were all at each other's throats, and angry at us. They were focused on the errors that each other were making, and so very sure that the reason we were yelling and having them run was because of each mistake, they thought that if they could just figure it out that they wouldn't have to run anymore. They didn't know they couldn't win, that they were focused on the wrong thing. They were focused on trying to control the results of their actions, rather than on the action, the harmony of the action, the way they worked together. It was too easy to take them out of their focus. So afterwards we told them. Sometimes you just can't control your fate. Bad things happen, you can't stop it, you can't fix it, you think you caused it, but you didn't, it just happened. I said when you get in that situation, where nothing is fair there are only two things you can count on: discipline and each other. Now yesterday we were down 3 with 1 minute left, having our last 3 offensive possessions end in a fumble and two interceptions, back against the wall. Yet they kept their composure, we got the ball back, three straight plays, executed them with discipline, touchdown, game victory, upset, number one team in the division above us.
So we look at the world around us. Unfair, out of sync , out of tune, and we are told to be in harmony with one another. Like the football team we each have unique and different talents, different roles, different responsibilities. Like the jazz ensemble we have the freedom to find our place within the group. It may seem to us that notes on a page, perfection attainable, following basic directions would be easier, easier because we'd have control, we'd know when we messed up, we'd know when others messed up, and we could fix it fix all the problems, but it seems that the masterpiece of God's symphony requires something more from each of us than just the air in the trumpet, or the fingers on the keys, we  have to give a little bit of ourselves, in the moment. There is always the danger though, as we see in our Old Testament Lesson, that too much of ourselves can be a problem. Knowing our place in the world is key. Without instruction, without learning, without discerning our place, it is easy for us to forget it all and indulge ourselves. The Israelites had been led out of Egypt, led through the desert, but then when their leader seemed away, nowhere to be found, how quickly did they decide there was no leader, no standards, nothing to guide their behavior? How quickly did they forget their place? It seems that freedom is important, but we can never forget who gives us our instruments, and how if they were all played together, the harmonies would resonate, and the symphony, would reach heights like we cannot even imagine, for God did not just write the symphony, he did more, because God is bigger than a symphony, God invented music itself, each note, and each chord, harmony. that perfect sound that the choir sang, and he also brings things in time to their perfect resolution, may we all seek to hear and participate in that perfect harmony. Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Ro 12:9-15). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
[2]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 13:10-17). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.