This is a sermon for the sixth Sunday of Easter. The Scripture it references is Psalm 98.
Well, you might remember that I told you last week, that I was going to preach this week about music and singing in worship. After all, we just sang in the psalm that we should “send forth a joyful noise,” so what better reason to think about how and why we do that?
And yet, for all that it’s supposed to be a joyful noise, I’d have to observe that in just about every church I’ve been involved with, music has been in some way a source of tension and conflict; in one church I worked in for a few years, I actually had to be careful what shoes I wore, because if your shoes were too noisy on the floor, you faced the wrath of the director of music for disturbing the music!
Okay, so that was an extreme example. But, when I think about all those arguments and fights about music, what music we should have, what instruments, how to support the congregation to sing, all of those things… I conclude that Christians argue about this so much because it matters.
It matters. Music and singing as part of worship matter. So what I really want to talk about a little bit is why it matters; and some of the principles we might use to navigate those conflicts which crop up from time to time.
And here’s the thing; our worship doesn’t exist, and can’t be captured, in a book, or on a page. Worship – liturgy – is in its essence an experience. It’s the lived interaction between the gathered people and our God; and what happens in and between us in that interaction. The books and papers (or even screens) are a prompt and an aid to what we do together with our bodies, minds and hearts. We want to get to the point where rather than being focussed on the pages, the pages (if we need them at all) help us to focus on God. And one way to do that is to sing our hearts out.
Shared music and singing is a way of building shared faith and identity. It’s something which allows us to participate to the full; with our bodies, our intellects and our emotions and memories. And singing together creates community; we join our voices, listen to one another, keep the same tempo; the people with stronger voices support those less well practiced to do something worthwhile together (especially true when there are no instruments, as you might have noticed last week!) Even when one person can’t sing (for whatever reason), they can be caught up in the swell of voices from behind and around and in front of them, making us all a part of something bigger than ourselves.
There aren’t many things that we do together the way we sing together; it’s a living expression of being one body. We’re not a random crowd, not a group of people who just happen to be in the same space, but a community with a shared identity and purpose. Bonhoeffer put it this way: “It is not you that sings, it is the Church that is singing, and you, as a member of the Church, may share in its song.”
Now I realise, of course, that this gets tricky when hearing becomes a problem. For people who are deaf or have hearing loss, music or singing can pass them by or be difficult, and that then requires more creativity on our part about how we do things together. So I’m speaking here about what we might reasonably expect for most of us who can hear and do have a working voice; and for those people – which is the vast majority of us – the question is not, do you have a voice? But, do we have a song? The music and singing we share in worship isn’t supposed to be a professional production or a performance, but it can be a giving to God of our best, done with confidence and reverence.
And here’s some of why music adds so much to what we do together. It creates connections in our brains, between our thoughts, our emotions and our memories; connections which don’t happen if we’re just hearing words spoken. So by doing that, it helps us integrate ideas and experiences with our sense of self; it enriches our understanding. And because when we sing something familiar, we remember where we’ve sung it before, and the emotions and meaning it had then, it connects our past with our present, and relates both of those things to our hopes for the future.
More than that, because music as an art form expresses beauty and order, in itself it says something about the character of God; that God is not chaotic or ugly. Music isn’t just something that belongs to human culture on earth; in the book of Job God talks about how the heavenly beings sang before the beginning of creation, and the book of Revelation tells us of sung worship in heaven for eternity. Our own music and singing, in our worship, give us an echo, a hint of those incredible realities, and allow us to participate in them just a little through the beauty, the order, and the goodness of music as an art form.
In that way, too, music gives dignity to what might otherwise not be very dignified at all. It can give us a container for our grief, bring peace to our anxieties, and relieve our stresses. None of which are an end in themselves, for us in church, but can help us put ourselves in the right frame of mind to really worship.
Music moves us, sometimes quite literally; hopefully, in worship, carrying us to a spiritually healthier place than we were in before we gathered. When I say that it moves us, I mean it shapes our sense of identity, it gives us a sense of belonging, of commitment, of hope and joy, and so on.
And because of all of this, music and singing help us to connect our own personal life stories with the big Christian story; helping us to see who God is to and for us, and the meaning of our own ups and downs in the bigger picture.
Now we do need to be careful. Music is supposed to support us in all of this, but it’s not supposed to be manipulative. Ultimately, worship music – just like any of the arts involved in churches, like architecture or the visual arts or the poetry of prayer – any of these things done well invites us into a space where we can encounter God; but it can’t create that encounter, and it can’t substitute for it. We do have to let God be God, and leave a little room for mystery.
But if we approach questions of music and singing in worship with the questions: how does what we’re doing together help us in the process of worship? How does it enable every person present to truly participate? How does it help us to be the sort of community we’re truly supposed to be? And how does it, not just proclaim the good news, but give us a lived experience of what that good news means in our own lives? Then I suggest we’ll be on the right track, and we’ll truly be making a joyful noise.