The Twenty-fourth Sunday after Pentecost
Speaker: The Rev. Deborah Meister
Tags: choir, christian, episcopal, music, sermon
How do we come to love God? For those of us who try to live as Christians, that is THE question, isn’t it, the one at the root of everything. We come here each week, or as often as we make time; we try to learn about God; we listen to the sermons (at least, some of you do); we try to serve God. And yet, in all that, there is something cold, something lacking, particularly in an age when we are more attuned to facts than to truth. Dante wrote, “Reason has short wings.” (Paradiso) To come to love God, we need not only reason, but passion, beauty, ineffable things that cannot be touched by logic, that cannot be said in words alone. That’s why we have music. It touches our lives with grace.
St. Mark the Evangelist does not mention music when he speaks of Jesus in the Temple, which is odd. From the days of the first Temple, great companies of musicians were central to the worship of the ancient Hebrews: singers and musicians were at the heart of the celebration of holy days. However, Jesus looks, not at the liturgy, but at those who make their offerings, at a crowd of rich people, and at one poor widow. Each makes an offering to God, and Mark notes that the offerings are generous, but there is a difference: the rich offer what they have, but the widow offers all that she is.
That difference is central to today’s reading from Hebrews, which gives us two glimpses at our life of worship. The first is the high priest of the old order, the order before Christ. The author of Hebrews writes, “Year after year...the High Priest enters the Holy Place with blood that is not his own.” (Heb 9:25) Year after year, year after year: the words measure the span of a lifetime, marked out in holy days. In this case, Yom Kippur, the one day in the year when the High Priest would gather his courage in his bare hands and enter the Holy of Holies, the place of sacred mystery at the heart of the Temple, a cord tied round his ankle and trailing him through the door, so that, if the power of God lashed out and consumed him, someone else would be able to drag his body back to be buried. He would enter and sprinkle there a few drops of blood from the animal sacrifices, not his own, and then retreat once more to the calm certainties of the ordinary world.
He was, no doubt, relieved to have survived: but I have to wonder whether he was not also obscurely disappointed, not to have seen the power of God, not to have gone up in one breathtaking blaze of glory? Annie Dillard writes, “I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches [like ours] they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.”
The other image we find in Hebrews is that of Jesus, who “has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself.” (Heb 9:26) Here is the High Priest who approaches the Holy of Holies without a cord, without any protection at all. He ascends the hill, dragging the cross; he is utterly immolated, by the love of God or by the fear and contempt of human beings, or by both, held together in his frail body stretched upon the cross.
And we, how do we come to worship? We saunter, or we rush. We enter the holy place talking, greeting our friends, chattering about our week, checking in on some favorite project, or taking one more glance at the e-mail from the office; we enter the holy place trailing the cord of our daily lives, which frays behind us, and frays us in it.
And once we are here, seated in the pews or lined up in the procession, how do we present ourselves to God? Are we like the High Priest, repeating the words and the gestures, year after year, making offerings of what we have, but not of what we are? Or do we dare, like Christ, to offer our very flesh and blood, the breath in our lungs, the days and hours of this one life we have been given? (Which of these looks to you like love?)
Of those who make this offer, few are more faithful than choir members. Twice a week, sometimes more, they gather: learning music; practicing, over and over, the hard run; cursing the triplet; reaching for the interval that eludes them; making -- as we all must, if we wish to follow Christ --the daring leap from the prosaic to the transcendent. Week by week, year by year, they give us the very breath of their bodies.
And, binding them in one, the choirmaster, providing the vision, guiding the music. For twenty years, in this place, that hand has been Sonya Sutton’s, first as assistant to Norman Scribner, then in her own right. Thanks to her gift of spirit and skill and care and time, we come to this church each week confident that the music we hear will guide us Christwards, if we let it. And yet, she does not do it alone. The frightening truth behind even the most brilliant Director of Music is that she is nothing without the singers: if they fault the line, she is helpless to go back and change it. She can only point them forward to pick themselves up, order the disorder, and regain the tune. (Kind of like life, isn’t it?)
The issue is one of attentiveness. The first time I joined a church choir, we were singing madly through Mendelssohn’s Elijah, which we were going to offer to the community in a few weeks. When we got to the dress rehearsal, with the sudden addition of instruments, it came to me: this is like the Kingdom of God. Each of us brings what we have and we offer it with all that we are worth, but what makes it work is that we are all gazing in one direction, at the maestro. Even so, when we fix our gaze on Jesus, we learn to love him.
When Jesus went to the Temple, the rich people were looking two ways: they were looking toward God, yes, but they were also looking at one another, showing off for one another. But the widow could not look at herself, because if she did all she would see was her own poverty. If she looked at herself, she’d have been blinded by how little she had to give. Looking at God, she could give it all, for God is the one who receives any wholehearted offering; God wants, not the gold, but the heart.