Sermon: Music for Clodhoppers

Reformation series sermon: “Music for Clodhoppers”
October 8, 20170

Isaiah 5:1-7
Philippians 3:4b-14
Matthew 21:33-46

Words from Martin Luther:

I truly desire that all Christians would love and regard as worthy the lovely gift of music, which is a precious, worthy, and costly treasure given to humankind by God.

This precious gift has been given to humankind alone that we might thereby remind ourselves that God has created us for the express purpose of praising and extolling God.

However, when our natural musical ability is whetted and polished to the extent that it becomes an art, then do we note with great surprise the great and perfect wisdom of God in music, which is, after all, His product and His gift;  we marvel when we hear music in which one voice sings a simple melody,  while three, four, or five other voices play and trip lustily around it, thus reminding us of a heavenly dance,  where all meet in a spirit of friendliness, caress and embrace.

A person who gives this some thought and yet does not regard music as a marvelous creation of God, must be a clodhopper indeed;  he should be permitted to hear nothing but the braying of asses and the grunting of hogs.
Grace and peace to you in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

This week the topic for our Reformation worship series is music, which Luther calls a “marvelous creation of God.” I think he’s right. Music is too odd and wondrous and unaccountable to come from anywhere but God.

I’m going to show you what I mean.

[I here attempted to replicate what happens in this video, and it went pretty well!]

OK, do you know what you just did? You extrapolated the entire pentatonic scale across several octaves. That’s impressive. Did you know you could do that? Or, more interesting, do you know how you just did that?

I saw a video of Bobby McFerrin doing that experiment with an audience at a symposium on music and neurology. What Bobby McFerrin says at the end of his experiment is that wherever he tries that, no matter where he is in the world, people can do it. Even if you’ve never had formal music training and don’t know and couldn’t care less what a pentatonic scale is, you have the innate ability to find it.

The Church, historically, has a mixed relationship with music. Some church theologians thought that it should be avoided, because it could not be trusted: it could move people to emotional heights and depths, it could manipulate their hearts and therefore their minds.

Some church theologians–Luther among them–loved music for exactly the same reason. For part of church history, singing in harmony was not allowed, because the lack of tonal unity was considered disturbing–which is why we have Gregorian chant, btw. The church at Luther’s time began to get over that, but then came the belief that there were certain harmonies or disharmonies that could literally disarrange the music of the spheres and should therefore be avoided. Certain musicians particularly liked to play with one of those disharmonies, the tritone, which was so notoriously discordant that it was called the diabolus in musica–the devil in music.

You might perhaps agree that music can have a sinister quality if you’ve ever picked up an earworm, a fragment of music that gets stuck in your head. I got a new one this week from a blues dance I went to on Friday night. The DJ played a song with this repetitive chorus that goes: “What kind of beast comes slouchin’…”, and that played on a loop in my head for almost 18 hours until I finally looked it up on Saturday. It’s a song by an artist named Eliza Gilkyson…but it paraphrases a poem by William Butler Yeats called “The Second Coming.”

When I found the poem, I read these words:

“Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.”

And in the midst of exulting over finally finding the source of the earworm, I was suddenly brought back to earth, back to this week, with a thud. The blood-dimmed tide rose up over Las Vegas this week, and is threatening to overwhelm our hearts as well. Debates about gun control flare up again, and in the midst of conversations that have failed to produce any meaningful change since Sandy Hook, it does indeed seem that the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Surely something is at hand. Surely God is somewhere near, grieving, preparing, on the verge of action, but what kind of action?

And in the midst of it all, Isaiah sings.

“Let me sing for my beloved
  my love-song concerning his vineyard:”

A vineyard that was planted carefully, and nurtured tenderly, and which, in the end, bore tiny, bitter fruits that were no good for the vineyard owner’s purposes.

It’s as though God made us with the innate ability to find harmony, like the way you knew how to sing the pentatonic scale, a scale full of easy harmonies, but somehow all we’re able to produce are the horrible clashes of diabolus in musica.

Here we are, living in a nation that is one of the most prosperous, the most highly-regarded in the world, and our gun-related murder rate is 25 times higher than that of almost two dozen other high-income nations. Even though it has half the population of those other nations combined, the United States accounted for 82 percent of all gun deaths.

The fact that 33,000 people die in this country every year die by gun is not a political question: it’s a matter of Christian concern. It is possible to both believe in the importance of the second amendment and be deeply, deeply concerned about what studies suggest is a uniquely American problem.

Like the owner of the vineyard, we have tried from the beginning to set the scene for prosperity, for life, for freedom… but the vineyard has yielded wild grapes. And it is past time to admit it.

And in the wake of Las Vegas, in the wake of another terrible crash of disconcordance, this week’s readings confront us with a frightening question: What will God do to the vineyard keepers?

In the gospel, Jesus asks that question of the Pharisees who come to see him. And the Pharisees answer: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.”

Even as it dawns upon those Pharisees that it’s they themselves who Jesus is talking about, Jesus’ answer doesn’t seem to give them much wiggle room for hope.

But then.

But then this is the same Jesus goes to the cross just a few days after this. And he goes for the Pharisees just as much as he goes for the tax collectors and the Gentiles. He goes for the people who have figured out how to sing the scale just as much as he goes for those lost in discord and disharmony.

He goes, and on the cross he absorbs the violence, the hatred, the mob rule, the buck-passing, and God, on the bloodstained wood of that political instrument of death, shines back redemption, salvation, and resurrection.

And that tells us that the good news means in part that violence does not and will not have the last word. Tragedy and death and loss and hatred are, in the end, no match for love and life and forgiveness and peace.

We have a lot of work to do, as people called to love our neighbors as ourselves in a country where gun violence has become an epidemic.

But in the meantime, we have the promise that even when it looks like violence is the only outcome and response possible – “He will put those wretches to a miserable death.” – it’s not. Perhaps that’s all the religious authorities in the story could imagine, or maybe it was all Matthew the Evangelist could imagine. Maybe at times it’s all our leaders can imagine, and perhaps all we can imagine, too. But there is another way forward. For while Jesus’ words, Matthew’s words, and our words all matter, Jesus’ deeds matter even more, as Jesus’ death and resurrection creates more possibilities than those we can see, including the possibility of peace.

One of Lutheranism’s most famous musicians is Johann Sebastian Bach. In his Mass in B Minor, Bach uses the chord I told you about earlier, the tritone, the diablous in musica over and over during one particular piece of the mass: the Crucifixus. He uses it not to express that this is the moment that evil overcomes good, but instead, that this is the moment that good overcomes evil. God takes our disharmony and redeems it. God turns even the devil in our music into a sign of God’s triumph over sin and death.

Even in the midst of tragedy, we make our song “alleluia,” because we know, we know, that God has won the ultimate victory. And we have a freedom that we cannot forge or find for ourselves: a freedom from the power of death, a freedom that liberates us to speak truth to power, to work for what is just, to love without reserve.

Thanks be to God.



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