Music Can Fill us with Divine Sound and Feeling
A sermon based on Exodus 15: 1-21
given at Mount Vernon, Ohio on October 9, 2016
by Rev. Scott Elliott
My favorite version of Bible story telling may just be musicals. I enjoy stage productions of Godspell and Jesus Christ Superstar and Joseph and Amazing Technicolor Dream Coat and I even liked the animated movie version of the Exodus story in The Prince of Egypt. I cut my teeth in theatre on Broadway musicals and I know they are not everyone’s cup of tea, but I love how songs and music make our hearts’ and souls’ feel.
In the musicals with religious origins like those I just mentioned my experience has been that the audience is not just touched by music to experience emotions and the story, but it taps them into the Sacred and the Holy even if they were not planning on it.
We are studying prayer in our Adult Forum class. Prayer is focusing on God, communing with God – and one form of prayer can be music. Psalm 147 tells us to “Praise the Lord! How good it is to sing praises to our God; for [God] is gracious, and a song of praise is fitting.’ Psalm 150 that we read in our call to worship describes an array of ways our ancestors prayed with music:
Praise [God] with trumpet sound; praise [God] with lute and harp! Praise [God] with tambourine and dance; praise [God] with strings and pipe! Praise [God] with clanging cymbals; praise [God] with loud clashing cymbals! Let everything that breathes praise the Lord! Praise the Lord
I happen to believe that when people go to a secular play about God and hear a song focused on God they cannot help but be a part of prayer. And it’s not a sneaky or bad thing. You may have heard somewhere a few times that God is good … all the time . . . and that . . . all the time . . . God is good. Whether they are aware of it or not it, in the secular musicals about God audiences are focusing on, and communing with God especially with the songs and music that are prayers.
Take for example the simple and famous song for Godspell called “Day by Day” it is literally a prayer that made the “Billboard Hot 100,” in 1972. Even if you never saw Godspell it was on the radio all the time. I hear it sometimes still. That hit song’s simple words are from a13th-century prayer by Saint Richard of Chichester:
“DAY BY DAY, DAY BY DAY. O’ DEAR LORD, OF THREE THINGS I PRAY: TO SEE THEE MORE CLEARLY, LOVE THEE MORE DEARLY, FOLLOW THEE MORE NEARLY, DAY BY DAY.”
That’s a prayer in a hit song.
The rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar actually started first as a popular music album, telling the Gospel story of Jesus with music so good, many of us may remember two songs off that album as favorites on the radio. One is “Jesus Christ Superstar” which asks questions many have of Jesus as it builds to an amazing crescendo. Asking questions of Jesus is a time honored form of prayer, right? And then there is the haunting “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” which has double meaning as thoughts by Mary Magdalene about romantic love toward Jesus, but it is written to also be heard as questions about otherwise loving Jesus. More prayer stuff.
More recently the Exodus story served as the basis for The Prince of Egypt an animated film which had one of its songs also make the hit charts: “When You Believe” sung by Whitney Houston and Mariah Carey in 1999.
Religious songs, prayerful songs have made a splash in the modern secular world and there have been others besides those from musicals that I’ve mentioned. Even the Lord’s Prayer itself made it big in 1976 with Sister Janet Mead’s version in “Our Father” which was an international smash hit back in the day.
Back in the days when the Bible was being written the secular and religious world were not considered separate and there are lots of examples of music in the lives of people in the Bible going way, way back. The first type of musical instruments mentioned chronologically in Genesis 4(21) are the lyre and pipes. But today’s reading is considered older and contains what scholars think may be the oldest song in the Bible, and it is sung by Miriam whom the Bible remembers not only as a prophet, but as one of five females heroes in Exodus who are able to outwit Pharaoh’s plan to kill Moses. Shiphrah and Puah are the midwives that defy the order to kill new born males upon birth, Moses’ mom hid him from the executioners and then carefully set him in a little basket on the river followed by Miriam who cleverly talked Pharaoh’s daughter into keeping and rasing Moses using his own mother as his nurse.
Like the story of Mary Magdalene and other women being the first to declare Jesus’ resurrection in the New Testament, Miriam and other women in the oldest version of the parting of the Red Sea story are the first to declare and lead a celebration of that miracle. 2
If you look at the text for today you will see that the patriarchy put Miriam’s song on the lips of Moses tacking it in before Miriam’s much older story. They could not erase the older well known version, but they tried to water down the memory of Miriam, as a powerful woman and religious leader making it seem like Moses’ idea, but modern forensic tools teach us that the story of Miriam as a leader and singer of the words came first.
In the Bible, women are the first to cry out and herald the birth of new life for God’s people in Christ and new life for God’s people after the sea crossing. In both the Old and New Testaments we get these wonderful glimpses of women being honored and revered as prophets and very important religious leaders. The patriarchy could not fully mask the powerful roles females have played in history to bring about God’s actions and good news. In our lesson today – one of the oldest stories known in the Bible – women lead worship and praising of God in the first celebration of the God given blessing of freedom. That is awesome! And they did it with music.
Our translation says they had tambourines but it is more likely it was those wonderful loud hand drums that you hold aloft and pound with a drumstick. If you ever been to a drumming circle you know how that sound and rhythm can inspire and move and fill you with Divine sound and feelings. Music. Can. Be. Prayer.
The Bible refers to all kinds of instruments besides drums used in liturgical . . . prayerful music. As I mentioned there were lyres and pipes, but the bible also mentions harps, dulcimers, horns, flutes, cymbals, bells, rattles and triangles. I’m mentioning all of this by way of saying MUSIC has always been a huge part of worship–and a part of communing with God, praying.
Today we are celebrating and rededicating an instrument not mentioned in the Bible, an organ. Believe it or not, though, the first mention of an organ goes back to Biblical times, as far back as 246 BC. But the first organs were used for entertainment and in theatres and did not appear in Christian worship for another thousand years. They first appeared in monasteries and then moved into church services, and cathedrals. The Monastery of Winchester England had a 400 pipe organ that two monks played at the same time with 70 more monks working the bellows required for sound . . . That organ was so loud it could literally be heard all over the city!
Eventually the organ became a preferred instrument in church, not only because it soaks the space and elevates the soul, but because other instruments were considered tainted by secular use. Indeed during the Reformation many protestant churches at first abandoned all instrumental music, but the organ got added back to help congregations stay in sync and in tune–and of course, like drums played by a Miriam, organ music creates sound and rhythm that can inspire and move and fill us with Divine sound and feelings. Eventually local church organs became matters of civic pride, and both secular and religious music was written for the organ. 4 But mostly churches were – and still are– associated with organs and organ music.
Music has always been a part of this congregation’s worship and prayer–and the organ has long been integral to that in this space. This church building was erected in 1868 and at first had a small pipe organ. In 1881 a new, better grand and high quality pipe organ was installed. The huge beautiful pipes were out and visible where the choir now sits. There is a picture of it on the front of our bulletins. In the 1940s that organ was completely rebuilt and moved back behind the wall of the choir loft. The keyboard console was over where the bell choir tables are, but was moved to the middle of the chancel in the 1960s where we still have one today.
In 1998 under the leadership of this church’s first Rev. Elliott – Rev. James Elliott– the congregation wavered back and forth between a very expensive refurbishing of the old organ or purchase a new organ. Eventually the vote was to replace the aging pipe organ with a new electronic one.
The Organ Committee, included two members still here today, Bob Crise and Pat Metcalf. After visiting churches and hearing a number of organs the committee selected a Rodgers 960 which is still considered a very fine organ and one of the very best in the area.
Our wonderful organ was purchased with very generous gifts with most of funding being provided through bequests by Helen Cooke and Katie Brooks. Our organist back then was Barbara Smith and the organ has sat mostly silent since she passed away a half dozen or so years ago.
Today we are fortunate to have Fred Lewis playing for us. Back in the winter Fred called and asked if he could use the organ to practice and after he was done he let me know the organ needed some repair work and he added that it was such a wonderful instrument that we really ought to have it looked at. He gave me the repair company to call. I let Laura and the Church and Ministry folks know and we all agreed to follow Fred’s advice. It took awhile but I am very pleased that we have the organ back up and running and we plan to have it as a part of our worship service at least a few times a year.
For many of us organ music creates sound and rhythms that can inspire and move and fill us with Divine sound and feelings. Music that helps us commune with God.
The organ has, however, never been the only source of Divine inspiration and feelings. Laura and Mary do incredible work every week sending OUR spirits and the HOLY SPIRIT soaring and lofting about this Sacred space and into our beings – as does the choir and all of you singing. Every week Mary’s piano playing is nothing short of Divine and the choir anthems are heavenly. Music soaks our services and aids in our experiencing of the Divine. And honestly, I have never enjoyed listening to a congregation sing a much as do here. The space is lively and sound resonates so well, but you all sing so nicely and loud . . . It is so inspiring that sometimes I stop singing and just mouth the words and listen. It does my heart good. It is reminiscent of Miriam’s song. Just as she and other women led God’s people in celebration and grateful songful prayerful music, we do that too.
May it ever be so. AMEN.
1. This background on music in the Bible was mostly derived from Dew, Diane, The Ministry of Music, found at http://www.dianedew.com/music.htm
2. Women in Scripture, 190
4. Anon, “The Organ in Worship–Historically” http://www.churchmusic.ca/ORG3.html
COPYRIGHT Scott Elliott © 2016 ALL RIGHTS RESERVED