18 May 2017

Chapel Homily: A Cantate Catechesis

Prayer and Preaching, p. 260.

Reading: Colossians 3:16–17
16 Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. 17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Catechism: from the Small Catechism, Close of the Morning Prayers
Then go joyfully to your work, singing a hymn, like that of the Ten Commandments, or whatever your devotion may suggest.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

So let's see who here is old and who here is not. Were I to sing: "Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce…" who can finish it? "Special orders don't upset us!" That's right. I ran it by Kevin yesterday and, youngster that he is, he didn't have a clue. I ran it by Georgia who is my own age and she chimed in. She even looked it up for me. The year was 1974, as in 43 years ago. Forty three years ago, some advertiser for Burger King thought to put some words with music and voila, after all these years and probably without ever really thinking about it, those of you old enough to have heard it, remember the words. 

Music and words. They work like that. They reinforce each other. Text and tune. The tune seems to write the text somewhere deep in the memory. Sandy reminded me that it doesn't always work like that, of course. She's right. It doesn't always. But what is shocking is how often it does. Words to melody repeated often enough in your ears and the words seem to take up a home in you.

So today's reading from Colossians, particularly the 16th verse. I confess I'd translate it a bit differently from what we heard a moment ago. The Weedon Standard Translation would run: "Permit Christ's Word to richly inhabit you with all its wisdom, teaching and forming each other's minds in grace by means of psalms and hymns and odes of the Spirit, singing (on and on) in your hearts to God."

Christ's Word? The Word about Christ? The Words of Christ? Yes. Either and both. Maybe even Christ, the Word, to richly inhabit you, teaching and forming your mindset in joyful grace, speaking them to each other even as you sing them heartily to God. And here's a point where some pastors and parishes massively miss the mark. We have these long hymns in our book. Take "From Heaven Above." Pull out your hymnal and look at 358 with all 15 stanzas. And some pastors inflict that entire on a congregation to sing, yup all 15 stanzas straight through and by stanza 5, the people are exhausted and just want it to stop. And some, recognizing the problem of exhaustion, chop it up and sing a bit of it and leave the rest. UGH. Which of these words do you want to not hear? What both approaches miss out on is how hymns like this were designed to be done antiphonally, back and forth, wechselweis as Luther would say. So one little angelic voice from the balcony cries out: "From heaven above to earth I come…" They're preaching to you in song. Writing the word of Jesus into your mind. And then maybe the choir chimes in with its preaching: "To you this night is born a Child…" and then the congregation can't take it anymore and they break out: "This is the Christ, our God Most High!" And so back and forth singing, listening, singing, listening, and so teaching and forming each other's minds in grace as we speak to each other in the songs, the Spirit writing the words deep in us. And note that you actually have them written faster by just hearing than even by singing. None of you ever went around singing "Hold the pickles…"

And for these words to lodge in us, music serves a vital role. It carries them deep into us. But here is where things get a bit dicey. It's possible to take the Words and set them to music and for the musical language to actually communicate something OTHER than what the words themselves say! Music, my friends, is never a neutral. In his writing the Republic, the philosopher Plato regarded it as downright dangerous stuff, subversive even. Here's what I mean. Take one of the very best and most well-known hymns: "Amazing grace." What happens to it if I sing it like this: (to the tune of Gilligan's Island). You smile, you laugh, but you were thinking not of amazing grace but of Ginger and the Captain, the Professor and Marianne, the Howells and Gilligan. The music didn't actually work to carry the text into you because it was carrying a different message. 

The mark, the mark, I'd argue, of the music that works, that can write the words deep in your heart and mind is that it breathes the air of the home to which we're headed. Isaiah 30 is key. You remember, the exiles on their way back to Zion, on their way back home. "And the redeemed or ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing, everlasting joy shall crown their heads." The music that serves the Words pulls the Words into you and plants them there and the words in turn pull you, tug you toward the Father's house, toward the joy of the home to which you are headed. Think of how "Lord, Thee I Love" does that! 

I do not believe for a second that this simply is pure subjectivity or a figment of my own imagination. The music that serves the words like has a sound to it that says: "Don't stop! Keep on marching! Focus on where we're going and the marvelous love that invites us into itself." To steal from Lewis, it cries "further up and further in!" You can HEAR the hope of homecoming ringing through them; the joy of the Father's house; the certainty of the Savior's open arms to welcome you; the constant dwelling upon the great things that He has done for us to secure that welcome by coming in our flesh to suffer and die in order to bring us home. The Church sings this song as an alien people journeying from exile back to where we belong. We sing it through the centuries where the evils mount up and hearts break and sins devastate. We sings it in the face of our own failure and sin. We sing it to shout down our fears. We sing the song of the words of Jesus, when times are good and when they are awful. But we never stops singing it. And this is how we let the Words of Christ, about Christ, Christ the Word inhabit us and make sure that we'll settle for nothing this world has to offer; we're seeking the Age that is to come, our home, where Love will have triumphed over all and where Forgiveness' great truth will bring rejoicing so huge to the hearts of all that an eternity can't begin to contain it.  Grace, joy, home, love, Spirit words giving Jesus, Jesus bringing us to the Father, and so the song rolls on and on. And how often it simply sweeps us up into the great activity of doxology: giving glory to Father and Son and Spirit. All those little triangles in the hymnal are not meant to give you practice doing your exercises; but are proleptic. They give you a teasing taste of how it all ends, or rather, how it will begin and never end,  It's all about home. The home Jesus came to give you and where you can dwell even now through his Words.

The hymn we're about to sing is one of the few in our book that reflects on the nature of the church's singing. See if you don't find it a powerful way for the words of Jesus to dwell in us as we teach and mold each other's minds in grace: "Then let us sing for whom He won the fight! Alleluia!"  

Hymn: #796 When In Our Music God is Glorified

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