Preached by the Very Rev. Mike Kinman at Christ Church Cathedral on Sunday, September 28, 2014“Words, when spoken out loud for the sake of performance, are music. They have rhythm, and pitch, and timbre, and volume. These are the properties of music and music has the ability to find us and move us and lift us up in ways that literal meaning can’t.”
I speak for a living. I have as many of us who speak for a living, what has been called a heart full of words, words which spill out and out and out. It is one of the many reasons my wife and children will someday be considered for sainthood, and why I will assure you right now that this will be a brief homily.
When I speak and preach. When I let that heart full of words spill out, my deepest desire is that those words will move people Godward. It’s why I study things like the science of listener attention and love listening to TED talks. It’s also why I love the screenwriting of Aaron Sorkin.
Aaron Sorkin, he of The West Wing and SportsNight and The Newsroom, The American President and A Few Good Men, is to screenwriting what Monet is to watercolors. And one of my favorite pieces of his writing is a piece I just opened with. It’s from the West Wing, and Martin Sheen’s president Josiah Bartlett is talking about preaching.
Listen again to what he says:
“Words, when spoken out loud for the sake of performance, are music. They have rhythm, and pitch, and timbre, and volume. These are the properties of music and music has the ability to find us and move us and lift us up in ways that literal meaning can’t.”
This is the truth all of us who speak for a living know. That what we aspire to literally is words that sing. Because music has the ability to find us and move us and lift us up in ways that literal meaning can’t.
We just heard a piece of Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. It is some of the most beautiful and profound theology in all of scripture and it is no accident that it comes in the form of a hymn. I can say the words:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death--
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
I can say these words and they soar, but the reason they soar is that they hint at music. Paul is talking about the greatest act of love in all of cosmic history, the self-emptying of the Christ to be Emmanuel, God with us. I can talk about it. Paul can write about it. But theology and truth this beautiful can never be contained by mere words. It must be sung.
We are blessed this night to be not just a gathering of the faithful to sing God’s praises at the end of the day but to be a gathering of musicians who have the honor and responsibility that leaves me in awe. The honor and responsibility of leading the faithful in raising their voices in song.
You who play and lead music know that this is not about mere performance. You are taking the words of scripture, and the hearts full of words of the gathered community and you are giving them voice that is beyond words. You are leading them in finding that piece of themselves as images of God created as creators of beauty themselves.
As musicians, yours is a ministry like Christ’s. Of having immense talent and knowing that you could use it to glorify yourself. And yet you know, as every excellent choirmistress and chorister does that the most important organ in singing is not the voice it is the ear. It is listening to the voices of the people around you, blending the voices together, creating beauty that does not exalt a single individual but that creates something greater than the sum total of all the individuals for the glory of God.
The ministry of the church musician is that self-emptying mission of Christ. Offering your talents on the Eucharistic table not for their own glorification but for the life of the world.
It has never surprised me that relationships between clergy and music leaders are often, shall we say, dynamic and fraught. Because we share this mission of gathering and self-emptying and listening. And we are all so tempted to use what we have to glorify ourselves. The powers we are wrestling with are so greater than we are. The powers that preachers try to have and musicians certainly do have is that power to find us and move us and lift us up in ways that literal meaning can’t.”
And so this night as an ambassador from the clergy side of the equation, I want to just say three things.
The first is thank you. Thank you all who play and all who sing, all who direct and all who make and lead music in any way for the glory of God and the gathering of God’s people. Thank you for all the hours of practice. Thank you for the listening and the blending. Thank you for helping move us and lift us up in ways that literal meaning can’t
The second is a reminder that the mission we share – the mission of gathering people around the presence of Christ and uniting us in Christ’s name – perhaps has never been more important. As our city is breaking apart in struggles of race and class, it has never been more important for us to listen to one another and to learn how to blend our voices. It has never been more important for us to model for one another that self-giving life and love of Jesus Christ.
The third is a request and a pledge. When your relationships with clergy get tense and fraught, let us remember that we are dealing with cosmic powers that are greater than all of us and in the midst of it we must remind each other that the place where we meet is the foot of the cross. We must model for the church and the world the love of the cross. Giving up ourselves for the other and for the life of the world. Pray for us as clergy and know that I am always telling my sisters and brothers to pray for you as well.
In many ways you musicians are my heroes. I am honored to call you fellow travelers on the way of the cross. You find me, move me and lift me up in ways that nothing else can. You give at least one preacher hope that my words can some day do at least a little of the same.