Let All Who Breathe, Sing!
Sermon for Green Lake Church for May 19, 2018
When we lived on our farm in Enumclaw, the first sign of spring was music, frog song. Before the sun gained any strength after its winter journey to the south, long before the roses bloomed and the barn swallows and violet greens arrived, even before the crocuses raised their flowers–while the back pasture was still a colorless swamp and the calendar warned of months of rain and possible snow—in February already, I would come home late at night, turn off the radio, climb out of the car, and step into darkness made rich and sweet by the music of frogs singing in the ditch. The music always evoked a smile. Spring was coming. Love was in the air.
The heart of our faith is a singing conviction that the Eternal Spring approaches. Alas, sorrow, injustice, catastrophe, and heartache are still very much with us. Not yet does justice roll down like the great river. Not yet has death been vanquished. Not yet do we see the unhindered glory of the Kingdom of Heaven. Still, in worship we sing of the glorious future, and in our united voices we taste already the advent of our God and the triumph of love.
Music is far more essential to faith than is theology—our words and theories about all things pertaining to God. Music takes us so close to God that many religious distinctions are effaced. Even the most sectarian among us—those who imagine that we should read only books written by people who share our denominational pedigree—even these radical sectarians gladly sing hymns and anthems written by people of all sorts of religious persuasion.
Today is our annual choir festival. We honor the service of our choir and more broadly celebrate the gift of music which stands central to our life as a congregation and indeed stands central in our religion as Christians.
In preparation for today, I asked people to tell me about music that touches their soul. Here are some of what they wrote:
Karen Baker: There was always music growing up: singing, piano, and other instruments. There is something so powerful in literally sharing breath and space to sing together. Sometimes goosebumps and/or tears come in the midst of a choir singing Randall Thompson’s Alleluia surrounded by all the parts. Then there was the sacredness of a hot summer evening in Texas at an outdoor pop concert when the 3rd encore piece is “Be Thou My Vision.” The band walked off in middle leaving everyone finishing the piece a cappella and then leaving in silence through the dark as we all acknowledged the holiness of our shared space and song.
Or the power of spontaneous song (Don’t Look Back in Anger by Oasis) that became a rallying cry in Manchester after the bombing last May.
Some other favorites: the sound of rain on a tent, sharing the dawn with the chorus of birds at Able Tasmin Park, New Zealand, bagpipes skirling through the hills on my first day living in Scotland (I mean, c’mon!), or sitting at a pebble beach enjoying the rhythm of the waves crashing followed by the light percussion of the small stones being pulled back into the ocean…And of course the grunts and coos of a newborn!
Sharon Roberts: My first clear memory of music is listening to my father and his quartet practice barber shop harmony in our home. “Goodbye My Coney Island Baby” is running through my memory now.
Friday evening meant fruit soup on toast to the soundtrack of George Beverly Shae and more quartet music from the Blackwood Brothers on the stereo. “Ezekiel saw a wheel, way up in the middle of the air! An the little wheel run by faith, and the big wheel run by the grace of God…”
My mother shared her love of musical theatre, playing her prized cast recordings of Porgy and Bess and Showboat.
I discovered classical King FM when I was in middle school, and soaring operas like Turandot and Madam Butterfly became part of my internal soundtrack, along with the folk and rock music I listened to on KJR on my little transistor radio.
Then at Auburn Academy I fell in love with a boy with curly red hair who could play the piano like nobody else. And I set about introducing this classical boy to all the music that I loved.
For most of 43 years, date night for the two of us has involved music more often than not.
About 20 years ago, I added hearing my daughter sing at church or choir concerts to my list of favorite musical memories.
So, give me church music, classical, gypsy jazz, rock, folk, new age, Celtic reels, opera, show tunes, there is room for all of it, right along with birdsong and the ocean roar.
One more from my friend Burt Williams. In response to my request to “tell of the music that thrills your soul,” Burt wrote:
The symphony—you know, the one on a stage with violins and cellos and French horns and trombones and harps and timpani. Most recently, the San Francisco Symphony offering up “The Planets” by Gustav Holst, which concluded with a wordless women’s chorus completing the final movement a capella from the lobby of the second tier of Davies Hall, finally evaporating into total silence.
Or the time on Highway 6 a hundred miles west of Ely, Nevada, when I stopped to attend to a personal matter and discovered that there was simply no sound—no vehicles, no jets overhead, no birds, no insects, no breeze in the sage brush. Just. Nothing.
Several people mentioned singing the hymn “For All the Saints” in a college church with hundreds or a thousand other young people and in that experience discovering the grandeur and immensity of the human community called church which stretches around the world and across the millennia and includes even us, even me.
Others wrote of hearing for the first time and then singing the Hallelujah chorus from Handel’s Messiah and being completely overcome with tears and breathless wonder at the power and glory of the music and the reality beyond the music.
Laura Leeson wrote of the contemporary praise song, “By Faith” (Keith and Krysten Getty). It was the theme song for a Week of Prayer at an Adventist high school. Laura was part of the praise group leading music that week. The song permeated her entire being and still lives as one of the sweetest, richest expressions of her faith.
I’ll share other comments in the next Green Lake Church Gazette. I’m guessing all of us could tell some story of the richness that music adds to our lives.
Psalm 104 offers these words:
Bless the Lord, O my soul.
You are dressed in a robe of light. You stretch out the starry curtain of the heavens; 3 you lay out the rafters of your home in the rain clouds. You make the clouds your chariot; you ride upon the wings of the wind. . . .
You clothed the earth with floods of water, water that covered even the mountains. 7 At your command, the water fled; at the sound of your thunder, it hurried away. 8 Mountains rose and valleys sank to the levels you decreed. . . .
Right now the island of Hawaii is growing as lava emerges from Mt. Kilauea. We can watch online video of lava flows bulldozing houses and pushing fiery ribbons of lava into the ocean. Here in our own neighborhood we have the dramatic example of Mt. Rainier reminding us that mountains grow and shrink over time. Lava and ash builds the volcano and erosion cuts it down. The Psalmist invites us to feel in these natural forces the mighty hand of God. And then to sing.
Bless the Lord O my soul, and all that is within me bless his holy name!
The ancient poet continues:
The birds nest beside the streams and sing among the branches of the trees.
The trees of the LORD are well cared for–the cedars of Lebanon that he planted. 17 There the birds make their nests, and the storks make their homes in the cypresses. . . .
You send the darkness, and it becomes night, when all the forest animals prowl about. 21 Then the young lions roar for their prey, stalking the food provided by God. 22 At dawn they slink back into their dens to rest. 23 Then people go off to their work, where they labor until evening.
The whole wonder of life, the rhythm of the days and seasons, all of it speaks of God. And when nature evokes wonder and calls us to sing, it is the handiwork of God that is beckoning us.
And there is more.
The prophets imagine a day when the entire earth will be at peace. Justice will roll down like the mighty river. People will turn their implements of war into garden tools and farm machinery. In that day, the joy will be so contagious, so pervasive, even the trees of the field will begin to dance.
You will live in joy and peace.
The mountains and hills will burst into song,
and the trees of the field will clap their hands! Isaiah 55:12
In the Bible’s final book, we read again of music. The scene is the throne of God and the vast assemblage of heavenly beings that comprise the royal court. The poet writes:
Whenever the living beings give glory and honor and thanks to the one sitting on the throne (the one who lives forever and ever), 10 the twenty-four elders fall down and worship the one sitting on the throne (the one who lives forever and ever). And they lay their crowns before the throne and say, 11 “You are worthy, O Lord our God, to receive glory and honor and power. For you created all things, and they exist because you created what you pleased.” [Rev 4:9-11 NLT]
This “saying” would be more aptly expressed, as “singing.” The realm of heaven is continually noisy with the hallelujahs of the redeemed, people who know what it is like to be saved.
This theme reappears late in the book.
After this, I heard what sounded like a vast crowd in heaven shouting, “Praise the LORD! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God. 2 His judgments are true and just. . . . He has avenged the murder of his servants.” 3 And again their voices rang out: “Praise the LORD! [Rev 19:1-3 NLT]
As Adventists we have developed a keen debater’s sense of theology. We know correct from incorrect. As we move beyond the childhood of our religion, it is time for us to push ever deeper into the wonder and glory that can be most fully expressed by singing Hallelujah.
Thank you to the organist and choir and other musicians who help us taste the glory of the kingdom of God even here and even now.
Let everyone who has breath, sing. As skillfully as we can. Let us join the human and heavenly choirs, and, indeed, the choir of ocean and birds and wind in the trees, and even the silent singers of ineffably vast desert valleys and sweeping luminous skies.
Let everyone who has breath, sing. Hallelujah.