Sunday, October 30, 2016
Sermon (October 30) by Rev. Robert McDowell – “Music & Faith: Classical”
And I think what I really like about music is that regardless of the type of music, even though I have my personal preferences which I’ll get to in a moment, music has a way of speaking to our deepest desires and longings.
There’s an entire book of the Bible, the Book of Psalms that has served as one giant song book for God’s people. We don’t have the music for each of these Psalms, but originally they were put to music to help the people of Israel sing their faith which included songs of praise and songs of thanksgiving, but they also included songs that helped them to express their deepest longings, their fears, their frustrations, and even their doubts.
In one of the churches I served, our church partnered with an inner city church that wasn’t able to conduct their own summer vacation bible school, and different volunteers would drive our church van to pick up the children each night and bring them to our church for vacation bible school.
Well, I volunteered to drive the van for two of those days. Our church gave each child a CD which had the vacation bible school songs so they could listen to the songs at home. They loved the vacation bible school songs so much that they wanted me to play the CD the whole way back in the van. And these kids would sing out like there was no tomorrow.
They kind of reminded me of the early Methodists who were known to sing out their faith whenever they would gather.
Over these next four weeks, we’re going to look at how music can be an important way for us to be in concert with God. And to help us do this, we’re going to focus on four different types of music and how they might help us grow in a deeper relationship with Jesus Christ.
A few years ago, Pew Research, conducted a survey involving almost 2,000 people of a variety of ages, the youngest people who participated were age 16.
Of the following musical categories including classical, country, rock, R&B, Hip-Hop which includes Rap and Jazz, here is the ranking of the musical preferences according to the survey.
Rock was the favorite music category. 35% of people said they listen to rock music often. I would fit into that category. I like to listen to different kinds of rock music. Country Music comes in as the 2nd favorite music preference in the survey. 27% listen to this type of music often. R&B is #3 with 22%. Hip-Hop/Rap is next at 16%. Classical music falls in at 5th place at 15%. And jazz comes in at 12%.
Rock, country, R&B, Hip-Hop/Rap, Classical, and Jazz. That’s the order in terms of what people listen to most often.
If you look at the research by age and they have four age groupings. 16-29, 30-49, 50-64, and 65 and older, here are how these music preferences break down:
The youngest three age groups chose rock while the 65 and above age group chose country as their favorite. And looking at classical, country, and jazz, which we’ll be covering in this sermon series, the notable statistic is that jazz music ranks pretty low in all of the age segments. But we might end up changing that when we focus on jazz next Sunday. You won’t want to miss next Sunday. You’ll really appreciate it!
And if you’re interested in who our favorite performers are from the survey regardless of music preference, the top ten performers include, The Beatles (they’re #1), The Eagles, Johnny Cash, Michael Jackson, Elvis Presley, The Rolling Stones, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Carrie Underwood, and Garth Brooks.
So that’s enough of an introduction for this sermon series. We can debate and discuss the results of that survey after worship, but what I want to do now, is have us focus on how classical music can help us grow in our faith with God.
Like I said, classical music doesn’t rate too highly as far as what most people listen to the most, but there are some important connecting points between classical music and our faith.
Johann Sebastian Bach, the great German classical composer from the 18th century, once said,“Music was God’s greatest gift to God’s sorrowing creatures, to give them a joy worthy of their destiny.”
Bach is known for writing two musical masterpieces based on the passion narratives, the crucifixion narratives, from two of our New Testament Gospels, Matthew and John. These musical pieces are often performed during Holy Week, the last days of Jesus’ life including his crucifixion. Some have claimed that his “Passion of St. Matthew” composition is the supreme cultural achievement of all Western civilization.
Even the radical skeptic of the Christian faith, Friedrich Nietzsche admitted upon hearing it, “One who has completely forgotten Christianity truly hears it here as gospel.” Interestingly enough, after Bach’s death in 1750, his music, as wonderful as it was, went largely unnoticed for the next 80 years until another brilliant composer, Felix Mendelssohn arranged a performance of Bach’s “The Passion of St. Matthew,” and a larger audience was finally able to appreciate the incredible beauty of Bach’s music.
Nearly 75% of Bach’s 1,000 compositions were written for use in worship. 75%! Between his musical genius, his devotion to Jesus Christ, and the effect of his music, he has come to be known in many circles as the “Fifth Evangelist” just after the four Gospel writers, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, doing in music form, what the Gospel writers had done in written form.
A couple of Bach’s favorite passages of scripture are from I Chronicles and II Chronicles in the Old Testament. The I Chronicles passage is from chapter 25 which wasn’t familiar to me. The sub-heading for this chapter in my bible reads, “The Temple Musicians.” This whole chapter is simply a list of difficult to pronounce names of musicians who served under King David, names like Peter Jarjisian, hard to pronounce names.
The other favorite passage of scripture comes one book later in II Chronicles chapter 5 which tells the story of King Solomon, David’s son, who had built the Temple in Jerusalem, and had gathered all of Israel to the Temple for a special dedication.
It was at this dedication of the newly built Temple that over 120 trumpeters joined with singers and other instruments including cymbals, harps and lyres, to offer in unison, a song of praise and thanksgiving to the Lord.
Of this scene from this passage, Johann Sebastian Bach, wrote in the margin of his personal copy of Martin Luther’s three volume translation of the Bible these words, “At a reverent performance of music, God is always at hand with his gracious presence.”
George Frederick Handel is also a classical composer who was able to write music to help people be drawn closer in their relationship with God. Handel lived about the same time as Bach and both composers are included in the Anglican and Episcopal church calendars of saints.
Like Bach, Handel was born in Germany in the late 1600’s, eventually moving to Italy and then to England where he became a British subject. From operas, Handel turned to writing oratorios which are works with a religious theme to be sung by soloists and a chorus.
His greatest work, “The Messiah” is filled with words from scripture from both the Old and New Testaments and the focus, as the title suggests, is on the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is often performed every year for both the Christmas and Easter celebrations.
One of the reasons for the wonderful popularity of “The Messiah” is the almost overpoweringly and majestic “Hallelujah Chorus.”
In a conversation with a friend who loves classical music, she advised me to not only focus on Bach and Handel, but to go all the way back to Gregory the Great from the 7th century, who developed forms of public worship that are still in effect to this day including a weekly schedule of scripture readings so that the church is able to hear a variety of scriptures based on the church seasons over the course of the year.
But for our focus today, we remember Gregory as the person who is named for the “Gregorian Chant.” Thanks to Gregory, he founded a school for the training of church musicians which ended up serving as a foundation for what we would refer today as classical music.
There are many stories that are attributed to Gregory, but one that stands out to me is that since he also served as Bishop, he would send missionaries with the instruction to bring back any new music they encountered. And he’s quoted as saying, “Why should the Devil have all the good songs?” Maybe you’ve heard that quote. It goes all the way back to St. Gregory the Great from the 7thcentury.
In one of my previous churches, we hosted members from “Music Mission Kiev,” a symphony from the Ukraine during one of their US tours. Their music was breathtaking and we enjoyed providing meals for them during their stay.
I had the privilege of getting to know their director, Roger McMurrin who had a strong connection with the church I was serving, and he felt called by God to serve as a missionary in the Ukraine back in 1995. Since classical music often centers around the Christian faith, Roger felt called by God to form a symphony in Kiev to play these religious musical pieces as a way for agnostics and atheists in that country to hear the good news of Jesus Christ. From this symphony, a church was formed and they provide ministries to support orphans and widows.
Under communist Russian rule, countries such as the Ukraine had not been permitted to hear classical music compositions such as Handel’s “Messiah” because of its focus on the Christian faith. Utilizing the beauty of classical music, “Music Mission Kiev” is sharing the good news of Jesus Christ to a people who are hungry for this particular genre of music that they for so long had been denied.
A friend of mine who has conducted many classical musical performances told me one time that what he appreciates most about classical music is that, “It conveys thoughts and feelings beyond what language can convey and it often is what helps him to see the face of God.”
This is my sense with classical music as well. Even if classical music might not be something we have heard very often, when we listen to some of the great pieces of classical music, it can take us to a whole other place. Let me offer an example of how classical music can lift our spirits no matter what we may be facing in life.
One of my favorite movies is Shawshank Redemption starring Timothy Robbins who plays the part of Andy, a prison inmate who is sentenced to two life terms based on a crime he most likely didn’t commit, but because of strong circumstantial evidence, he had been convicted.
In the movie, Andy takes on a Christ-like role with the other inmates as well as with the guards. Because he had worked in finance, Andy ends up helping the prison guards with their tax returns. He also helps to expand the prison library. Andy is always trying to bring a sense of beauty and grace into the dark and cold world of prison life.
When the library is given a record of the opera, “The Marriage of Figaro,” Andy takes the risk of playing it over the prison loud speaker for all the inmates to hear, well aware of the punishment of solitary confinement he will receive for breaking prison rules to make this happen.
Here’s this scene from the movie, “The Shawshank Redemption.”
What strikes me about that scene is that even if the prisoners didn’t necessarily like classical music, in that brief moment, there music preference wasn’t the issue. Somehow, that music did what my conductor friend was talking to me about when he said that “It conveys thoughts and feelings beyond what language can convey and it often is what helps us to see the face of God.”
Sometimes it’s not in the loud guitar sound of rock and roll, or in the improvisations found in jazz, or in the down to earth lyrics of country music that we can best experience the presence of God in our lives.
Sometimes, God’s grace is most felt through the time tested notes of classical music that take us to a place in which we encounter the face and the beauty of God.
And this is why whenever Johan Sebastian Bach wrote a piece of music to be used in church, he always included the initials, S.D.G. at the bottom of the page. Those letters stand for the Latin phrase, “Soli Deo Gloria,” which means, “Glory to God alone.”
Even though Bach was the one who composed the music, he knew that his music was simply pointing to a far greater beauty and helping us to see the face of God.
That’s classical music at its best.
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