September 11, 2016 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: Psalms 98: 1-8; Colossians 3:16-17
It occurred to me as I prepared this sermon that by the time the settled pastor is in place you will know an awful lot about me, as I share examples of my life experiences with you. Here’s yet another:
From 1981 till 2001 I had a private practice in counseling. During that time about ¼ of my time involved giving workshops, retreats and teaching psychology courses at various colleges and universities. One course that I taught regularly was developmental psychology. It’s a difficult but interesting course that involves lots of physiology and biology. I love teaching for a number of reasons, but one is that I learn a lot as I prepare my classes. One thing that fascinates me is what I’ve learned about brain development. Some of it is actually frightening. For example, the brain isn’t fully mature at 16, when we are allowed to drive, nor at 18, when we are allowed to vote, nor at 21, when we are allowed to drink alcohol. In fact the latest research indicates that the brain is not fully developed until people are well into their 30s and 40s. The prefrontal cortex, the region at the front of the brain just behind the forehead, is an area of the brain that undergoes the longest period of development. It is an important area of the brain for high cognitive functions such as planning and decision-making, and it is also a key area for social behavior, social awareness, for empathy and understanding and interacting with other people, and is responsible for various personality traits.
Like many other parts of our growth, the brain’s development is most rapid between conception and two years of age. Prior to age two, babies are very literal in their understanding. They only get what is in the present. This is so much so, that if a baby younger than two is looking for a lost toy and you see it and point to it, the baby will just look at your finger. They can’t yet make sense of the concept “over there” or even “near the chair”. If you want them to see the toy you need to take their heads and turn it towards the object, and maybe when looking in that direction, they will spot it.
We are often like pre-two-year-olds when we are experiencing beauty. Looking at the huge crashing waves that we had last week as a result of hurricane Hermine or at a magnificent sunset, we most usually focus on the object, we enjoy the moment, the present. And it is good. Other times, however, when we come in contact with something wondrous, our spirits soar and we are connected with the divine. The beauty points to its Creator. It may or may not be a conscious thought, but we are raised up beyond what our senses are taking in. We feel blessed. The core of who we are is moved.
That is the distinction between music as performance and liturgical music. Both are good. Both are wonderful. Performance art, however, is enjoyed for itself. Liturgical art attempts, through its exquisiteness to point to something beyond itself; to raise our awareness to the sacred, whether we can name it or not; to feed our souls, to nurture our spirits.
I had that experience last week when Michelle played and sang the prelude Gonna Build a Mountain. When she went into her magnificent instrumental I was t first in awe of her talent and skill and simply enjoyed watching and listening, and though I am not strongly patriotic, when she inserted God Bless America something happened within me. I was transported to a sacred dimension. I didn’t think “God”, but I experienced the divine spirit.
Some people in our congregation are uncomfortable with clapping after a musical presentation, and I believe it’s because they want to protect the integrity of sacred music and for them they consider clapping as a response to performance. But sometimes, the applause is more like a verbal “Amen” heard in black churches. It is a spontaneous outpouring of souls that have been moved and need release. It’s religious celebration.
St. Paul’s letter to the Colossians invites us to let the message of Christ, in all its richness, fill our lives. And both this epistle and Psalm 98 suggest that we do this by, clapping, singing, and with musical instruments. Music is a powerful means of experiencing and expressing our thoughts and feelings.
We use music to praise God, not because God has a huge ego that needs to be fed. We praise God so that we can remember and be comforted that we are part of something bigger beyond ourselves. We use music to ask for what we need and want, not because God needs reminding, but so we can grow in hope and learn to trust. We use music to confess our failings and to seek forgiveness, not so as to feel, guilty, small, or bad, but so as to become accepting of ourselves and to know that we are precious even in our human imperfection. We use music as thanksgiving not because God wants our gratitude but so that we can be gladdened by our blessings and learn the depth of how much we are loved.
Music is a release for our sorrow and an expression of our joy. And so we worship together with music. Amen.