Worship the Lord with Gladness & Song

August 13, 2017 — Nancy Bancroft
Readings: 1 Chronicles 13:5-8; Colossians 3: 16-17


The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour was a variety show that premiered in August 1971. It starred American pop-singer Cher and her husband at the time, Sonny Bono. The show was canceled in 1974, due to the couple’s divorce, but it was so popular that the couple reunited professionally shortly after for the identically formatted Sonny & Cher Show which ran until 1977. Each episode included comic banter between the two, and skits mixed in with musical numbers. The show was a Top 20 hit in the ratings for its entire run. One of the highlights of the program was Cher’s entrance wearing an incredible outfit designed by the famous Bob Mackie. Even today, reproductions of Cher’s clothes are in top demand for costume-party goers.

Aloha from Hawaii, a concert by Elvis Presley, was broadcast live via satellite on January 14, 1973. This was the first program to ever be beamed around the world by satellite, and it aired in over forty countries across Asia and Europe. A little piece of trivia: Despite the satellite innovation, the concert was not televised in the United States until April 4, because the live performance took place the same day as Super Bowl VII. Viewing figures have been estimated to be between 1 and 1.5 billion viewers worldwide. It was an amazing concert with Elvis singing all of his greatest hits. The white, rhinestone jumpsuit, studded belt, shoes, glasses, and cape that he wore for this show has become one of the most replicated outfits in history.

Both Cher and Elvis were amazingly awesome and successful performers and replays of their performances continue to be enjoyed more than forty years later.

Music is a marvelous gift. Creation is musical!  Music existed from the beginning, as we read in Job (38:7), “when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy” and music will be with us to the end, as described in Revelations (5:13), when “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea,” will sing to the Lamb on the throne. Human music-making reflects the order, beauty, and diversity of God s creation. Music has power to excite, console, cheer, tug at the heartstrings and simply take our breath away. What would life be without music?

Our first reading this morning is an example of what we focused on last week – the people of God on pilgrimage.  Here we see that as the Israelites journeyed from place to place, taking great care in moving their church with them, “David and all Israel were celebrating before God with all their might, singing songs and playing all kinds of musical instruments.” Later, in the same book, Chronicles chapter 25, we read that David selected three men to organize and lead the music in public services. Their twenty-four sons led the ministry of music each with specific responsibilities in both instrumentation and voice, and they in turn led four thousand people who were dedicated to the ministry of music for worship.

We also see in the New Testament that music had an important role as God’s people gathered together to express their praise to him and to build one another up in the faith. Music and song continue to play a vital role in the life of God s people today. Contemporary culture and modern technology bring new possibilities and new challenges to the music ministry of the church. Diversity in music can enrich a worshiping community and here at Union Church there seems to be a true openness to and appreciation of variety in music. As a whole we love the music at our services and feel exceptionally grateful for all who contribute to it. Despite this, all involved in music ministry need to remain sensitive to the differing preferences of congregants as conflicting tastes can be the source of tension in the community. But even though people will always have their sometimes strong likes and dislikes regarding church music this rarely becomes a serious problem if all in the congregation understand and respect the distinction between performance and the use of music in worship.

In performance, such as that of Cher and Elvis, the focus is the performers. What they do and how they do it; even what they wear; everything is designed to put the attention on the performers. Music in worship, rather than pointing to the persons creating the music, directs us to Someone beyond. It may be, like with our gathering music and prelude that it creates an atmosphere to settle us, focus us, helps us to put aside distraction and become open to what is here for us to experience.  At times the music during our service highlights a particular part of it; like the music during communion, or our weekly “Hush Now” that helps us enter into an intimate silence with our God. Music in worship is meant to help us encounter God and respond to that encounter.  Sometimes it’s the beauty of the notes, other times it’s the profoundness of the words; something in the music gives us an exposure to the divine.

Music itself is not worship. It is a means to express worship. Worship is the heart going toward God. Regardless of what type of music is played, when music ministers worship through their music as they play an instrument or sing; when they focus on the divine in praise, jubilation, thanksgiving, grief, or supplication we also are moved to recognize God in that moment and that’s when worship can happen; when the congregation catches a glimpse of God revealing Himself.

And we who hear the worship music also have a different part to play from our role at performances. Those who attend a concert are an audience. An audience sits passively in hopes of being entertained.  We are a congregation; a group who has gathered expecting to encounter the divine. Our part is to open ourselves, ready to give expression to love; give expression to awe and wonder in the presence of God.

Worship is a reciprocal action. When we authentically experience the divine there is the impulse to respond; a need to give something back to God. Our worship is very simply a response to God’s revelation to us. To truly worship God involves an action on our part. Sometimes physically, sometimes mentally, and sometimes emotionally but it always requires an action. Looking through the Psalms we can see that the writers simply saying or singing “I Love You, God” was not enough. There was always an internal and/or external expression of their passion for God: Shout to God. Sing a new song. Dance before Him. Clap your hands. Bow down. Lift up your head. Tell of His might. Stand in awe. Meditate on His truth. Walk in His ways. Still your heart. Cast down your idols. Run to Him. Make a loud noise. Lift your hands. Clash the cymbals. Praise Him with trumpet. Seek His face. Tell the nations! Somehow the awesome experience of a divine encounter creates a need to express emotions of praise, thanksgiving, joy, or sorrow! (Our congregation has two opinions about clapping after someone has played.  Some dislike the clapping, seeing it as a response to a performance and disruptive to a liturgical atmosphere. They would prefer either no response or a silent one as is done in some churches.  Others here like to clap as an emotional reaction of joy and gratitude for how they have been moved by the music. In this way clapping is very much an element of worship.  I don’t know if we will ever come to agreement on this issue, but fortunately a very strong part of our culture is acceptance of diversity. And whether or not we like the occasional clapping, our love for the clappers outweighs any irritation that we might feel when they do clap.)

Music is a language that can help us to express our response to God in ways words cannot! Thus at least towards the beginning and end of our service we provide for congregational singing. And when the Christian church sings it does so not as a choral society. Its singing is not a concert. We sing from inner, material necessity. It has been said that singing is the highest form of human expression Singing is a ministry that belongs to all the people of God. The role of volunteer choirs and musicians is to aid the whole people of God in their worship. It’s a very important ministry and a way for people to use their God-given gifts to serve this community. And yet, the congregation is always the primary choir; and hopefully all, regardless of ability join their voices in musical worship.

Music in a worship service is an expression of unity and at the same time it can strengthen the bonds of community. It this way, music is sacramental. Different voices, different instruments, different parts are blended to offer a single, living, and unified work of beauty. Music is capable of evoking powerful emotions. Hearts are stirred and feet set to tapping by one piece of music, while another melody may move people to tears. Worship music can inspire, nourish, support and sustain individuals taking part and can unite and build up the community as a whole as we share a meaningful experience together.

How blessed we are to have music!  Now let’s continue to worship the Lord with Gladness & Song. Amen.