The Very Rev. Nathan LeRud, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral - July 10, 2023
Depending on how you count – or depending on how you translate – dancing happens about thirty different times in the Bible. You’ve got a bunch of those references in tonight’s service – we just sang about Miriam leading the Children of Israel in the dance at the Red Sea. We heard the story of King David, prancing in his skivvies before the Ark of the Covenant; there are actually two different versions of that story, one in Second Samuel and one in First Chronicles, and our friend and colleague Ward Nelson chose the more decorous version of that story for this echt-Anglican service of Choral Evensong – in Second Samuel, the text you didn’t hear tonight, David dances before the ark in nothing but a linen ephod, which we think is a sort of Iron-Age dancebelt, so for you fetishists out there – and I know you’re out there, this is an AGO convention, after all – we’re got you covered. This is Pride Week in Portland, after all, so you’ve got the original Pride Parade in tonight’s readings: King David in a jockstrap dancing before God, and let’s take a moment to remember that God’s faithful people have a long history of raising eyebrows. Dancing has always been a little bit scandalous.
The way First Chronicles tells the story, however, David dancing before the ark, is less about the King’s undergarments and more about the musicians involved, which probably does makes Chronicles a better text for this evening’s gathering, thank you, Ward. We’re thinking not only about the scandalous dances of Scripture, which are always fun, but more broadly about the sacred role that Scripture gives to musicians - to the Levites, in Hebrew Scripture - the tribe out of which the Temple leadership was called. The Levites are the ones charged with leading the people in songs of praise, both through their singing and through the playing of musical instruments. And in Hebrew Scripture, this job is considered to be a sacred calling. Not just anybody can pick up a lyre or a cymbal and play it in the Temple, you have to be part of the right tribe, for one thing: one of the descendants of Levi. There’s an ancient Jewish mystical text, the Zohar, which asks “Why were the Levites selected to sing in the Temple?” “Why were the Levites selected to sing in the Temple? Because the name Levi means cleaving, and the soul of the one who heard their singing at once cleaved to God.”
The soul of one who heard their singing at once cleaved to God. Amen. The name Levi, according to this tradition, comes from a Hebrew verb lavah, which means to join together; it’s an architectural term, originally; joining together pieces of wood or masonry in order to construct a building, but in the Hebrew mystical tradition it becomes associated with intelligence, cognition, with the creation of art, right? Which is all about joining things together [putting it together, to borrow the words of another Hebrew mystic, the late composer Stephen Sondheim, may his memory be for a blessing.] Since ancient days, sacred music has been about this art of joining – joining sound with silence, song with gesture; joining word with music: it’s an ancient spiritual practice – and an ancient ecclesiastical debate. I think about the English reformer Thomas Cranmer, beloved of Anglicans, who instructed his musicians of the 16th Century, “that in the quire no note shall be used in song that shall drown any word or syllable, or draw out in length or shorten any word or syllable otherwise than by the nature of the word as it is pronounced in common speech.” In other words, no polyphony; Cranmer wanted clear, declamatory singing that would highlight the sense, the doctrine, of the Reformed Church; he wanted people to understand what they were singing. So that that ancient tension between tune and text, between spirit and intellect, between the sacred word and the sacred breath – that tension, that joining, lies at the heart of this practice; this is what it means to stand in the presence of God and sing with the angels. In music, we join earth to heaven; the soul of the listener as well as the musician cleves a little bit closer – joins a little bit closer – to God.
It's a dance, isn’t it? A complicated dance, making music. Leading praise. Because part of the point is that you want people to feel something, right? And music works that way; it’s incredibly manipulative. I think about that scene in Bob Fosse’s film of the musical Cabaret, where a blonde teenager who looks just like Frederick in the Sound of Music stands up in a German beer hall to sing this beautiful folk song: the sun on the meadow is summery warm, the stag in the forest runs free. The people are listening to this hymn – it’s a hymn –to the summer, a hymn to freedom, a hymn to youth, Tomorrow Belongs to Me, and one by one they stand and join him, the whole congregation of beer drinkers joined together by love of country, by the swelling of the oom-pah band, the music builds, and the camera pans out and you see young blonde Frederick raise his hand in the Nazi salute and you see that he’s wearing the swastika on his arm band and that “tomorrow belongs to me” is the answer to one of the most horrible questions of the 20th Century, how can atrocities like the Holocaust be allowed to happen among civilized people living in civilized times, and the answer, at least in this particular scene, is that music works. It moves us in a way that is both sacred and scary. You can get away with some pretty horrible stuff if you do it to the right soundtrack.
So the work to which we are called, we who gather God’s people and invite them into this practice, this embodied practice, the practice of breathing together, organizing our breath so that when we breathe together and then exhale it actually makes a joyful noise – I mean, we’re playing with fire. We’re playing with souls. Music-making is soul work, and determining what is appropriate to sing and what’s not appropriate to sing – when a good hymn tune trumps a questionable text, or when a great text shines through a murky tune – it’s a question of prayerful discernment. I mean, I don’t remember a single sermon I heard in church growing up. I remember the hymns. I remember the hymns I grew up on, the American gospel hymns of the 19th and 20th Centuries, and I remember the hymns I’ve come to know and to love as an adult in the Episcopal Church. I don’t think you can love a sermon that way, not in the way that you can love a hymn. What preachers do happens in a moment, it’s for a time, and then it’s done. But people of faith have been singing the Psalms for millennia. Music lasts. If there’s any hope for the future of the church, if there’s any hope for the future of American democracy, I’m not looking to politicians and preachers. I’m looking to composers. I’m looking to choir directors. I’m looking to organists. When we get it right, music saves peoples’ lives. It sure saved mine.
“God made me a musician,” a friend of mine used to say, “because that’s the only way God could save me.” It’s a calling, for sure – a sacred call, a vocation. It’s hard work, it’s technical, it’s demanding, you never get enough practice time. It’s political: it’s slogging through email after email, it’s the art of making friends and influencing people; endless fundraising, making angry parishioners happy. It’s no wonder that you musicians identified Cecilia as your patron saint, the girl who sang a hymn in her heart while she was marched her down the aisle against her will and was martyred when the Roman Prefect tried to steam her to death in her own bathroom. There’s a kind of martyrdom, maybe, in music making – certainly I’ve known a few organists who fancied themselves among the martyrs – but it’s most helpfully understood, I think, as martyrdom in the original sense of that word, which just means witnessing, right? A martyr is a witness, someone whose whole life becomes her testimony; one who lives so close to the bone, so close to the heart of things that she comes to burn, as Cecilia did, with a holy flame. That’s what draws us into this room tonight, I think. We want to burn, don’t we? Those of us who do this thing for a living – who get paid to perfect the praises offered by God’s people on earth – maybe we need that invitation more than most. When you do church for a living, my experience is, you have to work a little bit harder to reconnect to the source of your fire. We didn’t get into this game for the money. We do this stuff because we think it matters. We do it because it sets our hearts on fire – at least it did, once upon a time, and we know what that feels like; to have our hearts set ablaze; to be lost in wonder and in awe. We do it because this is the way that God, in God’s wisdom, is able to save us. So in a way we’re just junkies for the Spirit, we church folks. We’re the weirdest bunch there is, but we know a good hymn when we sing it, and that’s not a bad way to live your life: in thrall to the movement of a quixotic, unpredictable, forever dancing Spirit of God. You can’t pin her down, that dancing Spirit, but when she shows up, not much else matters.
You know what she sounds like, this beckoning voice of the Spirit. So don’t forget it. Keep helping us to see – and more importantly, to hear – what she sounds like, the Spirit of God, dancing with all her abandon in the notes and in the silence, on the breath and in the heart. It’s music that will save the church, I believe that. In God’s wisdom, or God’s foolishness, God couldn’t save us any other way. And all things considered, devoting your life to music ain’t a bad way to get saved.