Grace Presbyterian Church
September 29, 2019, Pentecost 16C
Psalm 150; 1 Corinthians 13:1-3
Everything That Breathes
To this point we have given much attention to the practice of singing in worship, both by the choir and by the whole church. But as is the case in most churches, we do not rely solely on singing alone.
For fifteen years this church was graced by the work of Pat Roth at the organ, and sometimes piano. We are now searching for someone to take up that role in a time in which organists are somewhat scarce on the ground, while in the meantime Julia is stepping in to keep the instrument sounding and the choir accompanied. Both that organ and the piano are heard frequently in worship, whether in support of the choir or individually, and sometimes other instruments also make their sonic appearance in worship as well. The occasional tambourine or small drum or claves might sound in support of certain hymns; Jennifer might occasionally bring out a guitar for similar purposes; and verrrrrry occasionally Aidan Collins can be prevailed upon to play that fiddle in worship.
Of course, our church is hardly alone in this practice. Various congregations around our town support worship with organs and pianos of varying kinds, not to mention other instruments, possibly something approaching an orchestra in some cases, or some kind of smaller ensemble of instruments, or occasionally even a rock band. Go outside the boundaries of the United States, and you’ll find an even wider variety of instruments being played in support of the church’s song and in furtherance of its worship. In short, musical instruments tend to be common, if not outright prominent, in Christian worship.
It has not always been so.
In fact, there have been times in the church’s history when fearful church leaders actively forbade the use of instruments of any kind as a part of worship. Even the organ that has been so ubiquitous for centuries was disallowed in the earliest days of the established, post-Constantine church of the fourth century and a number of centuries thereafter. Later, once that had largely been overturned, reformers of the sixteenth century – not all, but some – sought again to banish instruments, even to the point of hacking to pieces magnificent organs that had been in place for centuries in churches that switched to the Protestant cause. Churches that followed Martin Luther’s lead were not among this number, as Luther was an enthusiastic supporter of music in worship, but sadly it must be acknowledged that Reformed churches in the tradition of John Calvin were among those who did forbid the use of instruments in support of worship.
How one could take such a view in the face of Psalm 150 is hard to fathom.
That instruments played a role in the worship of the Temple in Hebrew scripture is made clear enough by passages such as those from the books of Chronicles, whether the one we heard today from 1 Chronicles or the one from 2 Chronicles featured three weeks ago, both of which name harps, lyres, trumpets, and cymbals as instruments that were to be played, in today’s reading by “certain of the Levites” who were appointed to serve as “ministers” – that really is the word – before the Ark of the Covenant by playing those instruments.
It’s not an accident that those same instruments are named by the psalmist (The word translated in the psalm as “lute” would frankly have been more rightly translated as “lyre,” as it is elsewhere). It also seems likely that such a group of instruments represents in essence a full range of different instrument types – strings are represented by that lyre and harp, wind instruments by the trumpets, and cymbals represent the percussion. In essence, the psalmist is calling for an orchestra, or at least a full diversity of instruments.
That the psalm also throws in a couple of other instruments, tambourine and pipes, that are not mentioned in those ritual accounts in Chronicles is also interesting. The tambourine would have likely been most associated with dancing, as it is here, and similarly the pipes (what we would call flutes or recorders) were not associated with Temple ritual, typically. Along with the generic reference to strings, the inclusion of pipes and tambourine suggest that the psalmist is not merely interested in replicating the ensemble typically associated with Temple worship; this vision is far more expansive than mere tradition. It certainly seems that the psalm envisions every type of instrument available to humanity as being called forth for the worship and praise of God.
Such exuberant expansiveness seems to be reinforced by that last verse of the psalm, when at last even instruments are not enough and “everything that breathes” is invoked to praise the Lord. While one could argue that such a description really does apply to all those instruments in a sense, whether they generate sound by being blown upon like trumpets and pipes or by vibrations passing through the air like the others, ultimately there’s something much bigger at play. Our praise is situated not as a closed-off affair bound up in these walls; our worship and praise is but one small part of the praise of all creation, with every sound made by every creature of all of creation called forth in praise of its one and only Creator.
From such an expansive and all-encompassing perspective, the degree to which the variety of sounds of instruments in worship can seriously be limited is small indeed. Among other things, such an expansive view also helps explain why the organ became so typical of the music of the church; with its variety of stops and sounds available to the person using hands (and feet!) at the organ console, it is almost an orchestra unto itself. But indeed all of the instruments we can play can, used rightly, be employed in the worship and praise of God.
But what does that qualification mean – “used rightly”? Here it is useful to go back to those fearful old reformers, Calvin and his ilk, who sought to keep instruments out of worship. It is not to say that they had it right at all, but there is a caution to be heard that will always need to be remembered in the employment of all music in the church.
Calvin in particular echoed the fears about music in church that had long before been sounded by no less a figure than Augustine of Hippo, one of the leading intellectual lights of the early church. Augustine remembered how music affected him before he embraced the Christian faith, and feared that the power it had exerted over his emotions would be far too distracting or even overpowering were it to be used as part of worship.
They weren’t completely wrong to be cautious. Obviously humanity has come to believe that music, including music made on instruments, does have a kind of power to affect us in some fashion, even if not everyone is affected the same way by one instrument or combination or another. Let’s fact it, clearly we not only expect but enjoy the effect of an orchestra at its fullest, or the soaring tones of a jazz saxophone or trumpet, or the tight propulsion of a bluegrass band; otherwise we would not spend the money it typically costs to hear such an outfit whether live or on recording.
What then is our guard against such an effect in the music of the church? With sung music the text itself ideally steers our thoughts towards praise or instruction or admonishment, but what about instruments alone?
We actually can get a slight clue in that short excerpt from the thirteenth chapter of 1 Corinthians, a chapter we know is not about music at all but nonetheless makes an almost accidental point about the musical tones we make. This is of course Paul’s great discourse on love, but notice how he describes the absence of love in that very first verse:
If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
Paul is of course speaking about rhetorical power deployed without love, but note that the comparison he makes is to musical instruments, particularly instruments with the capacity to make a pretty significant noise. The one with all the rhetorical eloquence in the world speaking without love might as well be just somebody whanging away at that gong or smashing those cymbals with no rhyme or reason, just making noise. And let’s be clear, that is potentially extremely annoying.
However, in the context of, say, a big powerful symphony, those cymbals, say, become a powerful part of the effect of the whole orchestra deployed in the precise moment called for in the score. And so it is for the sound of the organ or piano or any other instruments played in worship; played within the context of worship in service to the liturgy and order of worship, they are good things. Blasting away only for the sake of their own sound, with no regard to the worship around them, those are less than good things.
The thing is that the same is true of the vocal parts of music in worship. If all we’re doing is singing just to hear ourselves sing, or to indulge in the sound of our voices or our favorites songs or styles or whatever, with no regard to the words of scripture or the prayers or all of the other components of worship, those songs are just as much noisy gongs or clanging cymbals as any sound any instrument makes.
In the end, then, what makes music in worship of any kind a good and even holy thing is the spirit and purpose in which it is offered. One might even borrow Paul’s idea that if indeed it is sounded without love, like Paul’s speaking in the tongues of angels, it is nothing.
As Paul will go on to say a chapter later, in 1 Corinthians 14:15, “I will sing praise with the spirit, but I will sing praise with the mind also.” Our singing and our playing and our hearing aren’t random; they are given with full engagement of both soul and mind as a part of our praising God and worshiping God and teaching and admonishing one another. Singing and playing with the spirit and with understanding of what and why we sing; that’s when we truly are taking our part in the praise of God that sounds forth from “everything that breathes.”
For all the instruments, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): 645, Sing praise to God, who reigns above; 33, Praise the Lord! God’s glories show; 637, O sing to the Lord; 641, When in our music God is glorified