The Art of Worship

This sermon was first preached at the First UU Congregation of Brooklyn, on 3/10/13. It explores the meaning of music, corporate worship, and presence.

(I would like to start by congratulating all of you here today. Look around… You are the people that made it. Daylight Saving Time has not thwarted you this year. I have been crowd-sourcing all week to determine what time 11am actually was this Sunday. I suffer from what used to be a much more severe form of OCD – but alarm clocks are still the one source of angst that continues unabated. Apparently, we either all figured it out, or the group that comes later will be sorely disappointed that they were smarter than we were.)

When I was in seminary, I made a 4 month commitment to get up at 6am four days a week and travel from my off-campus apartment to the university to join another 25 or so students. We walked into the chapel in silence. We kneeled or sat on moderately comfortable pillows designed for the purpose. Occasionally we would walk as a line in circles through the Quad in silence. We were joined by a Korean Zen Buddhist Nun once a week, and the other three mornings just our faculty Buddhist scholar and another student monk to lead us. Occasionally we would hear a five minute Dharma talk about the meaning and purpose of Buddhism. By the end of the four months I could chant the Heart Sutra from memory – although now seven years later I couldn’t possibly do it still. On Thursdays the Buddhist Nun would make us do 108 full body prostrations as part of a meditation on relinquishing the ego. (And by “make us do it” I mean – you weren’t going to say no to this elder!) (It had a side benefit of tightening the thighs as well. She was in remarkable shape.) But the vast majority of the time – we simply just sat in silence as a group.

…I’m… not a morning person. (I used to have a votive candle dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Java. … If you ever see one again, please pick it up…) … So for me to commit to getting up at 6am to do anything, it has to be really remarkable. I would set the alarm for an hour of a day that I never believed actually existed, got dressed for the cold, and traveled to sit in a dark room with a bunch of other people and … that was just about it. Why?! I could do the same thing at another more reasonable hour of the day in my PJ’s at home all warm and comfortable! I know some of you have said the same thing about dragging yourself to worship at the ungodly hour of 11am on a Sunday. (Who gets up that early … on a Sunday!)

The twenty-five of us had committed to this practice in a group – because there was a difference. Sitting in meditation alone is good. But sitting in a group is different. After a time, you become attuned to the qualities of the silence. There’s a different kind of depth to the quiet when you come to it in community – a depth that can’t be expressed in words, merely experienced. There’s also the gym-buddy factor. “Sam” knows when you missed and is going to give you some grief for making their work-out all the harder without your presence. Dedication to a spiritual practice can be a solo endeavor, but the art of worship is often a communal project.

Consider our own setting. We have a larger scale corporate worship each week – with some Sundays close to 300 adults, children and youth. We commit to coming together, sharing our spiritual journeys, laughing and learning from a wisdom tale, and praying as a group before our children head to their classes and we settle in for a sermon. In between all these pieces, we encounter music. I say encounter because we’re not really here listening to a performance on a stage. Traditionally, the choral and instrumental pieces were seen as dedications, prayers or offerings to God. Many of us here still do see them as such. (I know I do.) But not all of us believe in God. From our own congregational survey we conducted a year or so ago in preparation for our search for our new Senior Minister, our community was split about 50/50 on the question of God.

With that in mind – the goal of our music isn’t to allow half of us to encounter it as an offering to God, and half of us to just have a low-cost, high-quality mini-concert each week – (however awesome that would be!) There is a space in between – there is a common story to be shared through our differences of belief. … Something else is going on.

Take our second hymn this morning. It was sung in three parts. The first part sings: “Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” The second part just sings half of that “Where do we come from?” more slowly. And the third part sings a completely different lyric: “Mystery, Mystery. Life is a riddle and a mystery.” Each part has a different melody, and is best designed for folks with differing singing ranges. When they come together they create a whole that is remarkable from the sum of its parts. We’re each doing our own thing – based on what feels most natural for our range. Some of you probably even remained silent – … but that silence contributed to the experience too.

Our belief of the specificities of meaning of the music is not what’s key. Our music is an offering to that which is beyond ourselves – and an invitation to be centered on that focus. It’s not merely for our consumption, bought and sold, but an inspiration to draw us out of our head, to remind us that there is more to life than our to-do lists.

The Unitarian Universalist theologian, Rev. Dr. Rebecca Parker writes that, “The Bible opens with the declaration that earth is a sacred creation, pronounced “Good!” from the beginning. Genesis tells the story of Jacob, sleeping in the wilderness with a stone for a pillow. He dreams that he sees a ladder connecting heaven and earth, with an endless circle of angels ascending and descending. When he wakes up he exclaims, “Surely this is none other than the house of the Eternal, and this is the doorway to heaven.”[1] Jacob surely means there is a living God, and that every moment is filled with God’s presence. But the core of that message is also that every moment is already full. Our music can also mean that. It calls to us to stop – to just stop all the rest – and listen.

We can often get caught up in belief. Sometimes it’s because we’re too caught up in our heads. We can weaken our encounter with our music as we read ahead to make sure we fully agree with every word in the hymn. Sometimes though we trip up because we’re too caught up in our hearts.  We can miss the power of the message of a wonderful anthem if it invokes a theology different than our own – or reminds us of a form of religion that brought us pain in our lives. We go back to that place of pain, and we shut out the moment the music is pointing toward. It can hold us back from the art in worship. In both ways, we fear being too credulous. One of my favorite fantasy authors, Terry Pratchett, defines the word credulous as “having views about the world, the universe and humanity’s place in it that are shared only by very unsophisticated people and the most intelligent and advanced mathematicians and physicists.”[2] He uses humor to get at the point that whatever we call it, most of us are pointing toward the same thing, the same sense. Music, with or without words, is seeking to do this same thing. It offers itself up to this purpose. We take these moments to bear witness to the depth at the center of life. We can get caught up arguing and discussing the intricacies, dimensions and scope of what we’re trying to describe… or… we can take part – we can appreciate that core. We can’t do both at the same time.

Later in the same novel where we learn what the humorous definition of credulous is – called “the Hogfather” – Pratchett sets up a great dialogue between Susan, a woman who just wants to be “normal” with her very unusual grandfather – Death (aka the Grim Reaper.) One small part of it reads, “All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.” To which Death responds “REALLY AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.”[3] Pratchett typically relies mostly on pastiche, and a smart turn of phrase, to get his point across. This time he points back toward Jacob and the ladder descending from heaven. Whatever we believe, whatever we make up, whether we are right or wrong – is sometimes necessary. It makes us human. I personally feel that some of the things we “make up” actually point to what’s true and right. Art for example – art is an illusion. But it’s no less true for its fabrication. In reality, we come to know truth through the fabrication.

“Surely this is none other than the house of the Eternal, and this is the doorway to heaven.” We are the rising ape that can finally recognize the descending angel – even if we may call that angel by a different name than the person sitting next to us in our pews this morning – whatever you call it, that angel is still there.

All of this in worship – all of this together – is grounded in an active purpose. We come here to be changed. … We come here to be reminded. … We come here … to go back out. Rebecca Parker writes, “we understand that being attentive to the holiness right in front of us is a prerequisite for ethical living. If we fail to see life’s goodness, we will fail to take action to protect it from harm – we will walk by suffering without seeing, and busy ourselves with unimportant tasks while glory surrounds us.”[4] Our music, our prayers, our worship — all the intangible art that goes into crafting our Sunday morning encounter — is designed to point toward this truth. Life is precious. … Life is worth noticing. … Our creative imagination is actually referring to what is true at our core – even if the details are fuzzy along the edges. And sometimes giving our joy as a gift – musical or otherwise – is the only right and true way to even have it.

 

Please rise now in body or in spirit and sing our closing hymn #36 “When in Our Music.” (It’s different than what’s printed in the Order of Service.)


[1] The UU Pocket Guide, Loc 824 Kindle. 2012 edition

[2] “Hogfather” Terry Pratchett. p. 246 (Nook)

[3] “Hogfather” Terry Pratchett. p.225 (Nook)

[4] The UU Pocket Guide. Loc 854, Kindle. 2012

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