Sermon by Rev. Deborah Sunoo
We resume our sermon series on spiritual practices today: a survey of things people of faith through the centuries have done to strengthen their spiritual muscles, if you will. We aren’t talking about mastering a long list of skills here, but simply about trying some things worth trying. Think of it as an invitation to experiment.
For we know practice in other areas can lead to great enjoyment. It takes a while to learn how to read, but the payoff is amazing when you realize that entire worlds await you in the pages of books. It takes a while to learn how to ride a bike, but again the payoff is fantastic when you can do things like ride along the Burke-Gilman trail on a gorgeous summer day. So too getting used to a new spiritual practice might take a little time. But my hope is you’re finding things that – with practice - can lift your spirit, bring you courage and joy, and help you feel better connected to God.
It’s our relationship with God that’s the point, of course, the reason we’d try out any spiritual practice. We want to hear God speaking to our hearts. We want to know God’s abundant love for us, and for the whole creation. We also want to be ready to pay attention when Christ calls us as his followers to step up and put our faith into action. Spiritual practices are simply a means to help us toward these important ends.
To review for those who haven’t been with us from the start of this series, we first considered the practice of Simplicity (where might less be more?) and then the practices of Hospitality and Generosity (where might more be more?) In a context like ours it’s easy to overfill our lives– whether as consumers, over-schedulers, or hoarders, so letting go and moving toward greater simplicity can have a healing effect on our souls. So, too, can turning our energy outward, moving from self-centeredness to allowing God’s abundant generosity to flow through us to others.
Next we took up the practice of Scripture memorization, and then the practice of Prayer. When it comes to prayer, Anne Lamott’s book Help. Thanks. Wow. reminded us talking to God can be simpler than we may have thought. Any heartfelt plea for help can be a prayer. We’re often talking to God when we hear ourselves saying thank you, thank you, thank you in a moment of great relief or gratitude. And when we’re struck with awe or wonder at the majesty of God’s creation or at a moment of surprising grace, and all we can manage is “wow,” that too can be a prayer.
Having talked about talking to God, we then considered the importance of listening to God. Pausing our prayer monologues now and then – those long lists of petitions and requests many of us call to mind when we pray – and trying to pay attention to anything God may be saying to us in return. Some of you are using a prayer app I shared a few weeks ago called Pray As You Gothat can help with that effort in listening. We’ll be offering some prayer retreats over the next several months to help us become better prayer listeners too.
Meanwhile our focus today will be the spiritual practice of making music. I know many of you can attest to the way melodies and harmonies enrich our worship life together. Choral anthems (thank you, Andrey! thank you, choir!) and vocal and instrumental solos and duets, not to mention original compositions from our talented keyboardist, Rob. (Seriously, Rob, you spoil us.) Music in worship can uplift and inspire us. It can calm and center us. It can be something we offer to God; it can also be a gift we receive.
For some of us, music can also reach our hearts in a way words alone cannot. Today’s sermon title alludes to the quotation: “he who sings prays twice,” the ‘twice’ invoking, I think, a depth of feeling and expression that is possible when music accompanies our prayers.
Which isn’t to say Christian faith requires excellent musicianship. Let’s be clear on that point! To each are given gifts and while some of you in this room have considerable musical gifts, others of us have been equipped by God with different talents. Still, we can all be music appreciators, can’t we? We can even all be singers in a safe space like this where I hope every voice will feel free to make a joyful noise to the Lord.
And if you are more of a listener than a singer, you may still find music enriches your prayers. My favorite part of that prayer app I mentioned is that every day it plays for me a different piece of sacred music. Drawing from a wide range of musical styles, each song is selected to help us as listeners feel closer to God. And wasn’t it wonderful last week to hear songs of praise in Swahili from our guest choir? It turns out music can touch our hearts even if it’s not in our own language!
Biblically speaking, we have the entire book of Psalms to show us what sung prayers can sound like. What began as the songbook of ancient Israel also served as a hymnal of the early Church, and psalms have been prayed and sung by Christians and Jews alike ever since. This morning’s Scripture reading was a song of praise: “O come, let us sing to the Lord; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!” (Psalm 95:1) As was our opening hymn based on Psalm 150: “Praise the Lord with the sound of trumpet!” The Psalms invite us to pray honestly out of all kinds of other emotions too. It’s worth noting there are songs of fear, anger, lament right there in the mix with prayers from thankful hearts. Nothing is off limits when we sing or speak to God.
Elsewhere in the Bible we find not only that music was integral to the worship life of ancient Israel and the early church, but that songs are lifted to God at other times too. In moments of deliverance, for instance, like after the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15). At times of national celebration, as when singing and dancing accompanied the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem during King David’s reign (2 Samuel 6). We even find the prophet Jonah singing his way through an ordeal in the belly of a great fish! (Jonah 2) Turning to the New Testament, the opening chapters of Luke’s gospel include a song from Jesus’ mother Mary, a song from the priest Zechariah, a song from the angels who bring the shepherds good news of great joy. And when we read about challenges faced by the early church in the book of Acts, we find Paul and Silas singing hymns to God right in their prison cells (Acts 16:25). It seems there’s no place we can’taccompany our prayers with music.
If you are a musician – whether you sing, play an instrument, or are willing to play more of a supporting role with others – I encourage you to talk me or to our Music Director Andrey about sharing a favorite song or two with us in worship this summer. Perfection is by no means required. Nor is there a minimum age for this type of offering. We enjoyed a beautiful piano piece last month from one of our children.
Every few years I also gather your input to ensure we’re singing songs as a whole congregation that are meaningful to you. It’s not just a point of stylistic preference. The question matters more than it would if I were simply asking which music stations are pre-programmed on your car radios. Because I want to be sure the songs we’re singing together on Sunday mornings help you “pray twice,” allowing you to speak to God and to hear God speaking to you too.
To that end, you’ll see some questions on a bulletin insert this morning. You’re welcome to take them home and bring back your replies another day. But because I know how busy life can be when you leave this sanctuary, I’m also going to give you time at least to begin your reflections now. Rob’s going to play something for us in the background for a few minutes, and I encourage you to begin jotting down your thoughts. If you wish, feel free to flip through a hymnal for ideas. Once you’ve had a few minutes to do this, I’ll conclude our time of reflection with a prayer. And then you can return those inserts in the offering plate later in service, or hand them to me directly today, or return them to the church office anytime.
Let’s take a few quiet moments to reflect on these questions…