Sermon: Made for Music

“Made for Music”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
June 3, 2018

Ephesians 5:18a-19
Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody from your heart to the Lord.

Mark 2:23-3:5
One sabbath Jesus was going through the cornfields; and as they made their way his disciples began to pluck heads of grain. The Pharisees said to him, ‘Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?’ And he said to them, ‘Have you never read what David did when he and his companions were hungry and in need of food? He entered the house of God, when Abiathar was high priest, and ate the bread of the Presence, which it is not lawful for any but the priests to eat, and he gave some to his companions.’ Then he said to them, ‘The sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath; so the Son of Man is lord even of the sabbath.’

Again he entered the synagogue, and a man was there who had a withered hand. They watched him to see whether he would cure him on the sabbath, so that they might accuse him. And he said to the man who had the withered hand, ‘Come forward.’ Then he said to them, ‘Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the sabbath, to save life or to kill?’ But they were silent. He looked around at them with anger; he was grieved at their hardness of heart and said to the man, ‘Stretch out your hand.’ He stretched it out, and his hand was restored.

One of the best gifts of my life, musically speaking, was being a part of my high school choir as directed by Ms. Moisiades, or Ms. Mo as we called her. Our choir was of varying ability levels and musical experience, but she decided that was no deterrent to the kind of music we could tackle. We sang everything from complex arrangements of jazz standards to folk songs in Russian to Schubert’s Mass in G to funky, atonal works by contemporary Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. Ms. Mo never treated anything as too sophisticated for us high schoolers to mess with. She knew the music was made for singing, for us to sing, not for being kept on a shelf until professionals decided to perform it, and so she opened us up to a whole world of musical beauty, stretching and growing us in the process.

When I came to Park Avenue, I immediately recognized the same approach to choral music – the decision to sing music based on its beauty and the experience it gives the singers and the congregation, not on an arbitrary sense that some music is too sacred to be sung by mere mortals. Thank you, Jeffrey, for that, and thank you, choir, for rising to the occasion. You remind us all that music is made for singing, not for saving.

In this morning’s Gospel passage we hear a similar message about the Sabbath. In Jesus’ day, the center of Judaism was the Sabbath – the day dedicated to God and kept holy by refraining from all work. Violating it by doing an act construed as “work” – anything from starting a fire to carrying a load to picking crops – was a big deal. It meant you were not only dishonoring God, but breaking a central commandment – Honor the Sabbath and keep it holy.

As happens in religions, though, some of the religious leaders had become so concerned about enforcing the rules that the Sabbath had become more about toeing the line than about connecting with God. This was one of Jesus’ pet peeves, we might say – when religion gets in the way of God – and so he had no qualms about challenging those leaders, the Pharisees, on their self-righteous Sabbath policing.

First Jesus’ disciples start plucking grain from the fields and eating it. Even this minor harvesting was considered “work”; the Pharisees immediately call Jesus out for his students’ infraction: “Look, why are they doing what is not lawful on the sabbath?” Or, in the Message translation, “Look, your disciples are breaking Sabbath rules!” You can almost hear them saying “Neener neener neener!”

Jesus, the consummate scriptural scholar, is ready with a reminder that David, revered patriarch and king of Israel, broke the rules in a similar way when he and his companions were hungry by eating the bread reserved for God in the temple. He then enters the synagogue, a similarly holy space, and doubles down on his point: compassionately healing a man with a withered hand, he does “work” on the Sabbath, flagrantly breaking the rules in the very house of worship.

Let it never be said that Jesus lacked a flair for the dramatic.

Jesus is angry at the Pharisees’ hard hearts, at their unwillingness to acknowledge that the Sabbath doesn’t exist to make people suffer in hunger or in pain. Rather it’s meant for our enjoyment, rest, and reconnection with God, for healing and restoration: “the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath.”

His deeper point is this: religious rules exist to help orient us towards the God we worship, not to be worshiped in and of themselves.

I’d argue the same is true with many different kinds of rules: you speed on the way to the hospital when the woman in the back seat is about to give birth; you let your kids stay up past their bedtimes at family gatherings and block parties. Jesus’ Sabbath rule-breaking reminds us of what is important: that human life and human thriving are more important than restriction and regulation for the sake of order. It’s an approach that looks at life not with scarcity or fear but with abundance, with joy – with hope.

It reminds me of a conversation I had with Arlington Police Chief Fred Ryan and Mike Rich last week about restorative justice. The idea behind restorative justice is that when someone breaks the rules, we privilege their redemption and the healing of the community over punishment for the broken rule. In a typical restorative justice process, those affected by the incident have the chance to share how it has impacted them; and the person who committed the infraction, whether a violation of school rules or a criminal offense, has the chance to share their feelings about the infraction and what they’ve heard from those affected. Then the offender and those affected work together to come up with ways the offender can repair the harm they’ve done. The creative solutions that result from these sessions do far more to heal the breach than jail time that simply reinforces the offender’s criminality.

Chief Ryan shared a story about a young man who a few years back had vandalized the Black Lives Matter sign at First Parish in downtown Arlington – normally a felony carrying a prison sentence. As he listened to the way his actions had affected people in the congregation – a father shared how vandalism like this makes his African-American son feel like he doesn’t belong in his church or in his community – the young man was visibly moved. He had gotten caught up in the news cycle and wanted to make a provocative statement; he had no idea that what he did would hurt real people, and he was profoundly sorry. To repair the harm he had done, he and representatives from First Parish agreed that he would work with the Center for Restorative Justice to learn about the oppression faced by people of color and the roots of the Black Lives Matter movement.  

Here is part of his apology: “[I have come to learn that] There is a loss of privilege and an oppression that black [people] face every day that needs to be addressed. …I have come to realize we need to do small things like show compassion or love for our fellow humans…[and that] I can take a stand when I see black people being treated unfairly.

I take full responsibility for my actions…and the harm I have caused you. I cannot apologize enough. I also cannot thank you all enough for allowing me to go through the Restorative Justice program …. You showed kindness and fairness when I did not. … I will never cause you or anyone harm … in this manner ever again. I’ll definitely … think through my actions and how they will affect others before I act. I’m sorry.

Instead of being treated as a criminal deserving punishment, this young man was treated as a fallible human being with the potential to change and grow. You might say his story, and the thousands of restorative justice stories like it, are examples of justice being made for humankind, not humankind being made for justice.

What I’m interested to know this morning is this: are we prone to look at the world they way the Pharisees did, searching out ways that rules have been broken and looking for ways to inflict punishment? Or are we able to see rules as Jesus did: often in place for good reason, but ultimately not the focus when human thriving is at stake. When we are outraged at harm that has been done to us or our community, do we demand revenge or do we, like Jesus, take our anger and channel it into healing? Do we sing beautiful, complex music because it makes our souls soar, or do we leave it on the shelf, stifled by snobbery that says perfection is more important than participation?

Perhaps, this week, we’ll take a moment to revel in the fun of making cookies or planting seeds with our children rather than worrying about the mess they will, inevitably, make. Perhaps, this week, we’ll take a deep breath when a colleague drops the ball or a relative does something rude and instead of taking them to task, we’ll ask ourselves what’s going on in their lives and how we might lend an ear or a hand. Perhaps, this week, we’ll set aside our frustration at the friend or the spouse who is late for the thousandth time and instead glory in the joy of their company when they do arrive. Perhaps, this week, we’ll commit to seeking restorative justice for ourselves and our communities, or perhaps we’ll dare to sing that beautiful music that’s been sitting on the shelf.

Because we are all fallible human beings, let us remember that we are not made to perform perfectly; but rather that music, that Sabbath, that justice, that rules are all made for us – that we might use them all as vehicles to help each other thrive under God’s loving care. May it be so. Amen.