Below is the text of the sermon from Paula Kubik's final service at St. John's. Propers for the day were 2 Samuel 11:26-12:13, Psalm 51; Ephesians 4:1-16; and John 6:24-35.
In our second reading, Saint Paul says that Christ gave some gifts to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and some teachers to equip the saint for the work of ministry and to build up the body of Christ into the full stature of Christ. In Corinthians and Romans, Paul lists other gifts given to members of the Body of Christ, and other scriptures make special note of additional gifts. In particular, when you read the Old Testament closely, you come across passages filled with names of the musicians who played in the Lord’s Temple. Since these Hebrew names can be difficult to pronounce, we don’t often read those passages on Sunday morning, lest our lectors revolt. But that doesn’t make them unimportant. For thousands of years, we have remembered the names of those people who used their gifts to make music to praise the Lord.
Now you probably don’t need a homiletics degree to see where I am going with this. This morning we are celebrating the thirty-five year contribution of Paula Kubik to the worship of God in the midst of this holy people in this holy place. For good or ill, we aren’t able to add her name to a list of musicians in the book of Second Chronicles or to give her her own Psalm. They also talked me out doing the entire sermon in plainsong chant in her honor. And, probably to Paula’s relief, most of the good stories about her occurred before I got here, so I’m unable to share them with you this morning, although I trust that you who have known Paula longer will take full advantage of our time together in the air-conditioned Allen Hall during the reception following our worship.
Now, the gifts we are given to equip the saints for the work of ministry and to build up the Body of Christ contain a corresponding obligation. Remember the parable of the talents. In ancient times, talents were huge amounts of money, containing something like seventy pounds of gold. Jesus compares the kingdom of God to a king who gives some of his servants talents to work with, and then goes away on a cruise. Coming back, he requires an account of them, and the ones who were productive with his gifts, he commends, “Well done, good and faithful servant.” The one who wasted the gift didn’t fare as well.
St. John’s has been blessed for thirty-five years with someone who has been given significant gifts for the building up of the saints for ministry. Our many choral guests, as well as some of you in the congregation, are here because those gifts have touched your life in meaningful ways. Thousands have worshipped at St. Johns and been moved into the nearer presence of God on the wings of soaring anthems, echoing hymns and a rich tapestry of organ harmonies. At least dozens of children have learned basic music skills, piano, organ, and carillon, and many have offered vocal and instrumental solos to the glory of God in this place. Special concerts, choral trips, a record album, recital series, festival worship services and other grand musical events have all been occasions when valuable gifts invested have garnered a significant dividend. Numerous marriages have been begun, and the departed have been commended back to God, with appropriate music touching heart and soul.
We could say, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” and end here. But if we did, we would miss the point of why Paula has spent countless hours rehearsing the choir and various musicians, selecting music, completing necessary administrative tasks and doing her own practicing. (In fact, Paula has spent a full year of her life just practicing since she has come to St. John’s if she practices the 40 minutes a day she commends to her piano students.)
No, we also need to think about how this gift of music is able to move us in worship to the very throne room of God. Paula has, rightfully, spent her ministry so that together we can glorify God and benefit God’s people in this place. Paula’s work has been to help us live into the psalms’ instructions:
· To sing to the Lord a new song and to sing his praise in the congregation of the faithful;
· To sing praises to God while we have our being;
· To come to sing to the Lord, to shout for joy to the rock of our salvation; to come before his presence with thanksgiving and raise a loud shout to him with psalms;
· To praise him with the blast of the ram’s horn, with lyre and harp, with timbrel and dance, with resounding cymbals and loud clashing cymbals;
· To sing to the Lord with the harp and the voice of song, with trumpets and the sound of the horn;
· To sing to the Lord and bless his Name; to proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day;
· To worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
Music is a primary way that we praise God for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that these and numerous other scripture passages instruct us to. Yet, God also seems to have provided us music and song as a particular means to give him glory. Our human make-up and the very structure of the cosmos speak to the important place of music not only in our own lives, but in ways that resonate into the very heart of God.
Of all our senses, hearing, which allows us to experience music, is unique. Hearing offers the capacity to receive simultaneous input from multiple sources in a way that allows them to be heard together and distinctly. Think about sight for a moment. When you put together a bunch of varied and odd colors, you end up looking at an ugly brown. But when you hear a bunch of varied and odd notes, you get jazz. This aspect of hearing means that harmony is possible, because two people can sing two different notes and our ears are able to hear them in ways that allows the whole to be more beautiful than the sum of the parts. Yet even in the midst of the most complex harmonies, not a single note is lost.
This capacity for harmony is probably why the philosophers talk about the music of the spheres and see the entire universe as being filled with song. Nobody really expects that as Mars, Jupiter and Saturn revolve around the sun they are whistling Bach, or Holtz, or Lady Gaga for that matter, but they are able to come together with a beauty and purpose that gives glory to God while each maintaining its own grandeur in a way that is most analogous to musical harmony. Music is how we can conceive of all creation coming together in praise of its most blessed creator.
Singing, in particular, is commended to us as a way to glorify God because it uses our breath and our bodies. Everyone who has ever sung knows that one of the most important pieces is breath control, and that when we get nervous singing in public, breathing right will help many other things fall into place. Breath is important because when we breathe we are not just using our breath, but we breathe God’s breath. God blew it into us at creation, and praising God in song blows it back out to him. Breathing isn’t the only component in singing, however, and in order to sing we coordinate our breath and our minds and our muscles and all the pieces that make us up. Singing is an embodied way of offering our whole beings back to God.
Scripture uses singing as a way to describe the activity of the heavenly courts before the throne of God. The angels and the saints before the throne of the Almighty are embodied creatures who give praise to the God. Now I have no idea whether the flaming Seraphim have eardrums that an audiologist would recognize. But I know that they have something that allows them to participate in everything music allows us to do on earth, only at an even higher level, and that eventually all of us will share in what they are doing. The choirs of heaven are understood as such because no better understanding of an eternal purpose exists than singing praises to God. In the heavenly choir each and every one of us comes together with the entire Body of Christ simultaneously, but each of us brings our own gifts, our own tune, the pitch and timber of our own existence. These unique qualities are not lost but offered up to harmonize with all creation into a song of such beauty and richness that only God could bring it forth. Our song offered is not just as the reading of an alto line or the finding of a tenor descant, but the singing of who we are from the very core of our being, allowing our entire bodies, minds and spirits to vibrate with the resonance of our lives into the midst of God’s own self. We won’t just be singing with the breath God gave us, but we will be able to offer back our entire being that God has created and we have shaped, sustained by the breath that is not the transitory mortal breath of this existence but the undying breath of eternal life.
We are even able to conceive of this eternity because we occasionally get a small taste of it in this life. Maybe when an anthem takes us beyond ourselves. Or when a postlude buoys us out to go forth in mission. Or when choral harmonies resonate with our deepest and often hidden feelings. Or especially when we give ourselves over to singing our hearts out to the glory of God. And even more when that singing speaks to our souls in ways that we could never express in words alone, but which connects us profoundly both to God and to God’s people singing their hearts out alongside of us. At those times, when the depth of our desire to praise God is matched by the beauty and power of the music expressing that desire, heaven momentarily opens up and we hear cadences of the overture of the Kingdom of God whose music we are invited to accompany for all eternity. When the psalms exhort us to “Sing to the Lord,” God is actually calling us to come closer to his courts than any other way given to us in the natural order of things.
Paula, you have spent the last thirty-five years using the many gifts God has given you to help us experience those musical moments at the threshold of the throne room of God. And, by the grace of God, we have experienced such blessed times. We thank you, Paula. Well done, good and faithful servant.