Monday, December 9, 2013

Sermon for December 8, 2013 / Advent 2

Melody and Harmony

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised on behalf of the truth of God in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, "Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles, and sing praises to your name"; and again he says, "Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people"; and again, "Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples praise him"; and again Isaiah says, "The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope." May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. Romans 15:4-13

In music, there is a Latin term named cantus firmus. In English it means fixed song. A cantus firmus is a preexistent melody underlying a polyphonic musical composition (there will be a quiz on this later!). If you imagine a quartet of singers, the cantus firmus is a melody line, usually sung by the lowest part, and then the other parts harmonize on top of that thematic melody. The cantus firmus controls the whole song. It sets the framework for the entire composition. The melody line might not always be obvious throughout the entire song. But it is always there, holding the composition together. Let me play you an example. In this song, the main theme, or melody is sung by a tenor. Other members of the group build harmonies and rhythms in response to the melody as the song goes on. The melody is fixed. It’s firm. One unwavering voice holds the melody throughout the entire song. The counterpoint is all the other stuff (if you don’t know what a melody is, think of it this way: as you listen to a song and want to sing along, what tune would  you sing? That’s probably the melody).

So, why the music lesson? Well, the idea of cantus firmus has been used as a metaphor for the spiritual life. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor murdered by the Nazis in the dying days of WWII, wrote from prison of, “a kind of cantus firmus to which the other melodies of life provide the counterpoint . . . Where the [melody] is form and clear, there is nothing to stop the counterpoint from being developed to the utmost of its limits . . .  only a polyphony of this kind can give life a wholeness, and assure us that nothing can go wrong so long as the cantus firmus is kept going.” 

It’s an amazing metaphor, really. Bonoeffer is saying that there’s a constant, firm, unwavering melody to our lives. Once you know the cantus firmus, then the improvisation can happen.  Life isn’t whole without melody and harmony working together. But there is no harmony without a strong melody.

We could say that the cantus firmus is our deep-seated song at the core of who we are.  The Apostle Paul talks about it, in different words, at the end of his letter to the Romans. He writes, “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify God.” Christian unity is a cantus firmus. We can’t do much of anything else without a strong set of unwavering values holding us together. 

It sounds great in theory, but actually it’s a problem. Paul writes these words because he knows the church in Rome is not getting along well. Arguments threaten to splinter the church. Jewish and Gentile Christians are divided. There is not a clear, principal melody. Jewish leaders sing one song. Gentile leaders sing another. Instead of harmony, they sing in discord. Paul steps in with a cantus firmus: This is not an argument about Jewish nationalism versus universal religion. Paul tunes the church in to a simple yet powerful melody. He knows there is no harmony without a strong melody.

What do you hear when you listen to the sounds and noises around us today? Do you hear a cantus firmus, a strong song? I think many around us hear a hopeless song – a cantus lamentus or a song of lament. Many culture watchers talk about a new age of despair in Western civilization. A generation of giving up. An era of hopelessness. Some say that 1850-1950 was the century of hope. We built the steam engine, the railroad, the car, the airplane, the rocket. Medicines were created and hopes were high. The frontiers of America were expanded. These were year of progress, years of confidence, years when we knew that we could solve the problems of the future. Even the Civil War and World The Great World Wars did not dampen an attitude that we could conquer any problem that stands in our ways.

It feels different today. We live in a new era where we are not so sure that we can solve those major global problems. 

I hear a cantus lamentus, a song of lament, wondering how we are going to feed a world population of eight billion people in a few years.  Many people feel hopeless. They throw up their hands. “Who can stop it? There will be billions of starving bodies in twenty years. Who can feed them?” And how are we going to do it on a planet that is heating up and becoming less able to sustain the human race?

I hear a cantus lamentus, a song of lament, as people wonder how we can stop the arms race that is spiraling into nuclear proliferation and chemical weapon abuse. We have the bomb. China has the bomb. India has the bomb. Pakistan has the bomb. Iran wants the bomb. People are selling bomb equipment on the black market. Although the fears of nuclear incineration of much of the globe have lessened, we sense that the world has a date with destruction. There is still that sinking feeling that we can do nothing about it.

And if someone doesn’t blow us all up, we have to deal with gun violence at home. Listen for the cantus lamentus if you ever drive by Newtown, CT. Driving on I-84 in Connecticut over Thanksgiving, I had an eerie feeling, as if the cries of the holy innocent were still calling for justice. A song of hoplessness. Despair. Sadness. 

I hear a cantus lamentus coming from churches. For many decades, religious life in the United States was marked by four consistent trends: mainline Protestant membership was declining; evangelical Protestants were growing; Roman Catholics were hovering just above the replacement level and each succeeding generation of adults was participating less in religious institutions. New research indicates that both Catholics and the conservative wing of Evangelical Protestantism have joined in the decline. There are a number of factors that contribute to this decline. But researchers note that across the board, denominational and congregational conflict has reached epidemic levels. Conflict impedes growth. Hmmm. Sounds similar to a church in Rome we just heard about that had a hard time hearing the melody of peace.

It’s easy for me to get caught up in a personal song of lament. I realize that I can be part of the problems around me. I have been guilty of standing back and keeping quiet when someone needed to take a stand. I am guilty of labeling, pre-judging, and disengaging. There are times in my life when I have been a partaker in disunity in religious and civic organizations. I am guilty of being the wrong answer to God’s call for harmony. I ask myself, can I reconcile with those I have parted ways with over issues both small and large? Can I remain in relationship with those who challenge me in uncomfortable ways? I need something else – a strong song – a deeply-rooted song at that affirms the core of who I am. Who we are.

Sometimes, the emerging melody can be hard to hear. Sometimes, when I’m listening to Baroque choral music, my mind is swept away by the tempos, instrumentation and organization of the composition. I’m overwhelmed with the technical details of the music. Suddenly, an ancient text of just a few lines, sung in an unwavering melody of long notes, seems to rise and seize control of the choir and orchestra. It’s the cantus firmus. It was there all along, but it now comes forth to tame the frivolous chatter around it. There is no harmony without a strong melody.

The truth is all is not hopelessness and lament. A melody of unity and peace continues to rise and take hold in the world around is. Listen When we hear it, we hear the voice of hope. We hear the voice of God. A melody that reminds us that God has a future for us.

Nelson Mandela sang God’s cantus firmus. As the world honors his life and legacy, I have been struck by this quote. Mandela said, “I am fundamentally an optimist. Whether that comes from nature or nurture, I cannot say. Part of being optimistic is keeping one’s head pointed toward the sun, one’s feet moving forward. There were many dark moments when my faith in humanity was sorely tested, but I would not and could not give myself up to despair. That way lays defeat and death.” All this from a political prisoner who was branded as a terrorist – who overcame it all to sing the melody of peace and reconciliation. May Mandela rest in peace. 

Malala Yousafzai sings the cantus firmus. You know Malala – the teen who was shot in the head by the Taliban in Afghanistan and survivied! In a recent speech Malala said, “I speak – not for myself, but for all girls and boys I raise up my voice – not so that I can shout, but so that those without a voice can be heard. Those who have fought for their rights. Their right to live in peace. Their right to be treated with dignity. Their right to equality of opportunity. Their right to be educated.” This is the girl who can tell the world, “I do not hate the Talib who shot me. Even if there is a gun in my hand and he stands in front of me. I would not shoot him. This is the compassion that I have learnt from Muhammad-the prophet of mercy, Jesus Christ and Lord Buddha. This is the legacy of change that I have inherited from Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela and Muhammad Ali Jinnah . . . And this is the forgiveness that I have learnt from my mother and father. This is what my soul is telling me, be peaceful and love everyone.” It’s the cantus firmus. Can you hear it? 

Wangari Muta Maathai sang  the cantus firmus. She was an extraordinary leader, noble laureate and founder of the Green Belt movement in Kenya. She galvanized an environmental group that planted more than 30 million trees across Africa, empowered thousands of women, and passionately encouraged a new way of thinking and acting that combined democracy and sustainable development.  Wangari went where no one else dared to go.  She challenged authorities that few dared to challenge. She remained adamant about the full participation of women in civic and public life. Her innovative ideas around job creation through environmental restoration are found in the global development agenda of green jobs and a green economy in the context of sustainable development and poverty eradication. 

I heard the cantus firmus this past week when I read plans for an upcoming prayer vigil. As the anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook approaches, there is an effort to draw media attention away from Newtown and remind the nation that gun violence impacts all of our communities. The Newtown Foundation will host a gathering in D.C. to perform acts of kindness and then come together in prayer. Faith leaders from many traditions as well as victims’ families and survivors will guide a time of healing and hope building. If you are interested in attending, talk to Anne Weissenborn. It’s on December 12th from 3:45 to 5:00 PM at the Washington National Cathedral.


Legend has it that in the 6th century BC, the Greek philosopher Pythagoras walked by a blacksmith’s shop when he had an epiphany. As two smiths were swinging their hammers, Pythagoras noticed that the two hammers made two different sounds when they hit the metal. One was high-pitched and the other was low-pitched. When Pythagoras stopped to look, he noticed that the hammers were different sizes. The big hammer made the lower sound, and the small hammer made the higher sound. Pythagoras theorized that the difference in the sound might have something do with the mass of the hammer. This turned out to be not exactly right, but it led to another observation that did turn out to be right. If a plucked string makes a certain sound, then a plucked string half as long makes a sound exactly one octave higher. And if you cut the string in half again, a quarter of its original length, and pluck it again, it makes a sound two octaves higher than the original sound. And so on and so forth. What Pythagoras discovered, basically, is that sound is not simply a matter of personal taste or preference; but that it has a basis in the very way the universe is put together. Music is a kind of practical geometry. If music is a function of the physical properties of the world, then music could be a way to know the mind of God. And so Pythagoras became a stark-raving mystic. He spent a lot of time plucking strings, leading a monastic community and seeing hints of the way the world was stitched together in music and mathematical equations. He called it the Music of the Spheres. Pythagoras heard a cantus firmus that God was humming, a baseline tune, a primeval creativity from which all other activity and art in the world sprang forth. Pythagoras believed that the world was physically, aesthetically and artistically attuned to God. 

In a world where it sounds like there is confusion while rival voices all vie to shout the dominant melody, in a world of domination and oppression, in a time of fear and lament, we in the church have a special mission. Our work is not to jump in the chorus and add our own confusing melody to the cacophony. Our job is to be quiet. Especially at Advent. We wait. We listen. In the words of the Christmas song, “Do you hear what I hear?” It’s God, singing a melody that rises and tames the frivolous chatter. It’s song of hope. An unwavering melody of peace.  It’s been there all along. Can we hear it? 

When we do hear it, all we can do is add our own harmony – our own counterpoint – to what God has already been already singing. Only a melody and harmony of this kind can give life a wholeness and assure us that nothing can go wrong.  So long as the cantus firmus is kept going.

There is no harmony without a strong melody.

May the God of hope will fill you us all joy and peace in believing, so that we may abound in hope by the power of the Spirit. May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant us to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, that together we may with one voice glorify God. 


Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison. SCM 1953

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