The Noble Art of Music

This is the homily I preached at a service of celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation & the installation of officers of the Western New York Chapter of the American Guild of Organists at Westminster Presbyterian Church on September 17

This October 31 we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant of Protestant Reformation, led by Martin Luther, so it is appropriate to open with the immortal words of Luther himself:

Beautiful music is one of the most magnificent and delightful presents God has given to us.

Whatever theological differences any of us may have with Martin Luther, coming from our various denominational viewpoints, we can all agree on that.

Long before I became an Episcopal bishop, I learned to play the organ.  I still play to this day, and I have to say, my fingers are itching to be at the keyboard of this magnificent Westminster organ.  I have restrained myself, though, to allow musicians more skilled than I, to make beautiful music this afternoon.

But to get back to Martin Luther: Many of us will agree with Luther’s comment on another important topic.  Luther writes:

Whoever drinks beer, he is quick to sleep; whoever sleeps long does not sin; whoever does not sin, enters Heaven!  Thus, let us drink beer!

Our divergent theologies would also agree with Luther when he tells us this:

I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God.  Music drives away the Devil and makes people joyful; they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like.  Next after theology, I give to music the highest place and the greatest honor.

When we think about Luther it is easy to focus on the noisy world he created:

  • Pounding those 95 Theses into the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg
  • His proclamations that shook the world as he challenged the medieval church: “Here I stand, I can do no other.”
  • His own boisterous, argumentative personality.  We as Episcopalians, who developed out of the Anglican tradition, are well aware of Luther’s arguments with Henry VIII, goading and baiting him through pamphlets and sermons, the Tweets of their day.
  • The one hymn by Luther that everybody knows, the muscular and dynamic, “A Mighty Fortress is Our God.” (And before you grumble about war horses, remember this statement from the great choral director Robert Shaw to his singers when they complained about singing too-familiar works for the umpteenth time.  Shaw said, “For some people in the audience tonight, this is the first time they are hearing this music.  For some people it is the last.”)

But the more I think about Luther and music, the clearer it is to me.  Without Luther, this would be a silent world.

We know the background: “Next to the Word of God,” Luther says, ‘the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.”  To know Christ’s salvation, Luther said, should make us joyful, which should, in turn, cause us to sing about it.

As Luther democratized the church, so he democratized music, introducing strong, simple, melodies, often folk tunes, the chorales, that could be sung in their own language by an entire congregation.  How silent our churches would be without congregational singing! Just as stained glass taught those who could not read the basics of their faith, the great hymns focus on texts and Scripture and teach us what we believe.  We must not lose this tradition of great hymns.  From those simple chorales sung in churches came the magnificent chorales and oratorios of the devoutly Lutheran Bach, and also Handel.  How silent the world would be without them!  Can we imagine Christmas without Messiah, Easter without the passions and masses of Bach?

Close your eyes and open your ears and think: Can we imagine a world without the polyphony of Paslestrina, the sacred music of William Byrd, the lark ascending of Thomas Tallis, a world without choral evensong in the Anglican tradition, such as we are privileged to hear this afternoon, a world without “Fairest Lord Jesus,” traditionally sung at the end of every concert by the Lutheran choir of St. Olaf College? The world would be an Ice Age of silence.

Many of these composers and their beloved works are Luther’s musical descendants who focused on the emotional power of music, its ability to affect hearts and minds, its education and ethical powers.  Luther gave us a culture of listening that enriched the contemplation of religious practice and touched the soul.

The art of music was brought down to earth, and while it would be simplistic to attribute this all to Luther, one critic comments that “it is undeniable that it would not have happened without the debates about faith, devotional practice and personal responsibility that the Reformation inaugurated.”

Luther’s fellow reformers, Calvin and Zwingli, dear to Presbyterians, were much less enthusiastic about music than Luther, concerned that it was too secular and would hinder worship.  But I invite you to imagine this: In Zurich, in the Old City, stands the Grossmunster, the onetime Catholic cathedral where Zwingli preached to bring the Reformation to Switzerland.  He stripped away the organ, the religious statuary, the art, the ornamentation, leaving the space austere, and some would say cold.  Yet today you can stand on the ancient cobblestones, outside the Grossmunster as the sun is setting over Zurich, and hear a glorious carillon from the twin bell towers, iconic symbols of the city, a cascade of joyous music that, in Luther’s words, “can calm the agitations of the soul.”

Thank God for this gift of music that brings us so close to the Divine!




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