On of my earliest memories of church is sitting in the very plain and simple setting of Gloria Dei Evangelical Lutheran Church. That was the church my father went, too. It was the Finnish Lutheran Church on 45th Street and 9th Avenue in Brooklyn. We would have gone there, too, if it weren’t for the distance. My sister, mother and I had started to go to the Swedish Lutheran Church only a few blocks away. There we could make it to Sunday school on time without waiting for two sets of busses! Since we didn’t go there on a regular basis, it was a special treat to be bundled up in the car, drive into Finntown and go to church with daddy. My memory is of sitting in the large wooden pews after singing a hymn, the music still ringing in my ears, the sun streaming in through the windows, everything sparkling, and being so happy–so happy just to be there, I was bouncing in my seat. Now having really paid attention during my Sunday school classes, and being somewhat theologically precocious, I figured out that this happy tickle in my heart just had to be the work of the Spirit, and I now just couldn’t sit still. Of course, being six or seven years old, I didn’t lean over to my mother and explain this revelation to her, so my knee quickly got a swat and I saw that look that says, “Stop. Now. ” As I look back on that event–now almost 35 year later–I realize that on that day I first fleetingly and consciously understood what joy was.
In an article entitled “The Body’s Grace,” Anglican theologian, Rowan Williams slips an unassuming question “What if we were made for joy?” What if we were made for joy?
Joy is one of those hidden Kingdom qualities, which is so elusive that it is easily mistaken and misunderstood by and in us and others. We don’t hear very much about it in the Bible, but oh when we do, it literally takes on cosmic proportion. In the Old Testament, King David dances and sings for joy when the Ark of the Covenant is finally brought home to Jerusalem. People thought he was drunk and that this rowdy dancing was unbecoming to their king. But David knew differently. David understood that joy God’s very presence bursting forth from with our fragile human containers. The musicians, priests and people experienced that same unbridled joy as the first temple was dedicated and the glory of God descended and stayed over the Ark in the Holy of Holies.
In Christian Scripture the author of Luke places joy on the lips of the angels as they come to the shepherds keeping what over their flocks by night. Fear not, says the angel: “I bring you good news of great joy for all people, for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ, the Lord.” Jesus himself speaks of joy in perhaps the most powerful way. In the Gospel of John, just before his arrest and crucifixion, Jesus offers his farewell discourse and high priestly prayer, a last teaching to the disciples, culminating in a fervent prayer to his father. In this prayer he offers up his followers into the protection of the Father, he asks that they be blessed, empowered and loved. In the midst of this magnificent prayer of dedication and love, Jesus prayers that “They may have my joy made complete in them.” Jesus’ joy, given and poured out onto his followers.
For many generations this passage has gone unnoticed, but not entirely. Joy as a reflection of God’ presence took on another form–and that is what we celebrate today. It is interesting to note that most of the passages I’ve just mentioned have to deal with sound and utterances, and music. The temple musicians, David singing and dancing, in the choirs of angles that follows the announcement of Jesus’ birth. In our day and age nothing can guarantee that we will recognize or receive into ourselves true joy, but for many people and especially for the church, music is an occasion when joy is likely to be recognized and let in.
This link between joy and sound or music is as ancient as the universe itself. The Ancient Chinese believed that the “Ohm” was the creative sound of God, and as such held everything in balance and harmony; and so the tone was guarded. To change the tone, to change the “Ohm,” was to risk the fracturing the world.
Our own story of creation shares is similar. In the first chapter of Genesis God brings voice in his creating. In a very direct translation of the book of Genesis by Everett Fox, one that retains the poetry and rhythm of the Hebrew, this focus on God is brought home.
At the beginning of God’s creating,
of the heavens and the earth,
when the earth was wild and waste,
darkness over the face of ocean,
rushing-spirit of God hovering over the face of the waters –
God said: Let there be light! And there was light.
God saw the light: that it was good.
God separated the light from the darkness.
God called the light: Day! and the darkness he called: Night!
There was setting, there was dawning: one day.
At the beginning of God’s creating. Not past tense, God created, but creating, active and alive. In the Hebrew account God is active and participating with his creation, God said, God saw, God separated, God called.
God said, and God called. In today’s world of electron microscopes, quark theory, and the exploration of, as yet uncharted worlds, of sub-atomic particles, you would think we could laugh at the suggestion that the sound of God’s voice created us. At best you might say we could put such notions into the realm of allegory which speaks about shared eternal truths. However, even elementary physics teaches that what makes a gas a gas and a solid a solid is how fast their molecules are vibrating. If the vibrate very, very slowly you have a solid; if the vibrate very fast you have a vapor. And when science came to explore the essence of what holds these smallest of molecules and particles together, they found that it is again a vibration that holds things together. Vibration, movement of air, and a sound is born. And God said, and God called. To share in the making of sound and music is to participate in the very essence of creation itself. To share in the making of music, of speech, of dance and of motion, is to bring forth the joy given in and to creation by the God’s very self and of God’s own continuous making.
In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus heals the man who was deaf and couldn’t speak clearly. He opens his ears and looses his tongue and restores him. As one commentator has observed: “The presence of God’s dynamic reign is at work in Jesus. One who could not speak plainly because he could not hear now hears and speaks. The nameless crowd cannot keep silent about the event either. Their wonder and joy burst forth. “The more he ordered them [to keep silent,] the more zealously they proclaimed it.” Not only is the man physically restored, he is restored to the wholeness inherent in creation and is called to participate that ancient link of sound and joy.
The prophet Isaiah saw these as signs of the in-breaking of God’s Kingdom. The lame dancing, the deaf hearing, the mute singing for joy. Perhaps we need to look for these signs in our own midst, but with the new eyes of faith that we have been given. In this very Cathedral on special occasions we witness the joy expressed in the movements and motions of the hearing impaired choirs as they offer their worship to God and feel the vibrations of our great organ, creating a ballet of meaning and words with their hands. Organizations like the Special Olympics and others help bring recognition to the myriad ways one can participate in the music of the spheres that is the very voice and breath of God. We only experience the laugher and joy that comes from the expression of self, and of God, as people, whose mobility and physicality are challenged, find their unique songs and dances of joy. And finally my sisters and brothers we need to seek it among ourselves: in you and me, in our choirs and servers. We have been made forjoy; and we who have been loosed and free by Christ can now sing, and dance and yes, even wiggle in our seat at times, spreading forth the joy that is Christ’s–and through him, now ours to share.
I’d like to close with a prayer of thanksgiving written by Jeffery Rowthorn, now a bishop and also a noted hymn writer. Let us pray: O God, [our creator,] we thank you for music and its wondrous power to touch and heal and strengthen; under its spell the closed doors of the human spirit are unlocked and our hearts are moved to respond to you in worship. We praise you for this most precious gift; and, we thank you for all who day by day enable us to sing your song in many ways and in many places. We thank you for all who accompanying it on organ and [strings] and trumpet, leading it with the beauty of the solo voice, enriching it with the sounds of the choir, offering it new forms of music, patient scholarship and gifted teaching. We praise you for their ministry and gratefully ask your blessing on it this day. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.