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Rev. Dan Smith
Sun, Jan 29

Cantata Sunday
Lessons: Psalm 96

Those who have been in my office have probably seen a large piece of artwork that hangs above the mantel. It is a colorful print of a large treble clef with a line in Hebrew traced around the right side, from bottom to top.  Shi’ru ladonai’ shir chadash.   Sing to the Lord a new song. Psalm 96, which we just read responsively. The psalmist calls us to sing and to celebrate a new song to God, which is precisely what we are about to do. But first, I wonder…what was happening almost three millennia ago when this psalm itself was first sung as a new song, no doubt in some ancient Israelite worship gathering?  It must have started somewhere, right? Or what, for that matter, was happening almost four centuries ago when Henry Dunster and our Puritan forebears would have turned these same psalms into new melodies and harmonies, known as the Bay Psalms? We will sing one of these at the end of the service today.  Would things have been much different from our war torn and poverty stricken world of today?  The psalmist cries out, in spite of circumstance . . .Sing to the Lord a new song!  Well today, thanks to the creative passion of our composer-in-residence, Patricia Van Ness, and to the hard work of Peter and our choir and our orchestra, we will heed these words of the psalmist. A new song will be born.

I’d like to share just a few thoughts first about the words we are about to hear. The word Doxology itself comes from the Greek doxa which means glory and logia which means saying.  A Doxology is quite literally a glory saying – an ascription of glory to God.  It more commonly refers to hymns of praise in Christian worship that may punctuate moments in the service.  In Protestant worship like ours, doxologies often follow the giving of alms or offering. The tradition of a doxology grows out of ancient Jewish worship practice wherein a recitation of the Kaddish often closed out different sections of a prayer services.  For Christians, doxologies almost always include some sung expression of the Trinity, a praise to our three-in-one God, which itself takes many forms – Father, Son and Holy Ghost, Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, Creator, Christ and Spirit, or in the version we are about to hear, the Source, the Way and the Light.  Before we find ourselves wondering about the text, and about theological propositions therein, I invite us to listen to this piece with mind and heart.  Listen to it not as a statement of doctrine, but rather as an ascription of glory.  Glory is what allows us to celebrate and lift up the goodness and the deity of God, and with it the holy mystery of an ineffable love that lies at the very heart of our hearts and at the heart of the universe.

Now, for some thoughts on the music.  A dear friend’s stepfather is a Professor of Music at Harvard named Tom Kelly.  He lives in the neighborhood and teaches a class, a perennial favorite of undergrads, called “First Nights”.  Over the course of a semester, he invites his students to consider the premiers of great works of classical music – maybe Handel’s Messiah, first performed on Tuesday, April 13, 1742 at 12 noon, in Dublin, or perhaps Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, first heard on Friday, May 7, 1824, at 7:00 pm, in Vienna.  At the end of each semester, he commissions a new work so his students can experience a premiere for themselves.  Patty, he’s already a big fan of yours and so I assume an invitation is imminent!  I’ve gotten to know Tom over the years and I asked him awhile back what we should be thinking about when we are blessed to hear a brand new piece in church. He posed a few questions that are worth sharing.

First, what does it mean to be hearing this piece in a church sanctuary, especially when, thanks to Patty, it was intended for precisely this place, precisely this people, precisely this moment?  And just who is this music for anyway– is it for us, for God or why not for both? And who is it from? From Patty, from the choir, from the Holy Spirit?  Here are a few more questions we discussed.  What is the difference between reading scripture or other statements of religious commitment and hearing the lines put to music?  And what precisely do we take to be the desired effect of this music?  Is it intended to inspire us, and if so is this merely a psychological effect in that way that a college fight-song might rally the fans?  Clearly, we’re after more than that.  For as people of faith, our inspiration might come from being placed  more closely and gently within that perpetual now of God’s very spirit and presence.  When we let it, live music has this power – to draw our full attention and awareness to the present moment – a time where our presence and God’s presence can meet.  

While these are all terrific and fun questions to bear in mind, I think I was most grateful for the reminder from Tom of how important the role of the listener is when hearing a premiere.  Tom says, and now I quote from his book entitled First Nights: "Each great work has its infancy, when it is new and fresh, when tradition, admiration, and history have not yet affected its shape, when its audience is unencumbered by previous expectations.  Its birth is a moment of importance and excitement; its creation is in performance.  This is not to belittle the work of the composer, who, well before the performance, “creates” the work, or the directions for it, on paper.  But surely it becomes music only when it is heard."¹

Music happens when it is heard!  Do you realize this means that we ALL have an important role to play here today, in nothing less than the very creation of this piece? Indeed how privileged we are to have this opportunity to be present at something that has never before existed in the universe!  We are all bringing this work into being -- from Patty to Peter to the choir, to those of you sitting in the way back row.  Are you nervous back there?  Are you excited?  I am.

Finally, let there be no question:  all of what we do here this morning, we do as worship.  We sing and play and listen all as a means of worshipping God, of giving our hearts to God and of being drawn still closer to God’s holy presence revealed to us in a beauty and truth that always extends beyond words.  God is both source and the end, the alpha and omega.  Patty, we cannot thank you enough for the gift of this opportunity and others you’ve given us.  And let us give deepest thanks to our living God for the ability and the responsibility we share to be creating that which is new in our world.  On this Sunday especially when we celebrate our 375 year old Covenant, our entire community is made new once again, as we open that covenant, as welcome new members, as we sing with a brand new heart.  It is January 29th, 2012, just past 11:30, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.  The time has come.  Let us sing to the Lord a new song! Amen.

[1] Thomas Forrest Kelly, First Nights: Five Musical Premieres (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2000), p. xii.

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