Psalm 148; Acts 2:43-47 — April 30, 2023; Fourth Sunday of Easter
For fifteen years the fine folks over in Chestnut Hill heard me heap accolades on the greatest movie ever made. So, after fifteen weeks here, I think it’s about time that you started hearing the same… “The Shawshank Redemption” is not only a must-see, but a must-watch film. For you can’t just see it. You have to watch it. Experience it. Feel it. For at some point in your life, you will get it, and its score and its messages will resonate. I am confident!
For me, one of those messages, one of those scenes, that has always stayed with me, is when Andy, the main character, locks a door behind him and puts on Mozart’s opera “Le Nozze di Figaro,” the duettino: “Sull’aria.” Here is a man, in Andy Dufresne, wrongfully convicted, sitting on life without parole, and behind the corrupt warden’s locked door, he plays a vinyl for his soul, and for the souls of the inmates of Shawshank prison. The translation of the lyrics, from Italian to English, goes:
“This evening will be filled with joy…
Beneath the pines of the grove…
Beneath the pines…
And the rest he’ll understand…
Of course, of course, he’ll understand it…”
Now, Andy’s best friend, Ellis Boyd Redding, doesn’t understand these words being sung or how they might relate to the plot at first (perhaps like you right now during this sermon). But in a way, it doesn’t matter, because in the end, it moves his soul. It does something in him that other things simply cannot. And “that’s the beauty of music,” says, Andy. That, “there are places in this world that aren’t made of stone. Where there’s something inside; that’s yours.”
And that’s part of the beauty of music, my friends. Where inside you, when hearing it, something can happen and you can be inspired. Where it can become yours. Where you can be transcended and transported. Where inside, your soul can be filled with something more satisfying than the stone-cold truths of life, even if you don’t understand the lyrics being sung. In every note, in every melody, with every pitch or chord or sequencing change, music (and art as a whole) can fill the gaps in what we are feeling, and, what we aren’t.
Yes, I love music. And Radiohead is the best band ever (!), and Sigur Rós a nearby second, but in every place where music is created with art and integrity, from Jean Sibelius to Arvo Pärt, from ECC to OutKast, it speaks to me. It moves me. Doesn’t music do the same for you? Don’t you understand what I’m talking about? Of course, of course you do…
In its purest essence music is creative. In not just its artistry or its execution, but in its testimony to creation itself, beneath the pines of the cosmic grove… And in the psalms (Biblical songs) which our choir just beautifully sang on this Gratitude Sunday of concert and praise, we hear sweet melody and lyric worshipping God with the very elements of creation itself.
“Praise him, sun and moon;
praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens,
and you waters above the heavens!
Praise the Lord from the earth,
fire and hail, snow and frost,
Mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle,
creeping things and flying birds!”
All praise God above the heavens!
-Psalm 148, as beautiful as it gets.
Thomas Merton, the great Catholic thinker and monk wrote: “To be grateful is to recognize the love of God in everything given us. Every moment of existence [in nature] is a grace.” Now, I know from my small-group gatherings, that there’s a lot of ex-Catholics among our number today, so I hope that this quote speaks especially to you! 😊
But music, my friends, music, too, speaks to our existence in nature, and nature (mountains and all hills, creeping things and flying birds) often sings to and of our God. The very same God, who in creation gave us everything, so that in return, with voice and unity, we may sing together in gratitude. In gratitude.
Now of course, creation isn’t always equal, nor is nature always very nice. Sometimes nature destroys and ruins our songs of recognition and our harmonies of gratitude. Of course, of course, I understand that… Sometimes then, perhaps like some of you, I struggle hearing God in nature and seeing God in the notes of creation. Sometimes, amidst the storms and the intermezzos of life I can’t seem to locate God’s cosmic hand in all the strife. Sometimes when the song seems like it has stopped, or when the bassline sounds too loud or out-of-tune, I too feel doubt creep in, and I have wondered if perhaps I am all alone singing a lousy solo in an empty room.
But… but then almost always without fail my eyes are opened and my ears are unclogged to all the little things bursting with created life, hiding perhaps just out of sight; beyond the gloom of our headlines, beneath the pines of our busy groves; and there often in the quiet melody of a starry night, or in the soft harmony of a morning walk through a flowery meadow, I am greeted with the psalmist’s song, singing “all praise to God above the heavens!” for in creation, in the majority of nature’s splendor, there is art and beauty; such that even in the wintery or rainy-like days of solitary confinement there is yet gratitude like music welling up in my soul.
“Awe will come upon everyone, because of the wonders and the signs” (Acts 2:43); all the wonders and signs being done all around us… My friends, open your eyes. Open your mouths. Open your ears. For in the language of birds, and in the songs of choirs, and in the whispers of the winds and the rhythms of the waves; in all these things are found the splendid gifts of gratitude — lifting our spirits and filling our evenings with joy… Hallelujah!