Summit Presbyterian Church
June 27, 2010
Celebration of the Ministry of Gayl Koster
Psalm 150; 1 Chronicles 6: 31-48
The Service of Song
This passage is not in the lectionary. The genealogies of the men David put in charge of the service of song don't have the same meaning for us today as they did for those Israelites 3000 years ago. But the fact that we have this chronicle of Israel's music directors in the Bible (and it's not the only one) tells us how important music was in Israel's worship. Psalm 150, [the first lesson] the final psalm in the psalter, the last word, tells Israel to praise God with trumpet, lute, harp, tambourine, dance, strings, pipe and cymbals. Music is also important in the New Testament: Paul instructs the Ephesians to sing psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, making melody to the Lord in their hearts, giving thanks to God at all times. In the book of Revelation, in John's vision of heavenly worship, all creatures in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them sing with full voice a new song unto the lamb of God. In keeping with this biblical witness, the church has sung and played instruments throughout its history. We've recognized that music is a gift from God; when we offer music in worship it's an expression of our gratitude, no less than the offerings we put in the plate. Music opens our hearts to the Holy Spirit; it's been called prayer without words. When we make beautiful music in a spirit of love, we witness to the beauty and love of God.
But music has also made the church nervous - especially in the Reformed tradition, of which Presbyterians are a part. John Calvin, the father of the Reformed Church, worried that organs and elaborate arrangements would obscure the message of the gospel and encourage a mindless, frivolous worship displeasing to God. Calvin approved of singing, but only of the psalms - because they were biblical - in simple arrangements. Karl Barth, a 20th century Reformed theologian, also supported singing, but was suspicious of instrumental music. He thought that in practice instruments were cover for poor congregational singing, and besides without the proper words to direct our hearts and minds, where might that music lead? "There is [also] the difficulty," Barth said, "that we cannot be sure whether the spirits invoked with the far too familiar sounds of instruments are clean or unclean spirits. In any case (Barth continues), there should be no place for organ solos in the church's liturgy, even in the form of the introductory and closing voluntaries which are so popular." The Presbyterian Church's current Directory of Worship encourages music as long as it's not for entertainment, but also gives this word of warning about all artistic expressions: "when they call attention to themselves, or are present for their beauty as an end in itself, they are idolatrous." In other words, if we're too caught up in the beauty of the arts, we may confuse the creation with the creator. (Book of Order PC(USA); Introduction to the Reform Tradition by John Leith)
These dangers are real. We may find ourselves loving the music rather than God, with all kinds of mischief following. Especially in churches with many professional musicians, striving for excellent music can become the goal -- rather than the means to praise God. Worship can feel like a concert, with worshipers critically evaluating each piece, with singers feeling like performers, and the less talented excluded. Or - and this can happen in any church - we become so attached to the music we like, we can't tolerate change. We resist including songs or styles more meaningful to others -- music has been the cause of many a church fight. Thomas Long calls music the nuclear reactor of congregational worship: it's where much of the radioactive material is stored, where energy is generated and - alas - where congregational meltdown is most likely to occur. In one clergy advice book I read they had a list of things that ministers faced in terms of stress, and getting a new hymnal ranked above not making payroll! Music can be a powerful siren song -- using it in worship carries risk. (Thomas Long, Beyond the Worship Wars).
But following our Lord Jesus Christ carries risk. If we invite someone to church or talk to them about our love of God, we risk being rebuffed or looked at strangely. If we take a public stand against injustice, we risk conflict, and in some cases we may even risk persecution. When we put money in the offering plate we risk not having enough for ourselves. When we pray, we risk not getting what we ask for - along with the disapointment and doubt that comes with it -- and we also risk getting what we ask for. When we reach out to care for someone who is sad or grieving, we risk being touched by their sadness or grief. And when we sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs to God, when we offer the gift of music that God has given to us, we risk falling in love with the music rather than with God. When we play the organ, especially those dangerous preludes and postludes, we risk attracting unclean spirits. But those are risks we're called to take because we worship a God of beauty, love and justice. We're not called to play it safe.
And that is why a faithful, Christ-centered, spiritually grounded music director like Gayl Koster is such a blessing. Gayl has brought us music that supports and illumines the Word -- not music that brings attention to itself. Gayl strives for excellence by choosing music, rehearsing the choirs, and tending the organ with care. But she never loses sight of the reason for music in worship: when things don't go according to plan, when singers don't show up or the organ is tempermental, Gayl responds with grace, and love (and humor) reflecting the grace and love of Christ and helping us to reflect it, too. And her service to the church does not begin and end with music: as an active and caring member of Summit, her ministry reaches into all areas of our church life. We are so grateful for Gayl's ministry of music. We are grateful she'll remain a member of Summit. And we're grateful for the service of song, by which we glorify God. Thanks be to God. Amen.