Sermons That Work

One Traditional Analogy…, Day of Pentecost (C) – 2001

June 03, 2001

One traditional analogy for worship in the Episcopal Church is that of a symphony orchestra. The members of the congregation are the players in the orchestra, with many different instruments represented among them. The score is the Prayer Book, and the conductor is the celebrant or officiant, who leads and helps tie everything together. And who is the audience at this joyous performance? The audience is God.

This analogy illustrates the basic truth that our worship in the Episcopal/Anglican tradition is participatory. There is a lot of action on the part of the congregation, contrasted with some Protestant churches in which worship is mostly performance by musicians and preaching by pastors, with the congregation serving mainly as receivers and listeners, but not active participants.

This musical image is also a helpful one for understanding the church’s mission. The ideal of our working together in unity can also benefit from an illustration from classical music.

My own favorite metaphor for the church at its best is the 4th movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It is beautiful and stirring. Everyone knows the central melody, the “Ode to Joy.” Hymn 376 is based on this musical theme. The hymn provides a hint of the glory found in this last of Beethoven’s symphonies, a symphony many people consider one of the greatest musical works ever created.

Anyone who has experienced the great pleasure of attending a live performance of this wonderful work might agree that it can indeed provide a symbolic vision of what the church can be at its best.

The Ninth Symphony builds magnificently toward its final, 4th movement. Beethoven’s masterpiece grows, with gradually unfolding themes of deep beauty. Finally, having gone through every form of instrumental expression, the composer calls forth the human voice. Singing is required to bring ultimate expression to the composer’s vision.

As the symphony ends in a spectacular climax, the conductor, the orchestra, the quartet of lead singers, and the full chorus are all working feverishly. Every orchestra member is playing with inspired fervor. The quartet of soloists and the chorus are singing at full volume. The conductor, beating time with baton and hand, works exhaustively to tie the pieces of the musical whole together into one intricate, moving entity. He urges forth every last ounce of spirit left in the performers. All work exuberantly together to bring about a great piece of musical love.

Yes, the final movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony may well be an ideal expression of God’s kingdom. It is certainly my own vision of how the church can act — that is, with everybody working together to produce the greatest expression of love, and with no one standing idly by:

with everyone involved, doing his or her part
without discord
with no in-fighting
with everyone focused on one purpose
with everyone inspired, exuberant,
working feverishly to love God
with all their being and to love his
children as themselves
with everyone following the will of the leader.

Certainly, this is the example set by Jesus. His whole life was one continual effort to work to produce love, healing, happiness, and salvation among all people. Certainly that was the example the early church sought to emulate.

Remembering the first Pentecost Day, the day when the disciples caught on fire with the Holy Spirit, it is natural to think of the finale of Beethoven’s great symphony. The glory of the finale is my idea of what that first Pentecost was like. That first day of the church’s reaching out to the world, spreading the joy of the good news of God.

On that day, the early followers of Jesus received the power of the Holy Spirit and were enabled to go out working together, pooling their resources, caring for the community and the common goal, providing generously for the needy, following the lead of their Lord.

On this Pentecost Sunday, we find ourselves emphasizing our responsibilities as members of the Body of Christ to go beyond this service and beyond our community to act out the truths of our faith: to work together; to make our best effort to follow the direction of our Lord Christ; and to do so with the same feeling of commitment as that of the participants in a fine performance of Beethoven’s Ninth.

For 30 years Beethoven thought about, worked on, and developed an idea to use a chorus based on a work by the German poet Johann Schiller. Near the end of his life, in the maturity of his artistic expression, Beethoven finally made use of the Schiller poem in the incomparable fourth movement of the Ninth Symphony.

The poem used in the chorus, often called the “Ode to Joy,” is based on the theme of joy, love, and, perhaps above all else, the unity of humankind. A central stanza reads this way:

Let thy magic bring together
all whom earth born laws divide.
All mankind shall be as brothers.

Indeed, all humanity shall be as brothers and sisters, because of God’s action in Christ. The great vision of Beethoven, revealed in the final movement of his final symphony, is one with our vision of the Kingdom of God. The vision that is the same as the goal of our faith in God.

Let us dedicate ourselves on this Sunday of Pentecost, to live into this vision — to begin anew acting in concert, in harmony, and with love, so that we may treat all our fellows as sisters and brother, so that, together, following the lead of our Lord, we can produce a great act of Christian love.

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Christopher Sikkema


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