Making the Most of It
Proverbs 9:1-6 (NRSV)
Wisdom has built her house,
she has hewn her seven pillars.
She has slaughtered her animals, she has mixed her wine,
she has also set her table.
She has sent out her servant-girls, she calls
from the highest places in the town,
‘You that are simple, turn in here!’
To those without sense she says,
‘Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Lay aside immaturity, and live,
and walk in the way of insight.’
Ephesians 5:15-20 (NRSV)
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts, giving thanks to God…at all times and for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.
I knew I was “different,” even as a very young child. I was only five or six years old, but I knew my “interests,” my “proclivities,” my “tendencies” were different from other boys my age. The dreams my friends had for their lives weren’t my dreams. My vision of adulthood was a bit askew from the other boys my age.
Eventually I broke the news to my family, then to my peers, and even to my church: “I…want to be a church organist.”
You probably thought that was going to be a different story.
Nevertheless…I was first lured to the church and Christian faith not by belief, but by beauty. As a five-year-old, I was enamored with choral music, congregational singing, and most especially the organ. The music of the church called me to come closer. The music beckoned, it summoned, it coaxed, it enticed. It was to that call I first responded.
I can remember as a child going into my parents’ bedroom to wake them up on Sunday morning because I wanted to be sure we were going to church that day. I didn’t mind missing Sunday school and I slept through nearly every sermon, but from the first notes of the organ prelude to last strain of the postlude, my attention was fixed on the music of the church.
Before my feet could even reach the pedals, I would sit beside the organist and watch her play the church services, dreaming of the day I would make music like her. Pretty soon, she began letting me play a prelude or an offertory for the Sunday evening service (because, you know, in the South, we had services on Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night).
Then, when I was six years old, I started a yearlong campaign of begging – pleading with my father and grandfather to build me my own church in our backyard. Both of them contractors, they finally relented and built a small chapel for me in the back yard. It was large enough to seat six or eight congregants comfortably. The front wall of the church featured a large stained-glass window that we found tucked away in the basement of our real church. Just slightly damaged from years of neglect and cracked in just a few panes, it was perfect for my backyard church, bathing the altar with rays of pale blue and purple light. The altar was fashioned from a big old wooden office desk. The roof was adorned with a bright white steeple built by my grandfather. Outside the door, there was a bell to ring in the faithful—which, most days, consisted of my grandfather and a neighbor friend. My grandmother sewed a tiny robe to fit a six-year-minister, complete with my first ministerial stole. My other grandfather would preach while I led the music in numerous services each week. And once the story of my childhood church ran on the front page of the Spartanburg Herald Journal (obviously a slow news day), a woman in a neighboring town contacted us to sell us the old electronic organ in her basement that she was no longer using. I was on my way…
With a high degree of certainty, I can say the whole reason I’m standing behind this pulpit today is because churches through the centuries took seriously the admonition in today’s Ephesians passage to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” together. If not for the music of the church, I may have chosen to enter another vocation entirely.
I cannot separate the sense of call to the vocation of ministry that I experienced at that early age from the “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs” that called to me like the voice of the Divine to lean in a little closer to the Christian tradition and its community – the music that beckoned and summoned and coaxed and enticed me all those years of childhood.
So I guess it’s understandable that my journey would eventually converge with a church like this one that privileges the place of music in the life of the church.
This is a congregation that celebrates good music. Over the past few decades, you’ve been known in the community as a church that hosts spectacular concerts for the community – even, to my amazement, having Yoko Ono and John Lennon singing form this very chancel! You sponsor musical chairs for top-notch instrumentalists at Christmas and Easter so that our sanctuary is filled on these high holy days with the soaring music of brass and drums and choir and organ. And now, every single day of the week, bodies are in motion throughout this space, moving to the sound of music. And pretty soon – a day we all await with eager anticipation – Tom Jones and The Choir of Old Cambridge Baptist Church will be back, leading us in worship each Sunday with a rich and varied repertory of sacred music.
I’m glad we’re a church where music is made in the company of others every single day of the week. As I sit in my office throughout the week, I hear the piano playing music for the dancers of the Jose Mateo Ballet Theatre. Kathy will soon be giving lessons to young piano students downstairs in the new location of her studio. As I walk down the hallway past the chapel, I hear Tom giving vocal instruction to his students from Harvard and the wider community. It is, I suppose, the fulfillment of a lifelong passion to be in a church where music fills the hallways every day of the week.
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Don’t lumber through life in a trance, but be filled and guided along by the restless, provocative, creative, enlivening Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Divine in your hearts.
Isn’t it something that this passage so closely relates singing and making music together with the way of wisdom – that there is something about singing songs together and making melody in your heart is so closely related to being enlivened by the Spirit?
But you know it to be true, don’t you – intuitively if nothing else – the profundity of music and singing and making melody as you journey along.
Do you remember all the gifts your grandmother gave you as a child?
But do you remember the songs she sang you when she put you to bed?
Do you remember all of the readings at your wedding?
But do you remember the song to which you first danced at the reception?
Do you remember what the preacher said at your mother’s funeral?
Do you remember the hymn you sang together as they lowered her into the ground?
When I first interviewed with the search team, I told them that the two things that most attracted me to OCBC were your long history of social justice work and the way that you privilege the beauty of music in your worship. For some reason, though, I don’t often connect the two. But here it is, right here in this little passage from Ephesians.
Be careful how you live, not as unwise people but as wise, making the most of the time, because the days are evil. So do not be foolish, but understand what the will of the Lord is. Do not walk through life in a stupor, but be filled – guided along – by the enlivening Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Divine in your hearts.
When the text says, “make the most of the time,” the verb literally means to “purchase” or to “buy back” or to “redeem” something. And we’ve known it to be true through the ages that music has something very deeply to do with “buying back” that which has been stolen from us – that music has the capacity to “redeem” days that seem irredeemably filled with evil and injustice and violence. Why I never made the connection before today, I don’t know. But others haven’t missed it:
During the enslavement of African Americans in the U.S., music flourished as a medium to “buy back” the humanity stolen from them: “Do, Lord, Remember Me,” “Meet Me in Jerusalem,” “Wade in the Water.” From religious music that allowed the soul to soar free when the body was in chains to the rhythmic work music that synchronized group tasks and made hard labor a little easier to songs that contained messages that would help lead some to freedom, the rich music of U.S. slaves shaped the development of genres like gospel and jazz and blues.
During the Holocaust, those in ghettos and concentration camps bought back a bit of their humanity that was stripped from them through making music, even in their imprisonment. Well-known classical instrumental music and operas, as well many original compositions were written and played and sung to record the events and emotions they experienced and to strengthen the spirits of those whose bodies were brutalized, redeeming a bit of the time they spent languishing in the camps.
During the Civil Rights Movement, those who marched in the streets for equality gave voice to their resistance and resilience with the songs of struggle: “We Shall Overcome,” “Go Tell it on the Mountain,” “Freedom Song,” “This Little Light of Mine,” “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” “We Shall Not Be Moved.” Martin Luther King Jr. called these songs “the soul of the movement” giving hope and inspiring determination to those who journeyed together toward freedom to buy back with their own sweat and blood and voices raised in song that which had been stolen from them by an oppressive status quo. And singers like Mahalia Jackson and Harry Belafonte were some of the very early supporters of the movement.
I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already know, I’m sure – intuitively if nothing else. You’ve honored the profundity of music and singing and making melody as you journey together, seeking wisdom, pursuing a sense of call toward redeeming the world of violence and injustice, even when the days seemed irredeemably evil.
You made the connection long before I did – that there is something about singing songs together and making melody in your heart is so closely related to being enlivened by the Spirit.
Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but as wise…sing…
Understand what the will of the Lord is and be filled with the Spirit…sing…
With psalms, hymns, spiritual songs…sing…
In your own hearts…sing…
Sing, sing, sing.
 Pheme Perkins, “The Book of Ephesians: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreters Bible: A Commentary in Twelve Volumes, vol. XI, ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 442.
 “Music in Slave Life,” PBS.org, online: http://www.pbs.org/wnet/slavery/experience/education/feature.html
 “Music of the Holocaust: Highlights from the Collection,” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, online: http://www.ushmm.org/exhibition/music/
 “Songs and the Civil Rights Movement,” Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle, online: http://kingencyclopedia.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/encyclopedia/enc_songs_and_the_civil_rights_movement.1.html