There’s this conductor- you may have heard of him- named Jacob Collier. He’s a young British man who is widely considered to be a true musical genius. He understands music in a way that not many else can. It goes beyond having perfect pitch- he can hear quarter tones and rhythms that most people can’t. When asked who might compare, serve as a reference point to Collier, the great jazz pianist Herbie Hancock answered, “Maybe Stravinsky?”
Something special happens at Jacob Collier’s shows. He plays an instrument not many can- he plays the audience. He splits the people into three or five groups and gives them tones to sing out. With a sweep of his arm, he will raise or lower the pitches being sung, adding flats and sharps, composing harmonies without saying a single word. Both in small crowds and large stadium shows, the effect is incredible. You wouldn’t know if it was three voices or three thousand. The voices melt into one another creating something entirely new. It’s almost sacred. People who have experienced it describe the intense emotions they feel singing with so many people, blending their voices, weaving harmonies with strangers. Don’t worry- we’re not going to try that this morning, and this isn’t a plug for you to join the choir, unless you want to, in which case it is.
Here's my point: making music like that, the kind of music that makes you cry simply because you are completely connected to something beyond yourself, something so beautiful it blurs the edges between one person and the next, music that makes you become more than the sum of your parts, it begins with two critical components- being vulnerable enough to sing out and listening to the music.
Throughout the season of Lent, we have been practicing the art of listening, attempting attentiveness, waiting expectantly for God to speak to us. Each week we’ve asked God to “meet us here,” to find us wherever we are. In music, prayer, and practice, we have been listening.
And so, this year I have been paying attention to the sounds of the story. Matthew’s account of Jesus’ death is noisy- Jesus cries out, using his last breath for a scream. The curtain in the temple rips apart violently, the earth shakes, rocks split open. Had we been there to listen, it would have been earsplitting. We would have heard screams of terror, the heartbroken weeping of those who loved Jesus, the ripping apart of the very earth. Jesus’ body is laid in the tomb, and with a grunt from Joseph of Arimathea, and a grinding rumble, a stone is rolled in front of the entrance of the tomb. And then nothing but silence.
The second century Bishop of Sardis, Melito, wrote about Holy Saturday, saying, “Something strange is happening- there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh…” Holy Saturday is for sitting quietly. Keeping watch, waiting, honoring the deathly silence. We listen, but it is nothingness.
But out of that sacred silence, we begin to hear a new sound- the song of resurrection. It doesn’t sound like what we might think, of course. God doesn’t compose predictable melodies. It begins with the rhythm of a heartbeat and the hum of inhalation. And then, the sounds of change. The keys of the resurrection song modulate, the tempo speeds up, we move from pianissimo to fortissimo- louder and louder, the music tells a different part of the story. It sounds like the rumble of another earthquake. The earth itself groans with change. It’s again the sound of a heavy rock rolling. Everything has changed. Jesus’ resurrection changes everything. The rules of the universe have been bent, altered. You see, death, the great and mighty inevitable force, has died. Jesus’ resurrection has changed the world.
We are changed, having heard the song of resurrection, the sounds of change. Sometimes it may feel like an earthquake, letting God orchestrate our lives. We begin to move to what the biblical scholar and pastor Eugene Peterson called “the unforced rhythms of grace.” When we hear the cries of those living in poverty, violence, and injustice, our resurrection song leads us to help. When life around us feels out of control and like things are unraveling, we can find the melody of hope. It’s the song in our hearts.
And the resurrection song changes again. It moves from the joyful flurry of major chords to the unsettling harmonies of diminished and augmented chords. It’s the kind of music that makes you unsure whether to laugh or cry. This is the sound of paradox. The women who approach the tomb know that Jesus is dead. With their own eyes they saw him die, with their own ears they heard the silence following his loud cries. And yet, here is an angel who looks like lightning, telling them that Jesus has been raised. Dead, but no longer dead.
And the women respond in a deeply human way. The text says that they are feeling “fear and great joy.” Fear and great joy- another paradox. We know the experience of feeling two seemingly conflicting emotions at the same time. It’s how we are excited and terrified at the prospect of something new. It’s the experience of being so angry you cry in sadness. It’s what Truvy, Dolly Parton’s character in “Steel Magnolias”, describes when she says, “Laugher through tears is my favorite emotion.”
The season of Lent has long been known as a paradox. The Orthodox church refers to Lent as charmolype- the “bright sadness.” It is also translated as the “joyful mourning” or “bitter joy.” Each year we journey with Jesus to the cross in this same mystery. We enter into Jesus’ suffering. We follow him to the cross and even so far as the tomb, knowing that the story doesn’t end there. And so our sadness is still bright, our mourning can be joyful, our joy can be bitter.
At Easter we are aware of the paradox that theologians call the “already and not yet.” Jesus has already defeated death. New life has already begun with resurrection, it has already happened. And yet we know that each of us will die. We continue to carry the weighty reality of our lives. “Yet even at the grave we make our song ‘alleluia, alleluia, alleluia,’” I say at every funeral. We believe there will be a day when God will wipe every tear from our eyes and death will be no more, mourning and crying and pain will be no more because all of this will have passed away. And yet, this is not that day. It’s the sound of paradox.
But the resurrection song plays on. And now the horns ring out triumphantly, overtones resound, your body can’t help but begin to move in joy and excitement- this is the sound of good news. Last week, on Palm Sunday, we remembered the people who cried out “Hosanna! Save us!” And now, salvation has come. The angel’s words are words of salvation that have echoed across all scripture- “do not be afraid.” As they leave the tomb, another word of salvation- this one from Jesus who has appeared before them- “Greetings”. And the women respond with the greatest music we humans can make- worship.
An old folk tale tells the story of a small country suffering from drought. The drought led to bad harvests, which led to famine. So when a group of musicians came to the country and wanted to play a concert, the hungry people were not impressed or interested. “But music can help overcome any problems,” the musicians said. Of course, no one believed them because music cannot cause rain or fill empty bellies. The sky was heavy with rain clouds, but not a single drop fell. No one could quite understand it. “We will make it rain,” said the musicians. They climbed to the top of the highest mountain and began practicing.
Having nothing better to do, the people of the land climbed up the mountain to hear the music that promised so much. And as the joyful, beautiful notes floated up into the air, they tickled the fluffy bellies of the rain clouds until the clouds were crying with laughter, and rain began to fall. And so the joyful music did bring rain and it did fill empty bellies.
Friends, we have heard the resurrection song and we know that it can change the world. We hear songs of new life all around us- the sound of a baby’s first laugh, the first time you hear “I love you,” songs of protest demanding justice, the wind in the trees, the twitter of birdsong, singing “Happy Birthday” to someone you love. Friends, these, and many others, are a symphony of resurrection. It is a song of hope and beauty. “All nature sings/and around me rings/the music of the spheres,” says the hymn.
Our theme this Lent has been “Listen: Hearing God’s Still, Small Voice and Finding Your Own.” You have a voice! A voice for singing God’s song of good news. We, like the audience choir led by the great conductor raise our voices in the resurrection song. We sing with gusto and joy through the key changes, we sing the unusual harmonies of paradox, we sing the words of good news to a world that so desperately needs genuine hope. We lean into the vulnerability of making music, we lift our voices even when we’re unsure of our abilities. We risk making fools of ourselves. We blend our voices into one, listening to each other, giving all that we have to the song. We listen, and we have found our voices. We sing God’s song of resurrection. Alleluia, amen.