“It’s All About the Next Line”

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Edward C. Bradley, Director of Music

May 20, 2018

Matthew 26:26-29


It has been said (a long time ago) that he who sings prays twice.  That’s a very personal experience and might be a rather difficult thing to actually prove to someone who has never looked at it that way before.  It has also been said (not so very long ago) that he who sings in a praise band prays twice – but does it really loud.  Given what we’ve heard already this morning, I don’t think there’s any mystery to that.

You may be wondering why I chose that particular reading for the gospel message on Music Appreciation Sunday.  After all, it’s a very familiar passage; usually heard before sharing communion and around Holy Week, not usually associated with music.  It’s the next line that interests me. Go ahead, you know it – “And when they had sung a hymn they went out into the mount of Olives.” It’s all about the next line. And unless it’s intended to be the last line, it’s always about the next line, isn’t it?

What would any good story be without – the next line?  “Once upon a time…” or, “It was a dark and stormy night…” or, “His name was Gaal Dornick and he was just a country boy who had never seen Trantor before.”  A good opening line can lead you anywhere you’d like to go.  Have you ever played that game where you sit around and try to come up with the next line of a story and have it make any sense?  You know, one person starts with a line like:  “His name was Gaal Dornick and he was just a country boy who had never seen Trantor before.”  Then the next person has to add to that with another line.  It could be anything.  “His bright red Keds sneakers let anyone who cared about such things know of his affiliation with that rogue band of Encyclopediaists.”  And then the next person has to add another line, which all of a sudden is not so easy as the second one was, and the next, then the next…  Well, by the time you get around to the first person again, the story is very different from what it started out to be.

It turns out that the next line is very important.

And not just in literature or parlor games.  It works in music, too.  Really, all the time it does.  Take Mozart’s “Eine Kleine Nachtmusic.”  Bum, bum bum, bum bum, bum bum, bum bum.  Go ahead, you know it.  Or does it go like this?  (PDQ’s version)  Or Beethoven.  Dun dun dun duuuun…  You can even combine music with literature (PDQ’s 5th).

In music, it may not be the next line; sometimes it’s just the next note!  If you sing in one of my ensembles long enough, you’ll come across a particularly difficult spot where you can’t figure out what the right note is supposed to be.  (If you listen real hard, you just might hear a few of these we had to deal with in the next choir song.)  Sometimes, try as you might, you just can’t go from this note to that one – it just doesn’t make sense!  The harmonies get in the way!  It’s a funny interval!  But the sopranos are singing an E flat there!  Well, I have a special director’s technique for solving this problem, which, if I’m not mistaken, I invented myself, and that works 9 out of 10 times.  It involves the mere suspension of the laws of physics, the law of the direction of time to be precise.

As you know, the law of the direction of time binds us to the belief (the belief, I say) that we sing this note, then that one, then the next.  Okay, so you got this note, but you can’t sing that one (for whatever reason).  No problem, just go from this note to that one, then back to this one and that will allow you to make sense of what the this one should be – you just have to do it backwards in your head so it comes out right.  Really fast!  And can you believe it?  Some people actually have trouble with this concept.  I find it usually works like a charm.  Oh, the 10th time?  Well, we always strive for perfection, don’t we.

Jazz great Herbie Hancock once said about improvisation, “There’s no such thing as hitting a wrong note.  You might hit one that doesn’t seem to fit.  But the one you play next can make it sound like it was the only possible choice.”  That’s a comforting thought.  Who among us has never made a mistake, never failed at something?  Who has always gotten it right the first time?  If you hurt someone, you can fix it with the next line:  “I’m sorry.”  You can always be forgiven and you can always redeem yourself – with the next line.

Many years ago, I went to a choral workshop for directors and one of the workshops they presented was learning about drama improvisation.  We did a little exercise where two people got up and had a conversation.  One person would make a statement and the other would respond.  The response was supposed to start with “yes, and.”  Some were “No, but.”  After only a few rounds of this exercise, we all realized that the “yes,” responses were usually positive and often very entertaining.  We also learned that “yes,” (even with a “but”) leads the conversation somewhere.

This has a musical bent as well.  The second movement of the Brahms Requiem starts out as a funeral dirge – very solemn and dark.  I can just hear Garrison Keillor doing his best Lutheran imitation.  The chorus sings “All flesh is as grass, and the flower blooms and withers away.”  Real comforting, huh?  After not one but two iterations of this, the second one really dramatic (Brahms was a Lutheran, after all), the chorus and orchestra calm down and seem to fade out coming to what sounds like an ending leaving the listener at a grand pause and feeling complete, but maybe not very comfortable.  Then we get the next line.  Go ahead, do you know it?  The chorus interrupts this grand pause with what I like to think is the climax of the whole movement.  It’s a huge, happy sounding major chord.  It comes out of nowhere.  “Wait,” the listener says, “we’re not done yet, there must be more coming.”  So true, we’re only halfway through the movement.  It’s the world’s greatest “BUT” statement.  In German it’s “ABER.”  “But the word of the Lord endureth forever”.  It leads to a very hopeful message and another hour of great music.  It all about the next line.

Another exercise we did was similar, but involved one person striking a pose to create a scene.  Someone else would interpret that pose (no words allowed) and join with the first person with a pose to create a new scene.  Each person would get a chance to interpret what they saw and add to the scene producing some very interesting twister-like poses, not to mention some radically evolving interpretations.  We found this study to be our favorite.  We learned that the next line could be the next action, the next position.  We also learned that there was no right answer, no single way to do anything, no correct next line.  It brings to mind another well known phrase around here, whose evidence is in plain sight today, and to which I cling to like a life raft:  “There are no mistakes in Worship.”

Back to the reading:  “And when they had sung a hymn…”  Why that particular line?  It seems like a gratuitous, throw-away phrase, almost not part of the pertinent narrative.  Now we don’t know what hymn they sang.  We can be sure it probably wasn’t an old Lutheran tune from our hymnal.  It wasn’t even an older Gregorian Chant.  Perhaps it was a Psalm of David.  I can’t imagine what it sounded like.  There’s no indication in the text if it was even a particularly good rendition.  I don’t know why, but I’ve always imagined Peter as being rather tone deaf.  I wonder if they were, in their own innate way, following the suggestions of John Wesley found in the front of the hymnal (page vii, in case you get bored).  I don’t think they were following a prescribed order of worship, either.  For some reason, they just felt like singing.  How could they keep from singing?  (Where have I heard that before?)

I think they wanted all creatures to fill that place with glory using the timbrel and dance on that glorious day when in their music God was glorified.  I think that where charity prevailed they rejoiced in heart.  I think that all they wanted was for the world to sing in every corner “Grant us Peace” because, as we all know – Go ahead, say it – love changes everything.

“And when they had sung a hymn…”  Why do we sing hymns?  Making music is not just a useful transition tool to get from one part of the service to another, at least it shouldn’t be.  It’s a moment when we all shake out of our individual musings and join together, with one heart and one mind, to make the world a better place, even if only for a moment.

At one of the Berkshire Choral Festivals I attended, our Guest Director told us that when we make music together, we create beauty in the world, even if only for that very moment.  I believe that statement to be a truth.  I imagine that the disciples needed to create a little beauty after what they had just been through.  I imagine that Jesus wanted to shake them out of their individual musings and unify their hearts and their minds for the tasks ahead.  He needed that beauty to give him the strength to move on to the next line – “Father, take this cup.”

I believe that whether it’s a hymn, a quick response, or a full blown anthem, singing together offers us a moment when we are greater than the sum of all of us.  It’s a moment when we offer up our common faith, when we can pray twice – together!  We’re all doing it collectively.  We are unified by the same words, the same notes.  We even breathe together.  How often do you breathe at the same time as forty other people?  Try it, out of context.  Feels weird, doesn’t it?  But it gives us strength.  It gives us courage.  It gives some of us who may not be very comfortable in a crowd but who need to feel connected a way to share fellowship with others.  It gives us a feeling of belonging to something larger than ourselves.  The power of music is the power to express the un-expressible, the power to unite, the power to pray twice, whether softly or not, the power to lead us all somewhere, perhaps to – oh, I don’t know, the next line.

You know, whenever I hear a new voice singing a hymn behind me in the pews, I turn at the end of the service and say something like – Go ahead, you know it, you may have even heard it yourself:  “Hi, I’m the Music Director here at FCCW, and I – (Oh c’mon, it’s part of my job after all, I get paid to do this!) – I couldn’t help but notice you have a beautiful singing voice.”  It’s the next line that really counts, isn’t it?  And it’s all yours.


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