Rev. Danielle K Bartz September 4, 2022
Luke 7:14-23 “Tuning”
I listen to classical music all day long. It is on at home, in my car, and my office. I even leave it on at the house when I’m not there, thinking it helps my dog to relax (though truthfully, he can’t hear much anymore, so I don’t think it makes much of a difference). Oftentimes the music is just on in the background, but every once in a while a piece catches my attention. That happened a few weeks ago when I was driving one afternoon. Something about the piece sounded different but I couldn’t really place what it was. It was a violin concerto and I enjoyed listening to it – but, again, something felt strange about it. The DJ explained, when the piece was over, that it was written to have the violin intentionally played out of tune. The accompanying orchestra was all tuned to one key, as they typically are, but the violin wasn’t. It was out of tune, not dramatically so – it didn’t sound bad – but even my untrained ear could hear it. It is a new composition by a young composer, and I am sorry, I could not for the life of me find the name of either, who composed it to make a point.
The composer, who my memory tells me was a woman, but I don’t know that for sure, wrote the piece to challenge the habits and conventions of orchestral music. The DJ went on to explain that what we consider as ‘in-tune’ today is simply a matter of habit, something our ears are accustomed to – that we all agree sounds right. Musical instruments are not fundamentally in tune or out of tune, they are adjusted to meet our expectations and the agreed upon sound, frequency or tune, of those they are playing with.
Furthermore, what is considered in tune has changed over the centuries of music. Mozart, for instance, would likely not recognize his music today, because it is played with instruments tuned in ways he would have not been familiar or comfortable with. The way his music is played today would have sounded out of tune to him. But, as our habits have changed, music has changed, and instruments have changed, tuning has changed – and our ears and habits have changed as well.
The young composer of that piece with the violin played intentionally out of tune with the rest of orchestra wrote it to show that what is considered correct is not necessarily the truth; that just because we have become used to something doesn’t mean it is our only way to experience that something. That young composer, challenging the mores of her field like all young people are supposed to do, created a beautiful piece of music that convention said was incorrect. And she did her work masterfully – the music caught my notice, made me pay attention to what I was hearing, and now has me listening to music in an entirely different way.
So, here is my question for us to consider today: What have we allowed in our lives and understandings of the world to become so habitual, that if it doesn’t conform to our habits it feels like a threat? To begin considering that let’s use another example from music. There was a time, not too long ago really, when rock’n’roll was considered the work of the devil. In my lifetime, rap music, and specifically rap music that was a commentary on the realities of the urban poor and the violence many of the rappers experienced in their lives, was considered such a threat that if it was played in my high school, the person playing it would be suspended. But, now the rock’n’roll that was once considered music inspired by the devil is now considered quite tame. And rap music – rap, by the way, stands for ‘rhythmic African poetry’ – is a mainstream medium to speak truth and call people to action. It is heard everywhere from Broadway to churches.
But, if we move beyond music, what else has challenged the familiar and habitual, and therefore been considered a threat? The list is extensive. Here’s just a few: women in roles outside of family caretaking; same-gendered love; expansive gender identity outside of assumed duality; men expressing deep emotion; family make-up; debt forgiveness; environmental protection instead of land exploitation. On this Labor Day weekend, we remember that the abuse of the workers and laborers of the world was considered the norm, until it was challenged. Each of these conventions, traditions, habits, or mores – all of them are being challenged from what our world considers to be ‘in-tune.’
As someone who feels called to challenge assumptions, I find great comfort in knowing that I do so following the footsteps of Jesus and a millennia of faithful people. The Gospels are, amongst other things, just a record of Jesus challenging the established ideas of how a society functioned together and where God existed in the midst of it. Jesus challenged the idea of who was in and who was out. Jesus challenged the assumptions about wealth and privilege. Jesus challenged the rules about how to live and the hypocrisy of who enforced those rules. Jesus said God was God, we are all beloved creations of God, and no tradition should ever get in the way of everyone living their life to the fullest and experiencing God in their own unique way.
That is precisely what Jesus is doing in today’s lesson. He is challenging the tradition of what and how to eat. He challenged the tradition not because it was bad, but because it had been used as a litmus test, and in some cases worship of the tradition had superseded worship of God. It doesn’t ultimately matter what you eat, or when you eat, or how you eat, Jesus said. That is not a real act of worship of God. It is what you say, what you do, how you live and treat your neighbor, that is the real worship of God. Put another way, it is like Jesus is saying it doesn’t matter how you tune your instrument, what matters is the music you create.
Throughout the history of the Church, saints, recognized and unrecognized, who have followed Jesus’ teachings continue to challenge the creation of Church as empire, of religion aligned towards nation, of exclusion to the Table and the pulpit, and of tradition taking the place of God. As followers of Jesus, and surrounded by that great cloud of witnesses, we are called to continue to challenge our world and ourselves. To challenge our religion and our understanding of God.
In a few minutes we will enact one of our ways to challenge the conventions of so many Christians. The United Church of Christ is one of only a couple of Christian denominations that truly has no barrier to participate in Holy Communion. While I know, and respect, many clergy who simply ignore their tradition’s rules about who can participate in the sacrament, and therefore welcome everyone, it is a comfort for me to not have to worry about that. Everyone is welcome to experience this sacrament. Period, end of sentence. There is no asterix, no caveat, no ignored rule. Our open table is a challenge to all of the traditions and habits that for centuries have barred people from the table. The traditions and habits that continue to bar people today. It is a sacrament that gives us a glimpse of what the Kingdom of God looks like – a place where everyone is welcome exactly as they are, sharing in a meal that is a taste of the divine, a moment of grace and thanksgiving. Building on the metaphor of music: it is like we are each instruments tuned in our own unique ways, but when we create music together, it is beautiful. It might sound a bit different, it may make people pause and listen, it may even offend, but it is still beautiful. Thanks be to God for this music. Amen.
God of song and celebration, as we prepare to gather at your table, we pause to first recognize the gift of your presence represented here. This gift, shared equally amongst all of your beloved creation, is remarkable and we are grateful. It is in a spirit of gratitude that we come before you now in prayer.
God, we continue to give thanks for the saints of this world who challenge us. Even when those challenges make us uncomfortable or heighten our sense of threat, we are grateful for the questions they raise and the new awareness they bring. And for those times when we are called to be the one challenging the traditions, we ask for your presence, your wisdom, and your comfort.
In the midst of ever-changing ideas and habits, we are grateful that in prayer we can simply seek your comfort. In these moments of silence, we open our hearts to you offering those prayers which are too deep for words…
Good and loving God, for the ways you show us how to live more fully with you, we thank you. We pray all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, our example, guide, teacher, friend, and savior. And we pray now in the way he taught by raising our voices together…Our Father…