The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

WHEN WORDS ARE NOT ENOUGH

Delivered 8/11/02
Text: Ephesians 5:15-20
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Music, music, music. Longfellow: "Music is the universal language of mankind."(1) And, I would insist, it is the language we speak when words are not enough.

I have told you this before, but it is good enough to repeat. Once upon a time, a farmer who was a deacon in his country church was summoned to serve on a federal grand jury in a city. He was gone two weeks. First thing when he got back home, his wife asked him if he had attended church services while away. Of course he had. "Did you know any of the songs they sang?" his wife wanted to know.

"No, I didn't," the farmer replied. "They didn't sing songs. All they sung was anthems."

"Anthems?" she asked. "What on earth is anthems?"

"Well, it's like this," the deacon answered. "Now, if I was to say to you,'Ma, the cows is in the corn,' that would not be any anthem."

"Of course it wouldn't," Ma put in.

"Wait a minute," the deacon went on. "If I'd say in a long, quavering-out, dying up-and-down voice, 'Ma, Ma, Ma, the cows, the cows - the Holstein cow, the muley cow, the Jersey cow, the old brindle cow, and old Spec, too - all them cows - the co-o-o-w-s--is in--IS in--the cow-ow-ows is in--IS in--the corn, the corn, the co-oo-rr-n, ah-men, men, men,' that would be an anthem."(2)

No doubt those anthems are part of what the Apostle Paul has in mind when he instructs about public worship: "Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs. Sing and make music in your heart to the Lord, always giving thanks to God the Father for everything, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ."

Why the instruction to sing? Make music? Are not words enough? No. Music says something that mere words cannot. That's why lovers have "our song." That's why we choke up, not when we hear someone recite, "America, America, God shed His grace on thee, and crown thy good with brotherhood, from sea to shining sea," but when we hear it sung by a magnificent choir.

Author Kathleen Norris tells of who she is and how she became that way:
And this is who I am: a complete Protestant with a decidedly ecumenical bent ... I still value music and story over systematic theology -- an understatement, given the fact that I was so dreamy as a child that I learned from a movie on television that Jesus died. Either my Sunday school teachers had been too nice to tell me (this was the 1950s), or, as usual, I wasn't paying attention. I am just now beginning to recognize the truth of my original vision: we go to church in order to sing, and theology is secondary.(3)
The singing EXPRESSES our theology, pure and simple. I will never forget a record that came out some years ago, an album entirely based upon a recording of an English tramp singing this simple chorus: "Jesus' blood never failed me yet/Never failed me yet/Jesus' blood never failed me yet/This one thing I know/For He loves me so..." It was produced by Gavin Bryars, a modern classical composer, well-known for his albums based upon unusual themes. For example, he released an album based upon the legend of the Titanic's string ensemble that played as the ship was sinking, an album that came out several years before the movie came out.

"Jesus' blood never failed me yet/Never failed me yet/Jesus' blood never failed me yet/This one thing I know/For He loves me so..." The chorus is looped and played over and over again for the entire 74 minutes of the album.

Listen to what Bryars says on the liner notes:
In 1971, when I lived in London, I was working with a friend, Alan Power, on a film about people living rough in the area around Elephant and Castle and Waterloo Station. In the course of being filmed, some people broke into drunken song - sometimes bits of opera, sometimes sentimental ballads - and one, who in fact did not drink, sang a religious song "Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet". This was not ultimately used in the film and I was given all the unused sections of tape, including this one.

When I played it at home, I found that his singing was in tune with my piano, and I improvised a simple accompaniment. I noticed, too, that the first section of the song - 13 bars in length - formed an effective loop which repeated in a slightly unpredictable way. I took the tape loop to Leicester, where I was working in the Fine Art Department, and copied the loop onto a continuous reel of tape, thinking about perhaps adding an orchestrated accompaniment to this. The door of the recording room opened on to one of the large painting studios and I left the tape copying, with the door open, while I went to have a cup of coffee. When I came back I found the normally lively room unnaturally subdued. People were moving about much more slowly than usual and a few were sitting alone, quietly weeping.

I was puzzled until I realised that the tape was still playing and that they had been overcome by the old man's singing. This convinced me of the emotional power of the music and of the possibilities offered by adding a simple...orchestral accompaniment that respected the tramp's nobility and simple faith.(4)
"Jesus' blood never failed me yet/Never failed me yet/Jesus' blood never failed me yet/This one thing I know/For He loves me so..."

As one reviewer wrote, "We could argue why people find this recording of a tramp singing this chorus so powerful. However, it most likely has to do with the fact that this man, utterly destitute by the world's standards, still has the faith in his Lord and Saviour to sing these words."(5) And I would insist that this is one of those occasions when, unquestionably, words are not enough.

As my friend Bill Carter (whom you will meet this October), an incredible preacher as well as an incredible musician, says "Our passion can be expressed in many different ways. For some, it is through music. One passionate soul expressed it in graffiti on a New York subway:

  • You can punch my lips so I can't blow my horn, but my fingers will find a piano.
  • You can slam the piano lid on my fingers, but you can't stop my toes from tapping.
  • You can stomp on my foot to keep my toes from tapping, but my heart will keep on swinging in four/four time.
  • You can even stop my heart from ticking, but the music of the saints shall never cease.(6)


After all, there are times when words are not enough.

Amen!


1. Essays, quoted by Lewis Henry, Five Thousand Quotations for all Occasions, (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1945), p. 184

2. Kemp P. Battle, Great American Folklore, (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1986), p. 281

3. Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (New York: Tickner & Fields, 1993), p. 91

4. http://www.gavinbryars.com/Pages/jesus_blood_never_failed_m.html

5. http://www.opuszine.com/album_reviews/?view=review&reviewID=28

6. William Carter, "Singing a New Song: The Gospel and Jazz," Princeton Seminary Bulletin, Vol. XIX, No. 1, 1998, p. 46

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