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


Delivered 10/21/01
Text: I Samuel 16:14-23
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

You may be familiar with Rembrandt's famous painting of Saul and David. Saul is in the foreground dressed in the turban and finery of an oriental potentate. His expression is sad and melancholy, a man in despair. He grips a spear, and something about his grasp on that weapon and the set of his jaw tells us that there is not only sadness here, but danger as well. In the background, almost hidden in the shadows, is David, with harp in hand. His task is to soothe the troubled king with his music, to drive out the evil spirits.(1) And it works. As the lesson has it, "...David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him."

These days we have our own evil spirits. Some are small and private and attack our egos or careers or homes. Some are massive and unbelievable like the holocausts, the genocides, the terrorist attacks. And we know music helps.

You may have heard the report of the Juilliard Conservatory students who played at the Armory in New York where the families of the missing came to register on the day after the disaster. For hours these talented young classical artists played chamber music in the midst of all the grief and grime. Finally, all but one of the musicians had to leave, so William Harvey was left with his solo violin. A man in fatigues who introduced himself as Sergeant Major asked if Bill would mind continuing to play for his soldiers as they came back from digging through the rubble at Ground Zero. He says he played everything he could do from memory: Bach, Tchaikovsky, Dvorak, Paganini, Vivaldi, Amazing Grace, My Country Tis of Thee, Turkey in the Straw, Bile That Cabbage Down. Bill writes,
Never have I played for a more grateful audience. Somehow it didn't matter that by the end, my intonation was shot and I had no bow control. I would have lost any competition I was playing in, but it didn't matter. The men would come up the stairs in full gear, remove their helmets, look at me, and smile...By this time it was 11:30, and I didn't think I could play anymore. I asked Sergeant Major if it would be appropriate if I played the National Anthem. He shouted above the chaos of the milling soldiers to call them to attention, and I played the National Anthem as the 300 men of the 69th Division saluted an invisible flag...As I rode the taxi back to Juilliard...I was numb. Not only was this evening the proudest I've ever felt to be an American, it was my most meaningful as a musician and a person as well...I've never understood so fully what it means to communicate music to other people...Words only go so far...
Amen to that.

Our friend Will Willimon, the Dean of the Chapel at Duke, tells of a visit he made one afternoon to the office of a lawyer in his congregation. It was just a drop-in. Will says he did not know the man that well - his wife seemed to bear the church interest for the family. Listen to the story in Will's own words:
"It was at the end of the day. I entered the outer office of his law firm. Everyone had left. All was dark, except for a light coming from the inner office. He called to me. Invited me to come back to his office.

"'Didn't expect to see you here, preacher,' he said in a voice that sounded tired. 'Come on in, I was just about to fix myself a drink. Can I interest you in one?'

"'Sure,' I said, 'if it's caffeine free, diet.'

"He poured out the drinks, offered me a seat, reared himself back in his chair, feet on the disordered desk before him.

"'What sort of day have you had?' I asked.

"'A typical day,' he said, again sounding tired. 'Misery.'

"'Oh, I'm sorry. What was miserable about it?' I asked.

"'My day began with my assisting a couple evict their aging father from his house so they could take everything he has while he's in the nursing home. All legal. Not particularly moral, but legal. Then, by lunchtime I was helping a client evade his workers' insurance payments. It's legal! This afternoon, I have been enabling a woman to ruin her husband's life forever with the sweetest divorce you ever saw. That's my day.'

"What could I say?

"'Which,' he continued, 'helps explain why I'm in your church on a Sunday morning.'

"'I'm feeling a bit overwhelmed,' I said, 'thinking what on earth I have to say in a sermon which might be helpful to you on a Sunday.'

"'It's not the sermon that I come for, preacher,' he said, fixing his gaze upon me. 'It's the music. I go a whole week sometimes with nothing beautiful, little good, until Sunday. Sometimes, when that choir sings, it is for me the difference between life and death.'"(2)
There is therapy in melody...healing in 4/4 time. God's good gift of music. Hear again the conclusion of the text, and when you hear the name Saul, substitute your own name in its place and let this lesson be engraved on the tablets of your heart: "Whenever the [evil] spirit came upon Saul, David would take his harp and play. Then relief would come to Saul; he would feel better, and the evil spirit would leave him." Remember that...and live.


1. Bruce C. Birch, "The First And Second Books of Samuel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections," New Interpreter's Bible, electronic edition (Nashville: Abingdon, 2000)

2. Will Willimon, "The Gothic Spirit,"

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