Music to God's Ears

by The Rev. J. Donald Waring

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The Rev. J. Donald Waring
Grace Church in New York
The Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany
February 12, 2023

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’ … But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement.”  (Matthew 5:21-22) 

One month from today the main event in the evening will be not the Super Bowl, but the Academy Awards.  I have next-to no idea which films and Hollywood stars have been nominated this year.  But today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew reminds me of a clip from the 1984 movie, Amadeus, that featured two nominations for best actor: Tom Hulce for his role as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and F. Murray Abraham for his portrayal of Antonio Salieri.  In the end, Abraham won the award.

Amadeus is historical fiction, with an emphasis on the word fiction.  It tells the story of the imagined musical rivalry between Salieri and Mozart.  The film depicts Salieri as the older, established court composer for the Holy Roman Emperor, Joseph II.  Mozart is the brilliant and brash young musician who is taking all of Europe by storm.  The Emperor has planned a reception at the palace to honor Mozart’s patron and welcome the rising star to Austrian society.  Salieri takes it upon himself to compose a short piece of music for the occasion, and we see him at his studio piano laboriously squeezing the notes out of his soul, and writing them down on parchment.  When he finishes, he gazes at a crucifix on the wall and blesses God for giving him the ability to compose. 

At the reception, Salieri presents the sheet music to the Emperor, who decides he wants to play it himself as Mozart enters the room.  The Emperor plays it badly, but still presents the sheet music to Mozart as a gift.  Mozart claims he does not need it.  The piece is already in his head.  To prove it he sits down at the piano and plays it through at twice the tempo.  Then he plays it through again, correcting on-the-spot what he thought were some of Salieri’s unsuccessful transitions in the piece, and bringing it all to a grand finish.  In short, Mozart plays circles around Salieri’s work, calling it a fun little thing that lends itself to interesting variations.  Salieri looks at Mozart with disdain, knowing that he himself will never, ever rise to such brilliance.  Therefore, he rejects God and vows to destroy the young prodigy. 

Most of today’s Scripture readings – including the one from the Gospel of Matthew – focus on the Commandments of God, or, the law of the Lord.  The Jewish people considered the law of the Lord to be a gift.  It was like the score they would need to play in order for their lives to be music to God’s ears.  Playing the Commandments well would lead to happiness, righteousness, and all good things.  Happy are they whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.  Happy are they who observe his decrees and seek him with all their hearts, wrote the Psalmist (119:1-8), whose words we recited a moment ago.  What is more, some took the Scriptures to mean that the Commandments should be easy to follow, easy to play.  In today’s reading from Deuteronomy (30:15-20), we heard a portion of the sermon that Moses preached to the people just before they entered the Promised Land.  I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses, said Moses.  Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him.  Choose life and blessings, not death and curses.  What could possibly be easier?  What could possibly go wrong? 

As we know, plenty would go wrong when the messiness of real life met the purity of the Commandments.  What resulted was not music to God’s ears.  It was murder, and adultery, and slander, just to name a few.  Therefore, various orders of clergy and lawyers arose and stepped into the breach.  The Scribes and Pharisees would labor to interpret the Law and clarify its proper keeping.  They were to lead by example.  They were to make God’s ways so direct that everyone might keep the statues.  Unfortunately, their body of work did not simplify how to lead a blameless life.  It complicated matters no end. 

Then, into the room came Jesus.  Jesus came onto the scene as Mozart came into the palace in the movie, Amadeus.  As Jesus preached his way through the Galilean countryside, he would debate the Scribes and Pharisees.  Always it was as if he took their musical score, sat down at their piano, and played circles around the notes they had added to the Commandments.  Here was someone who saw so clearly, and lived so directly what it meant to be a person of God that it seemed as if he and God were inseparably one.  The Scribes and Pharisees looked on him with disdain, knowing that they would never, ever be able to rise to his level. 

I remember one such “Mozart moment” for me many years ago.  I was playing college baseball for the University of Sioux Falls.  No, you’ve never heard of the school, so don’t bother asking me about it.  All I can say is that we had an ambitious athletic department, and one day we were to play a double-header against the Cornhuskers of Nebraska.  Before the first game, the two teams were on either side of the field warming up our arms and stretching our legs.  I was an outfielder, so I was with three or four others catching fly balls and throwing them to the infield.  Not far away were some outfielders for Nebraska doing the same thing.  The difference was in our throwing.  Mine had a distinctive arc about them.  Theirs were as if they had loaded the ball into a rocket launcher, aimed at home plate, and fired.  Of course, to that point I’d harbored my delusions about what the future would hold.  But in that moment I realized it was the priesthood for me.  I would never, ever be able to throw the ball at the velocity they produced with the greatest of ease.  Likewise, the Scribes and Pharisees looking on Jesus.  They realized that the Commandments would never be on their hearts and fall from their lips the way they flowed through Jesus.  Therefore, eventually they would vow to destroy the young prodigy – but that’s another sermon for another day. 

What did Jesus have to say about the law of the Lord?  Many people still today think that Jesus came to be a great, moral teacher.  They think that the mission of Jesus was to impart new and novel insights into the Law.  He would show us how the Commandments are naturally common sense, and therefore inspire us to try harder to obey them.  Actually, most of the time I think we get Jesus all wrong.  Jesus did not come to be a great, moral teacher.  He came to fulfill the Law, not impose a tougher version of it on us.  What I take him to mean in today’s reading from Matthew is that the true demands of the Law exceed even the scrupulous keeping of the Scribes and Pharisees.  Your righteousness will need to exceed even theirs.  Your arm strength will need to exceed that of the heartiest Cornhusker.  Your musical ability will need to exceed Mozart’s.  Do you want to lead a blameless life?  Well, it can’t be done. 

Matthew recorded the difficult words of Jesus: “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder.’  But I say to you, if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment.”  Jesus continued: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’  But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”  Imagine: murder and adultery are merely the obvious tips of two deadly icebergs.  But hidden from sight beneath the waters of life we sail across are the jagged edges of hatred and lust that will wreck the ship.  So where does Jesus’ commentary on the law of the Lord leave us?  Playing a game we cannot win?  Well, actually we are playing an unwinnable game if we look at leading a holy life as if it were a competitive sport, or a musical contest, or an Academy Award performance.  If that’s the game, we can look on Jesus and Moses and all peddlers of religion with disdain.  But the Commandments aren’t the game.  In fact, salvation is not a game or a contest at all.  What Jesus invites us to enter is God’s unfolding love story with the world.  But how do we enter it? 

Years ago at my previous church a parishioner was chair of the Cincinnati Opera.  One evening he had given Stacie and me his tickets, which were among the best in the house on the main floor of the magnificent Music Hall, downtown.  When we settled in our seats I saw that high above the stage they had recently installed an electronic screen to translate the words for people who didn’t speak Italian or know the story.  Well, I’d never been to the opera before, I don’t speak Italian, and I didn’t know the story.  But I was ready for a pure experience of high culture.  I would have nothing to do with some tawdry teleprompter.  Let the masses in the balcony follow the bouncing ball on the jumbo-tron.  As for me, I would drink in the richness of the story and the music through the sheer powers of my concentration.  I would do things the old-fashioned way.  It was about ten-seconds into the opera when I realized I would have no hope of following along without the new teleprompter.  I would have been completely lost without it. 

Likewise, Jesus offers a new way into the story of salvation.  For those who want to do things the old-fashioned way, we’ve heard today what it will take.  “Good luck,” Jesus seems to be saying.  It will make about as much sense as this: you travel three days to Jerusalem to sacrifice at the temple.  You purchase an animal to offer, but realize you have to apologize first to someone at home.  You leave the animal by the side of the altar, travel three days back, say you’re sorry, and make the long journey again to Jerusalem, expecting to find the animal where you left it.  Such are the demands of the law.  Good luck.  You’d have more luck cutting off your offending hand or tearing out your wandering eye to avoid the sin in the first place.  But Jesus offers another way: Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light (Matthew 11).  What Jesus offers is not religion, and more of it, but a relationship with the living God through himself. 

Early on in my priesthood it was the custom of the church I served to take Communion to a local nursing home on Tuesday afternoons.  In addition to me and a volunteer from the church who would play hymns on the piano, the group usually consisted of a dozen or so ladies.  Most of them were in wheelchairs, some were lost in dementia.  The service took place in the dining room, with constant interruptions from nurses, orderlies, and the overhead speaker.  We would begin with a hymn that the participants would choose, but their choice was always the same hymn: the good old Methodist chestnut, “In the Garden.”  Of course, the wanted all the verses.  On an on it went. 

As for the singing, you could understand it in two ways.  On the one hand, by any strict measure of musical merit, it was terrible.  By the law of pure musicology, it was probably the worst singing imaginable.  On the other hand, subjecting their singing to the rigors of musical law wasn’t the point.  One could choose to hear the old song through the story of their lives, and in the context of the small community of faithful souls gathered in a difficult place.  Indeed, as they tried to sing along, I would see some light of recognition shine in the eyes of those who were otherwise disoriented and confused.  I realized that whatever sound they made was an offering to God on a par with the finest of choirs singing a perfect rendition of a glorious anthem.  Why?  Because their singing was born out of their long relationship with Jesus.  Had their way been blameless?  Had they walked in the law of the Lord?  I didn’t know.  But I could tell that they had walked with Jesus.  They had talked with Jesus, and they knew that they were his own.  I like to think that the songs that arose from a nursing home dining room were music to God’s ears, sufficient to arouse the applause of angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven. 

You’ve heard what was said to the people of ancient times.  If you want to try to meet the demands of the Law the old-fashioned way, good luck to you.  But Jesus offers us a new way: by walking with him.  So come, let us sing unto the Lord.  Let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation.