384. tone and tempo
Last week I got to deliver a sermon at my church. A few things you’ll need to know in order to understand some of the things I talk about.
For about seven years now, my church has been trying to move into a new home. I don’t want to get into all the details of the numerous hopes, struggles, dreams, fears, and disappointments that have plagued this project, but I will say that it’s been pretty brutal.
In these past few months, it looks as if we’re finally at a place where we can actually move forward on this project. We’re not out of the woods yet, but we’re closer than we’ve ever been.
Texts for Sunday, April 7th:
John 20:19-31 (The story of Doubting Thomas)
I heard a story recently on NPR about the tempo of Beethoven’s music. The way the story goes, late in his career, a device gets invented called the metronome. This is something that keeps tempo by ticking out a precise number of beats per minute. For example, a setting of 120 would be two beats every second.
Initially, Beethoven resisted the use of the metronome, but after a while, he realized that through this device, he could ensure that for the rest of time, long after his death, that his musical pieces could be played, not just with the correct notes, but also at the correct speed. And so he took the time to go back to his previous scores and document the precise tempo at which he wanted his works to be performed.
Now here’s where things start to get interesting.
It turns out, that today, nobody ever performs his symphonies at the tempo he marked. Why? Because they’re insanely, some might say comically, fast.
Here’s an edited clip from the story:
As you can hear, sometimes Beethoven’s tempo is so fast that performing the piece as marked presses up against the technical limits of even the best players in the world. Beethoven scholars and musicologists have puzzled over these tempo markings, trying to explain why they’re so fast. The most obvious explanation is that maybe the metronome that he was using was broken or maybe it had different markings than the ones we use today.
But here’s the crazy thing.
Someone actually found the very metronome (the exact one!) that Beethoven used and it works fine. 100 on Beethoven’s metronome is 100 on a modern metronome.
And there are other theories out there, some plausible, some highly speculative, but the fact is, we may never know what to make of Beethoven’s tempo markings – maybe all the recorded and performed works of his have been (and always will be) played slower than he intended.
This is actually rather odd, because the classical world is one where attention to detail is prized. And you would think that correct tempo would be a pretty important detail to attend to. But no conductor ever follows them. In addition, not a single classical music critic ever complains about that fact, which is even more surprising because they usually complain about everything.
And I think there’s something telling here. Somehow, even these sticklers for accuracy and authenticity understand that at the end of the day, beauty must prevail.
Now what about the text we have before us – the story of doubting Thomas?
Here, we have, not musical notation, but narrative. And if there’s one thing that modern narrative has that this ancient writer did not include as much of, it’s the emotional tone of the story. And so just as we’ll never know precisely what Beethoven had in mind with his symphonies and their frenetic tempo markings, we may never know precisely what sort of emotional tone we should assign to Thomas and to Jesus here.
Of course, the history of interpretation and even translation has not been kind to Thomas.
But let’s take a look at Thomas, for a moment. What’s his tone? How did he sound when he said, “unless I see the marks in his hand and in his side, I won’t believe.”
Well, what just happened? Jesus showed up to the disciples and Thomas wasn’t there. He shows up later and they tell him, “We have seen the Lord!” And the text moves from there, directly into Thomas’ statement of disbelief.
But things couldn’t have gone that fast.
One of my professors likes to talk about how we are always at war with hope. And when he talks about this war with hope, he’s not talking about, “oh I hope it doesn’t rain tomorrow,” or “I hope the Mariners win this year.” He’s talking about “I hope the chemo treatments will work again; I hope he can stay clean and sober; I hope she can carry the baby to term this time.”
These are big, unwieldy, slippery hopes. We wage war with these hopes because these are hopes that fight back. On the one hand, we so desperately want to cling to the tiniest thread of hope that things will turn out well. But on the other hand, we want to shield ourselves from the possibility of deep disappointment and so we push it away.
And here we have Thomas, mourning his beloved, dead rabbi. I wonder if that’s why he wasn’t there with the others – maybe he wanted to be alone with his grief for a while. And then he meets up with the other disciples and they’re going on and on about this crazy story of Jesus alive.
I picture Thomas in that moment, at war with hope – a tiny piece of him wanting desperately to believe that what his friends were telling him was true, but the disbelief. How could he bring himself to believe something so utterly, impossibly…
I mean, can you imagine, can you feel the tears streaming down his face as he cries, “No. That’s too good to be true. It can’t be. No, stop it! Unless I can feel the wounds with my own fingers, I won’t believe. I just can’t!”
And then a whole week goes by.
I’ll bet it really sucked to be Thomas that week. I bet it sucked to be around Thomas that week. I wouldn’t be surprised if by the time the next Sunday rolled around that Thomas got some of the other disciples wondering if they had actually seen what they had seen.
Findlay Family,1 we know what weeks like this are like, individually and corporately. In the course of our building projects, we’ve lived through years of these dark, despairing weeks. We know this war with hope. We know what it is to watch a beautiful dream wither away – even more so, a dream that we thought God had dared us to dream. And yet, there it went.
How and where do we find God again in moments like that?
Can I admit that when we started the process of redesigning the building, that I found it difficult to hold hope? And even now, as previously insurmountable barriers have been falling and continue to fall, as the path towards completion grows brighter and clearer week by week – I still reserve a part of myself out of fear of disappointment.
But I need stories like Thomas’ to remind me that another Sunday does come. And I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Jesus came back specifically for Thomas. And what’s the first thing Jesus says? “Peace. Be at peace, Thomas. It really is me. See (gesturing to the holes in his hand)? See (to the wound in his side)? Thomas, your awful war with hope is over. You really can believe.”
And Thomas responds with rapturous awe, “My Lord and my God.”
What tone do we hear when we read the words of Jesus?
There are no tempo markings. It is we who have to decide, each time we read, how to stage this performance. And when we decide, I hope (like Beethoven’s conductors) that we always err on the side of beauty, of gospel, of relentless, redemptive love.
And speaking of choices, in the next year or so, there will be many other choices that will have to be made here at Findlay Street Christian Church.
See, there’s another sort of rebuilding and redesign that’s in the works, because the church isn’t the building. We (gesturing towards the congregation) are the church and if we are to be faithful witnesses of what God is on about in the world, if we want to move into a new neighborhood, if we desire to deeply integrate and invest ourselves into their community, their lives… Well then our community cannot stay the same.
And there are some of us who are longing for change. And there are some of us who are unsure. And there are some who don’t like change or who won’t like the changes after they happen.
In the passage from Acts that Jo read earlier, the apostles and other followers of Christ had just been freed from jail. And they had been jailed by the religious leaders of the day for preaching the resurrection of Christ – a message of life and forgiveness, a message that claims that a new world is possible, that peace and reconciliation can be the new norm.
I trust that we’ll be received into the Beacon Hill neighborhood better than Peter and the apostles were, but like them, we are called to be witnesses, to be an example of how the Holy Spirit is moving in our lives, in our congregation, in the neighborhood, and in the world.
These are challenging, exciting, yes, even hopeful times for our church. And it feels good, doesn’t it? I don’t know about you, but in these past few months, I’ve sensed a new sort of levity in the air on Sundays, a new sort of anticipation. The tone is shifting and the tempo is picking up.
Church, we have waited with Thomas long enough. Let us rejoice as we see dawn breaking in on this new, beautiful Sunday.
So, um… That’s a message of good news for the church and for all who know and live in resurrection. I had initially ended my sermon there, but there’s one more thing I’d like to address.
The season of Easter is a lovely time of spring and new life, and thanks be to God for that.
But there are some out there (and can I admit that I include myself in this group), there are some who are still in that long, lonely week of waiting with Thomas, waiting with some sort of long unrequited prayer. There are some who are still waging the long, cold war with hope. And like Thomas among the other rejoicing apostles, we watch those around us, those who have seen resurrection in their lives, celebrating.
And we wonder when or if our turn will ever come.
Again, can you imagine that week with Thomas? Can you hear the other disciples telling him, “hey, cheer up – Jesus will probably stop by again on Monday.” And maybe Thomas allows himself that little bit of hope. And then Monday comes. And goes. And then Tuesday. And then Wednesday…
For those of us who are still waiting, who knows what part of the week we’re in. Maybe Sunday is just a few minutes away. Or maybe it’s still early Tuesday morning, and we’ve miles to go. And during that week, Thomas didn’t know – even the other disciples couldn’t have known – that Jesus would ever appear again.
In the second half of verse 29, Jesus says, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.” And while the focus there is on belief, the idea of waiting is there just beneath the surface. The writer, John, may have included that phrase because the early church would also have been waiting and wondering – “will Jesus return again? How long will we have to wait?”
And we, the church, are still waiting with them.
But look again. What does Jesus say to those in wait? He says that we are blessed.
And yeah, it’s often hard to feel blessed, especially during extended periods of waiting, but if I can pull in Matthew’s Gospel here, Jesus had this to say about want and waiting:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Waiting for resurrection sucks. But we don’t wait alone. The kingdom of heaven waits with us and promises that we will be comforted.
And I’ll end this time with these lyrics from a song by Sinead O’Connor:
All the pain that you have known
All the violence in your soul
All the “wrong” things you have done
I will take from you when I come
All mistakes made in distress
All of your unhappiness
I will take away with my kiss
I will give you tenderness
For child I am so glad I found you
Although my arms have always been around you
Sweet bird although you did not see me
I saw you2
We may not see, but we are seen.
- A few months after I delivered this sermon, the church changed its name from Findlay Street Christian Church to Welcome Table ↩︎
- Audio credit: The Opiate Mass ↩︎