When I decided to focus on the reading from I Corinthians this morning and titled the sermon “Teamwork” I started thinking about the best way to get across Paul’s point about the various parts of the body working together as one and viewing each other with honor. I thought about sports illustrations, all the “there is no I in team” kind of thing, but that didn’t really resonate for me. Then I thought, “There is a perfect example of this which sits right behind me in worship every Sunday and illustrates this point for the congregation.”
So this morning, while Paul uses the analogy of the human body to explain how the body of Christ is supposed to work, I’m going to use the choir as an analogy of how the body of Christ is supposed to work. I’m going to have some fun with it, and I appreciate the help of Mandy and the choir and some anonymous humorous pieces on the internet in putting it together.
You see, a choir has four basic sections in it which sing four different parts. The director or conductor has the extremely difficult task of teaching the notes and the timing, balancing the volume levels of each section and making the end result harmonious and beautiful rather than chaotic and cacophonous. The ideal is that each section will equally appreciate the skills and contributions of the other sections, but human nature kicks in with every kind of group of people leading to rolling of eyes and whispered remarks and prejudging people for the group they are in. I can tell you from having sung in choirs that it is easy to come to believe that your part is the one truly essential part in music.
The part where I find most of the notes I can hit is the bass section, so I will start by talking about this group. How about if our bass singers stand up for a minute. The basses sing the lowest of anybody, which basically explains everything. That means the bass line in a piece of music is the foundation upon which everything is built. Musicologists are much more likely to admit this than the sopranos and tenors are, though, so bass singers generally feel unappreciated. Two great things about singing bass. First, if you have a cold, it makes it even easier to sing bass rather than harder. Second, if you make a mistake the other three parts will cover you until you meander around and eventually find that note. Now let’s hear an example of a bass part.
The other male section is the tenor section, so let’s have our tenors stand up. Tenors get to sing a lot of those notes that make your spine tingle or a tear come from your eye. They tend to be spoiled because a choir never has enough tenors and a tenor generally has to be very good or they will really stand out in a bad way. What other section would put together a group just with their own part, like The Three Tenors and numerous others? But despite their critical role in music, tenors tend to feel threatened by all the other sections. The sopranos steal their thunder by hitting all those incredibly high notes; the altos easily sing the notes that the tenors have to strain to get to; and the basses, though they usually have little range, sing so loudly that they often drown the tenors out. Let’s hear an example of a tenor line.
The third section as we work our way up from lowest to highest on the scale is the altos, so let’s have the alto section stand up. The altos, in their minds, represent the salt of the earth people who go about their work everyday without recognition or praise. There is nothing flashy about their line, it is subtle and you have to be paying attention to hear it. While the sopranos are carrying the melody line, the altos are being forced to sing elaborate passages full of sharps and flats and tricks of rhythm. And often nobody is listening because the sopranos and basses are both singing too loud. Altos also tend to sulk because their section is frequently the largest one in the choir so they don’t get to sing loud. The biggest contributions of the altos is adding harmony, color, and foundation to music. When they want to get under the skin of the sopranos they say that altos are sopranos who can read music rather than simply singing the melody. Let’s hear an example of their line.
The last, but certainly not the least, section is made up of the sopranos, so let’s have them stand now. The sopranos are the ones who sing the highest, and because of that they think they rule the world. They generally sing the melody line, though sometimes they soar above the stratosphere to sing descants with the angels. Sopranos hold a dim view of basses and secretly believe that the altos could drop out and the piece would sound essentially the same. They enjoy singing with the tenors because they soar so high beyond them that the tenors seem very pedestrian. As with tenors, it can be difficult for choirs to find enough good sopranos, which is crippling. Let’s hear the soprano line now.
So now you have heard each of the parts, each of which is clearly the most important part. You have also heard a humorous caricature of each section which is simply a reminder that harmony is not a naturally expected outcome when a group of people come together. So it becomes the role of the director or conductor to put all those together and help them use their gifts to become something far exceeding what any of them can be on their own. If you thought Mandy had an easy job, think again. And Mandy, there are some caricatures of music directors out there, too. I saw one that says, “Hitler, Stalin, and a conductor walk into the room. You only have two bullets in your gun. How do you use them?” The answer: “Use them both on the conductor.”
Okay, enough foolishness. Now let’s hear how it sounds when these four parts are blended under the direction of a skilled conductor.
That, my friends, is teamwork. That is what happens when people with a variety of gifts offer those gifts not as virtuoso performances but as patchwork quilts of beautiful color and harmony. As fun as it might be to sing at the top of your lungs in the shower or on stage in a solo performance, there is no feeling like the feeling of being in a choral or instrumental group where you contribute to being a part of something bigger than you would ever have imagined possible. By the way, the emotional and physical benefits of singing in a choir are a proven fact, so if you’d like to do something for your well being come on Wednesday night and become a part of this. My thanks to Mandy and Chris and the choir not only for being willing to help me in this object lesson, but for being the backbone of worship every week.
When Paul wrote to the Corinthian church he was writing to a fractured group of believers. They had split into groups who followed different conductors. They had prioritized the spiritual gifts and treated people differently based on those gifts. Paul’s word to them was that each and every one of the gifts and abilities were equally important and needed to be valued equally by the Christian community. He compared it to a human body which has an incredibly diverse group of parts with very different functions. Just as we would not be complete without any one of those parts so the church is not complete if anyone is excluded or left out. In the chapter we will be looking at next week he says that there is one gift which exceeds all of them, the gift of love, and that if any of the gifts is exercised without love then it is of no value.
Our staffing committee is involving the congregation in a discernment process by looking together at the program and needs of our church in a variety of areas. Children’s ministries, youth ministries, adult ministries through the various ages of life, and so forth. The point is to make sure that we value all of them and include all of them, both individually and collectively. Our culture likes to divide people into generational demographics and treat us separately. The goal of church is to bring together generations and care for each other and grow together in grace and love.
Our culture has also reached new lows in polarizing groups of people by political and cultural world views. This has very much impacted churches, to the point that they tend to be made up of people who all think and vote alike. I have no interest in being in a church like that. I want to be in a church where there are conservatives who lay down the bass line where there is a foundation based on tradition and values. I want to be in a church where there are liberals who say why not go for that note out in the stratosphere, why not stand out, why not be different, why be so bound to the foundation. I want to be in a church where there are moderates who sometimes sing the high notes and sometimes sing the low notes and don’t feel confined to one cleft or the other. I want to be in a church that sees love as the greatest gift of all, which needs to be exhibited in the way we treat every other person and every other idea. I want to be in a church that treats janitors and CEOs the same way.
I want to be in a church that wants to be a team, a multi-part choir rather than a soloist, and that knows our conductor is Jesus Christ and we are going to submit our will to his. They put a couple of bullets in him, so to speak, and we are tempted to do so as well when we don’t like what he tells us to do. We won’t get it right all the time, or maybe even most of the time. Any conductor will tell you that rehearsals are frequently chaotic and offer little hope that things are going to turn out right. But if we have done the work and preparation we need to do, when push comes to shove we will probably surprise ourselves by doing our best. And when we get it right, whether it is music or church, it is a foretaste of heaven.
All glory be to God! Amen.
David J. Bailey
January 24, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church