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The monthly Sing For Joy newsletter contains a letter from the program's host, Pastor Bruce Benson, along with a listing of music selections for each program and the corresponding scripture readings. If you'd like to receive a complimentary subscription, fill out our online request form to subscribe.

October 2021 Newsletter (Year B)

Pastor Bruce Benson

Music is for Making, Not Contesting

After that no one dared to ask him any question.  Mark 12:34

"Him" in the verse above is Jesus. After that no one dared ask Jesus any question.

The verse must make teachers cringe and mutter to themselves if not out loud, "No, no, no! We need questions. That's how we learn, that's the way we enlarge our understanding!" The verse is from the Gospel reading for the last Sunday in October; it's the final verse of a story in which Jesus is asked, "which is the greatest commandment?" He answers with the first — about loving God — and volunteers the second — about loving your neighbor. It's a familiar story, included in Matthew, Mark and Luke. The Markan version alone, however, ends with no one daring to ask a question, though Matthew says the same thing several verses later. Mark's account is rarely heard because most years when the Lectionary schedules this story to be read, the Church is busy celebrating All Saints' Sunday instead.

As is often the case with Bible verses, making sense of this one is made more difficult by hearing it removed from its context in Mark's gospel. There, the context is not a friendly conversation or classroom where questions are actually encouraged. The context instead is contest. Several groups of religious leaders have been taking turns trying to make Jesus look foolish, dangerous or wrong, or at least inferior to themselves. Sometimes we all use questions in that way, hoping to show by our brilliant questions that we are smarter than the person who is expected to answer.

Music, it seems to me, is not much interested in contest. It is interested in conversation, communication, community. Contest divides the community into winners and losers, music is more interested in bringing it and holding it together. Yes, there are music contests for music students; and yes, only a certain number of musicians win Grammy Awards, but at their best, those contests are geared more toward giving music-making some of the same positive regard we give to sports. Music itself (Music with a capital M) is for making, not contesting.

We human beings are, of course, still like the Pharisees, Sadducees, Chief Priests and Scribes of the New Testament. We are still interested in winning, and we often ask music to help us celebrate our wins. Think about the raucous choruses of "We will, we will rock you!" sung in school-spirit unison by student cheering sections at ballgames. It's fun. It's easy to sing along. And one would have to be feeling grouchy (or a fan of the losing team) not to be at least partly amused by it.

But conversations about matters of the Spirit aren't well served when they turn into contests. The religious leaders who quizzed Jesus should have been seeking conversation instead of contest. Such conversations welcome music as an ally and companion; words addressed to the soul want to sing.

Singing to win produces more anxiety than joy. Singing for joy is already a win!

Peace be with you,

Bruce Benson

Pastor Bruce Benson

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