Sermon for Proper 21, Year B (2012)

I found this sermon in my Google Docs folder, and wanted to put it here for safe keeping.

(singing in Gregorian-style chant)

The law of the LORD is perfect
and revives the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure
and gives wisdom to the innocent.

In ages past, Psalms were sung rather than spoken. This is because elders in all religions discovered that if they gave their congregations melodies to put with them, it was easier to remember. The practice is not limited to the Abrahamic religions, however. Surviving from the 3rd century BC is a collection of six Hellenistic hymns written by the Alexandrian poet, Callimachus. It is an astounding discovery in the modern era that these ideas, the ones that occurred organically in those days, are now at the forefront in the healing arts.

Doctors are unsure of the complete explanation as to why, but over the years, several theories have been examined. Dr. Paul Broca, whose research was publicized in the 1880’s, is most famous for his discovery of the speech production center of the brain, now called “Broca’s area.” He arrived at this discovery by studying the brains of aphasic patients- persons with speech and language disorders resulting from brain injury. He was most focused on a small area in the frontal lobe, which he discovered aided in the sequencing and rhythm of words. Another part of the cerebral cortex, Wernicke’s area, discovered by Dr. Karl Wernicke, is responsible for creating pathways to understanding the meaning of words.

This is all technical information that boils down to a simple idea. Music literally makes the two areas of the brain work together, forming deeper neurological pathways. Religious leaders learned that before science. People remember music because they are, quite literally, wired that way. Music therapists have long discovered that if either area of the brain is damaged, the other one will compensate, creating new neural pathways to restore the brain to normal… and sometimes, the easiest way to jump start that process is by singing.

Think about it. How many of you could recite the words to your favorite song, completely out of context? Yet when you’re driving in your car, listening to Journey, all of the sudden you know every word to Don’t Stop Believin’?

Or when you’re walking along, and the soundtrack to your life starts playing in your brain. All of the sudden, you can remember every word to Twisted Whistle’s cover of Gin & Juice. [Note: The lead singer of Twisted Whistle was in the congregation that day and I sang her version in this small bit.] If you’re like me, you’ll forget where you are and all of the sudden, with so much drama in the LBC, it’s kinda hard bein’ Snoop D Oh-h Double G. Somehow-w some way… It’s the same for Snoop Dogg’s version. Rap gets under your skin not because of the melody, but because of the rhythm and sequence of words.

Bet you never thought you’d hear Snoop Dogg quoted in a sermon.

You’re welcome.

No one is a better example of the strides in this research than Gabrielle Giffords, an Arizona congresswoman. After a major gunshot wound, she traveled to my hometown of Houston, where one of the most advanced clinics of neurological rehabilitation resides.

From the time she was wounded until the time she could speak full sentences was about nine months. One of the reasons she made such incredible progress was due to the use of music in her therapy. She couldn’t recite the words to songs like “Happy Birthday,” but because she was familiar with the rhythm and sequence of the music, when she started to sing, the words came to her easily.

It is at this point we are ready to study the letter of James. He writes:

Are any among you suffering? They should pray. Are any cheerful? They should sing songs of praise. Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up.

In order to research this sermon more fully, I turned to the Biblical criticism of theologian William Barclay:

Here we have set out before us dominant characteristics of the early church. It was a singing church; the early Christians were always ready to burst into song. Christians speak to each other in psalms and hymns and spirituals; singing with thankfulness in their hearts to God.

James, meet Paul Broca. Paul Broca, meet James.


Singing to God is literally understanding God.

This higher consciousness, this reaching for the divine, is a gift that only humans have. Apes may have a special fondness for God in their hearts, but they will never sing about it. That’s because Broca’s area is nowhere to be found in their brains. This ability for sequence and rhythm supporting comprehension is only found in us.

When you think about it that way, it just becomes more and more apparent how great a blessing music is to the life of a church. And while music is gaining more and more ground in physical rehab, it has long been a voice in the emotional healing of a family, a community, a plantation:

If you get there before I do
Coming for to carry me home
Tell all my friends I’m coming too
Coming for to carry me home

Easy to remember codified instructions set to music. If you get to the plantation before me, and can only take some of the slaves, tell everyone else that I’m coming for them. In short, be ready. You never know when I’m going to show up, and when I do, your bags have to be packed.

Your sandals have to be on your feet. And there is no turning back.

Be. Ready. At. All. Times.

Harriet Tubman led over 70 slaves to freedom with Paul Broca’s help. She may never have read a single word of his research, but she understood the content. Put a melody to the words and people are more likely to remember it, critical because nowhere was it safe to write them down.

So what’s the take-home message here? What does this have to do with modern day life in Portland, Oregon?

(singing in Gregorian-style chant)

God can break into our lives at any moment;
Always be ready for a miracle.
If you are in pain, in body or mind,
Call upon me in song.


The intro to the sermon was taken from that day’s Psalm. The outro was written by me.


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