All the epistles, the letters in the New Testament to the young churches from the apostles, at the end are trying to hit the right note, said the Rev. J. Peter Holmes at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning worship service. They give benedictions of peace and blessing, even if the letter in question has been full of theological debate or admonitions about church life.
Holmes’ sermon title was “Hitting the Right Note,” and the Scripture reading was Hebrews 13:18-25. Before he began his sermon he said that Hart Massey, who gave the Massey Memorial Organ to Chautauqua Institution, was a member of the Yorkminster Park Baptist Church where Holmes serves. Massey led the men’s Bible class, which numbered almost 3,000 members.
“Someone said to me last night, ‘Now you don’t have to say anything. Beethoven, the orchestra and the choir hit the right note,’ ” he said. “I don’t think they knew the title of my sermon.”
He noted that Beethoven had not written a symphony for 10 years, and people wondered why he needed a choir who just sat for the first three movements.
“A symphony is supposed to interpret itself, so why would a choir be needed?” he said. “Beethoven wanted this symphony to end on the right notes, with joyful sounds of friendship, love, faith and God.”
In the epistles, the benediction often begins with the word “now.” The authors, Holmes said, want to end on a good word, to get back to God and God’s blessing.
Holmes encountered the word “cadence” in some music and did not understand its meaning in that setting, so he called his daughter, a musicologist. She told him it means to come home, to come back to the chords at the beginning.
“She played Bach’s ‘Well-Tempered Clavier,’ and asked if I could hear the cadence,” he said. “I could and thought it could be called the ‘Well-Tempered Christian,’ to come back to God’s blessings.”
He asked her if all music did this and she said no. She pointed to Sarah McLaughlin’s song “Adia,” in which McLaughlin sings about the loss of her best friend because McLaughlin stole her boyfriend and married him.
“(The song) doesn’t get back to the beginning because the problem is unresolved,” Holmes said.
We hope God gets us there, he said to the congregation, but sometimes we falter.
“We should seek the good word, not the last word,” Holmes said. “In Romans 12, Paul tells the Christians in Rome to bless their enemies, to have a good word for them. We need to be stewards of words, not to win an argument but to get to completeness.”
In the movie “An Unfinished Life,” Robert Redford plays Einar, a rancher who lost his son in a car accident. The words “An Unfinished Life” are written on the son’s tombstone. When his daughter-in-law, who was driving the car, returns with her daughter, Einar’s 10-year-old granddaughter whom he did not know about, he wants nothing to do with them. Mitch, his best friend and a ranch hand, tells Einar that was not the daughter-in-law’s fault; that is why it was called an accident. Einar grumbles that his son is dead and Mitch tells Einar that he is not dead, and neither is his granddaughter.
“We have to find cadence, find the good word with which God longs to bless us,” he said. “But how do we find cadence? As the author of Hebrews wrote, ‘Now, may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus … make you complete in everything good so you can do his will.’ ”
God’s good word became flesh in Jesus and he became our tuning fork, Holmes said, because he is always in turn with God.
On a trip to visit friends on the north shore of Lake Ontario on Labor Day weekend, Holmes noticed the trees had already turned brown. His children called him over to look and he found the trees covered with monarch butterflies, beginning their journey to Mexico.
For Holmes, that was a metaphor for finding the way home. As the butterflies were clinging to the trees, so humans have to cling to Jesus, who said, “I am the vine, you are the branches.” We find new life when we cling to the vine and the cross.
“We have to stay close to the word, to let Jesus live in us,” Holmes said. “We can let Christ take all the bad tunes because, through the great God of peace, he has crossed the great chasm of death.”
When the prophet Moses was a shepherd in Midian, he went out to look for a lost sheep and as soon as he hoisted the sheep on his shoulder to carry it home, the burning bush appeared and Moses was on holy ground. The cadence was coming.
“Jesus will carry us through,” he said. “Don’t hold on to curses but bless those who curse you. The cadence will ring true in your soul.”
Holmes asked his daughter how he would know when the cadence had come, when it would ring true. She told him he would just know and suggested that he listen to Jeff Buckley’s rendition of “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen. The last verse ends with, “I’ll stand before the Lord of Song / With nothing on my lips but hallelujah.”
Buckley held the last note of the “hallelujah” in his cover. Holmes’ daughter asked, “What do you want to say?” He answered, “I want to say hallelujah. I want to stand before my Lord with nothing on my lips but hallelujah.”
The butterflies that Holmes found had to fly 54 miles across Lake Ontario on their journey, and he wondered why they did not go by another route. When he asked his host what the butterflies were waiting for, since it was already Labor Day, he was told they were waiting for the wind to change. They couldn’t do it without the wind.
“May the God of peace, who is the wind, bring you to completeness, to cadence, to the right note. You are here to do God’s good and perfect will,” he concluded.
The Rev. Robert M. Franklin, Jr., director of the Department of Religion at Chautauqua Institution, presided. Emily F. Morris, vice president of marketing and communications and chief brand officer for the Institution, read the Scripture. Jared Jacobsen, organist and coordinator of worship and sacred music, directed the Chautauqua Choir. The hymn-anthem was “America, The Beautiful,” choral setting by Mark Hayes. J. Paul Burkhardt served as narrator. “Our Help Comes from the Lord,” responsorial Psalm 121, setting by Michael Joncas, was led by Peter Steinmetz as cantor. The offertory anthem was “My Eternal King,” by Jane Marshall. The organ postlude was “Variations on ‘America’ for Organ” by Charles Edward Ives. The Alison and Craig Marthinsen Endowment for the Department of Religion and the John William Tyrrell Endowment for Religion provide support for this week’s services.