Life, like music, has harmony, dissonance, Rev. Randall K. Bush says


“I have played the piano longer than I have been a preacher. The intersection of music and theology has shaped my life,” said the Rev. Randall K. Bush at the 10:45 a.m. Sunday morning service of worship and sermon in the Amphitheater on July 3. 

The title of his sermon was “Intervals of Faith (Major and Minor Thirds): To Everything There is a Season.” The Scripture text was Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. His sermon was divided into two phases: a “Music 101” phase explaining the interval for the day and a sermon providing the theological application of the interval and Scripture.

There are eight notes in an octave, and between notes there are intervals. To move from C to G is a fifth because they are five notes apart. From C to F is a fourth because the notes are four notes apart.

“The most magical intervals are the thirds,” Bush said. 

A major triad is built on a major third, as in the prelude for the morning’s service, “Andante,” from Symphony No. 94 by Franz Joseph Haydn. Major thirds are common to hear, as in Mozart’s Piano Sonata in C Major. Bush played snippets of both musical pieces.

Minor thirds also play a significant role. 

“ ‘Greensleeves’ is a good example,” Bush said as he played several measures. “These are both important intervals, and we will talk more about their place in faith.”

The second part of Bush’s sermon took place after the offering and the reading of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. 

“There is something calming about Ecclesiastes. It has a rhythm like a porch swing,” he said. “A time to be born, a time to die … a time to plant, a time to pluck up … a time to weep, a time to laugh … a time to love, a time to hate … a time for war, and a time for peace.”

Bush compared reading this Scripture to breathing in and out. The inevitable cycles in Ecclesiastes fits with the Chautauqua Lecture Series Week Two theme “The Wild: Reconnecting with Our Natural World.”

“Nature is choreographed around cyclical patterns. The tides go in and out, the moon waxes and wanes, winter follows fall,” he said. “These events happen to and around us. Like the song ‘Sunrise, Sunset’ in Fiddler on the Roof, ‘one season following another, laden with happiness and tears.’ ”  

Major thirds are bright and speak of beauty. Minor thirds reflect introspection. 

“One is not better than the other; it is a mood choice,” Bush said. “Psalm 22 is a minor third: a lament. Psalm 150 is a major third: praise and joy.”

Similarly in the Christian Scriptures, Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane or the story of the raising of Lazarus are minor thirds. Mary Magdalene returning from the empty tomb or, at the end of Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus promises to be with the disciples to the end of the age, are major thirds.

“In our lives we all cycle through Good Friday and Easter,” Bush told the congregation. 

He asked the congregation, “Are our lives shaped by forces beyond our control? Scientific, atheistic fatalists would say yes, we are but players on the world stage. Religious fatalists would say that a head cold or the path of a tornado is predestined. Both views take us out of the equation.”

Ecclesiastes does not have the final word, its cycles are not the complete truth. 

“Faith pushes us. We have divine providence and free will, inspiration by the Spirit and human ability,” Bush said. “The sins we commit have a ripple effect, as does the heavenly grace that descends on us.”

He continued, “These events never happen in isolation. The total is more than the sum. Is God in control? Yes. Is this the Anthropocene age, where humans are changing the world? Yes. Whether it is providence or free will, disaster or an earthly paradise, you are part of the answer. Things just don’t happen to us.”

Church folks, he told the congregation, hate ambiguity. 

“We want clarity. But that is not given in this life. We are given something better. We have a spectrum of colors, emotions and cultures,” Bush said. “Life is not monotone and on this planet we call home, we can look into the sky and see other planets.”

The poet Mary Oliver asked, “What will you do with your one wild and precious life?” 

“Life is a symphony with harmony and dissonance,” Bush said. “I would not have it any other way, and neither would God.” 

Ludwig von Beethoven lived in a time racked by revolution. His music pushed back against fabulism, a form of magical realism that puts fantastical elements into everyday settings. The beginning of the last movement of his Symphony No. 9 starts negatively, but the baritone soloist interrupts with the text from the poet Goethe. The singer urges his friends to not sing melancholy songs, but songs of joy with sparks of the divine.

The music moves from D minor to D major.

“The ‘Ode to Joy’ has inspired people for 200 years,” Bush said, “Do not go gently into that good night. The ‘Ode to Joy,’ by God’s grace, shapes our lives and seasons. It challenges us to be inspired.”

In the same way, he said, we cannot tell the American story in a simple way. There is triumph and tragedy.

“Our history is more complex, therefore richer,” Bush said. “We have to talk about the exploitation of Indigenous people, the theory of democracy and the sin of slavery, the Civil War and the race to the moon. The story is unfinished; it is still being written.”

“Civil rights must be addressed, reparations made and justice guaranteed,” he said. “What are our choices today? Embrace the messiness. God is not finished engaging with us.”

The seasons of life shape and are shaped by the faithful. 

“If we set our faces toward the horizon, we can shape the seasons yet to come for justice, resurrection and promise,” he said.

Christianity is not meant to be therapeutic, only major chords and Hallmark cards. 

“Christian faith takes the minor key seriously,” Bush said. “Some seasons come upon us unbidden and some by our own hands. Through eternal love and hope, we will not be deterred ever.”

The Rev. Natalie Hanson, interim senior pastor of Chautauqua, presided. Melissa Spas, vice president of religion at Chautauqua, read the Scripture. Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and holder of the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organ, played “Andante,” from Symphony No. 94, by Franz Joseph Haydn. The Motet Choir sang “All Things to All,” music by Craig Courtney and words by Pamela Martin. The offertory anthem was “Too Splendid for Speech but Ripe for a Song,” with music by Frederick Swann and words by Thomas Troeger. The Motet Choir was joined by the congregation on the final verse. The choir was directed by Stafford, and Nicholas Stigall accompanied the choir on the Massey Memorial Organ. The postlude, played by Stafford, was “Toccata en Ré Majeur,” by Marcel Lanquetuit. Support for this week’s services is provided by the Mr. and Mrs. William Uhler Follansbee Memorial Chaplaincy.

Tags : morning worship recapreligionWorship

The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the recap of the morning worship service. A life-long Chautauquan, she is a Presbyterian minister, author of Chautauqua’s Heart: 100 Years of Beauty and a history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. She edited The Streets Where We Live and Shalom Chautauqua. She lives in Chautauqua year-round with her Stabyhoun, Sammi.