“We think that the most beautiful interval would be between the beginning and middle of the scale, but it is actually the worst,” said the Rev. Randall K. Bush at the 9:15 a.m. Thursday, July 7, morning ecumenical worship service in the Amphitheater. His sermon title was “Resolving Tensions,” and the Scripture text was Mark 12:41-44.
The distance of a tritone interval is three whole steps, or six half steps. Bush pointed to the tritone between C and F sharp, specifically. It is in between a perfect 4th and a perfect 5th, which are very soothing tones. The tritone sounds dissonant in relation to the intervals on either side.
“It was called the devil’s interval because it’s musical sign is Ψ, psi in Greek. Musicians were forbidden to use the interval in church music, but it has its place,” Bush said.
Leonard Bernstein used it in West Side Story, in “Maria,” and “took the motif through the whole score,” Bush said. “The tritone was a way to embody the tension between the Jets and the Sharks, the tension in Maria and Tony’s relationship.”
In the last four measures of the score, the tension remains as the gangs put down their guns and hold on to the tension caused by Tony’s death.
“The F sharp with the bass is repeated four times,” Bush said. “Tension is always with us, but there remains the loving God, as well.”
The tritone is an exceptionally dissonant interval, but it is a perfect symbol for the American season we are experiencing, Bush told the congregation.
“After COVID, we learned how vulnerable we are,” Bush said. “The world is more tense: Republicans against Democrats, social conservatives and liberal strategists, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, gun violence, the Jan. 6 investigation, working from home.”
He continued, “People working at home with flex hours wonder if they ever truly have time off. The war in Ukraine has disrupted supply lines. We are living life off balance. Our modern life is built on the tritone.”
Jesus was no stranger to tension. His ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday showed the tension between the imperial Roman forces and a small-town rabbi. The Temple courtyard was common ground, and Jesus and his disciples watched as the wealthy leaders of the Temple emptied their money pouches into the Temple treasury.
“Jesus warned the disciples to beware of people who walk around in rich robes, have the best seats in the synagogue. They devour widows; they will receive greater condemnation,” Bush said of Mark 12:38-40.
In Mark 12:10-12, Jesus warned that even though the Temple was a great building, there would not be one stone of it left on top of another.
“The tension reverberated around the disciples. Is there any way it could be resolved?” Bush asked.
The poor widow’s simple act of putting her small gift into the Temple treasury provided Jesus with a response.
“This is a text that has launched a 1,000 sermons on stewardship. She gave all she had and parishioners are urged to do the same. The woman held back nothing, and then disappeared,” Bush said.
The problem with this use of the story is that people in serving roles, women, people of color, migrants, are asked to surrender more of their resources than “those who write checks from their frothy wealth,” Bush said.
The military budget keeps getting increased while schools and teachers are poorly funded. The climate is in trouble and fossil fuel interests get special legislation.
“Our ecclesiastical institutions have valorized war and put down women and LGBTQ+ people,” he said.
“The tensions won’t go away,” he continued. “Bernstein used the tension in West Side Story when Riff told the boys to ‘stay cool,’ when Tony sang of impossible love. And when the gangs gathered around Tony’s body, the tension was still there.”
Tensions in the church have made it harder to write sermons, Bush said.
“If I talk about only the spiritual, I am called superficial. If I talk about the church in the world, I am called political,” Bush said. “What if I took a strict literalist interpretation of Scripture like the Supreme Court and the Constitution? If that was the case, what word of faith could I speak? If I don’t speak, how can we welcome back a younger generation?”
Help is found in the story of the widow. First, Jesus sees her, and notices what she did.
“We have to look around and see what is right before us. Nothing will get better until we first look around,” he said.
Unlike the Temple leaders, the woman’s gift was given without ostentation.
“She gave out of humility, showing she belonged to God’s kingdom,” Bush said. “It was a public act that challenged power with a higher vision of our common humanity.”
He gave some more recent examples of people who publicly challenged power. In 1797, George Washington resisted a call for a third term as president and established the precedent of the peaceful transfer of power. In 1851, Sojourner Truth asked “Ain’t I A Woman?,” and turned a women’s rights convention into a forum for speaking out against slavery. In 2018, Greta Thunberg spoke out for the environment.
The widow’s gift to the Temple treasury was an act of trust and hope, a witness to her commitment and gratitude.
“Her action was more valuable and had more substance than the gifts of the leaders,” Bush said. “She turned the act of giving on its head.”
Bush quoted author Rebecca Solnit, who said: “Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. Hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the Earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. … To hope is to give yourself to the future — and that commitment to the future is what makes the present inhabitable.”
The tensions of life do not have the final word; there is hope, trust and resurrection.
“In this world we will always know tension; we will hear tritones. But to paraphrase Jesus, ‘Be not afraid, for I have overcome this world.’ Thanks be to God,” Bush said.
The Rev. Mary Lee Talbot presided. Deacon Ray Defendorf, host of the Catholic House of Chautauqua, read the Scripture. The prelude was movement “Ronde villageoise,” from Suite by Johan Amberg, played by the Motet Consort: Barbara Hois, flute; Rebecca Scarnati, oboe; Debbie Grohman, clarinet; and Randall K. Bush, piano. For the anthem, the Motet Choir sang a cappella “Love Bade Me Welcome,” music by David Hurd and words by George Herbert, under the direction of Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and holder of the Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organ. Stafford played an improvisation (Tritone) for the postlude. Support for this week’s services is provided by the Mr. and Mrs. William Uhler Follansbee Memorial Chaplaincy. Unless otherwise noted, the morning liturgies are written by the Rev. Natalie Hanson, interim senior pastor. Music is selected and the Sacred Song Service is created by Joshua Stafford, director of sacred music and Jared Jacobsen Chair for the Organ. For PDF copies of the services, email email@example.com.