The beginning of the scripture reading from the Letter to the Ephesians says, “Be careful, then, how you live, not as unwise people but as wise” (15). We are to live as wise people, to live as people who have wisdom. The dictionary has three definitions of wisdom: 1) An understanding of what is true, right, or lasting; 2) Common sense; good judgment; and 3) Learning; erudition. The biblical understanding of wisdom has to do with the first definition of wisdom: understanding what is true, right, or lasting. As Christians, we are blessed to have a way to understand what is true, right, or lasting; we are blessed to have a way to obtain wisdom and to become wise. That way is to “understand what the will of the Lord is” (17). And we have a way to understand what the will of the Lord is. That way is to “be filled with the Spirit” (18). And we have a way to be filled with the Spirit. That way is not to get drunk – which is one way to be filled with spirit, just not the Holy Spirit (18). No, that way is to sing – to sing hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs among us (19), to do so as we are gathered together to worship God. In this way, we make melody to the Lord in our hearts, all the while giving thanks to God for everything in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (20).
Being people who have wisdom, who live as wise people, has to do with being people who worship together. Wisdom and worship are interconnected. Worship – especially the singing part of worship – enables us to be open to the Holy Spirit. Being open to the Holy Spirit enables us to be filled with the Holy Spirit. Being filled with the Holy Spirit enables us to understand what the will of the Lord is. Understanding what the will of the Lord is enables us to be wise. To be wise is to have wisdom. To have wisdom is to be guided in all that we do by God; it is to live according to the will of God. From worship we get wisdom, and wisdom leads us back to worship. Eventually, we are so filled with wisdom, so filled with understanding what the will of the Lord is, that our whole lives become worship. Each act that we do and each choice we make becomes a way of worshiping God. Our very lives become the worship of God.
This passage from the Letter to the Ephesians puts singing at the center of worship. Somehow, it is in singing that we become open to God in a special way; it is in singing that we make melody to the Lord in our hearts; it is in singing that we give thanks to God for everything. Why is it that singing is so essential to worship, and thus to wisdom? David Sharp, a Presbyterian pastor from San Jose, California, writes about how singing involves our whole selves in an act of spiritual expression. He says,
The human brain has two sides. The left side is more analytical and practical. This is the side that produces the words. The right side is more creative and emotional – closely tied to the passions of the heart. So, song is a combination of the passion of the heart and the reflection of the mind. The left and right side of the brain join forces and allow the mind and heart to focus, pointing toward the same idea. When the song is sung, the body completes this circuit of mind, body, and soul. A song, then, becomes an arrow, pointing the whole being toward one point, one issue, one theme. It is a commitment of the whole individual in an act of spiritual expression.
When we sing, we are engaging both halves of our brains, we are engaging our hearts, and we are engaging our bodies – we are engaging our whole selves and focusing all of who we are on God. With our whole selves engaged and focused, the Holy Spirit can reach us in a special way. Again, David Sharp has a reason for this. He describes how everything in the universe vibrates and has its own vibrational signature. In fact, glass will shatter when the right note matches the glass object’s vibrational signature and is sung long enough to fill the object with it’s own signature. “In the same way, song has the ability to break us open when the right words come together with the right music and both are pointed toward a particular issue of life,” an issue that has meaning for us at the time we are singing the song. As the individual sings the song, the heart is filled with the truth it is singing. “At some point, this truth is understood in the core of the singer and inspires a breakthrough. The heart breaks open” and cries either tears of joy or tears of sadness – or tears of both joy and sadness mixed.
As we can see, singing makes us vulnerable to God in a special way. And it is that vulnerability that allows God to work in us to give us an understanding of his will. It is that vulnerability that allows God to give us wisdom. It is that vulnerability that moves us toward a life that is, in itself, an act of worship.
Anne Lamott, in her book Traveling Mercies, writes about the power of worship, and particularly singing. Anne is someone who went through a lot before she found God and Jesus. She was an alcoholic and a drug addict. By the time she found God and came to know Jesus, she was living a desperate life. She was at the bottom of life. But, as we know, God has a way of getting to us, even when we don’t want him to, and he got to Anne. He got to Anne by way of singing. Anne shopped on Sunday mornings in a flea market across the Street from St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Marin City. As she shopped – more often than not hung over from alcohol and drugs – she could hear gospel music coming from the church. She stopped and listened to the singing because it was so pretty. Eventually, she began “stopping in at St. Andrew from time to time, [and] standing in the doorway to listen to the songs.” During the time when people hugged and greeted each other, various people came over to Anne to shake her hand or hug her, but she just stood there, frozen and stiff.
Anne went back to St. Andrew about once a month. She always left before the sermon, however, because she didn’t want to be preached to about Jesus. But she loved singing, even about Jesus. Anne writes, “I could sing better here than I ever had before. As part of these people, even though I stayed in the doorway, I did not recognize my voice or know where it was coming from, but sometimes I felt like I could sing forever.”
Eventually, Anne actually took a seat instead of standing in the doorway, although it was a seat off by itself, not near anyone else. Again, it was the singing that got to her. She writes, “The singing enveloped me. It was furry and resonant, coming from everyone’s very heart. There was no sense of performance or judgment, only that the music was breath and food. Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender. Somehow the singing wore down all the boundaries and distinctions that kept me so isolated. Sitting there, standing with them to sing, sometimes so shaky and sick I felt like I might tip over, I felt bigger than myself, like I was being taken care of, tricked into coming back to life.” Still, however, she didn’t stay for the sermon.
She began to feel like Jesus was hanging out with her, like he was in the corner of the room, waiting for her. She felt him watching her with patience and love. Everywhere she went, she had the feeling that a little cat was following her, wanting her to reach down and pick it up, wanting her to open the door and let it in. And that cat was Jesus. But she wouldn’t acknowledge it.
Finally, however, the singing in church got to her and Jesus rode the notes of the songs right into her heart. The first time Anne actually stayed for the sermon she said, “It was as if the people were singing in between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling – and it washed over me. I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along at my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said, ‘[Allright:] You can come in.’” And the little cat, Jesus, did.
Anne did all that she could to resist God and ignore Jesus but she was no match for the power of singing. The vibrations of the hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs she heard in church eventually matched her vibrational signature and filled her with it until she broke open before God and invited Jesus in. As she worshiped, Anne began to be wise and to grow in wisdom and, more and more, as she continues to worship, her very life becomes an act of worship, just as ours do.
From the simple and natural act of singing comes a wealth of treasures that culminates in wisdom and that brings us back to worship. It is a gracious cycle, given to us by the God who gives all. Let us now honor the gift of singing and enter that gracious cycle of worship and wisdom as we close this sermon with the singing of the hymn #403, “When in Our Music God Is Glorified.”
Sermon by the Rev. Amy R. F. Johnson at the Canton Community Baptist Church, Canton, CT, Sunday, August 21, 2016, the Fourteenth Sunday After Pentecost.
 “Singing from the Soul.” Seasons of the Spirit Congregational Life, Pentecost 1, August 17-August 23, 2003, p. 94.
 New York: Anchor Books, 1999, 46.