Rev. Danielle K Bartz January 31, 2021
Mark 1:21-28 “Counterpoint”
In 2017 my mother and I travelled to Chicago for my birthday, and while there we went to see the opera The Pearl Fishers, composed by Georges Bizet. It is an extraordinary opera about a love triangle between two close friends, Zurga and Nadir, and their mutual love for a woman named Leila. While the entire opera is wonderful, there is one duet that is so astonishing, it is frequently referred to as one of the best in the world. In it, the two friends, Zurga and Nadir, promise one another to never let anything or anyone to come between them again. Early in the piece, when the two are singing together, their two melodies clash – creating a sense of tension, that leaves even the listener, like myself with an untrained ear, feeling uncomfortable. But, at the end of the piece, as they continue to sing together, their melodies begin to dance, or to stabilize, and their voices meet in a way that one can feel in their very core. The notes of each singer come together in remarkable harmony. And without even realizing they were longing for it, the listener experiences an emotional resolution to the earlier tension, finding a joyful relief.
That duet, when it comes on the radio, always makes me stop whatever I am doing so I can listen. And if the opportunity presents itself, I quickly text my mother and tell her to turn on the radio too, so she can hear it again as well. It is not just the memory of the trip or the exquisite staging of the opera we experienced that makes me stop and listen; there is something in the music, something that strikes me, something that at first convicts me and then comforts me.
Fast forward a few years, to Palm Sunday of 2020. The stay-at-home order in Minnesota had just gone into effect and we were beginning a Holy Week that none of us expected. That morning I was going to be leading worship alone from my home, trying to find meaning for you and for me at the start of the holiest week of the year. I had remained strong and focused up to that point. In the rush and chaos of shifting everything we did together, I didn’t have the time to notice the trauma I was feeling. But, for some reason, that morning, it hit me. Hard. Just minutes before I was to start worship, I found myself with my head down on my dining room table, sobbing. I was longing to be with you. I was longing for normalcy. I was fearful of what was to come. This incredible tension had built up in me and all of the sudden it was no longer something I could ignore. But, I needed to be your pastor so I needed to settle my emotions and Spirit. And I only had minutes. I tried taking a few deep breaths, I tried to pray, I tried to distract myself. Nothing worked. And then, for no reason that I can explain, I played that duet from The Pearl Fishers. I listened as the two voices danced around each other, as they then came together in great tension, clashing or wrestling with one another. And then, as the piece comes to a conclusion, I listened as the voices began to dance together, creating a harmony that released the tension, released the emotional roadblocks, and settled into calming stability.
The piece came to an end, and less than a minute later I opened Facebook and began to lead worship, having found the peace I was searching for, the peace I was longing to provide to each of you.
As 2020 continued, and I found myself over and over again feeling a deep unsettling in my soul, I learned to trust the divine voice of wisdom that we call carry within ourselves, and set aside time to be carried away by the music of that operatic duet. And as I did so, over and over again, I began to wonder what was happening in that music that so perfectly reflected my Spirit which was yearning for stability, comfort, and joy. So, I started to read about the musical artform of counterpoint, in which a composer has two melodies moving alongside one another. At times those melodies meet and the notes clash, which is called dissonance. That was the tension I was hearing and feeling early in the duet from The Pearl Fishers. That was the tension I was feeling in a world that seemed more and more out of order, more and more uncertain and even frightening. But, counterpoint doesn’t just create a tension in the music, counterpoint also resolves that. This is called consonance – when the two melodies and notes begin to come together to create harmony. The great musical pieces of our world take us on an emotional journey, moving us from dissonance or tension, to consonance or relief. And even if we are not consciously aware of it, as we listen we are longing for that relief. And when it comes, we experience joy. My untrained ear can hear this in The Pearl Fishers duet, with the two voices singing distinct melodic lines, but most great music does this.
I have become interested in the idea of counterpoint, not just the musical theory, but also the ways we experience the effects of counterpoint – dissonance and consonance – in our lives. And the more I thought about it, the more I began to wonder if this was the metaphor I have been searching for in how we hold together the promise of the Kingdom of God, alongside the realities of the world we experience today. I have begun to wonder if this was the metaphor I was searching for to describe the pain and the beauty of living a life of faith.
Our task as Christians is to truthfully acknowledge and leave space for the pain of this world. The injustice. The fear. The grief. But at the same time we must continue to point to the Kingdom of God – that promise, that hope, that longed for experience of transcendence. The counterpoint of these two threads of our reality, these two distinct melodic lines we cannot ignore, often creates dissonance.
Millions die of a global pandemic, but in the Kingdom of God we do not know suffering. The world is steeped in systemic racism, but in the Kingdom of God we are all perfect reflections of the Divine. The political divide has fractured friendships, families, and governmental norms, but in the Kingdom of God the table is large enough for all of us. This is the dissonance we experience. When the counterpoint of our human reality and faith in the Kingdom of God clashes and creates troubling tension. This dissonance leaves us exhausted, and can even at times have us sincerely wondering if the promise of the Kingdom is real at all.
But my Beloved Community, that is not all we experience. We experience moments of transcendence, moments when the realities of our world and the promises of the Kingdom of God come together in ways that create consonance – harmony, peace, and a relief from the tension building around us. They may be only fleeting moments, but they grab a hold of our Spirits in a way that we experience like nothing else. They stay with us, giving us strength and resiliency for whatever comes next.
As I read our Gospel text for today, I came to believe that those listening to the teachings of Jesus were experiencing a moment of counterpoint – a moment when the human and divine came together in perfect harmony. You can hear it in their reaction to his teaching – verse 22 says, “They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority.” And later in verse 27, after Jesus had cast out the demon tormenting the man who came into the synagogue, the people reacted like this: “They were all amazed, and they kept on asking one another, ‘What is this? A new teaching – with authority!” And the scripture concludes by saying Jesus’ fame began to spread throughout the region.
The people did not know that this is what they were longing for. They did not know that the tension they were experiencing between the world as they knew it and the faith as they understood it could come together. So, they were astounded and amazed as Jesus began to teach and minister to them.
All along the people were experiencing dissonance. But then Jesus spoke and acted with authority, and the people, for a moment, just a moment, experienced consonance. They had been unconscious of even waiting to hear it, but when they experienced it, they realized for the first time that it was possible. They glimpsed the perfect harmony of humanity and divinity dancing. They knew now it was possible, and continued to search for it – and when they could, create it. As descendants of that faith, we have inherited the same search. And we have inherited the responsibility to seek ways to create that harmony. To point to the injustice of the world and repair it. To point to the pain of the world and offer it love. To point to the divisions of humanity and see the connections. These moments of consonance, of humanity and divinity dancing in perfect harmony, may only be fleeting – but they are real. And they remind us that that promise of the Kingdom of God is not a far away dream. It is not a melodic line completely removed for the melodies of our lives. Instead it dances alongside us, meeting us in moments of counterpoint, giving us relief and joy, and strength to continue the search and the creation.
On Palm Sunday 2020 my unsettled Spirit longed for relief and harmony. I found it in music. Where do you find it? How have you experienced it? And what can you do to create it? And what can we do as a community to create it? As inheritors of the teachings of Jesus, we are called to this work and we are blessed by the joy we receive from it. Amen.
O God, make us instruments of your love. We ask that you play the song of life through us as though we were stringed instruments. Stretch our concerns and capabilities so that the church as the body of Christ may resonate with good works. Let our individual live be as single strings producing clear and characteristic notes of grace; and forgive our tendency to let go of our true tone with the changes in the climate around us. We confess that when we become less attuned to your will, joyful notes turn flat and we make noise instead of music.
O God, we long to accompany your child Jesus in the dance of life. Place your hands upon us so our sounds together might be harmonious, music that joins neighbors in chorus and that gives voice to the spritely Spirit of peace.
We await your moments of counterpoint, and as we do so, make us instruments of your love. We prayer all of this in the name of Jesus Christ, who taught us to raise our voices together by praying…Our Father…