Ostinato

Sunday, September 24, 2017

A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli at Foundry UMC, September 24, 2017, the third sermon in the series “Composition 101.”

 Text: Exodus 3:1-12

 

To compose is to create. Composers create music. God creates life. Musical compositions employ different elements to give them depth, interest, texture. Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve talked about the common musical elements of melody and harmony, time signature and rhythm—in more common parlance, the tune and the beat of a song. We’ve applied musical composition as a metaphor for the life that God creates.  In that metaphor, life and the whole creation is a song, God’s love song. God’s creative love is the “melody” and God’s saving grace is the “rhythm” of the composition.  Out of overflowing love, God creates and recreates. And we, together with all creation, are made to sing, to love, to live, in harmony with God, with one another, and with the earth, dancing to the rhythm of grace.

 

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been mindful that the metaphor of music is both rich with creative possibility AND may be or feel inaccessible to siblings who are deaf and to those of us who “aren’t music people.”  My hope is that folks who think of themselves as not very musical will be open to learn some new concepts along with me!  And, as I researched engagement with music within the deaf community, a whole universe opened up around how people experience music.[i]  Visual and tactile engagement, sensitivity to vibrations in some kinds of music, and making music with others, dependent not on hearing the music, but through learning its structure and process, its technique and rhythm.  One of the things I read is that sometimes children who are deaf remove their shoes during band or orchestra practice in order to be able to feel the rhythm of the other instruments.  One particularly helpful commentary reminded me that folks (and I imagine that is primarily the hearing community) often “forget how multi-sensory music can be, what a physical act it is for our bodies to absorb sound.”[ii]  As we talk about different elements of music and composition throughout this year, I pray that there will be ways for all of us to engage, have new insights, and make new connections on our spiritual journey; and if there are ways that might help that happen for you, I hope you’ll let us know.

 

Today, we learn a new element of musical composition—it’s a term I didn’t know well before preparing for today, but after a little study, I realized that while the word may seem intimidating, what it represents is very common and familiar.  Ostinato is the term, from the Italian “stubborn”—think of our English word “obstinate.”  In music, the ostinato is a continually repeated motif or phrase.  It is a “stubborn” pattern that continues throughout the entire song. With everything else going on around it—it just keeps on keeping on.  Often, the bass guitar in a band is the one to play the ostinato.  Here are a few examples (I wish we had a bass guitar so that the notes could be felt!):

“Another One Bites the Dust” (Queen)

“Thriller” (Michael Jackson)

“Under Pressure” (David Bowie/Queen)

 

Sometimes the ostinato appears in other ways, like in “Bittersweet Symphony” (The Verve).

 

These are some pop music examples of what appears in every form of music—how about this from a different genre? (play “Pachelbel’s Canon in D” bass line)

 

So…ostinato. A stubbornly repeated phrase in music… Today, we’re going to identify the ostinato in God’s love song and the Christian “classic” we’re using to do that is the story of Moses at the burning bush.

 

First, just so we’re all starting on the same page, a little background on Moses:  Moses was born around 1400 BCE to an Israelite slave in Egypt; when then-Pharoah ordered all Israelite baby boys killed, Moses’ mother put him in a basket in the river, Pharoah’s daughter found and rescued him, and he was raised as an Egyptian prince.  As a young man, Moses saw an Egyptian taskmaster beating one of his Israelite kin and proceeded to kill the Egyptian.  Moses then fled for his life and settled as a shepherd and husband in the land of Midian.  That’s where we find him in our story today.

 

In verse 1, we learn that Moses was “beyond the wilderness”—he was way out there, on the edge, as far from Egypt as he could get.  Moses was not looking for a vision, was not looking for a divine encounter.  He was looking for a place to pasture his sheep.

 

And then a flame appears—not the destructive fires we’ve been reading about on the West coast, but a fire that did no harm.  The bush burned but was not consumed.  Some would describe this moment as a numinous experience—and whether supernatural in fact or in perception, the vision gets Moses’ attention.  Notice it’s only “when” Moses makes the decision to turn toward the vision, to respond to the mystery, that God speaks and calls Moses by name.  God tells Moses to take off his sandals, to allow his feet to touch the hallowed ground, the place where this divine encounter is taking place. 

 

God let’s Moses know that the God who is speaking is the God of Israel.  Moses is afraid—perhaps because it was already believed at that time that looking at God was fatal…or perhaps Moses hid his face out of shame for what had happened in Egypt or because he’d abandoned his people there.  God continues, saying, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters.  Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” (Ex 3:7-8)  At this point, Moses must have started to feel encouraged. First, it doesn’t seem that God is interested in smiting him—Yay!  And furthermore, God is going to do something about the suffering!  God has come to bring liberation!  God is promising ice cream! 

 

And then God—in a particularly chatty mode—continues, saying to Moses, “So come, I will send you…”  At which point I imagine Moses went blank… **record scratch/screech** full stop**come again?!  What do you mean: “I will send you?”  God, on the other hand, doesn’t miss a beat. The promise is that God will be with Moses and that when—not “if”—Moses has brought the people out of Egypt, they’ll meet back up in that very spot. It’s like those movies where lovers promise to meet again at some future date in the place where all the magic first happened.  //

 

So what is the ostinato in God’s love song? How does this classic story of the faith provide clues?  Here are several things I notice.

 

God meets us wherever we are.  Moses wasn’t looking for God and yet God is there.  The thing that got Moses’ attention was a beautiful, strange vision.  How many of us can attest to the ways that beauty and wonder attract and turn us toward God?  There’s a reason so many people will say that they “experience God in nature.”  Another angle on that is when we witness people being wonder-full—when someone does a beautiful thing for another (is patient, forgiving, generous, thoughtful), or gracefully perseveres in a painful moment, or is brave in the face of harm; when a child laughs or reaches out to give you a hug… These things—these wonder-full visions in creation—are not God, but if we are paying attention they can turn us toward God.

 

This awareness of God, this curiosity to see and explore, is modeled by Moses in our story. Moses could have missed the burning bush entirely, could have been so focused on sheep herding techniques and where to set up camp for the night, that he passed right on by.  He could have seen the burning bush but, because it was unlike anything he’d seen before, he could have turned away due to fear or distrust.  Instead, Moses turns toward the vision, draws near, and encounters God.  This encounter doesn’t take Moses out of himself in some Gnostic way.  Rather, the divine encounter leads Moses to connect his body even more directly with the dirt, with the earth, to feel the vibration of the divine rhythm of grace beneath his feet—just like young musicians learning to play instruments. // God meets us where we are, invites us to draw near, and grounds us in our context, helping us to perceive that the very ground beneath us pulses with divine presence.

 

God is paying attention to us.  While we may miss the invitations to wonder and encounter and may not always pay attention to God, God is always paying attention to us.  In the story, this is made very clear.  The God we worship—the God of our ancestors, the God of Jesus—observes, hears, knows, responds.  God perceives the suffering and oppression of the enslaved Israelites and is determined to do something about it.  We can—and do—argue that God seems to wait a long time to get involved.  That is a fair argument and worthy of conversation—and beyond a nod to the fact that God’s vision and experience of time is likely not our own—this is beyond the scope of what we can dive into today.  Today, the critical piece to learn is that the God of the Bible is represented not as a distant, aloof God who doesn’t care.  Some people suggest that there’s a God, but after making the world, God disengaged.  Everything in our Christian tradition suggests just the opposite.  We may experience distance from God, we may wonder whether God cares or is paying attention.  But again and again, as in our story today, God shows up and says, “I see, I hear, I observe, I care…”

 

God calls us to participate in God’s life and mission.  Like Moses may have thought, it would be lovely if God would show up, fix everything, and take us for dessert.  But instead, God shows up and sends us—you and me—to be agents of love and liberation, of hope and mercy, of tenderness and justice in places of injustice, pain, and need.  Moses didn’t want to go where God was sending him.  He pushes back in all sorts of ways—“Who am I to go?!” “What if they don’t believe you sent me?” “I’ve never been good at public speaking” (Ex 4:1, 10)—and finally: “God, please just send someone else!” (Ex 4:13)  But God is not deterred.  God knows that Moses is the one through whom this work of liberation can be accomplished.  Along with perceiving the suffering of the people, God also perceives gifts in Moses—gifts that Moses may have known nothing about.  Moses is aware of his shortcomings—he is a murderer who abandoned his people to save himself and has a speech impediment.  God is aware of Moses’ gifts and potential.  And just as throughout the whole story from the beginning right up until today, God calls and sends us, with all our “stuff,” to participate in what God is up to in the world.

 

God meets us where we are.  God is paying attention to us.  God calls us to participate in God’s life and mission.  These are the clues that lead us to identify the ostinato, the consistent, repeated motif in God’s love song.  The ostinato is attentive, engaged, empowering relationship between God and creation.  God is with us. God cares for us.  God is engaged in the world and in our lives.  God’s presence calls us beyond ourselves and into the larger reality of God’s mission of love, justice, and reconciliation.  And as we turn toward the God who is always turned toward us, we are assured God will go with us into whatever breach we are sent.

 

In God’s love song, God’s creative love is the “melody,” God’s saving grace is the “rhythm,” and God’s empowering, eternal presence with us is the ostinato.  It repeats again and again.  God says, “I will be your God and you will be my people.” (e.g. Gen 17) “I will not leave you nor forsake you” (Deut 31:6).  Mary’s child is Emmanuel, meaning “God with us.”  Jesus says, “I will not leave you orphaned.” (Jn 14) “Remember, I am with you always.” (Mt 28)  The founder of Methodism, John Wesley, “as he lay dying, his friends gathered around him…cried out, ‘The best of all is, God is with us,’ lifted his arms and raised his feeble voice again, repeating the words, ‘The best of all is, God is with us.’”[iii]

 

 

 

[i]http://gapersblock.com/transmission/2010/07/22/beyond_vibrations_the_deaf_musical_experience/, http://www.matd.org.uk/, https://prezi.com/mytgnnnj614d/hearing-impaired-and-music-education/, http://blogs.jwpepper.com/index.php/teaching-music-to-deaf-students/,

[ii] Aharona Ament, “Beyond Vibrations: The Deaf Experience in Music,” http://gapersblock.com/transmission/2010/07/22/beyond_vibrations_the_deaf_musical_experience/

[iii] http://wesley.nnu.edu/john-wesley/