I sometimes say that my first ministry was as a voice teacher. This is a very tender, very vulnerable, very spiritual place to meet people. Folks may be brave enough to speak in a board room, risk life and limb, or act naked upon a stage, but ask them to sing, and hoo baby … a very different story. I think this partly has to do with the fact that each and every human voice is unique, distinct: there is no one out there who sounds exactly like you. So to be asked to work with someone’s voice was to be honored with encouraging their truest selves. It made for a good transition to the priesthood.
Voice plays a big role in our theology too: today we hear God’s voice, affirming Jesus as a beloved child of God at his baptism. Our Psalmist (as a singer himself) describes the “voice of the Lord” as moving upon the waters of creation, as an instrument of power and splendor, as well as delightful enough to make Lebanon “skip like a calf”. Have we known people (preachers, teachers, parents perhaps) whose voices seemed to split the flames, shake the wilderness, and strip forests bare? Certainly, our words have power, to give strength and blessing, or to cut people down; we may even have the power to create change in our world, to bring justice and righteousness to those who have been denied their voices. When we join in common prayer, our voices literally connect us to one another –the vibrations knit us together – and with God.
Voice, carried on Breath (or Ruach, in Hebrew, for Spirit) plays a large part in creation, and recreation, doesn’t it? This is true not only in the Hebrew and the Christian traditions, but in other, Eastern traditions as well. The Hindus believe that the world came into being through the vibrations of the voice of God, which is why chanting is such an important part of their faith. Whenever we sing or chant together, the vibrations of our voices physically touch one another, in our ears, in our very bones. (This may not sit particularly well with Episcopalians, but think about it when you are asked to reach out during the peace this morning: we have already touched one another!).
Have you ever been to the opera? When the soprano sings, and descends from a high note, the sound is magnified in the walls of the room, and you can feel it resonate in your spine, can’t you? When I sang in Boston, we performed a few times for groups of deaf children, who sat holding balloons in order to feel the musical vibrations. Perhaps it was like that when the heavens opened, and God’s voice spoke to Jesus; God’s voice was heard, and felt, but not only Jesus, and John, but by every person there. Perhaps they felt it reverberate down to their toes, into the very core of their being. And perhaps those words “You are my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” resounded not only for Jesus, but for each person there, reassuring them that they were loved, that they were enough. I wonder: can we feel and hear these words resonate in our own souls, today, right now?
For those of you who came to our Bible Study on Isaiah this morning, you may recognize the “voice” of Second Isaiah in our reading today. This section of the book – chapters 40 to 55 – was written during the time when the Hebrews were exiled from their country, away from their spiritual home of Jerusalem, and wandering in diaspora. They felt confused, defeated, disheartened, and they needed to hear words, a voice of comfort and reassurance. They needed to know that they were unique, special, beloved of God. “I have called you by name, you are mine”. These words continue to reassure us today, don’t they?
Who among us has not experienced times of great challenge, even of discouragement, loss and depression, perhaps in the last year? As a “New Year” dawns, don’t we seek redemption? The internet and television are chock full of “resolutions” right now, as we all look for renewal, for a fresh start in our lives. So it was with the Israelites as God tells them and us through the Prophet, “do not fear, for I am with you”. God calls to all of us, sons and daughters, from far away.
The word “voice” shares its root with words like “vocation”, a calling forth. When we experience God’s “voice”, we experience affirmation not only that we are “pleasing”, good boys and girls, but a deep and abiding certainty in God’s calling to us. We experience a sense of vocation, of our true voice in the world.
My brothers and sisters at St. James, as we begin this New Year together, preparing for our ministries ahead, I invite each of us to listen deeply to God’s calling to us, as unique “voices” in the world, and as a unique body of voices, a “chorus” if you will. Each of us, all of us, with the potential for great good, and great harm; each of us with the power to comfort and to encourage. Each of us with the responsibility to speak out, to use our voices to bring about God’s kingdom of justice and peace in this little corner of the world.
For each of us was baptized, even as Jesus himself was baptized, and marked as “Christ’s own forever”. We each made a covenant, which we will renew today, to, with God’s help, “proclaim by word and example” (not only with our mouths, not just on Sundays, but with our actions in time, talent and treasure all year long) “the Good News of God in Christ”; to “see and serve Christ in all persons” (all persons, without judgement or fear); and to “strive for justice and peace and respect the dignity of every human being”.
These are powerful words, and God’s voice has empowered us with the Holy Spirit to bring this covenant to life. Let each unique voice at St. James be raised not only to read our “mission statement” every Sunday, but even more importantly, to actively participate in living out our Baptismal Covenant, that we share in unity with every other Episcopalian around the world on this day. Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness. AMEN!