SCRIPTURE   Romans 15:4-13   “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

MESSAGE    “Harmony in a World Out of Tune”  James Renfrew

I want to tell you about Teresa, a woman who sang in the church choir.  This was at Trinity Presbyterian Church, the little church in New York City where I got my training to be a pastor about 35 years ago.  Maria loved to sing, and she was in the front row of the choir proudly wearing her robe, and flashing a big smile.  When Maria began to sing her voice was exuberant, loud enough to soar over all of the other voices in the choir.

But Maria was badly out of tune … always.  Too sharp, too flat.  Enough to make the other choir members wince, enough to make everyone in the pews squirm uncomfortably.    But Maria sang on and on, every Sunday, loudly and joyously, a model of perfect disharmony.   What to do?

My granddaughter is learning violin, and here’s the secret to playing a violin.  Most instruments have a set place to put your fingers, a button, a valve, a fret, but a violin has no short-cuts, you just have to find your way to the right spot on the finger board.  It can be painful to listen as children on the violin struggle to find their way to the harmonious note.

It’s not fair to pick on her.  Astute members of the choir have noticed from time to time when I play with them that I also find the out-of-tune notes, too.

Harmony in the life of a church is not just about singing and playing instruments, but these things illustrate what harmony is all about.  We’re all different, different voices, some sing low, some sing high, some sing soft, some sing loud, but with good leadership, good training, when we’re at our best, it all blends together beautifully.  So beautifully that even my mistakes aren’t so obvious.

Here is what Paul says about harmony:  “May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  It’s a reading for Advent, fitting in well with all of the Advent themes of love, joy, and peace.  The stories about Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the star over Bethlehem draw us closer to that heavenly harmony.  In a deeply divided nation, lining up on opposite sides over race, climate, violence and war, we love readings like this that encourage us to seek the harmony even when it feels like the rest of the world is out of tune.

So when Paul talks about harmony he’s talking about more than music, he’s talking about how the people in a church like ours make beautiful things happen when we combine our diverse experiences,  abilities, skills and talents.  We can put together a Mobile Food Pantry, we can run a Vacation Bible School, we can serve a Turkey Dinner, we can organize bell-ringing for Salvation Army, and yes practice up a beautiful choir on Christmas Eve.  Because when the harmony is beautiful, people are drawn to it, and want to add their voices.

Paul isn’t saying that we have achieved harmony, he’s saying that we have to keep striving towards harmony in choir, in our ministry, in our community and in a world badly out of tune.

Let’s be honest, harmony is often elusive.  Even with Christmas songs in the air it doesn’t take much to throw things into disharmony.  One out of tune singer in a choir, one loud voice in a conversation, one bullet, one bomb.  It doesn’t take much to wreck harmony, and it can take an awfully long time to find our way back to harmony when we’ve lost it.  But that’s why we’re here.  Even with a world out of tune, we’re here in hope, looking for the right note, the right sound, that harmony the world needs.

Now what to do about Maria, the out-of-tune choir member?  Here are some of the ideas we could have tried:

[1]  People should leave and join another church, leave Theresa behind.  Nope, escaping a problem doesn’t solve the problem.

[2]  Someone needs to tell her to tone it down.  The problem is who that someone is.  In most churches I’ve been that assignment seems to fall to someone like me.

[3]  She needs singing lessons, or maybe a better Choir Director?  That might cause humiliation.

[4]  Hand out ear plugs?

[5]  Serve beer, wine and whiskey to everyone at the service, soon they won’t care because everyone will be singing out of tune!

[6]  Form two choirs, one for harmony and one for disharmony.  But who decides who is in each one?

[7]  Shut down the choir.  I attended a church for a time where one person always offered the exact same prayer, word for word, every single Sunday.  It drove people crazy, so the pastor stopped taking prayer requests.  If you can shut down prayer, why not shut down the choir, too?

[8]  Or shut down the choir and hire professional singers.

These options are all bad.

Here was the solution we came up with at the little church in New York City.  Everyone sing a little louder!  And it worked.  Maria was only too glad to follow everyone else.  What I liked about this solution, was that all we had to do was tell Maria how much we loved her, and , hey, let’s sing something together.  Because in fact her enthusiasm enriched us all, and we’d be poorer without her.

During these days of Advent we’re in it together.  We sink or swim together.  Even better, we fly together when we find those rare harmonies.