- In Strength and Faith
- On Firm Foundation
- Our Fatherâ€™s World
- Knowing How, Knowing Why
- With Love and Hope Surrounded
- To Sacred Truth
- Play On Your Harp
- Coming Through Home
- Yesterday, Today, and Forever
- The One Thing Needful
- In the Face of the West Wind
- To Sacred Truth
- Not So Wild a Dream
- From Redemption to Renaissance
- Salty Days and Starry Nights
- A Holy Restlessness
- The Cross and the Glory
- Remarks - Chapel Dedication
Texts: 1 Samuel 16:14-23, Colossians 3:9-17
In keeping with the year’s Homecoming emphasis on music, Dr. Paul Dovre used the Old Testament text of David playing his harp for King Saul as the setting for this sermon.
We have come together these days to do some looking. Cobbers who have not been around for the past five years or so have come home to find a new building or two and – of all things – our very own mountain outside Olin Hall. Think what the Norwegian immigrant founders would have said and done if they had found a mountain like ours! Our history might have been written differently and Alpine skiing might still be an intercollegiate sport.
In addition to looking at the campus we have been looking at each other, and that is most pleasant. A sage described the ages of life as three – youth, middle age and “my, but you’re looking well.” Those turn out to be inappropriate categories for this Homecoming crowd because everyone is “looking well.” One of our longtime professors had an interesting comment a year or two ago. He said that he used to think our freshmen students looked younger every year. And lately, he said, their parents do too!
We have come to do some looking, and we have also come to do some remembering. College classmates and friendship groups have been renewing old memories. Memories of Paradise Hall and Boe’s Bunkhouse, of Prexy’s Pond and North Hall, and memories of professors and janitors and cooks, memories past recounting. I have noticed some of our memories have a way of growing and changing over the years. The famous library caper of the early 1960’s is a case in point. That was the occasion on which some students moved all the dishes and silverware from the cafeteria to the library, where they set up the study tables for breakfast. By authoritative count only eight students were involved in that caper, but by my last count at least 35 people claim to have been participants!
Honoring is also part of this weekend as we recognize alumni who have distinguished themselves in the world, and honoring teachers who have had a great impact on our lives and on the history of the college. Besides all the looking and honoring and remembering, this particular Homecoming is a time for singing. This place has been hooked on music from its very first day. It may not have made dollars and cents for a poor college in the 1890s, but our founders could not imagine life and study without praise and singing. One of the first three charter members of the faculty, Caroline Finseth, was a music teacher, and shortly after classes began in 1891, S.O. Drykoner, a Norwegian immigrant student, was hired on as song leader. Bands and orchestras and choirs would follow, and while the style and the quality of music and performance would change over the years, there was never any doubt about the place of music in the life of this college. So it is not surprising that music is a part of Cobber pride and memory. We recall the fact of the band’s appearances at the 1935 World’s Fair and its tour of Norway, the deeply moving post-World War II Norway tour of the choir, and the sparkling 1986 European tour of the orchestra. Top that off with annual concerts and tours, chapels and worship festivals, and you know that music is a Concordia story. On this Homecoming we gather to relive the special experience of choral music, the special experience of choirs at Concordia and the distinctive tradition of Paul J. Christiansen.
It is not surprising that music is a Concordia story. The Jews of the ancient world always made music in praise of God. Paul’s letters to the Ephesians and Colossians made it plain that the early church was a place of music and praise. Beyond Paul’s witness in today’s text, we have the report of Pliny, Roman Governor of Bithynia, whose letter to the emperor said of the early Christians, “They meet at dawn to sing a hymn to Christ as God.” When early church father St. Augustine wrote in his Confessions about how deeply music was able to move him, he was simply putting into words what the people of God had always known. Our own Martin Luther, who turned tavern melodies into rousing hymns, did not hesitate to say, “after theology, there is no art to be placed beside music.” History authenticates the profound connection between the heart and mind of the church and its music. Karl Barth’s theological endeavors, by his own testimony, would have been arid had he not begun each day listening to Mozart. We have only to reflect on our own response each time the choir sings “Beautiful Savior” to acknowledge the profound effect of music in our lives.
In my own college days, one of our favorite songs was about the Psalmist David. It was a spiritual arranged by Paul J. Christiansen, a song about the trials of the Israelites living in captivity under Pharaoh. The refrain of the song went like this:
“Little David, play on your harp,
Little David, play on your harp,
David made music in many ways, with psalm and song and harp. Indeed, for David the harp was a metaphor, for he made music with his whole life. He made music as a wise king, as a general leading soldiers into battle, and as a priest ministering to his people. So it is with us, too. Whether with harp or not, we, like David, make a song with our lives in one way or another, with gentle harmony and resolution or with discord and shrillness.
What is behind this making of music, not just with voice or instrument but with one’s whole life? As David had a harp, we all have harps, so why do we play them? Well, I submit that one reason is praise. Look at the Old Testament tradition. In the great Exodus of the Israelites, Miriam sang a song of praise to God when the Red Sea closed upon Pharaoh’s army. She sang in praise of victory. In the book of Isaiah the prophet sang because God had brought comfort to His people. He brought compassion to the afflicted. Good King David, the psalm maker and singer, sometimes sang in praise for a triumph and sometimes just for being spared. David was no saint, we know. He was flesh and blood. He took another man’s wife and then he compounded the matter by sending the man to battle where he was killed. David knew more about sin than the lust in his heart, and when confronted with his transgression he must have been angry and conscience stricken. But he discovered a God who would forgive his grievous acts. It was God’s deliverance from the valley of guilt that inspired great psalms of praise and heroic deeds of faithfulness. David played on his harp in praise. So did the early Christians. Filled with God’s Spirit, we are told in this morning’s text, they sang and made melody with all their hearts. And with their lives too, they sang the song of thanks as they fed the hungry, healed the sick, and suffered martyrdom. In the young church of the first century amidst uncertainty and oppression, the church sang in praise. When Paul wrote to the Colossians, he was in a prison cell, yet he urged the people to sing in praise of God who loved them. People sing such songs of thanks today, too. Spared from the bondage of chemicals, people sing praise to God who enables their journey from day to day. Amidst the dying of Calcutta, Mother Teresa sings a song of praise as she shuns celebrity in her daily walk. And in South Africa and Namibia, our brothers and sisters find great faith amidst great darkness, and they play on their harps in ways that David would have understood.
God was merciful to David, and so he played his harp in praise of God. That is a feeling with which we can all identify, whether our thanks are for the mercies of each new day – sunlight, fresh air, good health and fast friends – or the seasonal blessing of occasions like this, when people gather to remember the best years and dearest friends of their lives; or the not-to-be-taken-for-granted blessings of a meaningful vocation, of work that matters; or the inexhaustible blessing of God’s grace and love – full and overflowing – fresh and new every day; or the steady presence of a loving God in the face of disappointment, distress or bondage. So we play on our harps – yes we do – our very lives make a joyful noise of praise to a God who will never let us go.
Like David, we play on our harps for a second reason, to serve God in the world. In the Old Testament text today, David played for King Saul. The king suffered bouts of depression and David would come to him and play on his harp, and the evil spirit of Saul’s depression would leave him, and, we are told, he was refreshed and made well. There was healing in David’s music. Cobber Dr. Roy Harrisville of Luther Seminary described it all creatively when he wrote, “what Saul needed was someone with a little know-how, someone in the hand of the Almighty who was handy with a harp.”
So there was David, sent to serve. David played on his harp in God’s service in ways past recounting from humble shepherd to exalted ruler. Even when he forgot who he was called to serve, as he occasionally did, he was never out of reach of his Master’s call or comeuppance. So David played on his harp in service to God.
History is full of that, the history of society, the church, and our own lives, people playing on their harps in service to God. Why, bless our souls, it is what this college is all about, commissioned and commissioning people to influence the affairs of the world in service to God. History is full of stories of harp players. People like Emma Nobryn, an immigrant who came to Concordia to learn English and pick up some job skills, but who returned to serve the college for 40 years as teacher of Norse, German, Latin, Greek, and French. She was an independent, unobtrusive person who influenced this college on a course toward excellence and service. She played on her harp, all right, with skill and devotion.
Another of those harp players was Gabriel Hauge, easily the most famous graduate of the college. The son of a Hawley preacher, he was uncommonly gifted and bright. He attended the college in the 1930’s, a time when things were often difficult and uncomfortable. He was an outstanding orator, the student body president, and a prize-winning debater, who, not surprisingly, always asked questions in class. He earned a doctorate in economics and went on to a distinguished career as a teacher, adviser to the president of the United States, and corporate leader. Throughout his career he operated out of a deep set of values. He sat with kings and princes and influenced the affairs of the world with dignity and toward wholeness.
Another harp player is Reverend J. David Simonson from the class of 1951. He was another small-town boy. He played fullback on the Concordia football team and was a natural leader. He is a big man with a barrel voice and a great disposition. Following his graduation from seminary, he went to the mission field in Africa. There he saw the need for native churches to become independent, and he recognized it before it was the “in thing.” He started a self-help program by which churches and communities would build their own facilities. He called the program “Operation Bootstrap,” and it would have an impact all around the globe.
These are only three of the harp players in the chronicle of Cobbers, two who cared and one who cares still with excellence and impact in service to God. Mind you, harp playing is not without it hazards. I mean, Saul was a moody and demanding king, and there was high risk for a young shepherd called before such a king. Emma Norbryn and Gabriel Hauge put themselves at risk each time they moved into a classroom or boardroom, and David Simonson still does. Some harp players are people with unusual talent whose gifts are visible to all, people like Gabriel Hauge. But most of us are less noticed. Even David the Psalmist was, in the beginning at least, not such a big shot. He was the youngest of eight brothers and almost overlooked, but he was chosen. God gave him a harp to play and some important places to play it.
Each of us has a harp; we have talents and opportunities to play on our harps in service to the God who created and redeems us. And both you and God know there are places to play your harps: in your homes through the daily ministry of recognition and support; in your careers, where quality and excellence are means of grace and ministry; in your churches, Lutheran or otherwise, where we must ensure that the Word is proclaimed so that God’s Spirit may shake us out of the doldrums of the status quo and awaken us to the gospel of power that changes lives and enlivens congregations; in our neighborhoods, where young people seek goals and values in a world preoccupied with the expedient and pleasurable; and in the decision making of communities, where issues of justice for the powerless and virtue for the young are in doubt.
“Little David play on your harp –
Little David play on your harp,
David played on his harp to praise and serve God. The song of his life still lives on. We each have a harp to play and a song to sing. Play on your harp and “let the world stand back in wonder.” Amen.