This morning we will consider the importance of tone. Not specifically musical tone, although that is related. I am talking also about the tone set in a situation. It may not be something that we very often think about in the context of faith. But, it behooves us to take time to meditate on the issue of tone, because in life, we too frequently underestimate its importance. You may have heard it said, that how you say something is as or more important that what you actually say. That idea calls to mind the words of Maya Angelou, ““I've learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” It is also consistent with twentieth century American author Dorothy Parker’s command, “Don’t look at me with that tone of voice.” How the tone is set and communicated in almost any situation will inevitably impact the situation’s trajectory. Tone directs the present and the future. But before going any further, let’s set the tone for the sermon with prayer:
Through the ages, you’ve spoken to your people O Lord through loud claps of thunder with torrential rains and in a still small voice. Speak to us know by your Word and Spirit through the timeless words of scripture. May your voice become our voices in our thoughts, words, and deeds. And now, may the words of my mouth and the meditation of all of our hearts, be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
There has been a lot of mention of flowers this morning. Flowers are a nice example of tone setters. For example, they may be given given at the beginning of a date to establish a good vibe. Guests take flowers to hostesses of get-togethers. Flowers are often placed in the sanctuary before a memorial service to create a sense of beauty and comfort. I know someone in this congregation who gives his wife a dozen roses every single Friday. I will not tell you his name since he is making a lot of us look bad. Flowers are just one way. We use our dress, our mannerisms, our voices and the content of what we say to intentionally set a tone. We do it in a job interview, meeting someone for the first time, or any of a plethora of situations in the public domain. In such instances, we seek to set a good tone. Here at church, we set the tone on Sunday morning. Good morning, Buenos dias, como estas? But as we consider our theme, might we become more aware of the many places in our lives that we may set a tone and not even realize it.
A show of hands: who has at least once, has been the lay leader on a Sunday morning? I am well aware that for many it is an honor. I am also aware that serving as the Sunday morning lay leader can for some, evoke nervousness. Some may relish the opportunity to speak publicly, but for many, but regularly on surveys, people identify public speaking as more anxiety producing than snakes. A lay leader blesses our worship by leading prayer and reading scripture. But the lay leader does something every single Sunday, and perhaps, much of the time, completely unaware he or she is doing it. The lay leader sets the tone of the passage. What do I mean? Even without having to preach a sermon, the lay leader is an interpreter of the scripture…because lay leaders interpret passages by the way they are read. It is a way of setting the tone.
Allow me to explain. With the sacred scripture that has been handed down, we have words that were originally scribed in Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic. Those words are then translated into English which is an arduous and imprecise process. But then comes the interpretive role of the lay leader. Though we have this book, what we do not have, is the tone of voice intended by the writers. Our interpretive role is to put a tone to the passages we read. Have you ever thought about that before? I had a seminary professor emphasize that as important as the words read from the Bible on a Sunday morning is the way in which they are read. So imagine, you may have been nervous enough all ready to be a lay leader, not you realize you are an interpreter also. Solema, you did great!
An example from a well-known passage—the prodigal coming back to his father after realizing he had squandered his inheritance and that his life prospects were abysmal. I will read it twice with two different tones of voice: “But when he came to himself he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger! 18I will get up and go to my father, and I will say to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; treat me like one of your hired hands.’ 20So he set off and went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. 21Then the son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’” The tone paints a picture about the intentions of the prodigal.
It is not only scripture that sets a tone in a church. The community sets a tone with how we welcome visitors and how we interact with each other on Sunday mornings and in the work we do together. Tone is such a powerful entity. A poor tone can raise tensions between the best of friends and exacerbate them between enemies. Even countries set tones in their political relationships. Tone setting is everywhere. And then there is the impact tone has in our own lives. What is the tone we are projecting not only to others, but even to ourselves?
In his article “How to set the tone for your day,” Pastor Mark Altrogge raises the question: what is the first thing you think about when you wake up? Do you have thoughts like: Oh great, another miserable cold day. These kids are driving me crazy. I have to meet with my boss today. I hate my job. This house is such a mess. I have so much to study before my final. I am so tired. Need coffee!” The beginning of the day, he asserts, is the best time to set the tone. The morning is a prime time to thank God for sleep, for the day to come, and for the host of blessings in our lives. It is a time to set a tone of thanks that can impact the entire day. The morning is where we decide grumpy or grateful.
The passage that Solema and I read from John is a portion of what biblical scholars refer to as the “farewell discourse.” Jesus is about to sacrificially give his life, setting the tone of eternal love. But before that fate, he prays and teaches for his disciples in order to set the tone for their life without him in the flesh. In the chapter before, he assures them and us that the Holy Spirit will be present as a guide. And in today’s text, Jesus prays, “‘Righteous Father, the world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me. 26I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.’”
Jesus prays in our passage that the community that would become the church might live in unity and love. And how does he suggest we might do that? According to The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, “The unity for which Jesus prays is not intrinsic to the community itself, but derives from the primal unity of the Father and Son. For the community to be ‘one’ means that they mirror the Father/Son relationship,” (Volume 9. Pg. 794-795.) Perhaps, the most commonly used metaphor to describe God is as a loving parent. Yes, the Bible was written in a more male dominated period, but God is also described in scripture as a mother—a motherly hen that surrounds her brood with her wings. How apropos for Mother’s Day! The tone for our faith is described as one of living out the sacrificial love of a parent. As a scripture reader, as a member of this community, as a member of this society, and as we seek to grow personally on our journeys, we can seek to set a tone of giving, or love and of unity. Heaven knows the earth is exceedingly short on that tone.
I leave you with a favorite quote about tone setting: “Watch your thoughts; they become words. Watch your words; they become actions. Watch your actions, they become habits. Watch your habits, they become character. Watch your character; it becomes your destiny.” How we set the tone in our lives has a lot to do with how we live them. That is true for our personal lives, our families, and wider communities, and our church. May our daily thoughts, words, actions, habits, characters, and destinies be based in the sacrificial love. It will make for better days and it will make us part of a wider team working together to set a better tone for the world we live in.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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You will find sermons preached by Rev. Robert Woodruff and guests preachers.