“Harmony in the Key of Compassion” by Peter Bankson

May 9, 2021

pastel drawing by Martha Phillips

During the Easter season this year Celebration Circle has invited us to focus on witnesses, asking us what it means to be witnesses to the Resurrection in these chaotic times. This question got me pondering not only what we are witnessing, but what difference how we witness makes.   

The lectionary readings for this week led me to reflect on the Resurrection as an expression of God’s love for this Creation, how we recognize the love of God, how we witness to it, and how we can contribute to its health and growth. Three questions came to mind for me:

  • How does the resurrection of Jesus as the Christ reveal the presence of divine love? (He lay down his life as a model of reaching for inclusive harmony.)  
  • How can we testify effectively as we share with others what we’re experiencing? (We can look for moments of resonance and help tune ourselves and others to nurture divine harmony.)
  • How might we help open a path to deeper harmony, modeling our commitment to being creative, inclusive as we work for peace and justice? (We can help create memorable tunes in the key of compassion, tunes that stick in the brains of others who hear them.)

I’ve been thinking about images of Divine Love through the metaphor of resonance, harmonizing together as we seek to be channels of God’s love in these chaotic times. Let me see what I can do with this approach here this morning. 

Harmony seems to be an inherent physiological quality. We can feel when we are in tune. (I’m a non-musician. Although my father played banjo in a high school band with Bing Crosby’s brother Bob, and I inherited my dad’s classic Vega 4-string banjo, I never had a music lesson in my life.) I know I don’t know how to stay in tune, but – and here’s the really important insight for me – but I know immediately when I’m NOT in tune. I can know it even though I can’t control it… yet. For me, getting in tune, both musically and relationally, has been both a challenge and an opportunity for lifelong learning.

Relational Harmony

There is a resonance that marks being called together in the presence of the Holy Spirit, a kind of “relational harmony.”

In Acts 10 we see the Apostle Peter witnessing the Holy Spirit falling on a group of Gentiles, “outsiders” his community thought of as enemy. Given this unexpected resonance in the Spirit, Peter calls for the outsiders to be baptized and welcomed into the family of faith. The believers baptize them, and they respond ecstatically, speaking in tongues. It’s a miracle!

As this expanded congregation began to get to know each other in new ways, I can imagine that they needed to adjust some of their attitudes and assumptions about the “others.” It was a creative, inclusive thing to do, one that opened for them some surprising paths toward peace and justice. One mark of the resurrection is likely some kind of compassionate resonance.

I think there is an analogous harmony that comes to relationships when members are trying to express their joy at “being in this together.” We know when we are in the presence of the holy Spirit: we can feel it in our bones.

Since the pandemic lockdown moved us to shift our gathering for worship from in-person to remote, we’ve been singing with our mikes muted. That has given me the opportunity to sing out loud as I listen to whoever is singing for us online. In those circumstances, when Marjory and I are in different rooms on different cameras, I’m able to sing loud enough to hear myself alongside our community vocalist, someone who is on key, someone who is a witness to the way the hymn should sound. I’m slowly realizing that this is a way I can respond to the witness of the vocalist and learn to be in harmony.

Does that learning process apply to other, more relational harmony? Can we learn to tune ourselves to act more in the key of compassion? I think so, and the more witnesses to compassion around us, the easier it can be.  We can help others get in tune with this compassionate resonance by witnessing to the harmony of the Spirit.

Jesus laid down his life as a model of reaching for inclusive harmony

We know harmony deep in our bones

Psalm 98, the psalm for this week calls us to “Sing to the Lord a new song,” to “make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises.” When I read this, I am reminded of how often these days I hear from one or another of you how much we miss singing together in worship. I’ve said before that there is a special feeling that often fills my body as we sing together during worship. As we sing together, we can tell when we are in tune with each other.

This insight from musical harmony has a direct impact in relational harmony: It’s quite likely that I can recognize when I’m out of tune in a relationship, or a community, but not know how to change keys.

As I was working with this idea of relational harmony, I had several encouraging conversations with John Morris and Marjory, who helped me think about harmony and resonance and the phenomenon of “keys” in music.

Some music seems to work better in a particular key Minor keys are more commonly used for sad expressions; Major keys convey the energy of joy.

I found a study from Western Michigan University that described these differences in very clear terms. Here’s an example from the study of a few keys:

  • C Major is “completely pure. Its character is: innocence, simplicity, naivety, children’s talk.”
  • D Major is “the key of triumph, of Hallejuahs, of war-cries, of victory-rejoicing. Thus, the inviting symphonies, the marches, holiday songs and heaven-rejoicing choruses are set in this key.”
  • E♭ Major is “the key of love, of devotion, of intimate conversation with God.”

 Musical Key Characteristics (wmich.edu)

This description made me wonder if I might consider the idea of different “keys” for relational harmony. These days, a lot of our public discourse seems to be written in the key of anxiety, or the key of ego, rather than the key of love. How DO we retune from the key of domination, or the key of greed, to the key of compassion? And how will we get the vibe?

It helps to have someone point the way, to set the tone so we can hear it as we tune ourselves toward this new key. I’ve watched Marjory getting ready to practice playing her violin often enough to hear that her pitchpipe is important to give her a reliable note to guide her tuning. Her pitchpipe is, in some ways, a witness to how she needs to tune her violin.

As you listen to an orchestra prepare to perform together, you can hear how the witness of one pitchpipe guides one instrument into tune so it can then serve to guide others. It doesn’t take long until the orchestra is in tune and can play together.

The pitchpipe isn’t the whole orchestra, but it helps witness to the resonance in the key of C.    

(Play pitchpipe, then pause)

What key are we tuned to?  As I’ve pondered this musical metaphor, I see that there are different keys to relationship, just as there are different keys in music. Musicians know, much better than I, that there are some keys that are better suited to the songs of today’s psalm, a joyful noise. There are other musical keys that evoke anger, or grief. Or violent domination.

Much of what I read in the paper and see on the news seem to be performances tuned in a key of rage, or fear, or domination. If, in our own small ways we witness relationships in the key of compassion, how can we hold those up as examples for others? How can we serve as pitchpipes for living in the key of compassion?   

Our witness can help others join the chorus.

Our Gospel lesson for this week, from John, Chapter 15, offers some additional insight into the harmony that resonates from the resurrection. The text is familiar:

15:10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.

15:11 I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

15:12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.

15:13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.

15:14 You are my friends if you do what I command you.

Here’s another take on the Gospel, through the lens of relational harmony that I’ve been playing with this morning. Jesus says:

If we stay in tune with the Spirit, we will be in harmony, just as I have resonated with the Creator and abide in holy harmony. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. This is the note we tune to, the core of our resonance: that you love one another as I have loved you. No one is more in tune than this, that you offer all you are to a chorus of compassion. We can be a chorus of compassion if we stay in relational harmony.  

What might this kind of harmony look like here and now?

One place we’re trying to be more conscious witnesses to compassion is our weekly vigil for racial and ethnic justice. Most Fridays, there are about a dozen of us from Seekers Church, holding signs on the sidewalk in front of the building, making eye contact and waving at drivers passing by. From the smiles we get in response, and the waves, and the thumbs-up signals and the horn toots, folks in the cars are seeing that little witness to  the need for justice. With that hour a week on the sidewalk we’re not making a visible change in the culture of this country, but we are sounding a note in the key of compassion. May we be pitchpipes for holy harmony.

Another example of a strong relational sonata written in the key of compassion is SOIL, (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods) a non-profit organization in Haiti that is transforming human sanitation in Haiti by recycling human waste, converting it into compost that helps revitalize the agriculture of Haiti. SOIL serves as a vital example of how cultures can learn new ways of living in harmony with the land. One of our members, Erical Lloyd, serves on the SOIL staff as their research and development director. SOIL will be featured this coming Wednesday in Episode 3 of the new PBS series “Human: The World Within.” (A preview is at https://www.pbs.org/video/episode-3-preview-fuel-87plbu/)

Another example of witnessing to resonance of the resurrection in the key of compassion is Christ House (Christ House), the health care ministry birthed by the Church of the Saviour in 1976. Last week we heard from Jayme Epstein and Michael J. Their compassionate refuge, providing health care for men who have no home is a model for other communities, a living sample of how the health care system can serve those with greatest need and fewest resources. It is a well-documented model of relational harmony written in the key of compassion.

And another example of relational harmony is Recovery Café DC (Recovery Café DC (recoverycafedc.org)), also part of our Church of the Saviour family of faith. Recovery Café is a healing, transformative recovery community for all who have been traumatized by addiction and other mental health challenges, homelessness and incarceration. Located in Southeast DC. They are currently working on renovating a recently acquired building to support the operations of the recovery café on the ground floors and provide about 35 units of affordable housing upstairs. This seems to me to be one of those pitchpipes for other places looking for a model of how to harmonize addiction recovery and housing for those in need who lack the resources to compete in the housing “market.”   

One final example of what might be a pitchpipe to help others tune into deeper relational harmony is the Platform of Hope ( The Platform of Hope (platformofhopedc.org)). There’s an article in the current edition of “Callings,” the Church of the Saviour newsletter, about this expression of relational harmony. Platform of Hope is a new venture, supporting the development of what I’d call “families of families,” who come together to build community, help each other clarify family goals and objectives, and work together to help each family get the support they need to become more independent.   

Other examples of these melodies in the key of compassion include things like our shared joy of giving to those we love: Mother’s Day gifts of flowers and food and cross-country visits, or compassion within the community like food and cards for those who are ill or in recovery, or sharing an old computer so someone can join in worship when the community gathers on Zoom. More often, we have the opportunity to lay down our lives like this, a day or a moment at a time.

Looking at the Gospel question of “Who is my friend?” with fresh eyes, it seems as valid today as it was for Jesus’ followers then: Who is my friend? If I’m tuned up to live in the key of fear … or domination … my idea of “friend” can be pretty restrictive. But if I’m open to seeing with fresh insight, if I’m ready to respond to the resonance of the Resurrection, I’ll be more open to witnesses who are tuned up to be more creative and inclusive in their understanding of divine love.

As a culture and as a nation, we seem very fragmented, very out of tune. Violence and dissonance seem to be much more interesting than love and cooperation. How can we bridge the chasms that divide us so we can build back better to make the world great again? How might we uncover a hopeful path toward the common good?

How might we be better witnesses to the resurrection in these chaotic times? What can we to do help retune our society in the key of Compassion? How might witnessing to small acts of compassion help us get in tune? How can we help find harmony even when we can’t sing together yet?

I might use the pitchpipe as an image of how sounding a little note in the right key can help us get in tune. The way our Friday vigil resonates with those who drive by seems like a good example of how we can help nurture deeper harmony.

CLOSING

What can I do to help reveal the passion of compassion? How can you witness to the good news of relational harmony, harmony at every level from the internal harmony of your self, the harmony of family, community, culture and yes, all  of this amazing Earth? How can we be pitchpipes to help us retune reality as we build back better to make Creation great again?

Here’s place to start, suggested by our Scripture for this week:

  • Keep Jesus’ commandments, by laying down a piece of your life today, as a model of reaching for inclusive harmony.
  • Look for moments of resonance and help tune yourself and others to share a story of compassion to nurture divine harmony.
  • Help create memorable tunes in the key of compassion, tunes that stick in the brains of others who hear them, and help them feel the resonance of resurrection.

We may not be heroes who ride in on white horses to save the day, but as witnesses to the resonance of the resurrection, to the power of loving Creation, by giving ourselves in love, one day at a time, we can offer our selves as guiding lights, pitchpipes in the key of compassion, to help the world around us tune up for a better future.

This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine …Amen!!   

"Undivided" by Larry Rawlings
A Sermon about Christ House by Jayme Epstein and Micheal J