Sermon by the Vicar
Readings: Acts 1:15-17, 21-26, 1 John 5:9-13, John 17:6-19
What is heaven for you? The eighteenth century cleric and Canon of St Paul’s, Sydney Smith, famously wrote that heaven was eating pate de foie gas to the sound of trumpets. He also wrote that his stipend roughly covered his butcher’s bills. In this post Ascension period, our thoughts are directed heavenward, even though we are told “Why stand looking up into heaven?” We know of course very little about what heaven is or might be, except that in the Gospels there are significant references to food in heaven – the heavenly banquet etc. I’m quite interested in this, so it was fascinating for me to have been invited recently to a dinner where the starters were provided by a food scientist working on edible insects, partly as a potential future solution in a world without the means to feed itself. I particular enjoyed the caterpillar puree, and the tiny amuse bouches made from beetles. If heaven has references to food, there are also significant references to the music of creation. A report which came out from Christian research identified the wars often played out between Directors of Music and Incumbents. Fortunately we don’t have that here. So we had an example of a priest’s induction into the Parish where the organist played send in the clowns, or the overweight priest going on sabbatical, who left the church to Roll out the Barrel, or the high church priest who had commissioned a new set of vestments and the entrance procession was I’m a Barbie Girl. This light hearted introduction serves the purpose today, in the middle of our Mayfest and the Sunday after Ascension Day, to speak about the spiritual and Pentecostal role of music in worship. I have two points for our consideration. First, music as a vehicle of the Spirit, and second music as mission.
Music as a vehicle of the Spirit. The act of making music, which of course involves listening, is a spiritual work in itself. Benedict famously said “He who sings once prays twice.” Music of course can have an other-worldly or heavenly character and can speak directly to the heart. In this sense it is Pentecostal or charismatic. It also involves temperament or taste. Winston Churchill famously said of bagpipes, “Best played underwater.” What you respond to in music will be different from what I respond to. For this reason, it’s very important for a Parish Church to have a wide range of styles and repertoires and not be stuck in one groove. This means of course that there is nobody who will like all of the music all of the time, but that’s family life where we don’t always get what we want and sometimes have to step back so that others can flourish. But whatever we like, in terms of taste, is secondary to what music is doing. It has the power to speak directly to the heart, and can circumvent words, always a useful thing for worship in the classical western tradition, which often has placed too much emphasis on the use of lots of words words words, generally spoken, in worship. Music, as Scripture tells us and as we know from experience, has the power to heal. I have a friend who has had locked in syndrome for two years after being knocked off his bike by a lorry. The only stimulus he visibly responds to is music. Some of this is of course to do with our own bodies. Music therapists tell me that music with tempi of 70-80 beats a minute echoes the average beat of the human heart. Faster tempi will stimulate, and lower temp will relax. So it makes sense that sleeping during choral evensong can also be a spiritually regenerating experience. Finally, in music as a vehicle of the Spirit, we believe that that which is made reveals something of its maker. As we await the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost next week, music can be a powerful vehicle for all of us, in releasing those Pentecostal gifts in each individual, and on the church as a whole. Beautiful music should help in creating the beautiful people we can all become through the working of God’s Holy Spirit.
Now Music as Mission. The report of the Archbishops’ Commission on Music says this on music in the liturgy, “Its drawing power should not be underestimated and a parish with a lively musical tradition is more likely to grow in membership than one where the musical contribution to worship is insignificant.” This Parish has been very clear throughout the recent organ project in our rationale for doing this work. It was not, and is not, to give us an expensive new toy to be locked away in a cupboard. It was and is to offer the best to God in worship and in so doing, attracting others to The Way. This extension of the work of the church through music has always been a principal motivating force for me personally. When we started the work, one of the options open to us with our dying organ was to simply abandon it, and get in a worship band or a CD player with karaoke hymns, as many other places have done. For what it’s worth, not only do I believe we made the right choice, but also that the renewal of the musical tradition of this Parish is leading and will continue to lead to significant growth. We should expect this and plan for it. After the dismantling of the choral tradition here, and after many decades of not having this on offer, regular Choral Evensong is one manifestation of this. This is often slow work of course. It’s very easy to dismantle, it’s not so easy to rebuild. One of the things your PCC will be looking at in its away day next month is to have mechanisms in place to channel the creative energy of the new growth we can expect, not least in younger people and families. We have exciting times ahead. Finally, the Archbishops’ Report on Music says this on music as mission, to individuals and to groups, “Our receptiveness to the miracle of mission to be performed by God is perhaps in direct proportion to the quality of the material we offer through careful preparation and planning.”
So in the period after the Ascension and as we wait for the sending of the Holy Spirit are thoughts are directed heavenward as we join in the heavenly music of the spheres. We thank God for the gift of music to speak to our hearts through the work of the Spirit. We thank God for the faithfulness and generosity of the many who have made this project come into being, and we plan for exciting and renewing days ahead as we work with God in the Missio Dei with music as a blessing to be shared. As we approach the end the Easter period we can be sure that we do this work, God is working through us. Words of Jesus which end the Gospel set for today assure us that we are the continuation of the his work “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” It’s down to us, empowered by the Spirit, and as Bishop Michael reminded us in this Church on Ascension Day “There is no backup plan.” Thanks be to God.