Sermon preached on BBC Radio 4 for Music Sunday

A couple of weeks ago, I sat on the sand in the blazing sunshine on the West Coast of Scotland chatting to a friend. I was to come away from that conversation with a furiously sunburnt face but also with a snatch of conversation that I remember that was about singing.

My friend was telling me about the experience of living right beside the rocks and the beach for a couple of months. Swimming in the sea every day no matter what the temperature. And scrambling over the rocks to see what wildlife would pop up each day.

“Sometimes there’s seals” she said. “But not always”.

“You should try singing to them,” I said. “They always come if you start singing”.

“Really” she said,

“Yes”, I said, “but I think they prefer it if you sing in Gaelic”.

And I’ve seen it. If you sit on the rocks and sing then the seals get curious.

You should try singing to them. They always come if you start singing.

That’s the thing that I took away from this conversation.

Because when I thought about it, I realised that it was true not just for seals.

In our day, many churches and local faith communities are struggling, particularly since the pandemic. The experience of finding worship difficult for a period of time and the experience of having our music hushed for that time has left many communities more than a little precarious and vulnerable.

But here’s a prediction from me. When revival comes to the life of our churches, as surely it will eventually come, those places that are going to see growth and wellbeing in their worship will be recognised for their singing.

For it is almost impossible to recall any revival of church life – any period of growth and development in church history which has not had singing at its core.

When the people of God want to express themselves then they sing. And when we are looking to share our faith with others, perhaps we should try singing to them.

They always come if you start singing.

For months during the pandemic, we could only have one voice singing. And here in St Mary’s, we reached back into the church tradition for music that particularly worked for one voice and started to use Plainsong, some of the earliest of musical expressions to be written down.

Here’s some of the music that we’ve recovered in our worship and now use regularly here that we probably would not have rediscovered without that experience.  My colleague, Oliver Brewer-Lennon sings Cantate domino canticum novum – Sing to the  Lord a new song for the Lord has done marvellous things.

And as we hear these words, we remember that they speak of something more than just a simple song. The invitation from God is to sing new songs in our lives. To find new ways of being and make all things new.

OLIVER (singing – time 52 seconds)

Cantate Domino canticum novum: qui a mirabilia fecit Dominus

I suppose I can be very thankful that I’ve sung God’s praises in so many different ways.

On this music Sunday, I find myself thinking about them and being grateful for the vastness of human creativity when it comes to finding new ways to sing.

I remember singing in a cave-like chapel in the Egyptian desert with monks who sang the whole psalter – all the psalms every day and knew the whole thing by heart. Their prayer was kept going for hours and hours accompanied only by the jingle-jangle of a triangle and small hand cymbals.

I’ve sung with Christians in great crowds in a football stadium, inspired and held aloft as we sang by the hottest guitar licks in town.

And most often, I’ve sung in churches like this one with choir and organ leading the praises of the congregation and egging them on to greater and greater heights of praise.

And yet at the heart of it all, music is something of a mystery, a gift from God that isn’t easily tied down or explained.

I remember asking one of the musicians who is helping to animate our music this morning about a particular hymn tune that he loves. “Why is it so fantastic?” I asked him. And it was a tune that I know that lots of church musicians adore.

“That’s the funny thing” he said, “I’ve no idea. No-one knows. It is just fabulous to sing and makes the words soar”.

Music that makes the words soar is what we celebrate today, giving thanks to God for music that comforts, music that inspires and sometimes for music that challenges us too.

But above all on this music Sunday, I want to give thanks for music that makes the words soar.

Almost all the visions of heaven that we have in the bible suggest that music surrounds the God whom we worship.

For God seems to have given us an ability to hear significance in certain chords. Our emotions are all set a-tingle by a beautiful melody that might prompt tears of joy or tears of sorrow  or suddenly take us back to that time when someone told us they loved us.

When we sing in church, we are offering not just a gift of notes on the page or random noise to fill the silence. We are offering a gift of love to one who loved us first.

Music and love seem so very often to go together.

That association of music and love is what church music is about at its finest.

For God is love. Love that is real and strong. And God’s love has been proclaimed by people who have sung through the ages and will sing forevermore.


  1. Peggy Brewer says

    Enjoyed the sermon and the entire service! Blessings!

  2. Roderick Mackin says

    100 years from now – when scholars are peering back at how their church slid down the slippery slope of pretentious irrelevance someone will push play and in this sermon hear echoes of the Holy Spirit crying in the wilderness.

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