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.

Easter Sermon 2023

In a few week’s time, something will happen that hasn’t happened before.

At 3 pm on the 23 April, all our mobile phones will be all a-tremble. They will begin to wail. The government is going to be testing a new emergency alert system. They have chosen the time carefully. The emergency alert is to be slipped in between people attending church and before the start of the English FA Cup Semi-Final.

Because, of course, emergencies are like that. Coming along with a few weeks’ notice and fitting themselves in between worship and a football match.

In some of the stories in the bible, the resurrection happens by stealth. There’s no great announcement. Just the dawning realisation that something momentous has happened. Mary Magdalene trips through the garden in the first light of the day and suddenly realises that it isn’t the gardener she is talking to. Or the couple on the road to Emmaus, who walk beside him for miles and then only later realise it is he, when bread is broken.

But today we read Matthew’s account of events. And it all happens with a bang and a crash. An earthquake and an angel who looked like lightning.
The news that something momentous is happening in Matthew’s gospel is unmistakable.

I have no doubt that in a congregation like our own there have been people who have been in emergency situations including in earthquakes. And I’m sure it is terrifying, for you are immediately at risk.

In Matthew’s telling of the tale, the world is utterly changed in a moment. An unexpected event has occurred. The one they had crucified is alive. And nothing will ever be the same again.

This isn’t a prearranged, expected event slipped in between church and the cup semi-final. This is something altogether unexpected. New. Shocking. And utterly without precedent.

Wonderful. Dramatic. Powerful. But not, I think without risk.

When all the phones start to tremble and begin to wail, they will be testing a system which warns of immediate risk of death.

The earthquake that we read of this morning warns of an immediate risk of life – new life in all its fullness.

The Christian faith promises new life for all who look to Jesus for salvation. But it promises more than that too. For we believe that by this Easter resurrection event, it isn’t just we who are changed. We believe the whole of creation is set a-trembling with new life. All the world is changed.
Resurrection joy is the new normal for a world that needs to be shaken with good news.

For goodness is real. (And people do know the difference between goodness and wickedness).

Truth is indivisible. (And people do know that “alternative facts” are better known as lies).

And New Life is our ultimate destiny. (And those who know oppression, despair and abuse can tell you exactly what New Life will look like).

There is work to be done before the New Life of Easter is known by everyone of course. But a world where every soul sings for joy is our hope and our expectation. It is the goal that those who work to establish God’s reign of justice and peace on earth strive for. It is our vision. It is our joy. It is our destiny.

And it is for all times and all places. Not slipped at a convenient time between morning and afternoon.

And there’s much to be done in all times and in all places for us to be able to see the new life of Christ.

We do not need to look too far for examples of the old way, the way of death.

In recent weeks, in between stirring up negativity towards transgender people and promoting economic policies that make foodbanks multiply, the government have chosen to slip in a culture war around the asylum system, using those arriving in small boats as ammunition in that culture war.

The policy of refusing to consider asylum for those arriving in such boats is reckless, heartless and lawless. It is wrong

For this country has legal obligations to deal with such people fairly. Reinstating a form of Transportation, to the other side of the world is neither fair, proportionate nor just.

The faith we believe in on this resurrection morning sees the hungry fed, the frightened stranger welcomed home and knows with a certainty that shines like lightning that God prefers the company of the most vulnerable to the most powerful.

The Easter news says to all who will listen, “The way of death is not inevitable.”

Death is not the ultimate end of the human story. Nor is it the inevitable end of any of our stories.

Not only is no human illegal, Christ’s resurrection means that no human is unloved.

And that changes everything.

Jesus Christ is risen from the dead.

And with him hope rises anew.

Hope for a world put right.

Hope for a world that is set a tremble with good news.

Hope for a world in which every soul can sing for joy.

This is good news for those who are devout and who give their time to prayer and good works and waiting on the Lord.

But it is even better news for those who are lost, sad, and sinful.

Each of us come to this day with our own griefs and losses, each carrying our own fear and apprehension.

But Christ is risen from the dead for the fearful just as much as for anyone else.

Christ is risen from the dead for the sorrowful just as much as for anyone else.

Christ is risen from the dead for you. Feast richly on the good news that death is destroyed and new life has come.

For Christ is risen from the dead for the whole world.

And that world is all a-tremble.

Good news is here.

For if Christ were not risen from the dead, we would not be gathered here. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.