Sermons from St Faith's

In Tune with Heaven
Fr Neil Kelley, First Sunday in Lent, 13th March, 2011

On Friday of this past week the clergy of the Diocese were invited to the Cathedral where the Archbishop of York, as part of a few days’ visit, celebrated the Eucharist and then had breakfast with the clergy. Before the service I commented to the priest sitting next to me how much I felt at home, being surrounded, before the service began, by an atmosphere of noise which made it almost impossible to pray! Two other priests said the same!

The world, it seems, doesn’t know how to deal with silence, so why should we in the church be any different? From muzak in department stores to computerised music whilst the caller is placed on hold, we are seemingly desperate to fill any space we can find with noise.

In the right context, background music can be pleasant. But it can help us to avoid certain things. As Christians, the extent to which we are comfortable with silence, either in church, or in personal prayer, will say something about the quality of our relationship with God.

People who know each other terribly well, perhaps because of a marriage or long-standing friendship, will often comment on how they can be in the same room as another person without feeling anything has to be said. Can you say that of your relationship with God? Are you happy just ‘being with Him’ or are there awkward silences that need to be filled?

We need to distinguish between worship, liturgy, personal prayer, reflection andmeditation. Silence is not just golden it is essential. Without it we stand no hope of hearing God speak to us.

Thomas Merton wrote:

Silence is the country where the saints learned their language.
Silence creates space and we find God in the space.
In the silence we can hear ourselves think,
We can listen to the words that come from our hearts,
The anxieties we have been avoiding, the questions that we need to ask.

* Are you shutting out words from within with noise or busyness?
* Are you avoiding anxieties?
* Are you avoiding soul-searching questions?

If I asked you what language God used to communicate, I wonder how many of you would say English!? How often do you use God’s first language? For most of us our first language is English. God’s first language is silence. How comfortable are we praying in His language?

Whilst I’d like us to give some thought today to prayer in all is forms: silence being one of them, I’d like us also to consider, for a moment, prayer and music.

Ask a number of people why they chose to come to St. Faith’s and the one recurring answer is “the music.” At the heart of our life is the Eucharist or Mass, but not just the Eucharist, but a Sung Eucharist. The common parts of the mass, Kyrie, Gloria, Sanctus, are set to music. We sing hymns. The choir sings anthems, and as of last Wednesday we are singing one of the keys prayers in the liturgy, the Our Father.

As we consider prayer and music, do we realise just how much prayer is learned and buried in the mind when it is set to music?

I was introduced to the Liturgy with the language of the BCP, a liturgy which we still use at St. Mary’s. Without a book in my hand I would stumble to try and remember the Nicene Creed. But if I remember the setting I learned to the music of Merbecke in my head, the words come flooding back in a way which wouldn’t be possible without the discipline of having learned them through music. How many of you can rehearse the words in today’s Creed without having them printed on paper? How many ‘phone numbers of taxi firms and solicitors have we subconsciously learned over the years because they have been set to musical jingles?!

For Anglicans, and many in the reformed traditions, most of what we learn of God comes from our hymn singing. Our hymn books are our theology books. It can lift the spirit to realise that we are “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven”.  The bereaved are comforted to know that “in God’s house, for evermore, my dwelling place shall be”. When we are anxious we find comfort in the “still small voice of calm.” We could spend hours trawling through the hymn book to find words that have given us strength, encouragement, pardon and peace. Words that have spoken to us about the nature of the God we worship. Words that make us realise we have a response to make: “love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”

Ironically it is because the words do get embedded within us via music that we need sometimes to discover them again and afresh. That is why the series of devotional sermons beginning this evening will be so helpful. Through exploring a number of hymns we will be challenged to reflect on the cost of discipleship, the breadth of God’s forgiveness, our eternal destiny, the cost of loving as seen in Mary at the foot of the Cross, and the eternal and inclusive message of salvation.

People might well come to St. Faith’s because of the music, but if they are coming at 11am on a Sunday it is because of musical prayer. No wonder St. Augustine said, “He who sings, prays twice.” Perhaps a description of Christian life is that of singing our way to heaven.

Music is a language. It is a language that can be appreciated by people of any language. It is the catholic/universal language and it doesn’t always need words.

People who are multi-lingual often find that they are speaking in one language, thinking in another, perhaps dreaming in yet another language.

“What’s he up to?” you might ask. I start by commending silence and now I’m encouraging music. We need both. Ask any performer. Take any sonata or concerto, the pauses in between the movements are vital; vital for the audience to reflect, and for the performer to catch breath. In the pauses we can re-tune, or get rid of excess water in the instrument. Rhythms have to be measured. And that is true of the rhythm of life.

“Changed from glory into glory, 'til in heaven we take our place, 'til we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise” Lent is a time when we think of our ultimate destiny. I wrote a commendation for a funeral back in 2002, the funeral of Arthur Utley; I wrote these words which I hoped resonated with his love of music.

May the choirs of angels welcome you
May the music of paradise greet you
May the song of eternity live in your soul
As you rejoice in the symphony of heaven.

 “In tune with heaven” was the title of a report on church music commissioned by the Archbishops’ in the early ‘90s. A question to ponder this Lent is “how in tune with heaven are we?” Do you need to do some fine tuning in Lent? Is your life of faith harmonious enough that others will be drawn to God through you? Are there any sharps or flats in your life that need resolving this Lent? Is the rhythm of your life at a manageable pace or is it rushing at such a speed that you can’t fit all the notes in?

Through scripture, through song, through silence – through all of these, may we find as we journey through Lent that we are drawn ever closer to that unending song of God’s love.

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