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Sunday 22 September 2019 – Choral Evensong
Ezra 1 John 7:14-36
How many times, I wonder, has Peter stood in this pulpit and preached about the anthem? Actually, given notice of that question, Peter would be able to answer it accurately, of course; he files and categorises all his sermons! He’s nothing if not organised! Over the years, many of us will have had cause to be grateful for sermons Peter has preached involving music.
This hasn’t always been because of the unpromising material presented by the Biblical readings, although all of us who preach will sometimes have looked at the readings and said: ok, what else can I preach about! Dare I say it, there’s an element of that this evening! You should know that today’s readings haven’t been chosen especially for the occasion: they’re simply the readings set in the lectionary for today, and it’s entirely appropriate that Peter stuck with the lectionary. After all, as some of us know only too well, he’s a stickler for following the lectionary – even when he chooses to ignore the readings and preach about something else!
I am actually going to preach about the anthem myself, but perhaps I might say in passing that there’s actually quite a lot in the readings this evening that resonates with Peter’s ministry, gifts and imminent departure for pastures new. Both have to do with the Jerusalem temple in some way, the temple which was the focus of the worship of Israel until it was destroyed by the Romans in 70AD. Peter has devoted the whole of his ministry to the ordering of worship and in this regard he’s absolutely second to none. Indeed, I’d say he’s the go-to Precentor in the Church of England.
Then there’s the list – the inventory – of vessels offered by the people to assist in the rebuilding of the temple. Peter loves the fabric of this place: not only the vessels and vestments but also the glass and stone. He was a member of the advisory committee which oversaw the restoration of the Great East Window, now visible and legible in all its glory, and he knows all too well that the very building of the Minster speaks of God and, in a variety of ways, tells the story of God.
And the obvious resonance with the second lesson lies in the fact that there Jesus himself is speaking about his own departure: ‘I will be with you a little while longer, and then I am going to him who sent me. You will search for me, but you will not find me; and where I am, you cannot come.’ Jesus is referring to his own death here, a slightly different situation from Peter’s, although Peter would no doubt want to remind us of Paul’s words to the Romans that we’re all baptised into the death and resurrection of Christ. In other words, we’re constantly dying and living, indeed, we’re learning what it is to die in order truly to live.
Now Peter doesn’t regard Stornaway as a kind of death imposed on him; rather he perceives it to be a genuine vocation, but this doesn’t deny the fact that it involves a sense of loss. However exciting the future looks, the move requires of Peter and Heather alike a letting go of all sorts of things and people, which will be difficult and painful for them, as well as for us, too. At the heart of the Christian gospel, though, is the affirmation that life, real life, arises out of death. It’s actually when we cling to life as we know it that life in all its fullness is somehow impeded and we begin to die. So real life involves letting go, sometimes of the things we hold most dear. In letting go of a life with which Peter and Heather are familiar, comfortable and entirely at home, they’re giving us a wonderful picture of what living out the gospel looks like, something that each of us has to discover in our own particular way according to our experience and circumstances. So having not preached on the anthem thus far, let me now begin to turn a little in that direction!
Music’s intrinsic to Peter’s very life and being, as it is to Heather’s. Indeed, it was music that brought them together at Oxford. Just as music has been central to Peter’s ministry, so, too, has music been at the heart of Heather’s professional life. In fact, Music at Heart is the name of Heather’s highly successful and much valued teaching business, exposure to which at a very young age has nurtured the musical lives of some of our choristers.
Peter’s emphasised over and over again that we learn God’s story through its association with music. Think of things like Handel’s Messiah: choruses and arias like For unto us a Child is Born, He was despised, I know that my Redeemer liveth, and many more. The words get into our blood through the music. But it’s not just that music’s a kind of functional add-on to the words. The language of the music is itself a theological discourse. In other words, we can read the theology in the very music.
Explaining this and showing how it works would require far more time than I have available in this sermon, so let me put this in very general terms before coming on specifically to the anthem.
Much Western music is what we call tonal; in other words it’s in a key. If you find the note middle C on a piano and play all the white notes up or down from there, you’d be in the key of C Major. The last hymn we shall sing this evening, Angel voices ever-singing, is written in the key of C Major. What this means is that it begins and ends in that key, even though it also finds if way to G Major at one point, and then passes through D minor, before finally coming back home to C at the end. Being written in a key gives a sense of location, of being grounded, even of identity. It’s possible to wander away from a home key, sometimes quite a lot, but that key gives us a sense of our bearings, so that when we finally come back to it, we feel as if we’ve come home again.
Over the centuries the boundaries of tonality have been pushed further and further. In the early 20th century, some music was identified as being atonal – without a key – and some music written in our own day could still be described as such. Often a composer will provide something else to give us a sense of home, though: a musical motif or idea, or a particular colour or texture, or something like that, so it’s hard to avoid a sense of home altogether.
Tonal music’s predicated on the notion that just being at home all the time – in pianistic terms, just playing the white notes in C Major and never touching the black notes – can be a little tedious. What makes a musical journey much more interesting is exploring other avenues and seeing where they lead. By the beginning of the 20th century this exploration, as I’ve already suggested, pushed tonal music way beyond its recognised boundaries.
Underlying all this, though, is a sense of harmony, and the relationship between consonance and dissonance. Unrelieved consonance can be rather boring and unrelieved dissonance can be rather grating on the ears. Tonal music’s always integrated the two in varying degrees, but the point is that harmony isn’t just about everything sounding nice all the time. It’s about weaving consonance and dissonance – the sounds that in isolation seem to clash – into a bigger, broader whole, so that overall the dissonance in some way contributes to the ultimate harmony as much as the consonance, indeed it’s often the dissonance that makes it all rather more interesting.
Howells’ anthem, Like as the Hart, inhabits exactly this kind of sound world. Just as the words themselves speak of a kind of longing for home – for God – so the music conveys a sense of restless instability. Although the home key is E minor, this key’s also subverted with all sorts of rather jazzy blue notes and chords, so that when we finally get to the end, although we finish on an E Major chord, we’re still left with this rather bitter-sweet sense of things not quite having been fully resolved.
And isn’t this what life’s like for all of us? However rooted we may feel, however much we may have a sense of where life’s going, all sorts of things crop up in life which may make us see things in a different way, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. The Christian story, though, is one that encourages us to trust that all the twists and turns of life, the discords and dissonances included, indeed everything that happens, serves ultimately to bring us home. The greatest dissonance of all is the cross and yet even this, especially this, contributes to the ultimate harmony of creation, by revealing the boundless love of God at its heart, which is what the resurrection affirms. So Howells’ Like as the Hart is to be heard and understood not only as a stand-alone piece of music, which of course it can, but also in a much broader context, that of our being created for God, of our wandering away from God, of our yearning for God, and of our coming home to God. In this regard, words and music are perfectly at one.
If music can amplify words, then it’s also the case that words can draw on the language of music to say what they want to say, and nowhere better, perhaps, than in George Herbert’s wonderful poem, Easter, which speaks in the first verse of the joy of resurrection, in the second precisely of the dissonance of the cross, and in the third of the resolution of everything, with the aid of the Spirit, in the life of the Trinity. So let me finish with this.
Rise, heart, thy lord is risen. Sing his praise
Who takes thee by the hand, that thou likewise
With him may’st rise:
That, as his death calcinèd thee to dust,
His life may make thee gold, and, much more, just.
Awake, my lute, and struggle for thy part
With all thy art,
The cross taught all wood to resound his name
Who bore the same.
His stretchèd sinews taught all strings what key
Is best to celebrate this most high day.
Consort, both heart and lute, and twist a song
Pleasant and long;
Or, since all music is but three parts vied
Oh let thy blessèd Spirit bear a part,
And make up our defects with his sweet art.
So, Peter and Heather, we give great thanks to God for you both, and pray that you may always know that you are held in the loving embrace of God the Holy Trinity, and that in the end you, we and the whole creation might know the harmony of God, in which everything and everyone is at home – even in Stornaway!
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