Music that draws us into the Heart of God
Sermon given by the Rev’d Canon Tony Harwood-Jones
– Trinity Sunday (May 30, 2010)
This is a unique occasion.
In one sense, this is a service of Evensong – a liturgy that was largely penned by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in the mid-Sixteenth Century (though some of it dates back even further to medieval monasteries)... this is the worship of God by the Church of God throughout time and in Eternity... this is what we Christians are all about.
In another sense, as many of you know, tonight is also a turning-point for several of us: after twenty-four years of service in this parish, Keith Tinsley, Organist and Choir Director, is stepping down, and although he will continue to play the organ here for the next four weeks, this is the last occasion that his choral leadership will be called upon. This is the last occasion that this choir – in this formation, in this church, in this way, under this leadership – will ever be together.
And so, it is a time of great moment.
It is Trinity Sunday today, and I could give a sermon such as I gave this morning (which, if I did, would undoubtedly make the choir groan). But I am not going to.
Nonetheless, the Feast of the Holy Trinity is a very good day in which to acknowledge together such a significant moment. For we are engaged in the celebration of the majesty and mystery and infinite wonder of God, and accordingly, this is a perfect opportunity for a sermon that has the title: “Music that draws us into the Heart of God.”
I’d like to begin in our ordinary, every-day world, by thinking about a baby’s cry.
A baby has no words. It needs to eat; it needs to be changed; and it makes a wordless noise. And that noise comes from the core of its being, crying with all its little heart: “I am needful.”
The cry, however, sounds almost like singing.
In my opinion, singing and crying are not very far apart.
Beautiful music can bring tears to the eyes of grown men and women, certainly to mine. Not long ago this parish honoured me with a little fète after church, and the choir presented two pieces, by way of tribute – by way of entertainment. As they sang, I found that tears were rolling down my face.
Was I mad at the choir? Absolutely not. My heart was touched; not just by the generosity of people who thought they might sing something for me that would please me, but because the music itself reached that place in me that nothing else can reach.
My Dad – my dear departed Dad – he’d be nearly a hundred were he alive – my Dad, as dementia began to come upon him, talked to me quite a lot about his younger years and about himself. And one of the things he said was, “As I notice that my mind isn’t what it used to be, music is touching me more and more, and whenever music plays I start to cry!” So said my Dad.
A couple of years later, when his capacities had deteriorated even more, my wife and I did a bit of respite care for my stepmother, and we took him to live with us for a short while.
Now this person, my Dad, was an Anglican priest. So, even though he was by that point deep into dementia, during his stay at our place it was only natural that we take him to church on Sunday. He needed a little bit of steering about, of course, so my family did that while I presided and preached. They parked him in the front row, which is where my wife and children have always sat.
Thus, because Dad was in full view like this, almost everyone in the congregation noticed what happened next: he who could not now answer a single question, sang every word of every hymn! Because – and this is the thesis of this sermon – through music, he was still able to be touched by the heart of God.
Secular people, un-religious people, know that music is an established therapy for several forms of dementia. How much more, then, should we, who are believers in the Triune God, affirm that, in music, something happens that is close to the very heart of creation?
For... all our Scriptures, and all our history, tell us that Heaven is full of music. 1
The great Archangel will blow a trumpet on the Last Day, so it says. And, in the Bible, angels are constantly depicted as singing.
The great prayers of the Bible – the Psalms – are said to have been written by a musician: none other than David, the king who could play the harp.
Everything we have in both Scripture and tradition tells us that in the presence of God is the most wonderful music imaginable.
Prayer doesn’t always need words. We can do things in prayer that simply cannot be done by a logical series of remarks.
Prayer, in fact, can be just like the baby’s cry – a wordless feeling coming straight from the heart. Thus it naturally takes the form of music. In fact, I am suggesting to you (and it has been confirmed by mystics throughout the ages) that deep mystical prayer is singing.
For if by definition prayer is the human soul longing to be drawn into the Heart of God, music is very often the means whereby this longing is fulfilled.
But Christian prayer is also a two-way street. There is what we address to God, but there is also God’s response to us. In fact, the theory of prayer suggests to us that much of what we say and sing to God has been put there by God in the first place!
There is a wonderful line in Paul’s letter to the Romans, where he says, “We don’t know how to pray as we ought to pray, but the Holy Spirit prays within us with sighs too deep for words.” 2
Sighs... too deep for words: hear the baby’s cry again? Not only is prayer my reaching out to the Heart of God, it is the Heart of God reaching down to me, in a manner that is “too deep for words.”
This two-way street of prayer is accomplished with what can only be music – the melody of my heart being met and harmonized and transformed by the music whose source is the heart of God
Artists know this... artists know how the body and soul of the ordinary human being can be infused by something “other,” something from outside, from above, from God. The words “inspired” and “inspiration” have to do with something otherworldly breathing into a person – breathing a talent, a skill, a creative ability – from which great sculpture, great pictures and great sounds are made. Sometimes a preacher knows this too, that the things we say in the pulpit are “inspired,” because they are driven from On High, and because of which our sermons can be better than we are; much better.
And thus, given that the Spirit of God inspires artists and preachers and musicians with something deep and meaningful – something that inspires and uplifts other people, even bringing tears to their eyes – it is correct to say that music is a “ministry.”
The production of music in a worship service is as important as the production of a sermon, and it has the same purpose and effect.
But herein lies a grave caution, both to preachers and to musicians:
There is a phrase that some of you may know: “When the Devil goes to church, he sits in the choir.”
Well sometimes he gets into the pulpit, too, so I do not exempt myself from this... but the devil does sit in the choir. And having said as much as I have said about music being in the heart of God and of the heart of God, and the ability of music to inspire and draw people into the heart of God, if there is a Devil, where else, I ask you, would he go than to the place which stands the greatest chance of drawing people into the heart of God!?
I have long since had the opinion that the closer you get to being a visible leader in the church, the harder it becomes to live the Christian life, and the easier it gets to blow it.
If a casual person who has never gone to church should sin, that’s one thing, and it brings tears into the eyes of God; but when a Christian leader such as a television evangelist or a priest sins, it is a triumph of evil, which is precisely what the Devil wants.
So that caution is out there for all of us who are “ministers” – musicians and clergy alike – because being faithful is so much more important for us, and can be very difficult.
Some of us who are church musicians think that our job is limited to the music only, and that, as such, our work has little or nothing to do with Christian ministry.
I put myself through university by being a paid section lead in a large choir in a church in Eastern Canada. I was the tenor lead, and my counterpart, the lead baritone... was an atheist. During the sermon he was known to sprawl out on the pew in the choir loft, and start (often deliberately) to snore. No one could see him except me and a handful of other choristers; but can you tell me that the ministry of God was well served by this?
There are stresses and strains on all of us who do the ministry of God, and certainly on those who are engaged in the ministry of music. With respect to the stresses of music, I know whereof I speak since I am an amateur musician as well as a priest. Think, for example, about practicing. Music is difficult to produce well, so sometimes I practice, and practice, and make bleeps and squawks with my instrument... and when that happens I sometimes say, “Oh dear goodness gracious me!” – or at least that is the gist of what I say.
And sometimes I have heard choral directors at choir practice saying what I have just labeled as “the ‘gist’”...
... and it is understandable when this happens. They don’t curse because they are evil, but because the music is so important that they get terribly frustrated when it isn’t well done.
But leave no room for the Devil, 3 my friends.
We are ministers of God – all of us, musicians and clergy alike – and it is no trivial thing to draw people into the heart of God. The immortal souls of men and women are dependent upon our ministry.
The following words have just been sung in our hearing: “He that has called you is holy; so be ye holy in all manner of conversation. Love one another, with a pure heart, fervently; being born again, not of corruptible seed but of incorruptible: the Word of God. All flesh is grass, and the glory of man as the flower of the grass, withers, and passes away. But the Word of the Lord endures for ever....” 4
We sinners pass through the church sinfully, while attempting to preach and to sing the Word of the Lord. And when the time comes that we move aside, and the torch is passed, and the task and the ministry is handed on to others... let it never be said of you or of me that we were non-believers, sprawled snoring on the seat of the choir stall, while the Word of the Lord is preached and sung.
I was once Rector of a church where one of my predecessors stopped attending church when he retired. From that day until the day he died, he did not darken the door of a church again.
Hmmm. I see eyebrows being raised!
What!?? Did that Anglican priest not believe what he had preached all those years?
And... do the people who lead the worship in this church walk the walk, or do they just talk the talk (or perhaps “sing the song”)?
In twenty-nine days Keith Tinsley and I will both be retired and gone.
Will I be found in a church? Will I still be a believer? Will Keith? Will the members of this choir? Will the musicians that are listening to me this evening?
Will we be exemplars of the Heart of God?
There is a line from the ordination of Priests in the Book of Common Prayer: “Have always therefore printed in your remembrance, how great a treasure is committed to your charge. For [the people of God] are the sheep of Christ, which he bought with his death, and for whom he shed his blood.” 5
For twenty-four years in this parish church, the sheep of Christ – the people of Christ – have been touched, and drawn into the Heart of God, by the music made by a friend of mine who is a sinner like I am.
God willing, our sins will never ever succeed in drawing us from the love of God. For it is my belief that after the Day of Judgement, after the trumpet has been sounded, when the countless hosts of the blessed are called into the presence of God... in that number we will see...
J.S. Bach – who, I understand, believed every word he set to music. We may well see Mozart; Orlando Gibbons; or Thomas Tallis; or King David with his lyre (his harp?); or Stanford, or Stainer, or Parry...
... or Keith Tinsley, or this choir...
But will I be there to see them?
This sinner longs to be close to the Heart of God. And this sinner longs to model his life and ministry such that the Love of God will always, always shine forth... until I know nothing but the words of the hymns that I have sung all my life.
God bless each and every church musician this night. May you touch your hearers with the Heart of God. And may you yourself be touched by the Love of God...
... and may you keep the faith, until the day you die.
1 Cognates of the verb, “to sing” appear 182 times in the Bible, 66 of them in the Psalms.
2 Romans 8:26
3 Ephesians 4:27
4 The passage quoted here is 1 Peter 1: 15-17, 22-25, the words of which formed the lyrics of the primary choral work at the service where this sermon was preached: Samuel Sebastian Wesley’s “Blessed be the God and Father.”
5 Book of Common Prayer (Anglican Church of Canada, 1962), page 649.
© 2010, Tony Harwood-Jones
You are expected to contact me for permission to reproduce this sermon in whole or in part.