Sunday, 30 August 2009

J. Michael Povey: Sermon for August 30th 2009

Sermon for August 30th 2009
The Revd. J. Michael Povey at All Angels by the Sea, Longboat Key, FL
Songs of Songs 2:8-13; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-23

“The time for singing has come”.

I have a passion for good hymns.

The reformation message of the Church under Martin Luther was spread by song. Luther knew what I know - that we learn our faith by what we sing.

Sometimes, however, we do not know the meaning of what we sing. For example, we joyfully “belt out” Luther’s “A mighty fortress is our God” - and we sing tghe verse that says “The Prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him”, believing that we are singing about the Devil. Wrong! “The Prince of darkness” in Luther’s hymn was the Pope.

The Methodist revival in England under John and Charles Wesley was a singing revival. Charles wrote over 6,000 hymns to spread the message of scriptural holiness which his brother John preached.

Amongst the 6,000 were more than a few clunkers. But the best survived and we often sing his “Christ, whose glory fills the skies” or “Love Divine all love’s excelling” and “Hark, the herald angels sing”.

The Victorians were also great hymn writers, and for many years their works dominated our hymnody. When we think of “For all the Saints who from their labours rest”, or “The Churches one foundation” or “I sing a song of the saints of God” then we are in that world of Victorian hymns.

Victorian hymns often had a teaching purpose. Mrs. Cecil Frances Alexander, (1818-1895) wife of the Archbishop of Armagh, wrote hymns for children to teach the Apostles’ Creed. So we have

“All things bright and beautiful..... the Lord God made them all” for “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth”;

“Once in Royal David’s City” for “He was born of the Virgin Mary”, and

“There is a green hill far away” for “He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified”.

There was a famine in hymn writing after the Victorian era. Folks of my age and older grew up in a time when very few hymns were being written.

But from the 1970’s onwards there has been a new flowering of hymnody, bringing us new treasures in song.

One of the greatest of the late 20th century hymn writers was the Revd. Fred Pratt Green. He was a Methodist Minister in England and lived from 1903 – 2000.

As a Minister he’d never thought much about hymns, although some of his poems had been published, including one in the New Yorker.

When he was 64 years of age Fred Pratt Green was co-opted onto a committee planning a supplement to the (English) Methodist Hymnal.
The Committee was desirous of having new hymns for themes such a Christian Unity.

Remembering that Fred Pratt Green was a poet, the Committee asked him to try his hand. Once started, he wrote over 300 hymns! It is never too late to start a new career, hobby or enterprise.

We are singing two of his hymns this morning.

“Lord, we have come at your own invitation” was written for a Confirmation service. I love the line “chosen by you to be counted as friends”. It reflects the teaching of Jesus who told his disciples that they were his friends. And the last stanza reminds us powerfully that we make choices between being creative or destructive people.

“When in our music God is glorified” is a splendid text on the power of music and hymns to shape our faith. There is a bit of history about the tune – it is called “Engelberg”.

Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote the tune we all know for the hymn “For all the Saints”, it’s called “Sine Nomine” (which means “without name” ) - (here I sang a bit of the tune).

He wrote it for a particular hymnal “The English Hymnal”, and for copyright reasons it was not allowed to be used in other hymn books for many years.

So Charles Villiers Stanford wrote “Engelwood” as an alternative - and (at least in England) we would use his tune when singing “For all the Saints”.

Now we sing it for "When in our music God is glorified" It is nice that this good tune has not been forgotten

And now that the copyright issues have been settled, we are allowed to sing “For All the Saints” to the “traditional” tune.

One of my favourite Fred Pratt Green hymns is “To mock your reign” – a wonderful text for Passion Sunday and Good Friday. It is in the Hymnal at #170, and perhaps you would care to follow along as I read it

To mock your reign, O dearest Lord,they made a crown of thorns;
set you with taunts along that road from which no one returns.
They did not know, as we do now,that glorious is your crown;
that thorns would flower upon your brow,
your sorrows heal our own.

In mock acclaim, O gracious Lord, they snatched a purple cloak,
your passion turned, for all they cared, into a soldier's joke.
They did not know, as we do now,that though we merit blame
you will your robe of mercy throw around our naked shame.

A sceptered reed, O patient Lord,they thrust into your hand,
and acted out their grim charade to its appointed end.
They did not know, as we do now,though empires rise and fall,
your Kingdom shall not cease to grow till love embraces all.

The hymn is set to the splendid “Third Tune” by Thomas Tallis, who lived in the 16th Century in England. Here is a fine congruence of an old tune to a new text.

Those of us who are familiar with classical music will remember that Ralph Vaughan Williams (he again!) wrote a gorgeous set of variations on this melody.

Not every sermon has to be challenging, so this has been a bit of a romp through some of my thoughts about hymn texts and tunes.

Thank you for allowing me to indulge one of my passions – I hope that you too will get excited about the words and music we sing each week.

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