Sunday, 24 July 2011

For Priests, Pastors, Preachers and Church people. A Sermon. Second entry for 24th July 2011

Sermon for 24th July 2011.  The Revd. J. Michael Povey, at St. Boniface Church, Siesta Key FL.
Romans 8:31-39

Music in Church is not an optional adornment, like the frosting on a cake. It is essential to who we are. The ministers of music have a vocation which is as important as that of the priests and pastors. Music introduces us to the beauty of God.  The words challenge and inform our faith.

When I was a young boy I would weep every time I heard that bit of music known as “The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”, from Handel’s oratorio “Solomon”.  I did not know then why I wept.  As I look back I think that I was been touched by a beauty which I did not understand, but which I recognised.

As I grew up, I fell in love with hymns.  This was sometimes because of the beautiful tunes, but often because of the texts.  The words of the hymns stretched my mind and my spiritual imagination.  

So I ask our organist:  “my brother Seth, please play us a hymn tune”.  (Seth Wertz, organist plays “Sine Nomine”).

Question to congregation.  “What words came to your mind when you heard that tune?”

Of course you knew it well.  It’s the tune we use for the hymn “For All the Saints”.

Question to congregation.  “Who will tell us the composer of that tune?”
(Ralph Vaughan Williams)

Question to congregation.  “Another question –what is the name of the tune?”

It’s “Sine Nomine”.  That’s odd indeed for “Sine Nomine” means “without name”!  It’s by Ralph Vaughan Williams. He (although he was an agnostic) was the musical editor for the 1906 edition of “The English Hymnal”

For various complicated copyright reasons that tune could not be printed in any other hymn book in England, so those of us who were members of churches which other hymnals, for example “Hymns Ancient and Modern” had to sing “For All the Saints” to another tune.   Here it is Seth, please play us a few lines of that tune – 

doubtless you also recognised that - it is called “Engleburg”. 

Once the copyright issues expired “Sine Nomine” became the tune of preference for “For All the Saints”.  Most of us could not imagine singing those strong words to any other tune.

But “Engleberg” also has its strengths, and you just cannot keep a good tune down.  In fact it is the tune chosen for three hymns in our own Hymnal.  (296,420,477.) 

Hymn 420 which we sang earlier is tailor made for “Engleburg”.  “When in our music God is glorified” is a text by an English Methodist Minister, the Revd. Fred Pratt Green.  He was born in 1903 and he died in 2000.  Fred Pratt Green had never particularly cared for hymns.  But he was a published poet, and so was asked to write some new hymns for the use of English Methodists.  He began this hymn writing at the aged of 67, and in due course wrote more than 300 hymns!  Five of his hymns, plus two of his translations found their way into our 1982 Hymnal.  

Dr. Michael Hawn is the professor of sacred music at Perkins School of Theology, SMU.  He writes of “When in our music God is glorified: -
“However, Pratt Green uses music not just as a metaphor that points us to another idea, but explores music-making as a phenomenon ............ in its own right. The second stanza concludes with the marvellous thought that “making music . . . move[s] us to a more profound Alleluia!”  

In this way, Pratt Green seems to agree with Martin Luther who said, “Next to the Word of God, the noble art of music is the greatest treasure in the world.” Luther and Pratt Green seem to ascribe a quasi-sacramental quality to music—music as a means of revelation and grace”.

That sacramental aspect of music resonates with my early experience of tears when I heard the Handel piece.  The music which I did not understand moved me to a wonder and beauty which I could feel.

Another of Fred Pratt Green’s hymns is # 348 in our hymnal: “Lord we have come at your own invitation”. (It’s a pity that this hymn is listed under Hymns for Confirmation, for it would make a fine opening hymn any Sunday). 

It’s a hymn about what might happen to us when we come to the Lord’s Table and share in Communion.  It’s one of those hymns which challenge and inform our faith. It ends with these words:

So, in the world where each duty assigned us gives us the chance to create or destroy,

Help us to make those decisions that bind us, Lord, to yourself, in obedience and joy.

There’s a challenge for you.  Sharing in Communion teaches us that the Christian life is indeed a matter of obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ.  That obedience might well lead us to suffer for the sake of Christ.  It will call us away from innocuous, harmless and comfortable Christianity.    It will cause us to challenge all those political and economic systems which oppress the poor -  at home and abroad.

Another word for obedience in the Christian life is “discipleship”.  The disciple is one who follows the Lord Jesus, wherever it may lead.  One such disciple was a German Pastor called Dietrich Bonhoeffer.  He was born to a fairly prosperous middle class family in 1906.

He showed early brilliance as a scholar and theologian, earning a doctorate at aged 21.  Bonhoeffer questioned the culturally comfortable Christianity of the protestant church in Germany.  He knew that it was not enough to be a fan of Jesus. He knew that following Jesus was the crux -  the crux indeed -  for discipleship is the way of the cross.

Bonhoeffer was insistent in his critique of a Christianity which had adapted itself all too easily to the Nazi regime.  He rejected the form of Christianity which had in many places welcomed the Nazis.  He spoke up for Jews and against their persecution.  He became an enemy of the State. He was imprisoned in 1943.

Whilst in prison, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a poem which begins with the words “Von guten Mächten treu und still umgeben”.  It’s a poem of deep faith and trust in God in the midst of unbelievable evil.

Our friend Fred Pratt Green took Bonheoffer’s poem and moulded into a hymn (“By gracious pow’rs” - Hymnal 695) which we shall sing in a moment.  The tune is pleasantly sing-able. 

But it is a very tough text.  For it takes me out of the comfort zone of casual Christianity - a zone which I enjoy all too easily – into the realm of costly discipleship which I all too easily reject.    (Do note that in when in stanza three the hymn refers to the cup of suffering given by God, it is not speaking of human suffering caused by hunger, famine, disease or illness.  It’s about the suffering Jesus promised to those who would be disciples -  “you will” he said “drink of the cup which I will drink”.)

As we sing this hymn (* text below), hard as it is, we shall be aware that it was written in a Nazi prison by the very great Dietrich Bonhoeffer,  who drank deeply from cup of suffering simply and solely because he was a disciple.

His discipleship took him to a place which most of us would reject.  He became convinced that the death of H-tler was imperative.  He became involved in the Abwehr plot against H-tler’s life.  Following two years of imprisonment he was executed on April 9th 1945. 

His captors stripped him naked, and hanged him with a wire.  He is reputed to have said “This is the end, for me the beginning of life”.

Bonhoeffer's poem as versified by Fred Pratt Green.  1982 Episcopal Hymnal # 695

By gracious pow'rs so wonderfully sheltered
And confidently waiting come what may,
We know that God is with us night and morning
And never fails to greet us each new day.

Yet is this heart by its old foe tormented,
Still evil days bring burdens hard to bear;
O give our frightened souls the sure salvation
For which, O Lord, you taught us to prepare.
And when this cup you give is filled to brimming
With bitter suffering, hard to understand,
We take it thankfully and without trembling
Out of so good, and so beloved a hand.
Yet when again, in this same world you give us
The joy we had, the brightness of your sun,
We shall remember all the days we lived through
And our whole life shall then be yours alone.

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