Wednesday, October 30, 2013

A Sermon for City Choir

Sarah Mitchell [Photo: Ian Thomson]

Sermon for the service held on Sunday 27 October 2013 in Knox Church, celebrating City Choir Dunedin’s 150th anniversary year.

It is a great privilege to be invited to preach here at Knox Church this morning – on this weekend when we celebrate 150 years of music making by the Dunedin Choral Society, in its various incarnations.  (I want to thank you Peter Wishart - and also David Burchell and Karen Knudson - for this invitation and opportunity to share with you all on this celebratory Sunday.)

Knox Church and City Choir are institutions of a similar age – Knox having celebrated its 150th just over three years ago. As I look back over my own life, I realise how many times my involvement with City Choir and Knox Church have paralleled and intermingled with each other.  I remember vividly, as a teenager, encountering my first Messiah concert in the Town Hall, about the same time I first attended Knox Church – both experiences influencing me profoundly.  I became a member of both Knox and Schola Cantorum in the late 1960s and then, so very happily, returned to both institutions during the past decade.  Perhaps even more so than originally, these recent involvements have shaped my life in deeply significant ways.  City Choir and Knox Church have been communities which have provided a framework within which much of my life has been shaped, supported and enhanced.   That framework has been held together through the powerful medium of sublime music – but more than that: by compassionate, caring relationships and through a shared commitment to bring hope and joy to others.

Recently, I watched a wonderful movie entitled Bach: a passionate life and it set me wondering about how passionate our lives are today.  How many of us can say we live fully and passionately?   It is so easy to live a life ironed flat – with the wrinkles of joys and sorrows pressed down firmly beneath steadily increasing layers of unrealistic expectations, despair, apathy and powerlessness.  Fast-forward a movie of your life – of the past decades, years, months and days – would you give it the title a passionate life? Is it enthused with meaningful joy and delight?  Does the life-song you sing mine the deep riches of your woundedness in such a way that others are invited to join you in a hope-filled song?   In the movie I watched, John Eliot Gardner sought to uncover the passionate life of Johann Sebastian Bach – scraping away some layers of familiarity and tradition to expose once more the fervent pulse – the wrinkled spirit – of this incredibly gifted musician.

One of the themes of the movie, (if you’ll excuse the pun) which really sounded a chord with me, was Gardner’s description of the chorales, which feature in Bach’s Oratorios.  The Passions of St John and St. Matthew – and also the Christmas Oratorio (a piece from which tonight’s concert will open) – all tell the familiar Easter or Christmas stories through recitative, aria and chorus.  But in the midst of these, every so often, the choir bursts into a hymn-chorale – with its starkly contrasting harmonic structure and style.  Gardner reminds the viewer that these chorales are the contemporary church response to the ancient story ... that is, Bach has provided a contemporary 18th century church response to the biblical stories.  But, that mingling of ancient and contemporary expression – doesn’t (and mustn’t) end with Bach or any other composer.  As we perform and listen to the music, we will find it becomes richer and more glorious if we allow our present day response to be added as yet another layer of meaning. The passion dwindles – and may even disappear – if, two or three centuries later, we solely rely on the work of others and don’t make our own contribution and response in that ongoing process of creativity.  As Colin Gibson puts it so simply and beautifully in his contemporary hymn He came singing love “for the love to go on we must make it our song.  You and I be the singers.”

This morning’s gospel reading tells of someone seeking a passionate life in his particular time.
I think Nicodemus might have been a little like those described recently by David Burchell as he talked to us about this church service – David acknowledged some of us might be “allergic to church”.  I think there are a lot of us in that capacity!  Often our allergies have been developed as a result of involvement in something that has been anything but life-giving. We are allergic to being told that God is a king sitting on a cloud, a controlling father who tells us what to do – or manipulates our lives as ‘he’ sees fit.  We’re sick of moralistic judgmentalism, hypocritical piety and impossible demands for perfection.  We’re allergic to what should be enabling an existence in which “goodness and mercy are following us all the days of our life”, but what in reality is often destructive and death dealing.

Of course, Nicodemus didn’t belong to a church – but he was a member of the Jewish religious leadership.  I’m not suggesting that Judaism was in any way more deadly than Christianity – at their hearts, both religions are about a life-giving way.  And yet, somehow, Nicodemus’ religious experience was not satisfying enough – for he snuck out, at night, when none of his mates might see him – to seek out this rabbi with his new teaching – this guy Jesus, whom many of us still seek out, in our endeavours to live fully and meaningfully today.

And, in that encounter, what a strange answer Nicodemus got to his questions:  No-one can find a full and meaningful life unless they have a rebirth experience, says Jesus.  And this rebirthing comes if you let Spirit blow through you.  There’s nothing here about having to believe a certain doctrine, nothing about belonging to a certain institution, it’s about being open to the winds of the life-giving Spirit, (that life-giving, love-making, pain-bearing pulse, which some of us might call God) – an impulse, which transforms, and rebirths people into a passionate life.

Writer Jan Phillips suggests that every human being is like a flute – each of us releasing our song, when Spirit passes through the holes carved by our experience.  “No two beings” she writes, “sing the same song, for the holes in each life produce their own unrepeatable melody.”  Often that melody emerges from experiences that are tough, challenging and hurtful – and we always have the choice as to whether we “go around carving holes in others because we have been so painfully carved, or whether we let Spirit play its song through our experience – enabling us to listen to the miraculous music coming through others.”

A friend recently pointed me towards the podcasts from BBC Radio 4 entitled “Soul Music”. Here, each episode focuses on a piece of music and the powerful, emotional stories of people whose lives have been inspired by that music. Many of you would recognise the pieces of music chosen – Fauré’s Requiem, Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius (excerpts of which will feature in tonight’s City Choir Choral Masterpieces concert), Allegri’s Miserere (which Knox Church Choir sings so beautifully most Ash Wednesdays).  I imagine you too will have your own special pieces of music – music that has enabled you to release your own song as Spirit passes through the holes carved by your life experiences.

Let me tell you one of the stories from that BBC series.  It’s the story of South African anti-apartheid campaigner Albie Sachs, who in 1963 was held in solitary confinement near Cape Town.  “I’m desperate”, he recalls, “I’m trying to be brave.  I’m all alone.  I can’t see anyone.  I march up and down in my little cell, singing and whistling.  I’m trying to communicate.  Isn’t there anyone out there?  I’ve been singing ANC songs – no response.  Then I go whistle: [part of theme from Largo of Dvorak’s New World Symphony].   And, from deep within the prison walls, I hear: [more of theme].”    Each evening, the two disembodied whistlers would communicate, through this haunting melody from Dvorak’s New World Symphony – a life-transforming song of goodness and mercy – holding out hope for each other in their bleak, blank and empty spaces.

150 years ... it’s not a long time in the life of a universe – but it’s long enough for many holes to have been carved in the flutes of Knox Church and City Choir.  It’s long enough for goodness and mercy to have been brought to birth over and over again.  We might take this time of celebration as an opportunity to pause, to ask, what song has been sung – and what song will be sung – for the city of Dunedin, within this cosmos, within this (to use the Psalmist’s term) ‘house of the Lord’?
For a passionate life to go on, we must make it our song ... you and I are the singers.

Sarah Mitchell
Knox Church
October 27, 2013

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