Canon Chancellor - Revd Canon Dr Mandy Ford
Now, I’m going to start by making a confession, I have to confess that a lot of music is a mystery to me.
I don’t play an instrument. I don’t do the dots, and though I listen to plenty of music it would be considered very low brow by most of my colleagues and I’m sure by a good number of you.
That doesn’t mean that I think music is not important. Quite the opposite, the fact that music is mysterious is crucial in understanding why music is so valuable in worship.
Music points to something beyond itself. Something that cannot be easily described in words. Sometimes music does something to us that we cannot describe in words.
It is a mystery. And those of you who have the gift of musical ability, who can sing, or play an instrument, will know that moment …. when you stop paying attention to your performance, or the detail of that tricky note sequence or timing issue, and you lose yourself in the music itself.
That moment of mystery. I know this happens, because I’ve seen it.
When an instrumentalist closes their eyes and allows the music to flood through every pore in their body.
When a chorister doesn’t have to look at the score, but has their eyes fixed on the conductor, responding to the slightest movement or signal.
When the choir is so well attuned that you can’t tell where a particular line is coming from.
In that moment, music becomes an awesome, inscrutable, mystery.
In that moment music points to something else awesome, inscrutable and mysterious, God, Godself.
Just occasionally that awesome, inscrutable, mystery occurs in worship.
Just last Thursday there was a ceremony here to make a new bishop. Sometimes such events can seem rather formal, with a lot of old fashioned words and ceremony. But on Thursday, there were moments, long moments of silence, and seriousness, moments of music soaring up into the roof of the cathedral, moments of music quiet and intimate, when people were caught up in something mysterious, as the Holy Spirit was called down upon the new bishop, to equip her for the work she was called to do.
It was overwhelming for just a moment, and those closest to her could see that. Moses had a similar experience when he first encountered God in the burning bush in the desert. And today, we hear about another encounter, another Theophany – another appearance of God.
The bible uses a telling phrase: it talks about the appearance of the glory of the Lord.
The Hebrew word which is translated here as glory is Shekhinah, which means something like the inhabitation or dwelling, and is the same word which is translated elsewhere in the Bible as tabernacle or shelter.
In other words, Moses was not seeing God, but he was seeing something luminous, mysterious and powerful which indicated the presence of God.
That glory, we are told, is like a devouring fire.
It is dangerous and powerful, to be treated with care and respect.
It is hidden in a cloud, so the mystery is shrouded in mystery, the unseen within the unknown.
It is this phenomena into which Moses is invited to enter, to encounter the Divine Otherness of God.
It is absolutely unlike anything we can experience in normal life, and so when we hear this story and imagine Moses entering the cloud, we should get a shiver down the spine!
We might also get a whisper that some of our words about God are too small.
Especially the ones which like to recruit God to support our point of view, our favourite kind of church or music, our ideas about what is right,
These words can be really blasphemous, because they say something about God that is not true, that makes God too small, too cosy, too simple.
The beautiful thing about music, like other art forms, is that it expresses something that words cannot, even, as Augustine said, when you sing you pray twice, music engages us beyond our conscious thoughts, our intellectual imaginings.
So music can help to point to the mystery of God, the awesome, unexplainable, powerful, beauty of God.
This is why choirs are so important to our worship in churches and cathedrals. That is why it is so good to recognise and honour that, and the way that your music making is supported by the RSCM today.
As a member of a choir, you are given the incredible privilege of singing music which is rich, and complex, and beautiful.
You can create a space in which the glory of God can sometimes, just sometimes, make itself at home so that others can experience the glory of God in worship. As a member of a choir you might also find that in the music you make you can lose yourself, so that the glory of God can make itself at home in you.
And if that sounds a bit far fetched, just remember that the glory of God did make a home among us, as the gospel of John tells us that God tabernacled himself with us, made himself at home on earth, in the person of Jesus.
Each of us, in our baptism, makes a home for Jesus in our hearts, so that the glory of God is embedded and embodied in each one of us, awesome, mysterious, beautiful.
May we treasure that gift in our hearts and respect it in one another, in our worship and in our lives.
Seeing we have a great high priest who has passed into the heavens, Jesus Christ, the Son of God, asking that his blessing may be upon all that we do and all that we are, let us pray to the Lord for the Royal School of Church Music; for those whom it unites in fellowship to inspire and instruct, to craft and create, to support and sustain; for all those who serve it today:
that it may flourish to the greater glory of God,
let us pray to the Lord.
For the music we make together in Christ’s name;
for those who compose and conduct it, who play and perform it:
that the glory of God may be heard in it,
and that the hearts of all people may rejoice in it,
let us pray to the Lord.
For the world in which we are called to sing the song of salvation;
for those whose lives are lived beneath the noise of war and the cry of want:
that the discords of our lives may be healed by the harmonies of God’s grace,
let us pray to the Lord.
As we lose ourselves in song,
That we may lose and find ourselves in you;
As we become centred in song,
That we may become centred in you;
As many voices become one in song,
That we may be united in you
As you are united as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
And so we unite our prayers in the words of the Grace…