A Sermon from Sherborne

Instruments in his hands

A sermon for the Parish Eucharist on Sunday 5 May, preached at Sherborne Abbey during the annual Music Festival by the Rector, Canon Eric Woods


This morning’s readings [Acts 9.1-20; John 21.1-19] are both about the opening of eyes. There are Saul’s blind eyes after his encounter with the risen Lord on the Damascus Road, which are opened by the Holy Spirit, through the ministration of Ananias, transforming a ferocious opponent of the Christian heresy, Saul, into one of its most fervent apostles, Paul. Then there are the disciples’ blind eyes, not recognising Jesus on the shore of Lake Galilee, until he directs them to cast their empty nets once more, and they make a huge catch of fish.

Physical eyes. Spiritual eyes. In the New Testament each can stand for the other. The Gospel is about opening blind eyes.

Today is the third day of our Music Festival, which is also about opening blind eyes. “Excuse me, Rector – don’t you mean deaf ears?” Well, no, not really. Many of those attending this feast of music will be moved by it, inspired by it, entranced by it. Their ears are open. But will they have the eyes to see and the hearts to understand that much of the music being offered here is a direct channel into the very heart of God?

Christians have not always understood the close connection – one might say the harmony – between music and worship. Puritans down the ages have been opposed to music (apart, perhaps, from metrical psalms and, later, jolly songs) on the grounds that it is idolatry, drawing the attention of the worshipper away from God both to the music and to those who make the music. Perhaps sometimes that has been true, but that tells us more about human frailty than the intrinsic value of music. Yet those who smashed organs as well as statues at the Reformation regarded the instrument as the “devil’s bagpipes” and two hundred years later John Wesley was calling an organ voluntary an “unseasonable and unnecessary impertinence”. He was ruder still about choirs, describing their singing as “the screaming of unawakened striplings who bawl out what they neither feel nor understand.”

As usual, the Puritans were wrong, and the Bible tells us so. From its pages we learn that from earliest times people have found that music has a mighty power to lift them into the presence of God, opening their minds to him and expressing both their praise and adoration of him and their yearning for his mercy, grace and comfort. So they have beaten drums, blown trumpets, rung bells, played strings and pipes – and, above all, they have sung.

Two of the oldest passages in the Bible are songs, the Song of Moses and the Song of David. King David himself was the greatest if not the only Psalmist, and the Book of Psalms is eloquent testimony to the part played by singing in Jewish worship. Nor did David stop at singing: we learn that on at least one occasion he “danced mightily” before the Lord. Song hailed the coming of Christ into our world, as the angels sang Gloria in Excelsis, and at the end of his earthly life, before going out to Gethsemane, Jesus and his disciples sang an hymn. Later on we read of Paul and Silas singing as they sat in gaol at Philippi, and it was Paul who in two of his letters expressly told Christians to join together in “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your hearts to the Lord”. And whenever holy men and women have caught a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Communion of Saints, they have always heard music, as when St John the Divine heard as it were the voice of a trumpet bidding him “Come up hither”.

So why is there this universal, timeless connection between music and worship? It is because there is little more powerful than music to draw us to God, to unite us in his service, to lift us into his presence.

Let’s unpack that. First, music made to the glory of God helps to draw us towards God. It has probably always been true that there are some people who would not have come to know and worship God if they had not first been drawn by an interest and delight in music for its own sake. God speaks to some people most clearly through words, through scripture or sermons or poetry or prayer or sacraments. But equally clearly he may speak to others through music, art or sculpture. And that is why Christians should never be ashamed of making the music, art and sculpture in their churches as good as possible in the hope that others will be drawn by it, and have their minds, their hearts and their imagination opened and expanded by it. For if we believe, as we say we do, that God is the author and giver of all good things, it follows that those who are drawn to good music or good art are thereby drawn nearer to the one who ultimately is its Creator. We all know instinctively the difference between music in worship and music that is a concert, and if we go to church and hear only a concert we are somehow always disappointed. It was a sad reflection upon the Church’s understanding of these things that the first London performance of the Messiah was given in an opera house and not in a church. Handel himself had never intended the Messiah to be simply a concert piece. As he put it rather wistfully after that performance, “I should be sorry if I only entertained them; I wished to make them better.”

And then, secondly, music in church helps to unite us in God’s service. As a former Dean of Winchester Cathedral put it, “Through hearing, and making, noble music together, and through singing together, a congregation of individuals can be infused into a very real and powerful unity; and when that unity becomes a unity of faith, hope and charity, great things may be expected.” That is why Luther, of all the stars of the Reformation, shines so brightly in this respect, because he understood the power of music and he used it in the service of the Gospel, not least with those stirring hymns which we still delight to sing: “A mighty fortress is our God”.

To draw us to God, to unite us – and, thirdly, to lift us out of ourselves. When in my last parish my Roman Catholic colleague retired after a very long ministry, I asked him what gift he would most like from the Anglican community. His immediate reply was “as many tapes of Anglican choral music as you can afford: it always lifts me up, and out of my depressions and frustrations and preoccupations. It is sublime.” Or, to quote Handel again, speaking of his experience of writing the Hallelujah Chorus: “I did think I did see all heaven before me – and the great God himself!”

In the end, music – like the Creator himself – is a mystery. What is music? Heinrich Heine said this: “Music is a strange thing. I would almost say it is a miracle. For it stands halfway between thought and phenomenon, between spirit and matter, a sort of nebulous mediator, like and unlike each of the things it mediates – spirit that requires manifestation in time, and matter that can do without space. We do not know what music is.” The composer Mahler came closer still: “As long as my experience can be summed up in words, I write no music about it; my need to express myself musically … begins at the door which leads into the ‘other world’ – the world in which things are no longer separated by space and time”. But perhaps the Anglican mystic William Law came closest of all: “The soul continues as an instrument of God’s harmony, a tuned instrument of divine joy for the spirit to strike on.” William Law dares to suggest that there is between the music made by the violinist or the cellist or the organist a parallel with the divine music that God will make upon us, if only we will let him, if we will become instruments in his hands.

The Rector, Canon Eric Woods 05/05/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne