Pentecost 2018

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Pentecost 2018

What a weekend we are having! A Royal Wedding, A Cup Final, a Parish Spring Fair, Jackie’s Birthday, Ken and Laura’s Silver Wedding Anniversary… It’s all happening. And, ah yes, I nearly forgot, it’s Pentecost too – another Birthday – the Birthday of the Church. I know some churches where they have birthday cake today and even sing Happy Birthday… That’s three lots of singing isn’t it: Hymns at the Royal Wedding, and the National Anthem; the enduring and relentless Happy Birthday, and of course, Cup Final singing, Abide with me, and all that. And today is the Feast of Pentecost: the celebration of the giving and receiving of the Holy Spirit of God, the comforter who sends us into the world and sustains us in our mission, our music and our ministry. Royalty – Music – Teamwork – Spirituality – these are the themes of this day, which we bring to our worship of God today.

Worship is a conscious act, in which one encounter our Heavenly Father through Christ and in the power of the Spirit. Singing glorifies God and the best hymns are the ones which in some way speak to us as well as enable us to speak to God. In this they exemplify the action of the Holy Spirit, who is both the enabler and the object of praise. As we lift our voices to God in song, we are ourselves uplifted by that song, and the encounter becomes two-directional. We sing to God and the Spirit sings with us, bearing us all along to the throne of grace.

For music, even when played alone is a participatory activity. Even when playing or singing solo the performer is relating to the composer: not the person who died years ago, or who lives miles away, but the composer who is both buried, and living, within the work. Thus when a performer takes up a sheet of music, a conversation begins, and any prospect of loneliness or alienation is banished. The performer is in fellowship with the composer, as it were.

Some people pray when playing music alone, and complete immersion in the music and removal of everything else can open the way for inspiration, communion or even communication.

But if singing alone can bring inspiration and delight, how much more can shared music! Yesterday, with hymns from Windsor Castle and football chanting from Wembley broadcast worldwide, we can say with confidence that hymn singing and sports chanting have as their main strength communality of feeling and common purpose, whether it be in search of divine blessing or another goal. The two activities reveal the unificatory ability of song, and the emotional stimulation of shared music. Again, there is fellowship in this communal singing.

Anyone who plays or sings chamber music will know first hand the deep delight which the blend of work and pleasure that a small ensemble creates within itself. Chamber music needs no audience and many get together simply to play or sing, to enjoy each other’s company at the musical level, and those who have played together over many years form a kind of musical family unit which is both intimate and empathetic. The individual members of a quartet, for example, need not be best friends, but when they take up their bows they become different people, tied in fellowship by the strings of their instruments.

Music at the orchestral and choral level is slightly different, because it is bigger and more complex, there is less scope for the kind of democracy of interpretation that chamber music affords. The American composer John Cage once deplored the fact that in orchestral music the conductor is like a policeman, standing on the platform waving his arms about, as though directing traffic! The alternative, as Cage himself demonstrated in various of his zany compositions, is far worse. Orchestras and choirs do need keeping together and someone has to make the decisions, just as the captain of the team must try to read and direct the play.

I sometimes think that churches are a bit like orchestras, the vicar has to take charge, to stand at the front and wave their arms about, but ultimately nothing happens if the members of the community don’t take up their instruments and blow, scrape or bang! Like the apostles at Pentecost, we all have a part to play, in our own tongue, which makes up the greater whole that is the church – the fellowship of Christ’s Church.

If solo performance is like hitting a ball against a wall, and chamber music is like mixed doubles, then orchestral playing is like the cup final. While music is not generally competitive, it shares with sport the challenge, joy and benefit of teamwork. A football team that cannot work together will just lose. An orchestra that cannot, will fall apart. Musicians must listen to one another as they play, just as sportsmen and women must watch one another and the ball, and these are not only skills of awareness, they are skills of relationship, and they are needed and cherished in churches too. And it is the same in the church – we not only sing together, but pastorally we join together – we look out for one another, we are united by the bonds of the love the Spirit sews in us. In the fellowship of the church family, we love and care for one another: weeping with those who weep and laughing with those who laugh.

Spiritual teamwork is not often mentioned, but I believe that it happens in worship, not only with each other, but with the Holy Spirit, who enables and joins our praise.

And today is a day to really celebrate that, it being the festival of Pentecost. For it is in the fellowship of singing together that the Spirit helps and joins us in our praise of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There was fellowship yesterday as the nation gathered around TVs to watch the Royal Wedding. As we watched that man Harry wait for his bride, the man who as a little boy we watched follow his mother’s coffin – we watched together, united by the Holy Spirit of love who brought them, and so many others throughout history, together. And indeed, Bishop Michael Curry’s wedding sermon was not so much a wedding sermon, actually, but a Pentecost sermon. He talked of the fire of love and of a world transformed by love into a new heaven and a new earth. This is Pentecost - Pentecostal - stuff, although I daresay he won’t be using it again today, as just about the whole world heard it yesterday – fine sermon that it was. Yet the world was united in fellowship as we heard him – and of course, all that music, from Tallis to Gospel, Fauré to Rutter. What a gift to have an Episcopalian, Pentecostal preacher at the Royal Wedding, preaching on the fire of the Holy Spirit, during this past week when churches all over the country have been praying ‘thy kingdom come’ in a national festival of prayer and waiting on the Spirit.

Fellowship is a word often bandied about, usually in a positive sense, but there is a risk of it becoming meaningless. What is fellowship? For some it consists simply in Christians socializing together. But whatever it is, and it is more than that - it concerns and involves the Holy Spirit. The famous words of what we call, ’The Grace’ remind us of this:

May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all.

St Paul gave us The Grace, and we say it ever so often. ‘The Fellowship of the Holy Spirit…’ We find this in corporate worship, and in the time of refreshment afterwards. But whatever ‘fellowship’ denotes, it centres on the common purpose and faith of those sharing it, and the sharing of it is probably more important than the ‘it’, if you see what I mean. Thus all of us: the choir, the servers, the clergy, the congregation, are in fellowship with one another, not only when we have our parties, fetes, outings or after-church coffee, but especially when we stand as one and sing to the Lord.

This is spiritual teamwork, and it makes what we do here special and holy. May it always be so. Amen.

The Rev'd Dr Gordon Giles, St Mary Magdalene, Enfield, 20/05/18