SERMON FOR ADVENT 3 ON 16.12.12
Over the past six weeks I’ve picked up a new hobby. Some of you may remember meeting my brother who visited from Minnesota last month, and the blame can be laid at his door. He has introduced me to shape note singing, which is traditional southern American unaccompanied sacred music. The traditional songbook has the notes written in four shapes – fa, sol, la and mi – to make it easy to sightread, and the music can be sung in any key, depending on how it is pitched. It is sung in parts, with the melody in the tenor section, and all the singers sitting in a hollow square. Each singer takes a turn at choosing a song and leading it from the middle of the square, where the sound knocks your socks off. The rule is to sing as loudly as you can, precisely on the beat. Shape note singing has been described as Renaissance music sung by hillbillies.
Now it has taken off in northern American cities and has spread to Britain, Ireland and Poland. You can do shape note singing with a group virtually every week in London. There are no spectators, rehearsals or performances. Every singing is the real thing.
Simon Jones has recently written in the Church Times about his first experience of shape note singing. He says, “The sound is like nothing I have ever heard before – and I grew up in a Welsh chapel. It’s as deep as funeral music, but feels like a resurrection. When [the leader] invites newcomers into the hollow square to get the full surround-sound experience, my insides crack like a flagstone.”
The songs themselves are all religious, and they are mostly about death. One of the tunes is called Primrose Hill, so I was naturally drawn to it. The words begin “When I can read my title clear to mansions in the skies, I’ll bid farewell to every fear and wipe my weeping eyes.” This is a very typical example. What astonishes me is the way that people of faiths and none are powerfully drawn to belt out songs about facing their mortality and expecting judgement. Another favourite goes “Remember, Lord, our mortal state; how frail our lives! How short the date! Where is the man that draws his breath, safe from disease, secure from death?”
One local singer is quoted in the Church Times saying: “Look at how much death is in these songs. The tradition has a big focus on mourning, and one of the things that’s happening is that we become a place that allows ourselves these thoughts. Death is excluded from most social conversation. We fear it and flee it. In these hymns, we look it in the eye.”
I can only think that a spiritual need is being met by shape note singing. In a world that focuses on youth, beauty, success and possessions, there is something truly liberating in facing the fact that our lives are short and must be seen in the light of eternity. What matters is not what we own but what we value.
People flocked to hear John the Baptist preach, and he certainly didn’t spare his words. He denounced his hearers as a brood of vipers, chaff that is fit only to be burned with unquenchable fire. I remember that when I was a curate in All Saints, Poplar many years ago we received a letter from a new member of the congregation, explaining politely that she would no longer be attending because she needed to go to a church that had really STRONG preaching. Clearly we were not sufficiently in the John the Baptist tradition.
Sometimes we need the full-strength stuff. We don’t want friendly platitudes and comforting pats on the back. We need and want to be taken seriously, to look at our lives under the searchlight of God’s judgment, and to face squarely the fact that we are all too ready to excuse our failures and let ourselves off the hook. It seems a little odd that John’s stern words about separating the wheat from the chaff are described as good news. But what is good is that it matters who we are and what we do. God takes a real interest in us. He wants us to bear fruit. He won’t ignore or overlook any of us.
Every winter, volunteering at the cold weather shelter brings this home to me. People whom society would rather not notice, people who have complex needs, come through our doors and are treated here as honoured guests, not problems to be avoided. God hasn’t given up on a single one of them, so how dare we do so? Their lives matter, and so do their hopes and dreams, their sins and failures, their acts of compassion and generosity. The same, of course, is true of us.
Each one of us matters. Not in self-esteem industry sense that we owe ourselves lots of treats and approval because we’re worth it. But in the biblical sense that God has adopted each of us as one of his children. The coming of God into the world is an event that has personal significance for everyone.
It has the power to fill our lives with joy and hope, even in the midst of chaos and disintegration. Zephaniah prophesied in a time of national turmoil that the fate of the nations was in the hands of God, and they should rejoice in the expectation that God would vindicate them. Paul wrote from prison to the people of Philippi with words of astonishing confidence and comfort: rejoice, rejoice, do not worry about anything. God is in charge and God is for us.
Even John the Baptist includes in his stern preaching words of practical help and reassurance. His advice is very down to earth. If you have more than enough for your needs, share with those who are in want. Be honest in your work. Don’t be greedy for more than your share. That is how you should live while you wait in expectation for the coming of God in judgement. Show by your deeds that you have heard the message of the kingdom. Bear fruit while you can. God knows you by name and will call you to account.
So the good news of John really is good, though framed in somewhat terrifying language. God has a personal relationship with each of us limited earth-bound creatures who are born to die. How we live our lives matters. We can be citizens of his kingdom if we acknowledge our adoption as his children. Whatever our circumstances, we can then give over worrying and trust that God is truly for us. We are called to rejoice in that fact.
This morning, very aptly, we have a family celebration in this church. Samuel, the son of Mark and Eleanor Sturdy, was born in Russia and was baptized and chrismated in the Orthodox Church. This sacramental act means that technically he is already confirmed. Children are treated very seriously by Orthodox Christians. They may be too young to speak for themselves but in the eyes of the Church they are fully members of the Christian community. In Russia he would be receiving communion from his baptism onwards. But instead of growing up in Russia he has been joyfully received and adopted by British parents who now wish to mark his formal reception into the Church to which they belong.
So in a few moments we will ask his parents and godparents to publicly profess the faith in which they will bring him up in the words of the Apostles’ Creed. We will formally welcome him, and at the end of the service he will be given a candle as the sign of his baptismal calling to be a light in the world to the glory of God. In this rite today we can all be reminded that we too are adopted children of God. Each one of us is welcomed, received and commissioned as Samuel will be. Each one of us is called to live in the light of eternity, to fruit, to trust God and to rejoice