A sermon given during the 6:00pm Choral Evensong, by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, on the 12th February 2023.

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

On Wednesday morning media reports stated the following:

Aftershocks, freezing temperatures and damaged roads are hampering efforts to tackle the enormous humanitarian emergency triggered by Monday’s 7.8-magnitude earthquake in southern Turkey and northern Syria, with 7,800 people now confirmed dead and 380,000 others seeking refuge in Turkey alone.

As the scale of the devastation from the initial quake – and a second tremor – became clearer, the Turkish authorities declared a state of emergency in 10 provinces and the World Health Organization warned that the number of fatalities could exceed 20,000. (We know that it has)

By Tuesday evening, the death toll had passed 7,800. In Turkey, 5,894 people were confirmed to have died and around 32,000 had been injured. The death toll in Syria rose to 1,932 on Tuesday night. …

On one side of Syria’s civil war, a man in army fatigues carried a lifeless child’s ashen body from the rubble of a shattered building in the government-held city of Hama.

Across a frontline on another side of Syria, a rescue worker in the white helmet and black-yellow vest of the Syrian civil defence carried a young girl – shaken but alive – from the rubble of her home in rebel-held Azaz. …

“The earthquake shook opposition held and regime-held areas, and I support the Syrian revolution with all my heart, but I care for my people,” Ramadan Suleiman, 28, said by phone, expressing sympathy for civilians living in government areas.

“I’m a human, they’re human, we felt for those in Turkey and feel the same when it happens in other places like Europe. That’s humanity,” said Suleiman, who was displaced to Idlib from Deir al-Zor in eastern Syria during the war.

“This is the last thing that the country needed. It’s a country that is inhabited by death,” said Hassan Hussein, from the coastal city and government stronghold of Tartous.[1]

How do we pray for people who are suffering in such a way … where human violence and natural disaster causes a citizen of a country to describe his home as a country “inhabited by death”. How do we keep company with people in a land we have never visited who are in such desperate situations. As the one who spoke in this article said “I’m human, they’re human” … we are fellow human beings …but how do we pray? At times, we write prayers like the beautiful prayer Rev’d Joan Claring-Bould wrote for the people of Alice Springs. At times, we pray the psalms, the prayers Jesus prayed that express all human emotions in poetry, psalms crying out to God, psalms naming the presence and comfort of God, psalms helping us express what it is to be a finite creature, finding hope in the knowledge that we are created and loved and forgiven by God. We tell scripture stories, stories of suffering and disease, stories of Jesus’ presence, bringing healing and hope and we hold those stories alongside the stories of our time and place, hoping that the Holy Spirit of God will guide our reflections and help us know that God is with us, especially when we need God most.

There are times though, when we can hardly bare to read or speak, times when it seems we cannot pray at all …and then … sometimes it is music that prays for us. For each one of us the form of music will be different, depending on our life story, on our childhood, perhaps, on where music was woven into our being and where we found that when we can no longer speak, music prays for us, holds our feelings for us.

When I was exploring the possibility that God might be calling me to be a priest, we were asked to write a spiritual autobiography. This sounded very mysterious but I came to understand that what I was being asked to do was write some of the story of my life particularly noticing when God seemed to be around, or perhaps, equally insightfully, when God seemed not to be around. I wrote about my childhood, about my belonging in two countries, really, England where I was born and where we returned for a whole year when I was five and another whole year when I was twelve, when my father was on study leave reading documents about England’s part in the First World War, and Australia, where we lived for the rest of my childhood. I wrote about the church community, that we belonged to, …I was keeping an eye out for God, remember, …and then I found myself writing about that church community’s choir. I joined that choir when I was ten years old and I left that choir when I was twenty five years old when Nicholas and I went to live in England ourselves for a number of years. And in this spiritual autobiography I wrote something that quite surprised me when I read it over, I wrote that it was in that choir that I felt most at home. “Home” is a God word, I think, the word “home” matters, it tells us that God is around.

Our church choir rehearsed on Thursday nights and we sang the Eucharist and Evensong each Sunday and I loved singing in that choir. Our choir master and organist was really quite strict. If we didn’t attend the Thursday rehearsal, we were not allowed to sing in the Sunday services! We learnt heaps about choral music and its place in liturgy and we learnt about what we were doing in the choir and about how to do it. It was a wonderful musical and liturgical education. And I also remember that there was a lot of joy in that choir, we seemed to laugh a lot … and that it was the place that I felt most happy, that it was the place I felt at home. My own home was woven with music, my mother played the piano and my grandfather (who died in England when I was five) was a church organist and choir master, so perhaps it was not surprising that it was that church choir was my favourite place.

I’m telling this story for a reason, of course, this evening, this particular choral evensong. I’m telling this story because it is my guess that for many gathered here this evening, gathered to sing again in this glorious Cathedral Choir, this choir meant and still means a great deal to them. As we gather this evening with our Cathedral Choir and with … former choristers, we might ponder the idea that this Choir is a God place, a place that is home, for us too.

I wonder if the significance of it is to do with the fact that music helps us pray. And that our singing helps those gathered in the cathedral pray. Do we realise this? Each person gathered here, walks into our cathedral with their own story woven into their minds and hearts. Their story might be at a time of joyful things, it may be a time of worry, it may be a time when they are praying most earnestly for a loved one who is very ill, or who is dying. It may be that the events of the world, like the events taking place in the earthquake zone in Turkey and Syria, have so imposed themselves on their hearts that they sit is our cathedral feeling helpless and desperately sad. Words cannot reach them, perhaps, thoughts just seem in a daze.

It is then, just sometimes, that music prays for us.

It may be music without words as when the organ plays before our service or as the service draws to a close. It may be choral music woven with words that reaches us most. What might we choose to help us pray for those whose lives have been shattered by earthquake and war? I was shaken when I noticed that the images from Turkey and Syria and the images from Ukraine bear a chilling resemblance to one another. Buildings destroyed, human beings crying in the rubble, stories of loved ones found alive, loved ones found dead, loved ones not found at all. I was shocked to think that some of this was avoidable, was caused by human aggression and greed, happened in war. And that some was not. That our earth, whose own health we so pray for, has woven into its being the capacity to quake and destroy in such a way.

Sometimes our prayers are simply our helplessness. And then music helps us pray.

After all the psalms, like Psalm 59, often encourage us to sing:

  I will sing of your might;

   I will sing aloud of your steadfast love in the morning.

For you have been a fortress for me

   and a refuge on the day of my distress.

17 O my strength, I will sing praises to you,

   for you, O God, are my fortress,

   the God who shows me steadfast love.

May we give thanks for music, for the music of our cathedral, for directors of music and organists, for choristers, young and old, and for those who have returned this night to rejoice in the life of a cathedral chorister, of one who helps those gathered to pray.

[1] From online Guardian articles Wednesday 8th February