A sermon by The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson: Festival of Organ Music Weekend
In the name of God, creating , redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.
My aunt Susan and I caught the 10.30am train from London Euston one Monday in May earlier this year. We disembarked in Stockport, on the outskirts of Manchester, picked up our hire car and drove past the hospital in which I was born to the village of Poynton parking a street or two away from St George’s Church. The church yard was covered with bluebells, forget-me-nots and daisies; we had come to see a gravestone in that church yard, but that was not the first thing we had come to see, the first thing was inside the church. We met a verger in the church and he led us inside. And there it was – Pa’s church organ – the seat on which Pa, Susan and my Mum’s father, my grandfather, had sat for the 12 years that he was the St George’s church organist and choir master. How much Bach had he played there? How many anthems had his choir sung? The story that means the most to me was often told and here I was, for the first time I could remember, standing in the place of that story. Pa had conducted a performance of the St John Passion in St George’s church in Poynton, Mum was playing the piano, my aunt Susan was singing in the choir, and I … well, Mum was pregnant with me, and so as I was being woven in secret in the depths of the earth, as the psalm has it, there was the St John Passion, rehearsals and performance conducted by Pa swirling about me. It is truly one of my favourite pieces of music. Especially, perhaps, as Leonie, with more kindness than good musical sense, allowed me to sing with the altos in a Cathedral performance a few years ago.
In the program notes for Thomas Trotter’s glorious concert on Friday night, the organ is described as “in truth the grandest, the most daring, the most magnificent of all instruments invented by human beings. It is a whole orchestra in itself.” I wonder if there is something more than this. I wonder if organ consoles are not the bearers of stories. Perhaps, more than any other musical instrument, the organ console holds many of our precious stories. What stories would our St Peter’s Cathedral organ tell? It’s been with us ninety years, after all. Would it tell of David Swale coming from his upbringing as a chorister in York minster, dear friend of Francis Jackson, whose music adorned David’s funeral? Strange thing that at the funeral three of David’s children in music, if you like, had to play a digital organ to honour him. And what of those children – Ant, Josh and David the Younger? Would it tell the story of Ant, who David Swale said after his audition, could stay in the choir although he couldn’t sing much? Will it tell the story as the years go by of Leonie who walked up and down those stairs for well over twenty years as she nurtured the choir and the organists, the Davids, Shirley, and Mark, Leonie who we will almost graciously let go as Ant returns via studies in London and ten years working with Opera Australia to carry on the tradition and to give new life to the glory that is cathedral music. Will it tell the story of David, who grew up here, too as a treble, and after a short time away returned as organ scholar, cathedral organist and joint project manager of the project that give this organ back its life.
The organ does not only see, hear, those who sit in the console, though. What of the conductors like Andrew who blossom here, bringing blessing to music in school and community and in our own cathedral choir; what of the choristers who grow up here or arrive here as university students or in the middle of life. Music will never leave them even if they sometimes think that God has. “I’m not sure I believe in God,” one ex head chorister said to me one day, “but when I walk into a cathedral, I know there is something bigger than me.” No the music never leaves us. And then there is Alana, Mark’s pupil, who ventured to England and now embarks on her third role there, Associate Organist at Lincoln cathedral. She sends them out, this organ, doesn’t she? …sends them out across the world to grow and play church music for the glory of God , and sometimes gathers them back.
Is that what it’s all about? The glory of God. The great love of God. Music reaches us where sometimes words cannot. Music reaches us, helps us feel the truths of God.
Not unlike our organ console, not unlike music, Jesus was the bearer of stories, stories that more often than not are intended to make us feel the truths of God. Mark Oakley, now Dean of St John’s College in Cambridge, said, in a talk about poetry – “Let us imaginatively commit ourselves to a God that is not the object of knowledge but the cause of wonder.”
God who is not the object of knowledge but the cause of wonder.
Music knows this. Jesus knew it, knows it, too.
Tonight we have his words in a parable from the Gospel according to St Luke. These words are tough. We will need to take a deep breath before they can cause us to wonder.
Someone gave a great dinner and invited many. At the time for the dinner he sent his slave to say to those who had been invited, “Come; for everything is ready now.” But they all alike began to make excuses. The first said to him, “I have bought a piece of land, and I must go out and see it; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I have bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I have just been married, and therefore I cannot come.” So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room.” Then the master said to the slave, “Go out into the roads and lanes, and compel people to come in, so that my house may be filled.4For I tell you, none of those who were invited will taste my dinner.” ’ (Luke 14:16-24)
The pain of listening to the excuses given in this story, the discomfort of it, the guilt of it, would have us almost turn away. We make those excuses don’t we? When God invites us somewhere we really don’t want to go. Or can’t be bothered to go. Jesus is not inviting us to think about this but to feel in response to it. What can’t you bear in the parable? What is baffling? What hurts too much? Sit there if you can. Maybe music will help us. Sit there if we can.
Jesus does not tell us parables like this because he is unkind. Though, often, they hurt us, puzzle us, so. He tells them to us because he loves us so deeply, dearly, he longs for us to know, or more to feel, what we are like – and to know, to feel, what God is like. We will make excuses. God will go out, into the roads and the lanes and compel people to come in so God’s house will be filled. But he sees. Jesus sees. And in that we will find freedom. He knows what we are like. And still he tells us stories to help us understand. Maybe it is that that would cause us to wonder.
Still he tells us stories to help us understand.
And still he gives us music. How precious, to celebrate in the presence of Thomas Trotter, as we have this weekend, the restoration of our cathedral organ, the heartbeat of our music, the bearer of our stories.
We walked in the church yard in Poynton, my aunt Susan and I. And we found Pa’s gravestone, Pa and Ma’s gravestone, set in the midst of the bluebells and the forget-me-nots and the daisies. In Loving Memory of Geoffrey G. Verney, organist of this church , 1952-1964, it said. He was just Pa. A fine musician, yet an ordinary musician who found his being in God in music. That was Pa’s identity; that was Pa’s story. His story held in the organ console in St George’s church in Poynton. As it is the story held in so many organ consoles across the world, and in our St Peter’s Cathedral organ, the story of those who find who they are and how they can hear and tell of the whisper of the truth of God in music. Yes, they hold stories, don’t they, these organ consoles? Stories of those who find who they are and hear and tell of the whisper of the truth of God in music.