Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 13 July 2014
Sermon preached by Fr Gerald Beauchamp
Readings: 2 Samuel 7. 18 – end; Luke 19. 41 – 20.8
Last weekend I was in Tallinn, the capital city of Estonia; a country along with Latvia and Lithuania that make up the Baltic States. Estonia is the furthest north and shares a shifting border with Russia. It’s less than a four hour drive from Tallinn to St Petersburg. Tallinn’s old town is one of the best preserved in Europe. Built on a hill it has mediaeval walls and a maze of old cobbled streets. Its best seen if you get the ferry from Helsinki. As you enter Tallinn’s harbour the city with its spires and towers has almost a fairy tale quality.
Last weekend was a very special one in Tallinn and for the people of Estonia generally. It was the Song Festival. Every five years since 1869 Estonians have donned their national costumes and sung and danced. It was my first time at the Song Festival and I was amazed at what an extraordinary event it is. Last Saturday evening the choir numbered over 22,000 people. They sang in a concert bowl in one of Tallinn’s parks. The audience was well in excess of 100,000. The country’s president was in the front row. The concert started at 8.00pm and finished at midnight while it was still light. There was no interval. The music was passionate and sometimes almost overwhelming.
Estonia’s history is marked by long periods of oppression and tragedy. The country has rarely been independent. In the last 800 years it’s been ruled by the Danes, Swedes, Germans and Russians almost on a rolling programme. In the 20th Century Estonians felt the full weight of both fascism and communism. But the desire for freedom and liberation is in the blood.
Twenty years ago as the soviet system began to collapse the park where the Song Festival is held became a focus for political dissent. Hundreds of thousands would gather to protest peacefully by singing. When things came to a head in 1991 crowds of Estonians and Russians faced off in the centre of Tallinn. There could easily have been bloodshed as there was in other parts of the Baltic. Instead the tension was defused in song. Estonia won her freedom in what has become known as the ‘Singing Revolution’.
Since then Estonia has become a member of the European Union as well as NATO but as Estonians know only too well that liberty can be short-lived. The Russian Embassy in Tallinn is being expanded. With the crisis in the Ukraine continuing to fester, NATO has sent additional aircraft to bases in Estonia. For all the singing there is apprehension. Will freedom last?
In tonight’s second lesson Jesus came to another walled city – Jerusalem. Like Tallinn, Jerusalem was a citadel; its skyline dominated by walls and towers. Like Tallinn, Jerusalem had known times of terrible oppression. The city had often been sacked and taken over. Like the Estonians, like the Israelites, like all of us, Jesus and his people yearned to be free.
Our Lord’s Jerusalem should have been a model of freedom: a place where throne and altar, Solomon’s rebuilt temple and David’s much altered palace might be examples of what freedom under God should look like. But it wasn’t. Both temple and palace had been infected by other spirits. The buying and selling in the temple were symptoms of a larger malaise. There had been a retreat from genuine belief in God expressed in the sincere desire to be a ‘light to the gentiles’ into a general self-serving. Prophets had been replaced by profits. And Jesus was rightly and righteously angry.
It’s almost impossible and probably unwise to second-guess the psychology of Jesus. But if we contemplate the gospels (as we should) the question constantly arises: What was he like in order to act as he did? He attracted as much admiration as he did opprobrium. What gave him the inner strength to be what we might call ‘his own man’? He was neither hi-jacked by adulation nor intimidated by opposition. Well, the believer would say ‘He was God’ but that won’t satisfy the waverer or the honest enquirer. Yes, but what does that mean? How do we see God manifested? What does this freedom look like?
Reflecting on my weekend away I wondered if it’s not so much what it looks like as what it sounds like. We’re never told that Jesus sang but if you listen to Jews reciting the scriptures they are usually chanted or sung. When Christ hung upon the cross and used the words ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me …’, words that are the beginning of Psalm 22 might he not have sung these out of his agony just as he would have been taught them in the synagogue? But whatever his earthly end, his earthly beginning was in song – Mary’s song, Mary’s Magnificat, the canticle that has an honoured place at Evensong. And the Magnificat is partly a song of protest:
‘(God) hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek.
He hath filled the hungry with good things: and the rich he hath sent empty away.’
Most composers give those words some edge, some bite. There is strength and resilience. Freedom puts its head above the parapet.
The soul needs the capacity to sing. A soul that sings even if it doesn’t have perfect pitch will have something profound to draw on in troubled times. Unlike the Estonians we in this part of Europe have largely forgotten the traumas of previous generations because we’ve never had to endure the sort of oppression suffered by so many on the continent. Last Saturday afternoon in Tallinn I visited the KGB Museum. It’s on the 23rd floor of an hotel, a hotel built in the 70s and bugged throughout in order to listen-in on the guests. It was an eye-opener and a warning: a warning that untrammeled power will always try to have its own way.
And that brings us back to an age-old struggle acted out in every generation: the tension between people wanting to be free and forms of power that wish to dominate. Sometimes peoples do become free and then there is a spirit of national rejoicing. But often that doesn’t happen and it’s then that interior freedom is so important. Interior freedom enables us not to be crushed even when oppressed and offers hope to future generations.
The Song Festival was preceded by a great torch being passed from maestro to maestro before igniting an Olympic-style flame. Freedom is partly enshrined in song. It’s why the musical tradition of this parish is so important. It’s why St Cyprian’s cherishes its voluntary choir and why at the Annunciation we have started a children’s choir. Who knows in 2014 how necessary it will be in the future for us to have this gift of song as the wheels of geo-politics turn in less predictable directions.
We live at a time of disenchantment. There’s more noise but less music. There’s been a huge cultural shift. Parents are less likely to sing to their children. The days when sailors sang shanties and miners sang as they began and ended their shifts are over. We play music on our smart phones as we go about the city but few people join in or join together in choirs. Millions sang ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ a century ago but that’s all now part of a romanticized past.
It’s in the church that music-making and its meaning is most honoured and it’s for us to make sure that this tradition is resourced and developed. Here we feast upon song and song makes us free.