St Mary & St Nicholas Church, Wilton, Salisbury, SP2 0DL
Sat 14th May 2022
Cambridge Renaissance Voices return to the Italianate church in Wilton for a feast of Italian Renaissance and Baroque music. The programme features choral polyphony from Palestrina, Lotti’s searing Crucifixus, and works by Monteverdi, including extracts from the Vespers of 1610. The centrepiece of this programme is a performance of Carissimi’s oratorio Jephte, with soprano Kate Semmens singing the part of Jephte’s daughter, and a continuo ensemble including lutenist Lynda Sayce on theorbo, and Joanna Levine of Fretwork on bass viol.
Cambridge Renaissance Voices was formed in 2013 from a group of singers most of whom met in the Cambridge Taverner Choir, with whom they have made a number of CD recordings, including Music from Renaissance Portugal, shortlisted for the Gramophone Early Music Award. In addition to an annual concert in Long Melford in Suffolk and regular appearances at Waltham Abbey, the choir has performed in venues from St Cross, Winchester to Sherborne Abbey and Boxgrove Priory.
‘assured and expressive… the singers showed understanding and passion… a very moving experience for the appreciative audience’ Early Music Review
It’s not often that the Choir Director gives the sermon! But, this time last week I was beginning my mammoth drive to Central London, for Caroline’s Licensing Service, and next Sunday I will be in Oxford – so I thought I probably should preach today!
It was a curious experience, last Sunday – seeing Caroline again, looking just the same but in a strange place. And, although Licensing services are done differently in the Diocese of London – there was the same familiar legal jargon as Caroline was handed her licence and “installed” (wonderful term – “installed”!)
And I’m guessing that next weekend will be just as odd.
Stella and I will be returning to Trinity College Oxford, where we met, for a college reunion and for the memorial service of the then chaplain, Trevor Williams. I will be directing the choir at that service, more than half of whom will be the very same singers I worked with back in 1986 – and whom I haven’t seen, or heard, in over 30 years.
And so we’ll be returning to a very familiar place which will obviously have evolved; and also seeing again some very familiar faces which will also no doubt have changed in the decades since we were there.
Taken together, then, those two weekends start to feel a bit like pilgrimage – that deliberate exercise of taking ourselves into new places, and finding familiar experiences and glimpses of God’s presence IN the strangeness of what is new to us AND also of looking at familiar places with fresh eyes: looking for new and unexpected signs of God’s presence in the places we thought we knew.
And that’s not a bad place to start our journey through Lent – with its focus on the renewal of our faith.
Lent is a time to take a “fresh look” – to recognise what has become stale and needs refreshing. And Lent is a time to see what we’ve been missing – while we’ve been too busy with our own thoughts.
Our reading this morning recalls Jesus taking himself off into the strangeness of the wilderness. And I’m not going to delve too far into that, as many of us heard virtually the same reading explored on Wednesday.
But that was Matthew’s version. And, this morning, I just want to note some of the subtle difference between that account and Luke’s, which we’ve just heard.
Both accounts have the same three temptations, but Luke puts them in a slightly different order so that he ends with the challenge to Jesus, to throw himself off the Temple to prove that the Father would save him. And there’s another curious little change at this point. Whereas Jesus and Satan mostly exchange quotes from scripture with: “It is written… this” – “It is written.. that”, here Luke has Jesus saying – “It is said that – you will not put the Lord your God to the test.”
It is said – not it is written – and there must have been a reason that change. Was he implying that this was current teaching, among the faithful – rather than just inherited wisdom from the texts? And if so, does it still ring true for us? Are we liable to put God to the test? Certainly it’s very easy to find ourselves trying to bargain with God. Even those who have very little belief or faith at all will sometimes cry out in desperation: ”God if you’ll just help me – if you’ll just keep him safe – if you’ll just make her well – THEN I’ll start going to church, or I’ll give this or do that.”
And I’m absolutely NOT suggesting that there’s anything wrong with anyone crying out to God for help – quite the opposite in fact. But what I think we’re being cautioned against is making that cry some kind of transaction.
Carved at the back of church, here, is a reminder that all things come from God and that we can only give back to God is already his. Our worship and praise and love is due to him without any special favours to us first.
Promising God that “If you will just – then I will” really doesn’t cut it.
What Jesus demonstrated, from the Temple, was an absolute trust in the Father that needed no proof.
There’s another difference, right at the end of the two accounts of Jesus in the wilderness. In Luke, Satan departs from him “until an opportune time” – waiting to sow doubt in the heart of Jesus at the Garden of Gethsememe – lurking in our world, perhaps, to sow confusion, and doubt and division, whenever an opportunity presents itself.
In Matthew, however, when Jesus has resisted all three temptations, Satan leaves and immediately angels come and minister to Jesus – as evil is rejected, goodness takes its place.
It’s been said that Vladimir Putin chose “an opportune time” to invade Ukraine:
And, caught right in the middle of the unfolding chaos, is the Convent of St Elizabeth, in Minsk – the capital of neighbouring Belarus.
It’s from that Convent that we have our two icons. Founded in 1999, St Elizabeth’s is a very new community in a very young country. Minsk itself has been under the control of Kiev, Lithuania, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Germany and, for much of the 20th Century the USSR – only achieving independence in 1991. So they know only too well what invasion feels like.
They also know what it means to trust in God – not only because both the church has survived the various changes there, but because of the colossal amount of good that manage to do in their city – funded only by their sales of religious art and donations to them.
They run a residential home for children with learning disabilities, and two large farms – one for men and one for women – which provide shelter, food, clothing and work for people who would otherwise be homeless. They are now understandably concerned that their work might be hampered by any escalation of conflict in the region.
At the same time they are an Orthodox community – linked to the Russian Orthodox Church, which has done rather well under Putin’s regime. And so, for the residents of St Elizabeth’s, there must be something of a tug of loyalties. The reflected glory of a strong, influential church must be helpful to the Convent in raising funds for its work. And yet, like the 600 Orthodox priests who have just issued a statement condemning the war in Ukraine, they simply can’t square the unfolding horror there with their own faith and mission.
Their response has been to publish a “prayer for use in time of war” – recognising the seriousness of the situation – and crying out for God’s help on behalf of all the Orthodox, and for all involved in conflict, that he might “remove from their midst all hostility, confusion and hatred, and lead everyone along the path of reconciliation.”
That sounds like a plea that evil might be banished so that good may flourish in its place – so that they can continue to minister and be messengers of God’s grace (angels) to those that need them.
And perhaps we can make the same prayer – not only in relation to Ukraine, but to countless other situations nearer to home. As we make our pilgrimage through this Lent, it may seem that we are being tested – to hold our nerve, and keep on trusting in God’s purposes, though the world around us seems even less certain than last year.
Let’s begin then by looking afresh at ourselves and the world we inhabit; giving thanks for the many good things we find there; and praying for strength to tackle the things which we see that need to be changed, so that goodness may truly flourish: in us, through us, and around us.
Before anything else, I would like to point out that I did not choose today’s reading!! It is sheer coincidence that the Gospel reading set for the 2nd Sunday before Lent – Matthew’s account of Jesus calming the storm – happens to be making an appearance just days after storms Dudley and Eunice did their worst! And I’m still not sure whether that coincidence is a gift or a challenge, for someone preaching in their wake.
As always, I suspect much depends on what we make of the various miracle stories of Jesus. If we take this account as literally true – and so as proof that Christ can simply control the elements at whim – we might be simultaneously impressed and relieved, but also rather dismayed that he doesn’t intervene a bit more often.
Whatever our take on miracles, this account is largely concerned with Jesus’ identity – as the punch-line makes clear: “Who then is this, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?” Who then is this?
And, given the more Jewish focus of Matthew’s gospel. the reader is surely intended to find echoes in the God who parted the waters of the Red Sea, so that the Israelites could escape their oppressors. Ant that, whether the disciples recognised it or not, in Jesus, Jahweh himself was walking this earth beside them. And it is, perhaps, easy for us who’ve always been taught that as fact, to forget how radical that claim is; and how blasphemous it must have seemed, during his earthly life and in the decades that followed. And yet that clearly is what the gospel writer wants us to acknowledge, and it is fundamental to our Christian faith.
There is more to this story, of course. It’s also concerned with our nature, and the nature of our faith. Faced with mortal danger, the disciples are seized by debilitating fear – they don’t know what to do.
They can’t believe that Jesus is actually asleep, and they must be starting to wonder why on earth they trusted this man?
And that’s probably something we can identify with. There are times in all our lives, when we are hit by events we can’t control – or when there are so many things flying at us that we feel like we’re sinking under it all. It’s easy then for fear to creep in and doubts to take over – why would God allow this to happen to me? Is he asleep, doesn’t he care?
But that’s not the only response we might feel. Sometimes the opposite is true. A devastating blow of some kind, or a sea of problems, can lead us into a more INTENSE period of faith. Finding ourselves unable to control events, or unsure of what comes next, may simply make us more aware of our dependence on God.
And it’s that that I think Jesus is drawing out for his disciples when he asks them “Where is your faith?” I don’t think he is dismissing their fear – or showing exasperation that they would lose their nerve. He wants them to know that they will face dangers and hardship in life, but that ultimately they can trust him to bring them through.
We might imagine a small child, walking through a storm or wading through choppy waters, would easily lose control and be swept of their feet. But if they’re holding on to Mummy or Daddy’s hand, they will be carried forward I their strength. And even when they can’t hold on, the parent will can still take them by the wrist and guide them safely forwards.
That’s the kind of faith and trust that I think Jesus is calling from the disciples. He wants them to know that they won’t always see him, or sense him with them, but that whenever they reach the point where they think all is lost, then he will act – he will hold them, and not let go until they are safe again.
And for us, as for them, that message contains both an assurance and a challenge. This is not a promise that Christ will just take care of everything for us – we are not invited to fall asleep in the boat and leave him to it.
Learning to trust him does not mean that we no longer take responsibility for ourselves, or that we deliberately put ourselves in harm’s way. And just as we take steps to ensure our physical safety, so we need also to guard our spiritual welfare.
We know that, for our personal safety, there are places that it’s wise to avoid at certain times: it’s probably best not to take a gentle stroll across the seafront during a heavy storm.
Similarly, there are situations that we need to extract ourselves from, either because they leave us emotionally drained and depressed, or because they are so tempting, so compelling that they lead us into some form of addiction, where something other than God takes hold of us, and won’t let go.
Jesus asked his disciples “Where is your faith?” Perhaps we might re-pitch that question to ourselves as “where is your faith?” “Where is my faith?”
Do we place our trust in him, or in something else? And do we need to start to refocus our attention on him and not on the waves around us.
People who live in parts of the world where wild storms are a regular occurrence are usually well-drilled, and well equipped for battening down the hatches – and they have effective systems to give them advance warning.
And I want to suggest that we need those same mechanisms in place for ourselves, in order to preserve our faith and our spiritual health.
Do we know ourselves well enough to recognise the warning signs when all is not well – when we’re not coping as well as we might?
Can we recognise the things that have become TOO important to us and get in the way of our faith?
Do we have any ways of reconnecting with God, when we can’t feel his hold on us any more?
Those ways may just be very simple: perhaps lighting a candle or holding a Cross, to focus our thoughts on God.
Depending on our sensibilities, we might try using the Lord’s prayer; using Rosary beads and asking Blessed Mary to pray for us; using the Orthodox Jesus prayer “Jesus, Son of the living God, have mercy on me a sinner”;
using any simple prayer, and just repeating the same words, over and over again, until we rediscover a sense of God’s presence with us – of present help and direction.
As we move towards and into Lent, if we can spend some time thinking about, and building up our spiritual armoury – finding resources that we know will help us to focus in that way – then that will be a far better Lenten discipline than giving up chocolate again! (And, for some of us, at least, infinitely preferable!)
A prayer by Jeffrey John:
Give us Lord the grace to walk by faith, through every storm of life to keep our eyes on you. And when we fail to see, or start to sink, stretch out your arm to raise us up. So may we learn to hold to you through good and ill, until we come to that haven where we would be, in everlasting joy and peace. Amen.