Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Spirit’s Language of Love - Sermon preached at the closing Eucharist of the Montreal Boys Choir Course

The Montreal Boys’ Choir Course – The Miller Chapel at Princeton Theological Seminary
Sunday, August 4, 2013
Acts 2: 1- 11; Ps. 104; Romans  8:14 – 16; John 14:8-27
Preacher:  The Rev. Canon William (Chip) Stokes, Bishop-Elect of New Jersey

The Spirit’s Language of Love

Send forth your Spirit, Lord, and renew the face of the earth….

What a great privilege it is for me to be with you this morning and to have the honor of being your celebrant and guest preacher.  I am grateful to Canon Rob Picken, to Larry Tremskey and the other organizers of this week’s events for the invitation to be with you. 
I have a lifelong association with the Diocese of Long Island.  Canon Picken was a fifth grader at Grace Church and Day School in Massapequa, Long Island, when I served as Curate and School Chaplain more than 20 years ago.  He was an excellent, well-behaved student and very engaged in religion class.  Given his propensity to argue theology and politics with me in grades five through eight, I felt confident that God would likely call him to the priesthood one day and voila! It is a great joy to be serving at the altar with him.
Today’s service is, quite literally, my first official act as the Bishop-elect of the Diocese of New Jersey, so, on behalf of the people of the Diocese of New Jersey, welcome.  I can’t think of a more special or personally meaningful way for me to begin my work in this part of God’s dominion than joining with outstanding musicians, young and old, to praise God in joyful song, celebrating the work and gifts of the Holy Spirit.  God is good.  How blessed we are. 
I am a trained choral musician.  That’s what makes this so personally meaningful for me.   From 1967 to 1970, I had the great good fortune and privilege of attending St. Thomas Choir School in New York City.   It’s the only Church-related boarding Choir School left in the country.  I can’t adequately express to you how influential attending St. Thomas and singing in that remarkable choir was.  That experience still influences me, continues to be a vital part of my faith.   Whenever I am asked to say something about my prayer life, I always state, quite truthfully, that the music of the church, the hymns in particular, are the principle means by which I pray. 
By the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit, there is music in my soul.  This music, these songs, hymns, psalms and anthems play a continuous stream of prayer and praise in my mind and heart, appropriate to my spiritual state at any given moment – songs of joy, songs of fear, songs of sadness, songs of happiness.  The music of the Church is my spiritual treasure trove, a phenomenal resource that goes with me wherever I am…It is an almost uncanny and unfathomable thing.  
I feel confident that music is a primary language of the Holy Spirit.  When people make music together, it is difficult for enmity to take place.  Music is the language of love.  It crosses every ethnic, national and social boundary.  It is the universal language of God’s love for us and of our love for God.
I have been blessed in singing God’s love all my life and through the music of the Church, not only hearing, but also feeling within the depths of my soul, God’s love for me.  So, my heart overflows.  This is why I am so glad to be with you today, singing, listening to God’s love songs and feeling God’s love and grace pour abundantly over us all.  I couldn’t imagine a more perfect way to begin my ministry in New Jersey!
St. Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest of the so-called Church Father’s and certainly a bedrock figure of Western Theological thought once wrote, “Singing is for lovers”[1] and it is, and especially for lovers of God.  St. Augustine is also reported to have said, “He who sings prays twice.”   It is an insightful observation, although at least one source I know of has pointed out that the Latin form of the saying is actually “"Qui bene cantat bis orat,"  that is, “He who sings well prays twice.”[2] 
It’s an interesting qualification. Personally,  I believe God hears the sounds that proceed out of the mouths of any of the faithful, skilled or not, as the music of love and delights in these sounds.  Still, there is much to be said for singing well. 
I thoroughly enjoyed stopping by The Lawrenceville School this past Thursday and observing some of the rehearsals of both the trebles and the adults.  I thoroughly appreciated the painstaking attention and care shown by two brilliant musicians, Simon Lole with the trebles and Patrick Wedd with the adults. It transported me back to rigorous choir rehearsals of my youth and my adulthood. 
When I began my experience at St. Thomas Choir School in 1967 as a 10 year-old fifth grader, I had no idea that this love of God would claim me so deeply.   In fact, when I started at St. Thomas Choir School, I was incredibly homesick and wondered why I had told my mother I wanted to attend.  Remember it was a boarding school.  There were only fifty students in the whole school and we were all required to live at the school.  At that time, it was located on 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenue in New York City.  The student body was made up of boys from all over.  I had schoolmates from as far away as Hong Kong, California and Texas.  My home was less 30 blocks away, on 83rd street.  Still, it might as well have been 3000 miles. 
My dad’s birthday fell on September 17th.   I was usually part of the family celebration.  But there I was that first year, at St. Thomas Choir School.  The school had a rule that there was to be no contact with family during the first month.  This was to get us used to living apart from home.  Still, it was my dad’s birthday.  If I couldn’t be with him, at least I wanted to call him on the phone and wish him a happy birthday. I asked the headmaster if I could do that.  He said yes, and that evening, I went to his apartment and he let me call my dad.
“Hhhhiii dad…I called to wiii…sh you a…a….happy birthday” I mumbled though my sobs.  It was awful.   And it didn’t go away quickly.  Pretty soon, November came and all of the hustle and bustle that goes with that holiday season in New York…Then Advent and Christmas…Wow!  I wasn’t going to be home on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning.   We had to stay at the school in order to sing the full schedule of Christmas services, including spending Christmas Eve at school after the 11:00 PM service ended.  I would wake up on Christmas Day not in my home with my family, ready to tear into packages and presents.  I would be at St. Thomas Choir School getting ready for church!
  Anticipating how dreadful all that would be, I was pretty miserable in the days leading up to Christmas.  I felt incredibly sad and terribly homesick.  The school had wonderful rituals and traditions to make the time festive for us, still not being home that first Christmas was awfully difficult….But then Christmas Eve came.   At 4:00 PM, we sang Benjamin Britten’s masterful Ceremony of Carols. It made me feel a little better.
At precisely 11:00 PM, I processed into the astonishingly beautiful sanctuary of St. Thomas Fifth Avenue.  The church was decked out in stunning evergreens.  I was one of 70 choristers, the Choir of Men and Boys, singing “O Come all ye faithful” in a church packed to the rafters with worshippers….It captured me. 
In that moment, in the singing of that hymn, Adeste Fidelis, with the magnificent organ filling that building with glorious sound, I didn’t want to be anywhere else in the world…At that moment, on that Christmas Eve, God’s Spirit took hold of me and my life and has never let go….I cried “Abba, Father” in song, and received in a way I had never known before the Spirit of adoption as Christ’s own (cf. Rom. 8:14).  It was a conversion experience, one of several in my life…
I believe our growth in faith is a life-long process involving many conversion experiences…In that moment in St. Thomas Church Fifth Avenue, I was profoundly aware of God’s love for me, of God’s love for the world, and of the significance of the birth of the Christ child who was born for me, born for us all, calling us, beckoning us, into God’s marvelous light.  And so I sang, I soared with the descant.  The Holy Spirit took hold of me, as it took hold of those first apostles at Pentecost, and I worshipped and sang of God’s deeds of power (cf. Acts 2:1-11).   And I have loved Christ and loved Christ’s Church ever since. My heart was ready.[3]
In a wonderful little book titled The Spirit of the Liturgy, former Pope Benedict XVI observed, “Yes, singing, the surpassing of ordinary speech is a ‘pnuematic” event.  Church music comes into being as a “charism,”  a gift of the Spirit.  It is the true glossolalia, the tongue that comes from the Holy Spirit.  It is above all in church music that the “sober inebriation” of faith takes place – an inebriation surpassing all the possibilities of mere rationality.”[4] 
So I give thanks this day, my first official day as the Bishop-elect of the Diocese of New Jersey.  I give thanks for the “pneumatic” experience of this day…for the gift of your voices and the talents of the choral directors and musicians who have allowed you to sing well and thereby contribute to our “sober inebriation”….I give thanks for the charisms abundantly on display providing glorious evidence that the true glossolalia, the tongues of the Spirit have come again, like wind and fire, into this place, making it alive, full of the breath, the pnuema of God. …It is a new Pentecost, thanks be to God. 

O for a thousand tongues to sing
my dear redeemer’s praise
The glories of my God and King,
the triumphs of his grace

Glory to God and praise and love
be now and ever given
By saints below and saints above
The Church in earth and heaven.[5]

May God’s Spirit take hold of each and every one of you, fill you anew with the light and love of Christ…May you always  be inebriated with God’s Spirit and lift your voices in glorious love songs to the one who gave himself for us, Christ Jesus,  the lover of us all. 

[1]     See Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal (Pope Benedict XVI) The Spirit of the Liturgy  translated by John Saward  Part Three, Chapter 2 “Music and Liturgy” (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 2000) Kindle E-Book locations 1604 - 7
[2]     See “St. Augustine – He who sings prays twice”  - Fr. Z’s Blog (Fr. John Zuhlsdorf), Entry of February 20, 2006 found at
[3] The current motto of St. Thomas Choir School is “O God, ny heart is ready”.   In 1967 it was Cantate Domino  - “Sing to the Lord a New Song” from the Latin opening verses of Psalms 96 and 98.
[4]     Ratzinger, Joseph Cardinal (Pope Benedict XVI) The Spirit of the Liturgy  translated by John Saward  Part Three, Chapter 2 “Music and Liturgy” (San Francisco:  Ignatius Press, 2000) Kindle E-Book locations 1578 - 81
[5] Wesley Charles “Of for a thousand tongues to sing” - Hymnal 1982 (New York:  Church Hymnal Corporation, 1982), Hymn #493.

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