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Four sermons by Bishop Paul (AAM, July 2012)

by Bishop Paul Marshall (1 of 4)

© Paul V. Marshall

[Bishop Paul Marshall of the Diocese of Bethlehem served as conference preacher for the June 2012 Association of Anglican Musicians in Philadelphia. He preached four sermons. This is the first.  "Grave" is a musical term meaning "played slowly and seriously."]

Gratitude is the chief word I have for the opportunity to share this week with you, gratitude and a little awe, but with your permission I will not go into that now beyond acknowledging the keen pleasure I take at the invitation to be among this company in this hallowed place.

You have given me a tough place to start, however, as our propers are “of the Holy Trinity.” 

You know better than I that Gustav Mahler was asked why, given the immense spirituality of his compositions, he had never composed a mass. His reply was telling, “Do you think I could take that upon myself? Well, why not? But no, there’s the credo in it.” Fair enough, but then he went on to recite the creed in Latin, keeping the ambiguity of the encounter high. 

I think of Mahler today because his story is tantalizing. We cannot say with precision exactly what if any brand of faith he had. Nobody can prove what his conversion Christianity was ultimately about, and there are lots of opinions. That multitude of opinion about the very same information reminds us that all beliefs, including our own, are motivated, motivated by many things going on inside of us in our deepest unconscious, so we may perhaps put nagging historical questions in favor of the theological one when we think of this story. Mahler would not have been the first to write a mass with no creed (of course, he couldn’t write anything-Brevis); why would he have focused on the very existence of credo as a reason to bow out of mass-writing entirely?

Let me thicken that question. More than one of the great composers of religious music in the Anglican tradition, when pressed about theology, has chosen to declare for atheism or agnosticism as did Vaughan Williams. Others will mount an esoteric heterodoxy like that of my beloved Parry. Again, we can speculate about their deepest motives, but is it not possible that for those who sing of God and the Lamb the language of dogmatic theology is, forgive me, not always very interesting, and perhaps quite alienating? Bach is the greatest exception here, but he is always the greatest exception. But for Mahler and my English examples, perhaps it was one thing to set the earnest prayer “Veni Creator Spiritus” in a symphony of a thousand, and quite another thing to set to music a group of propositions. Not all of us believe with words.

Perhaps the dogmatically hesitant have a vital point to make, at least in the present culture that speaks so trippingly of the uncertainty principle and parallel universes. That is, I have to remember that for the orthodox Christianity of Mahler’s day, the creed was for the most part data, not a song. So perceived, it ultimately reduced God to an object, capable of study, dissection, and definition, the fuel for debate and even persecution. Such talk of a domesticated and definable God does not invite the ecstasy of music. Who would want to set the periodic chart of the elements to music?—well, of course, Tom Lehrer did just that, but you get my point.

To those for whom the idea of God as object is unthinkable or at least uninviting, it is life-giving to observe that the creed has gotten more musical of late. The revival of Trinitarian theology in the last two generations has been at its heart the rediscovery by western Christians that what the ancient church chose to say about God is not in the first place data; it is doxology. That doxology (and let us steadfastly remember that all doxologies get an Amen played at the end, just as one is said at the doxology in each prayer!), that doxology comes from reflection on both practical and ecstatic experience, and Trinitarian doxology comes to the conclusion that God is, in God’s deepest self, in relationship, from before time and forever.  Many have observed that the Greek word for that relationship is very like (but not identical to) the word for dance. Three distinct persons in one eternal Dance. Delicate, rhythmic, supple, inviting.

It is also worth reflection that over the course of the years most of the so-called Trinitarian heresies that have been rejected have one thing in common: each of them simplified words about God, made God seem to be understandable and manageable, pedestrian, and certainly less lyrical. What we call the heresies often moved theology from the mystical dance to something like bad Powerpoint. (This is not to say that the Arians, for instance, didn’t have popular songs, but their songs were apparently shallow, slogan-like, and not very sophisticated musically—but that was a long time ago.)

So to the part of us that resonates strongly with Mahler and other spiritually rich composers who balked at dogma perhaps because of its ineradicable unmusicality, there come two words. The first is that our God worshiped with the creed is not worshiped as a datum, but is adored as the eternal dynamic relationship, and that we perceive that very God inviting us to join the dance. The second word is that if I try to figure God out rather than relax and adore the mystery, and lose myself in it, I condemn myself to theological tone-deafness and will not get to dance.

We can focus this by asking what does any of this doxological dance look like when it is at home?

Let me illustrate by mentioning the spirit of a musician who hovers over this meeting. A colleague[1] in my office wrote this about Gerre Hancock back in 2000:

“When I was a seminarian and the thurifer for a Sung Eucharist one Sunday, I opened the ambulatory door as quietly as possible to see how soon incense would be needed in the service.  The ambulatory was empty, and the view from that door to the organ bench is perfect.  And there was Uncle Gerre sitting on the bench, unaware that someone was watching.  The heels of his shoes were cocked on the beam beneath the bench itself.  His hands were just outside his knees, gripping the bench.  His head was bowed, and his shoulders were slumped.  I put it to you that he wasn’t trying to remember how to play Merbecke….

“He was doing that rare thing, rare for church employees everywhere, both lay and clerical.  He was praying.  He’s based his life on the conviction that he’s on earth for one reason: to praise God.  And, he does it with his playing.  He does it with his composing.  He does it with his conducting.  He does it with his teaching.  All of which is to say he gives thanks and praise unto the Lord with his whole heart.”

I left those verbs in the present tense, because that is where they belong. Gerre Hancock touched to many in this room with his authentic blend of faith and art. Perhaps as we honor his memory by singing it, we may also experience just a bit more gladness to feel, experience, and say, “Credo.”


Andante: Starving Artists
by Bishop Paul Marshall (2 of 4)

© Paul V. Marshall

[Bishop Paul Marshall of the Diocese of Bethlehem served as conference preacher for the June 2012 Association of Anglican Musicians in Philadelphia. He preached four sermons. This is the second.  "Andante" is a musical term meaning "to play with a moderate tempo, in a light, flowing manner.]

The first lesson this morning from Numbers 11 is an unfortunate example of the humorlessness of lectionary makers, who have trimmed a story from the wild side into something perhaps too neat and tidy. In its context Numbers chapter 11 is another of those stories that is many layers deep and thoroughly soaked with irony. It starts with the people being tired of miraculous manna – there is the first movement of a cantata right there. In any event, they are sick of the miracle food and remember the Chateau Briand, Hagen Dazs®, and single-malt back in the ghetto in Egypt. Sure, they may have been slaves, but they had all the basic food groups.

Moses is caught completely off guard by this concern popping up when they are finally getting on track with their mission, and we see him here overwhelmed, losing his vision. So he complains to God for most of the chapter, ending up with a stunning combination of blaming, sacrcasm, and whining:

{12} Did I conceive all this people? Did I bring them forth, that you should say to me, 'Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries the sucking child, to the land which you swore to give their fathers?' {13} Where am I to get meat to give to all this people? For they weep before me and say, 'Give us meat, that we may eat.' {14} I am not able to carry all this people alone, the burden is too heavy for me. {15} If you are going to deal with me this way, kill me at once, if I find favor in your sight, that I may not see my wretchedness."


YOU gave me this rabble, this motley crew – all of a sudden he forgets he is part of “them.” I’ve been there; you’ve been there, everybody in this room who cares about the church has been there in one way or another. And for some who serve the church, if the truth were told, there are brief moments when death seems likes like a pretty good way out, and the number of church professionals who maintain unhealthy habits is by no means small. Moses speaks for many.

God and Moses, I suppose, could have debated theology and catering strategy for hours, and then they could have moved on to discussion of Moses’ inner child. But God doesn’t argue back, and simply goes to work on Moses’ near-burnout condition, dealing only with Moses’ inner adult.

And the great surprise is, God’s answer to the kind of burnout that only the very gifted and driven experience is… colleagues, community, lots of company on the journey. Moses’ prayer for a quick death is not only ignored, he is plunged headlong into a re-creative and redemptive experience of community. All of a sudden he has 70 co-workers, burden-sharing, perspective-maintaining colleagues who no doubt had active listening skills as well. And those people had been there all the time.

But the interesting thing is that this isn’t exactly a music committee, a choir picnic, or a vestry. They “prophesied,” we’re told. Now that’s an interesting word, because only much later in Israel’s history did “prophet” come to mean unattractive or irritating speech-maker. In the period of our story it means being full of the spirit, being in ecstasy, shouting, dancing, singing words from the Lord in a totally unrestrained state. In short, although the 70 shared in Moses’ spirit and helped bear his burdens, they were more than his briefcase-carriers: they were outside his control. A few verses later somebody immersed in control issues comes up to Moses all upset that although Eldad and Medad (the Old Testament Blues Brothers) – although Eldad and Medad hadn’t been up on the Mountain to be regularly and validly commissioned (sort of like the people who don’t come to rehearsals and expect to sing on Sunday), they were prophesying anyway, right there in public, shouting, singing, dancing, and generally scaring the orderly types.

And through Eldad and Medad’s disorderly conduct Moses gets the point at last. He replies that it would be of great practical value if all of God’s people prophesied. I happen to believe that stories like this one were saved precisely because of the comic, ironic and slightly embarrassing light they shed on great and small figures in the life of God’s people. If we can chuckle at them, it’s probably safe to take a closer look at ourselves in our desperate moments.

First of all, when it all seems too much, it’s good to remember the manna, the miracles around us that have brought us this far. It’s a long pilgrimage, and it pays to remember not only the goal, but how far we have come in our lives, and how God has sustained us. I will explore this a bit more tomorrow.  But let’s encourage each other not to get bored with the miracles of word and sacrament, faith and community, with which God nourishes us regularly. Sacraments and liturgies seldom bring entertainment, but they surely bring sustenance.

And with Moses, I have to confess that it is Eldad and Medad who surprise me, constantly, in my own life. I treasure the encounters with friends but am often stunned back to sanity by perhaps chance acquaintances who often sustain and guide me. Who are Eldad and Medad for you? On the other hand, which of your colleagues is a little too isolated, and might need a phone call? I have a musical example, one that people in this room this morning have taught me to love.

Many of us play it and some of you have recorded Elgar’s “Nimrod,” so perhaps you can hum along as I talk about it as it helps us remember Moses. The longest of the original Enigma variations, the Nimrod movement is not coded with someone’s initials, but marked with that strange Biblical moniker. Genesis merely says that “Nimrod was a mighty hunter before the Lord,” but various ancient traditions assign him everything from keeping Adam’s original loincloth (!) to ruling Babylon and/or Ninevah. This variety invites much wonderful speculation, all of which could be profitable in other contexts, but in Elgar, Nimrod slyly and simply stands for a conversation he had with one August Jaeger, a man from Duesseldorf whose name just happens to mean Hunter, and I mean to invoke Jaeger’s presence as a reminder of how God touches us Mose-types in the unspectacular.

More than his music editor, Jaeger was, for Elgar, both a comfort and source of courage. Recall how in Nimrod he begins sadly, with echoes of Beethoven’s Pathetique Sonata. Elgar, of course, was plagued both by depression and his actual exclusion from many an inner circle because of his religion. Like Moses, he was often burnt-out. Once he was so low that Jaeger had take him out for a walk to remind him of Beethoven’s personal struggles and doubts, all which were overcome by Beethoven’s strength of character and devotion to vocation. This was far more than a command to suck it up; it was an affirming reinforcement of character and identity, an invitation to borrow some of Beethoven’s strength.

What happens to the music after the sad encounter is thrilling, in a measured way, and reminds us yet again that mere words seldom have last word. Without erasing the sadness, the music steadily builds in hope, confidence, and fullness (even with tympani in the orchestral version)…but it never reaches the anticipated Edwardian boisterousness, triumphalism, nor does it offer any oblivion to the pain that is expressed early in the piece. In fact, just when the peaking crescendo could explode into another Elgar hit like Land of Hope and Glory, the music fades very rapidly to a centered and calmer version of its somewhat sad beginning. We rush to tromp down the expression while reducing the registration. Then the music stops, without a note of further explanation.

As must sermons. But we hear can hear the whisper through the closed swell shades, never lose heart for our work and always encourage each other to thrive. Just as you are doing by being here this week.


© Paul V. Marshall

[Bishop Paul Marshall of the Diocese of Bethlehem served as conference preacher for the June 2012 Association of Anglican Musicians in Philadelphia. He preached four sermons. This is the third.  "Scherzo" is a musical term meaning a fun, playful piece of music.]

It is a pleasure to greet the clergy joining this third convention day. To catch you up: Monday’s talk was a kind of prelude about believing, and yesterday was an andante through God’s plan for supporting emotionally starving artists by plunging them into community. Today is perhaps a bit of a scherzo about the gifted and talented.

Since you don’t have the entire conference booklet complete with bios, I can introduce myself to you with two sentences. I have known Margaret Farley longer than the pope has. However, it is also true that this spring I stood directly behind Peter Conte in line at the Metropolitan Opera gift shop before Goetterdaemmerung but was too shy to introduce myself. That kind of sums it up AND it is also to say that we are a curious lot, we who serve the church in whatever capacity.

But that’s our tradition. I can see it when I imagine taking a photo of the Last Supper. There are Mother Thunder’s two sons, James and John, coming in a little late because they had been at the gym and were still arguing about who had the greatest abs in the Kingdom of God. There’s Matthew, wondering who will pick up the check. Mary Magdalene, wondering why everybody starts calling her Mark when the camera comes out.  Peter having very obvious but strongly-held opinions about absolutely anything that came up. And of course there’s John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, nestled in his bosom, enjoying the master’s favor yet strangely thinking, “There has got to be a book in this.”

But the point is that they are there, and they are both getting it and not getting it, and it will be all right because they are there. And Jesus loved them for all their complex motivations, and saw the possibilities in each of them and chose to work with them.

Fast forward. And his gifts still are that some of us who come to his table would be teachers, some organists, preachers, composers and conductors, not for our own sake, but for the building up of his body, the church, we who have our mixed motives, great gifts, and sometimes curious ways. We who have said or thought about an under-rehearsed piece of music or under-polished sermon, “it is good enough for this parish.” That is God’s loving kindness, having the likes of us about. And having these ministries, we do not lose heart, because Jesus knows what he’s getting when he calls.

About six years ago a niece once removed was just discovering the joy of the piano, and was telling us about it, with a little coaxing from her mom, at Easter gathering. My heart was thoroughly warmed, so I said how cool the piano is, and how grateful I will always be to my late mother for making me practice. I was trying to give her own mother a little support there, but something else was going on for her. She paused, looked at me very seriously, and asked me, leaning against my Steinway B, “Are you talented, too?”

She wasn’t too much wounded by the collapse of her childhood grandiosity. In fact, she was at the perfect age to be reconsidering the world. Five years later she is playing the cello in a regional orchestra and is very much aware of the talents of others, but I got to witness the sacred moment of her realizing that precisely the same passions could exist across generations and between relative strangers, and after the slightest nano-moment of grief she took it very well. Me, not so much.

With the shining wisdom and spiritual insight that constantly elude me just when I need them, I know now that I should have asked if she would like to play a duet: Chop-sticks, Heart and Soul, On Eagle’s Wings, anything. I think that if we had played together we would have enjoyed each other’s talent in a way that would have transcended my acute experience of a generation gap and might have helped her connect with her elders.

There is a grade-A, champion, USDA Choice generation gap dispute in the history of church music. In considering the extraordinary disliking that Cantor J. S. Bach and school Rector Johann August Ernesti took for each other at St. Thomas in Leipzig, I assume that our rooting interest is on Bach’s side, even though we know he could be a little difficult at times and the Rector may have been trying to teach him something. When we look at the unmusical younger man’s resume, however, we find out that Ernesti was not just an administrative thug. Like Bach, he a child prodigy in his family profession; he turned out to be theologically quite important and achieved professorships in both philosophy and ancient languages. Beyond that, his work laid important foundations for how the Bible is still studied. In his spare time he edited classical texts. Oh. Talent.

Two things are certain. One, neither of these gifted and intense men ever went to charm school. Two, the tragedy is that there is no record of either of them ever saying to the other, “Ah, you have talent, too.”

Their basic disagreements were about theology on the manifest, intellectual level, and about power and control on the emotional and organizational level, and that isn’t just a guy thing. No, they represent different skill sets and different generations of piety in collision. We cannot detect from the vituperative correspondence they had about each other when exactly it was that they forgot their love of God and their service to God’s people, that terrible moment when this all became name-calling and morphed into a struggle that reached the King’s ear. Bach, as you know, became violent at one moment in this “affair of the prefect,” and it wasn’t the first violent time in his life. The loser was, of course, the church-goer, the person in the pew.

Bach represented the absolute pinnacle of the old in his field. Ernesti was an important part of the beginning of the new in his. They were 22 years apart in age, so conflict was hardly unlikely. These two clashing virtuosos came rather naturally to mind as I thought about the reality of this day, devoted as it is to acknowledging and blending the gifts God gives among our professions and between our generations.

It isn’t so much that postludes increasingly get applause in church and sermons usually don’t. It isn’t so much that the rector is often the decider and the musician sometimes just has to swallow that. No.  It’s that we all sometimes forget. We drift from the love of God to the love of what we sing or say about God, and then any meanness becomes terribly possible.  People then become threats to our love of what we say or sing, threats to the part of us that can be deluded into thinking we have all the talent.

That is why my little image of the Last Supper was not a joke for the most part and is really quite biblical. Jesus would try to teach them, try to show them, but ultimately they had to decide to work with each other. Saul of Tarsus, he of blended worship in the most extreme sense, would ultimately complicate the scene tremendously. And yet we carry on, trying to be like Jesus and also aware that much is going on, in and out of consciousness, and that ultimately we are all being lovingly tolerated and accepted for who we are: the gifted and talented, yet thoroughly and vulnerably human.

For some, our present circumstances are a great adventure, and for others they are a burden, but we do live between musical, cultural, and theological generations, and some of us are getting old, and we worry about how it will turn out. Ours is one of those historical moments that calls for courage and good will all around. And the belief that God is faithful in the call given to us.

We will have seminars today on the practicalities of our work together, but I have tried a kind of glissando over the attitudes that I think underlie it. First, awareness that each of us bears a divine gift. Second, respect and healthy ambivalence about ourselves and others. Third, awareness that generations alwaysdo struggle. Finally, celebration that it has ever been thus, and God has gotten us to this time and place nonetheless.

I don’t believe in praying in the pulpit, but if I did I would pray the old prayer now, “Guard us, o Lord, from contempt of what is old and from fear of what is new. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.”


Cecilia, Martyrdom and Resurrection
by Bishop Paul Marshall (4 of 4)
© Paul V. Marshall

[Bishop Paul Marshall of the Diocese of Bethlehem served as conference preacher for the June 2012 Association of Anglican Musicians in Philadelphia. He preached four sermons. This is the fourth.  "Scherzo" is a musical term meaning a fun, playful piece of music.]

And in the furnace we still praise God today.

We come at last to the translated feast of our patron, the second-century martyr St. Cecilia. Regarding her patronage of music, it would be preferable for me quietly to sit down and let Handel’s version of Dryden’s “Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day” fill this time. The poem sees music in the origin of the cosmos and in all aspects of our emotional lives; it even has a stanza about the superiority of the organ. Sadly, there can slide by all too quickly the account of the angel who hears music such as Cecilia’s and appears, mistaking earth for heaven. There couldn’t be more encouragement for what we strive to do! That 35-second recitative might slip by unnoticed, but no one can miss the metaphor for the end of world in the great and final day at the sound of Gabriel’s trumpet. “The dead shall live; the living die; and music shall untune the sky.” In that untunedness is readiness for a new heaven and a new earth, and the music brings it all on.

That closing passage is one of my favorite five minute slices of music, and is a fitting tribute to our patron saint and to the profession of music itself.

There is just that one other tiny thing, if I may. As the words are commonly used, it is not impossible to think of the words “martyr” and “organist” in the same sentence. Or conductor. Or singer. I doubt I can change that, but perhaps that coincidence of terms can be reframed, and our martyrdom, our witness, embraced more fully.

Back in 2010 scientists discovered that the brain scans of someone in a creative moment were indistinguishable from brain scans of schizophenics. Please hear me out on this. The separated feeling, the intensely inward focus, the sense of disconnectedness from others, the altered perception of what’s out there, the sense of possession along with the elation, simply do put one apart from one’s surroundings, and can be quite painful, or exhausting. Apparently it is biologically necessary to experience a kind of ecstatic disengagement with the ordinary in order to be creative. In short, absent other problems, geniuses only look crazy—at the creative moment that is, and then they come back to us. People who never leave the creative sphere, cannot touch down and rest. Choosing to break a creative state can be part of health maintenance.

Martyrdom means witness; often witness through suffering. Many people suffer and many people die suffering, and yet they are not martyrs. Martyrs are those whose suffering points beyond themselves, points to God, as did the prolonged death of young Cecilia.

This is to suggest that musicians, artists, and writers, if they are any good at all, are going to suffer. Perhaps they will also be inconvenienced at the hands of other people, perhaps not, but that is not my concern today. The internal conflicts and struggle to get just the right sound, the right intonation, or just the right word, are more intense than those we serve probably will ever know. Getting what exists so beautifully in one’s own head out of a choir, orchestra, or multiply rebuilt and characterless organ can bring a kind of pain nobody else will ever understand. Historians wonder what it could possibly have been like for Bach, who never heard any of his major works performed by decent ensembles. Perhaps there is more contemporary data available than they think about that.

Thus musicians can have martyrdom several ways, all of them good.

Musicians are martyrs in the sense of witness when things go extremely well and the congregation or audience is drawn into the music and their hearts and minds go to places they never knew existed. When the concepts of “flow” and “ecstasy” meet in the musical moment and everyone in the room touches a deeper reality.

On the other hand, when those days come when obstacle after obstacle must be overcome, and then the only actual tenor calls in sick, and yet God is worshipped through the very fact of our going through with it all because we remember Who it is that we love, a very different and equally important witness takes place.

Finally by all accounts, Bach wrote the Art of the Fugue for the sake of his soul, after he had to some extent withdrawn from public composition. It was enough that the composition existed—that alone gave God glory. Beauty that resides in the head and heart praises God, too.

In every case, when martyrdom is about us, it is fake, when it points to God it is real.

Both for sermon compositional and deeply personal reasons, I want to end these four talks where I began, with Mahler, who paints a picture that complements Dryden’s ode.

My favorite five minutes of his second symphony, probably everybody’s favorite five minutes of that symphony, come at the end of the fifth movement, after the orchestra has rejected a rosy and unrealistic plea for the future, and after Mahler has finished quoting the poetry of others. He finally speaks his own words.

With wings which I have won for myself,

In love’s fierce striving,

I shall soar upwards

To the light which no eye has penetrated!

Its wing that I won is expanded,

and I fly up.

Die shall I in order to live.

Rise again, yes, rise again, will you, my heart, in an instant!

That which you have conquered,

Will lead you to God!

You can feel it build. Was du geschlagen. Was du geschlagen…zu Gott wird es dich tragen. Tubular chimes. Silence. Then the orchestra says it all over again, and a window opens on immortality.

“That which you have conquered” is occasionally mistranslated as what you have suffered. That is to miss the context, the grammar, and the point. Mahler is expressing that side of him, and us, that knows that faithfulness to one’s vocation requires conquest of self and circumstances. It is martyrdom in the most glorious sense.

Spiritual maturity, in this symphony, means taking one’s gifts and winning one’s wings at considerable cost. While we always talk about grace and the gifts that have been given us, vocational maturity is both martyrdom and stewardship; no one but ourselves can sweat out the coming to fullness of God’s gifts in our lives. Mahler’s Second seems to me to echo all the ancient Christian poets who saw martyrdom as victory over self and world. The powerful words and powerful music of the Resurrection Symphony help us believe emotionally that life is not futile, that our various ways of suffering for the truth we carry, perform, and conceive, will lead us to God, if that is what we want. If that is what we want.

The fundamental confession of our faith, the “credissimus,” is that Jesus’ faithfulness led him to both cross and new life. I am saying as directly as I can today that choosing to be who we are as creative persons and being willing to embrace the occasional external suffering and often prolonged internal suffering that the choice may involve is not a sad thing, but a road to glory. “Was du geschlagen,” what you have conquered, in yourself and in your vocation, will lead you to…God. And it will point others in that direction, too.




[1] The Venerable Howard W Stringfellow III, whom I quote with permission.


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