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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 20 July 2014

In the House of Dreams: a farewell sermon to the choir

Yes, it is true: there is wickedness at work in the world, as the parable of the wheat and the tares tells us. We should not be surprised when bad things happen to innocent people. The tragedy of Gaza, the shooting down of the Malaysian aircraft over Ukraine, the plight of thousands of desperate Christians fleeing Mosul as their churches are burned – the events of the past week have touched us and we bring them with us in our prayers as we come to the Cathedral today. But as the orthodox funeral rite says that even at the grave we sing alleluia. So once more we celebrate this liturgy of the crucified and risen Christ, and by the miracle of grace we still find it in our hearts to sing.

And singing comes into things today.  Let me speak directly to the choir. For some of you today marks the end of your time as choristers and choral scholars here at Durham. But as we say farewell, we treasure the good memories for which we are thankful. You will remember us, and we shall not forget you, and for all of us this place, this holy place, this beautiful cathedral, will be the focus of our memories, for it was here that we worshipped and sang together for a while; and it is from here that you go out to new schools, new work, new places, new studies, new adventures, new lives. 

In the Old Testament reading, Jacob finds himself alone, in a strange place and spends the night there. The light has failed, and he is afraid of what may lie ahead. As he sleeps, he dreams of a ladder to heaven with angels going up and down. But God stands beside him and assures him: ‘Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go’. Next day he realises that something wonderful has happened. ‘Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it!’ He is overwhelmed and afraid: ‘how awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven’. 

This Cathedral, this house of God, is an awesome place. It overwhelms us too at times, but we love it for the way it lifts our vision, cherishes us and makes us feel safe, tells us that God is with us. We have found shelter here for a while. Like the stone Jacob rested on, these stones have offered a safe place. They were here long before us, and they will be here long after we have left. They saw us come and they will see us go. Years pass and with them generations of singers and scholars, choristers and clergy, young and old, all for whom this is Beth-El, the house of God where we worship him and learn to love him and know he is in this place. 

And like the stone where Jacob rested, this cathedral is a house of dreams. Here we dream of other worlds as we look up that ladder into heaven and catch a glimpse of angels. Like him, we dream of a promised land where our world comes home to God and all its troubles and sorrows are laid to rest. Like him we dream of a just land where everyone is treated fairly and there is no more war or hunger. Like him we dream of a beautiful land where there is peace and harmony and we join in the music of the spheres. All these worlds are in our dreams as we worship God and imagine that his kingdom is coming among us. The liturgy and the music, the architecture, the sheer beauty of this Cathedral give us good dreams, holy dreams that can change our lives. 

50 years ago a black American preacher and civil rights campaigner made a famous speech. Martin Luther King said: ‘I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we shall transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we shall work together, pray together, struggle together, stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day’. We know those words so well, but they have not lost their ability to stir us. That’s the power of good dreams, not to escape from reality but so that we enter into it more deeply. Jacob was asleep when he dreamed of the ladder to heaven, but he was never more awake in his life. Dreams matter. They change the world. 

So let me say to the choristers and choral scholars who are leaving us today: in this house of God, your music has helped us dream of a world as God would have it, a place of peace and justice, glory and freedom, light, life and love.  And you have been caught up in those dreams too, at least I hope you have. You have glimpsed things that are not given to everyone, you have dreamed of a ladder to heaven. It is a huge privilege to see what you have seen and hear what you have heard. Heaven has been opened to you for a while, close enough to touch. Perhaps angels have brushed our sleeve and you did not know it.

But let me mention another aspect of the story. Jacob was on a journey when he lay down and had his dream. He had left his father Isaac and would not see him again until his deathbed. He was in fear of his brother Esau for the wrong he had done him by stealing his blessing. He was afraid, not knowing what lay ahead. The dream was an immensely important turning-point. After it, his mind was clearer, his direction set, his confidence restored. All because he glimpsed heaven and knew God was standing by him. It was not the end of his journey, far from it. Struggles and ordeals lay ahead. The way would often be dark, and faith and hope would be tested. But his inner eyes had been opened. All would be well. He could trust his dream. He could trust God.

This house of dreams has been a part of your journey too. Perhaps you, like Jacob, are wondering what life will mean in the future, where your path is headed. Perhaps your faith and your hope waver at times.  You are only human. But I want to say to all of you: at those times, think back to your time here, to the dreams you shared through your music, to the glimpses of heaven you’ve enjoyed. You have given so much to Durham. Don’t forget what Durham has given you. Let it inspire you in the years ahead, put within you the incentive to serve God wherever life leads you, give you the vision and the strength to make a difference in the world and touch the lives of others. Go on loving and making music all your lives. 
And go on playing your part in creating the music Martin Luther King spoke about, that ‘beautiful symphony of brother- and sister-hood’.

‘If God will be with me, and will keep me in this way that I go, then the Lord shall be my God.’ That was Jacob’s promise to himself and his promise to God. He set up a stone to remember what had happened to him at that awesome place where his dream woke him up and he glimpsed God and the angels’ way to heaven. In the same way, keep the stones of this great Cathedral in your minds as a kind of landmark. Remember what you received here, what you gave here, what you saw and heard here, what you hoped for here, what you came to love. Don’t forget this house of dreams, this house of God, this gate of heaven. And go with our blessing. Go with our profound thanks. Go in hope. Go in God.

At the end of year sung eucharist, 20 July 2014 (Trinity V)
Genesis 28.1-4, 10-21; Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43

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