His Sweet Art
Psalm 103; Colossians 3.12-17
A sermon at the wedding of Alan Torrance and Margaret Leslie
St Anne’s Church, Strathpeffer, July 25 2015
Rt Revd Prof N T Wright, St Mary’s College, St Andrews
(with musical illustrations where necessary from Prof Jeremy Begbie)
Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
It’s a privilege and a delight, Alan and Margaret, to share in your wonderful day by reflecting with you on the scriptural passages you’ve chosen. Biblical verses, like snatches of music or fleeting smells, have the capacity to take us back to far-off memories, and the opening line of Psalm 103 takes me to a strange but symbolic moment over thirty years ago.
When Maggie and I bought our first house outside Montreal in 1982, we needed a downstairs bathroom (four small children, steep staircase, and all that). We couldn’t afford a plumber, but I knew a man at church who offered to help. Bill was a very large chap, and the plumbing had to be installed underneath the house, in a crawl space about three feet deep. He and I spent two Saturdays down there, into the late evening both times, sorting out the various bits and pieces, and finally we had one task remaining: to join together two large pipes. The pipes had to overlap, so that they could then be glued into a secure joint, but that meant bending them apart and then fitting them together. This was a huge and exhausting struggle, and we wrestled with it for a good two hours, sometimes nearly despairing. But finally the job was done. And big Bill, a devout man, lay back in the dark, with his head on a pile of broken bricks and spider’s nests, and said, Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name. And every time I hear that Psalm I think of how our new home was thus made ready for our new life.
We are here today because two lives which up to now have been running in parallel, and recently overlapping, are to be brought together. At one level this is an easy thing, but at another it is a huge and complex task, and we are here to share in worship and prayer that these two lives may indeed be joined into a single unbreakable unit which will create a new home and a new life. And we, helping in that task, are here to say in that very act, Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
Now my spies report from Kincaple House that the problem there has not been the plumbing under the floorboards but the plumbing above the ceiling. Both are symptomatic and symbolic of the puzzles and challenges which every marriage faces. And the readings you have chosen for today highlight two strands of biblical thought which run right through scripture and on into wise human life in general and marriage in particular, strands which will help us, if we let them, face those challenges and solve those puzzles. These strands are gratitude and forgiveness. Both of them are under attack in today’s world, as is marriage itself – and for similar reasons.
In scripture, the coming together of one man and one woman is a symbol and signpost, from Genesis to Revelation, of the intention of the creator God to join heaven and earth themselves in a single embrace. Our world has not wanted that. Even the Christian world in the modern west has thought in terms, not of heaven and earth coming together, but of people escaping from earth and going to heaven instead, a notion that would have horrified the psalmists, the prophets, or St Paul, or St John the Divine, let alone Jesus himself, who taught us to pray that God’s kingdom would come on earth as in heaven. But since marriage is a sign and symbol, and at its best even a foretaste, of that joining together of the two spheres of God’s good creation, it is no wonder that it has been under threat, with the ordinary practical and personal challenges of joining two lives together being amplified by the implicit cultural and ideological challenges which may be out of sight, under the floorboards or in the attic, but are hugely important none the less.
So what we are all about today – and, Margaret and Alan, what you are about more specifically – is raising a flag, setting up a signpost, establishing a symbol in the midst of the world of creation which points unmistakably forward to the new creation. Our culture has done its best to deny that there is a heavenly world at all, let alone that there is a new creation on the way in which heaven and earth are to be joined for ever. It’s not surprising, then, that marriage has made less and less sense in today’s world. Like resurrection itself, the news of God’s new life breaking in to the old creation is a threat to those whose pride clings to the world the way it is and wants to make its own way in terms of that world alone. But marriage is in that sense a sacrament, an effective symbol, a sign to the world that the God who made the world is not finished with it, and that despite all the challenges and puzzles and problems under the floor or above the ceiling he is bringing heaven and earth together through the one in whom they are already joined, Jesus himself.
Of course, like all sacramental events, marriage is of course vulnerable to misunderstanding or manipulation. It needs the right story to stabilize it. And the story in which marriage finds its true stability is the great biblical story of creation and new creation, of covenant and new covenant. The letter to the Ephesians would be a good place to start for all this.
But your own readings have focused particularly on these themes of gratitude and forgiveness, which mean what they mean within that story of creation and covenant renewed. When people today talk about ‘Christian behaviour’ or ‘Christian standards’ they often forget that when Paul summarizes a Christian life he gives us that remarkable list: kindness, humility, meekness, patience, bearing with one another, mutual forgiveness, and around it all love, and around that again gratitude. (You know, if even some of the church lived like that for even some of the time, the world would see that Jesus is Lord!) Colossians is all about learning how to be grateful: the theme comes again and again, rooted in the great poem which dominates chapter one, a paean of praise to Jesus the Messiah as the one through whom all things were created and through whom now all things are recreated – Jesus, the ultimate sacrament, the effective sign in whom heaven and earth are joined together once and for all for ever, Jesus, the transforming guest at the wedding, the Lord of the banquet, the one who makes all things new. By putting Jesus and creation at the centre, Colossians teaches gratitude as the basic Christian stance. By putting Colossians 3 at the centre of your wedding, you are claiming gratitude as the basic theme of your marriage: gratitude to God for creation itself, for mountains and lochs and birdsong and moonlight and human bodies and minds and hearts, gratitude more specifically to God for the gift of one another, gratitude to one another for the gift of trust and new life, a new home life, new delight, new challenges, new possibilities in all directions.
Our world doesn’t much like gratitude. We want our rights, not handouts! But if we are living sacramentally, poised precariously as every marriage is between creation and new creation, then gratitude is the only show in town. An older piety taught us to count our blessings, to name them one by one. That sounds a bit twee today, but perhaps we need to recapture, and married couples especially need to recapture, the sense of delighted and astonished gratitude for the sheer gift of another life, the challenging gift of a shared life which draws us out of ourselves and into a new reality, the sign, the symbol and sometimes even the foretaste of the new creation itself. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
And with gratitude there goes forgiveness. Forgiveness is the very first thing for which Psalm 103 gives thanks. Forgiveness comes to us in that Psalm, as in Isaiah and elsewhere, not as a cold legal transaction but as healing and hope, as return from exile, as the news that the new day has dawned: comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, your warfare is accomplished, your iniquity is pardoned, the long years of darkness are at an end. Forgiveness is not simply something that Christians are supposed to practice as a hard moral task, though it certainly is that too. Forgiveness flows from God into the world, but it can only be received by those whose are passing on the gift on to others – and for that we may need the mental and emotional plumbing to be sorted out. As we see in the ministry of Jesus, forgiveness is the central sign that God’s kingdom is breaking in on earth as in heaven, and the central sign of our being part of this new reality is that we join in the flow.
The last few weeks have been revealing on the subject of forgiveness. After the appalling murders in the church in Charleston, young African-American Christians who had lost beloved family members spoke at once of forgiveness, in a way bewildering to British journalists but right on target for people steeped in the gospel. Then, last week in the Times, the elegant but hard-nosed atheist Matthew Parris wrote that he simply couldn’t understand forgiveness: he could see some point in letting bygones be bygones, in tolerance, in living and letting live, but forgiveness seemed to be something far beyond that – and it meant nothing to him. That is of a piece with all Parris’s other doubts and denials, and the best answer is not to repeat dogmas but to point to the real Christian communities around the world who live by forgiveness as a daily discipline as well as a one-off act at times of horror and tragedy. Desmond Tutu’s book No Future Without Forgiveness says it all: forgiveness is the way to new creation, both ultimately and penultimately. And, though a wedding day might seem the wrong moment to make the point, every close human relationship, and above all marriage itself, requires forgivenesses great and small as we discover that even those we know best and love most dearly are strange and surprising, different from what we imagined and perhaps wanted them to be. The closer you live together the more opportunities you have for both hurt and upset, and the only real way to go is the costly way of forgiveness. At every turn in the road we have a choice: either to collapse back into a selfish and grumpy disappointment, or to reach out in generous love, passing on to one another the forgiveness which has been so lavishly given to us.
Actually, by the middle of last week Matthew Parris had partially repented of his mistake. On Wednesday he wrote that he had just seen Donizzetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor, which dramatically and horrifically portrays what happens when people don’t forgive one another. But still he gave no sign that he had really understood what forgiveness was, or how it might actually work.
It’s a pity he didn’t go to a different opera, to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. In Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, Mozart’s jealous rival, Salieri, looks on at the closing scene of Figaro and declares in awe that Mozart has understood forgiveness and has put it into music. For a musical couple like yourselves this will not come as a surprise. The wicked Count has refused all requests to forgive, including from the woman he wrongly supposes to be his wife. But when his actual wife appears, and he is found to be the one in the wrong, be kneels and himself begs for forgiveness: Contessa, perdono – with the rising sixth which expresses the plaintive longing for forgiveness and reconciliation. And the Countess responds with the matchless rising fifth: Piu docile io sono, e dico di si. I am more gracious than you, and I grant your wish.
Marriage and music together thus constitute, not indeed a rationalistic argument for the Christian gospel or even for the existence of God, but something far better: a signpost towards God’s new creation, and a sacrament of its advance reality. You are today planting that signpost where all can see it. You are today celebrating that sacrament. Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.
But to make this music together, as you are now committing yourselves to do, will take more than two. Gratitude and forgiveness are two of the great themes of George Herbert’s poetry, and in closing I give you, as a gift for today, your own version of his Easter poem, ‘Rise Heart, thy Lord is Risen’.
There are three short stanzas. In the first, Herbert summons his own heart to rise with the risen Lord, celebrating the fact that having shared his death he can now share his risen and justified life. The second stanza addresses the lute, which was Herbert’s own instrument. He borrows a daring image from St Augustine, and declares that the lute knows how to celebrate Jesus’ death and resurrection because the cross taught all wood to resound his name, and Jesus’ stretched sinews taught all strings what key is best to celebrate this most high day.
Then, in the third stanza, he brings the heart and the lute together: consort, both heart and lute, and twist a song, pleasant and long. But there is still something missing. For music we need one more voice: ‘All musick,’ he says, ‘is but three parts vied and multiplied’. And so he prays: ‘O let thy blessed Spirit bear a part; and make up our defects with his sweet art.’
So for you, Alan and Margaret, here is the music of your marriage. Two hearts coming together. Two stringed instruments coming together. We could, like Herbert, invoke the Holy Spirit to make the third note in the chord, and that would work well; but with Psalm 103 and Colossians now in our minds I want to go deeper still. If one of you plays a B, and the other plays a G sharp, who is to say whether this is a plaintive rising sixth, or a sorrowful minor third? But if someone then plays a pedal E, we know where we are at last, as Handel knew when writing ‘Comfort Ye’ at the start of the Messiah and then ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’ as the opening of the final part. This is the chord which speaks of the creator’s determination to do a new thing: of creation renewed and covenant remade. It is the chord built up from the power and love and healing forgiveness of the creator God himself, in which our part is the gratitude and forgiveness in which, with the plumbing fixed literally and metaphorically, we discover the reality of a new home and a new life.
We are not, in other words, alone in this music. Our parts are borrowed from his, found among the implicit harmonics of his majestic and mysterious work of creation and new creation, discovered in the light of the resurrection itself: Rise, heart, thy Lord is risen! So here is a slightly amended version of Herbert’s final stanza, for you, Alan and Margaret, on this your own new day:
Consort, both hearts and lutes, and twist a song,
pleasant and long;
Or since all musick is but three parts vied
O let thy wise Creator bear his part,
And make up your defects with his sweet art.
Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all that is within me, bless his holy name.