Bishop Martin’s Sermon

This is the text of the sermon that Bishop Martin preached at the Festival Service on June 19th.  It is reproduced here with his permission.

The readings were I Kings 19: 1-4. 8-15a;  Galatians 3: 23-29;  Luke 8: 26-39

Over this past week of this great Festival we have witnessed the sublime and surreal – from circus to birdsong, through extraordinary music and glittering performance.  Last weekend my wife and I had the privilege of witnessing the Illuminations, where the sublime illuminated the subliminal, with dreamed visions and images sensationally enacted calling out Rimbaud’s words woven in music through Britten’s masterpiece.  And through the week, Messiaen and Mozart, Elgar and Debussy, and Norwegian folk music have tumbled together, and we have been drawn deep under the surface of our daily world to be caught up in the heavens.  Today piano and birdsong intertwine as a day is spent suffused by Messiaen’s lifelong inspiration by the birdsong he was so attuned to, a complete gift of a day for those who were able to rise for 4.30 and can stay then till 11 tonight; a gift compounded by this choir, calling out beauty in this Eucharist and again this afternoon.

I speak of the sublime and the beautiful, and yet this is the same week that has borne the horrible deaths of 49 people gunned down, and more than 50 injured, in a gay bar Orlando, and then unbelievably Jo Cox gunned down and knifed serving the people of Birstall.  The sublime and the beautiful have flowed only to be crashed into by the hatred and violence of the world.  Just when we thought we had come close to God, the divine, the eternal, and God had come close to us, in the beauty of this beautiful corner of Suffolk,  and in the beauty of the music this place gives birth to, just when we thought we were safe, transported, transfixed, the world’s brokenness crashes in.

And by next Sunday, after Britten, Brahms and Tippett and many others have been woven into this Festival’s tapestry, we will know the fate of this country, and of Europe, for ourselves and more importantly our children and grandchildren, and we do not know what then will be unleashed.  The music in this place, which could happen in no other place, is challenged, assaulted by the fear and pain of the world.

But that is not right.  This is not about escape.  It is not about quietly pulling away from reality. None of us immerse ourselves in this place, in the Maltings, in the reed beds, in this town, in the beach, immerse ourselves in the music and the performance, in order to escape the realities of our world.  It is rather the opposite.  We come to learn, to experience, to taste, to understand, to embrace the height and depth of reality, and that is both beauty and brokenness.  We participate here to participate more fully in the world. And we immerse ourselves ultimately to glimpse the truth we believe, that it is the beauty that overcomes the horror, the beauty that heals the brokenness.

And we have seen that truth in other ways this week – so, in Orlando in the upsurge of care and compassion from countless people for those who have suffered, their friends and families; the reaffirmation of care for the gay community not just in Orlando, feeling once again targeted and vulnerable.  And in just the few days since Jo Cox’s death, we all have the clear sense we of her as an extraordinary self-giving, loving, energising person working for a better world, with passion and humanity – reaching out within her community and far beyond to those in need and desperate plight ;  we have seen the love in which she is held by her closest family and her many friends, and those whose lives she has touched – that is beauty overcoming the horror.

So this is not about withdrawal, or hiding, yet that is a temptation, always, to retreat into a cave, somewhere to pull back into to feel safe. And we have just heard about two caves.  In one – called the tombs, but these are caves –  a man lives, tormenting himself and his neighbours, possessed by a legion of demons, he declares.  The legion of demons, the animators of the horror of this man’s life, bind him like the chains and shackles around his arms and legs.  And he, the legion, recognises Jesus, because brokenness knows the beauty that has come to set it free.  And in this strange and quite savage event in Jesus’ life we see the power that God brings into the horror of the world, to release the demons and to leave us in our right minds.   Beauty overcomes horror and brokenness.

Then there is a second cave, a familiar cave to escape to.  We heard it in our first reading.  Elijah has fled; he is frightened by the wrath of the queen Jezebel whom he has provoked to anger because he has confronted the people’s faithlessness.  He flees to a cave and spends the night, in fear.  But then he is told to step out, just a little, to stand outside the cave – because God is passing by.  And he looks and listens for God. But God is not in the wind, or the earthquake that followed, or the fire that followed the earthquake.  It is in the complete silence that Elijah meets God, and is released from his terror, back into his right mind, and he knows now what he has to do.  The beauty of the silence overcomes the fear and brokenness.

So we participate in this feast of music to embolden us to participate in the life of the world. This festival reminds us that under the surface is another dimension of reality, bubbling up, speaking a deeper truth than the one we see on the surface, that engages us with reality.  The music and this place bears that deeper truth for us, encouraging, enlivening us to live in the pain and brokenness knowing that beauty has overcome it.  And as this corner of Suffolk itself draws us into that deeper truth, and the music it bears takes us further into that truth, so we go further still in this hour in this particular place, where what we see on the surface holds beneath it the whole truth that beauty has overcome horror, overcome brokenness, and pain and hatred, evil and indeed, death.  Under cover of bread and wine in this particular place is the one who has held the world’s horror and pain, transfixed on the wooden bars of the cross, and by his beauty transformed it so that we can live to make the world a better place, and our song blends with birdsong and with angel-song to the glory of God who loves us beyond measure.