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Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter Thompson
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Twenty-First Sunday after Pentecost: Evensong and Investiture of Choristers
October 18, 2015

Jeremiah 29:1, 4-14; Psalm 114; Luke 10:1-12, 17-20

Let us pray.

Take our lives, and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise
. Amen.

The first service I sang as a chorister was also my first time worshiping in an Episcopal church, and it was chock-full of new and different experiences I had not previously anticipated—from putting on the peculiar garment called a cassock to processing in neat, orderly, militaristic lines to standing for lengths of time that had not previously seemed humanly possible. But nothing was more surprising or off-putting to me than the odd ritual of communion. No one had told me what to expect or what to do, so, as I shuffled up to the altar, I eyed my peers for clues, kneeling, accepting a wafer and consuming it as they did. Yet despite my diligent observation of everyone around me, the chalice of wine still came as a stunning shock. I had never before even had a sip of wine, and as an eight year old I had no desire whatsoever to change that. The chalicer, however, had other ideas—and before I knew it, an ornate silver chalice was shoved in front of my face and a huge pungent gulp of acidic red wine was poured into my mouth. It was so unlike anything I had ever tasted before, and my eight year old self did not think it was very pleasant. If I hadn’t had been so conscious of everyone around me watching me, I probably would have spit it all out. But I did my best to control myself, swallow the wine, and return to my seat. And in the days and weeks and years ahead, I inched ever so slowly into this exceedingly strange world of the Church, encountering countless more surprises that simultaneously puzzled and challenged and inspired me, and, eventually, I came to call this powerful, strange, unique world my own.

Jonathan, Cat, Cate, and Ava: this evening you officially enter the same strange world I did so many years ago, and, if you are at all like I was, I suspect you are doing so with mixed emotions. You like to sing, I’m guessing, but you’re not quite so sure about the music Mr. Street and Mrs. Scarozza have put in front of you. The kind of music they make you sing isn’t always as catchy as Selena Gomez or Justin Bieber and is typically far less accessible or decipherable. It’s sometimes really difficult to figure out what you’re even singing about at all. These weird songs talk about things like “a cedar in Libanus” and contain lyrics like “he remembering his mercy hath holpen his servant Israel.” What does that even mean? And then there’s all of the rehearsing, twice a week, over and over again, the giving up of your Christmas Eves and your Easter Sunday mornings, the separation from the rest of your family at church, the mean older chorister who won’t leave you alone, the crazy ritual and the nasty wine and the incessant God-talk. I wouldn’t blame you if you didn’t want to do this at all.

And I could stand here and tell you a bunch of wonderful things about the beauty of music and the power of community and the richness of faith—all things that would be true. But to be honest, I suspect that at the end of the day, your time as a chorister will always remain a little bit strange for you, from the moment Mr. Street puts that surplice on you tonight until the very last note you ever sing. It never will be as easy to talk with your friends from school about what you did at choir last Sunday as it probably is to describe what happened at soccer or ballet on Saturday. How could you possibly explain Magnificats or descants or Anglican chant or that funny-shaped thing with smoke coming out of it that gets swung around? What goes on here is not like what happens in other places: it’s different; it’s unusual; it’s strange.

And because it’s so strange, I get it if it’s not always your favorite thing. I doubt singing in choir will ever come as natural to most of you as watching Netflix or texting your best friends or playing video games. But when you’re most tempted to give up, when you’re most likely to dismiss it all as irrelevant or quit altogether, I encourage you to decide to remain present, to persevere, to stick with it. Strangeness, you see, is often the gateway to significance; the thing that at first seems so strange to you might in time become for you the most meaningful thing of all. God tells the Israelites to live into the strangeness of Babylon—to build houses, plant gardens and find spouses—assuring them that, even though they now live in a strange land, they remain his focus and concern. Jesus sends his followers into the world, to labor in strange, unknown places. And without their sojourn with a “people of strange speech,” the Israelites of Psalm 114 would never have known the joy that they eventually so enthusiastically exclaim.

The strangeness you agree to be a part of today—this whole silly, extravagant, remarkable thing called choir—has the potential to change your life, if you let it. I never would be where I’m standing today if it were not for my time as a chorister. I never would have been so seduced by the worship or traditions of the Church or so enthralled by the majesty and magnificence of God if I had not put the time in, day in and day out, to sing God’s praise, to participate in the liturgy, to lift my voice. If my fascination in the Church had not been stoked in the choir stalls, I never would have acquired any inclination to explore the treasury of prayer or developed any yearning to unearth the truths of Scripture or found the fire within me to preach. But it’s not just stereotypically religious change that being a chorister makes possible. I could tell you story after story of people I know whose lives were changed by experiences like yours—people who are now movie stars and scientists, financial whizzes and international consultants, nurses and doctors, dancers and lawyers, physical trainers and interior designers, computer gurus and NPR reporters, people who travel the world singing in boy bands and people who spend their lives immersing themselves in government and politics. All of these people learned something from their time as choristers about the importance of discipline, determination, cooperation, and imagination. All of these people discovered in choir the marvels that can result when you work together to create something of beauty, and all of these people now lead lives influenced by what they experienced there.

Jonathan, Cate, Cat, and Ava—and all of the rest of you, as smart, as talented and as complicated as you all are: amazing things can happen to you too. But you have to show up—and not just physically show up at the times that Mr. Street and Mrs. Scarozza tell you to. You also have to show up mentally and emotionally—with every part of your being awake and alive. You have to pay attention. You have to be willing to let yourselves be changed. You may never put Sir Charles Villiers Stanford in the same league as Selena Gomez, but perhaps in time you may come to see that Sir Stanford has charms all his own. And maybe, in discovering your own voice and in sharing your music-making with others, you’ll even come to know something greater than yourself, something mysterious and enchanting, something strange, but—oh!—so lovely.

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