‘The person who sings prays twice.’ These were the words of St. Augustine, the Bishop and church theologian who lived 1700 years ago. If that remains true for us today – and I believe it does – then thousands of prayers were rising to God from the Song Festival here in Tallinn yesterday. Singing in our own language helps us communicate with God from deep in our hearts. This Church of the Holy Spirit will know that because it was the first Church in Estonia to have a service in Estonian. Hymns are expressions of faith. A nineteenth century Congregational minister in England said, ‘Let me write the hymns of the Church and I care not who writes the theology.’
Singing can be radical and revolutionary. It was in the singing of spirituals that African slaves working on the plantations of America were able to hold on to the hope of freedom that God had in store for them. Eventually this hope broke out into their liberation from the yoke of slavery. Many of you will know better than I the key role played by singing in bringing confidence and freedom to the people of Estonia.
Singing and music also have a role to play in bringing forgiveness and reconciliation. In Israel/ Palestine there is the unique East-West Divan Orchestra. It is unique because it is made up of both Palestinians and Israelis and when they play together, they are making an important statement about the possibility of reconciliation between two peoples who have been struggling against each other for tgoo long. Their very existence is a sign of hope. It is when we listen to the music and songs of our enemies: it is when we make music with those whom, for a variety of reasons, we find very difficult that reconciliation begins to happen. If reconciliation does take place, so too will forgiveness.
I now wish to turn to that wonderful story of forgiveness and reconciliation which we have just heard in St. Luke’s Gospel. It is often referred to as the ‘Lost Son’ or the ‘Prodigal Son.’ But this is not a good name for it because we can easily miss what I believe is the really revolutionary part of St. Luke – it should be known as the story of the ‘Loving and Forgiving Father.’ The father is longing to show his love and forgiveness to his son, but he can only do so when the son turns back to the father. When he eventually does so, the son is practising his speech asking for his father’s acceptance and forgiveness, ‘I have sinned against heaven and against you and I am no longer worthy to be callked your son….’ We can imagine him saying these words to himself as he was walking towards his home and it was important that the son did say these words to himself. But there is no indication that the father ever heard them. As soon as he saw his son in the distance, he started making arrangements for his home-coming because his son was turning back to him. He loved his son and had forgiven him even before he reached the door-step. God is the loving and forgiving Father who is always loving, no matter what we do, and is always forgiving. The loving and forgiving nature of God is the really radical part of the Gospel shown through Jesus Christ.
In a similar way, we are called to show love and forgiveness to those who wrong us or we remain trapped and unable to move forwards. Let me conclude with a story, from the USA, about how failing to forgive can trap us and hold us back. Three United States ex-servicemen were standing in front of the Vietnam memorial in Washington DC. One asks, ‘Have you forgiven those who held you prisoner of war?’ ‘I will never forgive them,’ replies the other. The third then comments, ‘Then it seems that they still have you in prison, don’t they?’
Music making and singing are important routes to forgiveness and reconciliation. Let us take every opportunity to use them in this way.
Preached at the Church of the Holy Spirit, Tallinn, Estonia over the week-end of the Estonian Song Festival. 6th July, 2014.
Readings: Isaiah 61.10-11; Romans 4.1-8;Luke 15.11-32.