A Collective Murmuration, II: Murmuration of Song

HomeA Collective Murmuration, II: Murmuration of Song
May 1, 2022

A Collective Murmuration, II: Murmuration of Song

Passage: John 21:1–19

Christine Hides and I are preaching an Easter sermon series called “A Collective Murmuration.” Murmuration is the word given to the swooping, diving, fluttering flock of starlings at dawn and dusk. “No one is in the lead, everyone is in the lead,”[1] coming to agreement about where to fly when by a network of consensus building, balancing both group cohesiveness and individual effort.[2]

It is an apt metaphor for the art of conducting, the ebb and flow of melody and harmony in choir and orchestra. No one voice is the most important, but all influence one another. Our collective song becomes a murmuration in the direction of God’s love.

Today’s short sermon, A Murmuration of Song, stands alongside the Choir’s (now 2 years postponed) performance of Schubert’s Mass in G Major, to the glory of God, and in honor of our late friend and choir member David Honoré. More on Schubert and David in a moment.

Afterward Jesus appeared again to his disciples, by the Sea of Galilee…Early in the morning, Jesus stood on the shore, but the disciples did not realize that it was Jesus. He called out to them, “Friends, haven’t you any fish?” “No,” they answered. He said, “Throw your net on the right side of the boat and you will find some.” When they did, they were unable to haul the net in because of the large number of fish. Then the disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, “It is the Lord!”

As Lisa pointed out, Schubert wrote this when he was just 18, serving as a reminder to the young artists among us to take biblical advice from First Timothy who says, “Don't let anyone look down on you because you are young.” As a young artist, you join the ranks of Mozart, Mendelssohn, Shostakovich, and Schubert—famous composers who also got their start composing symphonies before they were old enough to matriculate at New Trier, and if you permit me a more modern musical comparison, so did Katie Perry, Billie Eilish, Justin Bieber, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and Elvis Presley.

“Don’t let anyone look down on you because you are young,” Schubert’s Mass reminds us, but Schubert also reminds us to rely on those who have come before us, to find inspiration from the saints of light who illuminate the path, to find broad shoulders on which to stand, for none of us do this on our own.

Schubert wrote this piece when he was 18 years old, and it only took him one week, but it was his father who taught him music as a child, and his brothers and sisters who would begrudgingly agree to serve as his musical guinea pigs, playing through pieces of chamber music he wrote in his early teens. Without them, no Mass in G Major.

And the Mass in G Major did not arrive ex nihilo as if out of nowhere, but instead is a variation on an ancient theme, a modification to an established musical form, like a poet writing a sonnet or ode. Schubert made brilliant unique musical decisions in composing his Mass, but it is still, yet a Mass, a form that offered a scaffolding for his musical talent, a clothesline on which to hang his quick melody and unconventional harmony, a form virtually unchanged from the fourth century until 1966 when it was finally translated into the vernacular, the mother tongue, but even then the text remained the same. The Mass always contains the same text, always proclaiming “Lord have mercy,” “Glory to God,” “Holy, Holy, Holy.” and always tracing the ancient text of the Nicene Creed, “I believe in one God… maker of all things visible and invisible.”

Maybe for some of us, the Mass feels foreign, literally in a foreign language, or in a musical style that feels distant from our own favorites: he is no Bob Dylan or Willie Nelson or Lady Gaga or Beyoncé. But here’s what I know, just as Schubert would have sought comfort in the Mass when he read news reports of Napoleon fighting at Waterloo, and when he heard reports of friends dying of the then-incurable typhoid fever (which was the cause of Schubert’s own death at the age of 31) or cholera, so too do we have the capacity to find comfort in the Mass when we read reports of a still-unfolding war in Ukraine and a global pandemic that refuses to let go. We need the words “Lord have Mercy” as much as we need the words “I believe.”

And that’s what I know about our friend David Honoré as well. He held the words “Lord have mercy” as close to his heart as he held the words “I believe.” The song in his heart, and the one pouring from his operatic tenor voice, was tuned to the language of God’s glory. He relied on the ancient language of faith, like a tree planted by streams of water, rooted, grounded, prepared, in harmony with the divine in a way that brought peace, even to the last.

David died before first light on the Monday after Easter but I like to think of it as a long Easter evening. Some semblance of peace comes to me knowing that he found his way toward resurrection hope on the day of resurrection.

For us he now stands in an unbounded ever-expansive chancel alongside Midge, Joyce, Jan, and Jeanne—a heavenly choir with John at the organ. And it is always this way, it always has been: each choir performance, each worship service, each family gathering in an earthly way is incomplete, an empty chair, a tenor part unsung. Our flock in flight united across the veil with the murmuration of heaven, a murmuration of eternal song.

At the end of the gospel of John, Jesus appears to his disciples one last time. It takes a few tries for them to notice him. He calls out. He offers wisdom. They listen. But only when their net is full of fish do they remember him, recognize him. But today I am thinking about music and so I’ll say this, “I don’t think the gospel has enough singing in it because if Jesus had sung to them across the sea, even if he had just hummed a melody, they would have known him instantly.”

Enough of us here have walked alongside loved ones and friends suffering from dementia to know that music lives in a different part of our body, untouched by our own forgetting. Maybe that is part of why Schubert and centuries of others have set the Mass to song, have matched melody and message across the ages.

English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley puts it this way, “Music, when soft voices die, vibrates in the memory.” Last week during the sung choral amen, I could hear David’s voice there, in an instant, or maybe his absence. This sanctuary vibrates in the memory.

May we be drawn in by the song of God’s love, by melody and memory that unites us, and may a holy echo remain, vibrating through us. Amen.

[1] Catherine Keller, Political Theology of the Earth: Our Planetary Emergency and the Struggle for a New Public, 2018.

[2] George F. Young, Starling Flock Networks Manage Uncertainty in Consensus at Low Cost. January 31, 2013  https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pcbi.1002894

*You may use these prayers for non-commercial purposes in any medium, provided you include a brief credit line with the author’s name (if applicable) and a link to the original post.