Ps 98; Eph 5: 15-20; Mk 14: 22-26
In January of 1990, Andover Newton Theological School’s president dropped dead at the age of 58. George Peck had been a mentor to me, giving me my first job. His sudden death was a staggering personal loss, and it seemed a disaster for the seminary. At that time, we were also without a dean. Orlando Costas had died not long before, in his early forties, consumed by stomach cancer. Together, these two men had tried to revitalize the school’s mission, turning us toward the future with energy and vision, albeit not without resistance and controversy. Suddenly, both were gone. It felt like we were adrift; it felt like we were under assault.
A memorial service for George was held at First Baptist, Newton Centre — a cavernous building that usually swallowed up even big congregations. But on the day of George’s service, mourners filled it, every corner. Many solemn words were spoken, and at the end of that sad hour, we all stood to sing George’s favorite hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”
It had never been my favorite hymn — not even my second or third favorite. It has too many devils running all over the place seeking to do harm to embattled human beings, and a triumphalism too heavy-handed for my blood. I never liked crowing about the “one little word” of faith that overcomes Satan and I was never comfortable declaring Christ the “right man on our side” who single-handedly wins the pitched battle between good and evil. I could not sing that it’s okay to “let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also” on the sure bet that God will always be vindicated. (I wasn’t all that sure it was a good bet!) That hymn was definitely not in my top ten.
That is, until George Peck’s memorial. When hundreds of weeping people stood to sing, when they insisted, at the top of their lungs, that God is a Rock, I knew for the first time in my life that it was true. We were under assault from malicious enemies. We did not possess any native strength with which to beat them back. God had sent us — still sends us — the right man to fight on our side. Christ does win battles for us. One little word is all it takes to send evil packing. We can be threatened with and even suffer the loss of everything — goods, kindred, our own lives — and still live, still win, still be safe in God’s eternal victory and vindication.
When we sang it, I believed it. I knew it. Everybody in that church knew it. You didn’t even have to catch all the words to know that in the midst of our painful grieving, a triumphant joy had seized us. As we sang loud, in four-part harmony, everywhere in the cosmos devils ran for cover; and in the heart of that assembly, Christ presided serenely over us and over George’s precious life.
That hymn consoled us, but it did not merely console us — it came true. It created solace, yes, and conviction — but it did even more: it delivered what it promised. It gave us life. To this day, when I remember the moment we rose to sing, I feel that stone building shake as we climbed up onto the pews. I see hundreds of upraised arms, fists thrust into the air, defiant in the face of demonic onslaught, a signal to all who would harm God’s people to back off, for God’s awesome power was there, turning everything (especially death) into life.
Of course we didn’t actually stand on the pews or thrust our fists in the air, but we might as well have, we could have, we should have…
“After they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.” Whenever I hear the story of Jesus’ last hours, I never fail to register this poignant bit of information, off-handedly inserted in the gospels of Mark and Matthew: they sang a hymn.
The gospels portray Jesus as full of foreknowledge: “One of you is about to betray me.” The night reeked of death. Jesus even gave them a sign, sharing with them the Passover bread and cup in a way that spoke bluntly not only of future fellowship, but also of spilled blood and broken bones. He knew what was coming, but not for that did he shorten the ritual meal, not for that did he omit the final hymn. Only a few hours before brutality found him in the garden, Jesus joined in on his ancestors’ psalm of praise for delivery from slavery and death.
But how could he sing of victory when that night all the evidence pointed to a God indifferent to the ugly plot, already underway, to kill him?
He sang because it is what you do when you are really living, when you believe in life, when you believe in God. You raise your voice in the everyday, you raise it in the joys that punctuate the everyday, you raise it in ordinary sorrows, and you raise it when unspeakable evil threatens to engulf the world. This human capacity for song at any moment, and especially in the teeth of death, is the way we declare our hope, our hope against hope. It is a way for our hearts to get around a corner.
All human singing is done against the odds; it is always an act of faith, fundamentally defiant. It has always been this way: people of every time and place sing of hope when there is none, of courage when they are terrified, of gratitude in the midst of grief, of a new tomorrow when they are being led to the slaughter. Communities of faith and resistance have stood for centuries powerless against terror and tyrants, weaponless against bigotry, defenseless against greed, pride and ambition, up to their necks in trouble, hemmed in on every side, without a prayer — except for their songs. Anywhere you look in the human family, when trouble comes, the next thing you hear is singing.
I have a cynical friend who calls this response “The King and I Syndrome.” You will remember that in that musical, Anna teaches her son to tough out his little-boy-fears by holding his head erect and whistling “a happy tune” so no one will know he’s afraid. But my friend is wrong. The songs I’m talking about are not given to us merely to make us “feel better,” to get us through a tight spot, or to help us keep a stiff upper lip. We never pretend for a moment that there are no monsters under our beds, no horrors in our psyches, no savagery in the world. The song we sing every day, and especially on days of reckoning, is a gift of the Holy Spirit, given to us so that, in the face of the real dangers of real life, we may have power to tell the truth, meet and confound evil head-on, change the world, glorify God and emerge victorious.
If you have trouble believing this, ask people who know. Ask, for example, Sojourner Truth, abolitionist and suffragist. When asked how to confront the great evils that oppressed her people, she replied with utmost seriousness, “First, you lay a song on them.” And ask the people of Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery about singing. No, ask yourselves, if you are my age or older, what it was like to hear freedom songs above the roaring fire hoses and the snarling dogs. Ask the people of Chile, repressed by a cruel military regime after the fall of Allende. Ask them who the priority victims of the death squads were, once the politicians had been purged, and they will tell you that the soldiers came next to arrest the songs. They will tell you that poets and singers were slaughtered early; and that those who escaped continued defiantly in exile to sing the songs of liberty — songs like Cambia, Todo Cambia… “Things change, everything changes. What changed yesterday can change tomorrow, but singing…, that will never change.” Ask early Christians why martyrs sang in the prisons, the galleys, the arenas, and at the stake. Ask Paul why he instructed the Ephesians to “sing always” if they wished to live the challenging and risky life that Jesus led, a life of selflessness and inclusion, against all odds. Ask them all if they were dupes, pie-in-the-sky Pollyannas whistling away their happy tunes.
Not on your life. The songs the Spirit of God prompts in human hearts against all odds are God’s own songs, God’s vision, God’s will, God’s integrity. Thus, they are songs of infinite worth and unimaginable efficacy. They can be counted on to make things happen: as long as such songs are echoing in the world, truth will get told, boundaries will weaken, chains will break, and new things will become possible — even in the most hardened hearts, even in the cruelest systems.
But it may take a while. That’s why songs have to be taught. Why we have to pass them on to the next generation, and they to the next. We will go to our graves still singing, but if our children have become singers too, and theirs in turn, there will always be someone singing, and that endless singing will always disturb and bewilder the enemies of love. Sooner or later they’ll feel the terror of self-accusation and they will have to confront the Mystery that erodes the foundations of hate. Sooner or later, a crack of light will appear under the locked door of life; sooner or later, the door will fly open in joy. Sooner or later, the songs of a few will be on the lips of all creation, and God’s hope for the world will materialize. It has happened before. It is happening now. It will happen again.
Jesus sang a psalm that night “when utmost evil strove against the light.” Jesus’ song — taught by God to his ancestor, David, taught to Jesus by his mother, sung in exile and freedom, in trouble and in peace — that song was stronger than death. It was on Jesus’ lips when he rose from the grave. He knew what every community of faith knows: when we sing, and as long as we are singing, we are invincible.
That life-affirming song resounds in the church. The Spirit sings it in us. We receive it like a new thing every day.
Do you sing it? Do you want to sing it? In the church, in our families, our communities, our world, what songs are shaping our future? What songs do we teach our children? Do we know the power springing from the songs of experience, of our heritage, of faith?
Whenever you sing, from this day on, sing for your lives, sing for our world still struggling to vanquish lovelessness and lies. Sing together the song of God’s fierce determination to make us all free and alive, God’s plan for reconciliation and peace. Sing because we believe God’s promise is coming true. Sing to make the walls come down, to break the chains. Sing for generous hearts to embrace the stranger. Sing through the “centuries of wrong” the church’s wisdom, its treasury of tune and rhyme, its repertoire of grace, its conviction about the wholeness meant for all in the steadfastness of God.
Sing until the only sound heard in the whole creation is the melody of delight — God’s delight in us, and ours in God. Sing! With such a hope, with such a promise, how can we keep from singing?