–Nonviolent Student Protesters singing “We Shall Overcome,” circa 1963. Photo by Adger Cowans
A Sermon in Four Movements
Ephesians 5: 15-20; Mark 14: 22-26
On a January morning in 1990, George Peck got out of bed, walked to the kitchen, fell to the floor, and died. It was to have been his first day back to work after a year’s sabbatical. He was the president of Andover Newton Theological School. He was 58 years old.
Just two years earlier, Orlando Costas had died after a short struggle with cancer. He was the Dean of the School. A few months after his sad death, the Chair of the Board died too. And not long after George Peck’s death, a beloved professor of ethics, Jane Cary, was diagnosed with breast cancer. She died almost before any of us could say, “Oh, no!”
The older faculty of Andover Newton refer to those three years of death as “the siege,” because it felt like one. It felt like we were surrounded by a fierce enemy that was picking off our friends, one by one.
George Peck’s funeral was held at First Baptist in Newton Centre, a cavernous church. That day it was packed to the rafters. And when the service was over, that whole prodigious throng stood up to sing George’s favorite hymn.
George was an Aussie. Every Christmas he’d call us together to sing all nine hundred sixty-seven thousand verses of “Waltzing Matilda.” He loved that song, but the song he loved most was Martin Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” That was the hymn that closed his service.
I had always hated that hymn. I am a sophisticated person, and I found it embarrassing. Remember how it goes? The world is full of temptation. Nasty little devils are running around everywhere, trying to trick us into sinning. We can’t do anything to defend ourselves. We are totally doomed. But thanks be to God, Christ the Holy Swashbuckler swoops down to rescue us. He swoops down and swashbuckles away—and he wins!
Ugh. It’s all so… 16th century.
But then came the siege—the funerals, the exhaustion, the sorrow—and the scary realization that we were powerless against the onslaught of Death. By the time we gathered at First Baptist, I was so sad and defeated, I needed some swooping and trampling. I ached for some swashbuckling. I required some demon-squashing triumph. So, at the end of George’s service, I took a deep breath and belted out that embarrassing old hymn. I sang it like I loved it. Like I’d always loved it. Like I really believed it. I sang it like a Lutheran—with all my heart.
And then it happened. When we got to the part about demons snatching us, we felt those claws grab at us, and we started trembling. When we sang about God sending Christ to help us, and we felt a mighty Presence swoosh into the room. We burst into applause. When we sang that God is a mighty fortress, protective steel descended. You could actually hear it clang down. The more we sang, the more the demons ran. To this day, I remember the way we climbed on the pews, thrust our fists in the air, and ordered the forces of death to back off.
… Okay, I lied. We didn’t applaud. Nobody stood on the pews. We didn’t thrust our fists in the air. But we did sing. We sang and sang. And, somehow, because we sang, we won.
Congregational hymn: “A mighty fortress…”
Whenever I hear the story of Jesus’ last supper with his friends, one small detail always chokes me up. Did you catch it when it was being read? It says, “They sang a hymn…”
Jesus was full of dread that night, as if he knew what was coming. Even so, he didn’t hurry the ritual meal. He didn’t shorten the prayers. And he didn’t say, “We don’t have time for all five verses of the closing hymn.” Only hours before being hauled away to be tortured and killed, he stood up with his little congregation and sang all the verses. And the song they sang at that Passover meal was probably a psalm of praise—praise to God for delivering the people from slavery and death in Egypt.
How could Jesus sing like that, knowing what was coming? How could he praise God for deliverance when there’d be none for him? In the face of disaster, how could he keep on singing?
Why do we keep on singing?
Because singing is what we do when we are really living. Even if we are also dying. It’s an act of faith. We always sing against the odds. The children of God have always been powerless against tyrants, helpless against hate, defenseless against greed, pride and ambition, up to our necks in trouble, susceptible to weaknesses of every kind, hemmed in by death on every side. We don’t have a prayer—except for our songs. Anywhere you look in the human family, when trouble comes, the next thing you hear is singing.
Congregational hymn: “When in our music God is glorified” [include verse omitted from NCH: And did not Jesus sing a psalm that night….?]
Now, some people sing to entertain themselves. Or to forget their troubles. Or to look on the bright side. But the singing I’m talking about isn’t a distraction, a pep pill, or a night-light. It won’t help us cheer up, forget our troubles, or pretend that there are no monsters under our beds, no gremlins in our psyches, and no savagery in the world.
The song we’re talking about today is the song God sings into the world every day, especially on days of reckoning. It’s a song we know by many names—we call it amazing grace, firm foundation, everlasting arms, trust and obey, wondrous love, grace and glory, blessed assurance—but whatever name we know it by, God has sung it into us. It’s a gift of the Holy Spirit bestowed in our baptisms, and like all the Spirit’s gifts, it’s no good unless we share it. Unless we give it away. Unless we sing it to others.
And because it is God’s own song we’re singing, once we’re singing it, once it’s out there in the air, things change.
If you aren’t sure what I mean, consider Sojourner Truth, the great abolitionist. Once when someone asked her how to destroy the evil of slavery, she said, “You lay a song on it.”
Or ask the people of Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery. Remember, if you are my age or older, what it was like to hear freedom songs above the roar of fire hoses and snarling dogs?
Ask the people of Chile who the priority victims of Pinochet’s death squads were, and they will tell you that they always arrested the songs first. They poets and the singers were “disappeared” early. The government knew that they were the most dangerous people of all.
The song God sings in us and through us against all odds is hope, courage, and life. And as long as God’s people are singing it together, truth will get told, walls will tumble, chains will break, stuck things will shift, tyrants will fall—and the new thing God is determined to do will win out, even in the most hardened hearts, even in the cruelest systems.
But this victory takes time. A song is not a bomb. It is not a quick fix, like a firing squad or a politician’s promise. And that’s why we teach God’s song to our children, so that they will teach it some day to theirs. To get the whole universe singing God’s song is a project bigger than one lifetime.
But faith assures us that sooner or later, the songs we pass from age to age, the capacity for singing we enlarge and encourage, the power of the song we sing together will so bewilder the enemies of Love that they will sheathe their claws, hang up their pitchforks, and stop dealing in death, once and for all. Sooner or later, the song from God that we sing together will be on the lips of all creation, and God’s hope for the world will come true.
Jesus “sang a psalm that night, when utmost evil strove against the light.” That psalm was first sung by the Spirit to his ancestor, David. David then sang it to the people. They taught it to their children. And centuries later, Jesus learned it from his mother, who’d learned it from hers, who’d learned it from hers. He sang it countless times in his short life, that song chanted in exile and in freedom, in trouble and in peace for countless years. It was on his lips when he died, a failed prophet. It was on his lips when he rose triumphant from the grave.
Jesus knew what every faithful soul and every faithful community knows—as long as we are singing, the struggle goes on. As long as we are singing, we are invincible. As long as we are singing, we will rise.
Choral anthem: “We shall not give up the fight…”
Jesus once said to his followers, “Go into the whole world and announce the good news.” In other words, “Evangelize!”
A lot of us are reluctant to evangelize. We can’t picture ourselves hitting the streets with a floppy bible and a converting message, buttonholing our neighbors, preaching to strangers, handing out tracts.
Okay. Fair enough. That’s hard. But maybe we would be willing to sing?
Maybe we could sing the church’s faith, its ancient story, its treasury of tune and rhyme, its vast repertoire of grace. Against the odds that are stacked up against the world God loves, maybe we would be willing to sing for its life and our own.
Maybe we could sing as if we really believed that God can make life different. Maybe we could sing as if we really believed that locked chains can snap and locked doors can open. Maybe we could sing as if we believed that at the sound of God’s song on our lips, one more hatred will shrivel and die, one more war will end, one more generous heart will embrace a stranger, one more wall will tumble, and another will never get built. Maybe we could sing as if we believed that one day the only sound in all creation will be a melody of delight—God’s delight in us, and ours in God.
If we believe, if we know, that God’s new song can do all this, can do it through us, then why would we, how could we keep from singing?
Congregational hymn: “My life flows on’ [How can I keep from singing…?”]
Couldn’t agree with you more! I know people who have become faithful believers after joining church choirs and/or bell ringers because the words and music rang so true to their hearts and minds. One reason that I so believe in music for children. Made a huge difference in my life, and still does!
Thanks for reminding me of a powerful moment of worship on a day when this world seems to “threaten to undo us.”