Sermon: The Church of the Sensational Nightingales
The Church of the Sensational Nightingales
Text: Ephesians 5:15-20
(Gary W. Charles, Cove Presbyterian Church, Covesville, VA, 5-7-2017)
Sunday morning with the Sensational Nightingales
It was not the Five Mississippi Blind Boys
who lifted me off the ground
that Sunday morning
as I drove down for the paper, some oranges, and
Nor was it the Dixie Hummingbirds
or the Soul Stirrers, despite their quickening name,
or even the Swan Silvertones
who inspired me to look over the commotion of
into the open vault of the sky.
No, it was the Sensational Nightingales
who happened to be singing on the gospel
station early that Sunday morning
and must be credited with the bumping up
of my spirit, the arousal of the mice within.
I have always loved this harmony,
like four, sometimes five trains running
side by side over a contoured landscape –
make that a shimmering, red-dirt landscape,
wildflowers growing along the silver tracks,
lace tablecloths covering the hills,
the men and women in white shirts and dresses
walking in the direction of a tall steeple.
Sunday morning in a perfect Georgia.
But I am not here to describe the sound
of the falsetto whine, sepulchral bass,
alto and tenor fitted snugly in between;
only to witness my own minor ascension
that morning as they sang, so parallel,
about the usual themes,
the garden of suffering,
the beads of blood on the forehead,
the stone before the hillside tomb,
and the ancient rolling waters
we would all have to cross some day.
God bless the Sensational Nightingales,
I thought as I turned up the volume,
God bless their families and their powder blue suits.
They are a far cry from the quiet kneeling
I was raised with,
a far, hand-clapping cry from the candles
that glowed in the alcoves
and the fixed eyes of saints staring down
from their corners.
Oh, my cap was on straight that Sunday morning
And I was fine keeping the car on the road.
No one would ever have guessed
I was being lifted into the air by nightingales,
hoisted by their beaks like a long banner
that curls across an empty blue sky,
caught up in the annunciation
of these high, most encouraging tidings.
(from The Art of Drowning by Bill Collins, 1995; University of Pittsburgh Press)
Leave it to the poet Billy Collins to transform a routine Sunday drive to a hike into heaven. An English professor in New York, Collins could well be the most unlikely U.S. poet laureate ever named. His poetry often is often flip and funny and seemingly too mundane for one holding the distinguished title of “poet laureate.” As for me, I want to write a “thank you” note to the committee that selected him as our national imaginative voice, because Billy Collins writes for the common man and woman, his poetry appeals to anyone who is willing to look for the extraordinary in the ordinary goings on of life. It is precisely there, as our Celtic ancestors would argue – in the ordinary goings on of life – that you and I are most likely to meet God.
Leave it to the Apostle Paul to make a list and then pass it on to the church. I will confess that when I read Paul’s lists, my eyes almost automatically begin to roll back into their sockets, much the way my two grown children’s eyes still do when I pull out my list of things they need to do. Their eyes either roll back or glaze over with parentally caused cataracts. In much the same way, I initially check out when I hear Paul begin one of his long lists of how to be and not be a Christian.
The list in Chapter Five of Ephesians is no exception – at least, it is not exceptional at the beginning. Though not all scholars agree that Ephesians was written by Paul, the list in Chapter Five sure sounds like Paul. To paraphrase the apostle, the list begins: “Don’t live like a fool because these are bad times, evil times.” You can almost see Paul’s admonishing finger wagging and I can almost feel my eyes rolling northward.
Then, out of nowhere, the list-giving, dictate-demanding, do-this-and-not-that Paul starts to sound less like an overbearing parent and more like a “sensational nightingale.” His finger drops and instead of raging against fools, he starts to sound like one. He says: “Sing, give thanks to God for everything, all the time, in the name of Jesus.” Now, even here Paul cannot quite bring himself to shift out of the imperative mood, but, at least, it is a much more inviting imperative – “Give thanks to God for everything, all the time.”
Paul is talking about what happens when God’s grace comes sneaking up on you and you just have to sing. He is speaking from experience, remembering the day he was a strident Pharisee, headed out on purity patrol. He was going to clean out the synagogue in Damascus from creeping Christianity when out of the blue he heard the singing of the sensational nightingale, the risen Christ. Years later, Collins would hear the same singing through the collective voices of the “Sensational Nightingales,” as he describes: “I was being lifted in the air by nightingales . . . caught up in the annunciation of these high, most encouraging tidings.”
The Apostle Paul and Billy Collins describe the two sides of the grace of God. One side of grace is being lifted up out of the muck of life – the muck of a messed up marriage, a no-future job, the muck of too much power to too little control. You know what it is like to have muck clinging to you; some of you might even be stuck in some right now. It is nasty and it is thick and it grabs hold of you with the strength of Samson; it is too deep to climb out of and too sticky to shake loose of. The “high, most encouraging tidings” of the gospel is that you and I do not need to try. In Christ, God has given us a lift ticket out of the muck and a promise to climb in with us when the lift is out of order. That is one side of God’s grace.
The other side of God’s grace is living like a grace-filled, grateful fool every moment of every day because there is just not enough time to return to God all the thanksgiving we feel. The other side of grace is gratitude. And, I have to warn you, gratitude can mess up your life. When gratitude works its way inside you, it makes you see things differently, makes you treat people in ways you never would have done otherwise. Gratitude will send the greed in you packing, because when gratitude nests inside you, you finally know that you cannot ever want for more than what you have been given already. Gratitude will make you turn up the volume when the Sensational Nightingales are singing; otherwise you will miss their song for all the street noise.
Even scarier, gratitude will turn you into a Sensational Nightingale. Do not forget that Gratitude turned the pious-persecuting-pompous Saul into the certified, original “fool for Christ” Paul. What Paul learned on the road to Damascus and Collins learned on that early Sunday morning drive is what the church is still learning – that the future of the church, the growth of the church, the hope of the church rests not in our being a community of purity police, making sure that we check every theological bag at the church door, sending away those carrying too much baggage or checking everyone’s spiritual ID at the church gate to make sure that they think the same way as we do about Jesus.
The future of the church, the growth of the church, the hope of the church is allowing God’s grace to turn us into a community of sensational, singing nightingales, people who stop Sunday drivers and neighbors and colleagues with “high, encouraging tidings,” people crazy enough to announce that WE CHOOSE WELCOME. The grateful church of Sensational Nightingales will give away their time and money, creativity and commitment, not with parsimonious piety, but with genuine gratitude and gladness for God’s unrelenting pounding of grace.
So, pray with me for the day when people will drive up and down Highway 29 and won’t say, “I didn’t even know there was church on that hill” or “Oh Yeah, that’s a nice, cute, little church. Maybe I’ll visit it one day” or “I’ve never heard one thing about that church.” Pray with me for the day when people will drive up and down Highway 29 and say without a stutter or a pause, “Oh yeah, Cove Presbyterian Church, now that’s the church of sensational nightingales.”