In the Meantime
Rev. Dr. Gary W. Charles, November 1st, 2020 - All Saints' Day
Scientists at the CDC advise us not to engage in congregational singing during this pandemic. I find their advice wise, but even so, I miss congregational song. I love to watch your faces light up when Linda plays “Glory to God” and some of you even start to sway in a most atypical Presbyterian way. My eyes begin to rain when I see candles lit on a dark Christmas Eve night as we sing “Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” My heart is soothed when the Cove choir sing harmony and the Sweet Rebellion Gospel Band and Choir sing bluegrass and gospel. I really love to hear the congregation in song.
That said, I do not miss trying to lead congregational song. In fact, the very thought of singing in public has never been a pleasant one. It conjures up memories of voice teachers in elementary school who suggested that I take up needlework and youth choirs in which my voice was tolerated simply because it was the Christian thing to do and a former Director of Music Ministries who suggested that I lip sync the hymns. Don’t get me wrong. I love to sing and I can sing a simple tune if it stays in a very limited range. Even so, singing in public is still a terrifying thought for me. So, in that one selfish sense, these strange times have given me a small gift.
Early on in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gathers an odd collection of singers around him. Some are fresh out of the boat smelling like the catch of the day, one has bloodshot eyes from counting taxes that he has gathered from his own people, but most of the singers we know absolutely nothing about. Jesus does not audition any of these singers. He does not ask them to answer correctly about what they believe about God. Jesus simply finds them, calls them, and say, “Follow me.” This motley crew of a choir soon learns that Jesus’ life is their song sheet and in following him they learn the lyrics to a tune that they are to never stop singing.
I love that moving scene in the movie, The King’s Speech, in which King George VI is trying to share some of his own painful childhood memories, but he can only stutter a word and then stumble upon the next. Watching the King’s frustration with his stuttering, his inability to speak clearly, the speech therapist suggests that the King sing his childhood memories. Initially, the idea strikes the King as ridiculous but after a losing struggle to speak, he breaks into song and is able to tell his story with musical and lyrical clarity.
What the speech therapist does for the King is what Jesus does for those first choristers who follow him up a mountain. Jesus teaches this eclectic, untrained choir not only how to sing but what to sing. It is a song that has become so familiar to Christians that the words can easily lose their capacity to thrill us or disturb us or challenge us.
The late Presbyterian pastor Eugene Peterson rendered Jesus’ song this way:
You’re blessed when you’re at the end of your rope. With less of you, there is more of God and God’s rule.
You’re blessed when you feel you’ve lost what is dearest to you. Only then can you be embraced by the One dearest to you.
You’re blessed when you’re content with just who you are – no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought.
You’re blessed when you’ve worked up a good appetite for God. He’s food and drink in the best meal you’ll ever eat.
You’re blessed when you care. At the moment of being ‘care-full’, you find yourselves cared for.
You’re blessed when you get your inside world – your mind and heart – put right. Then you can see God in the outside world.
You’re blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That’s when you discover who you really are, and your place in God’s family.
You’re blessed when your commitment to God provokes persecution. The persecution drives you even deeper into God’s kingdom.
Not only that – count yourselves blessed every time people put you down or throw you out or speak lies about you . . . You can be glad when that happens . . . all heaven applauds. And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.
Taken as a whole, the song Jesus teaches his first company of singers reminds me of an old Chinese proverb, “If I keep a bare branch in my heart, then the singing bird will come” (insight from Gail A. Riccuti). The Beatitudes give us the words to sing whenever we can keep a branch bare in our hearts.
“Comfort comes to mourners,” writes Gail Riccuti,”(but note that the kind of mourning is not specified; could it be mourning over injustice, destruction of nature, bigotry against peoples, ravishing of the earth?). The whole earth comes to the meekest, those often judged by our usual assumptions as the least likely to know what to do with such an inheritance. Righteousness comes to those hungry for it; mercy to those who show it; the capacity for perception of God to those without selfish agenda; and intimacy with God to those who make peace. . . . To those who ask why evil always wins, the Beatitudes’ answer seems to be that at the end, it doesn’t” (Good Preacher, Jan. 2011).
Over the years, some have distorted the song of Jesus to suggest that only one day in heaven will the blessed children of God be delivered from this rotten, corrupt world, but in the meantime, we must trudge through the mess of life on our own. That is not the song Jesus teaches. He teaches us to sing with our lives, even when we cannot use our mouths. He teaches us not only to look toward a blessed future, but toward a blessed present. In the Beatitudes, Jesus looks around at a group of singers not even resembling the Mormon Tabernacle Choir and says, “Sing my song.”
“If I keep a bare branch in my heart, then the singing bird will come.” One way to keep that bare branch in my heart is to remember that the “you” in Jesus’ song is always plural. Jesus knows that the song he has come to teach is not a solo but one that takes the entire blessed community of singers to sing.
No matter how the song of Jesus is sung, our world has little use for it. We sing and the world says, “Come on, Jesus, what is ‘blessed’ about being poor and persecuted? Get real, Jesus, in the end, evil wins.” Given the world’s resistance to our song, we need every voice, the tenors and basses, the altos and sopranos, the tone deaf, the ones who read music, and the ones who can barely stay on pitch. To this blessed community of singers, Jesus says, “Sing my song. It may annoy the world, confound the self-declared wise, but it will bring delight to the ears of God and joy to every singing heart. Sing my song and teach the world its lyrics until they learn to sing a new song. Sing my song until the other lyrics you have learned, the lyrics of hate and division, fear and spite, are long forgotten.
Right now, we can only use masked mouths to sing the song of Jesus in public. Thankfully, though, the song Jesus teaches us can be sung while wearing masks and keeping a safe distance as we use our feet to cast our vote this week. His song can be sung with freshly washed hands as we write checks to support the mission of the church, while others in our community cannot do so at this time. His song can be sung later today when we meet on ZOOM at 5 p.m. and eat bread and drink wine, remembering that our God does not let us go hungry or let us thirst.
On this All Saints Sunday, we sing the song Jesus teaches us when we pause to give thanks for the great company of saints whose lives have given evidence of Jesus’ song. During my years in Atlanta, I came to know two remarkable singers of Jesus’ song, neither of whom I doubt were ever enlisted to sing in any music choir.
In an essay that Jill Duffield published earlier this week, I was reminded of someone who I was privileged to work with in fighting voter suppression. Jill reminded me of what a remarkable singer John Lewis was of Jesus’ song. She remembers his words spoken in Montreat in 2015, when Lewis sang: “Never, ever let someone pull you down so low you hate them.” She also remembers his last words spoken to us all on the day of his funeral: “Though I may not be here with you, I urge you to answer the highest calling of your heart and stand up for what you truly believe. In my life I have done all I can to demonstrate that the way of peace, the way of love and nonviolence is the more excellent way. Now it is your turn to let freedom ring.”
I wish you could have known Murphy Davis. Last week, she finally joined the great company of saints, but not without a fierce fight with cancer for years. Even more, Murphy fought fiercely against all the structures in society that keep poor people poor and folks living on the street with no place to call home. She and her husband, Ed Loring, ran the Open Door Community in Atlanta and she sang the song of Jesus so loudly that every public official in the city cowered whenever they saw Murphy coming, and every prison official looked away when she sang of the day when we will stop killing people in the name of justice. When I next hear, “For all the saints who from their labors rest,” I will think of John and Murphy and give thanks.
Right now, we are not able to sing safely with our mouths in public places, especially in inside places. And, I do not know when that safe day for congregational song will come. So, in the meantime, may we sing the song of Jesus with our lives, with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, without reserve and with abounding joy.
Sing on, my friends. Sing on!