Sermon: Let Freedom Sing
Texts: Isaiah 49:1-7; Psalm 40:1-11; Matthew 26:26-30
Date: January 15, 2017
©Rev. Dee Eisenhauer, Eagle Harbor Congregational Church, UCC
After Jesus’ last Passover celebration, he and the disciples went out to the Mount of Olives, suspecting that the Empire’s hammer was about to drop. Although it was a struggle, Jesus was preparing to “face the music”—a phrase that means “accepting the unpleasant consequences of one’s action.” Some combination of raising a ruckus at the Temple, gathering what looked like a Movement, and criticizing those in authority was about to result in arrest and execution. Jesus was facing the music when he went out in public rather than into hiding.
He may have been facing the music, but he also had the music at his back, like wind to a sail. Matthew and Mark throw in this detail of the end of the Passover celebration: “After they had sung the hymn, they went out…” As far as I know, this is the only mention of Jesus singing in the gospels. The hymn was most likely some portion of the Hallel psalms, Psalms 113-118, traditionally sung at the end of the Passover Seder. There is a great deal in those psalms that might have encouraged Jesus: “O Israel, trust in the Lord! He is their help and their shield…You who fear the Lord, trust in the Lord!” [Psalm 113] “Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his faithful ones. O Lord, I am your servant.”  “Great is God’s steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever!”  “I was pushed hard, so that I was falling, but the Lord helped me. The Lord is my strength and my might; God has become my salvation.”  We don’t know precisely what Jesus sang with his community before he went out, but we can be confident that the music of his tradition nourished and strengthened him at this crucial moment. Music had his back.
What would you want to sing or hear sung to you at such a frightening crossroads—whether you were facing potential death from a malevolent power or from natural causes? What kind of music would carry you?
Well, that’s a pretty extreme and specific question regarding life and death situations. How about just life as it goes on? What kind of music supports you, what hymns and songs become the wind beneath your wings?
We had a grand time thumbing through the hymnal with the Tuesday Bible Study this week, mulling over our favorites. Psalm 40 calls attention to putting new songs on the lips of the faithful. It also speaks of open ears as a gift from God [Psalm 40:6]. The Hebrew literally says that God has “dug” ears for the psalmist. This hints at God having to work at digging the waxy gunk out of our ears so we can hear what God is trying to say (or sing) to us. We all have moments when God gets around our defenses and sings some encouragement to us, whether it’s in hymns, concertos, folk and pop songs, or bird songs. When have you been divinely lifted by music?
The spiritual practice for this week is about creating your own playlist of music that gets you in touch with God—with God’s love, with God’s will, with God’s encouragement to do what is right. I hope you’ll take some time to do that. What a marvelous age we live in, when so much music is at our fingertips! Find some, and reflect on how God may be trying to open your ears.
Since it’s the weekend we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr., and since the choir was planning on doing gospel music, I thought I’d look into the part music played in the civil rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. We have at least two songs that were on the playlist of that movement in our New Century Hymnal—“This Little Light of Mine” and “We Shall Overcome.” I valiantly looked for some footage of Martin Luther King, Jr. singing and didn’t uncover any. I expect Martin sang a lot, just as I expect Jesus sang a lot, even though it’s mentioned in the gospel “record” just once. I just don’t have the evidence.
I did find a couple of paragraphs in King’s book Why We Can’t Wait that speak to the importance of the civil rights movement’s “playlist.” “In a sense the freedom songs are the soul of the movement. They are more than just incantations of clever phrases designed to invigorate a campaign; they are as old as the history of the Negro in America. They are adaptations of the songs the slaves sang—the sorrow songs, the shouts for joy, the battle hymns and the anthems of our movement. I have heard people talk of their beat and rhythm, but we in the movement are as inspired by their words. “Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Freedom” is a sentence that needs no music to make its point. We sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slaves sang them, because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that “We shall overcome, Black and white together, We shall overcome someday.”
King goes on with a recollection: “I have stood in a meeting with hundreds of youngsters and joined in while they sang “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.” It is not just a song; it is a resolve. A few minutes later, I have seen those same youngsters refuse to turn around from the onrush of a police dog, refuse to turn around before a pugnacious Bull Connor in command of men with power hoses. These songs bind us together, give us courage together, help us to march together.”
While poking around at the history of the song “We Shall Overcome” I found a remarkable story told by Jamila Jones about song expressing and creating courage. Jones was involved in the civil rights movement at a very young age, singing with the Montgomery Gospel Trio at many meetings and movement fundraisers by the time she was 10 or 11 years old. As a teenager, Jamila went with her pastor to the Highlander School for non-violence training on several occasions. In an oral history interview collected by the Smithsonian, she tells about the role of music in the movement. I want you to hear about 5 minutes of the interview, in which she responds to a question about adding a verse to “We Shall Overcome.”
I love so many things about this story—the detail about hearing her out-of-tune sister, the feeling that nature was singing along, the epiphany about the power of music in the face of an armed policeman shaking in his boots. He was facing the music in that moment! One of the websites speculating on the unknown origin of the phrase “face the music” included this possibility: It could have sprung from what was known in the United Kingdom as “West Gallery singing.” “This was singing, literally from the west galleries of English churches, by the common peasantry who weren’t allowed to sit in the higher status parts of the church. The theory was that the nobility were obliged to listen to the vernacular songs of the parishioners, often with lyrics that were critical of the ways of the gentry.”
You know, in the face of the Empire, a great deal of the singing the church does as well as the singing of current protest movements is “West Gallery singing.” That is, the singers may not be accorded a high status; they may not be the ones wielding the weapons or calling the tune for the mighty. Nonetheless, the music expresses an undeniable power that can remind the dominant of their need to face the music, to repent of unjust domination. Even if the “gentry” don’t have ears to hear, those who sing are reminded of the indomitable will for justice of the God who called us as servants. The singers are encouraged.
The text from Isaiah, one of the great Servant Songs, alludes to the servant’s sometime feeling of discouragement: “I have labored in vain, I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity.” Then there’s this word, “Yet.” Suppose a song made its way into that pause before the “Yet”—a song like this one, sung by Jamila Jones as a young woman. Pay attention to the way the song intertwines faith and faithful action:
What comes after the “Yet” in Isaiah’s prophecy? “Yet surely my cause is with the Lord, and my reward with my God.” A few beats later, “My God has become my strength.” God calls all us servants to be a light to the nations. Some servants, like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jamila Jones, reflected God’s light in dazzling ways. Others may still be hidden away in God’s quiver, God’s tool chest. But our day is coming, we’re given as a light as well.
If on this day you’re not feeling up to it, why not…sing? The Sing will bring out the Shine. And the Shine will enlighten.