Christian Practices III
Singing Our Lives: from Mass in B Minor to Prayer in Open D
Micah 6:1-8; Psalm 100; Matthew 5:1-12
text: “and he opened his mouth…” (Mt. 5:2)
The Fourth Sunday after the Epipjany – 30.January.2011
New Orleans, LA
I take as my text this morning the second verse of the fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew, and he opened his mouth.
Ever since John Wycliffe in 1382 translated the Latin Vulgate into vernacular English this verse has read, and he opened his mouth. I never paid much attention to this rendering of Greek into English until I read The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer who pointed out this act by Jesus. (On side note, sometime this Spring we will offer a Bonhoeffer symposium or set of seminars on him one because so many of you, like me, adore him and two because so many of you have or are reading the new biography of him – which I think stands in need of great rebuttal). The translation in your pews, the NRSV, decided to translate 5:2 otherwise, then he began to speak to them. It may seem like much ado about nothing or a brief foray into semantics but I think there is something to Jesus opening his mouth. For in that moment we are allowed the freedom to believe that Jesus sang the Beatitudes.
A year ago this month our neighbor in the Caribbean suffered a horrendous earthquake killing upwards of 230,000 people and counting; we watched with horror, we eagerly sent money, and offered prayer upon prayers. Do you recall the images from that week when thousands gathered each evening at St. Pierres Plaza in a make shift village to sing! One of the lines of the hymns translated into English reads,
God, you are the one who gave me life
Why are we suffering?
Then there was the “triple miracle” one week after the earthquake three people were found alive: a 15 day old baby, a young woman, and under the ruins of the Cathedral an elderly woman, an elderly woman found singing her own song, Don’t be afraid of death.
Singing, the simple act of vocalizing words to a tune enabled a ravaged community the ability to make it another day, to hope amid the rubble, and to out for mercy. I remember not only the astonishment of the news agencies that reported on the singing but my own astonishment at their capacity to praise and protest in the shadow and stench of death.
I hope that we are able to organize and take a team to Haiti to help the rebuilding, we know it will take years before the rebuilding is complete. When we go I hope we go with songs in our hearts to sing. Missionaries are asking work groups to specifically bring music, either memorized or in some form of bounded material, for we will be asked to share our faith in song and I hope we will have songs to share.
I know it may be an imaginative stretch to say he sung the Beatitudes but not much of one. Aramaic, at least modern Aramaic, does possess a rhythm akin to a Welshman’s tongue. The Beatitudes are the sung poem of Christianity, the sung hymn of our faith. Before there was the doctrine of the Trinity, before the various theories of the atonement, before the Resurrection even there were the Beatitudes – the theological underpinning for Christian belief and practice. We praise God because of the God who is expressed in them. We protest when God is not present in the way as promised in them. We are a community because of them; our communities split when they are not practiced or when they are cheapened. When they are sung the beautiful message of Christianity is revealed; when they are silent a loving God retreats behind closed doors.
This is the third installment in the sermon series on Christian Practices. Although the seven practices are neither exhaustive (they barely scratch the surface) nor original (I am using Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People by Dorothy C. Bass) I offer them, nonetheless, as practices that I believe can both help our attempt at re-formation, or as Darla has suggested it is not that this church heading in the wrong direction and need turning around she simply need wind in her sails. It is my hope that the Christian practices can act as a midwife providing for us the necessary experiences for individuals as we seek the good life here and now. We will experience the breath of the Holy Spirit by seeking it out and by creating the ideal conditions for her to birth and re-birth us both as a church and as individuals.
During the season of Lent (40 days from March 9, Ash Wednesday to April 23, Holy Saturday) I am asking/challenging all of us to form small groups each dedicated to one of the seven practices: discernment, saying yes and saying no, singing our lives, observing the Sabbath, forgiveness, and honoring our bodies for the expressed purposed of experimenting with these variations of Christian disciplines. Sure, you could do them on your own but you know that you will not. If you have a group to share and hold you accountable you have a much higher percentage of incorporating them into your Lenten pattern. You can have any room in this building and feel free to take up residence outside this building at a coffee shop, a living room, or publick house. Rather than give up chocolate or the news try on a new Christian practice in a defined time with no strings attached. Simply try it for 40 days and see what happens, see if you surprise yourself, see if you are surprised by others, see if you are surprised by God, or better yet surprise God with your practices.
Singing our Lives
Hymns are part of the fabric and DNA of our souls; they provide the language and tempo of our expressions of the divine; they are the ties that bind our hearts in Christian love; they furnish us with a foretaste of glory divine; they call us to adore him, Christ the Lord; and acknowledge our failures by reminding us nevertheless it is well with my soul. Amos Wilder, the American poet and former Hollis professor of divinity at Harvard – once remarked that hymns are to Protestants what incenses are to Catholics, reminders of the presence of God. If we were to drill down even more I would say hymns are to Baptists what Calvin is to Presbyterians, what Wesley is to Methodists, and what Luther is to Lutherans. They define us and provide us with the language, nuance, and poetic notion of faith.
The famous Swiss professor of theology Karl Barth was once asked by a reporter to summarize the six million plus words of his multi volume magum opus Church Dogmatics. He replied very easily, Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so. 6 million plus words summed up in a song that anyone here, regardless of age or understanding can sing. That is the power of hymns. I pick the hymns very carefully, they are not happenstance or random notions. I know full well that years from now it will be all that you can do to remember one sentence from a sermon I preached but I full well know you will remember the words to hymns. I know that a wretched sermon can be transformed if the last hymn is a doozy. I can send you out with an uplifted spirit to such an extent that you may never even recall the level of disgust with a sermon. I learned this by mistake one Sunday in Rhode Island.
You will notice that the first hymn the last few weeks has been the Doxology, survey any Protestant worship service of the last 200 years and you will find that as the opening hymn. It became unfashionable for sophisticated churches like this one to open with the doxology around the 1940s but I am glad we have reinstated it. What a better way than to open up worship with a song of praise. So the next time someone asks you if we sing praise songs at SCABC you say with a sheepish grin, you betcha.
This summer I purposively chose all of the old Baptist standbys to sing on Sunday morning. My church, as far as I could tell, did not have the demarcation between Sunday morning hymns, Sunday evening hymns and Wednesday evening hymns we simply sung them all regardless. Although we were at a usual summer time attendance level you sang as if there were 200 people in attendance. I am sure ones walking by on the avenue thought that revival had broken out, maybe it did. Those who never sing were singing, no one needed a hymnal, and these walls were reverberating with joy.
When we sing hymns I am told that all of reserves are down and we are at our most vulnerable, even more vulnerable than when we sleep. I know this is true because sometime during the singing of a hymn it is all I can do to hold back the tears. In the moment I am standing present with my great aunt, my mother-in-law, my father. One of the saddest moments for me as a pastor is planning the funeral of a beloved member and the family looks at me with blank eyes when I ask them what hymns they would like to sing at the service. How many of you have been to a funeral and wondered why didn’t they sing O God Our Help in Ages Past or Children of the Heavenly Father? When Maggie Hicks told us all about her cancer and her decision to forgo treatment it just coincided with the Sunday we were singing Precious Lord, Take My Hand. I happened to look up at her and she was singing with all of her soul and crying with all of her soul. It was one of the most beautiful moments of my time as a pastor. Hymns function not only as our prayerbook but as a primary source for theology. Our hymnal mirrors our congregation in that every genre of theology is represented in our hymns. But when are backs are against the wall, when the way looks dim we don’t quote Augustine or Roger Williams we sing Be Thou My Vision Precious Lord or Take My Hand.
During one of my many Fridays spent in the American Baptist Historical Societies’s collection of the Walter Rauschenbusch material I stumbled upon a hymnal. At first I thought it was just a German hymnal from his past either growing up in Rochester, NY or as a pastor in Louisville, KY or New York City. But at a closer inspection I discovered it was a selection of hymns Rauschenbusch had collected. It was a hymnal of social justice hymns. He knew very well, as a Church historian, that the best way to get the message of the social gospel into the hearts, minds, bodies, and souls of Christians was not through sermons or theological works(as important as they were) but through song. He knew very well that the best way to incorporate the message of the social gospel was through hymns. We cannot imagine the social gospel without Where Cross the Crowded Ways of Life or O Master Let Me Walk with Thee or the penultimate example of God of Grace and God of Glory.
For that matter try to imagine any Christian attempt at renewal without a surge of hymnody. The Reformation without A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, the Civil Rights Movement without This Little Light of Mine or We Shall Overcome. The two go hand-in-hand; they build and feed off one another.
This church amazes me with your ability to make music and sing. It does not matter if you have either heard of a hymn or it is one that you do not like you will sing it and sing with great gusto. I ask that we continue to add to and expand our repertoire of hymns. I am not asking for screens, keyboards, and song leaders with highlighted hair. But I am asking that we loosen up our musical expressions. This is New Orleans and we need to find a way to incorporate on a more regular basis the jazz and gospel traditions of this city. Not for the novelty of the idea but to help our worship of God. We will need to learn new hymns so we can acquire new metaphors and poems about the God we are seeking to serve on this earth. Our goal, to quote Jaroslav Pelikan, is tradition the living faith of the dead not traditionalism the dead faith of the living. There will be choices in hymns and music that you may not like but during those moments look around and find that person who is being lifted up because of that hymn. We are going to sing this church into a new creation and you are going to sing yourself into a new and deeper relationship with the Living God.
In December of 1981 during an anti-guerilla operation in El Mozote Salvadoran armed forces killed at least 200 and possibly up to 1000 people as part of the tragic El Salvador Civil War. 1993 a reporter for The New Yorker Mark Danner revisited the massacre and retold the story by interviewing both villagers and soldiers. One story in particular still haunted the soldiers. The majority of those killed that terrible day in December of 1981 were women and children who were primarily Evangelical Christians. One small girl survived the initial round of killing. The soldiers found her curled up singing, to their ears, the strange sound of evangelical hymns. They shot her, point blank, but she kept singing, they shot her again, point blank, but she kept singing. Then the soldiers unleashed their fear on her until she was died.
There is no way that the little girl knew she was reinterpreting a tragic scene in the formative years of Christianity when the martyrs were being killed in the Roman Empire. But she was doing just that. She was singing because it was the only comfort she could find, her only self-medication to drown out the death around her and her own forthcoming death. Her, an anonymous figure in history, changed the lives of the soldiers by singing for it forced them to see her/to hear her as a human being. It still brings fear into their hearts when they retell the story and still brings healing to the community when they retell the story.
I pray that none of us every have to be in her situation. But I do pray that our songs are songs that she sings too. I pray that our songs never over look her suffering and injustice. I pray that the songs we sing bring us into closer communion with her and with all who suffer and lament. I pray that our songs will expand our hearts, conscientize our souls and tenderize our wills. If we are going to sing ourselves and this church into a new existence may indeed God be glorified in our music. Amen and Amen.