Ennobling Our Spirits

Psalm 98: 1, 4, 8;  Ephesians 5:15-20 / May 3, 2015
Susan Boyer

I was a teenager in the seventies.  So, of course, one of my car radio buttons is set on a seventies channel.  Nothing like reliving the teenage years!  When I travel down the road I can belt out those songs from those formative years of my life.  You should hear me when the American Pie song comes on.  Do you remember that song?

American Pie was the longest song to hit the number one spot on the Billboard charts.  It is 8 ½ minutes long and I think I can remember most of those 8 ½ minutes.  When it comes on the radio I am transported to Hutchinson, Kansas and I’m cruising Main Street in my parents’ Volkswagen bug.  I can smell the heat of a summer in Kansas and I hear the laughter of my childhood friend, Marcia.

Music is so powerful.  It is amazing how it can swirl around you and take you back in time.  Last Sunday in worship we sang Jesus Loves Me and I Love to Tell the Story.  Someone told me after worship that she was transported back in time, sitting on a church pew next to her grandmother.  Music is so powerful.

We remember words that are set to music.  “Sunny day, sweepin’ the clouds away.”  Or “Give me a break, give me a break, break me off a piece of that Kit Kat bar.”  These words are spinning around in our brains just waiting for us to sing them.  Because without the music, we would never put those words together in a sentence.  Music is the glue that cements these words into our brains. Whenever I say the Lord’s Prayer I hear the music of Malotte underneath every phase.  It is how I learned the Lord’s Prayer as a child.  I sang it to myself.  It is why we teach our children to sing the alphabet.  Words set to music are more memorable.

The quote on your bulletin today is from Boethius, a sixth century philosopher: “Music is part of us, and either ennobles or degrades our behavior.”  Music is in us and it can build or destroy.  We have all used music to taunt someone.  When I was a kid my brother used a song to tease me.  It was the Randy Newman song My Old Kentucky Home sung by Three Dog Night.

Sister Sue, short and stout

She didn’t grow up she grew out

Mama thinks she’s pretty and she’s being kind

Papa thinks she’s lovely and he’s half blind

We don’t let her out much except at night

I don’t care ‘cause I’m all right.

Music…it is so powerful.  It is why all these years later I remember every word of a song used to tease me when I was a kid.  (Don’t worry.  I gave just as much as I got.)  Words set to music are memorable.

It is why the African American spirituals are so important.  Wade in the water, wade in the water children, was used as a way to remind escaping slaves to get off the trail and in to the water where the dogs couldn’t track them.  They sang those words to each other.  They sang them to remind themselves.  They were songs of hope and exodus from slavery.

When I was a child and I got bored in church, I sat and looked through the hymnal.  If ever you find yourself in a worship service where you can’t wait for it to be over, pull out your hymnal and read a hymn like Great Is Thy Faithfulness or Move in Our Midst or The Church of Christ in Every Age.  Hymns teach us the faith.  They draw us into the circle of community.  They help us to confess our sins.  They allow us to name our defiance to oppression.  They move us back out into the world so we can march for the Kingdom of God.  They help us escape our captivity.

In the letter to the Ephesians, the author says that we should make the most of our time in these evil days by meditating on psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making music to God in our hearts.  The writer is saying that we should sing songs as a response to the evil of our days.  Have you ever thought of singing in that framework?

Perhaps you have heard me tell the story from our denominational Annual Conference in Kansas several years ago when Fred Phelp’s hate group (they call a church) came to picket our meetings.  The youth of our denomination simply formed a large circle around the picketers and began to sing “Amazing Grace,” a song the youth learned sitting in a church pew.  The picketers couldn’t handle being surrounded by the music of grace and so they packed up their hateful signs and left.  Our youth used music as a response to evil.

Ever heard of Andres Contreras?  He is a Mexican troubadour, known as the Minstrel of the Roads who travels around his country singing in public squares.  He has been thrown in jail over 50 times for promoting terrorism but never formally charged.  His songs are filled with stories of injustices towards the citizens of Mexico.  His songs name names.  Contreras uses music as a response to the evil of his day.

Amandla!: A Revolution in Four Part Harmony is an award winning documentary film from 2002 that portrays the black South African fight against Apartheid using music as the voice of resistance.  We sing some of these freedom songs in our worship service and that makes perfect sense because many of these freedom songs weren’t birthed as protest songs in the street but as songs of resistance sung by church choirs in four-part harmony.  One of the people interviewed said, “The freedom songs evoked a kind of pride in me.  You could be standing next to a 60 year old woman singing Senzenina and there would be a bond, and immediate acknowledgment of commonality in what we were about.”  It was music that united a people against evil.

In Baltimore this week, chaos has erupted after Freddie Gray, an African American man, died of a spinal cord injury while under police custody.  People have been marching in the streets all week.  In one protest people moved down West North Avenue, singing, “Trust in the Lord. I’m going to stay on the battlefield.”  Bishop Walter Thomas, pastor of the New Psalmist Baptist church yelled, “We’re out here, and this is peaceful” while the marchers sang “This Little Light of Mine” in four part harmony.  In other cities around our nation this week people of all colors gathered to walk the streets singing, “We Shall Overcome.”   People united in song and purpose demanding truth.

Music is so much more than an artistic expression that we pay money to hear in concert halls.  It is more than the underlying hum in restaurants while we eat.  It is the sound of resistance.   It is the echo of truth.  It is the harmony of unity.  It is the melody of faith.

When I doubt my call I just have to come here and sing with you, “Here I am Lord.  I will go Lord, where you lead me.”  When I need to hear the Gospel again I want to sing with you, “Strong righteous man of Galilee, forgive the nails and take the cross.”  When I need to fight for lgbt justice I want to stand next to others as I sing, “We are not going away.  God blesses the children who stand up and say, ‘We are not going away.’”

On this Sunday as we celebrate the arts we celebrate the gift of beauty, of course.  But we also praise God for the way that music and poetry and visual arts can mold and impact our ethical behavior…the way they can ennoble our spirits… the way they call us to be the change we want to see in the world.

When we face evil we should sing, not because singing helps us escape into an illusion where everything is perfect but because singing gives us hope.  Singing drives the conversation.  Singing helps us remember who we are and who we are called to be. Singing ennobles our faith.  Singing calls us to action.  Singing is power.

May our lives flow on in endless song while to that rock we’re clinging.  Keep on singing, my friends.  Keep on singing.  Amen.