“How Can I Keep from Singing?”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

November 2, 2014 – All Saints Sunday

Scripture:  Acts 16:20-34

 

It was the end of the day on Valentine’s Day, several years ago. I had just finished up with a youth group gathering at the church outside of Boston where I was serving then, and I was back in my office getting ready to head home when my phone rang. It was my mom.

Just from the way she said hello, I knew something was wrong. “Jocelyn,” she said, “Grandma Ruth had a stroke today. I’m with her in the hospital.”

I sat down in my chair and took a breath. “How bad is it, Mom?”

“We don’t know yet. But so far, it’s not too good.”

After we hung up, I must have packed up my things, and shut down my computer, and turned off the lights, and closed the door, though I don’t remember doing any of those things. What I do remember is being in the car, driving down Route 128 in the dark, with my eyes brimming and my throat constricted, trying not to cry so I could stay on the road.

And then, out of nowhere, a song came to my mind and to my lips. It was Bobby McFerrin’s setting of the 23rd Psalm—the one our choir sang here last spring, the one that goes like this:

 

The Lord is my shepherd, I have all I need.

She makes me lie down in green meadows.

Beside the still waters she will lead…

 

I sang that song to myself over and over as I drove down the highway. Sometimes I mixed up the stanzas. Sometimes my voice cracked, or I had to stop in the middle of a line. But in the music, somehow the presence of Jesus came into that moment. Somehow God’s very heart came into that old Toyota and freed me from the boa constrictor of fear that had wrapped itself around my chest. And although I was still afraid, still worried, still sad, I was no longer captive to it, because I was filled up by the tenderness of the One who turns toward, not away from, suffering—the One whose heart is always the first one to break.

 

Over the next few days, we learned how bad it was for my grandmother. She was weakened on one side to the point where walking was impossible, so she was confined to a wheelchair or to her bed. But much worse than the physical effects were the neurological ones. She lost the ability to talk, to express herself in anything more than moans. It was hard to tell, since she couldn’t use her words, but we think she could still understand us; she had enough cognition left to know what she had lost.

For months, she lived like that, trapped in a body that was tenaciously, persistently alive. We would sit and talk with her; we would hold her hand; we would read to her from books she used to enjoy. But by far the best thing we did for her, especially as the end finally, mercifully, came, was sing. We would take out her hymnal and sing:

 

For the beauty of the earth, for the splendor of the skies…

 

And:

 

Be thou my vision, O God of my heart…

 

And:

 

Abide with me, fast falls the eventide…

 

And:

 

My life flows on in endless song, above earth’s lamentation…

 

Sometimes we mixed up the stanzas. Sometimes our voices cracked, or we had to stop in the middle of a line. But in the music, somehow the presence of Jesus came into that moment. Somehow God’s very heart came into that nursing home room and freed her, freed us, from the heavy shroud of fear that pressed down upon us. And although she was still suffering, although we were still heartbroken, we were no longer captive to it, because we were surrounded by the strength of the One whose body was broken, but whose spirit could not be tamed—the One whom even death could not contain.

 

I think it must have been like that for Paul and Silas, centuries ago and worlds away. They had been beaten and thrown into prison, not for the first time. They were put, the story tells us, in the innermost cell—where, presumably, the darkness was deepest and escape was furthest away. They were trapped, shackled, surely afraid. And then, out of nowhere, a song came to their minds and to their lips. They sang a hymn and found themselves liberated.

They might have mixed up the stanzas; their voices might have cracked. But in the music, somehow the presence of Jesus came into that moment. Somehow God’s very heart came into that jail cell and freed them from the chains that bound them. And although they were still in danger, still fearful, still under the thumb of the powers that be, they were no longer captive to it, because they were strengthened by the courage of the One who faced down the worst that this world could do, and turned it into love.

 

This is part of why we sing hymns in church—so that they will get into our bones, into our ears, into our souls—so that they will find their way to our minds and to our lips when we need them most.

So that when we feel alone, we will find ourselves singing, Precious Lord, take my hand, lead me on, help me stand…

So that when we feel abandoned, we will find ourselves singing, Great is thy faithfulness, O God, Creator…

So that when we feel uninspired, we will find ourselves singing, Spirit of the Living God, fall afresh on me…

So that when we feel afraid, we will find ourselves singing, Joyful, joyful, we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love…

And in the music, somehow the presence of Jesus will come into that moment. Somehow God’s very heart will come into that dark place, into that sticky spot. And although we may still be in the midst of struggle, we will no longer be captive to it, because we will be upheld by the mercy of the One who endured the desertion at Gethsemane, the loneliness of the cross, and somehow still poured forth forgiveness and light and life.

 

Here’s the thing about the presence of Jesus. Here’s the thing about the very heart of God. Christ is not a private commodity. God’s heart is not something we can keep to ourselves. Did you notice in our reading that when Paul and Silas sang, it wasn’t only the two of them who were freed from prison by the power of their song, but everyone around them, too? Like those two apostles, when we sing of God’s faithfulness, God’s justice, God’s love, we bring courage and freedom and hope not only to ourselves, but to those around us, too. When the presence of Jesus comes into that moment, when God’s very heart comes into our midst, Christ brings new life not only to us, but to our households, to our communities, to our world.

And here’s another thing about the presence of Jesus. Here’s another thing about the very heart of God. Christ is not bound by the laws of time and space. God’s heart can be in many places at once, in all times at the same time. And so, when we sing, we do not sing alone. We sing in the strong company of our foremothers and forefathers, our sisters and brothers in faith, who have sung these songs before us. We sing in the strong company of the church in every time and every place. We sing in the strong company of all the saints—the dead, and the living, and those yet to come—the entire company of faithful people everywhere.

Especially today, especially on this All Saints Sunday, we sing in the strong company of the great cloud of witnesses. We sing with Paul and Silas in that jail cell. We sing with Moses and Miriam on the bank of the Red Sea, celebrating their escape from slavery into freedom. We sing with King David, who danced before the Lord. We sing with the Psalmist, who sang so many songs that speak the truths of our hearts. We sing with Mary, mother of Jesus, who sang a revolutionary love song to her baby boy. We sing with the early churches, gathered in kitchens and living rooms to break bread and praise God together.

And not only them. We sing with John Wesley, who wrote so many of the songs in our hymnal. We sing with Martin Luther King and his colleagues, who sang of freedom as they faced down dogs and nightsticks and fire hoses. We sing with my Grandma Ruth, playing her piano with those old, arthritic fingers. We sing with your loved ones who have gone before, who rejoice with us now from upon a farther shore and in a greater light.

We sing with the whole cloud of witnesses, with the whole communion of saints, as we proclaim these gospel truths: that our lives and our deaths are precious to God; that we are connected in ways deeper than we can possibly know; that we are bound to one another and to God by a love that is stronger than fear, stronger than hate, stronger even than death itself.

And as we sing, somehow, in the music, the presence of Jesus comes into that moment. Somehow God’s very heart comes into the world and sets us all free. Somehow we are swept up in the breath-taking, life-changing harmony of the love of God—the love without which we cannot survive; the love with which all things are possible.