“Sing”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

December 11, 2016 — The Third Sunday of Advent

Luke 1:39-56

 

It was, in many ways, a bleak scene.  A hospital room in the Neuro ICU at Mass General—a place you only go when the situation is really dire.  A place where miracles are sometimes worked—but not this time.  Harry, my friend and former colleague, had been stricken suddenly by a brain aneurysm, and by the time he was brought to the hospital, there was nothing to be done.  Within a short time, the test results had made it clear that there was no possibility of recovery, no chance that he would ever again play the organ or conduct the choir or enjoy a good meal or laugh with his friends.  And so, his family had made the decision to remove life support and allow Harry to pass peacefully from this world into God’s embrace.

It was, in many ways, a bleak scene.  But while the tests were being run, and while the decisions were being made, and while nature was taking its course, Harry’s friends and family gathered, and they sang.  In the face of despair, they turned to community and they turned to music.  They sang the hymns of our faith, the ones Harry loved to accompany.  They sang the gospel music of his Tennessee upbringing.  They sang the jazz standards and the show tunes he had played during his years in New York.  They sang through tears and with choked-up throats—sang alleluias of praise in spite of their grief, sang songs of joy in spite of their sorrow, sang their hearts out, sang him home.  And their music brought humanity into that world of beeping machines, color into that world of white coats and fluorescent lights, beauty into the devastation of sudden loss and untimely death.  It was, in many ways, a bleak scene, but their music made it otherwise.

 

It was, in many ways, a bleak scene.  Under Soviet rule, the city of Leipzig in East Germany was a place where speech and action and travel and human rights were extremely limited.  Those who sought greater democratic freedoms were quickly quashed, and it felt like there was no possibility of change, no chance that the citizens would ever again enjoy the ability to say what they wished, to go where they pleased, to elect their own leaders, to live without constant fear of running afoul of the secret police.  The Soviets had been in power for decades, and there was little cause to hope that things might ever be different.

It was, in many ways, a bleak scene.  But every week, on Monday night, people gathered in Saint Nicholas Church, the church where Bach had composed so many of his great works, to pray for peace and to sing of their faith.  Week by week, they gathered—first a few, then a hundred, then a thousand, then tens and hundreds of thousands.  In the face of despair, they turned to community and they turned to music.  They sang of faith in spite of their fear.  They sang of freedom in spite of repression.  And their music brought strength to people who felt powerless, and before long, so many people were singing that things could not help but change.  It was, in many ways, a bleak scene, but their music made it otherwise.

 

It was, in many ways, a bleak scene.  A young, unmarried woman was pregnant in mysterious circumstances.  She feared dishonor, disowning, or worse.  She had very few resources at her disposal—she was poor, a member of an ethnic and religious minority, a woman in a world that treated women as property.  Given her “situation,” there seemed to be little hope for her future or the future of her child, for women who bore children out of wedlock often ended up in utter destitution.

It was, in many ways, a bleak scene.  But when Mary did not know where to go, she headed for the home of her relative Elizabeth, someone who might understand.  In the face of despair, she turned to community, and she turned to music.  She sang a song that echoed the voices of her ancestors in faith, Miriam and Hannah, whose songs in the midst of previous perilous times were recorded in the Hebrew scriptures that Mary would have heard at Temple worship.  She sang to connect herself to those strong women who had gone before her.  She sang to glorify God, to rejoice in God’s saving work, to celebrate the great things God was doing in and through her life, in spite of the way it looked to the eyes of the world.  She sang of God’s promises—mercy and justice, equality for all human beings, restoration for all creation.  It was, in many ways, a bleak scene, but her music made it otherwise.

 

Mary sang, the people in Leipzig sang, the people at Harry’s bedside sang, because singing somehow makes real the promises that can otherwise feel tenuous and fleeting.  They sang because singing brings us into quite literal harmony with other voices, and the company of those other voices makes our own voices stronger.  They sang because in order to sing, you have to breathe, and when you breathe, the Holy Spirit enters in and works her magic within you.  They sang because the creation of music, of art, of beauty, is an act of courage and resistance to all that would take away our hope.  They sang because even the bleakest of scenes cannot rob us of our joy, or of our song.

So, on this third Sunday of Advent, “Gaudete Sunday,” the “Sunday of Joy,” I wonder—where are the places in your life where joy feels tenuous and fleeting?  In these darkest weeks of the year, where are the places in your life where the shadows are so thick that it’s hard to see any light at all?  Where are the places in your life where despair threatens to engulf you?  And what song will you sing in those dark and desolate corners?  What song will we sing together to make real for one another the radiant shining of the Light of the World?  What song will God sing in us to give us the strength and the courage to carry on?

 

Mary sang, the people in Leipzig sang, the people at Harry’s bedside sang, because singing is an age-old way to strengthen weak hearts and make firm feeble knees.  In the face of despair, they turned to community and they turned to music, because in our relationships with one another and in the harmony (both literal and metaphorical) we make there, we encounter the very presence of God.

Mary sang, the people in Leipzig sang, the people at Harry’s bedside sang, we sing, because song can encompass the pain and the beauty of loss and love, the vulnerability and the transcendence of human life, the reality of what is and the promise of what will be.  When we sing, we catch a glimpse, a taste, a whiff, an echo of the world as God intends it to be, the world that is even now breaking into our lives, the world whose way we prepare in this Advent season.  When we sing, we live for a time in the world that is coming, ready or not—the world where lion and lamb lie down together, where all is reconciled, where hurt and destruction are no more, where swords are beaten into ploughshares, where justice and peace join hands, where all manner of things is well.

So sing, music-makers and justice-seekers.  Sing, you with perfect pitch and you who can’t carry a tune in a bucket.  Sing with Mary.  Sing for your lives.  Sing for the life of the world.  When things feel bleaker than bleak can be, turn to community and turn to music.

And know this:  that when you sing, you become a part of the great song of creation that began way back on the very first day, when God sang the world into being, and whose refrain will continue to rise until fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains, repeat the sounding joy—until heaven and nature and all of us sing.

 


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