Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:8-13
(Begin the service by playing song by Odetta)
I am an unrepentant lover of folk music. My dad was a big fan of The Kingston Trio. I became a bigger fan of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and Doc Watson. Today my taste ranges from Terry Allen to Townes Van Zandt. Folk music is based on real human stories. When you listen to folk music it is OK to have a little dirt under your finger nails. Folk music portrays the dreams and occasional nightmares of the human experience. Perhaps it is all rolled up in how you might interpret the line, “I’ve been chasing grace and grace ain’t so easily found”.
The beauty of folk music is that the search for grace continues even when the journey seems to have come to a dead-end. Folk music is based on hope. It is based on the possibility that one day righteousness and peace will kiss. It is based on the dream that one day our valleys will be lifted up and our roads made straight.
This week marks the 6th anniversary of the death of Odetta. I suspect many of you have never heard of her. Maya Angelou once said, “If only one could be sure that every 50 years a voice and soul like Odetta’s would come along, the centuries would pass so quickly and painlessly we would hardly recognize time.” At the age of 5 Odetta’s family moved from
Birmingham to .
At 7 she was singing in her church choir. By 15 she was being trained to
sing opera. As you might image in 1945 there was not much demand for
Afro-American opera singers. She moved to Los Angeles , found her way into the folk scene
and was “discovered” by Harry Belafonte.
By 1963 she was singing for Dr. King in the churches of New York and before
thousands at Carnegie Hall. Rosa Parks
was once asked, “What is your favorite song”?
Her response was, “Anything sung by Odetta.” Alabama
Her voice was a remarkable instrument, complete with both soft-spun timbres and a powerful cutting edge. For some her voice may not be as sweet as one would like, but the more you listen to Odetta, the more you are transformed by the way she phrased the words she was singing.
I once heard Odetta sing “Every Valley”, a spiritual based on the 40th chapter of Isaiah. I will never again be able to listen or sing that song without having her powerful voice fill my mind and soul. She understood the incredible possibilities that erupt when valleys are exalted and mountains made low. She sang as one transformed by the joy and relief that one feels when God touches our hand and tenderly says, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people. Your imprisonment is over; you are free to live in the glory of the Lord.”
It was Odetta, and people like her that helped me understand that much of the writings of Isaiah and many of the Psalms are folk music. They were written to deal specifically with the pains and joys of human life. Passages like Isaiah 40 and Psalm 85 are truly the music of the people. They tell a story within the context of one’s life, a story passed from generation to generation, giving hope to people who claim the words as their own. You don’t have to know anything about the Babylonian Captivity to receive inspiration from the phrase, “Comfort ye, Comfort ye, my people.” Likewise, it is not necessary to know anything about the person who wrote the 85th Psalm to be captured by the promise, “Steadfast love and fidelity will meet. Righteousness and peace will kiss each other and faithfulness will spring up from the ground.”
All of us can remember the anger and confusion that broke our hearts on the morning of September 11, 2001. Voices calling for vengeance and songs by folks like Toby Keith urged us to arms. But it was the folk singers who remained the voice of courage and hope. Just weeks after his city had been devastated one such voice wrote these words,
There’s a blood red circle on the cold dark ground,
And the rain is falling down.
The church door’s thrown open,
I can hear the organs song but the congregation’s gone.
My city of ruin. My city of ruin.
Sweet bells of mercy drift through every tree,
Young men stand scattered like leaves.
The boarded up windows front the empty streets,
All my brothers down on their knees.
My city of ruin. My city of ruin.
Come on rise up, come on rise up.
With these hands, I pray for strength Lord;
With these hands, I pray for faith Lord;
With these hands, I pray for your love Lord.
My city of ruin, rise up,
Come on, rise up. (Springsteen)
The Psalmist of any generation, these people who sing “folk songs”, live in the season of advent. They are very much aware of what is happening in the moment and yet they somehow are able to glimpse into tomorrow and find hope. For myself, Advent is not complete without the voices of an Odetta or Springsteen. Each of us has that voice, that poet, that singer, that lifts our hearts even if our city is in ruins. In this season of Advent, I encourage you to take the time to recall those voices. Allow them to remind you that in the darkest moments, God comforts us. Allow those voices to take you back to a time when you had given up hope, but hope had not given up on you. Allow them to comfort your soul with visions of the deepest valleys being lifted up and the highest mountains no longer remaining an obstacle.
In those memories lies the vision of Advent.
For in the darkness there will be a great light.
One day the wolf and the lamb will lie down together.
One day a child shall lead us,
And his name will be called Emanuel.
On that day God will be with us,
On that day God will heal our broken hearts,
On that day God will sooth our raging spirits,
On that day God will touch our wounded soul.
But until that day,
Keep singing about a hammer of justice,
Keep singing about cities rising out of ruins,
Keep singing, “Comfort ye, Comfort ye”;
Keep singing that folk music,
That Godly music,
To people in a barren land.