Sunday, March 29, 2015

Singing through Death

Psalm 31:9-16; Philippians 2:5-11


        Preaching can be a unique tool when in the hands of a well versed, charismatic individual.  But singing is the lifeblood of this congregation.        Most of you have forgotten the sermon before lunch, but when either choir sings, this sanctuary becomes a holy place. Words might impart wisdom but songs evoke sacred memories.

        I couldn’t have been more than seven when I first remember my father singing, “It’s quarter of three. There’s no one in the place except you and me. So set ’em up Joe, I got a little story you ought to know.  Give me one for my baby and one more for the road.” My father doesn’t drink, my father didn’t hang out in bars and my father has been faithfully married to my mother for over 65 years. What my father has is an occasional angst that is only soothed by hearing the blues. I guess he figured while he couldn’t change my genetic blueprint, he could place within my deepest memory a melody to appease the pain.

        Certain songs allow the incomprehensible to be considered. In this season of the holy and the unimaginable, nothing I can say from the pulpit will be adequate. How can murder be justified? How is resurrection possible? The questions are too difficult. That’s why we sing. Songs inspire us. Songs take us where the spoken word can only suggest. Above all else, songs give congregations the courage to lift their voices together and make a joyful noise.

Arlo Guthrie, in his 18 minute tribute to a restaurants and littering, claims if one person sings a song nobody cares. If two people sing, folks think their crazy. If three people join in it’s downright scandalous. But if 50 people sing in four part harmony, it becomes a movement.

        Jesus told stories, Jesus preached sermons, Jesus gave inspirational talks, and even did a few tricks on the side but his disciples weren’t ready to go to Jerusalem until they learned a simple little tune. “Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

        That ragtag boy band was weirder than anything that ever emerged from Guthrie’s fertile mind. Think about it. Twelve guys, no sopranos, just a bunch of basses and John, who of course sang tenor. It was a group of fishermen and farmers, a tax collector and a rebel. For three years most of them never said anything. Then all of the sudden they were screaming from the top of their lungs, “Hosanna.” They grabbed anyone and everyone they met along the road and said, “Come on, you can sing with us. Hosanna, blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” Arlo was right. When Jesus sang by himself, nobody that mattered gave him the time of day. But when fifty, then a hundred, then a thousand joined in, they became a movement.

 Their rebellious tune agitated Chief Priest Caiaphas. The people were definitely not singing his song. Caiaphas gathered some other leaders and plotted the demise of the one who challenged their authority. That’s when Jesus broke up the band and went solo. But his song of hope had already been etched in the memory banks of his disciples.

Unfortunately, it was more than a week before those memories kicked back into gear. In Psalm 137, the psalmist is asked to sing one of the songs of Zion. He responds, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” The moment Jesus dismounted from his colt, he entered a land void of song. In the coming days he would be betrayed, rejected, denied, reviled and deserted. Not one single disciple stood up for him. No convert attempted to plead his case. Jesus was alone, in a foreign land.

Perhaps Holy Week is best understood through the voice of someone who has been whipped and dehumanized. Perhaps Holy Week is best visualized by someone who has witnessed the execution of one who is innocent. Perhaps Holy Week is best sung by the voice of an American slave.

Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen.

They crucified my Lord, and he never said a mumbl’n word.

Jesus walked this lonesome valley.


        Holy Week can be absurd to someone who has never suffered. Holy Week is offensive to the logical mind. Rational folks question the very meaning of Holy Week. Skeptics claim we have celebrated the Good Friday and Easter story for so long we seldom give it a second thought. Is it logical to sacrifice a son? Is it realistic to believe the sins of humanity can be placed on the shoulders of one man? The world has witnessed the martyrdom of many innocent people. But who else has been brazen enough to suggest Godly significance be associated with their death?

Leave it to the Apostle Paul to make such a radical leap from common sense. All of Paul’s letters were composed before the Gospels were written.  Matthew, Mark, Luke and John were developed in the shadow of Paul’s Christology. In the book of Romans, Paul composed a treatise which still informs our understanding of Jesus as both Son of God and Son of Man. For centuries, commentary after commentary has wrestled with the complexities of this intricate examination of the one we call Lord. But when writing his letter to the church in Philippi, Paul borrowed a beautiful love song from the hymnbook of the early church. Each Sabbath, folks would gather. At the appropriate time the worshipers would sing these words to describe their savior. “Christ emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. Christ humbled himself, becoming obedient to death. God exalted him that at the name Jesus ever knee should bow.”

Early Christians understood slavery because the majority of the members of the early church were either women or slaves or in many cases, both. Early Christians understood humility. They spent a good portion of their lives trying not to be noticed. They sang this song fervently because they could identify with the humble slave named Jesus. They sang this song religiously because they longed to be exalted by the saving grace of God.

We don’t live in the first century. How is it possible to understand Holy Week today? How can one even become engaged in an objective discussion concerning the cross and the tomb? You can’t rationalize Good Friday or Easter. They must be experienced. They must be sung.   

What song will occupy your waking days this week? Better yet, what tune will disrupt your sleep? 

Perhaps you will hum O Sacred Head Now Wounded although the incredible harmony by Bach can distract one from the mystifying text composed by Bernard of Clairvaux.  

Many of us will quietly sing When I survey the Wondrous Cross, based on Paul’s words, “May I never boast on anything except the cross of Jesus.”

There are so many songs which connect us with experiences which continue to define our faith during this holiest of weeks. I still recall sitting in church as a teenager and being captivated by a powerful recording of James Weldon Johnson’s poem, The Crucifixion.  But it was always the mournful singing of Were You There that broke my heart.  

Singing reminds us that the light of God shines forth regardless how deep our soul might plummet.  We need to sing because the crucifixion is a baffling, almost embarrassing event. How do you explain the centerpiece of our faith hanging between two thieves? Who in their right mind would believe such a story?

A man, claiming to be the Son of God, died like any son of any mother or father…………And all we did was watch.

A man, willing to submit to the unknown, stepped into darkness without any guarantees………And we still watched.

Then that man trusted his God so much, he invited us to follow him not only TO death but THROUGH death.

That’s when we got the band back together and sang, “Hosanna, blessed is he who CAME in the name of the Lord.”  

To God be the Glory.     Amen.


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