Songs of Resistance: When Singing Writes History


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Social movements are always accompanied by song. The church is the living, singing conscience, expressing God’s love for justice. This Sunday, we sang songs that continue to write history, and renewed our souls for God’s work in the world.

Full Service Video

This Week’s Sermon Was Drawn From the Following Scripture

Exodus 1:8 – 2:10

Now a new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Joseph. He said to his people, “Look, the Israelite people are more numerous and more powerful than we. Come, let us deal shrewdly with them, or they will increase and, in the event of war, join our enemies and fight against us and escape from the land.” Therefore they set taskmasters over them to oppress them with forced labor. They built supply cities, Pithom and Rameses, for Pharaoh. But the more they were oppressed, the more they multiplied and spread, so that the Egyptians came to dread the Israelites. The Egyptians became ruthless in imposing tasks on the Israelites, and made their lives bitter with hard service in mortar and brick and in every kind of field labor. They were ruthless in all the tasks that they imposed on them.

The king of Egypt said to the Hebrew midwives, one of whom was named Shiphrah and the other Puah, “When you act as midwives to the Hebrew women, and see them on the birthstool, if it is a boy, kill him; but if it is a girl, she shall live.” But the midwives feared God; they did not do as the king of Egypt commanded them, but they let the boys live. So the king of Egypt summoned the midwives and said to them, “Why have you done this, and allowed the boys to live?” The midwives said to Pharaoh, “Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women; for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife comes to them.” So God dealt well with the midwives; and the people multiplied and became very strong. And because the midwives feared God, he gave them families. Then Pharaoh commanded all his people, “Every boy that is born to the Hebrews you shall throw into the Nile, but you shall let every girl live.”

Now a man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son; and when she saw that he was a fine baby, she hid him three months. When she could hide him no longer she got a papyrus basket for him, and plastered it with bitumen and pitch; she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds on the bank of the river. His sister stood at a distance, to see what would happen to him.

The daughter of Pharaoh came down to bathe at the river, while her attendants walked beside the river. She saw the basket among the reeds and sent her maid to bring it. When she opened it, she saw the child. He was crying, and she took pity on him, “This must be one of the Hebrews’ children,” she said. Then his sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter, “Shall I go and get you a nurse from the Hebrew women to nurse the child for you?” Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Yes.” So the girl went and called the child’s mother. Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, “Take this child and nurse it for me, and I will give you your wages.” So the woman took the child and nursed it. When the child grew up, she brought him to Pharaoh’s daughter, and she took him as her son. She named him Moses, “because,” she said, “I drew him out of the water.”

 

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Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty[1]

My music history professor, Dr. DeWitt, liked the hymn tune we sang[2] at the beginning of worship today. He told our class the tune Lobe den Herren[3] was probably a medieval drinking song. Now, I went to a Southern Baptist undergraduate school. One of my Baptist classmates gasped, “A hymn that’s also a drinking song—why?” Without missing a beat Dr. DeWitt replied,“To annoy the Pope!”[4] Now, please know that Pete DeWitt is a fine organist and an Episcopalian.

Sacred music has always been intertwined with relevant secular issues of the day: power, power over, subjugation, health care, human rights, liberation, resistance. This sermon is about going deeper into a few hymns that were born out of real human struggles and seeing if there is any relevance in them for today. We need to sing. San Francisco needs to sing. We have just had a trying week. Hymns are lifeless writings until they are sung communally, until we breathe life into them together.

By you Word, O God, your creation sprang forth[5]
and we were given the breath of life.
The birds awaken us in the morning with their singing,
and your earth lulls us to sleep at night with sounds of praise.
Even as your creation worships you with music
So we come before you today with music we make for you.
We give you thanks for poets, saints and musicians
Who have set our faith to song through the ages.
We pray that in our hearing of his story from scripture,
And in our singing you will hear our love for you,
Our ears will be opened to listen for your voice,
and our hearts will be tuned to obey your will. Amen.

Hymn 1: When Israel Was in Egypt’s Land (Go Down, Moses!)[6]

As Kathy and Nancy read from Exodus, resistance requires some unlikely people—in this case, midwives. It’s s nuanced story that resonates with the mess we’re in today. Midwives sheltered the very baby who would rise to defeat the Egyptian army, but isn’t that what always happens? Those who are dominated, those who are intimidated and enslaved, those who have been berated, separated and threatened into submission, we always find one another, and then we rise.[7]

The basis of Christian theology is illustrated today, clearly: God stands on the side of the oppressed. God’s power finds the powerless. God’s word liberates, and just as soon as the stories from the Exodus were taught to the American slaves of African descent who, by the way, outnumbered the settlers in the early days of this country—by the time they were converted into Christianity, they had learned the story of Moses, and taught this sometimes-gory story of the Exodus—through song.

 Hymn 2: I Greet Thee, Who My Sure Redeemer Art[8]

Now, Dr DeWitt, my music history professor, made his point very well; the Protestant Reformation was aimed at protesting the Pope—resisting the medieval Catholic Church’s idea that we could actually buy our way into God’s favor. If you paid the priest his asking price, your sins were forgiven. That’s not how any of this works. Can you imagine where the Catholic Church would be without the Protestant Reformation?

Five hundred years ago this October Martin Luther walked up to the front door of the Wittenberg castle church and nailed up his 95 grievances against the Pope. He never intended to start his own church. He did not call a press conference. Luther loved the Catholic church enough to want the church to get it together, but that’s not what happened. Instead, he was excommunicated.[9]

I have said this before, and if you didn’t hear me, here I go again:  Rev. John Weems nailing up a Black Lives Matter and rainbow flag to the front of this church was one of the most faithful acts of Reformed ministry I have ever witnessed. May the world-changing spirit of our Reformed tradition inhabit all of us as fully.

Now, the Presbyterian portion of the Reformation came a generation after Luther, when John Calvin built on the resistance of the Reformation, giving rise to what would eventually become the Presbyterian Church. John Calvin’s methods were a little less worked-up than Luther’s—full of elegant reason and dense rhetoric, although just as provocative as Luther.  Calvin practiced praying over[10] each hour of the day, reviewing his day in private, asking where was God in my experience of living from hour to hour, breath to breath? Small wonder this hymn sprang up from his devotion. Let’s sing together this love song to Jesus Christ.[11]

Hymn 3: By Gracious Powers[12]

In this hymn, resistance comes to the twentieth century. Born in 1906, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German theologian and preacher, was killed by the Nazis at Flossenberg prison in 1945 just days before the end of World War II. Bonhoeffer’s crime: complicity in a failed plot to murder Hitler, extreme resistance.  As a seminary professor, Bonhoeffer was deeply committed to the belief that, in the church the Word of God is revealed in the lives of the believers gathered. Your life is a walking sacred text. On the last Sunday of his life, he preached a sermon at the insistence of his fellow prisoners. The next day, he was hanged by the Gestapo.[13]

When Bonhoeffer visited New York, he was, reportedly, aghast at the self-centeredness of theology in this country. He found Jesus in the black church in Harlem.

In his book, Bonheoffer’s Black Jesus, McCormick Seminary theologian Reggie Williams writes:

Seeing society from the hidden perspective of Harlem helped Bonhoeffer to recognize white supremacy in Germany and to see it as a Christian problem that might demand Christian political action. … Because he was exposed to American racism from the perspective of Christians who were subjected to it, Bonhoeffer was equipped with prophetic insight that his white German colleagues in the church and the academy did not have.[14]

This hymn comes from a New Year’s letter written in Bonhoeffer’s final year. It was smuggled out of prison and how blessed we are that it lives on in our hymnal.

Calvary deacon Georg Gottschalk says that, as a teenager in Germany, he was required to memorize this hymn for confirmation class. I told him we were singing it today, and he wrote back that tears still fill his eyes as he reads it. The martyrdom of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man of conviction who, after Harlem, asked one compelling question over and over: do you love Jesus?[15]

Hymn 4: “Lift Every Voice and Sing”[16]

Friday night, over twelve-hundred people gathered at Congregation Emanu-El[17] for an interfaith shabbat service. Yes, it felt odd that before a worship service I was emptying my pockets, walking through a metal detector and having my shopping bag from Ace Hardware searched. But that’s where we are.

This week, our city government and the SFPD did a heroic job of responding to the Patriot Prayer group, who are part of the same nationalist movement that rallied in Charlottesville. To be clear, the KKK and the neo-Nazis are also nationalists. Yesterday, after wasting who-knows-how-many dollars in city funds, they did what mean and crazy bullies usually do: played the victim. They said the press did not covering them fairly. Please note that they said this at their private press conference in Pacifica. As Pastor John Weems told us last week, a dying mule kicks the hardest!

Friends, we can love our country and love God at the same time. We can say Black Lives Matter and support the SFPD at the same time. We can welcome transgender people as full citizens of the household of faith, and welcome people who don’t even know what we mean when we say that. So, we sing James Weldon Johnson’s song, Lift Every Voice, as a response to the hatefulness of white nationalism. We sing it also because it our duty as Christians and as inheritors of God’s liberating love: to stand up and love Jesus with everything we’ve got, to the point of danger if we must—and to never give up.

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou Who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou Who hast by Thy might, led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee.
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee.
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.[18]

Amen, amen, it shall be so.

 

[1] Hear this hymn at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QhQi4yWTUBY> Lyrics in the description.

[2] Praise Ye the Lord the Almighty

[3] Praise to the Lord the Almighty, Wikipedia, accessed online at <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Praise_to_the_Lord,_the_Almighty> (August 9, 2017)

[4] He actually said “to piss of the Pope”

[5] Rev. Agnes Norfleet, 1998., altered.

[6] Louis Armstrong singing “Go Down Moses” <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JNCS27rtQ8>

[7] Since LGBTQ people were denied voice for many years, my current ministry has been made possible by the faithful liberators and activists within the PC(USA) who advocated for LGBTQ inclusion. More info at <https://mlp.org/our-story/> and <http://tamfs.org/about/>.

[8] Hear “I Greet Thee Who My Sure Redeemer Art” at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-14q2ufiiHo>

[9] Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther in 1521: <http://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/martin-luther-excommunicated>

[10] Borrowed from the Igantians (Catholic), John Calvin’s Prayer of Examen is explored at <http://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-examen/how-can-i-pray>

[11] Originally called “Salutation a Jesus-Christ”

[12] A version (there are many): <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YoZ_IPXc_uA>

[13] Sermon, Rev. Agnes Norfleet, North Decatur Presbyterian Church (USA), 1998.

[14] Alan Bean, “The African-American roots of Bonhoeffer’s Christianity” Baptist News Global, October 15, 2015, accessed online at <https://baptistnews.com/article/the-african-american-roots-of-bonhoeffers-christianity/#.WaLAR63Mwy4> (August 20, 2017)

[15] Ibid.

[16] Hear “Lift Every Voice” at <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ya7Bn7kPkLo>

[17] Congregation Emanu-El <https://www.emanuelsf.org> & the SF Interfaith Council <http://www.sfinterfaithcouncil.org> hosted this event. I represented Calvary, along with some our members, at this service of prayer.

[18] The third verse.

 

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