Sunday, December 20, 2015
The Story Behind the Song
Scripture Lessons: Micah 5: 2-5a and Luke 1: 39-45 Sermon Title: The Story Behind the Song I was having lunch with a couple members of our church this week. The three of us were talking about a new mission of our church – a mission structured by our own Robin Watson and the Housing Coalition of South Central Tennessee. Part of this organization’s mission, the part that our church has been getting involved in, has to do with renovating existing houses owned by elderly members of our community who have trouble doing the work themselves or paying someone else to do it. So far, thanks to Robin, Jackie Lawson, James Marshall, and several others, our church has been involved in improving three houses, and to raise some money for a few more, Robin suggested a fund raiser, where you can select your least favorite hymn from our hymnal, and for $100 you can ensure that it will not be sung again for a full year. I don’t worry whether or not this campaign will be successful, judging from some of your opinions of my hymn choices, I worry that this campaign might be too successful. And if we were to start the campaign during Advent, we could probably fund renovations for half the houses in the city. I know that you don’t love all the hymns we sing during this season of Advent especially, but remember, there’s more to a song than whether or not you like the tune. There’s even more to a song than the words, because sometimes it’s the story behind the song that makes the hymn worth singing. Sometimes it’s the circumstance that caused the writer to write. The hardship that inspired the poet to put his feelings to paper. Sometimes that’s what makes the hymn valuable and worthy of inclusion in the worship service. That’s the case with many of these hymns we sing during Advent, and it’s most obviously true one of the most popular hymns for Christian worship – Amazing Grace. You know the song. It’s been sung by everyone from Elvis Pressley to President Barak Obama who sang it himself during the memorial service for Reverend Clementa Pinckney who was shot in Charleston, South Carolina. This song is embraced by white and black. It’s been a tool for racial reconciliation. But did you know that it was written by a slave trader? The details are foggy and the story is probably much more legend than fact, but the story behind the song only adds to its strength, and the details generally agreed upon are that “by 1745, [John] Newton was enlisted in the slave trade, running captured slaves from Africa to, ironically, Charleston, S.C. After he rode out a storm at sea in 1748, he found his faith. He was ordained an Anglican priest in 1764 and became an important voice in the English abolitionist movement. [And] at that time he wrote the autobiographical Amazing Grace.” Now knowing that Amazing Grace is autobiragraphical brings strength to the words – because the blind man who now sees is a living, breathing man. The wretch who’s been saved – you now know in what way he was a wretch and you know who it is that saved him. The lost one who’s been found – he’s no different from you. He’s no different from me. Knowing the story behind the song gives the words some new strength, and that’s the case with all kinds of music. Behind so many Taylor Swifts songs is the memory of a breakup. You know that the force behind Aretha Franklin’s voice when she demands some R-E-S-P-E-C-T – all that passion comes from her true desire for equality, dignity, respect – in a society of segregation and discrimination. The songs that we sing this time of year are the same in that many of them, all of them surely, have a story behind the song. If you picked up one of the Advent Devotionals provided by the Christian Education Committee, the one titled, Hark the Glad Sound, that gives a daily reading along with a familiar hymn, then you may already know that William Dix who wrote, What Child Is This? was a manager for an insurance company, and in 1865 he asked the same question of Joseph and Mary that he asked himself when he held his newborn children – “What child is this, who, laid to rest, On Mary’s lap is sleeping?” That’s the same question that every father and mother ask – who is this little miracle that’s just been handed to us? I remember all too well the night our oldest daughter was born. The nurse brought her into our hospital room, handed her to us, and then turned to leave. “Wait a minute!” we said, “are you just going to leave her with us?” The responsibility. The honor and the burden of being entrusted with a newborn child – that’s big enough, but can you imagine being entrusted with the Son of God? “This, this is Christ the king, Whom shepherds guard and angels sing; Haste, haste to bring him laud, The babe, the son of Mary!” There’s a story behind the Song, and the story for today stands behind a song that you know but that we didn’t read. You may have noticed that our 2nd Scripture Lesson ends in a strange place. The part that we read is not nearly so familiar as the part that we did not read. While our reading from the Gospel of Luke ended with verse 45, it’s verses 46 to 55 that you know so well. These verses make the very first Christmas Carol ever sung – the song that Mary sings – the Magnificat it’s called, and you know most of it because it’s ancient and it’s beautiful, and with this song she says what we all want to say if only we had the words: “My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; For the Mighty One has done great things for me, And holy is his name.” You know the song and it is powerful, just the words alone are powerful. It is even more powerful when set to music. But did you ever notice that Mary doesn’t sing in the presence of the angel Gabriel. She doesn’t sing this song after hearing that she would be the mother of the child who would assume the throne of his ancestor David. The story behind the song is that Mary sings in Elizabeth’s house. Maybe you know already why that’s the case, because it would have been the same with you. The phone rings with the news you wanted to hear. You smile, you’re excited because you got the job you wanted, but you don’t sing for joy until you tell your mother. Or your heart breaks, but you don’t cry – you don’t really cry until you find your way home through a fog of disappointment to that safe easy chair in your grandmother’s living room. She pours the tea and the speaks the words, “Honey, what happened?” That’s when you finally feel, not when it happens, but when you are in a place where you can put your guard down, be yourself, know that you can put your pretentions and your armor away. Elizabeth was her relative, and scared as she must have been, pregnant Mary set out and “went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.” “When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?” Do you know how good it must have felt to hear those words? It must have felt as good as sitting on her mother’s lap. Safe and warm. It must have felt as good as resting her head on her father’s strong shoulder. Reassuring. Steady. Present. It’s hard when these people are gone, because flesh and blood does us so much good. Both my grandmothers are gone now. One was a painter, and as a child my favorite food were these yeast rolls that she’d bake in her kitchen. In my mind’s eye I can see her there and I know that it’s yeast rolls that she’s baking because she has toilet paper stuck up her nose – the flour would dry her nostrils out so she’d protect herself by using the toilet paper – and she made me those rolls as often as I’d ask, and she’d listen whenever I had something to say. My other grandmother – she made dressing. It was serious dressing, with turkey parts and a boiled egg, and bay leaves. She wasn’t the warm, sit on my lap kind of grandmother – she was the wear pantie hose to the beach with her swim suit kind of grandmother – but I don’t know if there is anyone who was ever more proud of me than she was, and maybe that’s the thing I’ve missed so much since she died. It hit me at Thanksgiving because there on the stove was her dressing made by my mother who learned the recipe, and there in the oven were the rolls baked by my father who mastered the art of my other grandmother’s yeast rolls, and I was crouching down in the kitchen to watch them bake through the oven window fighting back tears because the flesh and blood of these grandmother’s that gave me so much comfort is gone. Now I know they’re with me, but there’s something about human touch. There’s something about how Elizabeth’s physical body, the smell of her home and the taste of her cooking – there’s something about Elizabeth the person that helped Mary to sing. In that house, she went from a scared young pregnant girl – to “My soul magnifies the Lord!” She left behind the fear and shame of being unmarried – and instead proclaimed, “My soul rejoices in God my Savior.” There is something about Elizabeth’s house. Just like there’s something about a mother’s lap, a father’s shoulder, a grandmother’s cooking – there’s something about Elizabeth, flesh and blood. That’s part of the story behind the song, but there’s more to it than just that, because Mary’s song isn’t about Elizabeth, it’s about Jesus. What it is about Jesus exactly that Mary knows and is trying to tell us makes me think of one of those old preacher stories that get told again and again. Maybe you’ve heard it – a little girl calls out in the night for her daddy. He rushes into her room and she tells him that she’s afraid. “Well don’t worry honey. You’re going to be fine, now let me go back to sleep,” her father says. “But daddy,” pleads the daughter, “won’t you stay here with me?” You can imagine his face now – and so you know that it was more self-serving than faithful when he said, “You don’t need me to stay with you. Don’t you know that Jesus is always with you to protect you?” “But daddy,” the little girl says, “I need someone here with some skin.” With some skin. With a lap for children to sit in. With a shoulder for the hurting to cry on. With a hand to hold and a voice to speak and footsteps to follow in. That’s the rest of the story behind this song of Mary’s. The Lord is coming – and he’s coming in flesh and blood. Amen.