Covenant Presbyterian Church – Athens, GA

Freedom Songs

Preached by Mark Harper at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Athens, Georgia                           December 16, 2018 – The Third Sunday of Advent

If we can take a minute; if we can slow down and reign in the stress for just a little while; if we can push back the hate and fear and non-stop gaslighting that keeps assaulting our minds and weighing down our hearts, we might just hear it: the miracle of music, the songs of this season that speak truth and give us hope in ways that maybe nothing else can. And I know that there are many songs out there, many of them lovely and inspiring, but many also nostalgic and as familiar as your grandmama’s sugar cookies – which, exactly like those cookies, can start making you a little sick if you’ve been consuming them since before Thanksgiving. So today I want us to tune in to some of the sacred songs of this Advent time. I want to invite us to listen again to the songs from within our story as God’s people, songs that well up inside the holy event of incarnation – cause, you know, baby, it’s cold outside.

In today’s gospel readings there really is a whole lot of singing going on. Some translations may not use the word “singing,” but I’m pretty sure that’s what’s happening when Elizabeth and Mary get together, neither one of them quite sure how it is that they’re pregnant – not because they didn’t know where babies came from but because they were pretty sure that babies didn’t come at the time or in the way their babies did. Even so they find themselves in this joyful state of nevertheless-here-we-are, standing there face to face with beautiful life growing in their wombs. A different kind of “Me, too” movement in the hill country of Judea. For aging Elizabeth, the child she was carrying meant the end of a lifetime of disgrace in a culture where a woman’s essential identity was wrapped in the swaddling clothes of being a mother. For her impossibly young and brave cousin Mary, her pre-marriage pregnancy meant the opposite: it did mean disgrace and might have meant death if her fiancé had listened to the law instead of the whispers of the Holy Spirit.

And yet against all odds both of these women found the grace and courage to trust that God was up to something wonderful in the world, that God was at work in and through them in ways that they couldn’t fully understand or imagine. If you were to ask either one of them whether this was the life they expected or wanted, they probably would laugh in your face. But because they could embrace the inconvenient truth that they were carrying the blessings of God that would change this old world from a place of hopelessness and injustice into a new creation of joy and peace, they could – like their ancestor Sarah before them – laugh. And sing.

Don’t you know they started singing? I think Eugene Peterson gets it right in his Message translation when he says that Elizabeth “sang out exuberantly” when Mary showed up. And apparently her child who was six months along and who would become John the Baptizer started leaping and dancing in her womb. I think Elizabeth and unborn John were so excited to know that they weren’t in this thing alone, that with the coming of Mary and unborn Jesus they were experiencing  the beginning of the Beloved Community. How could they keep from singing and dancing? And their joy was so infectious that it splashed over onto Mary who started singing her own song about the end of an old way and the beginning of a new day? She started singing a freedom song not only about her personal blessing of joining in God’s mission but about the promise of those who had been beaten down by the powers getting lifted up, about hungry people finally having more than sugar cookies to eat, about the silencing of tyrants so that the praises of God might be heard ringing out.

So here’s a word for this day, a word for all who arrogantly assume that they are running this world, and a word for all who are detained by the despair of believing they have no voice at all: be on your toes when the sisters start singing. Because when the sisters start singing like this it means that the God of life is moving and that the forces of death are on their last legs and should start singing their own funeral song. And when we hear these songs we are hearing the echoes of a long tradition of biblical freedom songs beginning with the one Miriam, sister of Aaron and Moses and prophet of Israel, sang after God sprung the people from slavery. She knew why Pharaoh’s horses and riders had been thrown into the sea, and who had done the throwing. She also knew what Samuel’s mother Hannah knew about God’s way of making a way out of no way, of creating life where there had been only dead ends. And she knew what so many of the psalm writers knew about God’s openness to hearing the longings and laments of his people, the songs that demanded freedom from sin and from enemies.

So when Mary and Elizabeth started singing they were connecting with a stream of song that had been flowing through their people for a long time. It was a way of reminding themselves that they were not alone in their journey with God, that others had undertaken such an unlikely and surprising and grace-filled path before. And I think they were singing because there is simply something transcendent about music and the poetry that can go with it. When what is happening is so powerful and mysterious as what Mary and Elizabeth were experiencing, prose just doesn’t cut it. Sometimes it can kill it. Only music and song have the capacity to lift you into the new reality that is beyond analysis, the new reality that sets you free from the shackles of the explainable but often oppressive reality that had been defining your days. Instinctively they knew it was music that would make room in their hearts for the Spirit to work. It was song that would get them through the labor and the pain and the worry and the wonder to come.  As Barbara Brown Taylor imagines it, God has come to us in the Word; God stays with us through music.

No wonder, then, that every time God’s people have found themselves with our backs against the wall one essential response has been to sing in the spirit of the liberating God. Can we even imagine the Civil Rights Movement without freedom songs parting the sea of hate and dogs and fire hoses?  When there was every reason to give up and back down, somebody would start singing “Aint’ gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around …”  and it would rejuvenate the marchers. Or when Martin Luther King got discouraged he would call up Mahalia Jackson, the “Queen of Gospel,” and ask her to sing spirituals over the phone.

Just on Friday I was so grateful to Sarah Shannon for sharing a video of the amazing work being done by the Oakdale Community Choir at a prison in Iowa. Both those on the outside and those who are living –some for life – on the inside come together to write songs and sing and make music so beautiful that no wall and no amount of barbed wire can contain it. Listen to their voices and watch their faces and the hope and transformation of both the insiders and outsiders is tangible. Sometimes it’s important for those of us on the outside to connect with how God is working on the inside.

Back in November you may have heard the story of Samuel Oliver-Bruno, an undocumented Mexican construction worker who has lived in the United States for 22 years. After a warning from immigration officers that he might be deported, Samuel and his wife and 19 year-old son had lived for the past 11 months in sanctuary at the CityWell United Methodist Church in Durham, NC. Then on the day after Thanksgiving, he went for a scheduled appointment to the US Citizenship and Immigration Services office near Raleigh. He was hoping to appeal his status and gain deferred action so he could remain in this country and keep his job. Despite promises from immigration authorities that he could safely make this appeal, he was immediately tackled and handcuffed by ICE officers as soon as he stepped into the office. He was then taken to a minivan while his family was told that he was being immediately deported. As soon as members of the CityWell congregation who were there to support him realized what was happening they rushed outside and encircled the van and began praying and singing worship songs. Eventually 27 members of that congregation were arrested. The last person taken away was a woman who lay down in front of the van and started singing the old freedom song, “We shall not, we shall not be moved.”

When the sisters start singing, be on your toes. God is moving us towards a new life, and ain’t nothing gonna turn him around. Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Lord of the Dance. Come Lord of Song. Come and set us free. Alleluia ! Amen.