“Blackbirds Singing in the Dead of Night”
September 26, 2021
Acts 16: 20-34
Last Sunday afternoon I brought my daughters to choir for the first time in a long, long time and I was delighted to find a number of other children here for the same purpose. I have long believed that we sing our way to faith long before we think our way to faith. Making music together is such an important spiritual practice.
I must confess, however, that when I was a child I really didn’t much care for singing in church. It’s true – I was a choir drop-out.
Some of you might be familiar with those hymn boards that were in the front of some sanctuaries where they would post the numbers of the hymns.
A typical Sunday there’d be three hymns up there.
Sometimes – there would be just two and on those days I would give my friend Wes a high five.
Some days there would be four and I’d slap my own face instead:
“Not FOUR hymns!”
I just didn’t much care for singing in church.
Which is funny – because it’s not as if I didn’t like music.
I listened to music as much, if not more, than many of my peers.
Perhaps you know this about me by now.
I think what it boils down to is that somewhere along the way I convinced myself that I just wasn’t a very good singer – that nobody needed to hear the croak that passed for my voice.
Which isn’t even true. I mean, I can’t read music to save my life, but I can carry a tune decently enough. You won’t catch me soloing “O Holy Night” this Christmas but I can hold my own singing with others.
I don’t know where that critical voice came from, but it was there – “you can’t sing. Nobody wants to hear you try, so do us all a favor and don’t.”
…but then I discovered Bob Dylan.
I said “wait a minute! That guy is really famous…AS A MUSICIAN…
and his voice is all warbly and weird but people love him.”
And then I said to myself “Well if Bob can make a living off that incredibly nasal voice of his then surely I can sing some hymns in church.” And so I did.
And all these years later it’s difficult to say how grateful I am that the hymns of the Church now dwell in my being, that I can pull them up and sing them when I need to, even if I’m just all on my lonesome.
I’m grateful to the folks who encouraged me to find my voice and to use it…including Mr. Robert Zimmerman (that’s Bob Dylan’s real name).
Sometimes – not in worship but maybe alone in the car – I do play this game where I sing hymns like Bob Dylan. I fins it very amusing:
“A mighty fortress is our GOD a BULLwark never Fa-ai-ai-LING!”
(okay – maybe only I find that amusing)
This week we’re continuing a sermon series called “Normal Never Was, God Always Is.”
Our reading today comes from the book of Acts. Listen to this story about the apostles Paul and Silas from the 16th chapter.
When they had brought [Paul and Silas] before the magistrates, [the crowd] said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.”
The crowd joined in attacking them and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods.
After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened.
This is the Word of the Lord.
Thanks Be to God.
Meg and I served as co-pastors at a church in Burke, Virginia before coming here to UPC.
The sanctuary of that church was built before the DC area exploded and – well, to cut to the chase – it was pretty small. There were days when it just wasn’t adequate for the congregation that showed up for worship.
On those Sundays when we packed them in, the ushers would bring in these blue plastic chairs during the first hymn and place them right up against the front wall for those slipping in late. Worst seat in the house. The sight lines to the front were non-existent and yet everyone could see you. It was almost like an advertisement for who was late to worship.
One Sunday I looked across to see Vera and Darius Swann shuffling in to occupy those seats. By all appearances, the Swanns were just a sweet, elderly, African-American couple.
What you should know, however, is that Vera and Darius had been Presbyterian missionaries in India for years. They came back to America because they wanted to participate in the Civil Rights movement.
In 1971 they brought a lawsuit against the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school system on behalf of their 6 year old child – a case that eventually went to the Supreme Court and served as the precedent for using busing as a means to more adequately integrate public schools. The Swanns were sweet and they were getting on in years, but the Swanns were also warriors for justice.
Back to the blue plastic chairs – the problem was that these hastily added seats lacked the built in hymnal rack underneath and ushers often forgot to stash hymnals nearby. It was not uncommon, therefore, for Meg or I to walk our own hymnal over to the occupants, but on this particular Sunday, singing that particular opening hymn, it was actually unnecessary.
Vera and Darius Swann stood tall and sang every word from memory: “Lift every voice and sing, ‘til earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of Liberty. Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us. Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us…”
There was no need for a hymnal when singing the Black National Anthem.
They knew every word by heart.
That song lives in their very bones.
So – do you have a song like that?
One that lives in your bones?
One that you know by heart?
That you could draw on for strength if the moment demanded it.
Consider Paul and Silas,
sitting in the dark of that cell,
their feet in the stocks,
two black birds singing in the dead of night.
I wonder what songs came to them?
“And though this world, with devils filled, should threaten to undo us,
We will not fear, for God hath willed His truth to triumph through us;
Or perhaps a spiritual
“Nobody knows the trouble I’ve seen, nobody knows but Jesus.”
Or maybe even…
“There must be some kind of way out of here –
said the Joker to the Thief”
Heck, the rest of the story is that in spite of God arranging a perfectly good jail break, they actually remain there through the night and minister to the jail keeper…so perhaps a little Elvis:
“Silas turned to Paul and he said nix nix, I wanna stick around a while and get my kicks – let’s rock, everybody let’s rock. Everybody in the whole cell block was dancing to the jailhouse rock.”
Whatever the song may have been – it’s interrupted mid-verse:
the rumbling of the walls, the splitting of stone,
the doors fling open, the chains falling to the ground –
the whole world shaking and quaking.
Scripture narrates this earthquake as if it is something exceptional, but if you ask me, it seems that the whole world never seems to stop shaking. Normal Never Was…either that or Normal was an earthquake all along.
It seems the whole world never stops shaking sometimes.
Not long before the COVID curtain came down, the musical “Come From Away” came to the DPAC theater. The story is set in Gander, a town of 10,000 souls in Newfoundland. On the morning of September 11, 2001 the FAA ordered all air traffic grounded immediately. 38 planes holding 7000 passengers were re-routed to Gander.
People from all over the world sat on the tarmac for hours until security cleared the planes, and from there they were totally dependent on the hospitality of strangers…for food and medication, for a place to sleep, for a shower in a community center or a neighbor’s home.
Based on true stories and hundreds of hours of interviews with passengers and islanders, it is a truly moving story of humanity coming together in a time of crisis.
Around the mid-point of the musical, the full scope of the tragedy is setting in. One character walks to the front of the stage. “I haven’t been to church in years,” he says, “but a song I learned there when I was a kid keeps popping into my head.” He begins to sing the words of the prayer of St Francis: Make me a channel of your peace; where there is hatred, let me bring your love; where there is injury, your pardon, Lord; where there is doubt, true faith in you…
As he sings, towards the back of the stage an older resident walks up to a rabbi, stuck there on a plane from Israel. He confesses that his parents sent him away from Europe before the war – they made him promise that he would never, ever tell anyone he was a Jew. 60 years later he seeks out the rabbi. “After the planes crashed,” he says, “so many stories gone in a moment, I had to tell someone.” They begin a Hebrew children’s song, which is woven in with St Francis’ prayer.
At the same time, a Muslim man who had been embarrassingly strip-searched by security at the airport is set to begin evening prayers. A woman from the elementary school comes to him and tells him that she has noticed how awkward it was for him to pray in front of everyone, and she has cleared a corner in the school library, so he might have his own space to pray. He begins chanting “Allah Akbar…”
And there they are – songs of the three, great Abrahamic faiths interwoven beautifully against the backdrop of the now 20-year-gone terror of September 11th, 2001. The two songs fade away as the first man sings…where there is despair in life let me bring hope; where there is darkness, only light; and where there is sadness, ever joy…
Let me ask you again – do you have a song that lives in your bones?
One that you know by heart; that you could draw on for strength when the whole world is shaking?
A number of weeks ago I received a call from the hospital – a church member was nearing death. The chaplain told me his wife and son were there and would like to see a pastor.
When I walked into the room they were both sitting at his bedside.
Five minutes later he breathed his last.
We prayed and we talked a little but the moment we really touched holiness was singing. Just the three of us – off key and doing our best to be brave in the face of this earth-shaking loss, singing his favorite hymn: “Amazing grace how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now I’m found. Was blind but now I see.”
We didn’t stop with Amazing Grace – we kept on going.
It was comforting to this new widow to sing with her son and this pastor she barely knew.
Be Thou My Vision
Abide With Me
What Wondrous Love Is This?
I confess that I was starting to run out of hymns that I could reasonably sing without accompaniment from this here organ. But the hymns were there – enough of them for that day.
So – do you have a song that lives in your bones?
One that you know by heart; that you could draw on for strength when the whole world is shaking?
By the way, I never told you when or where it was that I started finding my voice and singing again.
It was right here at UPC.
Singing songs at Campus Ministry.
Getting suckered into attending youth choir rehearsal when I was a student volunteering with the youth group.
I said that Bob Dylan convinced me that I could and should sing.
That’s at best half true. It was also this Church.
So let me say thank you for restoring to me the gift of song.
You know – the world is going to keep on shaking, right?
And there will be moments when the only thing we want – the only thing – is for all that shaking to stop – just a moment of peace.
My prayer for you is that, when the crisis comes, when you’re longing for a normal that is beyond your grasp, you’ll find a song in your heart,
And perhaps a friend to sing it with in the dark.
Even if you are off key, it’ll get you through.
I promise it will get you through.