May 29th, 2022
Rev. Rebecca Migliore
As I thought about the message for this week, “His eye is on the Sparrow” wouldn’t leave my mind, especially the refrain: “I sing because I’m happy. I sing because I’m free. For God’s eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me.”
There are so many reasons to sing. We sing because we’re happy (you plug in your happy songs here). We sing because it is a way of expressing our discontent (think of all the civil rights songs, like “We shall overcome”). We sing because we’re proud (songs about America, and “Let every voice and sing”). We sing as we stand in solidarity (the Met gala singing the Ukrainian national anthem). We sing to praise God (When in our music God is glorified). We sing because it is the way God made us, our voice is our musical instrument. It is something we all can do—even if some of us prefer only to do it in the shower.
Now I certainly had read the story of Paul and Silas being thrown into prison before. I imagined them talking together about God and faith and the way Jesus’ message seemed to threaten the powers that be. We are told they prayed together. But I hadn’t remembered that Paul and Silas sang as well.
The suggestion for self-reflection and change for this week from Seasons of the Spirit is “chains of oppression.” Paul and Silas were in actual chains. But there are so many ways that we are chained—personally and as a society. There are expectations that weigh us down. There are circumstances that box us in. There are forces that demean and imprison, both in body and in soul. I invite you to take some time this week to think about what chains you live with—and what chains our society has imposed. And then, to imagine how we might break those chains.
I don’t know about you—but this week, on top of last week, is almost too much to bear. I have been feeling anger, and grief, and depression. What could I possibly do that could change this mess we are in? Often, we think we are powerless to change anything—a chain of its own. Certainly Paul and Silas couldn’t get out of the prison they were chained into. But they prayed and sang, not just for themselves, but also for all the others who were there with them.
Singing, as a pushback to oppression. Singing, as a way of telling the truth. Singing, as a way of including others in the song. And Seasons of the Spirit helped me remember the way singing played its own part in the world’s condemnation of the South African apartheid system. I remember the 1980s even if I was not old enough to fully know about the civil rights movements in the 1960s.
I remember how taken the world was with the sounds of South African music that Paul Simon included in his record called Graceland. I’m glad to hear that he paid those musicians 3x what they would have gotten for a recording session in NYC. And it is sobering to know that Simon got a first-hand view of how segregation impacted these men. If their recording session went past twilight, they had to be escorted back to their homes in the black section of town, and produce papers to move about. (Rachel Chang, Biography, Dec. 4, 2020)
But even before that, in the late 70s, Anders Nyberg and the singing group Fjedur had travelled to South Africa as part of a Lutheran Church musical mission and had returned with songs that had been shared with them. I believe “Freedom is coming” that we sang at the front part of the service is one of those songs. They made a record of the tunes and they caught on, especially in Eastern Europe (where they were/and still are fighting their own oppression), and in North and South America as well. It was a way of placing the situation in South Africa on the front burner for people who had never thought of it before.
In 1990, after Mandela had been freed after 27 years of captivity, the first international trip he took was to Sweden where he spoke at Uppsala Cathedral. He wanted to say “thank you” to the musicians who had helped keep the plight of black South Africans on everyone’s minds. Here is part of his speech.
Imagine how our hearts beat as your voices wafted across the great distances that separate us and penetrated through the prison walls, as over the walls of Jericho, to reach us in our cells. Every day we heard your voices ring: Free the political prisoner! We heard your voices sing: Let my people go!
As we heard that vibrating and invigorating cry of human concern, we knew that we would be free. We saw that no prison walls or guard dogs or even the cold seas that are like a deadly moat surrounding Robben Island, could ever succeed to frustrate the desires of all humanity. We drew strength and sustenance from the knowledge that we were part of a greater humanity than our jailers could claim.
Intended for oblivion, we were discovered by the little people whom we had never met. They wrote to us to give us encouragement and hope. They celebrated our birthdays with us. They remembered us at Christmas. They defied the elements to demonstrate about us. They prayed for our freedom. They did what they could not afford, by contributing some of their earnings so that we could study and purchase what little we could to relieve the rigors of prison life.
It might have seemed to those “little people” that there was nothing they could do. But I remember that those songs inspired actions. I remember demonstrating on Princeton University Campus insisting that the University (with its huge endowment) divest of holdings in South Africa. I remember that the whole world would not stop pressing the De Klerk government until Mandela was released and until apartheid was dismantled.
I think our Scripture today tells us to take heart. Whenever you think there is no way—look for God’s way. Whenever you think you are of no help—start to pray and sing. Whenever you think you are bound by too many chains and will never get free—watch for God’s earthquake to shake things up. I was very moved by this quote by Holocaust survivor Victor Frankl “They can take from us almost everything. Our health, our property, our freedom, and even what is dearest to us—except for one thing: the freedom to decide how to react to our situation in life. We are masters of our fate, not its victims.”
So what do we do about the crushing chains of gun violence in our country? We pray and sing and look for ways to act.
What do we do about the dehumanizing chains of the prison complex in our country? We pray and sing and look for ways to act.
What do we do about the gnawing chains of poverty and food insecurity in our country? We pray and sing and look for ways to act.
What do we do about the looming chains of climate change in our world? We pray and sing and look for ways to act.
What do we do about the horrifying chains of racial prejudice, and the confining chains of all forms of bigotry and hatred around us? We pray and we sing and we look for ways to act.
And while we are praying and while we are singing and while we are acting, we mustn’t forget to look around to see if there are others who need our help. That is the other message that struck me as I read this passage. Liberating Love wasn’t just for Paul and Silas. It came for the jailor too—and it came through those who were jailed.
Paul and Silas, after leading a prison sing/pray-a-long, didn’t take advantage of the earthquake that broke off their chains. They didn’t run away, but stayed to help the jailor who was about to end his own life because he thought he had failed in his job.
What an extraordinary thing to have stayed, to have thought about this man rather than themselves—this is what the gospel calls us to do. Not to take our own freedom if it leaves others still in chains. I know this is not a sentiment that holds much sway in our country right now. I know that the pandemic has frayed our nerves and made us want to grab all we can get.
Ann Marie and I watch a lot of the Tennis Channel, but if I see Joe Namath, one more time, urging all of us to call the number below and “get what you deserve” I’m going to scream. And here’s why. Just because you deserve something doesn’t mean you have to take it. We do not have to drain the well dry of every penny we, personally, deserve. Maybe we need to have the grace to leave a little for those who need it, whether they “deserve” it or not.
We run around talking about justice, and rightly. There needs to be more justice in this world. But if we are talking about God’s justice, we must remember that justice is never disentangled from grace. What did Micah say? Do Justice. But also Love Mercy. And don’t forget to have your life be on a walk with God. Liberating Love asks that we make sure we are working for justice, even as we hold fast to the commandment to love one another. And that is really hard when the person you are supposed to love seems to be standing in the way of justice. Look at our lesson for today. Paul and Silas didn’t run away as they deserved. They stayed, because they recognized that this man too was a captive, he was bound by needing this job, by being part of an empire that did not value each human life. And by staying, they ministered to him, as he ministered to them, and he asked that he and his household be baptized without delay.
As we are told in the rest of chapter 16, Paul and Silas did eventually get released, and even got an apology from those in charge! (without endangering our new Christian, the jailor). Such is God’s justice.
If you are willing to work for justice, If you are willing to take a moment for mercy, If you are willing to pray and sing and journey with God, I invite you to stand, if you are able.
We stand together in solidarity with all those who are bound tighter than we are.
We stand together in solidarity with all those who are working to break the bonds of injustice and hatred and meanness.
We stand together because we are willing to live our lives following Micah’s prophetic vision of justice entwined with mercy all while walking with our God.
We stand together and say what we believe.
--We believe that Jesus Christ stands for the freedom of all people.
--We believe that,
in the power of the Holy Spirit,
as the people of God,
we may be part of the bringing in of justice
and the journeying towards peace.
--We believe that God,
the Creator of all that is,
goes on dreaming of a world
in which the chains of oppression are broken
and where all who live offer love to each other.
--The light of our God will lead us on.
--This we believe, and by this we will live. (from Seasons of the Spirit, May 29, 2022)
May it be so. Alleluia, Amen.