St. Michael and All Angels
Seventh Sunday of Easter – May 12, 2013
I have been stunned by the story of three women in Cleveland who escaped captivity this week after ten years. I can’t wrap my head around that kind of imprisonment. While stories such as that tend to be extraordinary, the experience of prison is more common than we realize. In 2008, approximately 1 in every 31 adults was in prison, on parole or probation. Some of us know the experience of sitting in a jail cell. Others of us have found ourselves in prisons of our own making—perhaps without ever realizing that we are there. We get caught in prisons of fear, striving to be perfect, anger, resentment, jealousy, despair, the list in us goes on and on…yet something in us longs for freedom.
It may be that whatever prison we find ourselves, we first discover freedom through song.
Fred Craddock tells about preaching at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Martin Luther King, Sr. and Jr.’s church. As he moved to the pulpit to read the gospel, Joe Roberts, the pastor, began to sing. Just as Fred opened his mouth to say his first word, Joe started singing, “I feel much better now that I’ve laid my burden down.” Then he sang some more. The associates started singing, the musicians went to their instruments, the piano, and the organ and the drums and electric guitar, and the people started singing.
Fred is standing there with his Bible, waiting. Suddenly, he realized that he’s the one up front. He started clapping his hands and singing. Then everybody stood up and started clapping and singing and Fred said it was just marvelous. Then at a certain point, Joe Roberts, put his hand out, it got quiet, and everyone sat down. Fred started preaching and he said he could have preached all day. Afterward he said to Joe, “Well, that kind of shocked me a bit. You didn’t tell me you were going to do that.”
Joe said, “Well, I didn’t plan to.”
“Then why did you do it?”
Joe said, “When you stood up there, one of the associates leaned over to me and said, ‘That boy’s going to need help.’” (from Craddock Stories, p. 128 by Fred Craddock)
Do we have any idea the power music has to set us free? We are bound by so many things—our self-image, our schedules, our desire for more stuff, our inability to forgive, our preconceived ideas, our fear of letting go…
The story in Acts begins with a young slave woman who is possessed by a demon. This demon enables her to tell fortunes and makes her owners a lot of money. After she publicly confronts Paul and Silas for several days, Paul has enough and casts the demon out of her. This could be a happy ending. But now that the woman is free from her affliction, her owners are angry. Most people can be quite decent and hospitable until you begin to mess with their economic interests. Rather than acknowledge that their financial interests have been threatened, the owners talk about Paul and Silas being a threat to their city, to the town’s way of life. They manage to get the crowd worked up enough to beat Paul and Silas and have them thrown in jail. The liberators have now become the prisoners.
What do we do when we find ourselves in prison?
Paul and Silas prayed and sang.
When we are waiting for God to act,
I can think of nothing better to do than
to pray and sing.
You may remember my commitment
three weeks ago to listen to Bobby McFerrin
sing The 23rd Psalm every day for a month.
Hearing and singing those words each day
has a powerful impact on me.
It reminds me that it is God who sets me free.
Leonard Bernstein’s Mass says,
“You cannot imprison the word of the Lord.” (Wait for singing to end)
The Acts story gets interesting. God responds to the prayers and songs with an earthquake. The foundations of the prison are shaken, the doors open, and chains are unfastened. Knowing what happens to jailers who allow prisoners to escape, the jailer awakes and draws his sword to take his life. Having keys to another person’s jail cell doesn’t make us free, just as iron bars don’t make a prison. The jailer realizes that he’s been in bondage and he asks Silas and Paul what he must do to be saved. He’s also asking what he must do to be free. The jailer and his family are baptized and he throws a party to celebrate his newfound freedom/faith.
The Christian life is marked by songs in the night. When we are in darkness, when it seems there is no way, songs begin to rise to the surface from some place deep inside.
As I read this story in Acts, I remembered the story of another prisoner. Some of you will remember that in the early 1980’s some people were taken hostage in Beirut over several years. Much of the time these hostages were alone. They spent a few years chained to radiators in small rooms of buildings in Lebanon. They were blindfolded much of the time and beaten on occasion. They were never sure as the days turned into months and then years, whether they would live to see family and friends and freedom again. One of the hostages was Ben Weir, a Presbyterian pastor and teacher.
Early in his captivity, Ben was blindfolded and isolated. One evening he imagined that the sun had set and he thought of the hymn, “Abide with me: fast falls the eventide.” He said he felt vulnerable, helpless, lonely…and tears came to his eyes. Then he remembered the promise of Jesus that he would be with us always. Soon Ben thought of another hymn: “All praise to thee, my God, this night…” He found that his tears were then prompted by gratitude and a sense of companionship and intimacy.
Ben wrote: “As darkness became complete, I found myself recalling one hymn after another. Of some I could remember several verses, and where there was a gap I could improvise. Of others I could only remember a phrase or two. I was surprised to see how many came to mind.” (p. 31) He sang the great historical hymns of the church. He sang gospel tunes and children’s songs and Christmas carols and Easter hymns. For Ben, each hymn communicated some aspect of the Christian life and faith that were meaningful to him. (from p. 52 of Hostage Bound, Hostage Free by Carol and Ben Weir)
What are some of your favorite hymns? How many can you sing from memory? What hymn would you sing in a prison cell or in a hospital room or in some dark night of the soul?
For many people, singing or listening to the music of our faith changes things. For Israel, singing helped rebuild Jerusalem. For Paul and Silas, it opened the doors of the prison. Singing didn’t open the doors of Ben Weir’s prison, but it changed him. He moved from fear to consolation…from despair into hope. Through singing the faith of the church, he was reminded in a deep and profound way that he was not alone.
Anne Lamott tells of her journey from a life of drug and alcohol addiction to faith in God. On weekends, she would travel from Marin City to the flea market where all kinds of ethnic food could be found. This was a favorite hangout when she was hung over or coming off a drug binge. If she happened to be there on Sundays, she could hear the music coming from St. Andrew Presbyterian Church across the street. From time to time she would gather her courage to stand in the doorway and listen to the music. She says, “it was the singing that pulled me in and split me wide open.” Eventually, she took a seat off by herself and the singing enveloped her. She said, “Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender. Somehow the singing wore down the all boundaries that kept me so isolated. Standing with them to sing, sometimes so shaky and sick that I felt like I might tip over, I felt bigger than myself, like I was being taken care of, tricked into coming back to life.” (Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott, pp. 47-48)
When we sing, we find a freedom that we didn’t know possible. Sometimes we are the ones released from bondage. Sometimes those around us are released. We never know how powerful the songs can be until we sing them. We never know who is waiting for liberation until we open our mouths and the song emerges. We may not realize that God is in us—a song waiting to be sung.
Music takes us where words can never quite go. We sing our wonder, hope, longing, joy, prayers, sorrow, despair…we sing our faith. We sing our lives. The music that we sing each Sunday enables us to go back into the world.
The songs of our faith have the power to set us free, no matter how secure the prison. The songs of our faith remind us that when all else has failed, “you cannot imprison the word of the Lord.” God’s power will not be diminished by human chains. God will not be confined to prisons of our own making. God’s power is written on our hearts through song. As we sing the songs of faith, we find ourselves free.