Epiphany 5-B (RCL)
February 4, 2018
New Song Episcopal Church
Linda Stewart Kroon
Psalm 147:1-12, 21c
1 Corinthians 9:16-23
The month of February is observed each year, here in the US, as Black History Month. Here at New Song this year, we’ll be including the music of Black composers in our worship both this month and next, and in a special Spirit School Avery will be leading on Feb. 18. This morning, all the hymns in our service are ones written by Black American writers and composers. And throughout the season of Lent (which begins just 10 days from now), we will be singing settings of the liturgical portions of our service composed by Black American composers.
As a white person growing up in small, virtually all-white communities and attending all-white churches for most of my life, it was not until I was a young adult that I became aware of, then interested in learning about, Black history and then, music in the Black church. Those subjects somehow didn’t come up in my elementary and secondary school curricula, nor in my undergraduate or graduate university music courses — a glaring gap in my education, to which perhaps some others here this morning can relate.
Over the years, I have learned a bit about, and become very fond of, music from the Black church tradition. I’ve had amazing opportunities to learn directly from musicians in that tradition, especially Brother Stanley Davis at the First Church of Deliverance on the south side of Chicago, who spent a patient, solid week in the early 1990s working with me each day in an effort to teach this white girl how to play gospel piano. (Brother Stanley is a saint.) We’ve been singing these songs here at New Song for 20 years now – ever since you allowed me to begin serving as music director.
This morning, I’d like to talk a little bit about the music in today’s service, which comes from various eras of Black music tradition – not as an expert, but as a student of it and one who has come to love it. There is far, far more to talk about than time allows here, and I apologize up front for the fact that I’ll only be sharing a small sliver of all there is to learn, experience and love. With that important disclaimer, here we go…
When West Africans were captured, shipped across the Atlantic, and sold into chattel slavery here in the U.S., they brought with them their language, music, cultural and religious traditions. Despite efforts by their owners and masters to eradicate the expression of these cultural elements, they were critically important in sustaining these people through unimaginable suffering. Here in the U.S. these slaves were introduced to Christianity by being taught stories from the biblical narrative. Slaves were not allowed to own or read the Bible for themselves, and indeed were not taught or allowed to read at all, though of course some did so, despite the grave risks involved. Many enslaved Africans resonated strongly with stories of Israel’s captivity and enslavement in Egypt, and found hope in the narratives of God’s freeing them and their exodus into the Promised Land. Likewise, the stories of the people of Israel’s later exile and removal from their homeland to captivity in Babylon, and the eventual restoration to Jerusalem and their ancestral lands bore witness to God’s love and faithfulness to a people suffering dislocation and deprivation, culminating in return and redemption. In Jesus, these enslaved people came to know a savior who brought healing and dignity to those who were despised and downtrodden, even undergoing ultimate humiliation and loss himself for their sake. Stories like the one in our Gospel lesson this morning, of Jesus’ healing of Peter’s mother-in-law and a host of others suffering from illness of mind, body, and spirit helped sustain a suffering people. These stories sustain us today as well, for while we 21st century folk can scarcely imagine the experience of enslaved Africans, all of us experience suffering and loss, and a longing for justice and redemption, as well. Just as the people in Galilee two millennia ago flocked to Jesus to receive healing and wholeness, so can we.
As enslaved Africans embraced and identified with Christianity, they imbued it with musical expression rooted in their heritage and experience. After emancipation, and continuing to this day, the deeply imprinted memory of enslavement and the harsh realities of Jim Crow, segregation, economic and political oppression, and mass incarceration, along with the vibrant rhythms and melodic contours of African musical traditions are heard in the music of Black churches, as well as secular music forms like blues, ragtime, jazz, be-bop, soul, rock and roll, funk, reggae, and hip-hop. Our religious and secular musical culture has been enriched beyond measure by the music of Black people, part of a vibrant, varied tapestry of music originating with indigenous people and brought here by those who have come – willingly or forcibly – from other places around the world.
So, a few words about the music in this morning’s service:
In a few minutes, our choir will be singing a song from the spiritual tradition, specifically from the “work song” or “field holler” strand of that tradition. Songs like Guide My Feet were improvised and sung by enslaved Africans as they toiled in the fields planting, tending and harvesting the crops of plantation owners. Spirituals were sung and passed on through oral tradition, adapted and changed by different singers in different places; where and by whom these songs originated is not recorded.
There is significant evidence that some spirituals were used as secret codes of communication; Frederick Douglass described the use of spirituals as ways of communication for plans of escape, expressing dissatisfaction with conditions, and for revolt and protest. One of the best-known examples of one of these “signal songs” is Follow the Drinking Gourd which functioned as an oral map leading out of slave territory. The “drinking gourd” refers to the Big Dipper constellation, which contains the North Star – guiding the way toward states in the northern part of the U.S. where abolitionists were active, and toward Canada, where slavery was not permitted, and where U.S. laws that allowed people to capture and return runaway slaves for monetary reward had no effect.
The Sequence Hymn we sang just a few minutes ago was Precious Lord, Take My Hand, one of the most popular and widely-published of traditional gospel songs that arose in the U.S. starting in the early 1920s. It was written by Thomas A. Dorsey in 1932, just one week after the death of his wife in childbirth and subsequent death of his newborn son. Mr. Dorsey is considered by many to be the “father” of the African-American gospel tradition. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. chose Precious Lord as one of the “freedom anthems” of the Civil Rights Movement, and it has since been published in more than 79 hymnals in our country. One of the most famous recordings of this hymn – and, I confess, my personal favorite – was made by Mahalia Jackson in 1956.
Lead Me, Guide Me – the hymn we sang at the beginning of our service this morning – was written in 1953 by Doris Akers, and it is representative of the evolution of Gospel music that began in the late 1940’s toward a more “developed” or “concertized” style. Ms. Akers had an active career in California as a singer, choir director, recording artist, and songwriter. She wrote her first song at age 10, and composed more than 300 gospel songs and hymns in her lifetime. Ms. Akers passed away in 1995, and she was inducted posthumously into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
The song we will sing during Communion today is the refrain from Lillian Bouknight’s hymn, The Lord is My Light, which first appeared in print in 1980. The text quotes the opening words of Psalm 27, and the longer version of the hymn contains quotations and paraphrases of other passages of Scripture from the Hebrew Scripture, Gospels and Epistles which tell of God’s saving acts for God’s people throughout history. Here at New Song, we often sing this during Epiphany season, as we are doing this year.
Finally, our closing hymn today will be the rousing Lift Every Voice and Sing, which was first written and performed as a poem. James Weldon Johnson wrote these words for 500 school children in Jacksonville, FL, to recite in celebration of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. The poem was subsequently set to music by Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson, and soon adopted by the NAACP as its official song. Today Lift Every Voice and Sing is one of the most cherished songs of the African American Civil Rights Movement, and is often referred to as the Black National Anthem. It is common practice for Black people to stand as it is sung; we will, of course, stand to sing it here as well. It’s a powerful song. It begins…
Lift every voice and sing, till 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
In the final verse, we will sing….
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by thy might, led us into the light;
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee;
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee,
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.
It has been said that racism is our country’s “original sin” – and racism continues to cause harm to this day. We are surely in need of healing – healing from division, from subjugation of people based on their race, of hatred for those who differ. And we can be healed – just as Peter’s mother-in-law, and the crowds that came to Jesus everywhere he went were healed. There is a balm in Gilead, as the spiritual assures us. God’s power to heal and reconcile is stronger than our division, our hatred, our suffering, our fears.
So as we sing songs and hymns from African-American traditions, may we, like those who sang them before us, and those with whom we sing them now, place our trust in the strong hand of God who leads us from fear to faith, from shadows to light, from hatred to love, from oppression to freedom, from the brokenness of the world to the kingdom of heaven.
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Amen. May it be so.