“How can we sing God’s song in a foreign land?” This question is found in Psalm 137, a song of lament in time of exile. Psalm 137 is an answer to its own question. Because the practice of lament, including personal and communal prayer, song, and ritual, is how we raise our voices and spirits to God in times of trouble. When we find ourselves in difficult places of pain, struggle, disorientation, captivity, or disconnection, our spiritual tradition doesn’t encourage suppression, silence, or pretending. Instead, we are reminded that God receives our strong emotions, our cries of rage and grief, and offers grace and mercy to help us move through them to a place of relief and liberation. Throughout this series, we will explore the invitation, necessity, and power of lament along the path toward freedom and new life. The promise is nothing less than resurrection!
Sing a New Song
A sermon preached by Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli with Foundry UMC, April 4, 2021, Easter Sunday, “Learning to Sing the Blues” series.
Text: Mark 16:1-8
Early yesterday morning, as I climbed the stair to my writing chair, the light of a waning moon shining brightly, a single, solitary bird’s voice sang: sing it out, sing it out, sing it out, will you? The melody is familiar, though one I’ve missed. It hibernates, or migrates—I don’t know birdsongs well enough to know which bird was belting out her bright song in the dark—but it appears this time of year, a herald of spring in its fullness, announcing a new moment, a passage from one season to another.
This image reflects my experience through this year of pandemic, singing my song in a defiant, determined commitment to hope in a new moment, new life—all the while, surrounded by the night and shadows, within and without. It may come as a surprise to some, but my cynicism can be as sharp as any. I call my cynicism Shirley (not referencing anyone except the play on words: as in, “surely, you don’t believe that.”) And with each new reflection gone viral on the interwebs early in the pandemic about how we were going to come out of this thing renewed, changed, chastened, wiser and better, I found myself in a near-constant dialogue with Shirley. She really is a broken record of “don’t get your hopes up” ditties. On days when I’m caught between my hope-filled, prophetic self and my Shirley self, I simply flip on autopilot, put up buffers and compartmentalization systems for grief, uncertainty, and trauma, and try to just get through this thing unscathed and doing as little damage as possible.
With each new challenge, each new loss, assault, tragic headline, new number of cases, deaths, shootings, each new instance of injustice over the past year…with each new revelation of how truly broken things are in our lives and relationships and churches and institutions and nations and world, whether I’m in “God’s up to something good,” “we’re doomed,” or “put your head down and get through it” mode I still root about trying to discover what Spirit wants to share. It’s kind of a habit. This past year, a consistent theme is summed up in John Wesley’s last words: “Best of all is, God is with us.”
Some may roll their eyes at so simple a statement, because, after all, what difference does it make for God to be with us when things continue to be so jacked up? Shirley asks that question on the regular, joining the chorus of the Israelites in the desert who complained saying, “Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness?” (Numbers 21:5) Shirley sings alto in the chorus of the disciples who woke Jesus from his sleep on the boat in the storm yelling, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mk 4:38) And she would have wondered the same thing as the Marys and Salome that early morning in the cemetery—“Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” (we’re probably on our own!)
Of course, in each of those jacked up moments of wilderness, storm, and the heaviness of death, God was there, leading out of slavery, providing manna and wellspring waters from a rock, soothing the storm with a word, and rolling the stone away so that life might emerge. That’s the story we tell, anyway. Are you buying it?
Casey Gerald, in his beautiful, painful, artful memoir, There Will Be No Miracles Here (a book I read at some unidentifiable moment in the haze of the COVID pandemic) shares this:
It’s hard enough to get used to a crappy life. But once you do, you see that even crap can be cozy and the coziness becomes important to you. And even the slightest change—in the name of progress or healing or uplift—feels like a threat to your existence, so you ignore it as long as you can…The story has to change, you see, and that’s not only a great deal of work to undertake, but also a real risk, as the new story might not be as marvelous as the old sad one. But the greatest risk [is] hope.”
It’s not just whether we will believe the stories of God in scripture, but whether we will believe God is anywhere at all. Gerald confesses that his journey led him not to hopelessness, but to “anti-hope.” He writes:
This anti-hope seems to be in vogue, mind you, especially amongst those who consider themselves too brilliant or too secular to believe in silly things like unicorns and hope and God. They say that anti-hope is the natural order of things, that the most obvious stance for the man and woman of reason is the stance of Cool Customer, leaning against the wall of the world while the moral arc of the universe bends down to crush them, as it must.
In any moment of life, we have choices to make about how we will receive and be in the moment, what we will believe about the moment. The oppressive powers of the world want us to believe that every moment is dog-eat-dog, want us to think that hope is for the weak, that crushing others or being crushed by life is inevitable. That the old story is all there is. That people will never learn and that we ourselves are forever stuck. These are the powers of death and control and fear. Choosing to acquiesce will have predictable consequences.
The alternative is to choose even the tiniest bit of openness to the assertion of “God with us,” openness to Spirit’s movement deep down in all things, through all things, under and within our own skin—even when all things appear despairingly broken.
You may find it ironic that I would focus on “God with us” when, in the Easter story from Mark we received today, Jesus is nowhere to be found. No appearance, no comforting word from the risen Christ. And even the commissioning of the women by the mystery man in white doesn’t lead to the first announcement of Jesus’ resurrection. There is only alarm, terror, amazement, and fear.
Most scholars agree that this is where the original text of Mark ended—fleeing in fear without any assurance that the message given the women was true. And, as much as I love getting to make an Easter quip about women being the first preachers, I also really appreciate this version of the story that leaves all of us standing together at the edge of life and death and new life with nothing but a promise of an unseen Christ beckoning us to follow into uncertainty, daring us to carry on without easy and quick comfort, calling us to grapple with our own fear of something that is truly new and unexpected, encouraging us to come to terms with whether or not we will believe that something so wonderful as resurrection is possible, and whether we will welcome it when it happens.
Casey Gerald tells this story:
[There’s] a village that I heard of not too long ago. The village, somewhere in France, sometime in the seventeenth century, became the site of frequent miracles, according to the peasants there, who were so struck by symptoms of the supernatural that they put down their plows. This, of course, [ticked] off the local officials. They tried to reason with the peasants, to quell the mass hysteria, to no avail. At last, the officials sought an intervention from the highest power in the land, who sent them back with a sign. An actual sign, which was erected in the village square for all to see. It read:
THERE WILL BE NO MIRACLES HERE
BY ORDER OF THE KING
Isn’t this the way things go since forever? The proverbial “kings” of the world pass orders and laws, write books and reviews, create budgets, make rulings, and build structures, all the while thinking that they have the power and authority to control the people of God, the movement of God, the freedom of God: “NO MIRACLES HERE!” And, more often than most of us care to admit, they get away with it. Because, after all, human desire, overwhelmingly, is to leave things exactly the way they are.
We can all talk a big game about hope and new life, but as soon as something really new, a bona fide change gets underway, people race out to buy their yard signs in support of the king: “No miracles here!” The body isn’t where it’s supposed to be! Who voted on movement of the body? Who said that the mystery man could be in the empty tomb? Did Jesus sign off on that before he died? Who ordered a resurrection anyway? There’s no protocol for this and we don’t know what to do. This new situation is not the way we do things around here! So let’s bring the dead body back stat and restore things to the way they’re supposed to be.
Oh, it is tempting to want to stay in the old, familiar ways… We love a new thing as long as it has a perceivable, measurable, reasonable explanation and doesn’t make us uncomfortable. We long for a new life as long as no sacrifice is required of us. We advocate for justice as long as it doesn’t mean that we have to foot the bill. Familiar death is so often more preferable to us than disruptive, costly newness.
And yet that’s not all that is within and among us. If it was, Amanda Gorman’s words wouldn’t have emanated from the podium with such soul-stirring electricity:
Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true,
that even as we grieved, we grew,
that even as we hurt, we hoped,
that even as we tired, we tried,
that we’ll forever be tied together, victorious.
Not because we will never again know defeat,
but because we will never again sow division.
Scripture tells us to envision
that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree
and no one shall make them afraid.
If we’re to live up to our own time,
then victory won’t lie in the blade.
But in all the bridges we’ve made…
In truth, these words are simply a powerful, of-the-now remix of the old vision, the dream of Rev. Dr. King assassinated this day 53 years ago, the dream of Micah and Isaiah, the dream of Mary and her son Jesus, our resurrected Lord.
Will we continue to defer the dream? My inner Shirley is only so sharp and persistent because she’s trying to help me keep from being hurt and disappointed, she knows that some people in the world have no interest in new things, they want to keep the old, broken, hurtful, hateful things—want to keep ALL the fig trees and vines for themselves and pay less than living wages for others to tend them. Shirley also knows the small and wishful thinking that I sometimes try to pass off as faith and hope to myself.
But as much as I may falter and as much as the powers that be may try, no one gets to forbid miracles, no one gets to control new life, no one gets to kill the dream, no one gets to cancel Easter—not with a sign, not with a virus, not with a cynical eye-roll or self-satisfied smirk or fearful, hateful policy or a noose or a gun or a cross. Today we praise God because Jesus has been set free, let loose, is out in the world, risen, shiny, new—bearing the scars and having sung the laments of this life—but alive and with us—all day long and the whole night through. And where Christ is, miracles happen. Anything is possible…We will get through this. Things can be different and better. We can be different and better. The dream doesn’t have to be deferred forever.
And we stand together at the edge of life, death, and new life and have to choose. Gerald says, “I have a radio. It picks up only two stations: Life and Death. I turn the death off, now that I know the sound.”
What station will you play? What song will you sing even when it is still night and difficult to see? Why not sing together the new song already, eternally begun, the dream of poets and prophets from the beginning, recently sung in Amanda’s key?
…our people diverse and beautiful will emerge,
battered and beautiful.
When day comes we step out of the shade,
aflame and unafraid,
the new dawn blooms as we free it.
For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it.
If only we’re brave enough to be it.
Sing it out, sing it out, sing it out! Will you? Alleluia!