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The Rev. David Minnick
Sunday, 20 July 2014
Text: Acts 16:16-25
Sermon 07-20-14 Acts 16:16-25
The importance of music in our lives is a lesson which we are continually reminded of. If you’ve ever taken the Back Lot tour at the Walt Disney MGM Studios theme park in Florida, you may well remember a demonstration of this. In a large studio, they show a clip of a suspenseful movie. Something like the scene of the shark attacking the boat for the first time in “Jaws.” First they show it as we remember it, with the accompanying “thump-thump-thump” in the background. Then they show it without that familiar music and the scene takes on a much different and less intense tone. And you realize how much the music contributes to the mood.
For many of us, music is a constant in our lives. It is a friend, a comfort, a pat on the back, a wonderful distraction from our thoughts, a spirited break from a long and boring drive or commute.
We hear a special story today of the role of music in the early church. The story from the book of Acts is a wonderful story. And in fact, you only hear the very beginning of the story today, and I can assure you, the rest of the story from that chapter in Acts is a story worth reading. The first half of the story, the one we’ve just heard tells of the evangelistic efforts of Paul resulting in the conversion of a slave girl who had made her owners a good living through her fortune-telling. After her conversion to Christianity, she refuses to continue to tell fortunes, and her owners, in a rage at losing their lucrative slave, call on the authorities to punish and imprison Paul and Silas for their evangelistic efforts. After being beaten, their feet placed in the stocks, Paul and Silas are imprisoned, and we hear today, they spend their time praying and singing hymns to God.
What a testament to a living faith! Can you think of what you might sing in that situation? If you were ever to be imprisoned for believing in Jesus Christ, what song, what story, would you take to prison with you?
It’s a question worth asking and answering, and each one of us is wise to do so, and to learn from our answers. Because I can assure you of this. You may never be imprisoned for your faith and belief, but you will be tested. You will find those times and places in the journey of your lives, where you need to hear a song in the background to get you through the hurt, the worry, the pain, the trauma. And if you haven’t learned the story, or sung the hymn by now, and learned the parts by heart, at those times, in those places, where you most want to hear some comforting and inspiring music behind you and within your heart, you’ll be hurting. The prayers and hymns won’t come to you as naturally and as easily as we see they did for Paul and Silas on that dark night.
There was a book published several years ago, which I never read, a story of one season of a girl’s high school basketball team in Amherst MA, but whose title I have never forgotten. It was entitled Hope is a Muscle. And I think that simple title says it well. All of us need to keep our bodies, our muscles strong, so that we are prepared to call upon them when necessary. That is why spiritually, we speak of a discipline of prayer. If the only times we make an effort to talk to and listen for God’s voice, to see God alive in the world are those times in our life when we are in crisis and we want God now, is it any wonder we aren’t ready and able to see and hear God’s answer to our heartfelt pleas? But the searcher who has committed him or herself to spending time everyday talking to and learning to listen for God knows what is takes to find that sense of begin grounded in prayer and has learned to discern the silent voice of God from all the other clatter of daily living.
So what are the songs, what are the stories that you would take to prison with you? As I prayed and reflected upon that question for myself, memories of inspirational hymns came back to me like a wonderful wave. My heart was full remembering the joy of singing “Christ the Lord is Risen Today” on Easter morning and “Silent Night” on Christmas Eve. I remembered the triumphant joy of leaving a dear parishioner’s funeral with “For All the Saints, who from their labors rest” still ringing in my heart, the peace that humming “Amazing Grace” brought to me at a tender time not too long ago. As much as I enjoy flying and as confident as I am in an airline’s safety record, I still recite the 23rd Psalm as I breathe deeply during take-off.
I suspect we will each answer the question of the day, “what songs would I take to prison with me?” in our own way. And God willing, we will all have some answers to it. One of the other things that struck me in asking and answering this question for myself was how important the lessons that I learned as a child were in forming the faith that nourishes me today.
I mentioned last week, how sometimes seeds that have been spread lie dormant, until the optimal time for them to sprout and grow. And in a way, that has been my experience with our opening hymn today, “Precious Lord, Take my Hand.” I can remember singing it as a child in the basement of Salem-Zion UCC in Philadelphia, singing it in chapel when I was a student in seminary. It was never a song that had any special meaning to me. But I also remember, to the moment, singing it almost 20 years ago, in a large crowd of clergy, at an especially vulnerable time in life’s journey, when the words and tune moved quickly to my core, moving me deeply and bringing me peace at a time when I was sorely in need.
In looking over the hymns that Ron and Judy picked for today, I grew nostalgic remembering my childhood in Sunday school Remembering the tile pattern on the floor, hearing the old piano there playing these same hymns at the Children’s Chapel service which preceded our Sunday School classes each Sunday. And of course, remembering the pranks and silliness that were a part of our education there—pinching, probing, stepping on other’s freshly shined shoes-as we tried to learn how to sing.
These were the songs and the stories that I took with me throughout the trials and struggles of childhood, puberty and adolescence. The stories and songs that nurture me now are different than back then as I have grown in faith and come to know God in deeper and more fulfilling ways. I hope that has been your experience too.
So what are the stories, the songs that you would take to prison with you? What are the stories and songs that run through your mind as you await the doctor’s phone call after having some medical tests? What are the stories and songs that come to you when your teenager is still out an hour past curfew on a stormy night?
What might have been the songs that ran through the minds of those on Malaysia Air Flight 17 this past week at a time of such horror? What are the songs that are sung in the hearts of both sides of any of the armed conflicts that we hear of daily? In Gaza in this time of military conflict? Among the girls kidnapped a few weeks ago by the Boko Harum? Deep in the hearts of nations currently under attack by others?
What were the songs and prayers that brought hope and comfort to Amelia Earhardt on her long flight? Not Amelia Mary Earhart, whose life ended so tragically in 1937, but Amelia Rose Earhart, her 31 year old namesake, who earlier this month completed the mission her predecessor in name and spirit attempted 77 years ago. Our modern day Amelia, says she was always embarrassed by her first name, choosing to call herself Amy, but when she grew up, she says, she grew into that legacy and found her calling and her mission. What songs brought her hope, kept her spirits going in the endless hours alone on her solo flight around the world?
Those of us who have been blessed to learn the stories, to sing the songs by heart, need to remember that someone, somewhere, took the time to teach us those songs and stories. And learning them and knowing the joy and hope they bring to each and all of us, obligates us to begin to tell and to teach them to others. Faith is a gift meant to be shared.
Faith is a gift, hope is a muscle, prayer is a discipline. And just as it is likely that someone who never lifts anything heavier than a remote control or a can of beer is apt to hurt themselves when they try to move a piano, so too is the person finding themselves walking in the valley of the shadow, apt to struggle to know where to begin to speak to or to listen for God’s voice, or sense the presence of the Almighty. But those who hear and tell the story of a God who seeks out the hurting and hopeless and who shows us the way in the life and faith of Jesus Christ, and who have learned those stories, sung those songs, over and over, they are apt to have a story or a song to cling to in their darkest hour.
Trust, believe and share that good news today and in the days to come. Thanks be to God. Amen.