Reflection August 20, 2017
Psalm 24 (sung) p. 750; Hebrews 10:11-25; Mark 13:1-13
When I was in theological school I had the opportunity to travel to the World Council of Church’s Conference on World Mission and Evangelism in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. I’d heard a few songs from the wider world of Christianity before that – Siyahamba, Halle, Halle, Hallelujah – but it was in worship there that I first heard some of the songs that have become part of our United Church music collection. Some of them may not be as well known to you, as every congregation has their favourite hymns that differ from place to place. Some of the songs I learned at that meeting were “Ay, Ay, Salidummay” that we just sang; Thuma Mina (Send Me Lord) which you’ll find in Voices United, and various “Kyries” from Russian Orthodox to American Lutheran that are also in Voices United.
Nowadays there’s a lot of talk about cultural appropriation and the problems associated with writing, teaching, performing or otherwise using other people’s culture not your own, and there’s legitimacy to those concerns. But I have been privileged and blessed in my life to be offered the opportunity to “sing the Lord’s song” in any number of languages, from Swahili to Welsh to Russian, and those songs were offered, not appropriated, by members of those communities who wanted to share with other Christians their experience of offering worship to the God of us all.
I’ve just come back from my 30 year reunion for Lester B Pearson College of the Pacific, an international college located in Metchosin. Once again, former students from all over the world made the long journey to Canadian shores. We remembered borrowing each other’s national costumes, dancing each others’ dances, reciting each others’ poetry and singing each others’ songs – and we are all so much richer because of that experience!
Singing each other’s songs, especially, helped us enter into the intellectual, emotional, and theological world of another culture. I’ve heard it said that a congregation should never try to sing songs from a culture other than their own, because they cannot sing them authentically. Truly? I assume if those songs have been published, that they re intended to be song by any who wish to sing them! Sure, there are a few we should stay away from because we mess them up too badly, but I think singing them stretches us and enriches us. We also shouldn’t assume that congregations are homogeneous in nature – that we’re all WASP, or all Irish, or all Chinese, or all Ghanaian – even if on the surface we look a lot alike.
Some would say that being one of the whitest white women around, I shouldn’t sing African-American spirituals. But when I sing them, I try to honour the deep faith that fills each word and each note. When I sing them best, I sing them from the heart and the soul and the body. This is how we sang when we were students at the College, and how we sang again this weekend at our variety show. We sang in Russian and in Latin, and we sang with our whole souls and bodies. We sang about the fruit of the Russian snowball tree and of lying down in its shade, and we sang “Let us rejoice today!” – and that’s what we were doing.
While at the college, I heard bits and pieces of what’s been going on in the world. I heard about white supremacist rallies in Virginia and elsewhere, threats of nuclear war between North Korea and the U.S., and more destruction in Syria. I also remembered my student guest, Carol, and the danger Coptic Christians like her and others are under in an increasingly fundamentalist Egypt. I thought of Rania, who lives in a divided Palestine and who has suffered enormous hardship at the hands of the occupying forces of Israel. I think of Sibongile, who was exiled with her mother from South Africa before the majority black South Africans came to power. Or my friend Zarminae, who can no longer go home to Pakistan because of the violence and radicalization that are taking place there. All of this reminded me how important it is to come together as people of peace, to sing one another’s songs and to share one’s another’s loves, laments, hopes and dreams. This is what we did at the College this weekend, and this is what we do in the church each Sunday. As we gather we are not just the church in Langford, but the church of Jesus Christ world-wide. And with the chaos that continues to divide people one from another and the demagogues and fanatics who preach intolerance and hate, our voices need to be heard.
In Mark’s Gospel, we hear Jesus talking about just such a time of chaos. Such times have come and gone throughout history, and what interests me about how Jesus tells us to respond, is that he tells us to be careful – to not get led astray by those who claim they speak for him and who preach violence or oppression against those who they feel are opposed to Christ. Australian preacher Nathan Nettleton puts it this way:
What Jesus is calling us to is exactly the opposite [of the fingerpointing, scapegoating and violence being perpetrated these days]. Be alert lest you fall into such games. Be alert lest you be led astray by official explanations, even religious explanations, of the present chaos and fall into participating again in the very violence that named Jesus as a scapegoat who must be sacrificed lest the violent wrath of Rome fall upon us. Be on your watch, and wherever you see the system making new victims, takes sides with the victim, for in solidarity with the victims you will find yourself in solidarity with the Christ.
…Our reading from the letter to the Hebrews summed it up much more simply. Did you notice that it… ended with reference to the “coming final day”? Its conclusion were not that you should therefore get caught up in trying to interpret apocalyptic signs, [or even, as some misguided fanatics do, seek to increase the violence in order to hasten the end times.]. Instead, “let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the final day approaching.” That’s it. That’s all. Hold fast to the faith and hope you have found in Jesus. Stir one another up to greater and greater love and more and more ways to put it into action. Gather often as a congregation, support and encourage one another. The more the world plunges into chaos and violence, the more we’ll need one another. Too simple? Perhaps, but then so is the birth of a baby to a peasant mother in backwater Nazareth, the singing of a song of our hope and joy, the gathering of peaceful people to recognize the possibility of change and transformation – and it is in such little signs of life being born where there was only barrenness and dead hopes, that the real action of God is seen. The coming life of God is not deterred by the signs of death all around, for there is no death or destruction that can destroy God’s power to bring forth new life and hope. (©Nathan Nettleton, Laughing Bird Liturgical Resources, 2013, except italics)
There is Good News to be found in these simple but powerful things: a people gathered, a song shared, a life dedicated or rededicated, and the placing of trust in God’s good intention for the planet and the universe. Remain steadfast and alert, and let these simple gifts give you hope this day. AMEN.