Lift Every Voice and Sing

The Sunday Sermon:  Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – June 17, 2018

Scripture:  Selected Scripture from Montreat PYC

Lift Every Voice and Sing (Reflections from Monteat PYC 2018)

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.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Pray with me …

That is the first verse of the hymn we will sing after this sermon message, after these “Montreat Scripture Readings” and “Montreat Reflections.” We are singing this hymn, number XXX in our hymnal, because “Lift Every Voice” was the theme of the PC(USA)’s Montreat Youth Conference this past week in Montreat, North Carolina. You sent eight youth and three adults to this annual week-long event that celebrates not just “the church of the future” in our youth, but the church of the present!

You would not believe the love, energy, passion, hope, joy, and promise that these eleven-hundred senior high youth brought to assembly, small-group, recreation, and worship every day for the past week. They are the “church of now,” if we could just find ways to keep worship important, vibrant and relevant to them. Though age is no excuse, I’m getting old, too. All week long, I imagined our new Youth Director, Ashia, in our midst. We sang songs this past week that she introduced to us last year. We had conversations this past week that she has already begun with our youth. Our future is in good hands with her leadership … and with our young people. Us older people need to get creative and courageous in provide the spaces that allow every voice to be lifted up.

For that is what the theme of the Montreat Youth Conference this year emphasized: Not one voice – say, maybe, a Pastor’s voice; not just a small group of voices – say, maybe a Session; not even a larger group of voices – like all those who pledge to a particular congregation. The theme, the conversation, the call this past week at Montreat was to lift every voice.

At the opening worship last Sunday evening, it was noted that we can emphasize this theme in many ways: Lift every voice (as opposed to suppressing them); Lift every voice (as opposed to simply encouraging everyone’s “presence” or lifting our “actions”). But finally, the emphasis for this past week together was on the second word of the theme statement: “Lift every voice.”

And so we began the conversation wondering what voices are present in our lives and choosing to focus on five: God’s voice, Difficult Voices, Our Voice, Silenced Voices, and United Voices – one emphasis for each day of the week last week.

Day One: God’s Voice. Listen now for the “voice” of God … Read Ezekiel 37:1-10. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

We began last week, we begin this morning, where we begin whenever we talk about things beyond our ability to articulate: Deep in the mysterious, creative and transformative power we most commonly call “God.” From Creation to Revelation – from “God said let there be light” to “These words are trustworthy and true” – the voice of God, the Sacred-Holy-Divine reality in our world, calls us into being and gives us our life’s work. We wondered how we might know when God is speaking, and just as importantly, when it is not God speaking. How can we discern God’s voice from the other voices claiming to be God?

Here’s a start: God’s voice will always be the one that offers life, abundant life, for all. “Can these dry bones live?” “O, Lord, you know.” Hear the Word of the Lord.

Day Two: Difficult voices. These are the voices in our lives that are not “God’s voice,” that do not offer life to all. But these “difficult voices” are also the ones that may be from God, but that we most often don’t want to listen to. Listen for the “difficult” voice of God … Read Luke 23:18, 20-25. The difficult word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

There are voices that want to silence us, too – the students at Stoneman Douglas High School had, and are still having, to listen to difficult voices that told them they are too young to understand what’s really happening to them, voices that told them their own voice was really the voice of their parents or some other adults that are using them to push their own agenda. These are the difficult voices that we, young and old, must identify and disregard. These are not the voices of God, calling for life abundant. These are the voices calling us to submit to wills and ways that leave life only to those with authority and wealth and power.

But there’s another kind of “difficult voice,” we examined on day two. The voices that are difficult to hear, not because they are wrong, but because they are right. And we don’t want to listen to those, let alone change. Though we don’t want to acknowledge it, Jesus’ own voice is one of the most difficult voices for us to listen to: Blessed are the meek and the merciful, the persecuted and the peacemakers. Are we meek or persecutred? You shall love your enemies and pray for them. Do we? Do not store up treasures on earth. I know we do jus the opposite of that one. Do not worry about tomorrow. Do not judge others. Do unto others … what you would have them do … unto you. Difficult …

How do we discern the difference between the difficult voices we must reject and the difficult voices we must listen to? How do we discover …

Day Three: Our Voices.  Listen for your voice … Read Matthew 15:21-28. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Some of the most puzzling and fascinating verses of scripture in our bible were the focus of day three as we explored and discovered “our voices.” In the passage we read for this day and that you just heard, Jesus himself is the difficult voice, not because he’s saying things that we need but don’t want to listen to. But precisely because he’s saying things that we shouldn’t listen to.

A non-Israelite woman comes to Jesus and says, “Help me!” And Jesus’ first voice is “no” voice. He did not answer her at all. A difficult voice that “non-voice.” One that this woman refused to listen to. When the disciples asked him to send her away, Jesus spoke in an even more difficult voice than his “non-voice:” I’m not here for you, he said. But the woman refused again to listen to this voice. She knelt at his feet and said once more, surely more forcefully, “Help me!” Surely Jesus will not refuse again, right? Wrong … His voice gets even harsher, even more difficult to hear: My food is for my children, not for .. the dogs. Wow … I’m pretty sure at this point I’d walk away from this person, Jesus or not. I don’t have to listen to this voice. But the woman in our story finds her voice in even deeper ways and reminds Jesus … himself … that we are all God’s children. And with that voice, rooted in the voice of God that speaks of life for all, Jesus … himself … finally hears, and responds.

I don’t know about you, but I have a bone to pick with Jesus in this exchange. Many have explained this passage away as Jesus “testing” this woman’s faith, but there’s no indication that Matthew means that. In any case, we’ll have to leave that for another day, because this day was about finding “our own voices,” and our focus was on this woman, the very embodiment of the voice of faith. She set the stage for us to discover …

Day Four: The Silenced Voices. Our scripture most often identifies these silenced voices at the alien/refugee, the orphan, and the widow. And that scripture is unequivocal in it’s command. Read Deuteronomy 27:19. The Word of the Lord about the silenced voices in our world. Thanks be to God.

Whose voices are we silencing? What happens when voices that need to be heard are silenced? What role to we have in helping silenced voices to be heard? Our youth were asked in their small groups to create a list of all the voices in our world that are too easily silenced. The lists they put together were long and it shouldn’t surprise you that they included themselves on it. We have work to do to give voice to the silenced. And we will only accomplish that work with …

Day Five: United Voices. Read 1 Corinthians 12:14-18,26. The Word of the Lord for a unified people. Thanks be to God.

It will take no less than “every” one of these voices to complete our task – the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven. Our sermon hymn, steeped in a particular history recognizes the challenge of this endeavor, but expresses the faith that it shall be.

In 1899, a young poet and school principal named James Weldon Johnson was asked to address a crowd in Jacksonville, Fla., for the coming anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Barely three decades had passed since the end of the American Civil War and just two decades had passed since the Reconstruction era. Lynchings were on the rise in the segregated South.

Instead of preparing an ordinary speech, Johnson decided to write a poem. He began with a simple but powerful line, a call to action: “Lift ev’ry voice and sing.”

He paced back and forth on his front porch, agonizing over the lines of the poem. After finishing each stanza, he handed over the lyrics to his classically trained brother, John Rosamond Johnson, who put the words to music. As they wrote the words and the notes, evoking the struggle and resilience of their ancestors, they began to weep. According to sources, Johnson recounted, “I could not keep back the tears, and made no effort to do so.”

The song was very soon embraced as a hymn in churches and performed at graduation ceremonies and in school assemblies. Within 20 years, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People adopted “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” as its official song.  For generations to come, and still today, it is widely known as the “black national anthem.”

It is in our hymnal, the song book of a predominantly white denomination, as a reminder of the all the voices silenced in the past that have been silenced and all every voice now and in the future that must be lifted up.

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, 
thou who has brought us thus far on the way; 
thou who has 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, 
least our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee, 
shadowed beneath the hand, may we forever stand, 
true to our God, True to our native land.

Please stand (if you are comfortably able to do so) and let us sing together. (Amen).

Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / June 17, 2018