SINGING WITH SPIRIT – Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost—Proper 15, Year B; Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Year B (RC)

August 15, 2021

Revised Common Lectionary
1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14 or Proverbs 9:1-6
Psalm 111 or Psalm 34:9-14
Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

Lectionary for Mass (RC)
Revelation 11:19a; 12:1-6a, 10ab
Psalm 45:10, 11, 12, 16 (10bc)
1 Corinthians 15:20-27
Luke 1:39-56

Today’s reading from Ephesians includes a verse that church musicians love to quote, as it encourages us to “sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (Eph 5:19).

Singing is a complex activity. It involves body and breath, spirit and heart, word and action. From an individual standpoint, singing engages every part of our being, as first we breathe in and then push breath outward through our vocal apparatus to produce rich varieties of sound.

When many of us perform this singing activity together, it’s no longer just about our individual bodies. Singing together forms us into a corporate body. It joins us together at so many levels; from the breath we take together, to the words we articulate together, to the pitch and rhythm that we make together. Taking it one step further, singing together as the body of Christ amplifies our prayer, because we believe that the Spirit of God acts in us and through our song to reveal and express so much more than words alone can do.

The Hymn Society in the United States and Canada describes the power of singing together in its vision statement: “We believe that the holy act of singing together shapes faith, heals brokenness, transforms lives, and renews peace.” In other words, singing together is an action that makes us instruments of God’s transforming power.

It’s no coincidence that the Hebrew word for spirit, ruah, literally means breath. Singing together, as we are reminded in Ephesians, is a matter of breath, or spirit: “Be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” (5:18-19). We are to take in the Holy Spirit, the holy breath, and together exhale it into the church and into the world, so that the Spirit’s power can transform, bringing light to darkness, justice to oppression, hope to fear, unity to division, harmony to discord, life to death.

At the 2018 Annual Conference of The Hymn Society, Pastor David Bailey drew our attention to the larger context of today’s passage from Ephesians. The author of Ephesians, he noted, first speaks of the darkness around us. If we go back just one verse before the beginning of today’s passage, we read this: “Sleeper, awake! Rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (5:14). We are urged to get “woke,” and then right at the beginning of today’s reading, to get wise: “Be careful then how you live, not as unwise people but wise” (5:15).

Being careful and wise means being attentive to the things going on around us. Can we call ourselves woke or wise if we’re not bothered by deceit on the part of political leaders, by immigrant families being torn apart, or by alarming incidents of young unarmed black men being shot by law enforcement officers?

The scripture warns us against anesthetizing ourselves against seeing the evils around us. “Don’t get drunk with wine,” we are urged. In the world today, of course, there are far more subtle forms of drunkenness than alcohol. We can sedate ourselves in more socially acceptable ways, taking advantage of our privilege as white, or male, or educated, or having a certain level of income, or holding a position of power.

Instead of filling ourselves with spirits of unwisdom, we are told to “be filled with the Spirit,” that is, the ruah or Spirit of God, who opens our eyes to see ourselves as we really are and the world as it really is. It’s only when we wake from our sleep that we have space in our lives and in our hearts and in our communities to be filled with the Spirit of wisdom—the Spirit who makes us one, who animates our song, who turns us from darkness to light, and who allows us to live in thankfulness.

When we are filled with the Spirit and when we live and worship from a place of thankfulness, we remember that it is God’s life we live, it is God’s work we do, it is God’s world that we love. It is then that we can join in singing “psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs.”

As we sing, let us be filled with the transforming ruah of God, and as people fiercely committed to God’s justice, unleash that Spirit through our singing and our living, all “for the life of the world.”

A Hymn for Today: “Lift Every Voice and Sing”

This deeply expressive poem, written in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson, was set just five years later to a powerful tune by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson. It is a dearly held treasure among African Americans and is also well known among many others who share a commitment to justice. Rep. James Clyburn recently proposed that it be recognized by the U.S. Congress as the national hymn of the United States.

The first stanza is about singing together to sound forth “the harmonies of liberty,” that give expression to faith grounded in struggle, hope in this present moment, and commitment to continue marching to a victorious future.

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 of 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 be won.

Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
felt in the days when hope unborn had died.
Yet, with a steady beat, have not our weary feet
come to the place for which our parents sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered;
we have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

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.

Text: James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)
Tune: LIFT EVERY VOICE, J. Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954)

Image Credit: The Center for Congregational Song

“Word and Song: A Lectionary Reflection” is written by the Executive Director of The Hymn Society, Rev. Dr. Mike McMahon. For his full bio, click here and scroll down to the “staff” section.

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