A Little Night Music

A Little Night Music

Joel 2: 28-32

Linda C. Loving
Pastor, House of Hope Presbyterian Church
St. Paul, MN 

Sermon to the
2002 Covenant Conference
Closing Worship, November 9, 2002

In the third grade I stole a hymnal from my church and hid it in my bedroom under my ballerina dolls. Long after bedtime, I would sneak out the hymnal, whipping it open as quickly as possible so as to avoid the guilt I felt when I glimpsed the gold lettering proclaiming it to be the property of Immanuel Presbyterian Church! (And I’m afraid there are several here today who know just which Immanuel Church that was! Turn me in to the authorities if you must, but I just couldn’t help myself!)

On the floor by my night-light — hunched over that hymnal — I would sing through it page by page, decently and in order of course, making up the tune if I didn’t know the hymn. Older and wiser now, this confession seems less perverse and more profound; an ancient response awakened within a young girl — the desire to sing praise and thanks to the God of all creation. In later years, by the same night-light, I switched to Broadway show tunes, but they never carried quite the same mystique as those stolen hymns.

Storyteller Megan McKenna relates that Australian aborigines are known for their song-lines, laid down by ancient people (or some say gods). These song-lines are thought to link and transverse the entire earth with lines of power. The aborigines believe these song-lines literally sang the world into existence and keep it alive. Such singing is a knowing, a power and an exchange, a web and connection to the past. And, as McKenna observes, “Once you know the song, you can never get lost anywhere in the universe.”[1]

Many of us feel more than a little lost right now — bewildered by external anxieties of terrorist attacks and snipers, political upheaval and threats of war, and a beloved denomination sniping at one another; bewildered, as well, by internal anxieties of spiritual unrest and disappointment, impatience and a certain hardening of the heart.

Yet our scriptures and confessions offer song-lines — a knowing, a power, a web and connection to the past and the future. And we are reminded that we do know the song, and by God’s grace we carry the tune above the cacophony of anxiety and injustice. We do know the song. And once you know the song, you can never get lost. Anywhere in the universe. You can never get lost, and there is no lost cause, once you know the song of discipleship. No lost cause. Anywhere in the universe.

Perspective is what we seek — whether plumbing the depths of The Confession of 1967 or the words of the prophet Joel from centuries past. The perspective, as Shirley Guthrie put it, of getting our story in the Big Story — the living story of a just creation.

I was drawn to this Old Testament lesson, or perhaps I should say “pushed” toward it, in August when the worship team demanded a text and title. (Such advanced planning is an occupational hazard for clergy. For my church newsletter I have to come up with sermon titles weeks in advance and then live with them. I recently met a deadline on the fly with a sermon title which read “Lifting a Finger,” and left everyone wondering which one for a month!) Anyway, I was drawn or pushed toward this text because Joel speaks of renewal after desperate times — describes the pouring out of the Spirit of hope and deliverance.

In the very beginning of the book of Joel, this poet-prophet describes vividly the devastation and despair which had been wrought by locusts. No doubt you, as I, have had limited experience with locusts. But consider the metaphorical blights of our day as you listen to some of the verses from this first chapter:

The fields are laid waste,
the ground mourns;
because the grain is destroyed,
the wine fails,
the oil languishes.
The vine withers,
the fig tree languishes.
Pomegranate, palm and apple
all the trees of the field
are withered;
and gladness fails.
The seed shrivels under the clods.
How the beasts groan! (Joel 1:10, 12, 17a, 18a)

Sounds a little like the landscape following some of our denominational meetings in the last decade. Yet against this desolate backdrop Joel predicts in the very next chapter that the day of the Lord is near. He sings our faith’s ancient song-line of restoration and resurrection. “Sound the alarm on my holy mountain,” he alerts them as he calls for a gathering of the people and children, and then moves into the inspiring and promising perspective of a world in God’s hands:

The threshing floors shall be full
of grain,
the vats shall overflow with
wine and oil. (Joel 2:24)

And then God’s familiar promise:

I will pour out my spirit on all flesh;
your sons and daughters shall prophesy,
your old men shall dream dreams,
and your young men shall see visions.
Even upon the menservants and maidservants,
In those days, I will pour out my spirit. (Joel 2:28 and 29)

“I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” All flesh. All flesh. This is the Diety’s promise, not the denomination’s. And the Diety is greater. “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh.” Our work with the Covenant Network assumes that God means “all flesh” when God says “all flesh”!

Perhaps this is our particular song-line. This is what keeps us from getting lost anyplace in the universe, graces us to dream dreams and to see visions and to say again and again and again that God pours out God’s spirit on all flesh, all flesh — women and men, poor and rich, young and old, conservative and liberal, slave and free, gay and lesbian and bisexual and transgendered and straight. White and black and brown and red. American, Iraqi, Palestinian and Israeli. All flesh. God’s Spirit. God’s holy transforming Spirit poured out on all flesh.

Now, having said we cannot get lost anywhere in the universe, let’s not this morning get lost in the universe of “all flesh” and endtime; let’s pull in our perspective to this time, to your flesh and my flesh, to our story in the Big Story. Let’s ask ourselves the very particular question posed by poet Mary Oliver: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”[2] Tell me how it is you in particular are going to respond to the pouring out of God’s Spirit? How are you going to assure readiness to receive God’s Holy Spirit in your life?

Perhaps you think the Holy Spirit has been poured out already — thank you very much — and you are doing just fine; have figured it out yourself very nicely; have your life plan in place, your priorities in perspective. Or perhaps you imagine — since things are not going at all as you had planned — that God’s Spirit has not yet been poured out, and you indeed regularly advise God of how that will look when it finally happens; when God finally does it your way. Or perhaps you are plugging away at what you have named a vision, convinced that if the Spirit will just keep pushing you to do the same stuff harder, better, faster, more — you will prove that those vats will overflow with wine and oil yet.

The question is: Do any of these scenarios truly describe receiving God’s Spirit? Do they describe living in fresh anticipation of the Holy Spirit of Almighty God being poured into your being? Because that’s what it’s going to take. If we as individuals and as an organization and as the church and as the people of God are going to dream dreams and see visions, they need to be God’s dreams and God’s visions. We may have to face into some spiritual homework to understand that while we work hard, and passionately, it is God’s Spirit alone that can realize the vision of a just and inclusive church. We believe this to be God’s vision. We have had illusions perhaps about how such a just and inclusive church would occur. But illusions laid bare do not have to mean disillusionment; do not have to mean, in Joel’s words, that “gladness fails” or “the seed shrivels under the clods.” Again and again and again we are driven back to the vision, the song-lines, the overarching perspective. When the way-we-thought-it-would-be doesn’t materialize, we are driven back to how God wills it will be — driven back to God with open hands saying, “Give me your spirit, give me your spirit, give me your spirit so that your will is done.”

Maya Angelou wrote and delivered a poem for the occasion of the Million-Man March on Washington a few years ago. Her words help remind me of our constant need for perspective. Her words name the pain of not being able to fully control the unfolding of justice. She opened with these lines:

The night has been long,
the wound has been deep,
the pit has been dark,
and the walls have been steep.

Amen — some of us say.

Yet by the end of the poem, Angelou finds music in the night, articulates that gladness will never fail; finds the song-line that echoes Joel. Her poem concludes,

Clap hands,
call the spirits back from the ledge,
clap hands, let us invite joy into our conversations
courtesy into our bedrooms,
gentleness into our kitchen,
care into our nursery.
The ancestors remind us,
despite the history of pain
we are a going-on people
who will rise again. [3]

People of faith are “a going-on people”; we of Covenant Network are a going-on people. And we go on, not merely by the strength of our calculating and strategizing and positioning, but by the grace of God’s Spirit poured out. We go on nourished by God’s vision of how it will be. With or without us, God’s justice will come. Let it be with us, and with the knowledge it is not because of us, but because God’s Holy Spirit is poured out on all flesh. We hope to receive that Spirit this day; to truly open our hearts and widen our souls and imagine that it isn’t only up to us, even as we commit anew to do our best to replace modern nightmares with ancient dreams.

Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, writes, “I know full well that every time I step onto a podium, I take a risk that things won’t turn out exactly as I anticipate them in my ear — but then, there is no great music-making without such risk taking.” [4]

Our song-lines, our music against the night, involve constant risk; truly opening ourselves to receive God’s Spirit is constant risk, and rarely leads to how-we-thought-it-would-be. Our only hope is to match our will to God’s will day by day by day by day — each one of us, each wild and precious life, singing by our respective night-lights, “Thy will be done. Thy will be done.”

A fourteenth-century Persian poet observed that “in reality, the soul itself is a song.” What is riskier than to stand on a podium or in a pulpit or pew singing the world of God’s justice into existence? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

The great Christian mystic Julian of Norwich gives me the perspective to answer that question. Hear Julian’s blessing from the end of the play by J. Janda, and remember that once you know the song you can never get lost anywhere in the universe:

Life is a precious thing to me
and a little thing.
My life is a little thing. When it will end here is God’s secret.
And the world is a little thing.
Like a hazelnut in his/her hand.
But it is in God’s ever keeping
It is in God’s ever loving
It is in God’s ever making
How should anything be amiss?

Yes all shall be well
And all will be well.
And thou shalt see thyself
That all manner of thing shall be well.[5]

1. Megan McKenna, Keepers of the Story, New York: Orbis Books, 1977, pp. 37-38.
2. Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day,” in House of Light, Boston: Beacon Press, 1990, p. 60.
3. Printed in the San Francisco Chronicle, October 17, 1995.
4. Benjamin and Rosamund Zander, The Art of Possibility, Boston: Harvard Business School Press, p. 144.
5. J. Janda, Julian, Englewood: Pioneer Drama Service, 1979, p. 105.

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