This Sunday we will sing what may be the most uplifting, energizing and inspiring hymns in our tradition, including a few that most of us have never sung before. It will be an exciting day, made more so by the accompaniment of master percussionist Steve Ferraris as well as our master pianist Annemieke McLane.
They are South African Freedom Songs, among hundreds that empowered and rejuvenated the anti-apartheid freedom movement that Nelson Mandela led.
These songs have meaning for us because we are today part of the same freedom movement, seeking to free the world from oppression and violence and establish something more like God’s realm of mercy, justice and peace on earth. Our situation is similar in many ways to that faced by Mandela and the African National Congress–seemingly insurmountable problems, hostile, political polarization, and always the risk of despairing and giving up the struggle for a better world. The songs kept their spirits strong and they can do the same for us.
This same movement goes back to the Hebrew Prophets, and Christ, and St. Francis, and the anti-slavery abolitionists of the 19th Century. We will sing two other freedom songs by one of the heroes and poets of that era, James Russell Lowell—”Once to Every Heart and Nation,” and “Men, Whose Boast It Is.” Pianist Annemieke McLane will play the African-American spiritual “I’ve Been in the Storm So Long” and the Estonian “Variationen zur Gesundung von Arinuschka” by Arvo Pärt, a haunting minimalist piece that takes us on a journey through the sickness and then healing of his daughter, another kind of liberation movement.
We will read the beautiful teaching in I John 4 where it says that “God is love.” We will also hear John 15:1-8 where Jesus says that he is the vine and we are the branches–a good image for the movement of his Spirit that flows through history and through us.
Here is a video of the South African freedom song “Freedom Is Coming” performed in the very church where Johann Sebastian Bach was the musician and performed his greatest spiritual music.