Singing the Spirit’s Song in a Strange Land
Rev. Thomas Cary Kinder
United Church of Strafford, Vermont
July 1, 2018 Sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Psalm 137; I Corinthians 12-14; Acts 2:1-6
Twenty-five hundred years ago Psalm 137 asked, “How can we sing the Spirit’s song in a strange land?” We could ask the same question today.
Technology is evolving rapidly in unsettling directions such as in the fields of surveillance and robotics. Mega-corporations are growing and insinuating themselves into more control of the world. A significant number of Americans no longer value democracy and even favor a totalitarian government. The earth itself is in upheaval with ecological stresses, mass extinction of species and tens of millions of refugees.
How can we sing the Spirit’s song in this strange land?
One of the disorienting changes for Christians is the accelerating exodus from the church. Thousands of mainstream churches are closing their doors every year. The tragedy of this is that our spiritual tradition has wisdom to offer our situation today. Jews and Christians have sojourned as strangers in a strange land and stayed faithful and transformed the world. They have emerged out of Egypt, out of Babylon, out of the catacombs of Rome, out of the Dark Ages, out of wars and slavery and persecutions. We can find in our tradition guidance and encouragement we need.
The wisdom of Psalm 137 is that sometimes we cannot and should not sing. The captives in Babylon were traumatized by ruthless genocide and the scorched-earth devastation and depopulation of their country. They considered it an act of integrity and nonviolent resistance to stay silent when asked by their oppressors for a song. Silence was the sound of the Spirit appropriate to that strange land in which they found themselves.
We find ourselves today in a different situation, one more like the Corinthian church. First century Corinth was a strange land if ever there was one. It had recently become a major crossroads and port city in the Roman Empire, a boom town characterized by hustling greed and lust and pride.
Various philosophical schools and religious cults could be found proselytizing in the market of Corinth, but dominating them on the highest hill above the city was the towering temple of Aphrodite with its thousand sacred prostitutes. Archaeologists have uncovered over thirty wine shops that were lining the streets in Paul’s time. Picture the early days of the wild and lawless American west with loud, bustling saloons of ill repute drowning out the hymns from the small congregation at the edge of town.
Materialism, consumerism, exploitation, the abuse of humans as objects—anyone trying to follow the way of Christ would feel like a stranger in a strange land in such a culture, and any church trying to have integrity would struggle to navigate the clash between the beloved spiritual community inside its walls and its antithesis outside. How could they sing the Spirit’s song in that strange land?
Paul’s answer was to keep turning the church to the Holy Spirit within, and to the way of Christ-like love. This advice is exactly what we need today because the Holy Spirit wants to sing, it wants to speak and act in ways that will influence the path our society is taking and establish the realm of God’s justice, mercy and peace on earth. The Spirit needs people with the courage to use their gifts to serve that cause.
Turning to the Holy Spirit is exactly what we need to do because this is the same Spirit that exploded the universe into being, the same Spirit that formed the earth and brought forth life and evolved it over billions of years to bring human consciousness to birth, the same Spirit that we saw working through the heart and mind and body of Jesus Christ, the same Spirit made manifest in the Christ-like work of Mother Theresa and Dorothy Day and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Turning to the Spirit is what we need because the Spirit of God is a real, live force, present in our hearts and minds and our every cell, a source of guidance and power, and it will teach us what we can do in order to be a blessing to God’s creation in our time.
We do not need to believe everything that the Bible or hymnal or our fallible pastor says, but we do need to believe this—there is a higher power of love and life and light at work in the universe, and it needs people to be its instruments. It needs us. It needs this church to be the heart, mind and body of Christ in this time and place.
Paul calls us each to contribute our individual gift to the whole, and he says the most important thing about our gifts is that they be characterized by love and serve love.
There are two dimensions to this love. The first is the creation of a beloved and loving community that is a model of God’s realm on earth. Paul’s slogan for it is, “Build up the church!”
His answer to how we can sing the Spirit’s song in a strange land is that we each look to the Spirit within us and find the gifts that the Spirit is calling us to share and that we express them in such a loving way that we build up the church. The test of whether we are on the right track is extremely practical. Are we using our spiritual gifts to build the church’s ability to be a home for more people, a place that makes us more loving, more kind, more comforted, more inspired, more courageous, more one?
The second dimension to the Spirit’s agenda of love is to shape us into a more powerful force for changing the world.
One of my favorite books as a boy was George McDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin. It gives a beautiful metaphor for how this works.
Goblins living beneath the mountain are secretly plotting to kidnap the young princess Irene and force her to marry their prince. Irene discovers that her great, great, great, great grandmother is living in a tower of the castle. The old woman is a—if not the—Holy Spirit. She gives Irene a magic ring and tells her that whenever she is in trouble she should put it on and feel for an invisible thread that will lead her where she needs to go.
One night the princess wakes up to a terrifying sound and follows the thread, expecting it to lead her upstairs to her protector, but instead it leads her onto the dangerous mountainside and then down into the chambers of the goblins where she finds a captive miner boy who is crucial to the struggle to save their world from the goblins. The thread shows her how to rescue him and then leads them both out of the mountain and finally back to the high tower and the old woman.
The thread leads back into the comfort and safety of our sanctuary, as William Blake wrote in his poem Jerusalem:
I give you the end of a golden string;
Only wind it into a ball,
It will lead you in at Heaven’s gate,
Built in Jerusalem’s wall.
Along the way, though, that thread will lead us out to confront the forces that oppose God’s realm of love and justice, it will lead us to transform and save the world.
A woman told me of an insight that came to her at the organ recital here Friday evening. She is a choir and chorus member in another town. She said she has felt called to respond somehow to the strange, hard things going on in our world, but has not seen what she could do. She realized the answer was right in front of her, coming up from the deepest part of her—her gift is to sing, to give comfort or courage to others by singing. She is already building up the church with her gift and now she is going look for opportunities to sing outside its walls in the service of justice and peace.
How can we sing the Spirit’s song in our strange land? Turn to the Spirit in trust and it will teach you everything. Turn as individuals, but it is crucial that we turn also as a congregation. The Spirit works through us together, each with our own voice and part to sing in harmony with those around us. We are here to help one another, to build up the whole into something far more powerful than we can be alone.
We are living in a completely new time, and it is going to require new words and new music and new forms, and at the same time the comfort of our old words and music and forms. We need to keep singing even when our voices seem too few and weak to make a difference. We need to trust that the Spirit will work through our many gifts and will show us the way that our love can turn a strange land into the realm of God on earth.
Let us pray together in silence…