Sacred Song, V: Song of Justice
That’s the thrust of this sermon series.
And so today, we’ll look briefly at two songs of justice from scripture, songs that celebrate God’s presence in the midst of impossible situations, songs that celebrate God’s work for justice, making possible what had once been thought impossible.
The Song of Miriam
Then the prophet Miriam, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines and with dancing. 21 And Miriam sang to them:
“Sing to the LORD, for he has triumphed gloriously;
horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.”
And Mary said,
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home.
Songs express what words alone cannot.
Songs push us to action,
and reframe how we see the world.
We sing to voice our own sorrows, and we sing to voice the sorrow of others.
We sing to be shaped by God’s story.
We sing to give voice to the God in whom we live and move and have our being, who is again and again on the side of the poor and oppressed.
Songs matter, so when it comes to the question “how should we live our lives in this complex, beautiful and broken world?” songs of justice like Miriam’s and Mary’s give us a path forward.
By songs of justice, I mean songs that celebrate freedom.
By songs of justice, I mean songs that capture the Christian vocation using the language of love, right relationship and united action.
By songs of justice I mean songs that don’t promise pie in the sky, but instead promise real change for the sake of those who are suffering injustice now.
Justice is a central concern of the bible.
From slavery in Egypt, to captivity in Babylon, to oppression under the Roman empire, we hear how God cares for the poor and oppressed, the powerless and the defenseless.
And, we know from the 20th century what happens when power and violence win: you get the Holocaust against the Jewish people, you get Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the killing and destruction in South Africa, Vietnam, Northern Ireland, Iran, Israel, Bosnia, Croatia, Rwanda and the lynching fields in our own country.
God is on the side of the poor and oppressed, those for whom justice is a matter of life or death.
The call to justice is a defining part of faith at Kenilworth Union too, literally carved in stone above our cloister walk. “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with our God.”
But the most ancient songs of justice aren’t rooted in words but are rooted in stories.
Take Miriam for example.
Her mother lived in poverty under the yoke of slavery and under threat of death. But it wasn’t her they threatened to kill, it was Miriam’s younger brother, just 3 months old.
All baby boys born to Hebrew mothers were under threat of death because the Pharaoh knew that baby boys grew up to be men, and men, even enslaved men, had the potential to claim the holy and impossible freedom owned them as fellow human beings in the common project of being alive.
But Hebrew men to Pharaoh, were only worth the economic value they brought to the mud-brick fields, and were not valued as human beings with inherent worth. So Miriam’s mother knew that her baby boy had a better chance of survival if she sent him down the river and so she did.
She placed him in a waterproof basket, and with nothing but a hope and a prayer, sent him downriver. And his older sister stood at a distance scripture says, to see what would happen to him. His older sister Miriam stood at a distance to see what would happen to him.
That’s where we first meet Miriam, Moses’ big sister, at the water’s edge. So it’s no surprise we meet Miriam again several chapters later, standing again at the water’s edge—this time on the other side of the Red Sea and the other side of freedom, singing a song of praise to God, celebrating the ways in which God and her people have triumphed over the Pharaoh's unjust system, and have made their way to freedom.
It wasn’t a straightforward path to freedom. It wasn’t “ask and you shall receive.”
It was “ask and ask again and ask again and then run for your lives.”
Moses—who was scooped up from the river by the Pharaoh's daughter as an infant, grew up in the Pharaoh's court, could have stayed there, he could have lived under the guise of freedom, a Hebrew man with just enough power and privilege to skirt by, maybe saying something like “My mom made mudbricks so I didn’t have to.”
But instead his eyes were open to the suffering of his people, and despite the fact that he felt ill equipped, he stood up to Pharaoh saying, “Let my people go” and the Pharaoh said no, “Let my people go,” and Pharaoh said no, “Let my people go” and Pharaoh said yes, only to quickly change his mind and send his army after them.
But Pharaoh's army doesn’t make it across the Red Sea, and as Miriam sings, “horse and rider are thrown into the sea.”
Her song, what scholars think is the most ancient remnant of scripture, celebrates the first moment of freedom the Hebrew people have after 400 years of slavery—a number of importance that does not escape my notice in a season when we are remembering the 400 year anniversary of slavery in America.
Miriam’s song is a song of impossible, and hoped for safety out of danger, impossible hope for freedom out of enslavement.
Hers is the first and foundational song of justice that we hear repeated and built upon later in Mary’s story, when Mary is told “Nothing is impossible with God.”
Because Mary too was another flat-broke mother whose infant son’s life was threatened by the Emperor, who has to flee, run for her life, in her case back to Egypt, to escape the Roman Empire who was threatening to kill her infant son, and all the baby boys of Bethlehem.
And Mary sings a song of justice too, this time before her infant son is born, because she knows even then that the God of justice is on her side.
She knows she is carrying within her a song of freedom. Mary’s Magnificat echoes the ancient song of Miriam, singing of God’s possibility in the midst of impossibility. Mary’s song makes intentionally visible the connections between Miriam’s song, and her own, between Exodus and Bethlehem.
Mary worships and bears the same liberating and world-transforming God who we meet in the story of Miriam.
As we think about the songs of justice in our scripture, it becomes obvious that it’s no accident that most of the songs of justice in American hymnody are from times in our country’s history when we were wrestling with the unjust systems of oppression that held and hold black bodies captive, whether during the era of slavery, reconstruction, Jim Crow, or mass incarceration.
The hymn “Go down Moses” was used by Harriet Tubman to identify herself to slaves who might want to flee north.
Frederick Douglass, a 19th century abolitionist and former slave, wrote that when he sang the hymn “O Canaan, Sweet Caanon, I am bound for the land of Canaan” some onlookers might have thought he was praying to reach heaven, when really what he meant was that he was praying to reach the north, to escape the confines of injustice under slavery.
“The north was our Canaan,” he said.
This week as people took to the nation’s capital to remember the 1963 March on Washington, that culminated in Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, and pressed for and led to federal civil rights legislation, it is impossible to see the images from that 1963 March, and not hear in our minds the voices singing “we shall overcome,” another song of justice originally written in 1901 by Rev. Charles Albert Tindley, a black preacher from Philadelphia.
The tune to “We shall overcome” has roots in a melody set by Beethoven.
And the song was used in the 1940’s when black women in Charleston, South Carolina were striking in protest of unjust labor laws in a cigar factory there, and then became ubiquitous during the Civil Rights era, and has been sung here in our sanctuary as a way to remember and celebrate the ways in which justice has been made known, as well as a way to pray for more justice to come.
Every generation must seek, in their own ways, to love one another, to do justice, to love kindness, to walk humbly with our God.
We are not the first to face horrible situations, in which injustice is the norm and justice must be pursued with renewed energy, imagination, and persistence.
In a week when another black man is shot by police, and when an armed white man is implicitly considered a helper instead of a threat by police, we have a lot of work to do to untangle what justice looks like in the days and weeks ahead.
We sing songs of justice to voice our own sorrows and to give voice to the sorrows of others.
We sing songs of justice to reshape our own lives, and to draw near to our God who is again and again on the side of the poor and the oppressed, the people like Miriam and Mary who have nowhere else to turn.
We sing songs of justice so that we might begin to align our lives with our God of justice, and more deeply seek for ourselves and for each other the possibilities of justice and freedom, hope and new life, here and now.
May we sing songs of justice. May we be changed. Amen.