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The Reverend Matt Gaventa
June 2, 2019
A Reading from the Acts of the Apostles
One day, as we were going to the place of prayer, we met a slave girl who had a spirit of divination and brought her owners a great deal of money by fortune-telling. While she followed Paul and us, she would cry out, “These men are slaves of the Most High God, who proclaim to you a way of salvation.” She kept doing this for many days. But Paul, very much annoyed, turned and said to the spirit, “I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her.” And it came out that very hour. But when her owners saw that their hope of making money was gone, they seized Paul and Silas and dragged them into the marketplace before the authorities. When they had brought them before the magistrates, they said, “These men are disturbing our city; they are Jews and are advocating customs that are not lawful for us as Romans to adopt or observe.” The crowd joined in attacking them, and the magistrates had them stripped of their clothing and ordered them to be beaten with rods. After they had given them a severe flogging, they threw them into prison and ordered the jailer to keep them securely. Following these instructions, he put them in the innermost cell and fastened their feet in the stocks.
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was an earthquake, so violent that the foundations of the prison were shaken; and immediately all the doors were opened and everyone’s chains were unfastened. When the jailer woke up and saw the prison doors wide open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself, since he supposed that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted in a loud voice, “Do not harm yourself, for we are all here.” The jailer called for lights, and rushing in, he fell down trembling before Paul and Silas. Then he brought them outside and said, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They answered, “Believe on the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household.” They spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all who were in his house. At the same hour of the night he took them and washed their wounds; then he and his entire family were baptized without delay. He brought them up into the house and set food before them; and he and his entire household rejoiced that he had become a believer in God.
“About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the prisoners were listening …” Which hymns do you think they were singing? Paul and Silas have been on the road a long time and they’ve been in a lot of worship services for a long time but here in Acts 16, the whole movement of the book grinds to a halt, in a prison cell, in Philippi, in the middle of the night, in the dark. What do you sing in the middle of the night, when there’s no way out?
If it were me. I know the hymns that tug at my heartstrings. But, if it were me in that midnight jail, I might very well have another songbook in my head, because I can’t think about prison songs without thinking back to one of the greatest live recordings of all time, Johnny Cash’s Live at Folsom Prison. Of course, from his earliest days on tour, Johnny had cultivated a bit of a bad boy image; he sang songs about outlaws and ne’er-do-wells, and pretty soon he was playing prison gigs all over the country. And then of course, there was the hit song “Folsom Prison Blues,” one of the few that made him a sensation, and it was inevitable that Johnny and his band would eventually play for the real inmates at Folsom Prison.
So what do you sing behind the prison bars for folks with no way out? I guess he could have played his normal set. But on that particular day in Folsom, Johnny decided he didn’t want to be a performer. He wanted to be in there with them. So he gets up on stage and jumps right into the one song everyone’s expecting – I hear the train a’comin’… a’comin’ round the bend… and I ain’t seen the sunshine since I don’t know when… – but then the set that follows is totally unfamiliar, top to bottom, it’s songs just about prison. Johnny pulls covers from everywhere: Merle Travis’s “Dark as a Dungeon,”; Shel Silverstein’s darkly comic “25 Minutes to Go,” there’s even a song written by one of the prison inmates called “Greystone Chapel.” Johnny has the crowd in the palm of his hand. He’s toying with the guards. He’s mocking the warden. He’s making jokes at his own producer’s expense. For a few hours in January 1968, he becomes one of them, and the men of Folsom Prison hear the familiar joys and laments of their own hearts played with music they’ve never heard before.
Of course, we don’t know what hymns Paul and Silas were singing, nor do we have any idea whether they’d have been familiar to the prisoners listening. We don’t know what the music was. But what we know what its effect was. The text says that just as they are singing their hymns, then, suddenly, the earth shakes with such force that all the doors of the prison are open, and all of the chains are unbound. And the text has no interest in reading this as historic coincidence. There’s no question but that this is the power of God come to visit upon our lowly prison choir, because the next thing that happens is an act of conversion: our jailer sees what has happened, and sees that Paul and Silas have not fled the scene, and he falls on his knees and pledges himself to God. So, just, if you’re keeping score at home: they sing hymns, and the earth shakes. They sing hymns, and the prison doors burst open. They sing hymns, and the liberating power of God shows up in their midst.
Does it matter what hymns they’re singing?
I mean, church folks know all about this argument. Nothing gets more personal for church folks than the hymns we like, the hymnals we like, or, rather, the hymnals that are inside the hymnals, that invisible dividing line between the hymns we actually sing and the ones we don’t. We all have our favorites. And by extension we all have our un-favorites. But if worship-song is really about the power of God come into our midst; if worship-song is really about the power of God come to be with us and for us, then the truth in this text is that the song itself matters so much less than the singing. Church musician John Thornburg says that the problem with talking about what hymns we like and what hymns we don’t like is that you never know when the hymn you don’t like is saving the life of the person sitting next to you. And of course, you never know what you’re going to be singing when the earth starts to shake.
Of course, I have my favorites, too. And not just in the hymnal. There’s a reason I fell hard for Johnny Cash; it’s how I was raised, riding in my grandfather’s pickup truck and listening to whatever old-time country music station we could find on these long flat highways in west Tennessee, Merle Haggard, and Waylon Jennings, and Tammy Wynette, and no small dose of Hank Williams. They were songs about heartbreak, about loss, about just getting by. Songs about folks on the very bottom. And I’m a middle-class kid from the suburbs, but even I could tell that that’s what real country music was supposed to sound like, and then years later when I moved, back to the south, back to Virginia, I decided to reclaim those old country music roots and I turned on the radio and I heard… Well. You know. I turned on the radio and the song I heard, and you may know it, and if this is your favorite song I apologize, but the song I heard was by a group called Lonestar called “Front Porch Lookin’ In,” which, as far as I can tell, is about a man noticing how wonderful his life is, how wonderful his family is, how wonderful his house is, and not that there’s anything wrong with that, but we’re a long way from Folsom Prison.
And so I have spent the intervening years, at least from the moment that I heard that song, I have spent the intervening years quietly believing that country music had fundamentally lost its soul. Believing, as Waylon says, that I don’t think Hank woulda done it this way, that you can have your Lonestar and your Kenny Chesney and your Toby Keith and I’ll just hold on to Waylon and Merle and Tammy. And regardless of your feelings or your fluency in country music, you may recognize that general disposition from our regular approach to Sunday morning, which is, of course, that we want the classics, the good stuff, the problem being, of course, that you never know when the hymn you don’t like is saving the life of the person sitting next to you. It pains me to admit it, but the truth is that out there somewhere, there may be a man who at just the right moment of his life needed to hear Lonestar sing about the wonderment of family and home and everyday prosperity. Maybe he needed to hear that quite urgently indeed. And so maybe what seems to me a cheap, crass, condescending mess of a song has, much to my chagrin, saved a man’s life. The question isn’t whether I like it. The question is: what is God doing with this music that we sing? And the answer may very well be that God is shaking the foundations of the earth.
Few things in the life of Christian worship are more personal than finding the songs that tug at your heartstrings. There is no congregation on earth that totally agrees on the music it should be singing; maybe you think we sing too many of the old chestnuts; maybe you think we sing far too few. In just a few moments the choir is going to sing one of my favorites — by the husband and wife Paul and Ruth Manz, she taking the words of Revelation 22, he putting them into plaintiff voice, at the bedside of their ailing three-year-old child, a beckoning for the promise of Jesus Christ made on this Ascension Sunday: “E’en so, Lord Jesus, quickly come, and night shall be no more.” In the half-century since it was written, this piece has gone around the world a few times. For many it has become heart-song; it was a stalwart of the Christmas Eve services at the church that taught me faith; this is exactly what I sing when the midnight hour strikes. But of course, you might not like it. Maybe it’s too unfamiliar. Or maybe you’ve heard it too many times. Or maybe it’s just not your thing. That’s the trick with worship-song — everybody’s music libraries work just a bit differently. So let’s not forget that the question of what we sing is so powerfully dwarfed by the Gospel of why we sing: that is, just as it was for Paul and Silas, we sing because our imperfect music is time and again the occasion for the powerful, and liberating, and jail-shattering grace of God.
Long before he played at Folsom, on January 1, 1958, a much younger Johnny Cash, fresh off of his early success, walked into San Quentin Penitentiary outside San Francisco and took the stage with the in-house prison band for backup. The crowd was packed in. In the decades prior, tens of thousands of farmers had flooded west from the dust bowl, and many of the less fortunate among them had ended up in San Quentin, often multiple times. One of the young men in the audience had first gone to jail when he was 11 years old. He’d been back three more times, escaped once, and then finally, at eighteen, he was given a fifteen-year sentence for burglary. So there he was in the crowd, on the first day of 1958, when Johnny Cash took the stage. Johnny’s outlaw image was on full display — he was flipping off the guards, he’s cursing, he’s chewing gum! — but when he sings, hope finds its way into those prison walls. At least it finds its way into the heart of this one young man, just eighteen and already a lifelong criminal, but when he heard Johnny Cash play, he thought, now, that’s what I want to do. So he joined that prison band. Two years later he was out on parole. Four years after that, in 1964, he had his first song on the charts; in 1966, his first number one, and twenty years later, I’d be listening to Merle Haggard’s greatest hits on the long flat highways of western Tennessee.
Thanks be to God. Amen.