We all have our favorite hymns. I hear it so often, “I just wish we sang hymn _____ more often” and I mark it on the list of requests. There is a hymn that has not been requested at LCOS, one that we’ve shied away from, and yet it’s one that has one of the most meaningful texts and richest history from the hymnal.
I’m talking about ELW 841, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
The year was 1899, just two decades after the Reconstruction era and with lynchings still on the rise. James Weldon Johnson, a young Black man only in his 20s had been asked to address the crowd for a school event in Florida, cele-brating Lincoln’s birthday. Instead of a speech he wrote the poem which is now the hymn’s text, asking his brother John Rosamond Johnson to set it to music. The musical result was performed by a choir of 500 school children in 1900 at a segregated school. He recalls what followed: “Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved away from Jack-sonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country.” Since then it has become extremely popular and is called the Black national anthem. And yet… Lutherans shy away from singing it. We tend to not speak up about the topics it mentions. And that’s why, over 120 years later, the “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears” is still such a powerful line of that text. Be-cause we have kept silent about the weary years of violence, tears, and trauma for too long. It’s easy to stick to your comforting favorites. The recurring patterns of the liturgy, the hymns that are repeated year after year, the readings that come back every three years. It’s tempting to do things “the way we’ve always done them” and to not speak up. Doing things how we’ve always done them is what has led us to be the whitest denomination in the entire country. So now it’s time to be uncomfortable. You’re already uncomfortable this year – COVID-19 has put everyone’s life up-side down. Channel that uncomfortable-ness into something that will lead to change. An acting professor I’ve worked with would always tell us to take the nervous energy of performance anxiety and propel it into telling our story, moving the story forward. Dear church, we’re all uncomfortable. For so many reasons. We can’t gather to worship as we used to. We can’t sing right now – it has been proven that singing propels those droplets that could hold the virus farther than any other activ-ity. That fact breaks my heart, but we can use our energy towards addressing something that breaks God’s heart. If we cannot sing, let’s use our voices communally to work towards a better and more just world. Let us use our voices, our thoughts, words, and deeds, to work for God’s Kingdom. Let us work to bring an end to the weary years and silent tears. Because all of God’s children matter, which is why right now we need to help proclaim that Black lives matter.
There will come a time when we can sing again in the future. But in this present moment, let us march towards change and victory. We are marching in the light and love of God. And that, church, is the true Song we should all be singing.
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun
Let us march on till victory is won.