March 25, 2018
Palm Sunday Gospel Service with Southern Rail
In the calendar of Western Christianity, this is the Sunday before Easter, called Palm Sunday. It is the beginning of Holy Week, when the gospel accounts say Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey while adoring crowds waved palm fronds and greeted him as the Messiah. Traditionally a time for celbration, for hosannas and hallelujahs. One of my UU colleagues is observing Palm Sunday by kicking off her pledge drive with a live donkey which the members will bid on. She calls it her “get your ass to church” campaign. Here in Chatham, we have no donkey, we have no palm fronds but we do have palms, see [holds up hands]. We can put those palms together and sing our Hosannas for the spirit, and we chose this great gospel band to get the spirit moving..
This church, like all UU churches, is open to all people regardless of religious belief or unbelief. Many of us do not accept basic parts of the theological fabric of orthodox Christianity — or Judaism or Buddhism for that matter. Yet we understand that the spirit is too big to be contained in a box that says this doctrine or that doctrine. We understand that music taps feeling which are universal and deeply interwoven in the soul. We can relate to the feeling behind a good gospel song even if we don’t agree with the theological ideas it is based upon.
For example, Southern Rail is going to sing a song about a hobo, hitching a ride to heaven on a train. It’s a funny song and it is an appealing image, and he says at one point he knows he wouldn’t be welcomed in heaven if he went the regular way. But of course our Universalist heritage holds that everyone is bound for heaven anyway, and we try to emulate that by welcoming everyone in our churches. But that is a theological quibble which should not get in the way of our enjoyment of the song and the overall message of the song is Universalist anyway.
Almost twenty years ago, my cousin asked me to sing some songs for the memorial service of his mother-in-Law, which took place at the Alzheimer’s facility where she had lived the last few years of her life. There were maybe a hundred patients and family members attending, and I led the, through familiar songs like Swing Low and Lonesome Valley. What I remember was that day room erupting in song. During he spoken part of the service, the patients had been in various states of nonresponsiveness. But when they head a song that they knew, they joined in vigorously.
Where does this come from? Most of these patients no longer recognized their own children, and yet they still knew three or four verses of Swing Low Sweet Chariot.
I think music goes to a different part of the brain than ordinary speech. In the ages before writing, epics like the Iliad and the Odyssey were composed in verse with rhyme and meter so they would be easier than remember. They probably had tunes as well.
Turn your radio on. Open your ears to the music in the air. It reaches a different and deeper part of your brain than does analysis or information.
Radio is a great symbol for community. When I was a child, I had a crystal radio set which had two wires. One went to an earphone, and the other went to an alligator clip which I would attach to something metal, like a heating pipe, and I could tune in local stations and distinct stations and I’d go to sleep plugged in to the rock and toll of the time without my parents being the wiser. It was subversive.
Yesterday we performed a memorial service here for a local member of the folk and country music scene here, and one fo the facts of his biography was that as a child he live on top of a hill in Belmont, MA, justr outside fo Boston. He had a radio which could pull in WWVA, a great country music station from Wheeling West Virginia, and that started him on his lifelong love of country music.
Radio uses those mysterious audio channels in the brain to connect listeners in a wide area to the same programming. The power of radio to form a political community was realized a generation ago with the rise of conservative talk radio, but its subversive elements had already been proven in rock and roll in previous generations. One radio station on Cape Cod which really taps the potential of community building is WOMR in Provincetown. It was Jim Rohrer, who hosts this weekly bluegrass program on WOMR, who put me in touch with this fine band we have today.
We’ll get back to that band in just a minute, but I want to invite you to reflect on the mystery of how these notes move us, how they can be a window into our souls and take us back in time.
My wife, as most of you know, is a wonderful pianist and for years she has been playing English Country Dance piano, among other forms. A songwriter named Sally Rogers once was so taken with dancing to Jacqueline’s music that she wrote a song about it, called “The Tunes Jacqueline Plays. I think it’s a good description of the mystery of how music moves us and I’ll give you the verse and chorus before I sit down and let this great band continue:
The tune takes the floor when Jacqueline plays
On the ivories, the black and the white.
The tune is much more than the notes that she plays
As they waltz in the dark of the night.
Where in the notes on the page do you find
The tug and the pull that brings tears?
Where between fingers and keys are the rhymes
That make us remember the years, oh, the years...
My friends, Turn your Radio On!