30th September 2018
Music in MCC
I don’t know, I didn’t want to be up here tonight – I don’t know how I’m going to follow what Michael did last week! But, I’m going to do my best. And I thought that, as today is the last day of music month and tomorrow is the first day of MCC history month, I’d bridge the gap a bit, and we can have the songs of the history of MCC! A few of them, not all of them, we’d be here all night.
‘Look, I am doing something new’ says God. Sing to God a new song’. God the Creator positively encourages us to copy our Parent and be creators. In art, in words, in service, in song. God loves it when we create stuff. And the Bible encourages to sing new songs. Not just the same old, not a rehash of various Bible verses (some of them are very popular songs, I know) but to sing a new song, to sing our song. The song of our hearts, our experiences, our love for God and God’s love for us. There’s a place for the wonderful old traditional hymns, but there’s also a place for creativity, for the Spirit. We remember what God has done for us, but we also look at what God is doing now.
Because one of the understandings of MCC and a lot of other churches (not all churches) is that God is still speaking, that God didn’t suddenly go silent when St John of Patmos put his pen down at the end of Revelation. God’s still speaking and God’s still doing new things. That ‘I have so much more to say to you, but you are not yet able to bear it’ that Jesus said; the Holy Spirit that Jesus said would be coming to lead us on and on into new truth, is still active now. There’s still new movements of the Spirit, still new things. And we respond to them, and have responded to them for two thousand-odd years. By singing songs about it, amongst other things.
Around all sorts of issues, revivals, reforms, rights movements. They have their songs, they have their anthems. Whenever we try to limit the amount of upheaval that God can cause in our lives, along comes a movement of the Spirit, an exciting new song that gets our feet moving again. MCC’s no exception to this. It’s a new movement of the Spirit that came with new songs.
So I’m going to count just seven of them this evening. I think that in the history of the church, 50 years is still pretty new, they’re still new songs. Actually most of these are from the first 20 years. Not all the songs were new. Some were new words to old songs, and those who heard her will never forget Delores Berry, who couldn’t half belt out new words to old songs. I’ll never forget looking over Jordan and what did I see coming for to carry me home? but dykes on bikes, and angels in leather and all sorts. It was wonderful. Oh, she was grand.
Some songs, they weren’t all written by people who were in MCC, or people who were at the time in MCC, but a lot of them came from that feeling that we had been crushed down and we’d found freedom. The feeling of the loss and the pain and the isolation suddenly being lifted, and we realised that God has loved us all along. And there were a lot of songs that we either adopted or created. One from very early on was written by a young woman before she ever came out, but the experience of being a young lesbian in the church was definitely coming through that song. She wrote a lot of wonderful songs after coming out as well. That was Marsha Stevens who wrote many a song that was used by MCC over the years, but she wrote this one before the Evangelicals hated her, and it was ‘For those tears I died’.
‘I know you are thirsty, you won’t be denied, I felt every tear drop when in darkness you cried, and I strove to remind you, that for those tears I died’.
It’s that song of realising that no matter what human beings had done to us, Jesus loved us all along, and God loved us all along, and there’s another song, ‘I’m not afraid any more’, Michael …. ‘One time my soul was grieved, grace was denied to me, but then Christ’s message of love I heard, now I have been set free. I’m not afraid any more. I’m not afraid any more. God’s message is for all the world, salvation is for everyone. Praise to God I’m not afraid any more.’ They are personal songs very much in the tradition of Amazing Grace. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a soul like me, I once was lost… and that’s been an anthem for MCC too, over the years. The message that salvation is for us, too, that we too are people of the love of God.
But then we also have the songs of a people who are a people of God, not just the songs of individual feeling that we saved, that we are loved, but as a people we are people of salvation, such as ‘Once, we were not a people’ – 1987 by Thomas…. The first hymn to say the words ‘gay and lesbian’ in it. ‘Once we were not a people; God’s people now are we, a gay and lesbian people, a new community. A gentle loving people with justice as our aim; a gay and lesbian people united in Christ’s name’. Like the songs of ancient Israel, thanking God not just as saved individuals (and perhaps recovering back, after evangelical traditions that had lost a bit of that) the sense that we are a salvation people, that we are a community, and we work out our salvation together, and not as isolated people. As isolated people we were easy to convince that we were alone and we were not loved, but as a people and a community it’s a lot harder to convince all of us that god doesn’t love us, when we know full well that God does.
Then we had songs of a new understanding. We had songs of new people and of a new people, then we had songs of new understanding. Not only a community, but one with a unique experience and perspective. A new song. Something now that we could say, that was new. I think you’ve all been here when we’ve sung the next one: ‘When Israel camped in Sinai’ and Moses heard this message, ‘tell my people and give them this, my word: ‘If God is like an eagle who helps her young to fly, and God is also Father, then what of you and I? We have no fear of labels, we have no fear of roles, if God’s own being blends them, we seek the selfsame goals’. That was by the pastor of the MCC in Boston in 1974 Larry Bernier. We realised that we could sing about something brand new. Not just revisiting the message of amazing grace but for us now, but that we might be channels of grace to the rest of the world.
Of course, no sooner do we declare joy, hope, freedom and truth, we’re going to get backlash. It didn’t take long. It didn’t take more than the time it took for people to realise we were there. But you know, I dare say that the very first singers of songs asserting the existence of the Trinity got a bit of a backlash from those who weren’t ready for such a huge theological leap. And we consider them a bit old-fashioned sometimes, now. So, as we realised that we had a bit of a fight in our hands, what do Christians do when they realise they’ve got a bit of a fight on their hands? They sing fighting songs. And I’m from a good old Celtic tradition, so I love those. Can’t beat a good protest song.
After the assassination of Harvey Milk, Holly Near came up with a song that became and anthem for many LGBT groups but certainly was an anthem to MCC churches all over the world. ‘We are a gentle angry people and we are singing, singing for our lives’ and actually I’ve learned some extra voices for that while marching with Trans Pride, because it says we are young and old together, we are a land of many colours, we are gay and straight together, singing for our lives. And I’ve heard ‘we are cis and trans together, we are binary and nonbinary together’ We could just keep adding verses to that one! And we are singing, singing for our lives.
Because we had a lot to sing for. This was the time HIV was starting to terrify us and the governments were being pretty unpleasant in a lot of places, in fact it felt a lot like it feels with some governments being pretty damned unpleasant in some places now. And we are still singing for our lives.
Then we had songs of mission. We realised not only were we saved individuals, not only were we a salvation community, not only were we a salvation community with a new message, we were one with a mission. We were the Church Alive. Is that in our song book, ‘we are the church alive’? Fantastic, maybe we’ll sing it in the coming weeks. ‘We are the church alive, Christ’s presence on this earth; we give God’s Spirit body in the act of our new birth. As yielded open channels for God’s descending dove, we shout and sing, with joy we bring God’s all inclusive love………..We are the church alive, the Body must be healed. Where strife has bruised and battered us God’s wholeness is revealed’. We’ve got a job to do. ‘Our mission is an urgent one, in strength and health let’s stand, so that our witness to God’s light will shine through every land’.
It’s a helpful thing to have songs like that, because the mission is there and the mission is huge. And scary. On our own, no matter how happy and saved an individual we might be, it’s too much for us. But when we’ve got songs like that, they lift us up and remind us we’re together. Not just together here, together all across the world. It’s a lot easier to take those steps out in faith and actually pursue the urgent mission we’ve been called to.
I’ve got one more song. Because the mission is ongoing. That song ‘we are the church alive, it was true in 1980, it’s still true now. The mission has changed a bit. Not that much, sadly. We’d hoped it would have changed a bit more by now. It has changed, but it’s still there, it’s growing. So ‘in the midst of new dimensions, in the face of changing ways, who will lead the pilgrim people, wandering their separate ways?’ Julian Rush, a methodist minister who was booted for being an openly gay man, but who found an affirming congregation, and wrote this song. ‘God of rainbow, fiery pillar, leading where the eagles soar. We your people, ours the journey, now and ever, now and evermore.
These are some of the songs that tell us who we are, and what we have to do. So what we have to ask selves now – those are the songs of our tradition and we carry them with us and we sing them to keep us moving forward, but what is our song? In the new dimensions, in the changing days, what’s our song going to be? What are we going to give to the next generation that will carry it forward? What are we going to sing that changes the world that we live in? Because these are our tradition, and they’re wonderful, but they weren’t a tradition when they were written – they were new, they were fiery, they were spirit. They’re still fiery, and they’re still spirit, but God’s still speaking. The Spirit is still in us. We’ve got new mission, new songs to sing, new ideas to come up with, and I can’t wait to see what we come up with.
Because we are a salvation community with a message and a mission which is still ongoing in a changing world. And that doesn’t change! In the darkness we cried, but we are not afraid anymore. We are God’s people, from all the roles that bind us God has set us free. We are a gentle, angry people, we are the Church alive, and ours is the journey, now, and evermore!