The Song of Liberation

September 9, 2018

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Preached by Canon Sue Wallace using Isaiah 35:4-7 at Choral Eucharist on Sunday 9th September 2019, the 15th after Trinity.

Once again we have reached the beginning of a new choir year after a long and very hot summer, and here we are in a quire and presbytery which is gloriously decorated for the occasion. When planning this service the lectionary offered me a number of options for the first reading  but the one I was instantly drawn to was this text from Isaiah.

“Say to those who are of a fearful heart. ‘Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God..he will come and save you. Then the tongue of the speechless will sing for joy.’”

Perhaps those of you who are stepping up into the choir for the first time are a little fearful. Perhaps those of you who are taking on new responsibilities as senior choristers and know that this is your last choral year are also fearful. Choir parents and families, perhaps you are feeling a little daunted too… But this text offers us reassurance, “Be strong. Do not fear.” Those of you who are just starting to find your voice will indeed sing for joy as your voices grow and develop. For here is your God. “The Lord is here” (as the liturgy sometimes says) and “His Spirit is with us”, helping each and every one of us grow, develop and blossom as these sumptuous flowers surrounding us have also grown and developed from the tiniest seed or a scruffy looking twig.

But it seems to me that there is much more to be found in this text than comfort for the fearful. Todays text, from Isaiah 35, finds echoes in another text of Isaiah, Isaiah 61.

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because the Lord has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour, and the day of vengeance of our God.”

What a manifesto for a new year.

Good news, liberty and healing!

At the end of the previous choral year I talked about the Song of Creation. Now I am talking about the Song of Liberation.

Yet this talk of a  “Day of vengeance” seems to contradict this. It feels a bit like a sting in the tail. A “day of vengeance” sounds like a rather terrifying concept (or  a possible title for a Schwarzenegger movie). When Jesus preached on Isaiah 61 in the synagogue in Capernaum he missed out this vengeful verse and I used to wonder why, I also used to ask myself what on earth vengeance has to do with good news or liberty or binding up the broken hearted anyway? Is that why Jesus missed out the verse when he preached?

I no longer think this. Instead I believe that as Jesus began his ministry he wanted the ears of his hearers to focus on the positive rather than thinking about vengeance.  If you turn to today’s first reading in your books you will notice that the concept of vengeance is in Isaiah 35 too. “Your God will come with vengeance. With terrible recompense.” But this vengeance is not oppressive for we are told that it is part of a plan of salvation for us rather than a reason to be fearful.

These days I believe that the vengeance that Isaiah is talking about is the vengeance of liberation. The Spirit is bringing good news to the oppressed, and that is bad news for oppressors. The Spirit is binding up the broken hearted and that is bad news for those who break hearts and wound others. The Spirit is proclaiming liberty to captives and that is bad news for dictators and bullies who put others in chains for what they believe or because they are fragile and unable to fight back.

This brings me to the most exciting and perhaps important thing that I want to say today, so choristers, if you only take away one thing from this sermon, take away this. I believe that your voice, your song, can itself be an agent of liberation to others. We are called to sing Songs of Liberation. 

The Spirit of God, the Loving Life-giving Energy that gave birth to all of creation is working in and through you and your voices, so that your song can be a song of liberation. A song of freedom. Your song can open the eyes of the spiritually blind to contemplate a world beyond the everyday world of concrete and stone, work and school, because, like all things of the spirit, it cannot be seen or touched, but it can be experienced.  It can open our eyes to the possibility of eternal life and unending love. Your song can soothe, unstop and open ears that have been unable to hear the gentle voice of God, because they have been battered by harsh words or cynicism. And this calling is not just for choristers. All of us can be agents of liberation in our own spheres, whatever they may be. Banking, teaching, administration, pastoral care or in our volunteering.

However there is particular power in music. Songs can bring healing to the broken hearted, can help the grieving come to terms with their loss and heal, can help the spiritually thirsty find sources of refreshment that satisfy them. All this is possible. Your song can also be an agent of liberation to those who are trapped inside their own pain for music has been clinically proven to help in pain relief.

An inspiring tale of the healing power of music can be found in the first book of Samuel, when Saul is suffering from some kind of oppression or mental distress. Saul asks his servants to find someone who is a skilful musician, and they find a young David, the same David who later becomes king. David is asked to play the harp whenever Saul is in distress and the music soothes and heals him.

In modern life too, music is an agent of healing. I studied music in Canterbury and my previous head of music, Professor Grenville Hancox is now working with the elderly, using choral music to bring healing to sufferers of Parkinson’s disease. A six month research project he has recently undertaken has proved that singing leads to improved emotional wellbeing and reduces depression, anxiety and stress levels. It also combats loneliness and isolation. He is now campaigning for such treatments to be available on the NHS.

Music doesn’t only heal the soul (and sometimes even the body too) it also can be an agent of peace and forgiveness. Perhaps you remember the awful attacks in Manchester last year at the Ariana Grande concert. After the end of a national minute’s silence, in the gathered crowds of Manchester, something extraordinary happened. Not gunshots or a call for revenge – but a song. One lone voice somewhere in the crowd began singing “Don’t look back in anger”

“And so Sally can wait,

She knows it’s too late as we’re walking on by.

Her soul slides away,

But don’t look back in anger

I heard you say. “

…and it was taken up by the crowd.

“Don’t look back in anger”. Words of forgiveness, hope and healing.

And so whatever we do. Whether we are singing, teaching, volunteering or working in the business world, let us, from time to time, take a moment to pause, hear the words of Isaiah in our hearts and think to ourselves.

“How can I be an agent of liberation today?”

For the Spirit of the Lord is upon us, and God has sent us to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and may God sing songs of liberation in and through each and every one of us too. Amen.