The inspiration for this sermon came from several places. It started as an assignment that I had to do for my ordination class. Then Biggie Smalls was killed. A few days later, events happened in such a way that enabled me to preach the Sunday after Biggie died. I originally had wanted to preach when Tupac was killed but did not have the opportunity. Plus, in this sermon, I was able to talk about one of my loves, music. So all in all, it worked out okay, I guess. Judge for yourself.
Gospel singer Kirk Franklin wrote a song that has been adopted by many churches and their choirs. The song was entitled "Why We Sing." And in that song, the writer explains all of the reasons why he sings. It runs the total range of emotions, describing exactly why he in fact does sing, even if others don't quite understand his expressions.
The Psalmist in the scripture asks a question that can be the core of every Christian in the modern day. In the time of the writing of the scripture, Jerusalem was a divided nation. It was a land which the people were divorced from their ancestors. A people who throughout their history had known a great deal of trouble and strife.
Traditionally, music and singing have been used to calm people, to make them feel better, to reassure them, to lift them up, to provide a source of inspiration, to quell fears, to provide of source of strength. When writing my sermons, or preparing speeches, I often use music to assist me in focusing my thoughts and ideas. Even after I was car jacked a couple of years ago, the first thing I did when I got home was put in a CD from one of my favorite artists, and blast it as loud as I could, still shaking and crying from the experience, but somehow, that music, from that person who no longer has a pronounceable name, soothed and comforted me.
In particular, people of African descent have a long history of using music and song in their everyday life. Music and song was used from everything from making the crops grow, to the birth of a child, to the death of a loved one, to rites of passage to almost anything you can name.
Then we have been told that during slavery, the slaves, tired and worn, often beaten and blue, continued to sing songs. Songs of freedom, of relief, of information, of love, of deliverance and petitions. And the white slave masters used to think, how can these people, going through what they are going through, still sing and sound so happy? Maybe they're not working hard enough.
During the Civil Rights movement, songs that proclaimed freedom from oppression were sung, mightily and boldly, sometimes in small groups, sometimes in large crowds. At times it did not matter who was around, but you could be assured that someone, somewhere was singing "We Shall Overcome" or "Amazing Grace."
And more recently, during the Million Man March, while the millions (notice, I did say "millions") of black men were marching on Washington, they sang. They sang songs that they and their fathers sang during the Civil Rights movements, songs that their ancestors sang during slavery. They sang and kept singing until they were through.
Music continues to be important to us in areas other than struggle. Show me a church that has a bad choir, and I'll show you a church with very few members. When people are in pain, any number of songs may come out of people's lips. There is a reason why the church soloist is requested to sing "God Is" or "His Eyes Are on the Sparrow" or "Order My Steps" at a funeral. Because those songs, even in the time of tragedy, serve to uplift the family of the departed.
But the question still remains, amidst all of the chaos and confusion, amidst all of the suffering and pain, why do we still sing? Or maybe the better question is, how can we still sing? What is it in us that enables to sing, to create melodies and harmonies, to create sounds of harmonious order when the rest of our lives is in utter chaos?
Scripture tells us that while the Israelites were in captivity, the captors wanted to amuse themselves by having the Israelites sing to them. They wanted songs of joy and of happiness. This was puzzling to them, because on the surface, they really did not have much to sing about. After all, they were slaves, separated from their land. They had been promised relief and release, but as near as most of them could tell, God was nowhere to be seen.
And even in today's modern culture, with all of our woes and problems, with everything that continues to go wrong, somehow, music continues to be a focal point of our society. Even if we go back to around the turn of the century, we see that despite everything our people endured, songs were still being sung and music was still being made. And while it was not always dedicated to the Lord, we can rest assured that the musicians and singers acknowledged that their gifts of melody did indeed come from the Creator.
Even today, if we look at the music awards programs, you can be assured that if a black person was winning an award, somewhere in their acceptance speech was some type of acknowledgment of God. While some may ascribe this to posturing or fake spirituality, I say it's progress. And what makes this even more interesting is that the dreaded gangster rappers, the ones who are supposed to be guilty of so much harm and danger, all find time to thank Jesus for what he has been able to do for them.
But let me, for a moment, talk about gangster rap. In the last 6 months, two of the rap music industries biggest stars have been killed; Tupac Shakur and Christopher Wallace, also known as "The Notorious B.I.G.," or Biggie Smalls. These two black men, one age 25 and the other age 24, were both gunned down in somewhat similar circumstances. Given their lyrics and their music, the lifestyle that they led, some have said that they deserved what they got.
It is very easy to dismiss these two. After all, they were nothing more than two trash talking, violent rapping, vulgar, sex obsessed young men who enticed a generation of kids to violence, sex and to embrace the gangster image. A lot of us have never even heard one of their songs, aside from the sound bite snippets on the TV or radio reports, and once we hear them, we say "Well, that's why they are dead."
Sadly, it is not that simple. Someone once said that art imitates life, and in the case of rap music, that is more the norm than the odd. First of all, a lot of us adults have a misconception of rap music. All rap is not the so-called gangster rap. There are many different forms of rap, too numerous to name. But in reality, rap is nothing more than the 80's and 90's version of jazz and the blues. Jazz music and the blues were often condemned for their sexually charged lyrics, for their rhythmically intoned beats that for certain were going to drive their listeners down to a path similar to that of Sodom and Gomorrah. There are people, today, who even object to the more non-traditional, urban sounding gospel music, even though this music directly praises God.
Rap has been served a similar disservice. Now while I do not listen to a lot of it, I have listen to some, and on occasion, I did have had the opportunity to listen to Tupac and Biggie Smalls and others along those same lines. And while the majority of their music did not and does not appeal to me, I long ago realized that there is something there besides a good beat or the rehashing of one of the classic songs of the 70's. There is something that is drawing a lot of children, both black and white, to this music. Oh, and don't think that it's only black kids buying rap, because white suburban teens are the biggest market for a majority, comprising of almost 75% of all rap music sales.
We must acknowledge that rap is like any other industry. It's about the money. However, what makes this particular industry scary is that it is reflecting a mind set that is pervasive in our collective communities. I mean, let's be real. If these rappers were not saying something at least minutely relevant, they would not have made the money that they made. These two men, and many others, were millionaires. And through their music, they are able to reach a great number of people.
The standard line from most rap artists is that they only rap about what they see. And while they tend to glorify it more than accurately report what is going on, the bottom line is that some of these rappers are people who have lived through the poverty, the violence, and the decadence that they rap about. And the desperation of their situations is reflected in their music.
It is easy to want to practice a form of self censorship when it comes to rap, much like what was attempted in the 50's with Rock and Roll. And like Rock and Roll, we have an industry, largely created on the backs of black folks but controlled by white folks. Which is not that much different than how the country we live in was begun. Remember who picked the cotton, who built the roads and the houses, who harvested the fields and took care of the nice families. Remember who made money for who, and maybe we will begin to get an idea of what is really going on here.
Because what is going on is that we have a society of people who feel that they have no hope, they have nothing to believe in, that for them, God is either dead or a myth. Their own communities are harsh and bitter and when they finally have an audience, they talk about the only thing that they know.
Like I said, I am not a big fan of rap. As diverse as my own personal musical tastes are, I only own about 4 rap albums. And my music collection numbers almost in the thousands. So none of this is a justification of rap and the type of music that these lyrics reflect.
But what it does say is that these men, and many others feel like they are in a foreign land. They feel depressed and defeated, victims of what they view as a system that will never let them win. The view the world as out to get them, and the only way they can win is to fight back. They misquote the intent of the words spoken by Malcolm X when he said "By any means necessary." And when you approach them with the words of the Lord, the will look at you as if you are truly speaking in a foreign language.
But what are they doing? They are unhappy, feel trapped, feel disenfranchised, feel like no one is there to help them and everyone is out to hurt them. So what do they do? They sing. They make music. To some, this is music of uplift and liberation, not unlike the slaves who started insurrections and revolts against their slave masters. To them, the only way to conquer a problem is to talk explicitly about it. And we, the elders of the community just shake our heads in disgust, not wanting to hear what they have to say.
We must remember that while their songs reflect images of despair, it is, in a vulgar and crude way, an attempt to say "This needs to change." It is an attempt to decry, "Something needs to be done, but we don't know how to change the problem." In effect, they are looking to others in their community for help. They are looking for answers. And as they sing as strangers in a foreign land, it is our responsibility and our duty, as members of the same community, and as fellow children of God, to respond with songs of hope, with songs of joy, with songs of faith, with songs of understanding, with songs liberation, with songs of confirmation. Songs that will say to them that indeed God is not a myth, nor is God dead. That Jesus was not just some man in a history book. That there is a reason that we ourselves sing "I'm On The Battlefield." That there is a reason that we are uplifted by the songs of Zion. That there is hope that was given to us on the cross.
Too often we turn our backs on the more undesirable aspects of our community, thinking that if we just ignore it, then it might go away. But we are Christians. As Christians, we follow the examples and teachings of Jesus Christ. And Jesus never walked away from a problem or an uncomfortable situation. He walked right up and addressed the problem, with love and kindness and understanding. And for us, for our lack of hope and faith, for our feelings of enslavement and despair, He allowed Himself to be a victim of a horrible and violent injustice. For remember, He said, "The thief cometh not, but for to steal, and to kill and to destroy; I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly."
Jesus came to offer us the chance of salvation, the opportunity of hope, freedom from oppression, a chance to love, and time to live, a promise that has never been broken. Because remember, that while the Israelites didn't know how they could sing while in a foreign, they did know that the Lord was with them. They did know that the Lord would deliver them from bondage, that the Lord, the maker of Heaven and Earth, the creator of every melody, every harmony, of every rhythm, was right there with them. Walking with them and sometimes carrying them. But the Israelites, despite their wicked and often wayward attitudes, collectively kept a spirit of hope and of faith and of love for the Lord their God, who is also our God.
So I tell you this morning, that despite what others may say or do, I know that my God and deliver us from people dying in the streets. I also know that my God can give us faith in those dark times when all faith seems to be lost. I know that my God can give me hope, when hope seems to be fleeting. I know that no matter how bad it gets for me, that there is still someone, who died for me, died so that I might have a better life. But most importantly, I know that my God loves me and is never far away from me. I know that the God of Abraham, Issac and Jacob, is the same God that can erase the hopeless and despair and depravity.
All it takes is a little effort. A little faith. A little love. A little hope. A little understanding. Understanding that we can sing while in a foreign land, even if it is the land we were born in. That we can sing when times get rough, because with Jesus on our side it gets better. That we can sing when it gets dark, because Jesus is the way, the truth and the light. That when can sing because we are happy, that we can sing because we know that we are free. That when can sing when we think that there is no song left in us. That we can sing praises to the Lord, despite everything that has happened to us, because I believe that God answers our prayers. I believe that God hears our songs. And I believe, that with more faith, that with more love, that with more hope, that with more of the influence of Jesus, more people will begin singing the songs that we have been singing all along.
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(Charles E. Smoot © 2000-2009, all rights reserved)