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For the Healing of the Nations 2: At the Table Christ Sets the Tone

April 30, 2012

A sermon preached at the White Plains Presbyterian Church

on the Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 29, 2012

 

FOR THE HEALING OF THE NATIONS II:

At the Table Christ Sets the Tone

John 10: 11-18

 

The Jamican folks song, “I carry mi ackee to Linstead market” was sung by an ad hoc choir before the sermon.

 

 1     I carry mi ackee, go a Linstead market              3    All di pickney dem a linga linga

        Not a quattie worth sell                                                Fi weh dem mumma no bring

        I carry mi ackee , go a Linstead Market                   All di pickney dem a linga linga

        Not a quattie worth sell.                                               Fi weh dem mumma no bring. (chorus)

 

  2    Everybody come feel up, feel up                        4    Lawd, what a night, not a bite

        Not a quattie worth sell                                                What a Saturday night

        Everybody come feel up, feel up                              Lawd, what a night, not a bite

        Not a quattie worth sell. (chorus)                             How di pickney gwine feed?

 

                                        Chorus      Lawd, what a night, not a bite

                                                            What a Saturday night

                                                            Lawd, what a night, not a bite

                                                            What a Saturday night

 

* Ackee is the national fruit of Jamaica, and served with saltfish is the national dish

* a quattie was the British penny ha’penny, a small copper coin of very small value

* pickney are children

 

 

 

This sermon is dedicated to Edna Shaw, who wondered why we would sing a Jamaican folk song in worship,

and to Bob Horan, who has wanted to hear a sermon on this topic for a long time.

 

I have a regular Monday morning routine. I walk my son to school at George Washington Elementary, and then I walk here to the church. I enter through the side door out there in the narthex and then, weather permitting, I open the front doors of the sanctuary and turn the light on the cross, so that the sanctuary is open and inviting for our neighborhood. I then proceed up the center aisle.

Here at the steps, I pray for the coming week, and then climb into the pulpit where I preach a sermon – published by someone else – to an empty sanctuary. I consider this an exercise, a spiritual practice or discipline that lets me try out other peoples words in my mouth to see what they taste like. I have a collection of published sermons on a bookshelf back here – sermons by both women and men from a wide variety of theological traditions, old and new. I’ve got William Sloane Coffin and Barbara Brown Taylor, Walter Brueggemann and Ellen Davis, Howard Thurman and Allan Boesak.; I’ve even got a well worn volume of ancient and medieval preaching from Basil and Augustine to Aquinas and Ockham. These are great companions with whom to think, to listen to the Word of God as it has come at another time or place, through another culture or people, to agree or disagree with a particular scriptural passage as a liberating, life-giving Word of God for today.

Inspired and challenged, I then pick up my sermon notes from the day before, carry them to my office and edit them to reflect what was actually said in worship, and send them to the printer so that Barbara Barnes can mail them to homebound or hospitalized members of the congregation. It takes about another four minutes to post the sermon on my blog.

A couple of months ago this morning routine was happily interrupted by Norma Smikle. We’re going to hear from Norma herself in a little bit during our time of faith sharing, and if you don’t know who she is now, you will then. Norma comes to the office every Monday to record Sunday attendance and send letters to those who had visited us. Then she teaches two consecutive Spanish language classes in our conference room. On this particular Monday morning, she was standing outside my office door, waiting.

“Pastor,” she said, “I’m trying to remember the name of a hymn that we sing in worship sometimes. It’s sung to the same tune as a song I used to sing in Jamaica as a little girl. It’s a song every Jamaican knows. In fact, my parents used to have me sing this song as a child and dance for our guests whenever they came to our house.” I asked her what the hymn was, and she couldn’t remember. So I asked her what the song was that she sang as a little girl, and she began to sing the song we just heard: “Carry me ackee go a Linstead Market, not a quattie-worth sell.” And I replied with “Let us Talents and Tongues Employ, reaching out with a shout of joy.” And then I laughed.

“I’ve just come from the sanctuary,” I said, “where I was reading a sermon by Tom Troeger, a professor at Yale Divity School, about hymns based on popular songs. But more than that, his sermon was about how many hymns are direct responses to the meaning of popular songs. It’s a phenomenon musicians know by the fancy term contrafactum.”

In addition to being a professor of preaching, Tom Troeger is also a prolific hymn writer.  In his sermon, Tom says that good advice to preachers is to avoid big words: “the deepest truths are available in plain, accessible language. But there is an exception to every rule…” And then he introduces the term contrafactum. “In poetry [a contrafactum] means substituting one poetic text with another without changing the meter so that the new version echoes the original. If the original words were sung to a particular musical setting, the new set of words sing easily to the same music.” Troeger offers as an example the way Charles Wesley took John Dryden’s then popular patriotic song “Fairest Isle, All Isles Excelling” a song in praise of divinely favored England, and re-wrote it with new words to create, “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling.” “Through his contrafactum Wesley offers an alternative to the nationalism” of his day. “Every line transforms the love of nation into an awareness of humanity’s deeper need.” And in the process “illuminates both politics and religion.”[1]

“Norma, you’ve discovered a contrafactum!” I said.

Carry mi ackee go a Linstead Market is a song about one woman’s desperate attempt to feed her family. She carries her ackee to Linstead Market: ackee is the national fruit of Jamaica, often served with saltfish. She goes to the market to sell her produce in order to provide for her family. But in the market, not a quattie-worth sell: not even a penny, less than a penny, a hay-penny. All day she stands in the marketplace, and though lots of folks squeeze her fruit, “everybody come a feel up, feel up,” no one is buying. Back home, the hungry children wait in vain for what their momma will not bring – food for the family.

O what a night, not a bite,

O what a Saturday night.

Carry mi ackee is a song born out of the experience of poverty in Jamaica. It’s a sad song about the struggle to survive. It is a lonely song about a mother’s inability to sell her fruit even though it’s good. It’s a song of despair, for the market delivers no salvation. And it is a song of hopelessness: I don’t want the mother to arrive home because I can’t stand the childrens’ disappointment in their mom’s in ability to sell the fruit to take care of them.

O what a night, not a bite,

O what a Saturday night.

But why, we might wonder, is it sung to such an upbeat tune? I’ve learned that this is a musical style known in Jamaica as dinki; a sad song sung to an upbeat tempo in order to banish grief. At perhaps, at times, it’s all we can muster.

O what a night, not a bite,

O what a Saturday night.

Well, hymn writer Fred Kaan took this tune and transformed it into a song about Sunday morning.

Let us talents and tongues employ, reaching out with a shout of joy;

Bread is broken, the wine is poured, Christ is spoken and seen and heard.

Kaan wrote a contrafactum. It’s God’s answer to our deepest needs. It’s a song about sacramental communion and Christian community in which everyone partakes of Christ’s gift of life and in joy, shares what they have. It is a song not only about generosity but about Christian hospitality: All are welcome, No one is hungry, and no one is lonely.

Christ is able to make us One, at the Table he sets the tone.

Teaching people to live to bless, Love in word and in deed express.[2]

What we learn here at the table is to depend on God, not the market, for our deepest needs. And in turn our lives are to be blessings, blessings both spoken and in actions done. Kaan even retains a reference to the ackee, though you would have to know both songs to see it.

Jesus calls us in, sends us out bearing fruit in a world of doubt,

Gives us love to tell, bread to share: God (Immanuel) everywhere!

Among God’s people, the gifts and food are free. Most of us would hear the reference to bearing fruit as a general reference to doing good, but in light of one woman’s desperate attempt to sell ackee to feed her family, I think it retains something literal: out of God given abundance we are to feed one another.

Go to Linstead Market, to buy and sell,

or go into all the world with bread to share and love to tell?

It’s really no choice. In a world where everything is for sale and we inevitably turn to that which does not satisfy to fulfill our deepest needs, we need to hear again of the free gifts of God for the people of God found in Christian community. And we need to be reminded that God intends for EVERYONE to have bread and has provided enough for all.  To experience that abundance means we have to transform and also create alternatives to market economies which do NOT promise that everyone will have bread.  And it also means that we need to trust all of what we have and all of who we are to one another. At the table, Christ sets the tone; giving even his very self that we might have life.

In the early Pentecost community of the early church we know that each gave according to their ability, and that each took according to their need, and there were no poor among them. So, let us talents and tongues employ, for in this Easter world:

Jesus lives again, earth can breathe again,

pass the Word around: loaves abound.[3]

 

[We concluded by joyfully singing “Let us Talents and Tongues Employ.”]

 

 

 


[1] Thomas Troeger, Wonder Reborn: Creating Sermons on Hymns, Music, and Poetry. Oxford University Press, 2010.pp. 56-59.

[2] I, at least, hear a resonance with Bob Marley, which is made deeper, and more Christian, by this hymn:

One Love! One Heart!
Let’s get together and feel all right.
Hear the children cryin’ (One Love!);
Hear the children cryin’ (One Heart!),
Sayin’: give thanks and praise to the Lord and I will feel all right;

[3]Other hymns by Fred Kaan, many of which we sing from our hymnal at White Plains Presbyterian: Christ is Risen (109); Down to Earth, As A Dove (300); We Meet You, O Christ (311); Help Us Accept Each Other (358); Out of Deep, Unordered Water (494); With Grateful Hearts Our Faith Confessing (497); Lord, When I Came Into this Life (522); Lord of the Living (529); O God, You Give Humanity Its Name (532).

We don’t sing many of the hymns by Thomas Troeger, but perhaps you will now borrow a hymnal and try reading them devotionally. In January, we sang his hymn Silence, Frenzied, Unclean Spirit. See my sermon by that same name. See also hymns 73, 131, 283, 287, 336, 349, 471, and 490.

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