When I was a child, my great-grandmother—we called her Nana—taught me to play the song “Stardust.” Nana grew up near Manchester, England. As a child, she showed natural musical talent. She could hear a melody and begin to play it on the piano instantly. She grew up and married a soccer player who played in the semi-pro leagues. After he died suddenly, she married my great-grandfather, and they emigrated to the Unites States.
On one of the last visits to our home before her death, she asked to see me in our living room, where we had a piano. She told me to go and get my saxophone.
She never said hello—she always said, “Hiya.” When I went into a store in England a few years ago and the young woman at the cash register greeted me with a “Hiya,” I stopped in my tracks and thought of Nana—it’s was like she was right there with me.
“Hiya, David,” she said that day. “I’m going to teach you a new song.”
Then she began to sing this song, composed by Hoagy Carmichael and Mitchell Parish in 1927: “And now the purple dusk of twilight time steals across the meadows of my heart / High up in the sky the little stars climb / Always reminding me that we’re apart / You wander down the lane and far away / Leaving me a song that will not die / Love is now the stardust of yesterday / The music of the years gone by . . .” Listen to NPR story about origins of Stardust
Then, she played the melody on the piano over and over and said, “OK, now your turn.” My first efforts were pitiful. I wasn’t even close and got more and more frustrated each time I attempted to play the tune.
I told her that I needed for her to write down the notes for me, that I couldn’t play unless I had the music in front of me. But she replied, “I never learned how to do that. Play by ear. Listen again.” And again. By the end of our lesson, I had sort of learned how to play “Stardust.” It wasn’t great, but we had made music together. And that melody, that new song that’s really an old, old song is still in my heart.
Did you hear the psalmist singing today? These are her first words: “Sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.” Sing to the Lord a new song—that’s the message that we can hear today during this time of worship. Jesus is calling out to you and me to learn a new love song by ear and share that song with others.
The Good News of which we are stewards is just like a song that we’re invited to sing for others until they can play the melody on their own. And this is a time when we as people of faith can help others learn a new song about a God who can do marvelous things in our world.
Many people are giving into cynicism or despair about the state of the world. They’re saying: “What can I do, just one person? What can my church do? Is there anything that we could do together to make a real difference for good?”
We look out there and see poverty and an increasing divide between the poor and the wealthy. A resurgence in hate crimes worldwide. Environmental degradation. Widespread addiction and disease. A coarse culture in which people routinely tear each other apart. Political inertia and divisiveness. Loneliness fraying our social fabric.
We need to pay careful attention to the music we’re listening to right now. Are the musicians offering up the same old songs of cynicism, rage or despair or are they open to learning a new song, a song that speaks of love, healing and hope?
That’s why we’re here today. We’re trying to learn a new song by ear. A song about the beginnings of a diverse and inclusive community in the early church made up of ordinary people like us who sing of a God who can do marvelous things in the world.
In our reading from Acts, we’ve entered the story near the end. We need some background. Recall this morning that Jesus is a Jewish rabbi. All of his disciples are Jewish. The Christian faith is rooted in Judaism, which is why we’re so passionate about Jewish Christian dialogue and friendship here at St. John’s. We neglect our roots at our own peril.
So, the early church is exclusively Jewish. But then the Holy Spirit begins to move. Do you remember the story of the Ethiopian eunuch last week? Philip interprets the Scriptures for this Gentile man and baptizes him into the church.
He teaches him a new song, a song that the eunuch would take back to his people. The church is still going strong in Ethiopia—that song of the Gospel is learned anew each generation.
But now we’re back in Palestine. Peter, Jesus’ right-hand man, a faithful Jew who keeps kosher, has a vision of a sheet being lowered from heaven. Projected unto that sheet are images of animals, many of which Peter wouldn’t ordinarily be allowed to eat as a faithful Jew. But he hears a new song that it’s now permissible for him to eat those animals.
We then meet a Roman military officer by the name of Cornelius. He has a vision to send for a stranger named Peter who will share something important with him. Cornelius is known to all as a good man who cares for his family and troops, as well as the poor and those in need.
Cornelius sends for Peter, who visits his home, and we wonder if this is the first time that Peter has ever stepped foot into a Gentile home. Peter begins to share the Gospel with Cornelius and his household, who listen intently to Peter’s song. They’re all learning by ear.
And Peter is learning a new song, too. He exclaims: “Oh . . . now I get it. God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him. You know the message he sent to the people of Israel—he is Lord of all.”
Lord of all. Not Lord of either/or. Not Lord of a chosen few. Not Lord of a particular tribe, nation or political party. Lord of all, equally available to everyone who seeks to learn God’s love song.
As Peter shares the message, the Holy Spirit falls on everyone in the room, and he orders Cornelius and his whole household to be baptized in Jesus’ name. The Holy Spirit moves, and the church is filled with a new Spirit of inclusion and welcome. God’s people, Jews and Gentiles, are invited to sing a new song together as one.
Jesus is singing a new song in our Gospel reading today. He’s in the upper room with his disciples and saying farewell to them during the Last Supper. Jesus wants them to learn to play this love song by ear:
“As the Father as loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love . . . this is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you . . . I am giving you these commands so that you will love one another.” Like a music teacher, Jesus repeats the melody and then shows them what true love looks like.
True love is the Lord of all who kneels down to wash his disciples’ feet and calls them friends. It’s the mother who just spent two hours shuttling her children to doctor’s appointments, sports and after school activities. It’s the retiree volunteering his time to mentor a high school student. It’s the vestry member praying with someone in the hospital or the deacon who ministers with prisoners.
“You did not choose me. I chose you.” Come, sit down next to me on the piano bench. Be still. Abide. Pray without ceasing. Listen to the tune, and in time, you’ll know it by heart.
If we listen carefully, we can hear God’s new song everywhere, we can witness God doing tremendous things every day.
Here’s one that comes to us from Harlem in New York City. Vy Higginsen is sharing God’s love song with others. A former radio DJ, Ms. Higginsen’s mission is to now preserve African-American music and culture by encouraging men and women who are in what she calls the “second half of life” to sing on stage for the first time.
The show is called “Alive and Kickin’.” The cast is made up of talented people, age 55 and older, who for whatever reason never made it to the big time. On stage, they sing and share their story. Read full 60 Minutes Story
We meet Renee Walker, who took what she thought would be a temporary job with the local school district. She thought the job would support her until she got her break. But as she puts it, “I’ve been there 31 temporary years.”
Or Matthew Burke, who spent many years in prison for robbery. During the show, he shares that his parents abandoned him in a hallway when he was two weeks old. The state assigned him a number as an infant: he was known as “Abandoned #2360.” A priest in an orphanage named him Matthew.
As an adult in prison, he became #00A6432. “That’s been my life, a number,” he explains. But when he sings the song “Georgia” on stage, Mr. Burke is not a number. He’s a child of God.
He admits that he thinks of the mother he never knew when he sings these words: “Other arms reach out to me. / Other eyes smile tenderly / Still in peaceful dreams I see / The road leads back to you.”
All of the performers will tell you that the show has been like a miracle for them. They have come alive in a way that they didn’t think was possible by learning and singing these new songs.
Ms. Higginsen has brought the 55+ singers together with teenagers so that the young people can learn to sing Gospel music. One generation is helping the next learn a new song that is actually an old, old song that we can learn by ear.
Peter sang the song of the Gospel to Cornelius and his household. Jesus sings it to his disciples whom he calls friends. You and I are Jesus’ friends. Think about that for a moment. We didn’t choose him—he chose us to learn the song, play it by ear, and share it with others.
“As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love.” We’re bearers of a love song that will never die.
A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee on May 6, 2018.