Like a song that seeps unexpectedly into our consciousness, like a friend who speaks at just the right moment the words we need to hear, might this be a time when my oh so human words are infused by your life-giving Spirit in ways that speak to the beloved listening hearts. Amen.
By the river, they gather up their mistakes, their regrets, their pain, their suffering, hoping to have it all washed clean so they can make a new start. This isn’t the first time a preacher has sung out the word, “repent,” but there is something in John’s tune that is so very different than the others. They watch in awe as Jesus and John enter into the waves to begin their pas a deux - embrace, dip, and sway to the tune that sounded like a holy dove’s cry – “this is my beloved. In him, I find profound joy.” To witness a moment of pure love, like that must have fed the people for years to come.
We need something like that, don’t we? To get us through the long pandemic nights, this constant low-grade anxiety, punctuated by moments of suffering and fear.
We may be hopeful and cautious about the future as the Premier announces new openings. But people are also taking this time to evaluate their lives and decide whether the hamster wheel that had them spinning in circles prior to the pandemic is worth climbing back on. Excited, but still bone tired from the long dark night of the collective soul, we wait for the holy dove to signal a new day.
Lately, I’ve been humming a tune I heard by a Welsh singer songwriter, named Martyn Joseph. He sang it at a Hugh’s room concert, back when concert halls were a thing. The song is a true story. Just like the gospel writers, Martyn tells a story about the earworm that is God’s love song breaking through the cacophony of our painfilled lives.
The story starts in 1916. Morton is born premature, a breach-birth, with signs of deficiency clearly in evidence and so his mother doesn’t even want to hold him. His white family hires a young black girl, named Clara, who is 14 years old to look after him. Growing up in a racially divided town, she knows what it is like to be the outcast.
While Morton’s parents shy away from touching him, Clara leans in. For three years Clara feeds him, bathes him, and loves him through tender touch, play, and the singing of a song that she has made up just for him. But then, at the age of three, Morton’s parents fire her and send Morton to an institution where he hears labels like “retarded” “unlovable,” and “unwanted” and the love song that Clara sang so sweetly slips deep beneath the waves of his subconscious.
The chorus of Martyn’s song goes like this “I hope we all have Clara singing songs of Love. Songs for the healing and songs for the coming home.” Because it can be easy to become driven to the desert of despair by situations beyond our control and let the world’s lack of kindness drown out God’s love song for us.
Like Morton, most of us come to adulthood plagued by unkind monikers that loiter around the edges of our consciousness, threating to feed on our insecurities, if we let our guard down; a cruel nickname from a childhood bully that we can’t shake, a cutting phrase from unthinking parent, or a choice barb from a hurting friend who lashed out; labels on repeat, like a skipping record in the mind. “Lazy,” “ugly,” “not good enough.”
If we aren’t careful we co-create a death-dealing, rather than life-giving, identities for ourselves and others.
For 19-year-old Morton the cacophony becomes painfully deafening. He goes out into the Californian desert with enough prescription pills to bring about eternal silence. But there, lying on his back under the expansive stars he hears a song on the breeze and feels God’s presence as certainly as he feels the ground beneath him. Bathed in love and humming a tune so familiar and yet unplaceable, he walks out of the desert knowing that he is beloved. He becomes a Christian theologian and writes books (30 of them) on Theology and Christian mysticism. The gift of knowing that he is God’s child causes a well-spring of love to pour out of him into the hurting world. His healing, brings healing to many.
This is the Gospel truth. That once you let God’s love song back into your soul, you become a singer of the song. A healer of the world.
When he is 77 years old, a letter arrives from stranger, named Clara, who is in her nineties. She wonders if he is the toddler in the faded old photo she has carried around all through her life. He flies across the country to visit her and hears, for the first time about his childhood, and how he was bathed with tenderness, tickled and cuddled, and laughed with and held with care.
It took 74 years for that love to come back around, but when it did it healed over the most bitter of childhood memories for both of them. As Morton is preparing to leave Clara’s room, she places wizened hands on his own life-engraved face and sings to him. It’s the same song that came to him on the breeze in the desert; the day that God baptized him and gave him a new life. When he was so lost it was Clara’s love song that brought him home, reminding him of the truth – that he has always been loved.
Knitted together in the womb, by a Divine love, that hums and rocks us through every adversity, we all have a song for the coming home. A tune that penetrates our consciousness as we pray in our Gardens of Gethseme, carrying our heavy burdens, and come to bitter endings that shake every the most confident disciple’s faith. But it is not a tune meant for us alone. John, the Baptist heard it and went out to the wilderness to preach. Jesus heard it and went into the towns to heal. Morton heard it and went into the world to teach. Martyn Joseph heard it and began to sing.
After he told the audience the story of Morton, Clara, and God, he picked up his guitar. I can’t listen to Clara’s Song without getting chocked up. The chorus goes “I hope we all have a Clara. Singing songs of Love. Songs for the healing and songs for the coming home.” And I get chocked up because I know that we do. You do. I do. God’s love song that was heard by the river Jordan, was also heard on the day you were born. It was heard by Morton in the desert and by us this morning through this sermon and song. It is the song that will get us through the global pandemic and the personal pain. It is a love song that is meant to heal you as you listen, but also send you to be the singer for someone else.
You are my Clara. And I am yours. And through us, and all of creation, God sings an eternal love song. A song for the healing. A song for the coming home. Thanks be to God.