Rowing Michael’s Boat Ashore… and down the road!

May 12, 2013

Christ Church Episcopal, Norcross, GA Sermon given as Deacon and Seminarian

Seventh Sunday in Easter – Year C RCL 

Acts 16:16-34, Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21 & John 17:20-26

Last Sunday morning, as Ceci and I were standing in the narthex, about to process in for the 8:00 o’clock service, as usual, Jeff began playing the opening hymn. After a few notes Ceci smiled and said, “This is my favorite hymn.”

I turned and looked at her, matching her smile with my own, I said playfully, “You know you say that all the time.” And, while that might be a little bit of an exaggeration, as someone who’s served with Ceci for the past several years, believe me when I tell you, she says it A LOT!

It’s not a judgment – it just points out the fact that singing is an important part of the Episcopal liturgy. WE SING. It’s one of the things that we love to do.

If you don’t believe me, take it from Garrison Keillor, the voice of NPR’s Prairie Home Companion. In an essay about Episcopalians, after sharing a list of ways people make fun of us, he said, “But nobody sings like them.” He shared this experience:

If you were to ask an audience in Des Moines, a relatively Episcopalianless place, to sing along on the chorus of “Michael Row the Boat Ashore,” they will look daggers at you as if you had asked them to strip to their underwear. But if you do this among Episcopalians, they’d smile and row that boat ashore and up on the beach! ….And down the road!

I like that image! 

Singing was definitely part of my experience growing up in the Episcopal Church. At church, when my brother and sisters and I were fairly young, just learning to read, Mom or Dad, whichever was closest, would hold the hymnal, and put their finger below each line as we sang the hymn, guiding us through so we could join in the singing.

There was no requirement to sing well, just to take part! Maybe that’s why I like it so much!

And over the years, a few hymns became sort of family favorites… so when I hear them, they reconnect me to fond and joyful memories. These hymns are part of my spiritual DNA. Maybe that’s why so many of them can be thought of as our favorite!

crown him image


A couple of weeks ago, during my final chapel service at Candler, near the end of the service, I heard one of these familiar family tunes: “Crown Him with Many Crowns.” This was the processional hymn on Easter Sunday Morning each year in my home church.

But when a new rector arrived about the same time I went off to college, (so suffice it to say, this was a long time ago), the rector innocently replaced this hymn with a different Easter Processional.

Well, it wasn’t long before the rector received letters of complaint – I know of at least two – one from me – and I hadn’t even been at the service, I was in Ohio at the time. And an even more compelling letter from my father who has spent most of his life in that church. The rector had no idea he was messing with family history by changing that opening hymn… and rest assured, the next Easter, and for every one since, “Crown Him with Many Crowns” has reclaimed the top spot on Easter morning at St. John the Divine in Houston.

So, the other day, when I heard the familiar music start during the Candler service, I couldn’t keep the tears from welling up in my eyes – as I reflected on this journey, the importance of my family and my faith, and as I looked ahead to the new vocation I’m walking toward – into ordained ministry.

Hymns are powerful things.

But these hymns are more than memories – they connect us, not only to things deep within ourselves, but to things and times beyond ourselves – bigger than us. They have developed and evolved throughout the life of the Christian faith. They’ve been sung by countless voices that came before, and will continue to be sung long after we are gone.

And this began long before Christianity. The Psalms are the biblical songs of the Old Testament part of our Episcopal Prayer Book and an integral part of our liturgy.

Not only did Jesus teach from them, but through them we hear the lyrical story of the on-going relationship between us and God. In some psalms, we experience rejoicing and praise for the Lord that protects us. In others, we are reminded of the covenantal nature of our relationship with God, renewing our promise to follow God’s statutes. And in still others we hear cries of anguish and confusion toward God.

Some of us here today may be in a place right now where we, too, want to cry out in lament to God. This week the Christ Church family has had to grapple with the sudden and unexpected deaths of two of our Holy Voices – Juan Carlos, and important part of the Hispanic congregation, and Craig, who sang in the choir among other ministries in the church.Both of these men had a gift for music, and both were active and ardent singers of songs to God, and they enlivened our community with these gifts.

At a time like this, questions of “Why” can be unending, yet these questions are still unanswerable. So, for now, we take time to grieve our loss, and entrust ourselves to God’s healing care. Yet even in these psalms of lament, somewhere along the way, we see that the Psalmist is transformed and invariably ends with words of praise to God.

Perhaps through our willingness and ability to be honest with God – to express sadness, anger, even feelings of abandonment, when we have that kind of connection and safety with God, we are able to find comfort, and are then compelled to give God thanks and praise.

Even through this grief, we also live into the promise that the resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ provides… the promise of having a place in the house of God when we are no longer in this earthly realm. This past Thursday, forty days into the season of Easter, we commemorated the Ascension of Jesus.

After being resurrected from death on the cross, Jesus spent time with his disciples. But, it was time for him to depart this physical world, and he ascended into heaven while the disciples looked on.

Even though the disciples came to understand the saving power of the resurrected Christ, they no doubt still experienced the physical loss of Jesus, their teacher and friend. And just as Jesus has been glorified, that same glory is bestowed upon each of us – and has been bestowed upon Craig and Juan Carlos, as they take their place in God’s heavenly realm.

Even as the earthly loss was being experienced by the disciples they also received a promise of the arrival of the Holy Spirit – and it is on its way. The Holy Spirit continues to reveal God to the world, even though Jesus is not physically here.

It is through the power of the Holy Spirit, that we are able to return to singing – feeling God’s presence and allowing God to be continually revealed to us in song and story. We see a glimpse of this revelation in today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles.

Paul and Silas arrived in Phillipi. While there, a slave girl with a spirit of divination began following them. Paul, in the name of Jesus, commanded the spirit to come out of the girl. Since the girl’s owners were using this fortune-telling to make money for themselves, they were not happy about it having been cast out. They took Paul and Silas before the authorities, and as punishment, they were stripped and beaten and thrown into prison.

But even as they sat there, shackled in their prison cell, bleeding and bruised, what did they do? They prayed and sang hymns to God. In spite of their physical and emotional distress; even without knowing what would happen to them next, they sang songs to God. And we are told, “the other prisoners listened to them.”

Through these simple and familiar acts of praying and singing hymns to God, just as we do when we come and worship together, these followers of Jesus bore witness to God. These hymns revealed their trust in God, and their faith in God’s saving power. These songs convey the word of God and show its power to persevere. Through them we hear Jesus’ message of God’s unfailing love, loving us just as God loved Jesus.

These songs not only bear witness to our trust in God, but also bear witness to God’s faithfulness to us. God is here for us, with us, in our sadness and in our joy! God walks with us through the valley of darkness. When we wander off like lost sheep – which can happen from time to time – God looks for us, finds us, comforts us, and celebrates our return.

So, today and every day, we will continually sing praises to God! Sometimes with heavy hearts at the loss of those we love; yet also in celebration of our lives which have been transformed through the power of the resurrection!

Let the Easter celebration continue as we rejoice in the power of the resurrected Christ and await the coming of the Holy Spirit!

May we continue to sing our favorite hymns to God with the joy-filled enthusiasm of a child… and an Episcopalian – and let’s Row Michael’s Boat Ashore – and onto the beach – and all the way down the road!

One Response to “Rowing Michael’s Boat Ashore… and down the road!”

  1. ghl1 said

    I just loved your sermon. We are so blessed to have you with us!

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