A Call to Our Imagination: The Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas
“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine”. In the name of Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Amen.
Good evening, Cathedral family. Oh, good evening, Cathedral family. Good evening. Oh, that’s better. I knew you were out there. I’m struggling with my voice a little bit this evening, so you pray for me that God gives me voice.
Thomas Dorsey, known as the Father of Gospel Music, described this music as “songs with the message”. This music, born in Chicago during the 1930s, was always about more than the foot tapping, jazz like beats and the hand clapping blues like pathos, that bought the lapsed back into the church and inspired even the unchurched, as it became almost a movement within black churches and communities across American cities. And just so you don’t think that gospel music was just about the Thomas’s, the movement that popularized gospel music was led by black women like the Sally Martin’s and the Rosetta Tharpe’s. I’m just saying. Gospel music with its rhythms and its meanings has its roots in a captured people who carried their music with them across the ocean as a means of resisting the enslaved realities of their living. As a means for reminding them that though they were treated as chattel, they were created as free beings by God. And thus, their music was a means for reaffirming for them that the way things were was not the way God created them to be.
And so it was that these, God’s sacred children, gave birth to the spirituals where they testified in song that “there’s a better day a-coming because Mary had a baby and she named him King Jesus”. Gospel music, which has sometimes been called modern day spirituals, is a part of a musical tradition in which a black people who had been ‘buked and scorned expressed their pain and suffering, their joy and triumphs, their hopes and their faith. Rich, rich with black heritage and religious significance, this music, this music which we celebrate on this evening through its rhythms and its message was always meant to be about more than entertainment. It was always meant to be about more than performance. The power and emotion that is gospel music is and always has been about a call and a response. It is my friends, at least a threefold call, this call that is gospel music and is a call, which first and foremost is a call to the hearts. A call to the hearts of all those who would hear it.
To hear this music, in the words of gospel scholar Jim Jackson, is to “hear through the pulsating rhythms, the wells and cries that punctuate the melodies, bringing to life the daily experiences of hardship and pain of a people”. Cathedral, the pounding that you feel in your heart as you take in the gospel rhythms, now I know that you felt that pounding as our choirs this morning sang some of even the old familiar hymns with that gospel beat. That pounding in your heart is a call, a call to open your hearts. Open your hearts to the feelings, the hurts, the longings of the people, so that your hearts may be filled with that empathetic understanding and compassion, moving you beyond just the love for the music, to a love for the people behind the music. Cathedral family, each and every one of us has a heart.
We have hearts that hold our deepest feelings of hurt and sorrow. We have hearts that hold our deepest feelings of happiness and joy. Hearts that hold our deepest desires to be loved and to love. And so as long, as long as we each have a beating, beating heart, then this I know to be true. We have the capacity, the capacity to empathize with the feelings of another. We have the capacity to sympathize with the wants and wounds of another. We have the utter capacity to have compassion for the struggles and strivings of another. And thus we have the God-given capacity to love one another.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and laid him in a manger because there was no place for them in the inn. The Marys and Josephs come to us on this night with children in tow fleeing war, fleeing oppression, fleeing famine. Looking for refuge, looking for welcome, looking for open hearts. Yet there is no room for them in the inns of our land. “Speak to my heart”, sings gospel singer, Donnie McClurkin. We are people with the heart. We can be more loving than this. And so yes, the heart throbbing rhythms of this music that we celebrate this evening, is nothing less than a call to the hearts of who we are.
And it is also a call to the soul of who we are. That feeling that you sometimes get deep inside of yourself, that perhaps gives you goosebumps when you hear the gospel rhythms, that feeling that makes you want, as Kirk Franklin says,” makes you wanna clap your hands, makes you wanna dance, and makes you wanna stomp”. That gospel feeling that pulls you out of even your Episcopal self. That feeling, that feeling is nothing less than a call to your soul. Our soul, my friends, is that which connects us as human beings to the one in whose image we are all created.
Our soul is that which connects us to our higher aspirational selves, propelling us to do better, propelling us to be better. In as much as the power and emotions of gospel music was and is about saving the souls of people, it reflects the testimony of a people who reached deep down into their souls, to move others to become the best of who God created them to be as children of God. And as I often say, “That we are children of God is a fact. That we act like it, not so much.” Gospel music born of the people who have had to live their lives navigating the lowest and worst expressions of our humanity. This music is an urgent and uncontestable call to those who would hear it, to live into our soul defined selves. “My soul doth magnify the Lord” Mary sang. Cathedral church, on this night some 13 million children are living in poverty. When asked what poverty meant to him, one little boy said, “feeling like you don’t belong”.
“Moist my soul with water from on high, a world of sin around me, while evil thoughts that bind me, moist my soul” sings Thomas Dorsey. We are a people with a soul. We are meant to be better than this. And so, yes, yes, the soul stirring beats of gospel music that we celebrate this evening is nothing less, my friends, than a call to the soul of who we are.
And thus, in the final analysis, it is a call, a call to our imaginations. When all is said and done, gospel music true to the black musical tradition itself, speaks to black people’s vision for freedom. That almost ecstatic movement and moment that is so often a part of gospel performance that is nothing less than a rhythm of freedom, moving through the bodies of black people. That is a vision of God’s heaven, a vision of God’s future where their humanity, their personhood, there’s somebody-ness as children of God is affirmed and they are free, free forever from the indignities and inhumanities of this old earthly living.
And so it is that gospel music is nothing less than a call to our imagination, indeed, a call to expand our imaginations so that we can truly envision a world, our world, where there is freedom and justice for all. “God will uphold and establish God’s kingdom of justice and righteousness from this time and forevermore”, Isaiah tells us. When asked what they dreamed for, one immigrant child said this. They said, “I dream to be a full-time employee. I dream to have a stable job. I dream to be able to live with my family forever”.
Cathedral, we are a people gifted with imagination. We should be able to create a better world than this. And so they sang “Ain’t been to Heaven, but I’ve been told, streets up there are paved with gold. Hold on, hold on. Keep your eyes on the prize”. And so yes, the ecstatic performance that is gospel music is a call. A call to expand our imaginations. So to truly envision a world where the gospel good news of God’s just future is made real on earth as it is in God’s heaven. And this brings us to that other defining feature of the music which we celebrate this evening. And that is response.
How are we to respond to this music’s call to our hearts, to our souls, to our imagination? We, Cathedral Church, are to respond with faith. With faith by being that light of Christ in this our world. To be that light, my friends, is what it means to be a people of faith. A people of faith in the God who came to us in the Christ child. For it is about partnering with God, that is doing all that hard work to bring God’s future into this our present. That is what opening our hearts, being defined by our souls, and expanding our imaginations is all about. It is about being a people of faith.
No one knew this more than Fannie Lou Hamer, a poor share cropping woman from Mississippi who endured the harshest treatment imaginable as she led the fight for voting rights in 1960s Mississippi. And who was known actually for singing gospel songs to keep her going all along the way. And so she said this, she said, “people need to be serious about their faith in the Lord”. She said, “it’s all too easy to say, sure, I’m a Christian and talk a big game. But if you are not putting that claim to the test where the rubber meets the road, then it’s high time to stop talking and singing about being a Christian and having faith”.
And so it was fitting that one of her favorite songs, one that she could be heard singing throughout the freedom struggles in Mississippi and one which became the title of her autobiography, was none other than that song, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine”. How are we to respond to the call, that is the call of gospel music? We are to respond with faith. With faith by being the light of Christ in this our world.
And so back to the beginning, the music that we celebrate on this night is about more than entertainment. It is about more than performance. It is about a call and a response. A call to our hearts, a call to our souls, a call to our imagination. A call that requires a response of faith, a response of faith to be that light of Christ in our world today.
Cathedral, as you leave this service this evening, no doubt pulsating with the rhythms and sounds of the music you hear, leave not simply having been entertained. Leave not simply admiring the performance. But leave as a people, as a people of faith, with hearts that have been opened, with a soul that has been enlivened, and with an imagination that has been expanded. So that you can leave this cathedral on this evening as people of faith being the light of Christ in this our world. “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine. This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine”. May it be so for all of us who celebrate tonight, the music that is gospel. Amen.