Three Chords And The Truth
Luke 2: 22-40
Today, February 2, is the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, the Feast of the Purification of Mary, and Candlemas. I call it The Feast of the Old People! In addition to Mary, Joseph and the baby, Luke puts the spotlight on two old people who have spent a lifetime hanging around the Jerusalem Temple waiting for a sign. They have been waiting, we are told, a long long time. Simeon is the old man, Anna is the old widow. Widows are a particular interest of God’s throughout the Bible. They represent people without resources. God tends to judge how well humankind is doing by how well we treat people without resources. The judgment is generally not very good.
Simeon grabs the baby from Mary and becomes a poet! I can even imagine him singing what is now routinely called, The Song of Simeon: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” It is a song of hope – a great and deep hope for all the peoples of the earth. Anna, whom we are told is 84, sees the child and begins prophesying to any and all who will listen, praising God and also proclaiming a deep and mighty hope for all people.
The courtyards of the temple were a kind of shopping mall – a place to purchase birds and animals for the appointed sacrifices – a marketplace. I try to imagine how strange it would be for a young mother, with a child just 40 days old, in the marketplace, and first an old man grabs your child, and then he and an old lady begin singing and praising and carrying on to everyone else in the square. What is even stranger is that neither the parents, anyone else who may be on hand, nor the text itself, find this to be strange at all. It is treated as normative – the kind of thing that happens every day.
Confucius spent a lifetime, among other things, insisting that civilized society and culture depends upon our listening to our elders – he called it Filial Piety and Respect for Age – both characteristics lacking throughout much of society today, at least here in these United States. The exception appears to be when they finally die. Pete Seeger died last Monday at age 94. Suddenly everyone took notice of what he has been up to. Like Anna and Simeon, he spent a lifetime singing songs of a deep hope – a deep hope that we might put down our arms, put an end to war, and in our spare time clean up the environment which we have wantonly defiled with chemical waste of all kinds. Almost daily he would hike down from his mountaintop home along the Hudson River, stand by the side of the Palisades River Parkway and simply hold up a hand lettered sign that said, “End The War.”
He also spent a lifetime doing just what the Hebrew Prophets did back in the day: Speaking Truth to Power. There is no more God-called vocation than that. Pete Seeger did it with three chords and the truth and a banjo in his hand. He could make people sing. He could empower people to work for change. He used music to inspire us all to take on one project at a time, and most notably clean the Hudson River which he could see from his front yard. On this February 2, 2014 I woke up to go to work at St. Timothy’s School for Girls and put on my Clearwater Festival tee shirt to remember this remarkable musician-prophet on this Feast of Old People day! His Clearwater Festival has made the Hudson River a cleaner flowing river and a symbol of what the vision of one old man can make happen. Once upon a time the U.S. Government House on UnAmerican Activities Committee sentenced Seeger to jail time for singing songs that inspired people to join unions, oppose wars, and speak truth to power, and, of course, for not ratting out other suspected “fellow travelers.” There is a long and storied musical tradition called “protest music” in America of with which Peter Seeger has long been associated. I decided this morning that I am not sure I like that designation. Instead of “protest music” I have always heard it as Hope-Filled Music – inspiring hope in others who often feel there is no hope in speaking truth to power.
So on this February Second Feast of Old People I invite us to take several minutes to listen to this inspired song by Ry Cooder which in part memorializes Peter Seeger in a way I think would put a smile on his face and a warmth in his heart – a heart as big as this land of ours, a heart overflowing with optimism and hope for a better today and tomorrow. Like Simeon and Anna before him, Pete Seeger inspires us all to sing our way into a better world for all people everywhere. The Power of Music, poetry set to a tune, is undeniable and lives forever in the telling and retelling of the stories we learn from the likes of Pete Seeger.