Larry McPhail’s May 24, 2020 Sermon

Larry McPhail                                 May 24, 2020 – 7th Sunday after Easter 

John 14:26 But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.

Well we do indeed live in interesting times. It’s been quite the quite the few weeks we have been going through. I certainly had absolutely no ideas when I agreed to cover for Lorraine this Sunday that I would be speaking to you this way rather than in person as is the normal way Sunday Services are done. Our world has certainly been turned upside down, what with social distancing, and economic lockdown. We have all had to adjust to this new way of life in our own way, and we have had to look at new ways of learning about what’s going on in the outside world. I have found myself many times during the day, scanning my phone, to try and catch the latest news. And always being interested in what’s going on in the world of music, I was saddened to learn of the death in the last few weeks of two great recording artists. First, John Prine, who died of covid 19, and then Little Richard, who died of natural causes at the age of 87.

Little Richard was of course, one on the greats in the history of rock and roll. He along with Chuck Berry, virtually began the whole rock and roll genre, well before the advent of Elvis Presley.

Anyway, that got me thinking about my own early experience of rock and roll music – thinking back to the days of vinyl records, of 45s and LPs. Did you know that one of the greats of the recording industry came from right here in Winnipeg? I’m not talking about Randy Bachman or Burton Commings, or Ray St. Germain here, great as they were, but of Philip Kives. What? Never heard of him? Maybe not, but I’m sure you’ve heard of K-Tel records. Back in the sixties, if you didn’t have much money, but wanted to get the latest music, you would go to K-mart or Woolworths and buy one of the greatest hits compilations brought to you by k-tel of Winnipeg. It was a better buy that buying a lot of songs individually on 45s. Although I do admit to buying a lot of those old 45 rpm records too. You remember, they’re the ones with the large hole in the middle!

Anyways, for many years, stashed away in a box the basement in our house in Ochre River near Dauphin, was my collection of old rock and roll hits from ’50s and early ’60s. Worn and scratchy, long since outmoded by the flashy digital technology of compact discs, and mp3s, these primitive vinyl records were once the jewels of a great treasure trove. Little Richard grinding out “Tuti Fruiti,” Buddy Holly and the Crickets’ hiccuping “Peggy Sue,” Chuck Berry’s joyful hot licks in “Maybellene,” Sam the Sham howling out “Little Red Riding Hood”, the reportedly deliciously scandalous “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsmen, and the anguished angst of “it’s my partly and I’ll cry if I want to”, by Lesie Gore — they were all there, and more. And of course, records by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones were always my favourites. I wasn’t sure why at the time, but I later discovered that I loved the Blues, which of course, the Stones covered so brilliantly and faithfully in their early days.

Through them, I discovered the music of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson, BB King, and all the rest. And the early great bluesmaster Jimmy Reed. A share-cropper’s son, Reed brought the throbbing harmonica-and-guitar-driven black rhythm-and-blues of the Mississippi Delta into the popular rock-and-roll mainstream. He recorded blues classics like — “Big Boss Man,” “Bright Lights, Big City,” “Hush, Hush,” “Baby What You Want Me To Do”, among many others.

Interestingly, if you listen carefully to Jimmy Reed’s records, you begin to notice something rather curious. If you listen very carefully, there can sometimes be heard, ever so faintly, in the background, a soft woman’s voice murmuring in advance, the next verse of the song. The story that grew up around this — and perhaps it is true — was that Jimmy Reed was so absorbed in the bluesy beat and the throbbing guitar riffs of his music that he simply could not remember the words of his own songs. He needed help with the lyrics, and the woman’s voice was none other than that of his wife, faithfully coaching her husband through the recording session by whispering the upcoming stanzas into his ear as he sang. In a similar way to how, our daughter Jennifer told us, when she went to see Chuck Berry a few years ago, not long before his death, his daughter stood behind him on the stage, telling him the lyrics as he sang, since he could no longer remember them.

Whether or not this story about Jimmy Reed is accurate, I think we can recognize a parallel experience testified to in this morning’s reading from John. Jesus tells his followers that the role of the Holy Spirit is, in effect, to whisper the lyrics of the gospel song in the ears of the faithful. You see, when Jesus was present, he was the one who instilled in them the right words, coached them through the proper verses, taught them the joyful commandments. But now that Jesus approaches his death, now that he draws near to his time of departure, the time of his ascension,  now that the disciples will be on their own without him, that task is to be handed over to the Holy Spirit: “I have said these things to you while I am still with you.” Says Jesus, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.”

The primary task, then, of the Holy Spirit, is reminding the faithful of the truth, jogging the memories of the followers of Jesus about all of his commandments so that they can keep them in love, whispering, if you like, the lyrics of the never-ending hymn of love, in their ears.

It may surprise us to think of the Holy Spirit in this way, as a quiet, whispering teacher of the commandments of Jesus. Often the Spirit is advertised in flashier terms, more akin to Pentecost: Such as, The Spirit gives ecstasy; or the Spirit evokes speaking in unknown tongues; or the Spirit prompts dramatic and miraculous healings. Indeed, the Holy Spirit of God can be seen in this way, but these are all derivative of the one, primary activity of the Spirit — reminding the children of God about everything that Jesus taught and commanded – indeed, using our analogy, whispering the gospel lyrics into the ears of the forgetful faithful.

It’s interesting, perhaps even a little scary, how even a major pandemic can’t stop, or even slow down, the rhetoric or the political shenanigans of an upcoming fall  election to the south of us.

Well, back when Jimmy Carter was running for President of the United States, when the race still required a certain dignity and respect of the office, one of the more vivid moments in the campaign passed by almost unnoticed by most people. One Sunday morning, candidate Carter had been worshipping at the Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia. When the service was over, he exited the church into the swarm of press encamped on the church’s front lawn. Cameras whirring, video lights glaring, microphones thrust forward, the media moved in for interviews, pushing themselves to think of clever questions to ask a presidential candidate on the way out of a Southern Baptist Church — “Did you like the sermon?” “Did you enjoy the choir this morning?” “Do you plan to remain a Baptist in Washington?” — on and on the trite questions spewed.

Suddenly, a reporter, probably in a stroke of luck, shouted out a question that genuinely mattered: “Mr. Carter, suppose when you are President, you get into a situation where the laws of the United States are in conflict with what you understand to be the will of God. Which will you follow, the laws of the state or the commandments of God?”

Carter stopped, looked up, and blinked into the bright Georgia sun, obviously turning the question over in his mind. Then, perhaps still “in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day,” perhaps with the Spirit gently whispering the lyrics of the gospel into his ears, he turned toward the reporter and replied, “I would obey the commandments of God.” Alert aides, alarmed by this frank honesty, unnerved by their candidate’s near-treasonous remark, hurriedly whisked him away from the press and into a waiting car. Carter the politician should have avoided the question, or hewed closely to the law of the land, but Carter the faithful follower of Christ had obviously heard the Holy Spirit whispering in his ear that eternal question: “Do you love me? Do you keep my commandments?”

The reason we need the Holy Spirit murmuring the gospel in our ears, of course, is that we are notoriously forgetful. As one commentator has pointed out, “an early Christian definition for being lost … was ‘to have amnesia.’ Indeed, we are amnesiacs who have trouble keeping our calling clearly in mind. Like the great Jimmy Reed, we get caught up in the rhythm, but we forget the lyrics. We know that we are created to serve and love one another, but the pressure builds and the temptation to seek revenge is strong and we simply forget who we are and what we are called to do and be in life.

Unfortunately, our loss of memory is not just a momentary lapse. Having lost our memory, we now choose forgetfulness again and again, preferring the oblivion of amnesia to the sharp accountability of remembering the commandments. In his book “Lost In The Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Book”, Walker Percy describes a frequent device of soap operas, movies and novels. A principal character will develop amnesia. He or she is in a new place, with a new job, a new set of friends, perhaps a new lover. This plot device, says Percy, is endlessly fascinating since it feeds our fantasies about a risk-free forgetting of the old self and the embarking on a new identity.

Percy decides to push the question of amnesia to its highest power. “Imagine,” he writes, “a soap opera in which a character awakens every morning with amnesia ….” Every day, the character is in a strange house with a strange and attractive man or woman. Everything is new and fresh — the view from the window, the partner, the sense of the self. “Does this prospect intrigue you?” asks Percy. “If it does, what does this say about your non-amnesiac self?”

Percy’s point, of course, is the lure of forgetfulness. One way to describe sin is to say it is willful forgetfulness. We choose amnesia; we decide as an act of the will not to remember that we are God’s very own son, God’s very own daughter.

God’s mercy is, in part, the grace of memory. God’s Spirit whispers in our ear, telling us what we cannot — or will not — remember, refreshing our memory about who we are and to whom we belong. When, in situations of challenge and stress, we remember the comfort and demand of the gospel, it is because the voice of the Holy Spirit whispers the lyrics in our ear.

In his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, Oliver Sacks tells the story of Jimmie, a former sailor, now a patient in a nursing home, whose severe neurological disorder had left him with a profound and permanent amnesia. He simply had no memory of anything from 1945 on. Having no ability to retrieve the past and no ability to construct a meaningful present, Jimmie lacked the continuity that makes for a sense of the self. He was, wrote Sacks, a person who “wore a look of infinite sadness and resignation.”

However, when Sacks asked the Sisters who ran the nursing home whether Jimmie had lost his soul, the Sisters were outraged by the question. “Watch Jimmie in chapel,” they said, “and judge for yourself.”

So Sacks did watch Jimmie in chapel, and there he saw an astounding transformation. He saw an intensity and steadiness in Jimmie that he had not observed before. As he received the sacrament, there was “perfect alignment of his spirit with the spirit of the Mass.” There in worship, Jimmie was no longer at the mercy of a faulty and fallible memory. “He was wholly held, absorbed ….” He whose mind was broken was given in worship, “a continuity and unity so seamless it could not permit any break.”

Jimmie in his own way is like all of us. In the final analysis, none of us is able to construct a self. We must all be given a story and a continuity not of our own making. Where we have no faithful memory, God remembers, and by the grace of God, the Spirit whispers the lyrics of the song of God’s redeeming love in our ears. AMEN.

I have spoken today, about how the Spirit reminds us of God’s love and commandments by whispering the lyrics of God’s love in our ears as we live out our day to day lives. One of the ways that most clearly happens I believe is through music. Each Christian, each generation of Christians, has their favorite Hymns, and/or Gospel Songs through which God speaks most clearly to us. We think of old favorites like, Guide me O thou great Jehovah, or Rock of Ages, or Amazing Grace, or In the Garden, or more recently, Morning has Broken, or In the Bulb there is a Flower. Or Spirit, spirit of Gentleness. I’d like to share with you now, another of my favorites, written by a contemporary of Jim Manley, Jim Strathdee. Called Glory to God. Kathy and I will now sing that for you….