I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

Hi y’all,

I am sure you have been as emotional in the past few days as I have been.  What utter tragedy.  I wanted to share my sermon from this morning that brought tears and something of hope in the midst of such sadness.  I hope it brings some light to you as well.  I have been preaching a series on the prophets for Advent and today’s reading was from Zephaniah.




December 16, 2012
The Third Sunday of Advent
Zephaniah 3:14-20
14Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
15The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies.
The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.
16On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Do not fear, O Zion;
do not let your hands grow weak.
17The LORD, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
18as on a day of festival.
I will remove disaster from you,
so that you will not bear reproach for it.
19I will deal with all your oppressors at that time.
And I will save the lame
and gather the outcast,
and I will change their shame into praise
and renown in all the earth.
20At that time I will bring you home,
at the time when I gather you;
for I will make you renowned and praised
among all the peoples of the earth,
when I restore your fortunes
before your eyes, says the LORD.
Sermon: “Prophets of Promise: Zephaniah”
“The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more.”
What an impossible statement.  It is outlandish to think that a life – or even a day – without some degree of fear is achievable.  But to think of fear being “no more”?  That seems impossible.  Especially today.  Disaster is all around us: in the tragic, senseless killing of twenty-six people in a Connecticut elementary school, twenty of them, children. 
If we were to share these words of scripture: “The LORD is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more” with the parents and grandparents who will be without their children and grandchildren this Christmas and for all the Christmases to come, whose lives were shattered with the news that a place that should always be safe and good turned violent and terrible, it would sound callous, superficial, and deeply, deeply insensitive. 
In a word, quoting this scripture passage from Zephaniah at a time like this would sound cold.  Which is exactly how it would have sounded at the time the prophet Zephaniah first uttered these words.
You see, the lectionary takes us back in today’s prophetic reading, to the time of Jeremiah, back into the Babylonian exile, back into the occupation of the people of Israel, like the heartbreaking news taking our Christmas cheer back to the brink of despair. 
Zephaniah uttered these bold words of challenge and hope to a people broken in every way: broken by their own sinfulness and the sinfulness of the world, broken by loss of land, life and family, broken by loss of identity and even faith. 
When they were most certainly weeping at the constant violence they faced and crippled by the insecurity of a precarious life, where survival seemed impossible, Zephaniah told them to sing.  Sing! 
Why in the world would you sing when life is at its bleakest?  How would you find the voice to sing when you consume fear all day long and are completely consumed by it as the darkness of night falls?  When God seems to slumber or ignore the rampant injustice all around?  Why would you sing praise to the one who seems to have abandoned you, allowing the horrors of this world to have free reign?
Perhaps, reflecting on the time of Zephaniah and our own time, it is precisely in that dire, desperate place that we most need to sing.  To raise our voices above the voices of hatred, violence and death and sing out that somehow, in ways we will never understand, God is in our midst.  That God chose to enter this world where unspeakably terrible things can happen, and that this same God chooses to enter this troubled world again, and again, and again. 
If we fail to sing, if we fail to hold fast to that inexplicable trust in our Creator, and allow these times of marked suffering to silence us, then despair will have won. 
Then, all we will hear are words of vengeance and retaliation, of hatred and fear.  We cannot let these be the only voices heard. 
Though we sing through tears and bitter anger, we must sing of the goodness of God.  We sing because that is the only way we can survive the bitter pain of this life.  We sing because we need to be reminded that God is with us, even if that reminder comes through our own struggling, doubting voice.  We sing, that even for a moment, we might glimpse something of beauty in this world.  We sing, that others might know that they are not alone in their sorrow.  
Maya Angelou captures this survival-singing in her poem, “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.”  I share it with you now:
The free bird leaps
 on the back of the wind
and floats downstream

till the current ends
 and dips his wings

in the orange sun rays
 and dares to claim the sky.

But a bird that stalks 
down his narrow cage

can seldom see through
 his bars of rage

his wings are clipped and 
his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing.

The caged bird sings 
with fearful trill

of the things unknown
 but longed for still

and his tune is heard 
on the distant hill
for the caged bird 
sings of freedom.

The free bird thinks of another breeze

and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees

and the fat worms waiting on a dawn-bright lawn

and he names the sky his own.

But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams

his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream

his wings are clipped and his feet are tied

so he opens his throat to sing

The caged bird sings
 with a fearful trill

of things unknown 
but longed for still

and his tune is heard
 on the distant hill

for the caged bird
 sings of freedom.
We sing of things unknown but longed for still.  Of a time when Christ will return to wipe away every tear from our eyes.  Of a time when gun violence will stop being commonplace in our nation.  Of at time when those struggling with mental illness will find the help they need.  Of a time when parents will not have to fear for the lives of their children. We sing of freedom: freedom from death, pain, tragedy and brokenness.  We sing, even as these things still cage us, of the One who is, always has been, and always will be in our midst.  
Because our greatest act of defiance to evil, 
our greatest act of solidarity with the bereaved, 
our greatest act of honoring the lives lost, 
our greatest act of hope in our coming Savior, is our song.  Amen.

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