Many of you, like me, admire the intellect and courage of Henry David Thoreau. While Bach and Beethoven, the Beatles and Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin and Joan Baez among others, created enduring art using piano and guitar and vocals—Thoreau’s art was communicated with the written word—his instrument, a pen.
He was an American essayist, poet, and philosopher in the 19th century and is best known for two writings: his book Walden, a reflection upon living simply in natural surroundings, and his essay "Civil Disobedience", an argument for disobedience to an unjust state. An historian writes: “Henry David Thoreau was a lifelong abolitionist, delivering lectures that attacked the Fugitive Slave Law…while defending the abolitionist John Brown.
“Thoreau's philosophy of civil disobedience later influenced the political thoughts and actions of such notable figures as Leo Tolstoy, Mahatma Gandhi, and Martin Luther King Jr.”
Friends, the reason I mention Thoreau this morning is because of his view on the power of music.Chiefly, the power of music to empower and unite. Thoreau once wrote: “When I hear music, I fear no danger. I am invulnerable. I see no foe. I am related to the earliest times, and to the latest.” Friends, that’s how I feel as we sing the songs of peace and justice in our Flower Power service this morning—fearless, invulnerable, empowered and connected to the past and the present. Yet it’s also how I feel when we sing our traditional hymns each week as well. The music of the 60’s and the ancient hymns of the church enable me to feel renewed hope, courage, strength, compassion and faith.
Dr. King himself often expressed his view that music was vital to the success of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. Speaking of the power of music to empower, comfort, and unite today, I read an article a week ago, Saturday, in the LA Times entitled: “A Song Of Hope in Hong Kong.” As you know under China’s “one country, two systems” policy, Hong Kong is part of China. After 156 years of British rule, China took over Hong Kong in 1997. Yet, people in Hong Kong are now very upset because three important guarantees they received from China in 1997 have been under attack:
The right to protest
An independent judiciary
Freedom of the press
The citizens of Hong Kong want full democracy and China has responded with tremendous violence. More than 1,300 people have been arrested in Hong Kong since protests began in June. In 85% of the arrests the protestor has had to be hospitalized. Amnesty International has condemned the Hong Kong police’s use of excessive force. Violence and anger have resulted in a dark cloud of suffering and anguish over the city.
Hong Kong is an amazing city that I had a chance to visit back in 1977 with my family—I was 18 years old. The Presbyterian Church had a vital presence there. Now Hong Kong is a city under siege. Yet, amid the violence we have also seen recently again the power of music to uplift and unite people.
In the LA Times story, Journalists Robyn Dixon and Marcus Yam share how a musical composition recently posted online has become a new anthem for protestors in Hong Kong.
Here is an excerpt from their inspiring article—referring to the new anthem of the Hong Kong people they write:
“It began with a few notes of warbling violin.
“Then a man with a harmonica and a backward baseball cap joined in.
“And then [later] hundreds of voices joined in song…at Hong Kong’s Science Park, in one of the dozen’s of singing sessions belting out across the city.
Yes, I said “singing sessions.”
“But it was not just any song.
“The composition entitled, ‘Glory to Hong Kong’ written only 3 weeks ago by a composer known only as ‘Thomas dgx yhl’ has ignited [hope in those engaged in] Hong Kong’s protest movement.
“People, including the elderly and families with children, crowded into shopping malls across the city [last week] spontaneously singing the protest anthem that everyone suddenly seems to know by heart…
“Some shed tears as they sang these lyrics in Cantonese: ‘Pray for democracy, for freedom eternal, for the glory to come back to Hong Kong!’
“Dozens of versions of the song have proliferated on Telegram channels and YouTube…The original version posted August 31 shows video of riot police and protestors clashing, demonstrators with arms locked and crowds thronging the city’s streets or holding hands in human chains…
“This year’s protest movement in Hong Kong has had several theme songs…but the new song, “Glory to Hong Kong” has had a more indigenous, electric, unifying effect…New lyrics have appeared such as ‘Let us march together for what is right!’ and ‘This is the revolution of our times!’”
Journalist’s Dixon and Yam reporting from Hong Kong, conclude their piece, saying: “Often, the mood in Hong Kong’s protest movement, challenging a powerful authoritarian state, is grim. Many fear a violent end to the movement. Some worry about being killed or disabled by the riot police, even as they plan their next protest event. [Nevertheless] the singing created a moment of optimism. An optimism revealed in the recent statement of a young protestor in Hong Kong, who said: “You know the most beautiful thing about this whole experience? I feel like we are witnessing the birth of a nation.”
Friends, if that is so, the power of music will have played a vital role. In our scripture lesson from the Book of Acts we heard the Apostle Paul and Silas do something not many people who have been severely beaten and then left shackled in chains in a dark prison do—and that is, they lifted up their voices in song—you could call it “Glory to God.” Yes, you could say that Paul and Silas too shared “a moment of optimism” as these two servants of God refused to give in to fear or despair.
In the Anchor Bible commentary we are told of the power of music—the scholar writes:
“At midnight, Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns of praise to God—and the prisoners were listening to them, when suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken, and immediately all the doors were opened and the chains of all the prisoners were loosed. The jailer woke up, and when he saw that the doors of the prison had been opened, he drew his sword, being about to kill himself, believing that the prisoners had escaped. But Paul, who a moment ago had been singing [hymns to God], shouted in a loud voice: Do yourself no harm, for we are all here…”
Friends, in praying and in singing songs of praise at midnight, Paul and Silas demonstrated an earth-shaking faith. The kind of faith that can transform people’s hearts and minds, even save the world. Indeed, here was the kind of faith that God seeks to place and nurture in each of our hearts.
Singing amidst the darkness, is a great act of faith. A powerful witness of God’s loving presence. Yes, you could call it “flower power” when voices are raised in praise of God’s justice and peace. I believe the “God of all our circling years” can inspire us today to sing songs of praise even in the midst of suffering or grief; songs of hope, even in the midst of pain; songs of love, in the midst of hate; and as the people of Hong Kong have demonstrated, sing songs of freedom, even when beaten, imprisoned and in chains.
Paul and Silas, having been stripped naked, mocked, beaten, and put in chains, sang with joy in their hearts and freedom on their minds. They sang because they had the earth-shaking faith that a person, even in chains, is already free, if they trust in Christ. Paul and Silas sang because they believed that no pain, no persecution, no suffering, no strife—indeed, “nothing at all could separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus their Lord.” And this dynamic faith expressed in song enabled the apostle Paul to have the compassion to reach out even to his jailer who was preparing to take his own life. Rather than die in fear—the jailer and his family were saved.
The church of Jesus of Nazareth has been singing ever since. This church has been singing songs of hope and praise since 1924. Singing in good times and challenging times.
And this narrative in the Book of Acts reminds us that no matter our present circumstances, we can endure in faith, yes, we can even sing. Luke’s words in Acts remind us that we are always in the embrace of a loving God—and that we can trust that this God is always present and working for us, even amid the midnights, the darkness that we at times find ourselves within.
Luke reminds us that no matter what challenges we face, no matter what injustices we, or those we support face, are forced to endure, no matter what threats to democracy in our own country, God is still worthy to receive our songs of thanksgiving and praise.