As I was reflecting this past week on our upcoming All Saints Sunday worship service today and thinking about the saints in my life—the countless men and women, as well as youth, who have inspired and encouraged me to keep the faith in challenging times—I was reminded of a quote I read in seminary by John Calvin, the 16th century architect of Presbyterian Theology. In his literary magnum opus, Institutes of the Christian Religion published in 1536, Calvin wrote: “All whom the Lord has chosen and received into the society of his saints ought to prepare themselves for a life that is hard…laborious and full of countless griefs. [Yet] no one can travel so far that he [or she] does not make some progress each day.” Said Calvin: “So let us never give up. Then we shall move forward daily in the Lord’s way. And let us never despair because of our limited success. Even though it is so much less than we would like, our labour is [never] wasted when today is better than yesterday!”
Friends, John Calvin’s words suggest that one of the truths and chief attributes of saints, of all who strive to live their lives in service to God, is that they focus on living one day at a time—and refuse to quit when the going gets tough—as it often will in life. That was true for Mary, the mother of Jesus; true also for the Apostle Paul; for St. Francis of Assisi, for John Calvin and Martin Luther; for Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. and countless others.
And it was true for many of the men, women and children we lit a candle for this morning.
Indeed, many named this morning were people who kept the faith, in their own unique way, amid the struggles and challenges of life. People from whom we felt the love of God. People in whom there was no quit. If your heart is in the right place—if Christ’s peace and justice is your goal and joy—then your living is never in vain.
As I suggested in my sermon last week if we are truly to be Disciples of Christ we must pray for the grace to persevere. A grace that enables us to trust that God will not ever let us down or leave us alone, for, as the Apostle Paul said with conviction: “In life, and in death, we belong to God.” Now countless men and women for the past 95 years, like all of you, have entered this humble sanctuary-- some, in search of community, some yearning for a sense of God’s love and peace in their lives, some glad for the opportunity to give God thanks and praise with friends. Some, like me, looking for all three!
One such person who entered our sanctuary years ago was on my mind this week. A saint named Jennie Cordero. She came here to praise God in song. Miss Jennie loved God and she loved to sing. And, once a year, for about the first 10 years or so that I served this church—Miss Jennie would pay us a visit. And every year she sang the same exact song written in 1905: “His Eye Is On The Sparrow. Believe me it never got old! Kathy Wilding will play that song this morning for our offertory.
In our First Lesson this morning we heard Dina Myers read words that reflect the confidence that came forth from Jennie Cordero every time she sang for us:
“The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?”
Friends, when Miss Jennie sang the light of God’s love filled our sanctuary.And it was evident that she feared nothing. She drew us with her song to a place of peace.
In our second lesson this morning we heard Jesus challenge his disciples to “Let your light so shine before [others], that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Yes, Jesus said: “Let your light shine!” Singing was how Miss Jennie Cordero let her light shine.
We who were blessed to hear Miss Jennie sing “His Eye Is On the Sparrow, were reminded of God’s love for us, indeed for all humanity. Her song inspired us to give glory to God and to confidently trust in God’s steadfast love and faithfulness.
Who was this remarkable woman who graced our sanctuary each year? Her amazing story, her journey, reminds me of the words of Calvin I shared a few minutes ago: “All whom the Lord has chosen and received into the society of his saints ought to prepare themselves for a life that is hard…laborious and full of countless griefs. [Yet] no one can travel so far that he [or she] does not make some progress each day.
Such was true of the life that Miss Jennie Cordero lived. And against all odds, she progressed daily and ultimately triumphed. She truly was a saint in our midst. And a reminder that you never know whom God may inspire to enter the doors of this church.
Back in 1991, Journalist Melinda Burns of the Santa Barbara New Press, in a tribute to Jennie Cordero included these words: “Part-time motel maid and cleaning woman, former clerk typist and night club chanteuse, former ghetto child, runaway and battered wife, Jennie Cordero, has walked a long and tortuous road to her place in the sun.
“[Miss] Cordero…will receive a Bachelor’s of Art degree in music composition from the University of California, Santa Barbara’s College of Creative Studies. “At a small ceremony, a pianist will perform ‘Lost Soul,’ Cordero’s original work, and the shy, soft-spoken grandmother will step forward for her diploma.”
Said Miss Jennie to the reporter: “When I was young I cried because I didn’t know how to write my music down. Now, I can give my melodies a voice. Journalist Burns continued: “[Jennie Cordero] is a woman who changes 22 motel beds and cleans the restrooms at a Mobil Gas station in Pismo Beach, and commutes 94 miles by Greyhound bus to Santa Barbara to attend UCSB…
“As an infant, [Jennie] was cast aside by her father, the late Angel Cordero, a Hall of Fame jockey who was the first Puerto Rican Jockey to win the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes. Having won over 6000 horse races in his career he became a very wealthy and celebrated man. Yet Jennie, his daughter, was never a part of her father’s world.
“Jennie, [whose mother was African American] was raised instead by a white step-father who abused her because, quote: ‘she was the only dark one’ in his large family. “For solace, Jennie turned to the music of her mother, who played the tambourine in the streets of New York for the salvation army. “As a little girl on Manhattan’s lower Eastside, Jennie would sleep to the sound of jukebox music, punctuated by Mafia gun battles, in the pool hall below her room.
“On weekends, she would sit listening to hymns on the steps of the ghetto’s Greek and Pentecostal churches and Jewish synagogues. When the gypsies came, she would run to hear them sing.” Said Jennie: “‘Music was my friend, my company, my playmate. I couldn’t sleep at night when I heard all this music. “‘I said to myself, I have to learn to read it and write it. I had this energy that wouldn’t let me rest until I did.‘That’s the drive that my [birth] father had [as a jockey].’
“Jennie fled her white stepfather at the age of 16 for an abusive husband—then fled him too, and raised a daughter [alone] on welfare and part-time typing jobs. On her meager savings, she managed to pay for singing lessons. Said Miss Cordero: “My mama said, ‘Jennie, your gift is your voice…[so] all I did was sing, sing, sing. “She sang ballads and motion picture themes at the Kit Kat night club on Western Avenue in Hollywood.
“Other times, she said she sang for white congregations in elegant churches [around LA] always fasting the day before.
“Piano lessons, still on a clerk’s salary, followed, [as well as music] classes at USC, Cal Poly and Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo. “Through the years, Jennie won her teacher’s admiration for her voice, like Billie Holliday’s, and for her perseverance in a field that was clearly difficult for her.
One of her lecturers at UCSB said: “Jennie is one of the most dedicated musicians I have known…She comes from a completely different perspective from most people. Most people come to school to understand what she already knows about music—the inside of music. “Everybody learns from Jennie. She’s a very wise person. During her years [living] in a dormitory on campus, Jennie was sought out as a confidante by students a third her age.
After graduation, “she left the dorms, and moved to Pismo Beach to help support her daughter.” Friends, she lived just up the street in a rented room on Dolliver.
Said Jennie, “There is not inspiration without suffering…I have had a long haul. The only comfort I have is that God gave me that spirit of music and it has brought me all this way.”
Friends, on this, All Saints Sunday, as we celebrate the men, women and children who have made such a tremendous difference in our lives— I leave you with these lyrics which the late Jennie Cordero shared in this very sanctuary year after year. Here are lyrics to bless you and to encourage you to discover whatever talent it is that you have and let it shine--as many of the wonderful saints celebrated by these shining candles did in their own lives. Why not open your heart this morning and allow the grace of God to make this your song—nothing would make God or Miss Jennie Cordero more pleased. Miss Jennie Cordero would push the button on her tape recorder, let the background music begin, and then sing:
“Why should I feel discouraged, why should the shadows come, Why should my heart be lonely, and long for heaven and home, When Jesus is my portion? My constant friend is He: His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me… ‘Let not your heart be troubled,’ His tender word I hear, And resting on His goodness, I lose my doubts and fears;
Though by the path He leadeth, but one step I may see; His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me; Whenever I am tempted, whenever clouds arise, When songs give place to sighing, when hope within me dies,I draw the closer to Him, from care He sets me free; His eye is on the sparrow, and I know He watches me;I sing because I'm happy, I sing because I'm free, For His eye is on the sparrow, And I know He watches me.
Musical group Selah "His Eye is on the Sparrow"