Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Psalms and Hymns and Spiritual Songs” (Ephesians 5:18-19)
August 19, 2018
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

When it comes to Christians and drinking alcohol there are lots of conceptions and misconceptions.  When a priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into a bar, the bartender usually asks, “What is this, some kind of joke?”  As you know, the main difference between Presbyterians and Baptists is that when Presbyterians see one another at the liquor store, they actually speak to each other—whereas Baptists will avoid each another or simply go to the drive-through.  When it comes to Episcopalians and alcohol, there is some truth to the saying, “where you find four Episcopalians, you will find a fifth”—the origin of the term “Whiskeypalians.”

In today’s passage from his Letter to the Ephesians the Apostle Paul wrote: “Do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery; but be filled with the Spirit, as you sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among yourselves, singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts (Ephesians 5:18-19).  When it comes to “singing and making melody to the Lord in your hearts”, I think of the legendary Queen of Soul who died last week, Aretha Franklin.

Aretha Franklin was born in a small house in Memphis, Tennessee in 1942.  Right before her tenth birthday her mother died of a heart attack.  Nevertheless, she taught herself to play piano by ear, began singing in front of her church at age nine, and at age sixteen joined gospel singers who travelled with Martin Luther King, Jr.  Ten years later at his funeral, with his widow Coretta Scott and their four young children in the front row, Aretha Franklin sang the gospel classic, “Precious Lord”:

Precious Lord, take my hand
Lead me on, let me stand
I’m tired, I’m weak, I’m alone
Through the storm, through the night
Lead me on to the light
Take my hand, precious Lord
Lead me home

In addition to being a phenomenal gospel singer, she had a stellar secular music career that spanned five decades.  She sold over 75 million records, won 20 Grammy’s, was the first woman inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and ranked by Rolling Stone magazine as the number one singer of all time.  In addition to “Respect” and “Chain of Fools” one of her biggest hits of the late 60’s was a song written by Carole King, “(You Make Me Feel) Like a Natural Woman.”  In fact, at the 2015 Kennedy Center Honors, Aretha Franklin surprised Carole King when she walked onstage and sang this song, reducing many to tears and receiving a standing ovation before she even finished singing.

When you learn some Aretha Franklin’s backstory, that in addition to her mother dying before Aretha’s tenth birthday, that she was frequently taken advantage of as a teenager, that she had her first child just after turning fourteen, that she dropped out of high school her sophomore year and had her second child at age sixteen, that she was physically abused by her first husband—when you learn all that, you understand why Aretha Franklin brought such soul to these classic lyrics:

Looking out on the morning rain
I used to feel so uninspired
And when I knew I had to face another day
Lord, it made me feel so tired
Before the day I met you, life was so unkind
But you’re the key to my peace of mind…
When my soul was in the lost and found
You came along to claim it…
You make me feel like a natural woman

“When my soul was in the lost and found, you came along to claim it”—that is the gospel.  That is exactly what Aretha Franklin experienced in her life, and that is what Jesus Christ, our Precious Lord, does for all souls in the lost and found, including yours.  Throughout his earthly ministry Jesus ministered grace to souls in the lost and found.  To lepers who were not allowed to touch or be touched by anyone—imagine that, no hugs, no kisses, no embraces, no high fives, no human touches of any kind, ever—Jesus gave grace as he touched and healed them.  To the blind man sitting by the side of the road Jesus gave sight.  To the widow whose only son had just died, Jesus gave her resurrected and healed son back.

To his followers who were hungry in the wilderness he multiplied a little bread and fish so that everyone could eat as much as they wanted.  To the woman caught in adultery and embarrassingly dragged before him in the temple, Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.”  Even to the Roman soldiers who nailed him to the cross, Jesus gave grace, “Father, forgive them, they do not know what they are doing”—a prayer for forgiveness for all souls in the lost and found.

For Mary Magdalene, a woman who like the young Aretha Franklin was used to being mistreated and objectified by men, Jesus cast out her demons, gave her a brand new start, and chose her as the first woman to see him after his resurrection.  The risen Jesus gave grace to doubting Thomas, showing him his scars as evidence of his love—and the risen Jesus grace to Peter, who was still wallowing in guilt for denying Jesus three times, fully restoring his position as the chief apostle.

As a new football season has just gotten underway I have been reading a biography on legendary NFL Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Montana, whose nickname was “Joe Cool” because of his calm demeanor under pressure.  Joe was also respected by his teammates because although highly competitive, he gave them grace.  This went all the way back to high school when in the fall of 1972 he was quarterbacking his Ringgold High School team in what would later be renamed Joe Montana Stadium, and he gave grace to a teammate, as Keith Dunnavant writes:

Following a Ringgold touchdown, fullback Craig Garry trotted onto the field to relay the two-point conversion play from the head coach.  In the excitement, Garry forgot the play.  “I just went blank,” Garry recalled.  Many quarterbacks faced with such a situation would have called a time-out and jogged to the sideline.  Not Joe Cool.  “Joe didn’t miss a beat, “ Garry said, “He just calmly called a play—a 36 slant pass—to me, threw it perfectly, I caught it, and we had our two points” (Montana 25-26).

Joe Montana did not yell at his teammate, or throw him under the bus with his coach; instead, he gave his teammate the opportunity to make the crucial play, instead he gave Garry grace.  Incidentally, at Notre Dame Joe Montana also gave grace to the famous Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, whose story inspired the hit 1993 film Rudy: “Montana was one of the ones who always showed me respect… encouraged me…He understood what it meant to struggle’” (Montana 42).

And there have been many occasions in my life when, just like fullback Craig Garry, my mind too, has gone blank, and I metaphorically have forgotten the play call, but many times there have been Joe Montana’s in my life who gave me grace.  I’ll give you one example.  Several years ago when I had only been here a couple months, it was my turn to lead the 7:00AM Thursday morning Eucharist and I forgot to set my alarm.  I awoke at 6:54, scheduled to lead the service in six minutes.  I threw on my clericals, sprinted across the church property with my disheveled hair, spewing words that were not exactly “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs.”  But as I arrived at the sanctuary, late, the doors were already unlocked, the candles already lit, everything all set to go, courtesy of Father Peter Ingeman who did not miss a beat, who did not throw me, the new rector, under the bus for being late, but instead and threw me a perfect pass, and gave me grace.

The truth is every single one of us finds ourselves in the lost and found, in need of someone to come along and claim us.  And that is what Jesus Christ does.  Jesus himself said, “(I) came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).  Moreover, in seeking you out and saving you when you are lost, Jesus also claims you, Jesus also calls you by name: “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine” (Isaiah 43:1).  The same Holy Spirit who gives you “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” to sing to the Lord is the One who bears witness in your heart that you are one of God’s children, that you have been not only found, but also claimed by God as one of his own (Romans 8:14-16).

And at the end of your life, you will be eternally claimed by the One who gave his life on the cross for you on Good Friday and was raised from the dead on Easter Sunday—and the same risen Jesus who gave grace to Thomas and Peter will give grace to you, and call you home.

This literally happened with one of our own, Tal Barnidge, who died last week.  In talking with his widow, Norma, this past week she shared how several times during his final days at hospice he asked her to please bring him some clothes.  “Why?” she would ask.  “Because I’m going home,” he would reply—and the last time he told her that, he raised his arms and eyes upwards and smiled, “Because I’m going home.”  And that is what happened last Sunday when Jesus came to the lost and found to claim Tal Barnidge and take him home, where he has joined the heavenly chorus in singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” to our Precious Lord.

And lest you think this is all make believe or a myth, I tell you that I have heard a many similar stories through many years of ministry.  The gospel is not make believe or a myth.  The gospel is the very true good news of the very true grace of God in Jesus Christ, who comes to all of us in the lost and found to claim us, each and every one.

Jesus knows your backstory, Jesus understands what it means to struggle, and Jesus claims you as his own.

Back to Aretha Franklin for a moment, and then I’ll close…in January 1972 at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles she recorded the live gospel album Amazing Grace, which is the bestselling live gospel album of all time.  The title track is a nearly eleven minute long version of “Amazing Grace”, the classic hymn all about how Jesus Christ comes to those whose souls are in the lost and found to claim them, all about how through God’s grace “I once was lost but now am found.”  Aretha’s live version of “Amazing Grace” on this album will give you Holy Spirit goose bumps, trust me.  Interestingly, she ends her version of the hymn with the penultimate verse.  Instead of ending it with the “When we’ve been there many years, bright shining as the sun…” verse, she ends it, “Through many dangers, toils, and snares, I have already come; tis grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home.”

And that is the gospel.  Grace will lead you home.

You have been and will be claimed at the lost and found by Jesus Christ, your Precious Lord who has already done that for Tal Barnidge, who has already done that for the Queen of Soul—and who one day will do that for you.

And you too will join the ever growing heavenly chorus singing “psalms and hymns and spiritual songs” to the eternal glory of your Precious Lord.