All the kings of the earth will praise you, O Lord,
when they have heard the words of your mouth.

They will sing of the ways of the Lord,
that great is the glory of the Lord. — Psalm 138

King David embarrassed his wife when he sang and danced before the Ark of the Covenant, entering the holy city of Jerusalem in triumph. And as if upending the hope of a repeat performance in that same holy city, Jesus wailed from the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” 

It’s near impossible, though, to imagine a Crucified Lord having breath enough to sing, let alone speak, from the cross, and yet that’s precisely what the words in our gradual hymn suggest, asking, “Did not Jesus sing a psalm that night when utmost evil strove against the Light? Then let us sing, for whom he won the fight, Alleluia, alleluia.”

By way of song, we lean toward the light of God in the hope of mercy.

We sing and cry that hope in all our prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer, a prayer Jesus gives us in today’s gospel reading.

Until Russell and I came to St. Paul’s three years ago, I’d never sung the Lord’s Prayer with any regularity. It took me a while to catch on. But now that I have, I’ve come to enjoy it. By way of song, the prayer itself feels new to me: liberated somehow, as if something anchored and secure suddenly broke free to move in a new direction.

Change, as the song goes, is good. Or can be. And music always changes things, both around us and within us.

Singing has liberating force. I think the Lord’s Prayer does, too: it means to give you the liberating assurance of God’s merciful providence. It means to make your whole body sing with it.

A few days ago, I came across an essay in The New Yorker by Vinson Cunningham that recounted a hard story about singing. Apparently, two years ago, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops put together “a list of songs that should no longer be used [in] worship.” In publishing this list, the bishops noted that “songs are among the most significant forces in shaping—or misshaping—the religious and theological sensibility of the faithful.”

Among the to-be-excluded hymns was a favorite of Mr. Cunningham’s: Let Us Break Bread Together, a spiritual often sung as a Communion Hymn.

I love that hymn, too.

The reason the bishops gave for objecting to it in worship was that it failed to spell out how the bread and the wine actually become the real body and blood of Christ.

Mr. Cunningham had grown up singing the hymn at St. Benedict the African, a Black Catholic parish in Chicago where his father was the music director.

Until its exclusion, Let Us Break Bread Together had been sung in Catholic parishes for over thirty years beginning with the publication of Lead Me, Guide Me.  According to Cunningham, this collection of Black hymnody came with an introduction by Sister Thea Bowman.

“God is like fire and balm,” she wrote. “African Americans for 400 years have used symbol and song to express a faith and yearning too high, too low, too wide, too deep for words, too passionate to be confined by concepts.”

“Too passionate to be confined by concepts.”

Apparently, it was the absence of “concepts” that inspired bishops to throw out Let Us Break Bread Together. To my mind, concepts are like anchors, and sometimes they tether too tightly the boat that yearns to break free .

As Jeremy Begbie suggests, sometimes “out of concern for doctrinal orthodoxy, music is not given room to be itself, not allowed to glorify God in its own way.” Music, he suggests, is more than the “mere carrier” of words.

Surely, we might agree, it is also the carrier of flesh and blood people who sing songs set to music. For them, music can be the carrier of hope.

As many of you likely know, Let Us Break Bread Together is a hymn that came into being right here in our geographical area, in what historians now call the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, formed notably to preserve and protect the culture and artistry of the slaves who lived here and their descendants who remain.

Let Us Break Bread Together was, and is, a hymn they created to be sung in the service of Holy Communion. They saw no need for a theological discourse there, in the midst of Holy Communion itself, any more than Jesus did when he asked us to pray, “Give us this day our daily bread.”

And though our Lord wasn’t referencing the sacraments with those words, we yet pray them always in the Mass just after the bread and the wine are consecrated as the Body and Blood of Christ. In the context of the Liturgy, the Lord’s Prayer is free to sing not only of the sacrament of his body and blood but also of the sacramental character of ordinary bread and wine: indeed, of the sacramental character of human life.

Let us Break Bread Together wasn’t written as dogma or creed, but as song: a hymn made and sung to place an enslaved yet unbroken and inspirited people on their knees before God praying for mercy and hoping for freedom, there to receive the body and blood of Christ.

Let us break bread together on our knees.

Let us break bread together on our knees.

When I fall on my knees with my face to the rising Sun,

O Lord, have mercy on me.

In Communion itself, with their spirits lifted by those words, they received, and they experienced, the sacrament as a source of mercy and hope and liberation.

G.K. Chesterton has it that puritans make the mistake of believing you can only “praise God . . . with your brain” as if only “[your] head can praise God, but never [your] hands and feet.”

For an Englishman, he almost sounds ready to dance in church.

And here it’s worth noting that we Anglicans also err on the side of missing the boat. Looking to our own theological habits of mind, we, too, struggle with the tension between weighty ideas and the sacramental weight of humanity.

This week, bishops from all over the world will gather for the Lambeth Conference. They will pray and sing and worship together. And they will also revisit unresolved tensions in the Anglican Communion on matters of human sexuality — revisiting opposing ideas about who can and who cannot receive the sacrament of marriage. They, too, will wrestle with the written Word of God and the Word Made Flesh in Jesus Christ.

I’m praying the hymns they sing together will make a difference.  

Catholic bishops, you see, were right to believe songs have a way of muddying the purity of concepts. Songs “earth” our ideas and concepts with a deeper embodiment and participation than mere words.

Puritans can be found both in the Church and outside it, both in our past and still with us today. They have a long history of renouncing the pleasures of art and music. Sexuality, too. But, let me say this, we ourselves are in danger of joining them when we imagine the only songs that can lift our hearts and set free our spirits are to be found in church.

As you know by your own experience, that isn’t so. Music is also too passionate to be confined. It breaks free to free us up. Even songs on the radio can lift your heart and free your spirit. Indeed, like the hymnal itself, a radio sets out to make you sing along with it, to make you participate with more than your brain, with your hands and your feet, too.

Outside of church, what we call “secular music” can also battle the demons and lift the spirit, and now and then enliven our experience of the world. And you don’t have to sing well or even know the right words for that to happen.  You can sing all the wrong words off-key and still experience the world as a place where God is present and, by way of his mercy, is come to set you free.  

The Lord’s Prayer is a love song, really, a song Jesus gave us full of mercy and hope and peril, too. It names a love greater than our own, a love that knows all sorrow, yet a love that is also within us longing for us to express it.

Oh, how we long down deep to live the fullness of that love out loud.

It is a love that will always break free to rise in glory, a love too passionate for confinement or suppression. And we remember that love when we break bread together on our knees with our face to the rising son, in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

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