The Reverend Dr. Lillian Daniel
December 16, 2007
First Congregational Church,
Scripture: Luke 1:46-55, The Magnificat
Hymn 426, New Century Hymnal, “My Life Flows in Endless Song.”
This sermon moves back and forth between the words of the preacher and the voice of a soprano soloist, singing one verse at a time of the hymn “My Life Flows on in Endless Song.”
(A soprano soloist sings verse 1)
My life flows on in endless song; above earth’s lamentations, I hear the sweet, though far off hymn that hails a new creation. Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing. It finds an echo in my soul. How can I keep from singing?
In a true story from the Chicago Tribune, a bride-to-be whose wedding was planned for September 9, found out on July 28, that her fiancé was carrying on with another woman. The evidence reported to her by a friend was irrefutable, and the wedding was less than two weeks away. The bride, Kyle Paxman, called her wedding off.
Not the reception. The bride and her mother found out that while they could cancel the band, the florist and the photographer, they would still be responsible for the whopping bill for a four course dinner for 125 people. So the bride decided to, in her own words, “turn this into something positive.”
She rearranged the guest list slightly – by removing all the men from it. Can you blame her?
Then she turned this women’s only party into a benefit for
two charities, one to help poor children in her home state of
And Mary said, ‘My soul magnifies the
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.’
For yes, those wedding guests who had expected a grand and luxurious wedding did leave with their purses a little emptier, but I doubt they left with empty hearts. They were left empty in the right way, for in their emptiness, the hungry could be filled with good things.
This is a bride who didn’t get to wear her wedding dress,
she didn’t get to feed her husband the wedding cake, and she didn’t have the
chance for the first dance or to throw her bouquet. She did, however, go on her
When I read this story in the Tribune, I loved this woman. She reminded me of Mary, faced with a radical change in plans but unwilling to be undone by it. When her own situation might have overwhelmed her, she turned her attention to the poor, and to the hungry and to a hurting world.By turning disappointment into an occasion for generosity, this bride was a woman who could not keep from singing.
(A soloist sings verse 2)
What though my joys and comforts die? My Savior still is living. What though the shadows gather round? A new son Christ is giving. No storm can shake my in-most calm, while to that Rock I’m clinging. Since Love commands both heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?
This beautiful hymn is called My Life Flows on in Endless Song, and in various 19th century hymnals it was attributed to different poets, including Anna Warner. We don’t know very much about it. We just know that it speaks to the power of the human spirit, when it is centered on God.
The one verse we do know more about is the third verse, which was written in the 1950’s and added on. While this hymn appears in Methodist, Unitarian Universalist and Disciples hymnals, the United Church of Christ hymnal includes the third verse that was written later and became famous outside of the world of church music.
The song went on to be recorded by Pete Seeger. Bruce Springsteen recorded it in his 2006 cover album, “We Shall Overcome – the Seeger Sessions.” And now, a hymn that had been forgotten by the 1950’s is one our favorites once again, all because of that new third verse.
This third verse was written by the poet Doris Plenn, in the 1950’s, when her friends were imprisoned during the McCarthy era. At this time in American history, citizens lost their jobs, their friends, even their freedom, for being communists, communist sympathizers, or for simply being accused of being such. Cartoonists like Walt Kelly, entertainers like Zero Mostel, pastors like the Methodist Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam and Boston Community Church’s Don Lothrop, and yes, this poet Doris Plenn, stood up publicly against this persecution of friends and strangers.
Whatever you may think of communism as political ideology, historians look back on the McCarthy era as a time when we fell far short of our nation’s promise. This country, founded as a haven for those seeking religious and political liberty, lost sight of that purpose in a time of fear. We became the thing we hated, a land where people could be persecuted for their political beliefs. That is a history worth remembering because at any time we could find ourselves living it again. When that day comes, or if it has come already today, let us pray that we have the saints and poets to raise a protest song.
So what gave a poet like Doris Plenn the courage to stand
against the imprisonment of artists and thinkers? Raised in
(A soloist sings verse 3)
When tyrants tremble, sick with fear, and hear their death knells ringing; when friends rejoice both far and near, how can I keep from singing? In prison cell and dungeon vile our thoughts to them are winging. When friends by shame are undefiled, how can I keep from singing?
Mary, a young teenager, had almost nothing to her name, except the security that came with being engaged. Her fiancé, Joseph, had probably not come into her life through a love affair, but rather through the economic arrangements made between one poor working family and another. Yet Joseph would be Mary’s ticket to safety, for without a home ahead of her, she would be absolutely vulnerable in a society that still viewed women as property.
There would be no grand wedding, with a four-course dinner
for 125 people, instead a long journey to
So, to a young woman who had few choices, appeared an angel, who said, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High…”
Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be, since I am a virgin?” An angelic announcement after the fact was how Mary discovered she was pregnant. She had not even had the chance to choose.
An unwed, pregnant teenager, Mary was in a situation where now she had even fewer options. Could she tell Joseph that she was pregnant with the child of God, and appear to be insane? Or would it be better to offer a more logical explanation that would mark her as unfaithful?
She decided to tell the truth, as strange as it was. Mary, betrothed, at least for now, and off to register in a strange land, chose to do more than accept her fate. She rejoiced in it. In fact we are told, she sang a song based upon the scriptures that had come before, a song we now call the Magnificat, which begins with the extraordinary words, ‘My soul magnifies the Lord.”
You know how this story will go,
and you know how it ends. Mary will tell Joseph the truth, he will stand by her
side, and her child will be born exposed to the elements, and later chased by
Herod, a bloodthirsty king. The little family will flee to
So in her pain, her fear and her lack of choices in life, she realized that she did have one choice. She could cry, or she could sing. And such was Mary’s blessing to us, she couldn’t keep from singing.
(A soloist sings verse 4)
I lift my eyes; the cloud grows thin; I see the blue above it. And day by day, this pathway smooths, since first I learned to love it. The peace of Christ makes fresh my heart, a fountain ever springing. All things are mine, since I am Christ’s – how can I keep from singing?