From a Pastor's Desk

A series of opinion articles from rostered ministers and lay leaders from our Synod.


Lifting Up Song in Hope for Peace

Mar 23, 2024

By The Rev. Carol L. Kessler, MD, MDiv.


Just Keep on Singing and You Can’t Die

Just keep on singing and you can’t die
Just keep on singing and you won’t be buried
Tell God to give you a song
And just a keep on singing it all day long
- Slave song taught to me by Dr. John Motley
In the verses preceding today’s gospel, Jesus has just praised the widow’s offering at the temple and let his disciples know that the huge stones of that place of worship will be destroyed. “There will no longer be stone upon stone!”
“When will this happen?”, the disciples asked, surely shocked and lost. They entered Jerusalem perhaps expecting God’s kingdom to come by Jesus becoming King. Maybe contemplating what their official position would be in the New Reign.
Instead, they’re told that the temple will be destroyed. And there will be false prophets and wars and earthquakes and hunger and that they will be whipped for proclaiming the Good News that he has taught them. But not to worry because when interrogated, the Holy Spirit will speak through them.
Then Jesus continues in today’s good news – “The sun will be darkened and the moon will not give light and the stars will be falling from heaven and the powers in the heavens will be shaken. And the Son of Man will come.
The Son of Man will come….so keep awake!
That’s the call in the season of Advent – Keep awake! The Son of Man will come!
Jesus promises the Son of Man will come after terrifying the disciples with stories of destruction and persecution. “What is Jesus talking about?”, the disciples must have wondered.  “What have we gotten ourselves into? Walking amongst the poor, loving, eating, becoming community in the middle of nowhere, Jesus has been with us. Now that we’ve come to the temple, to Jerusalem, he tells us that the Holy Spirit will speak through us when we’re stepped on by the oppressor’s boot.”
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” they might have thought, recalling the cry of the prophet Isaiah who foretold the coming of a Messiah. “Tear open the heavens and come down!”
I must confess that in these weeks of bombardment of Gaza by weapons manufactured on US soil, I’ve been wishing that God open up the heavens and come down, so the nations might tremble at God’s presence. For “we have been delivered into the hands of our own iniquity.”
The hands of war! I hate war! Yet from the beginning of time brother kills brother. Cain kill Abel. Walter Cronkite is more eloquent than me – “War itself is a form of madness. It’s hardly a civilized pursuit. It’s amazing how we spend so much time inventing devices to kill each other and so little time working on how to achieve peace.”
We wait for the Prince of Peace who told disciples there will be war.
I hate war! My parents grew up in Germany during World War II and I lived in El Salvador during its twelve-year civil war. There are no words to describe the madness of war. I’m sure the disciples were speechless when they heard Jesus speak of war and when their journey to Jerusalem culminated with crucifixion/state-sponsored execution. 
The Spanish Jesuit social psychologist, Ignacio Martin-Baro who chose to remain in El Salvador and was killed by US backed bullets, shot in the head in his home at San Salvador’s Jesuit University, wrote that war is a social construct based on violence, social polarization, and lies. Violence – the notion that “might makes right.” Or as my brother who lost his passion for war after serving in the Navy wrote from a destroyer in the Indian Ocean during the Iran hostage crisis – “We fight communism. Our motto is – ‘Peace by superior fire power.’” Social polarization – us vs. them, where they are evil, terrorists, vermin. Poles that are evident these days in the U.S., where even before this war and the rise in Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, divides grow between rich/poor; right/left; Republican/Democrat. And lies – in times of war, propaganda flourishes to legitimize the slaughter of the “other.” Body counts seem normal – like keepings score of a ball game.
But war isn’t a game. I must confess that while volunteering as a lay missionary for a health program of the Archdiocese in El Salvador I sometimes got caught up in the fervor of the promise of revolutionary victory – The poor will take power and establish God’s Kingdom of justice! What position will I assume in the new reign? At times, I’d be happy when more military died than guerilla. And then I’d remember. The military, armed with US dollars are boys taken from rural buses to be converted into soldiers obeying orders. When they’d point their guns at me while working as a doctor, I’d tell myself, “They’re just boys with guns.” I remember my friend John, a Jesuit volunteer from the Bronx, joking at a military checkpoint as young soldiers contemplated letting me through. “She’s a Yankee terrorist….but, don’t worry; she’s harmless.” They let me through with nervous laughter.
O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!
God did come down and the story did not end on the cross. The skies darkened and Jesus uttered, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.
We know not what we do. And I’m not unique in feeling the terror of war in my being. All of us come from ancestors who at one time endured the horror. Be they perpetrator or victim.
I recently read of a chaplain for veterans who saw a veteran walk out of a Veterans’ Day event where they were being thanked for their service. “Thanked for my service…That’s just a way for people to feel good…They don’t want to hear about what terrible things I’ve done.”
O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down!
The good news is that God did come down. Born in Bethlehem. Taught, healed, and loved. Came to Jerusalem to be killed and to rise again. The road did not end at the cross. Disciples kept on keeping on, having been warned that the road would not be easy. 
The road is not easy. Wars rage abroad; on Bronx streets; and in homes.
I must confess that last week, for the first time in my decades as a pastor, I felt world-weary and read a sermon that I found online. I couldn’t put words together. I thought it was my job to make sense out of the madness around me. To fix it somehow.
And as I pondered Isaiah’s call for the heavens to open, I re-membered that God does come down each time a song comes into my heart. God gives me a song. The Spirit speaks through me.
Just keep on singing and you can’t die.
I learned that song as a teen in New York City’s All City Concert Choir from Dr. John Motley, who is from the same town as Dizzy Gillespie. He was head of the Board of Education’s Music Department and met with a group of mostly black youth and was sure to teach slave songs.
Songs that rise from the depths of despair from slaves who are under the boot of the oppressor and voice the Spirit’s power. Not the power of the sword.
Keep on singing and you can’t die.
Breath creates sound that is heard by slave and master alike.
I recently learned that according to quantum physics a particle vibrating due to the sound of a voice can immediately affect a molecule inside a star at the edge of the universe. 
A song touches a star.
And in these days when church buildings close, my voice is inspired as I gather with you at this humble Bronx storefront, where the Holy Spirit moves each of you to sing, just as my mother sang in church, even at the height of Hitler’s reign.
For the heaven’s open and God’s reign comes down as we gather. Knowing that Jesus was born, suffered, died, and comes to us today. Do you see him?
Keep awake!
I feel Him in slave songs. I see Him in each of you who woke up and dared to be here. To sing. To hope. To see one another and be seen.
As a mentor of mine is known to say, “We will never not know each other again.”
Each of you, matter.
Tell God to give you a song and just a keep on singing it all day long!
Sermon based on Isaiah 64:1-9 and Mark 13:24-37