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A sermon preached at Niles Discovery Church, Fremont, California,
on Christmas Day, December 25, 2016,
by the Rev. Jeffrey Spencer and the Rev. Brenda Loreman.
Scripture: Luke 2:1-20
Copyright © 2016 by Jeffrey S. Spencer and Brenda Loreman
During today’s worship service, Pastor Jeff and Pastor Brenda shared stories behind some famous and not so famous Christmas Carols, and then we sang them.
Away in a Manger (Pastor Jeff)
When she was little, my younger sister’s favorite Christmas carol was “Away in a Manger.” For a long time, people thought that Martin Luther, the great reformer, wrote “Away in a Manger.” It turns out that that was wrong. The words to the song were written by an American, but we don’t know who. And we don’t know who wrote the tune that we’re going to sing, either.
I like this carol, but I have a particular problem with one line in the second verse. “The cattle are lowing” – that means that the cows were mooing. “The baby awakes” – if I was sleeping in a barn and the cows were mooing, I’d probably wake up, too. “But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”
Who are they kidding? What newborn baby doesn’t wake up crying, at least some of the time?! I think they included this line to make us feel guilty when we are fussy. I say, “Bah, humbug” to that. Maybe one of you would like to write new words to that verse.
So that’s a little bit of the story behind “Away in a Manger.” We’re going to do more of that today. We’re going to learn some things about some Christmas carols and then sing them.
BUT, with “Away in a Manger,” there is sometimes a debate about how to sing it. Should it be the tune that starts up high and then comes down: “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed”? Or should it be the tune that stars low and climbs up some: “Away in a manger, no crib for a bed”?
That’s the question we would have to answer every Christmas Eve when my younger sister was little when my family would sit around our Christmas tree and sing Christmas carols. We would usually end up singing both tunes.
Today we’re going to sing the one that starts up high and comes down – because that’s the tune that in our hymnal.
Good Christian Friends, Rejoice (Pastor Jeff)
Hum the tune to “Good Christian Friends, Rejoice,” and you’ll think – well, actually, I don’t know what you’ll think. I think, “That’s a happy, dancey tune. Maybe English, maybe late 18th century or 19th century.”
Sure enough, the tune is from the early 19th century, written by an Anglican priest. James Mason Neale, the composer, was, it turns out, a theological radical for his day. Ahead of his congregation and the church hierarchy in that time, he thought faith should lead to exuberance and that faithful people should reach out to the marginalized and forgotten. He even started a religious order for women, the Sisterhood of St. Margaret, whose mission was to feed the poor, to care for orphans, and to minister to prostitutes. For his efforts, he got death threats – and one congregation kicked him out throwing stones at him.
Because the music was 19th century, I assumed the words were, too. Wrong. The words were written in the early 1300s by a German nobleman turned Dominican monk named Heinrich Suso. Like Neale, the composer, Suso was a theological progressive for his time – progressive enough that he was tried for heresy. The pope condemned him. The German king exiled him. From Switzerland, he continued to preach and write, trying to communicate the joy and compassion of the gospel.
It was in this context that he penned “Good Christian Men, Rejoice.” It was passed around orally and finally found it’s way into print 150 years after it was authored.
Eventually it was translated and Neale wrote his music for the lyrics.
By the way, Suso was made a saint by the Catholic Church in 1831.
Let’s sing about the joy of the gospel.
Joy to the World (Pastor Brenda)
[Information to be added later]
Go Tell It on the Mountain (Pastor Jeff)
We owe a huge debt to the Fisk Jubilee Singers and a handful of church musician scholars for the fact that African-American Spirituals survive. Post-slavery, few white scholars saw the Spiritual as a legitimate musical form. African-American musicians were the ones who worked to collect and transcribe this music that was taught from mouth to ear over the decades.
As I think through the Spirituals I’m familiar with (which, I acknowledge, is a very limited list), I notice that only a handful are about Christmas: “Mary Had a Baby,” “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow,” “Sweet Little Jesus Boy,” and “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
There are plenty of others. A Google search reveals a significant list, though still only a portion of all the spirituals created in the African-American experience.
Sometimes a Christmas carol invites us to imagine how life was for someone else. So it is with “Go Tell It on the Mountain.”
As you think about the Christmas story as Matthew and Luke tell it, who do you think an American slave would most identify with? I imagine it would be Mary and Joseph forced into substandard housing on the night their child is born, and the shepherds who had to work 24 hours a day and were pushed to the edges – literally and figuratively – of society. And those are the main characters in African-American Spirituals.
This song, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” also invites us to ask what the good news is that we are to spread over the hills and everywhere. I would say that it is not just that God sent us salvation from sin that blessed Christmas morn so that we might live forever in heaven in the sweet by and by. I would say that God has been sending us salvation from oppression and injustice ever since that blessed Christmas morn.
So, let’s go tell it.
God’s Love Made Visible (Pastor Brenda)
[Information to be added later]
(Later in the service, Pastor Brenda read “Christmas Eve at the Epsom Circle McDonald’s,” a poem by Maren Tirabassi. You can read the poem here.)