Scripture Isaiah 38:1-20 A story about how Hezekiah the King became sick, how Isaiah the prophet spoke to him, and how Hezekiah sang a song of thanksgiving when he recovered. Pay close attention to the musical instruments that accompanied Hezekiah’s song!
16 Lord, by such things people live; and my spirit finds life in them too. You restored me to health and let me live. 17 Surely it was for my benefit that I suffered such anguish. In your love you kept me from the pit of destruction; you have put all my sins behind your back. 18 For the grave cannot praise you, death cannot sing your praise; those who go down to the pit cannot hope for your faithfulness. 19 The living, the living—they praise you, as I am doing today; parents tell their children about your faithfulness. 20 The Lord will save me, and we will sing with stringed instruments all the days of our lives in the temple of the Lord.
MESSAGE ”Fiddlin’ for Freedom” Rev. James Renfrew
My text for preaching comes from the very end of that long reading from Isaiah, “The Lord will save me, and we will sing with stringed instruments all the days of our lives in the temple of the Lord.”
But instead of delving into the story of Hezekiah, the king close to death, instead of marveling at the way Isaiah blends a message about prophecy and healing, I’m going to dwell on the stringed instruments played with joy at the end of the reading. Because I once came across a stringed instrument in an unexpected moment in an unexpected place, that opened a window of understanding and joy for me.
My wife and I once paid a visit to Monticello, President Thomas Jefferson’s home outside of Charlottesville, Virginia. Anyone ever been there? Pull a nickel from your pocket you can see Jefferson’s portrait on the front and a view of Monticello on the reverse. I have little skill with Italian, but it sounds like Monticello means “mountain of cellos”. Or maybe Monticello means “little mountain”, because “cello” could mean “little”, because a cello is smaller than a string bass. Maybe the breezes and the winds in the trees on the hill sounded like an orchestra to Jefferson, but I think that the bigger hint is that Jefferson liked the music of stringed instruments. In any event, the home is built on a hill with beautiful views in all directions. It is a pleasant feeling to recall that Jefferson was one of the key authors of the Declaration of Independence, and there I was standing on his front porch, looking out on the same world he saw.
Not only is the 4th of July, the hot summer day in 1776 upon which the Declaration of Independence was ratified and signed by Jefferson and 55 other delegates to the Second Continental Congress meeting in Philadelphia, but July 4th is also the day that Jefferson, the third US President, died in 1826.
Of course, the Declaration is best known for citing the grievances of colonists against the English king, and advocating for the independence of the colonies in North America. But it contains some remarkable phrases that go far beyond the events of 1776. How about this? “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalieanable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In 1776, there was no document anywhere in the world that made a statement like that! In most of the world it was not self-evident at all. What was self-evident was inequality. Kings and the powerful at the top and most everyone else at the bottom. In fact, it was widely taught that kings ruled by divine right, that God gave them their power, so no one could complain in any way, so complaining about a king was to complain about God. But the American colonists did complain, and set a new standard for democratic societies: equality as the self-evident endowment of God to all people.
Monticello, Jefferson’s home, helps visitors remember this bold document. But Monticello should also help us remember something else. You can’t see it on the back of a nickel, but just to the left of Jefferson’s house visitors to Monticello can see the foundations of the buildings where men, women and children lived and labored as slaves, as the property of one of the most famous democrats in history. Fortunately, the tour guides and brochures are apparently much more open about this than they were in years past. They even make mention of Jefferson’s many descendants through Sally Hemmings, one of his slaves. “All men are created equal” was the bold statement in the Declaration, but from Jefferson’s front porch you can see a very different reality.
In each room at Monticello you can see artifacts of Jefferson’s scientific inventiveness and literary appreciation. An unexpected surprise greeted us in one of the rooms in Monticello: lying on one table was Jefferson’s violin! It looked like something I might have made in junior high shop class out of rough lumber and baling wire. I imagined Jefferson sawing away with his bow in that very room, trying to get a song to sound right on an imperfect instrument. I’ve later learned that Jefferson had acquired some fine violins in Europe during his travels there, but I am still taken by the image of that imperfect violin that he made with his own hands and tools, and that he played.
During the offering this morning I am going to play Jefferson’s 1800 presidential campaign song, “Jefferson & Liberty”, the song that was sung at his rallies by his exuberant supporters. The song is still played. The words to the song are included in your bulletin.
As I thought of Jefferson practicing it reminded me that democracy is always a work in progress, moving from imperfections to new understandings. So Jefferson’s ideas were not terminally flawed, as evidenced by slavery, or by only talking about men being equal, but his ideas are a work in progress that is still seeking perfection in the present day.
I think this is very true of churches, too. We are imperfect in our faith, but our imperfections to do not render our faith deficient or obsolete, we keep working at it is one way of putting it, or another way is opening ourselves more fully to what God offers us in Jesus Christ. Our church is a work in progress, too.
So the next time you’re playing your fiddle and you hit that sour note that sounds like a cat barfing up a hairball, take pride in our ideals, we’ll get it right eventually, and so will our democracy, and so will our faith!
One final thought. I wondered if any other US Presidents played the fiddle. How about this? Abraham Lincoln also played the fiddle! So here we are with Isaiah 38:20, a verse that blends prophecy, healing, the need for which was evident in Jefferson’s time, Lincoln’s time and very much in our own time, a need for bold prophecy and all kinds of healing. And, of course, with fiddles leading the songs that inspire us. Maybe Jefferson, and maybe Lincoln, but we definitely get it: The Lord will save me, and we will sing with stringed instruments all the days of our lives in the temple of the Lord.”
Jefferson & Liberty (tune “O-Gobby”, Lyrics Robert Tree Paine)
The gloomy night before us flies, Here art shall lift her laurel’d head
The reign of Terror now is o’er; Wealth, Industry and Peace divine
Its Gags, Inquisitors, and Spies, And where dark forests spread
Its herds of Harpies are no more Rich Fields and lofty Cities shine.
Rejoice! Columbia’s Sons, rejoice! From Europe’s wants and woes remote,
To tyrants never bend the knee A friendly waste of waves between,
But join with heart & soul & voice Here plenty cheers the humblest cot,
For Jefferson and Liberty. And smiles in every village green.
No Lordling here with gorging jaws. Let foes to freedom dread the name,
Shall wring from Industry the food; But should they touch the sacred tree,
Nor fiery Bigot’s holy Laws, Twice fifty thousands swords would
Lay waste our fields and streets in flame.
blood. For Jefferson and liberty.
Here strangers from a thousand From Georgia to Lake Champlain shores, From seas to Mississippi’s shore
Compelled by tyranny to roam, Ye sons of freedom loud proclaim
Shall find amidst abundant stores, “The reign of terror is no more”.
A nobler and happier home.
Note: this song was used for Jefferson’s presidential campaign in 1800. He and Aaron Burr defeated John Adams and Charles Pinckney, but since Jefferson and Burr were tied, a quirk of the Constitution at the time, the House of Representatives had to choose between them. On the 36th ballot Jefferson was elected President. Jefferson was re-elected in 1804 by a wide margin. The “reign of terror” mentioned in the song refers to Adam’s presidency!