Sermon September 4: Hymn Stories

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Faith United Methodist Church

September 4, 2016

Hymn Festival

Rev. Kristabeth Atwood

Scripture:  Just a Closer Walk with Thee

Prayer of Illumination:

Lord, put a song on our hearts. May we dance to the melody of your love all the days of our lives. Amen.

Sermon:                                          Hymn Stories

On Hymn Festival Sunday I tell a story about the history or background of a hymn. Dennis mentioned to me a couple of times that “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” is his favorite hymn. He suggested it for today and we sang it as part of our praise songs. “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” is also a hymn we often sing on Jazz Sunday, as the musicians lead us out of the Sanctuary. It’s a well known hymn, but one that didn’t make it into our original UM Hymnal. It was included in our hymnal supplement, The Faith We Sing, published in 2000 and, since then, several people I’ve worked with have requested it at the funerals of their loved ones.

Our United Methodist Discipleship Ministries published an article on “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” which can be found on umdiscipleship.org. Michael Hawn tells us that the origins of this spiritual are unknown. Other sources I found suggest it originated in southern African American churches in the 19th century, possibly before the Civil War.   It became known in the 1930’s when African American churches introduced Gospel to the world.

In his article Michael Hawn suggests, “As is the case with many hymns, knowing where a song came from, while interesting and helpful at times, is not as important as the witness of the hymn itself in the lives of those who sing it. Such is the case of this venerable song.”

In his book How Sweet The Sound, Horace Clarence Boyer tells of how the song was “discovered.” While traveling between Kansas City and Chicago in 1940, songwriter Kenneth Morris got off the train to stretch his legs. While standing on the platform, he overheard a porter singing some of the words to “Just a Closer Walk with Thee”. Not thinking much about it, Morris boarded the train and went on his way. The words and melody of the song kept repeating in his head and he knew he had to hear the rest of it. At the next stop, Morris got off the train and took the next train back to the previous stop. There he managed to find the porter and Morris persuaded him to sing the song while he copied down the words.

Hawn, from Discipleship Ministries, named some of the notable features of this hymn: The first witness may be found in the testimonial nature of the text. The anonymous composer feels “weak” and lives in a world of “wrong.” The only way to be “satisfied” is by invoking Jesus who is “strong” and by walking closely beside him. It is the daily close walk with Christ that leads one to become more Christ-like. …In the second stanza, the singer seems to be despondent in a “world of toil and snares.” The first rhetorical question posed is, “If I falter, Lord, who cares?” A second question—“Who with me my burden bears?”—receives a welcome response, “None but thee.”…

The second witness is the wide range of recording artists who have sung this song. While not exclusively used in the African-American community, it is a song strongly identified with African Americans. The Selah Jubilee Singers, a black gospel quartet, made the first known recording of the song in 1941….

Following this recording are many black and white gospel recordings including the Sallie Martin Singers (mid-1940s), Pat Boone (1957), Tennessee Ernie Ford (1957), Ella Fitzgerald (1967), Joan Baez (1969), Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash (1969) and many others… Including Elvis Presley!

Hawn then shares the Jazz history of this hymn: Perhaps no witness is stronger than the now traditional use of the song in New Orleans jazz funerals…. For the first half of the century the white community did not consider… jazz…appropriate for the church…

Beginning in the 1960s, the practice of the jazz funeral spread across social and ethnic boundaries to the point that it became an honor to have a jazz procession where musicians would participate as a sign of respect for the deceased person…. “Just a Closer Walk with Thee” remains the traditional tune most associated with this event…

“Just a Closer Walk with Thee” is the kind of hymn that can bring us comfort when we are sad, or express joy when we are celebrating. It reminds us that that God is with us, cares for us, and never leaves us alone, even in death. As United Methodists we believe that our hymnals are not just books of songs, but books of theology. Look at what we sing and you will know what we believe. I am weak but Thou art strong; Jesus, keep me from all wrong;
I’ll be satisfied as long, As I walk, let me walk close to Thee.
And the people of God say, Amen!