Jesus Never Sang "Give Me that Old Time Religion"…or did He?


Then Jesus said to the Jews who had believed in him, “If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.”  They answered him, “We are descendants of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone.  What do you mean by saying, “You will be made free?”

John 8:31-33

Or is God the God of the Jews only?  Is he not the God of Gentiles also?  Yes, of Gentiles also, since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.

  Romans 3:29-30


Mama Vann and Mary JeanMy grandmother, my “Mama Vann”  blessed be her memory, had only a third grade education.  Her religious education was even more sparse, mostly what she was able to “catch” from the other tobacco and cotton pickers and processors with whom she worked as a child.   I have only one clear memory of her singing, although she hummed snatches of songs all the time. It was “Give me that Old Time Religion.” In my sophisticated Lutheran way, I remember cringing. I cringed a lot in those days–I think I might have been 12 or 13, and that says more about me than it does about her. Over the weekend, Lutherans broke out their red to celebrate their Old Time Religion. I mean, Reformation. All over the country we belted out “A Mighty Fortress” and made Martin Luther our Homeboy. One church I know of even had a Lutheran Jello “bake” off. (Although I know one doesn’t exactly “bake” Jello) Historically, we Lutherans can’t exactly be proud of everything we’ve preached from the pulpit on Reformation. It’s a time when many preachers reinforced the chasm between Lutherans and the Papists, I mean, the Catholics.

This year comes a startling new rhythm for “Give Me that Old Time Religion.” It comes from the Pope, of all people, addressing the Lutheran World Federation on October 21. The fruit, ripe for harvest:

In the measure in which we draw closer to our Lord Jesus Christ in humility of spirit, we are certain to draw closer to one another….I believe that it is truly important for everyone to confront in dialogue the historical reality of the Reformation, It’s consequences and the responses it elicited. Catholics and Lutherans can ask forgiveness for the harm they have caused one another and for their offenses committed in the sight of God. Together we can rejoice in the longing for unity which the Lord has awakened in our hearts, and which makes us look with hope to the future.

He didn’t exactly say no to recognizing one another over the bread and wine in that future either.

Sometimes something new comes on the scene, and forces us to re-evaluate that Old Time Religion we’re so cozy with, and the people from whom we have been estranged.
How Old does Old have to be to qualify as “Old time Religion?”

When people say they want to sing “the old hymns” are we talking about ancient plainchant (The Original Latin Music) or 16th century chorales (Let’s Get Back to Bach, eh?) or 19th century pietists (Give Me Grundtvig, Give me Grundtvig) or Revivalists (Different Rock, different Roll) or how about some good old contemporary stuff like we used to sing in the seventies? (Why is it that the praise bands I’ve heard lately are either people over 50 singing the songs they remember from their good old rebellious days or people under 30 singing music that was written before they were born??) Just give me that old fashioned rock and roll please, the kind of music that moves your soul. From one generation to the next, we can get ourselves stuck in a rut. Even “the tradition of the new” (Marcel Proux) can become as worn as the old. The new is always better, and we have to dismantle last year’s new thing and find everything wrong with it so that we can do something bigger and better this year. Friends, that’s slavery too.
Jesus was the newest old thing around, and people followed him in droves. He suggests to those who really truly wanted to believe and follow him that the path they had been on wasn’t as true as they might have believed. “But we are children of Abraham and have never been slaves to anyone!” they protest. “But that’s not the way I was taught in confirmation class!” Never slaves to anyone. How soon we forget our captivities. I think this is when Jesus might have sung “Give me that Old Time Religion.” The Old Time Religion that remembered “I am the Lord your God, who brought you up Egypt.” Out of slavery. Now that’s truth that will set you free. You didn’t do it with your own will, your own feet, your own resources. Your own will would have considered life as a slave good enough. Your own feet would have taken you back to Egypt when you found yourself between the water and a hard place at the Red Sea. Your own resources would have left you hungry and thirsty when you wandered in the wilderness.
That’s a hard truth to grasp and painful to live in. Failure. Inadequacy. Discovering that the new thing you thought would slice your bread and butter your toast is but the old thing re-invented, and just as useless. The irony is this is the kind of music that moves your soul out of slavery and into the land of promise, that place where we live on faith as though it were daily bread. It’s like a cantus firmus, a low note that the organ pedal or the cellos hold so long it becomes painful and the ear can’t wait for the music to move on. We get itching ears.
I’ve been living in that land filled with uncertainty, doubt, and wondering. Oh, wandering too. Its hard to hear promises so that they don’t sound empty and vacant, like wishes of “good luck” and “something good will come along.” My ears get itchy for the music to change, to resolve and a new theme to evolve. At the same time, I’ve been looking for comfort in that Old Time Religion that was good enough for Paul and Silas, and good enough for me. Here’s the discovery. Jesus, the Reformer, sang it too. Deep within the story of Israel there is a story we tend to forget. These stories are the cantus firmus, firm earth beneath our feet: Slaves made Free. Exiles brought home. We are made for Creation. Death is overcome. God is God. There’s the song of Old Time Religion that Jesus sang. It became new again through his singing of it, on his lips all the way to the grave. Amazingly, it’s still enough for me. It’s still enough to reform the Church. To call us into the world. To make all things new. To embrace circumcised and un-circumcised, Gentile and Jew, male and female, you and me, in the arms of a God who is One. Over and over and over.


About Pastor Betsy Williams

I am a mom. And a wife. And a Friend. And a homeowner. And a dog ...uh....owner? Actually make that two dogs. Two kids. One husband. I'm an ELCA Lutheran pastor of a beautiful downtown church. I am the third senior pastor in a century, so my 10-12 years here may feel like an interim to some of the folks here. Recently I have had no spare time. In my spare time in the future, my imagination inhabits a novel I am writing, The Funeral Preacher. My primary blog is a personal reflection on the Revised Common Lectionary...mostly: "Not All Who Wander are Lost." A few years ago I was on a team of writers who produced a little book for Augsburg Fortress in the Washed and Welcome series called "Living the Promises." It's 101 ideas for helping parents and godparents nurture their children in the faith of their baptism. I am developing another blog, more about worship at St. Paul's Lutheran Church, Newark, Ohio and including a summary of the past week's preaching. Otherwise, I imagine myself to be a musician, liturgical artist, cook in a five star restaurant where the patrons keep ordering chicken nuggets, but never a bottle washer. I know how to delegate and share.
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