A Pete Seeger-Inspired Sermon

This sermon was delivered by the Rev. Dr. Dean C. Ahlberg, a Hartford Seminary graduate, at First Church of Christ, Congregational (U.C.C.) in Redding, CT, on Feb. 2, 2014.

As I’m sure many of us noted, this past Monday an American folk music icon, Pete Seeger, passed away at the age of 94.  The next day, one of you sent me an email, with the notation, “Sermon Inspiration.”  The email was a picture, a close-up of Pete Seeger’s 5-string banjo, the face of which is inscribed with the words: “THIS MACHINE SURROUNDS HATE AND FORCES IT TO SURRENDER.”

All of us have heard of Pete Seeger.  His style and songs influenced countless musicians.  And his conscience called us to think about our life together.  His politics made him controversial to some, but agree with him or disagree with him, his integrity and his courageous voice appealed to what Lincoln called the “better angels of our nature.”  Over the decades, songs such as “Turn! Turn! Turn!”, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” and “If I Had a Hammer,” became embedded in American culture, and found a place in the American soul.  “I call them all love songs,” Mr. Seeger once said of his music. “They tell of love of man and woman, and parents and children, love of country, freedom, beauty, (human)kind, the world, love of searching for truth and other unknowns.”

Most of us, I suspect, have at least some appreciation of the contributions Pete Seeger made not only to the evolution of American music, but also the ways he used his 5-string “machine” (as he called it), to inspire millions of people around the world to find their own voice with respect to issues of social, economic and environmental justice.  With his lyrics and his sing-along tunes, Pete Seeger’s mission, in his own words, was to try to “raise peoples’ spirits to get together.”  His goal, it seems, was to us inspire us to love one another, and to live up to the great ideals of our nation.  As musician Dave Matthews put it, “he made me want to be a better person.”

In thinking about Pete Seeger’s life and music, I was drawn to the words Paul wrote so many centuries ago to the churches of Galatia.  In commenting on freedom, Paul writes: “You were called to freedom, brothers and sisters, only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”

That commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” echoes the words of Leviticus, and, of course, the teachings of Jesus.  Freedom, understood through a Christian lens, is not a license for self-indulgence, not permission to embrace a rugged individualism that’s disconnected or isolated from the well-being of others; rather, it’s an “opportunity” to demonstrate love, to offer mutual care, to strengthen and build community, and to serve one another.

That sentiment is clearly evident in Pete Seeger’s family tree.  His great-grandfather was a 19th Century abolitionist.  His father was a music scholar and conscientious objector during World War I.  Pete’s mother was a professional composer and violinist, and she was also a member of a Unitarian Universalist church in New York City (a church Pete himself would eventually join.)  Though a pacifist strain ran deep in his family, and though he was a passionate advocate for peace, Pete also recognized the necessity of confronting Hitler and The Third Reich, and so he served in the U.S. Army in the Pacific theatre during World War II.  In 1943, amid anti-Japanese prejudice in America, Pete married a woman named Toshi-Aline Ohta, a Japanese-American whom he met and fell in love with at a square dance in New York City.  Toshi died last year, just shy of their 70th wedding anniversary.

Freedom such as that, freedom to live and love and marry without regard to popular prejudice, freedom from narrow definitions of patriotism, freedom to speak out even if that message may be deemed controversial, such freedom, it seems to me, emanates from and is sustained by one’s faith, by one’s spiritual, moral compass.  And clearly, in at least one famous instance, Pete Seeger found that source of inspiration in the Bible.

“For everything there is a season,” proclaims Qoheleth, the Teacher whose words are recorded in Ecclesiastes, “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:  a time to be born, and time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;…a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;…a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; …a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.”

As we heard during our prelude, Pete Seeger took Ecclesiastes’ ancient words, and with the help of a group called The Byrds, “turn, turn, turned” those words into a #1 hit single in 1965.  Ecclesiastes’ famous passage cites fourteen pairs of opposites that describe the gamut of human experience.  The text includes those things, those realities in life that simply happen to us (like birth and death) and those things that require us to respond at a certain time (like planting, and plucking up what we’ve planted).  All of those moments, those seasons, are part of the creation, the world, God provides.  And despite Ecclesiastes’ apparent lack of confidence in humanity’s ability to make a difference – “All is vanity,” he says, “there’s nothing new under the sun” — and despite his observation that he’s seen good people die because of their goodness, and bad people prosper by virtue of their wickedness, Ecclesiastes trusts that in the end, all is known by God.  Thus an ancient Teacher offers his counsel by which to live.

Amid all that life throws at us, Ecclesiastes cautions us, and counsels us, we need to be alert to the right time[1], to discern, to recognize when it’s time to do one thing and not another.  “There is a time to break down,” says the Teacher, “and a time to build up;…a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”

Obviously, something about those verses captivated Pete Seeger.  And I found particularly revealing that line about “a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”  Over the decades, Pete Seeger didn’t always get it right.  He later apologized, for instance, for some of his statements relating to economic systems.  While he could see the injustices and abuses that come with capitalism, he seems initially anyway, to have been a little slow to discern the injustices and abuses inherent in communism.  Be that as it may, more often than not, Pete Seeger sensed the “right time” to speak.  And he mustered the courage to honor his conscience.

In 1949, after announcing a concert in Peekskill, New York, with the Broadway performer Paul Robeson, who famously starred in Show Boat, Seeger was warned by the Ku Klux Klan and other racists not to appear with a black man.  But Seeger ignored them.  The concert went on.  Security was hired.  But even so, after the concert was over, with impassive police standing by watching, Seeger’s car, with he and his family in it, was stoned.

In 1955, amid McCarthyism and the “Red Scare,” Seeger was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee in New York.  At the time, his band The Weavers was one of the most successful music groups in the country.  But rather than save himself and name names, as many did, and rather than plead the 5th, as many did, Pete Seeger refused to do either.  The Congressmen wanted to know where, and for whom, he’d been singing his songs.  Seeger told them churches and colleges and other places.  They wanted specifics.  Seeger refused to answer, but he offered to sing those very songs for our politicians, so they could judge their content.  They weren’t interested.   And so Seeger spoke the right words at the right time, saying, “I’ve sung in hobo jungles, and I’ve sung for the Rockefellers, and I’m proud that I have never refused to sing for anybody…I have never done anything of any conspiratorial nature…I love my country very deeply…I think these are very improper questions for any American to be asked, especially under such compulsion as this.”[2]  Our representatives in Washington were unimpressed. Pete Seeger was convicted of contempt of Congress, and sentenced to a year in jail.  Ultimately, he didn’t serve prison time, but he lost a lot.  He was blacklisted from television and performing clubs for years.

In the 1960’s and 70’s, he sang his protests of the Vietnam War.  He sang in support of the civil rights movement.  He sang to Freedom Riders in Meridian, Mississippi.  Years later, to promote peace, he went to the then Soviet Union.  He performed at Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Concert Hall where he had 10,000 Russians singing “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore.”  How subversive!

For decades, Pete Seeger used his music to help launch and sustain an environmental initiative called Clearwater, to clean up the Hudson River.  And in 2002, at the age of 83, Pete Seeger contacted an Israeli man named Jeff Halper.  Mr. Halper had started a human rights organization in Israel called the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition.  This group peacefully protested Israel’s demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.  Pete Seeger called Mr. Halper to let him know that he’d made a decision.  Since the lyrics to “Turn! Turn! Turn!” had mostly come from scripture originating in Israel, he thought it proper that those same words from Ecclesiastes help foster justice in Israel.  And so he told a dumbfounded, if grateful, Mr. Halper, that henceforth 50% of all royalties received for that famous song would go to support the work of the Israeli Committee Against House Demolition.[3]

“To everything there is a season,” teaches Ecclesiastes, “a time to mourn, and a time to dance;…a time to keep silence, and a time to speak.”  Pete Seeger picked his times well, and he spoke out, he sang out, with integrity, and joy, and love.  The people of his hometown, Beacon, New York, tell of his humility, his kindness, and the thousands of children, every year, that tour the Hudson River and learn of environmental conversation thanks to Pete Seeger.

As Paul reminds the Galatians, “Live by the Spirit…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, and self-control…If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”

And so, it seems to me, Pete Seeger was guided by the Holy Spirit, the Spirit that informed his conscience, inspired his creativity, and stirred his compassion for the people and creation around him.  “Whenever I open my eyes,” he once said, “I’m looking at God.  Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God…I feel strongly that I’m trying to raise people’s spirits to get together.”

This past week, an attorney and friend of Pete Seeger’s remembered once asking Pete whether, after all these years, he found an answer to the question – “When will they ever learn?” – the question he repeatedly poses in that famous song, “Where Have All the Flowers Gone.”  “When will they ever learn?”

Pete answered by telling his friend a parable, a parable he liked to tell, called the “teaspoon brigades.”  Imagine a big seesaw, Pete would say.  One end of the seesaw is on the ground because it has a big basket half full of rocks in it.  The other end of the seesaw is up in the air because it’s got a basket one quarter full of sand.  Some of us have teaspoons and we’re trying to fill it up.  Most people are scoffing at us.  They say, “People like you have been trying for thousands of years, but it’s leaking out of that basket as fast as you’re putting it in.”  Our answer is that we’re getting more people with teaspoons every day.  And we believe that one of these days or years — who knows — that basket of sand is going to be so full that you’re going to see that whole seesaw go… zoop!… in the other direction.  Then people are going to say, “How did it happen so suddenly?” And we’ll answer, “Us and our little teaspoons over thousands of years.”[4]

And so, together, we strive to Live by the Spirit.  We strive to use our freedom as an opportunity to serve, and to share, and to love our neighbor as we love ourselves.  So we strive to recognize the right time…a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to break down, and a time to build up.”

In our own ways, with our own gifts, with our own words, with our own in-reach and outreach, we join Pete Seeger and the millions of people he inspired, and we become part of the “teaspoon brigade.”  As we do, we celebrate life and, one song at a time, one prayer at a time, one mission trip at a time, one act of generosity at a time, one Dorothy Day meal at a time, one teaspoon of grace and compassion and forgiveness at a time, we reveal our love for God.  We slowly build God’s kingdom of love on earth.  We turn this church into a machine that “surrounds hate and forces it to surrender.”  And we turn this congregation into a chorus that sings of the “peace that was meant to be.”


[1] For this idea, I am indebted to Paul Tillich’s sermon, “The Right Time,” The New Being, 1955.

[2] 18 August 1955, Federal Building, New York City. To read the full transcript see: www.peteseeger.net/HUAC.htm.

[3] Nir Hasson, “Pete Seeger’s Role in ending Israeli House demolitions,” Haaretz, 7 November 2009.

[4] John W. Whitehead, “Pete Seeger: He Changed the World One Song at a Time,” The Rutherford Institute, 28 January 2014.

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