Sermon: Above and Beyond and Within

Date:  Feb. 17, 2019
Scripture Lesson: Jeremiah 17:5-10
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells

While we know Ray Charles as a famous successful entertainer, musician, and celebrity, he had a very rough start in life.  Ray Charles Robinson was born Sept. 23, 1930. Yes, it was the Depression. He was born in Albany, Georgia but raised in Greenville, FL, the son of a sharecropping family.  He later changed his name, dropping the Robinson, to avoid confusion with the boxer, Sugar Ray Robinson. Charles’ mother was virtually penniless, young, uneducated, and sickly.  They were abandoned by the father. When Ray was 5 and his brother was about three, he watched his brother drown in a laundry tub full of water. Weeks later, his eyes started to ooze.  His mother sought medical treatment only to find out that her only remaining child was going blind and there was nothing that could be done about it. Ray was blind within two years.

Ray’s mother took matters in hand and made sure that Ray knew how to do things; how to get around, how to take care of himself, in spite of his visual impairment.  She taught him resilience, self sufficiency, independence, and pride. When people questioned her approach, she told them that he was blind but he was not stupid.

Once Ray was totally blind, he was sent to a school for the blind in St. Augustine.  While he was there, his beloved mother died. He couldn’t imagine how he would go on without her.  But with community support, he came out of his depression and began to live again.

Ray Charles began his musical career playing on what was known as the chittlin’ circuit – playing at dances and clubs all across the south for black audiences.  This is what brought him to the Manhattan Casino here in St. Petersburg. Touring in the south in the days of Jim Crow came with its share of challenges. This is how Charles tells it:  “We could be driving for hours and never find a gas station which would let us use the bathroom. If we stopped by the side of the road, we stood a chance of getting busted, so we’d open both doors of the car and piss between them.  We could be hungry as bears and go half a day before we’d find a joint that would serve us. The race thing hit us where it hurt – in the stomach and in the balls.” [Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story, Ray Charles and David Ritz, 1978, 2004,  p. 164]

It’s easy to see that Charles had a very hard time starting out.  Throughout his life and his career, Charles faced the multiplicity of problems that go with being black in America.  He had first hand experience with the institutions and attitudes that keep people down. He saw America at its worst.  And this is what he had to say: “Being blind was easy compared to being black in America. . . ‘The greatest handicap I’ve had – and still have – is my color.’”   [Ray Charles:  Man and Music, Michael Lydon, 1998, p. 288]

Charles left the school for the blind to pursue a career as a musician.  On the road. Playing with different bands then forming his own band. And it went on from there.  Charles’ interest in music began when he was a tot. He heard the piano at the Red Wing Cafe in Greenville, and he wanted to play.  Instead of shooing him away, the owner, Mr. Wiley Pitman, taught him how to play. Charles tells us:

“I was born with music inside me. . . music was one of my parts.  Like my ribs, my liver, my kidneys, my heart. Like my blood. It was a force already within me when I arrived on the scene.  It was a necessity for me – like food or water. And from the moment I learned that there were piano keys to be mashed, I started mashing ‘em, trying to make sounds out of feelings.”  [Brother Ray, p. 8]  Charles continued playing, also mastering alto saxophone, clarinet, trumpet, and organ.  

Charles loved music; all kinds.  He was trained in classical music.  He went on to play country, jazz, blues, soul, rock, rhythm and blues, gospel, all of it, and all of it mixed together.  His career branched out beyond recording and concerts to TV appearances, movies, commercials – including Coke and Pepsi. Things may go better with Coca Cola but Pepsi is the right one baby, uh-huh.  Charles recorded a song that was exclusively released in Japan. He was a very hard-working and dedicated musician and savvy at the business side of music.

Charles also had a family – wife and kids.  He was actually married twice. He had 12 children with 10 different women, that he knew of.  He liked gambling. He was a drug addict; a heroin junkie for 16 years. He decided to give up heroin and went in to treatment to avoid going to jail.  But he only gave up heroin, not drinking or weed. He played chess. He started a foundation to assist people with hearing impairment because he felt that loss of hearing was much more debilitating than loss of sight.  This man led a hard driving life in the fast lane and he died of acute liver disease at the age of 73. [Wikipedia]

At one point, as he began to be successful, he reflected, “My life was what it was.  Whatever it become, I made it so. Now I had a wife. I had a child. I was the leader of a little band.  I was a blues singer, a rhythm-and-blues singer. . . a recording artist of modest stature. I was also a man who still loved women and who enjoyed getting high.”  [Brother Ray, p. 161]  That didn’t change.  

Ray Charles was a many sided man.  Not easily pinned down – musically or otherwise.  In terms of religion, he liked going to church and all of the music and dancing though he did not share all of the beliefs.  He once visited a Jewish service. It was much calmer and quieter. He said that he really liked that, too. [Brother Ray, 323]  When it came to civil rights, he still was willing to play in segregated settings. But he supported the approach of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. though he did not feel he was up to personally making the commitment to non-violence.  [Brother Ray, 271-276]  Charles played for 3 presidents – Nixon, Clinton, and Bush.  He sang “America the Beautiful” at the Republican National Convention in 1984.  

About his politics, he says, “My politics are a little strange.  I’ve never figured out whether I’m a liberal or a conservative. I think I’m both.  I have trouble understanding the simple shit. Why we give billions of foreign aid and then can’t make sure that everyone in trouble has a decent lawyer.  Why we subsidize the tobacco companies and then can’t make sure that everyone who’s sick has a decent doctor.” [Brother Ray, p. 286]

In Ray Charles we see the many contradictions and complexities that come from the human heart.  He was fully alive and fully aware of the differing feelings and experiences of his humanity. He saw no need to integrate everything into a neat, tidy, seamless whole.  He took the mix as it was. And was honest about it. He sang love songs full of heartfelt devotion like “I Can’t Stop Lovin’ You” and with just as much passion, he sang songs about cheating, and lying, and leaving.  He was the victim of the most devastating social ill of the modern world, racism, and then sang “America the Beautiful” about the country that had abused and betrayed him and his people for centuries.

Maybe this is why Charles was so beloved and honored: He was authentic.  He was real. He showed us the breadth of human experience which we evidently needed to see, and, surprisingly, we appreciated him for it.  Charles was the recipient of: 17 Grammy Awards, the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the President’s Merit Award, Kennedy Center honors, the Playboy award, the National Medal of the Arts, and the Polar Music Award from Sweden.  He is #10 on the Rolling Stone list of “The Greatest Artists of All Time” and #2 on their list of “The 100 Greatest Singers of All Time.” And in 2013, 9 years after his death of liver disease in 2004, he appeared on a US postage stamp.

In a tribute to Charles, President Obama had this to say:  “No matter the feeling—whether it was love, longing or loss—Ray Charles had the rare ability to collapse our weightiest emotions into a single note. And from the tiny clubs in which he started out to the arenas that he eventually filled, Ray was an electrifying performer. He couldn’t see us, but we couldn’t take our eyes off of him.”  []

All of these honors were bestowed on a man who shamelessly expressed the many vagaries of the human spirit in his music and in his life.  And we need that. And here we see an echo of the verses that we listened to from the prophet Jeremiah. Jeremiah is addressing his people in a time of geopolitical upheaval.  One empire is in decline. Another is rising. Alliances are in flux. There is conflict. Vast reforms are short-lived. We know about these kinds of conditions. The Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, the center of cultic life for the Hebrew people, is destroyed.  The people are driven into exile. Everything is topsy turvy. In a time of communal, social, national, religious, and personal upheaval and disruption what does the prophet tell the people? Don’t put your ultimate trust in humans. Don’t trust physical strength and human might.  And there is that precious line: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?” Don’t trust in human power and strength or you’ll end up dead, dried up, and withered away like a plant in the desert.

So what is left?  Trust in God. In the ways of God.  In the goodness and love of God. That is the way to full, flourishing life.  Follow the wisdom teachings of justice and right relationship. Put devotion to the well-being of the community over personal gain.  Trust in the validity of the power of Love.

In the context of the prophet Jeremiah, the concept of God was a something above and beyond humanity, yet also within humanity.  So the prophet is telling us to have faith in the noblest impulses that serve the common good. Rise above and beyond petty interests and selfishness.  Approach life from a universal perspective with respect and reverence. See beyond individualism and tribalism. Know that there is a power at work, among, within, and beyond that is seeking the highest good.  Submit to that and live as Jeremiah says it, “like a tree planted beside the water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.” [17:8]  Jeremiah’s message – put your trust it the source of that life and love. But don’t put your ultimate trust in the human heart. It is subject to contradictions and betrayal as well as nobility but you can never be sure. With God, with Divine Love, with the Source, you can be sure.  

Early in his career, Ray Charles sang, “Take these chains from my heart and set me free.” Years later in a song he tells us:

None of us are free
None of us are free, one of us are chained
None of us are free
It’s a simple truth we all need, just to hear and to see

None of us are free, one of us is chained
None of us are free, now I swear your salvation isn’t too hard too find
None of us can find it on our own
We’ve got to join together in spirit, heart and mind
So that every soul who’s suffering will know they’re not alone

None of us are free
None of us are free, one of us are chained

If you just look around you
You’re gonna see what I say
‘Cause the world is getting smaller each passing day

The prophet Jeremiah and the prophets after him including Jesus remind us that we will find our freedom and our highest good not in the ways of the devious human heart, but in the heart of Divine Love, God, above, beyond, and within us.  Amen.

Much of the material in this sermon about Ray Charles comes from the two books cited:

Brother Ray:  Ray Charles’ Own Story by Ray Charles and David Ritz

Ray Charles:  Man and Music by Michael Lydon

A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.

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