Sermon

Hebrews 7:23-28

“Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet”

By Dr. Mickey Anders

NOTE: The song, “Jesus Blood Never Failed Me Yet” (sung by the homeless street person in the story below) is found on YouTube.

This morning I want to tell you a simple story as told by Fred Kane, pastor of Hillsboro Methodist Church in Portland, Oregon. This story comes from a sermon he preached in 1997. In 2000, he shared it in a preacher email group I am on, and I haven’t been able to get this story out of my mind ever since.

This is the story of the impact of the faith of one nameless, homeless street person over 25 years after his death. Tapes of this homeless man have been played in homeless shelters all across America. Most of us wouldn’t know that because we aren’t in shelters very often, are we?

In some versions of the story, the homeless person has disappeared “mysteriously” – suggesting to our hopeful culture that he was actually some sort of angel-in-residence. Perhaps he was. But, the true story is even more reassuring and remarkable.

Back in 1971, Gavin Bryars, one of England’s leading musicians and composers, agreed to help his friend Alan Powers with the sound on a film that Powers was making about street people. Alan Powers was filming in an area around London’s Waterloo Station. He filmed various people living on the streets. He caught their daily rituals, trials and joys on film. Some of the homeless people were obviously drunk, some were mentally disturbed, some were very articulate, and some were incomprehensible.

Back in the studio, Gavin Bryars went through editing the audio and video footage. That’s when he became aware of a constant undercurrent, a repeating sound that was always there on the audio tape whenever one older man appeared on camera. But he couldn’t tell what the sound was. At first it sounded like muttered gibberish. So Bryars removed the background street noise and cleaned up the audio tape. Then he discovered that the old homeless man was singing.

Ironically, the footage of this old man and his muttered song didn’t make the film maker’s cut. But the film maker’s loss was Gavin Bryars’ gain. He took the rejected audio tape with him and could not escape the haunting sounds of this homeless, nameless man. He did some research on his own into who this homeless man might be.

From the film crew, Bryars learned that this street beggar didn’t drink. But neither did he engage others in conversation. His speech was almost impossible to understand, but his demeanor was cheerful. He was old and alone and filthy and homeless, but he had a kind of playfulness about him. He would tease the film crew by swapping hats with them.

What distinguished this old man from other street people was his song. The song he sang under his breath was a simple, repetitive Sunday-school tune. He would sit and quietly sing it, hour after hour after hour. He would sing:

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, Never failed me yet
Jesus’ blood never failed me yet,
There’s one thing I know, For he loves me so…

It was like an endless loop. The song’s final line fed into its first line, starting the tune over and over again without ceasing. The man’s weak, old, untrained voice never wavered from pitch, never went flat, never changed key. The simple intervals of the tune were perfectly maintained for however long he sang.

As a musician, Bryars was fascinated. He began thinking of ways he could arrange and orchestrate around the constant, repeated lines the old man sang. So he played the tape over and over in his office as he tried to think of the orchestra accompaniment.

One day, he was playing the tape as background to other work in his studio. He left the door to his studio open while he ran downstairs to get a cup of coffee. When he came back a few minutes later, he found a normally buzzing office eerily quiet and stilled. The old man’s quiet, quivery voice had leaked out of the recording room and transformed the office floor.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, Never failed me yet
Jesus’ blood never failed me yet,
There’s one thing I know, For he loves me so…

Under the spell of this stranger’s voice, an office of busy professionals had grown hushed. Those who were still moving around walked slowly, almost reverently about the room. Many more had taken their seats and were sitting motionless at their desks, transfixed by the voice. More than a few were silently weeping, tears cascading undisturbed down their faces.

Gavin Bryars was stunned. Although not a believer himself, Bryars could not help but be confronted by the mysterious spiritual power of this unadorned voice. Sitting in the midst of an urban wilderness, this voice touched a lonely, aching place that lurks in the human heart, offering an unexpected message of faith and hope in the midst of the darkest, most blighted night. This nameless old man brought a message from God in his simple song.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, Never failed me yet
Jesus’ blood never failed me yet,
There’s one thing I know, For he loves me so…

Bryars himself started yearning for the confidence and faith this old man’s song celebrates. He began to face what it means to feel homeless and alone even when we are sitting in the midst of our families. And Bryars vowed to respect this homeless person by creating a recording that would celebrate and accentuate his simple message that, no matter what one’s condition, Jesus “loves me so….”

It took England’s leading contemporary composer until 1993 to create and produce what he felt was a proper accompaniment to this homeless person’s song of trust and obedience. He did this in partnership with one of America’s leading composers, Philip Glass. The result is a CD entitled “Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet.”

What is it that convinced these leading musicians and composers to create a musical framework to preserve this old man’s song? Why did an office full of busy people find themselves reduced to tears at the sound of his voice? How did this tiny scrap of audio tape from the cutting room floor ever survive to live on for us to hear?

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, Never failed me yet
Jesus’ blood never failed me yet,
There’s one thing I know, For he loves me so…

Shouldn’t this be our song? Each one of us has a broken song, a quivery voice, a frail pitch. But the Christian message is that long ago Jesus carried humanity’s broken songs and shattered chords to a place called Golgotha, the “Place of the Skull.” There on a cross God added to our feeble attempts at singing a cosmic orchestra of unconditional love and acceptance. Whatever debt, whatever guilt, whatever it is that holds us for ransom is brought to its end on that cross. The debt is paid. Our debt is paid. We no longer owe our soul to anyone. We are free.

If only we could join this nameless old man to sing with that confidence and trust:

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, Never failed me yet.
Jesus’ blood never failed me yet,
There’s one thing I know, For he loves me so…

In the Biblical world it made sense to talk about Jesus’ blood never failing us. For us the idea of sacrifice on our behalf through the giving of one’s blood can seem disturbing or at least odd. But, the blood is simply a symbol of the love – the love of God made known to us through Jesus Christ. Love given for you and for me. Love come down at Christmas. Love walking on the dusty roads of Palestine. Love reaching out to the poor and the sick, the lonely and the disturbed. Love raised high on a cross on a Friday. Love risen from the grave on Easter.

That, in a nutshell is the story of Christian faith. It is the story of the unfailing blood – the unfailing love – of God made known to us in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ — God with us. And as we prepare ourselves for the Thanksgiving, Advent and Christmas season let us not forget that cross.

That love that is captured in the words of this simple English Sunday School songs:

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, Never failed me yet.
Jesus’ blood never failed me yet,
There’s one thing I know, For he loves me so…

The old man died shortly after the film-crew left his street-home. It was almost as if, when someone finally heard his song, he could leave for another place. Who knows? Maybe he was an angel after all, sent to lead us to Bethlehem, to the manger, and then to the cross where the one whose blood never fails us, and to that empty tomb where love never neglects us, forgiveness never deserts us, and we are found – you and me – and set free.

Jesus’ blood never failed me yet, Never failed me yet.
Jesus’ blood never failed me yet,
There’s one thing I know, For he loves me so…

Copyright 2003 Mickey Anders. Used by permission.