Text: Hebrews 4:14-16, Philippians 4:4-7
There were a lot of suggestions turned in for sermons for this summer, and the suggestion that I am following today was kind of a fun one, a little different one. “I’d like you to use ‘Just a Little Talk with Jesus’ as the background for a sermon.”
I was familiar with “Just a Little Talk with Jesus.” Our men’s group did a wonderful job singing that. It is no doubt one of the funner gospel songs to sing, especially if you are a bass. A lot of hymns, a lot of music period, has a pretty predictable and not overly exciting bass line. Some of the choir anthems we sing – Mindy, I have to be honest - it’s like the composer didn’t trust the basses to do very much, but “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” is one where the basses actually get to shine.
And the notion of the song – to have a little talk with Jesus – is very appealing. It’s a great song. So I decided to go with this suggestion – it seemed like a good idea with a lot of possibility. And the fact that our beloved moderator suggested it didn’t hurt.
The first thing I did was to learn a bit about who wrote it and some of the history behind this song. Interestingly, it is not in all that many hymnals. I’m not sure why that is. I’ve got 10 or 12 hymnals and this song wasn’t in any of them. Maybe it’s because it really takes 4 parts to sing it as it should be sung and most of the music in hymnals is kind of just sing-a-long style – in most hymns, everybody at least sings the same words at the same time. Just a Little Talk with Jesus tends to be found more in chorus-type books and in some African-American church hymnals, like the National Baptist hymnal and the AME hymnal.
Well, let me share some things I learned. The song is written by Cleavant Derricks. He was born in 1910 in Chattanooga. He developed an early aptitude for music and took lessons at the Cadek Conservatory of Music, run by Joseph Cadek, a violinist. He had two years of college at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College, a historically black college in Nashville that is now Tennessee State. Some years later, he felt called to ministry and attended the American Baptist Theological Seminary in Nashville, another historically black institution.
Cleavant Derricks was a Baptist pastor, choir director, musician, and composer with over 300 songs to his credit. He served churches in Dayton, Knoxville, and Jackson, Tennessee; Beloit, Wisconsin; and Washington, D.C. He was known to everyone simply as Rev. He and his wife had twin sons who are both musicians and actors who appeared in movies and TV shows and on Broadway; one of his sons won a Tony award. And in 1984 Cleavant was inducted posthumously into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.
I could take most of my time to talk about Cleavant Derricks, but let me mention one more thing. Rev. Cleavant Derricks himself did not record “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” until late in his life. In 1975, he made a visit to Canaanland Music in Nashville and asked for the opportunity to publish some new songs and record some of his material, which they were happy to do. The head of Canaanland, Aaron Brown, learned how Derricks had never properly been paid for his work. Brown explained the situation in an interview:
For the first time in his life, Rev. became a licensed songwriter. What I’m trying to say is he has virtually never been paid for his songs or their performances. If he had become affiliated with one of the three song licensing agencies, he would be a millionaire by now. No doubt about it. Instead, what Rev. did was to sell his songs to the Stamps-Baxter publishing company in Texas. He would sell them for almost nothing. In return the company would furnish him songbooks for his songs. He would sell those to make some money.
It’s disheartening to realize he made $5 for “Just a little talk with Jesus.” I would say every gospel singer and every gospel group in the country has recorded “Just a little talk with Jesus.”
He wasn’t kidding. Elvis, Dolly Parton, the Oak Ridge Boys, the Statler Brothers and all kind of gospel quartets, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Andy Griffin, Bill Monroe, Willie Nelson, Gladys Knight, Charlie Daniels, even Veggie Tales included it in their big hit “O Veggie, Where art Thou,” and countless more.
Derricks did not seem bitter about the fact that he had essentially given away the rights to what turned out to be an extremely valuable song. But at the very end of his life, he recorded some of his music and received some of the recognition that had been lacking for so many years.
That is some of the background. Now let’s think about the song itself, and its message.
For me, “Just a Little Talk with Jesus” is powerful because it connects us with the love and the welcome and the compassion of Jesus. “I once was lost in sin, but Jesus took me in.” There are no hoops to jump through, there are no qualifications, we don’t have to get things cleaned up before we are acceptable. “I once was lost in sin, but Jesus took me in. And then a little light from heaven filled my soul.”
Now you can sing this song and feel the joy and the liveliness and think, wow, this is just the opposite of Psalm 88, our text from last week - a Psalm just filled with despair and crying out to God. But I don’t think that is the case.
Sometimes my path seems drear without a ray of cheer…
The mists of sin may rise and hide the starry skies…
I may have doubts and fears, my eyes be filled with tears…
One of the reasons this is such a beloved song is that it takes seriously the difficulties of life. I mean, this was written during the depression. There is confession of our own sinfulness, but also expression of just how hard life can be.
And yet we can sing, “I go to him in prayer, he knows my every care.” Again, the real power of this hymn is Jesus knows us and understands us and is there for us and with us through all the storms of life.
How does Jesus understand? Because he has been there.
Have you been misunderstood? Even by your own family? Have friends let you down? Even betrayed you? Jesus experienced all of that.
Have you tried to do the right thing and got nothing but grief for it? Have people ever questioned your choice of friends? Have you ever felt unwelcome by people in the religious community? Jesus experienced all of that.
Have you ever had to flee for your own safety? Have you ever been wrongly accused? Have you ever suffered unjustly? Jesus did.
Have you ever had questions about your vocation? Have you ever been the object of insults? Has your family struggled financially? Have you ever felt alone? Have you ever worked hard and had seemingly little to show for it?
My point is, Jesus understands.
One interesting thing about this song is that we repeatedly find the word “little.” Did you notice that? It’s all over the place.
“Then a little,” “just a little,” “have a little,” “feel a little,” “know a little.” “You will find a little talk with Jesus makes it right.”
There is a way of expressing things with the word “little” to where everybody knows this is not a small thing at all – this is actually a big thing. Calling something “little” is underselling it, maybe purposely downplaying things to call attention that this is actually a big deal.
Think of all the song titles or phrases that include the word “little.”
Crazy Little Thing Called Love
With a Little Help from My Friends
Put a Little Love in Your Heart
Try a Little Kindness
Give Me Just a Little More Time
With a Little Luck
Hey big spender, spend a little time with me.
(I was going to add Little Old Lady from Pasadena, but that doesn’t quite fit this motif.)
What I’m saying is that a little talk with Jesus is not a small thing at all. This is important. This is huge.
Now one part of the song that may raise a question: “When you feel a little prayer wheel turning.” What is a prayer wheel? Hymn scholar C. Michael Hawn notes:
A prayer wheel is a cylindrical container, perhaps made of wood, metal, or some other substance. Inside are inscribed the words of a prayer; or prayers may be written on a piece of paper and placed inside. Prayer wheels are commonly used in Tibetan Buddhism, and practitioners believe that as the prayer wheel is turned or spun around, each rotation results in the prayers inside being somehow prayed, even if not spoken.
But as it turns out, prayer wheels are not exclusive to Buddhism. Hawn believed Cleavant Derricks encountered prayer wheels himself. They have a history of being used by some charismatic and Pentecostal Christians, and they were used by some African American worshipers before and after the Civil War. From the time and place that Derricks grew up, prayer wheels may have been used in his religious community. The idea of a prayer wheel is of continuous prayer.
And that gets us to the message of this song, and the message of our scripture this morning, which Ann and Jim read so well all of the way from Keene, New Hampshire, about 1250 miles away:
“Let us approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
“The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”
These familiar scriptures are encouraging exactly what Rev. Derricks is encouraging in his hymn. “Now let us have a little talk with Jesus, tell him all about our troubles.” The take home message is: don’t hesitate. Don’t make Jesus your last resort. Jesus will listen. Jesus will understand.
Praying about everything, the idea of continuing in prayer, like a prayer wheel, or praying “without ceasing,” as Paul writes in 1 Thessalonians – how do we do that?
For me, prayer is not just a “little talk” every now and then but more of an ongoing conversation. And when we have a little talk with Jesus, that doesn’t mean that we are the ones doing all the talking.
Taking time to be reflective, to listen, to be aware, taking time to just be with God, is a spiritual practice that can take discipline, and it won’t necessarily look the same for everybody.
I got an electric bike last summer and for me it has been great. I have been riding my bike both to commute to church and just for fun, and one of the by-products of this is enjoying life at a slower pace. Being out in nature, having time to enjoy the natural world, time to reflect a bit. Riding out on an open stretch out by yourself can be a time to pray.
Some people have that kind of experience when they walk or hike or walk the dog or maybe while they knit or crochet. Maybe it can happen on your commute. Or maybe you just take some time each day to be quiet, to reflect, to pray, to listen, to “be still and know that I am God.” Maybe you take time at the end of each day to review the day and have a little talk with Jesus.
There isn’t one way and there certainly isn’t a particular technique to “Have a Little Talk with Jesus,” but the point of both our scriptures and this song is that it is so important to do that. Jesus cares, Jesus understands, Jesus welcomes us and loves us. Have a little talk with Jesus, and Jesus will make things right.
Now, Jesus doesn’t make things right in an automatic way. It’s not we ask, we put in our order, and Jesus delivers. And we don’t necessarily get the answer we want or in the way that we expect.
“He will hear our faintest cry and he will answer by and by.”
Sometimes it seems more like by and by and by and by. The answer we want, the resolution we want, doesn’t always come quickly and it may never come at all. But pouring our hearts out to God, telling Jesus all about our troubles – that in itself makes a difference, and we can give our burdens to Jesus. And in God’s time there may come peace and wisdom and strength and even joy we would not have expected.
And we find a little talk with Jesus makes it right. It makes it right. Amen.