Sermon for Advent II, 2019: Baruch 5:1-9; Luke 1:68-79; Phil. 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6
Gracious and Loving God, you speak to us in many ways and at all times. May we hear you this day and live what we hear.
Being more accustomed to having Handel’s Messiah carry me into the season I am surprised to be telling you now about two popular music moments that have deeply stirred and transported me into Advent this year.
Most recently, as I entered the long pedestrian tunnel from rue St. Jacques heading to Square Victoria Metro on a cold and bleak November morning, I was struck, even at some distance as I entered the tunnel, by a guitar-strumming busker about 75 meters down the tunnel, singing the Neil Young song, “Old Man” from about four decades ago. It was a wonderful rendition of a song that I was fond of back then, in a rich and transformative time of my life, and a time of foment and radical change in the wider world, and also because in a flash, it evoked the sense of life as large, as movement, with direction, as rich, as meaningful.
I was very moved not only by the song itself, its lyrics and cadences which have always touched me, but on this occasion, by its poignancy, the wonder of experiencing the sweep of forty years of personal and relational life. For me the song always had these overtones of a call to meaningfulness, intentionality and reflectiveness in life, but at that moment it offered a fresh and immediate glimpse of the call to love as salvational, both personally and communally. I teared up as I walked, hopefully not too obviously, moving with the crowd, down the tunnel.
“Look at how the time goes past …. Rolling home to you” as the lyrics go…. speaking to me of the sweep of salvific movement in life-as-principled-and-cared-about.
I have brought this to you because it reminds me of the mysterious and profound way that Advent has always and continues to be for me a whole-of-life-season – a season which holds and proclaims the richness of movement towards that time of seeing Face to Face about which Paul writes to Corinthians and to us all. Advent is for me a moment, in which life becomes transparent, in all its graced events, when we see movement oriented towards Love, when we recognize and celebrate the ordinary’s glimpse of its place in the extraordinary….
Neil Young’s song “Old Man” has always suggested to me that particular vision… and the poignancy and emotion of that moment in the tunnel, I recognized, included a powerful resonance between the earlier time of extraordinary moral, cultural and political upheaval and the moral cultural and political crisis we are now living. I felt deeply the resonance between the earlier crisis as lived, and swept along by, and that which we suffer now, similarly in need of correction. “Old Man” was a reminder of the necessary moral, cultural and political enterprise, a true spiritual enterprise of resistance and provocation, the likes of which Donald spoke in his sermon three weeks ago, timely then as it informed my tunnel experience, and still timely….
The other stirring moment came for me when Michele and I recently watched the second instalment of a Netflix documentary series entitled, “Remastered” which investigates events surrounding the life and work of major popular music artists of our time, and in some cases, their death. For example, the first episode “Who shot the Sherriff” investigated the violent political suppression of the powerfully redemptive roots reggae movement in Jamaica and the CIA’s involvement in the mysterious shooting of Bob Marley in his Kingston home in 1976.
The second episode which so stirred me was entitled, ‘Tricky Dick and the Man in Black”, the man in black being Johnny Cash. This is the more surprising one since until this moment I had no particular connection with nor understanding of Johnny Cash and his idiomatic country music with its deeply conservative Southern roots. This programme however, was riveting and relevant in some ways to the hopes which support us today, of which Donald spoke so movingly a couple of weeks ago in his sermon speaking of resistance, and provocation, as vocational demands upon us as followers of Jesus in our present reality. In 1976 President Richard Nixon invited Johnny Cash to the White House to perform in a televised gala event intended by the President to enlist a popular musician in a move against the growing politically-liberalizing influence of the popular and rock music of the time. Johnny Cash, possibly surprising even himself, was inspired at that time with dramatic effect, to dare to sing unexpected and unplanned material from his hard and long – won, transformed political and social understanding. His performance that night was dramatically subversive of the intention and wishes of President Nixon. Cash’s political values had begun to take a new shape after his famed prison concerts at Folsom and San Quentin and this night marked the climax of his political transformation. His now clear voice was stunning, speaking to and for those who suffer: prisoners, soldiers and their families, aboriginal people in the U.S.A. and most of all, to and for the poor. Watching, I was moved in spite of myself and my own prior judging of the Man in Black – moved by his powerful admonition to President Nixon, and to me, to “tell the truth.” Here was a powerful gospel-like proclamation in a troubled time, to which I thought I was attuned, but which was deeper, more hopeful, than I had appreciated.
What an extraordinary modeling of confrontation and Resistance of Evil, provoking of myriad other resistances, and the calling up of Hope, for that time of momentous change in our self-understanding – and now, as recalled and remastered, the calling up of Hope for our present time of need.
It is a small step for me from these musings on moments of grace that have struck me in my life and times, into the Gospel of Luke today. The first two verses identify the political realities of the period in which John and Jesus arrive prophetically, carrying the promise of transformation, of revolution, of which I want to say, we are the bearers today. The message was clearly, and hopefully still is, for us as followers: “we speak your language, we live in this same world with you even if we have in sight another Kingdom”, as we heard so clearly on the feast of the Reign of Christ two weeks ago, when all flesh shall see the salvation of God……
The story to be told belongs firmly within the political realities of the day – any and every day. I don’t feel off-base in likening the power of music like “Old Man”, “I walk the Line, ” and “One Love”, with the freedom songs of Mary, Zechariah (which we sang today), Simeon and Anna which Luke gives us in the opening two chapters of his Gospel, and with the promise in Isaiah’s words in the Gospel today, as true for Isaiah, as for Luke, as they are now for us. These heralds of salvation all give voice to the aspirations of those who seek release from the excesses of the power mongers and the dignitaries who fawn after them, and whose noisy MARCH PAST seems never-ending, no matter what time, what place.
They are all hymns of resistance, provocation, subversion – calls to movement, to journey, to pilgrimage, and I dare add, calls to COMMUNITAS. Like the word of God coming to John, the son of Zechariah, in the wilderness, they are songs of spiritual recovery and hope, they are salvation songs. From pain and complaint come hope and visions.
There are stories and songs of Exodus, of Sinai, of preparing to cross the Jordan and there are many other such songs of ours – and John the baptizer is there for us as we arrive from our wars, our imprisonment, our exile, our suffering.
It is not a big step for me to see all of them together as instances of the same Advent spiritual reality:
· the crowds moving in the Square Victoria tunnel, hearing the busker hymning the ideal of life lived meaningfully
· the stream of people moving towards John the Baptist at the Jordan
· ourselves moving liturgically into communion as we do each Sunday
· from war, from prison, from domination by the moneyed, from imperialism of all kinds
· as the radicalized expectant desert community at Qumran waiting together for salvation
· the movement of incarcerated men to responsible and productive life in community via Communitas which we support here
· The places of engagement which abound here at the Cathedral and are proclaimed in the Warden’s Advent Letter
· The resistant, provocative initiative of our ESJAG in joining the march in Montreal yesterday asking for responsible climate change action
The footsteps to listen for, and to fall in with, are the ones moving into rites of reconciliation and forgiveness, whichever rites they are, which resist and provoke, in our context.
In the recent past during those times of popular resistance of which I spoke, it was common in the attuned theology of the time to think and speak of “signs of the times”, to be on the lookout, to be receptive to what the Holy Spirit might be up to now, in one’s world. As much as to say, far be it for us to suggest limits to the domain of the Holy Spirit, to foreclose on incarnation (through a failure in imagination or timid escape into the reassurance of doctrine).
How wonderful that we have the assurance from today’s reading from the apocryphal book of Baruch that from exile, from wilderness, our collective restoration to the holy city is yet attainable: that mountains and hills would be made low and valleys filled to make level ground for us, so that we might walk safely, shaded even by woods and fragrant trees, as we accept to be vehicles of God’s mercy and justice now.
In this sense, Pop and rock music and culture can rightly serve as vehicles for Grace: Imperialist and divisive politics can rightly be understood as wilderness where we can yet hear the call to us, to join resistance and provocation, all of them locations where the Holy Spirit is there before us, inviting us to tune in, to join in, with the movement of salvation.
Our personal transformations serve and nourish transformations on the larger communal and societal scales – Changes for freedom, for justice, for peace! Luke takes us to the waters of hope. We take each other to the waters of hope.