easter 2017: pay day...

My Easter homily for this year. I had written a more formal and traditional message during my away time in Ottawa ten days ago. But the more time I spent on the story I retell below, the more it was clear I was speaking to a non-traditional group of seekers. So, I scrapped the old one, reworked the biblical studies and set it up like this...
Introduction
There’s a story I want to tell you this Easter morning – a story of hope and a little bit of healing in the middle of an ordinary life – but first I need to set the stage. And let me say right out of the gate that because this is the Feast of the Resurrection – THE most sacred day in the Christian tradition – I want to give you what I’ve come to trust is the essence of Easter: intimacy with our Lord Jesus. So bear with me for a moment…

About 10 days ago I walked into a club in Ottawa, Canada and a white bluesman was playing this exact tune. To paraphrase the late Otis Redding: I’ve been loving the sound of this song too long – at least for 50 years. It’s by Mississippi John Hurt, a sly and humble little guitar player from Avalon, MS, who owns a style of playing called “country blues.” It’s country because it tends towards the quiet and gentler sounds – finger picking the strings – but it’s the blues too because it’s about living with the disappointments of life while hanging on to the possibility that things could get better.

Well I did all I could do, and I can’t get along with you
Gonna take you to your momma come pay day
Pay day – pay day – gonna take you to your momma come pay day


Now here’s the thing about country blues: there’s no blame and no shame in these songs. Just the heart of things simply stated: life can be tough and things don’t always work out at first. So, come pay day, you have to regroup, get another chance and move on. The second verse makes this even clearer.


Well the rabbit’s in the log, I ain’t got no rabbit dog
And I hate to see that rabbit get away
Get away – get away, Lord, Lord – and I hate to see that rabbit get away


No blame and no shame going on here, just a little sorrow mixed with a taste of ironic humor and set to a sweet, mellow tune…

Insights
The great, Alberta Hunter, gospel and jazz singer extraordinaire once said: “The blues means what milk does to a baby. The blues is what the spirit is to the preacher. We sing the blues because our hearts have been hurt and our souls have been disturbed… but this ain’t the end of the story.” Bono of U2 called the Psalms of the Bible written by King David the first Jewish blues song for they describe the aching of the human heart and flesh with stunning clarity even as they reach out to the Lord for comfort. Today’s Psalm puts it like this: We may be hurting, but suffering is not our only reality; we may be frightened, but our limited imagination does not inhibit the Lord; for even our stumbling blocks can become the source of new faith and blessing if we have eyes to see.

And this takes me back to the story I started to share at the outset: when I walked into that blues club in Ottawa and heard this very song being sung by John Carroll, I knew something was up. Something special was brewing. Something infused with the holy in the midsts of this all too human joint – I just didn’t know what it was. 

So I ordered a glass of French red wine, a small appetizer salad and sat back in anticipation – and let me tell you what happened. The cat playing the blues was really good – amazingly good – bigly good! And that was treat enough. I’ve been to enough dives to know that the quality of the music can often be… let’s say uneven in these places. But his music was well-honed and masterfully executed. He did songs by the Rev. Fred McDowell like “See That My Grace Is Kept Clean,” a number of originals as well as a wildly entertaining take on Talking Heads.

After about an hour, things were kind of slow so the waitress sat down at my small table and began talking about her day. I can’t tell you why she chose an old guy like me – maybe she thought I was Arlo Guthrie, I don’t know – but she started to tell me how hard it was to be a young woman working in a blues club. Too many guys get trashed and act out; too many women treat her with disdain because she’s young and cute. And too many people in general don’t tip enough. I didn’t exactly grasp what was happening in this conversation for a few minutes, but then it hit me: this was a secular confession. After all, it was almost Holy Week, and she was talking to me about the state of her soul. So I started to listen more carefully. Now please understand that she had no idea that I was clergy.

I don’t go around wearing clerical collar or a robe – especially in a blues bar – but she needed to unburden herself during the break… and I was paying attention. There were two things that were confessed that evening that hit me hard. Working in a blues bar has caused her to construct a high wall around her heart in order to get through her day. “I need really high boundaries” she continued “so that I don’t get jerked around. Let’s just say I’ve learned this the hard way.” My reply had something to do with the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis: “You know that story in the Bible about Adam and Eve being kicked out of the Garden of Eden? It’s like what you were talking about,” I told her. “A double whammy – they received knowledge of good and evil – they learned how the real world works – but it was a costly lesson, too for they gave up some peace and innocence. Wisdom,” I said ruefully “always comes with a high price.”

She pondered that for a moment in silence and then something that blew me away: with a real sadness – a genuine case of the blues – she told me that she’d tried going to church but it didn’t work out. “Too much judgment there. When people found out I worked in blues bar all they could say was that I had surrounded myself in sin and was corrupting my own soul. It was a Pentecostal Church,” she added, “and I loved the mix of people and the music. But damn – all that judgment and shame – I couldn’t take it even though I wanted to get closer to God’s love.”

And THAT, dear people, is my point for Easter Sunday – and maybe for the rest of my time on God’s green earth: Jesus would have hated what happened to that young waitress. He did not come to the earth or go to the cross to fill us with more guilt and shame. He came to set us free for joy. He came to sing the blues with us so that we might know that suffering is NOT the end of the story. So I told her as the blues man was getting ready to start his second set: “What happens in many churches would make Jesus throw up. But don’t give up. God’s love for you is stronger than the stupidity of the church.” She returned a quiet and vulnerable smile and then brought me a little more wine – on the house – before getting back to work.

And I can’t quit thinking about this confession as it relates to our gathering today on Easter Sunday. So let me suggest to you three “take aways” that have been strengthened in my heart. 

First, so many of the people all around us are lonely, afraid and filled with a shame that the church should be cleansing not reinforcing but we're not paying attention.  Fr. Richard Rohr recently wrote: When Christians defined Jesus on Easter in a small way—as a mere problem solver for human sin—we soon became preoccupied with sin itself, which is a largely negative foundation. We became blind to so much else that was going on in this world except sin and its effects, that sin became the preoccupation of monks as well as reformers. One well- known Protestant preacher actually spoke of “total depravity” to characterize the human situation; another said of human nature that we are “a pile of manure covered with the snow of Christ.” With such a negative anthropology and without a place for inherent human dignity, it is very hard for even a good theology to succeed. Grace can only build on—and perfect—nature; it cannot undo it, says a deeper truth. That is why we must start where the Bible begins in Genesis 1: “When God created It was good, it was good . . . it was very good. Our focus on shame and guilt, atonement and reparation, as if we were children frightened of an abusive father must be up-ended and deep-sixed so that we start sharing the gospel of grace and hope rather than our obsession on shame.

Second, any place can become a holy place – even a blues bar or the burial place of Jesus – if we have our eyes open and expect God to show up like the women who went to the Lord’s tomb in anticipation.
Unlike the other gospels, Matthew tells us that the women went in anticipation of something life changing. They had been silent for most of this story – watching and waiting – listening carefully to both the Lord’s teaching while he was alive and the promises he gave foreshadowing his death. For them as well as for you and me, greeting the resurrection requires both a profound inner stillness as well as a sweeping commitment to trusting that God’s steadfast love that endures forever will show up in the most unexpected places. When I walked into that club in Ottawa I wasn’t anticipating anything profound until I was awakened by the blues – and then I found myself hearing a secular confession and offering the blessing of absolution to a wounded waitress. Whoda thunk it?

And that brings me to the third take away for Easter Sunday: the women in our story today are well schooled in paying attention and providing for those all around them. Professor of New Testament theology at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Holly Hearon, writes: 

When the women are first introduced in Matthew’s gospel we learn that they have followed Jesus from Galilee and have “provided” for him. That word “provide” (Greek: diakonei from which we get the word deacon) reveals a good deal about these women because it is used for only s a highly select group of souls. After Jesus had been tempted in the wilderness, angels come and “provide” for him (4:11). The next person to “provide” for Jesus is Peter’s mother-in-law after she has been raised from her sickbed (8:15). And in Mt. 25:44 the sheep are those who “provide” for Jesus by tending all who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, sick, or imprisoned.

Think about that: angels, those who have tasted healing not shame and isolation, and people who have learned how to see the face of Jesus in the least of these our sisters and brothers are identified as those who provide a measure of God’s grace to a broken world in Matthew’s story. On Easter, the women from Galilee are joined to the great cloud of witnesses who keep the love of Jesus flowing. The (male) disciples never come near this word. In fact, the only other person associated with the word diakonei in Matthew’s gospel is Jesus himself, who declares that he has come into the world not to be provided for, but to provide others with blessings for the healing of the world (20:28). These women were no latter day tag-alongs. They have been intimately bound to Jesus from the very first days in Galilee. And in following him, have pursued the path of discipleship that Jesus’ himself models.

Conclusion

Every day as I wrestle with the pain of the world – from the fear-mongering, saber-rattling antics of this hour to the cynical gassing to death of Syrian children and famine in Sudan – I hear Jesus singing the blues. I hear his heart breaking with a grief that causes me to weep along with him. I hope you are weeping, too and not too busy for Christ’s tomb in our day. 

At the very same time of my tears, however, I also hear the women of the Easter story calling to me me: if you hear the blues, man, pay attention because the blues always lead you to some place unexpected. You could find yourself blessed by some extraordinarily beautiful soul music in an unexpected club in Ottawa. Or maybe be called upon to provide a little compassion and encouragement to a stranger who feels lost in the brokenness? 

Until last Thursday I would never have considered Mississippi John Hurt’s little country blues song a call to prayer, but the Spirit of the Lord has awakened my eyes to see and ears to hear. That’s what happens to the women who watch and wait in the spirit of Easter – even our blues become a way to provide for God’s grace in a broken world – and what was true for them once is true for us today.

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