Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Homily: Tuesday in the Third Week in Advent [December 13, 2016] Christ Church Cathedral, Cincinnati

For many of us in my aging generational cohort, the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan served as one bit of good news in an otherwise grim year. Last Saturday morning, the great Patti Smith showed up in Stockholm to sing “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” on Bob Dylan’s behalf. There has been some controversy over the awarding of the Nobel Prize in Literature to Bob Dylan, voiced mainly by those who think Dylan is not in the same literary league with fellow American Nobelists Sinclair Lewis and Pearl S. Buck. Other disgruntled critics are probably big, big fans of more recent laureates like Elias Canetti and Dario Fo. (When all this Dylan controversy started, a friend and fellow Dylan fan asked rhetorically if the Nobel Committee had run out of obscure, central European essayists to recognize.) Nevertheless, there can be no dispute that Patti Smith’s performance of Bob Dylan’s dystopian lament will stand as one of the great moments in performance history. It’s available on YouTube, and I encourage you to check it out.

            Part of the reason I found Patti Smith’s performance so riveting is that she forgets the words midway through and asks to start over. She is clearly overwhelmed by the moment. Another part of the reason is that the song itself speaks to the current cultural moment as if it were written this morning:

Oh, what did you see, my blue-eyed son?
Oh, what did you see, my darling young one?
I saw a newborn baby with wild wolves all around it
I saw a highway of diamonds with nobody on it
I saw a black branch with blood that kept drippin’
I saw a room full of men with their hammers a-bleedin’
I saw a white ladder all covered with water
I saw ten thousand talkers whose tongues were all broken
I saw guns and sharp swords in the hands of young children
And it’s a hard, and it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
And it’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall

            As the song goes on the blue-eyed, darling young one describes a vision of a cruel and callous world: poets die in the gutter, clowns cry in the alley, people are wounded by both love and hatred. The emotional process described in “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” exactly mirrors what many of us have been through over the past several weeks, especially since November 8. Like time or space travelers, we look around and find ourselves marooned a culture and world that seem alien and inhospitable. A lot of people seem to be getting away with behaving badly and expressing ideas aloud that I wouldn’t want to hold in private. The humane values espoused by us mainline Christians have been brushed aside in favor of a new, harsher set of attitudes. The foxes seem to be taking over the henhouse.

            As I read over the readings to prepare for today, I could not get Bob Dylan’s song out of my mind. Zephaniah [Zephaniah 3:1–2,9–13] addresses a “soiled, defiled, oppressing city”:
Ah, soiled, defiled,
   oppressing city!
 It has listened to no voice;
   it has accepted no correction.
It has not trusted in the Lord;
   it has not drawn near to its God.
            (As a former resident of the District of Columbia, I couldn’t tell if he was describing Jerusalem or Washington.) In Matthew’s gospel, [Matthew 21:28–32] Jesus tells a story of two brothers asked to work in the vineyard. One says no and then goes, one says yes and stays home. “Which of the two,” asks Jesus, “did the will of his father?” But the news is not all bad. Something or someone else is afoot. In the first reading, Zephaniah proclaims that the speech of the defiled city will be changed “to a pure speech”. In the second reading, Matthew’s Jesus announces, “Truly I tell you, the tax-collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”
            We have, then, two scripture readings today which offer us a mixed grill of judgment and hope. The city has lost its bearings. The respectable people have turned callous and self-satisfied. But that’s not the end of the story. Someone is coming who will set all that right. That’s how it is in Advent. We are asked to look our predicament square in the face. And in doing so we are shown a light and a path and a future.
            Last week a friend of mine posted this on Facebook:

With the death of John Glenn falling so closely after the deaths of Leonard Cohen, Leon Russell, et al, I'm beginning to think The Rapture has occurred, leaving the rest of us schmucks stuck here with Trump. [Judd Parkin]
Though I echo the feeling of his post, the gospel never holds out to us the false hope of divine intervention. Nevertheless, Advent is about seeing a light and a path and a future even as we stand huddled together in the very darkness and alienation of an ugly moment. Where might we find them?
            My own quest for the light and the path and the future take me back to the words of Bob Dylan.  In the final verse of “A Hard Rain’s a-Gonna Fall” the speaker, that blue-eyed son/darling young one is asked, “Oh what’ll you do now?” We wouldn’t be surprised if the answer to that question was, “retreat into my own alienation.” But here, instead is the stirring and startling reply:
I’m a-goin’ back out ’fore the rain starts a-fallin’
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest
Where the people are many and their hands are all empty
Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters
Where the home in the valley meets the damp dirty prison
Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten
Where black is the color, where none is the number
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it
Then I’ll stand on the ocean until I start sinkin’
But I’ll know my song well before I start singin’
And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.

            Advent announces both judgment and hope. It shows us the hard truth of our situation and offers a light and a path and a future. Jesus shows us the light and the future in the willingness of the truculent son to get up and go out to the vineyard. The path to our future lies ahead in our individual and shared willingness to go where the speaker in Bob Dylan’s song goes: to stand with and for those who are most vulnerable in this new, scary moment. The hope for our nation, our church, and ourselves lies in our willingness to sing a song of judgment and hope even in a time of oppressive darkness.
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it

            Advent announces the coming of one who will transcend and outlast all the forces unleashed against him. In this current moment, we bear witness to that one by telling and thinking and speaking and breathing and reflecting, so all souls can see it, the judgment and hope on offer this season. Let us find our meaning and purpose as a force for resistance and blessing in a broken yet beloved world. A hard rain is a-gonna fall. We can survive and outlast it in solidarity and compassion, together. Amen.

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