Singing the Old Songs

Protestsong_Intro_491“Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?

Our nation turns its lonely eyes to you.  Ooo, ooo, ooo.

What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson?

Joltin’ Joe has left and gone away? Hey hey hey.”

This week my ears are ringing with Paul Simon.  I didn’t get to hear him sing Mrs. Robinson sitting in the nosebleeds this last Tuesday as he said goodbye to domestic touring. The only song (that I can recall…he played for almost three hours) he stole back from his days of collaborating with Art Garfunkel was the lyrically lilting Bridge Over Troubled Water.  Garfunkel still sings that the best, by the way, but Paul held his own in a way that only the parent of those lyrics could.

They are his lyrics.

But he covered most of his solo albums, from the folk-heavy Songbook tracks (Sound of Silence is perhaps the most famous from that offering), to the Caribbean-influenced beats off of Rhythm of the Saints.

And the whole time, sitting up there in the nose bleeds, I could pick up the slight social commentary interjected throughout most of the pieces.

Though Simon comes from the Folk genre, his songs were never as overtly political as many of his contemporaries (though American Tune, written just after the Nixon election is a notable exception…which he sang in wonderful voice on Tuesday).  And yet, if you listened carefully there was still this feeling of resistance running through his lyrics.  A surprise attack on your sensibilities that called you to question what was going on in the world.  Or, more rightly, called the world to question how things were going.  It worked in a subversive way.

Like water slowly eroding a rock.  Like a blister slowly telling you that the shoe doesn’t fit.

Like your conscience.

This little excerpt above from Mrs. Robinson is one such lyrical strand.  You might think it’s simply an oddly placed baseball reference, but Simon was appealing to the idea that, at that moment in time, the world needed some heroes.  It needed the Joltin’ Joe’s to step up, step in, as things spun out of control.

As we’re nearing the end of this part of our sermon series, using Archbishop Rowan Williams’ book Being Disciples, it struck me that the way he talks about the church is kind of like the way a good protest song works in relation to what’s going on in the world: it asks the question.

It’s one of the reasons that the slaves lifted up Moses and sang the liberation songs, even while working the fields.  They, through their telling and re-telling of that salvation story where Egypt gave up ownership of the Israelites, called into question their own bondage.

Or, go way, way back, to that place where the prophet Ezekiel presents the vision of the valley full of dry bones to a broken and confused people, crushed by a disorienting captivity.  God encourages Ezekiel to speak against Jerusalem for serving other gods and giving into the narcissistic King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, promising their bones would rise up and live again, by God.

Being prophetic is dangerous, by the way.  If the scriptures are clear on something, it is that most prophets are demonized and killed by a world that doesn’t like to be questioned.  Slaves were kept from learning to read so that they might not be educated and inspired.  Prophets of the Bible were often hunted down and killed by the powers that be (need we mention Jesus’ own story?) intending to silence them by fear or death.

Which is why the church talks about confession and the sacrament baptism as an act of “dying to self” and “rising with Christ.”  You can’t kill dead people…and Christians are already dead in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  They, when they live out of God’s life-giving, death-defying love, have no fear.

When the church is at its best it is the outside “thing” that calls the question on the social, economic, and political activities of the world.

It is not partisan, but it can’t help but be political.

Another way to think about it is that the church, when it’s doing what it is supposed to do, is God’s resistance song sung for a universe that prefers power and control over love and forgiveness.

The church sings out loud, proclaiming a God known in Christ who claims that no one is disposable; who calls us to invest not in things that rust or rot but rather in faith and one another; who argues that the world already has enough dry bones in it, so we need not create more with war, violence, splitting families apart, and sectarianism, but rather work on putting flesh on those bones, by God.

The church sings subversively.  The Sunday gatherings seem superfluous and innocent to the outside observer, but it is the incubation tank of love and resistance to the pull of a world that continually invites us to see people as less than human, to see money as divine, and to see power as the only real currency worth keeping.

The church sings the old songs for an ever-changing world.  The old songs that God first sang to love creation into being (Celtic Christians still claim God sang the world into being), calling us back to our best, sacrificial, hopeful, loving self.

The church, at its best, calls for the hero of the story, an ancient guy from Galilee named Jesus, to get on the scene.

It reminds the world that its lonely eyes that are so full of war and violence and greed, all things that leave its actions and policies and pursuits empty (why do we fill ourselves with things that leave us empty?!), can turn to the one who welcomed the outcast, forgave the unforgivable, ate with the stranger, saved the sinner, and gave up his life for his friends.

The church, with its very life as its old, old song, reminds the world how to truly live, by God.

That it can truly live, by God.


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