December 13, 2015: Sermon by Art

   Winemaker or Rebel?

Melanie and I both love live theatre; movies, too, though I’m a bit pickier on movies. But we do find shows we’re willing to try together. We’ve been on a role lately; two plays and a movie. I especially like Irish theatre and we follow a small local group (one man, I think) named Tir Na. The other night we went to Somerville to an Irish Christmas play entitled: RETURN OF THE WINEMAKER, a dark, pretty irreverent comedy of the second coming of Jesus to a small village in Galway, western Ireland, 1974. Mary and Joseph show up at a tavern – no stables in Ireland (only an Irishman would imagine that, a Dublin-born play right named Bernard McMullan) as there is nowhere else to go. The tavern owner lets them in and Mary, still a virgin, gives birth to Jesus on the bar as the tavern owner coaches her. As the tavern owner is admiring the new child, Mary and Joseph disappear and Jesus is left with the tavern owner and his wife, who comes running in from the other room.

As Jesus grows up he is a bit of a slow learner his adopted parents have little hope he’ll ever become much of anything, until, one day, Jesus discovers he can turn water into wine. When his adopted father, Paddy,  realizes this, he calculates he can make oodles of money from Jesus’ special abilities as Jesus eventually turns small lakes into wine. However, the drama intensifies when Jesus real father, God, depicted as a latter day Elvis figure, guitar and all, who is suffering from dementia, and his God’s wife, Marilyn (Monroe?), decide to call Jesus back home to heaven at age 40 (no reason to execute this Jesus) in order to carry on the family business of running the world. The adopted father, imagining the end of this great, lucrative enterprise,  pleads with Mrs. God (since God is demented and pretty silent at this point) to leave Jesus in Ireland. They go back and forth, Mrs. God not relenting, until finally, God Himself hears the pleas of Jesus’ stepmother and agrees Jesus can return once a month to continue to change water into wine; a perfect Irish solution to the dilemma.

Though dark and irreverent, it was funny. I laughed a lot. A local actress, Nancy Carroll, from Rockport, played three different roles and was brilliant. We’ve seen her in any number of plays. I’ve actually spoken with her on the phone. She has lived in Galway at various times and sounds like a native. Nevertheless, in the end, after I sobered up, I opined to Melanie and myself, my review is a disapproving one. I do get dark comedy, sort of, and I did laugh quite a bit, but certain kinds of satire leave me as inappropriate, i.e., not so helpful. Maybe it’s the times we live in; dark times of fear and insecurity and political division? Sensitivity about satirizing someone’s beliefs? I wondered about the playwright – was he totally cynical about God (senile), Jesus (weak and immature), and the state of institutional religion, my professional landing place! Was this really a dismissal of the whole Jesus story and history? Even Nancy Carroll admitted in an interview the play is a farce; it’s meant to be. I get it but it still left me troubled. Does this type of art ultimately trivialize what is a remarkable story about the historical figure Jesus? Or do I just not appreciate this kind of comic relief. Would Nancy and the playwright simply tell me to lighten up and accept my own cultural history and its, at times, bizarre humor? Perhaps, yes.

Truth is, as Christmas approaches every year, I always have these mixed feelings: I love Christmas; find joy in celebrations with family and friends, welcoming in Mr. Winter, yet the words of Edna St. Vincent Millay that we read together entitled: “to Jesus on His Birthday” haunt me a bit: “The merry bells ring out, the people kneel; up goes the preacher before the crowd, with voice of honey and with eyes of steel, droning your humble gospel to the proud; Nobody Listens. Less than the wind that blows are all your words to us you died to save.” Just what should Christmas evoke in us, one might ask?

One challenging and somewhat discordant answer also  from Ireland, was performed at a concert in Dublin at Christmastime in 1991. The great traditional Irish music makers, the Chieftains, invited the American singer/songwriter Jackson Browne to sing an amazing  Christmas tune that he wrote, entitled: THE REBEL JESUS. It goes like this:

“All the streets are filled with Laughter and Light, and the music of the season, and the merchants’ windows are all bright, with the faces of the children, and the families hurrying to their homes, as the sky darkens and freezes, they’ll be gathering around the hearths and tales, giving thanks for all God’s graces, AND THE BIRTH OF THE REBEL JESUS.

Well they call him by the Prince of Peace, and they call him by the Savior, and they pray to him upon the seas, and in every bold endeavor, as they fill his churches with their pride and gold, and their faith in him increases, but they’ve turned the nature that I worshipped in, from a Temple to a robber’s den, IN THE WORDS OF THE REBEL JESUS.

We guard our world with locks and guns, and we guard our fine possessions, and once a year when Christmas comes, we give to our relations, and perhaps we give a little to the poor, if the generosity should seize us, but if anyone of us should interfere, in the business of why they are poor, THEY GET THE SAME AS THE REBEL JESUS.

But please forgive me if I seem to take the tone of judgment, for I’ve no wish to come between this day and your enjoyment. In this life of hardship and earthly toil, we have need for anything that frees us, so I bid you pleasure and I bid you cheer, from a heathen and a pagan, ON THE SIDE OF THE REBEL JESUS.”

So maybe you see my dilemma at Christmas, exacerbated by being a preacher and minister. Like Jackson Browne at the end of his song, who wants to spoil Christmas, life’s hard enough for many of us, can’t we just celebrate with a transformed Scrooge and be joyful and happy; why cause disruption and discord? Why not just laugh with “The return of the Winemaker?” Why make trouble?

Because we (Melanie and I) made the mistake (not really)  of going to see a second play in the past few weeks, a play put on by the students of Salem State University’s theatre department: THE GRAPES OF WRATH. I thought it interesting they performed this play in the Christmas season, a play based on John Steinbeck’s great 1939 novel by the same name, a story of the Oklahoma dustbowl and the long trek by desperate workers to California in search of work, only to find trickery and deceit by those advertising for workers, but with limited jobs at terrible wages. It’s a story of desperation and want, tragedy and despair at a system that dehumanizes and exploits vulnerable people for greed. The director of the play explains that he chose this great American story because it is eerily relevant to our own day, a story of injustice and exploitation, and of record inequality that continues to grow. Should this reality, one might ask, lead us to despair, such intolerable conditions for so many – those poverty-stricken, imprisoned, refugees, etc.? Not on your life, sing all of the actors at the conclusion of the play as they belt out contemporary singer Nanci Griffith’s powerful and inspiring tune, once sung at the Boston Pops in the late 90s, “Here in these Troubles Fields.” The play ends on this powerful, emotive tune that has the audience standing and applauding. It’s a song reflecting upon the struggles of the past, the great depression and dustbowl and  with fears that once again we are in troubled times, yet the singer/actors send us off with a rousing chorus that proclaims:

“And all this trouble in our fields, if this rain can fall, these wounds can heal, they’ll never take our native soil…we’ll work these crops with sweat and tears, You’ll be the mule, I’ll be the plow, come harvest time we’ll work it out, there’s still a lotta love, here in these troubled fields.”

I left this grim and tragic play, a real story of our country from the underside of our history, a people’s history, with such passion and energy and hope-filled emotion, realizing that history is still in human hands; we have the charge and the power to change this grim reality for so many if we choose. But we must acknowledge the enormity of the task to bring about full human rights (we celebrated Human Rights’ Day this past week, December 10) and, at least, a modicum of justice and equality, because, as the actors in the phenomenal movie depiction of the sexual abuse crisis in the Boston Catholic Church, Spotlight, suggest, the problem (in the church in the movie and in society at large) is systemic; we are not in a mess politically or socially or even ecclesiastically because of a few bad apples or bad actors or the mentally ill (gun violence). We have a system of government and an economic arrangement that are askew, that do not produce just arrangements or fairness or equality for the vast majority; it benefits the too few. Melanie and I experienced this once again a week ago as we returned to one of our old haunts, the South Bronx, where we worked for years, to attend the funeral mass of a close friend. 35 years later we witnessed the same reality of massive poverty, overcrowded huge tenement buildings, a heavy concentration of poor, minority peoples. Looked and felt exactly as it did in the early 80s.

If you saw the movie, SPOTLIGHT, you know that all along the way in their massive investigation, there were reasons to publish what they had ( one reporter was angry they didn’t go to print earlier) but, if they had published the story too early, they would not have gotten to the depth of the systemic problem at the core of the institutional Catholic Church in Boston. And by staying the course and endlessly, tirelessly digging and digging, they exposed the roots of the problem – not just Cardinal Law but the entire institution world-wide. We have to do the same thing with all of our institutions, political and economic, to get at the root of our current dilemmas. It’s about the system.

We begin by acknowledging there is a problem. Our loving and compassionate work of charity is so necessary as we deliver food and cook at Open Door or house families for a time through Family promise, or comfort and feed those who enter Grace center, build schools in Africa and clinics in central America; these are all very important works of compassion and love. We must keep doing them. But as Jackson Browne wrote in his tune THE REBEL JESUS about Christmas time, “and perhaps we give a little to the poor, if the generosity should seize us, but if anyone of us should interfere in the business of why they are poor, they get the same as the rebel Jesus.” Jackson Browne, the “heathen and pagan” understands that Jesus wasn’t executed because he opened a soup kitchen, or organized a clothing drive, though he certainly encouraged all of that, but he was executed because he “interfered in the business of why people are poor,” and marginalized, i.e, I believe Jesus understood like the editors of the Globe that the problem was the system, both the Roman occupation and the organization of the central synagogue. Hence, he was perceived as a “rebel” by the powerful of his day. But, instead of giving in to despair at his execution, his followers were ultimately energized and full of hope, choosing to believe in his promise that, despite the challenges, as philosopher Josiah Royce articulated a century ago, the “arc of the universe bends towards justice.” And, despite all its calamities and contradictions and cultural limitations, the biblical tradition of Judaism and Christianity, as well as the messages of Hanukkah and Christmas, is still a message of hope and promise. But this hope and promise is not just an idle dream about some future utopia; they are only real if we all participate in making change come about by our collective actions to challenge and alter systems that oppress. Too big a task? As the spiritual giant Dorothy wrote: “No one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless; there’s too much work to do!” Hope is realized through collective action in real history; it is not passive but action-oriented virtue. . As Jackson Browne reminds we must “interfere in the business as to why there are so many poor;” and as Nanci Griffith sings we must be “the mule and the plow…(and remember) we’ll work it out, there’s still a lotta love, here in these troubled fields,” these troubled times. We must be dogged in our determination as were the editors of the Globe who knew they had to dig until they proved the system corrupt and , ultimately, exposed it.

And, ultimately, that’s what Christmas is to me. In that tiny babe, I place my hope, in a babe who as an adult didn’t turn water into wine for profit as in the “Return of the Winemaker,” but rather to demonstrate his compassion (also because, if you remember the story, because his mother pleaded with him!) And because of compassion and love, he realized he had to challenge the system. That’s his legacy and our call as Universalists rooted in the biblical tradition of the Hebrew prophets and the Jewish Jesus.

In the “Return of the Winemaker” all ended well. God and his misses got Jesus back to carry on the family business of running the world for all but one day a month, and the tavern owner in Galway got to put Jesus to a 24 hour shift transforming water into wine, and all the town rejoiced. I laughed, I applauded, and I appreciated truly great acting.  I played along. I chuckled that only the Irish could come up with such a scenario.  I took the evening as a respite from my worrying about not so much dark comedy but dark reality, tragedy really,  and I am using this time of the religious season to, at least in part to disrupt, as well as celebrate, but more especially to renew my hope in all of us that we can, together, enflesh the promise of long ago echoed in the words of the prophet Micah (6:8) and the Jewish rebel Jesus: “This is what God asks of us: only this, to act justly, to love tenderly, and to walk humbly with your God.”

Happy last day of Hanukkah, a celebration of light over darkness, the upcoming Winter Solstice as we invite light to overcome dark, and happy Christmas, a celebration of hope over despair, compassion over greed, love and healing over division. So be it; Amen.

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