Leader: Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?
All: Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves with rich food.
Gathering Prayer (Unison)
Holy God, in a place of so much wealth, why is there so much need? In a land that affords every available comfort, why do we find ourselves uncomfortable, discouraged, depressed? What is this food you spoke of through your prophets? Where is this promised land of milk and honey our ancestors sought? Open our hearts to the only true satisfaction our hearts will ever know: your boundless love.
What’s Up with Pastor Todd 1-21-22
The year is 1965. The place is Newport, RI. The event is the Newport Folk Festival, which had been founded six years earlier as a response to the more established Newport Jazz Festival. The Newport Folk Festival quickly became a gathering place for the various protest movements of the time: the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement, women’s liberation, the labor movement. Famous artists like Pete Seeger, Peter, Paul & Mary, John Lee Hooker, Joan Baez sang a mix of traditional folk songs and their own compositions that told the stories and reflected the values of common, everyday people. Of all these great artists, perhaps the most famous was a young, newcomer from Minnesota named Bob Dylan.
By 1965 Dylan had released three hugely successful albums: “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (1963), “The Times They Are a-Changin’” (1964), and “Bringing It All Back Home” (1965). Dylan’s song “Blowin’ in the Wind” had become the anthem of the anti-war movement. In fact, the 1964 Newport Folk Festival closed with the entire lineup of artists joining Dylan onstage to lead the crowds in singing “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a song that today is considered a classic of American songwriting–one of the many classics that earned Dylan a Nobel Prize for literature in 2016.
Already in 1965 Dylan was shifting away from the traditional folk compositions for voice and acoustic guitar that had made him famous toward music that featured electric guitars and a full band. Nevertheless, at the 1965 Newport Folk Festival he was planning on playing an acoustic set like people expected of him. The story goes that the day before his performance, Dylan overheard someone from the Folk Festival make disparaging remarks about electric guitars. In a flash of righteous anger Dylan completely changed his set list to feature him playing an electric guitar backed by the Butterfield Blues Band. When he took the stage the next night, he began his set with “Maggie’s Farm.” He played a loud, jangly Fender stratocaster and sang, “Ain’t gonna work on Maggie’s Farm no more”–a clear declaration of artistic independence. People started booing and shouting. Pete Seeger was furious. By the end of his set Dylan did return to his acoustic guitar in a gesture to the crowd’s expectations, but the message was clear: Dylan would not allow himself to be defined by any person’s or group’s expectations. His ultimate allegiance lay far beyond any particular style or movement. Dylan’s ultimate allegiance was to the artistic endeavor itself.
I was reminded of the above story during the First Church South Church Bible study this week. We were considering the gospel lectionary for this coming Sunday: Luke 4:16-29. It begins with Jesus getting a very favorable response to his preaching from his hometown crowd and ends with them attempting to throw him off a cliff. Why this sudden turnaround? Jesus had been preaching about the “Lord’s favor.” The crowd understood this to be a simple affirmation of the lives they were currently living as God’s “chosen people.” They became upset when Jesus corrected their understanding. Jesus explained that their God wasn’t theirs alone, that God chooses sides and it wasn’t necessarily theirs. Rather the God revealed in Jesus choses the unchosen. God loves the hated. And Jesus’ ministry won’t be defined by any person’s or group’s expectations. His allegiance lies far beyond any particular style or movement. Jesus’ ultimate allegiance is to the boundless love of God itself.
A few weeks ago I was driving home from church when I noticed that something was different about the right rear of the car. Flat tire? I didn’t hear the sound of a rim rolling on the pavement, so I wasn’t sure. I was almost home, so I just continued driving until I pulled in the driveway. Sure enough, the right rear tire was deflated but not flat. I was short on time, so instead of putting the doughnut on myself I called AAA. When the AAA guy took the tire off he showed it to me. A patch of the rubber outer layer had worn clear through exposing the steel belts beneath. When I brought the car to the shop to get the tire replaced the mechanic explained that when the wheels are out of alignment the tires wear unevenly. If you don’t catch it in time you get blowouts like the one I got. Alignment is key to keeping your tires in good shape for driving.
Our theme for the third Sunday of Advent is “Those Who Dream Sow Joy.” The Scripture is once again from the prophet Isaiah. The context for this particular prophecy is the return of the exiles from Babylon to their homes in Judah. Earlier prophecy had created in them great expectations for what their return would be like–comfort, rejoicing, salvation–all the good stuff. What they found upon return was a homeland in shambles. Rebuilding was slow and difficult. Even more challenging than putting roofs over their heads was reweaving the torn social fabric that had made their homeland a home in the first place. Those who had dreamed of returning were becoming disillusioned. Maybe this was a mistake. Maybe they should have stayed in Babylon. To these folks the prophet says, “They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD to display his glory. . . . For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to grow up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before the nations.”
What do tires and exiles and oaks have in common? Alignment. I think we can all resonate with the frustration and disappointment of the exiles. Rebuilding is hard. The obstacles between our dreams and reality often seem insurmountable. The prophet is inviting us to shift our view: to see rebuilding as replanting. Creating a sense of belonging is an organic process. Our role is simply to plant seeds of hope, love, and justice. Our role is to turn the soil of our hearts, to tend the gardens of our relationships. God will bring fruit in its time. Our job is simply to align ourselves with God. The process itself will do the heavy lifting. This is why Jesus can say, “Come to me you who are weary and heavy laden. Take my yoke upon yourselves and learn from me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” This is not to say that alignment with God doesn’t require anything of us. In fact, it requires everything. It requires us to pray as Jesus did, “Not my will but your will be done.” Nevertheless, living in alignment with God and one another allows us to tap into the source of all things–a limitless energy that causes the plants to grow and the fish to swim and our hearts to sing with praise.
Years ago I attended a church vitality conference. One of the speakers was the pastor of a small New Hampshire church that had experienced a dramatic turnaround. A congregation in shambles had become vibrant. Someone asked the pastor her secret. She said, “I follow the energy.” Where do you find life energy in and around you? How can we align ourselves with the new life God is always already bringing forth? When we continually keep these questions in mind, we will find ourselves continually sowing seeds of joy.
God of all creation–earth, sky and sea–teach us the way of humility, of “humus,” of earth, soil, and growing things, root us in this very place, nourish us with your boundless love, which meet us in this and every moment. God of every perfect gift, we thank you for your Son Jesus who emptied himself for our sake. Teach us the way of open hands and open hearts. Teach us the way of peace. Amen.
Holy God, Scripture tells us that Jesus, our brother, was tempted. We’re forever grateful for Jesus, your beloved one, who shares our weaknesses and knows our human tendencies to stray from your intention for us. Give us the courage to stop the pretense that we have it all together. Give us the humility we need to let down our guard. Give us the wisdom required to create a congregation safe enough and brave enough for each of us to be like Jesus–fully and authentically human. Amen.
On Sunday, June 28, 1970 the first Pride Parade was held in New York City. Similar events were held in June of 1970 in Chicago and San Francisco. All were in response to the Stonewall uprising the previous year, which marks the beginning of the modern gay rights movement.
For the first time in its 50 year history the NYC pride parade is cancelled due to coronavirus. Cancelled for the first time in 50 years, on its 50th anniversary.
A couple weeks ago I began an online training for leadership and organizational coaching during the COVID pandemic. As the group was naming the different dynamics around loss, grief, and trauma folks are experiencing during this time, the AIDS epidemic came up. For those of us who lived through the 1980s/1990s decades of the AIDS epidemic, when thousands upon thousands of mostly gay men were dying in places like New York City, San Francisco, and Miami, COVID brings up ghosts of that trauma. As many of you know, my dad was one of those gay men who died of AIDS, so this year’s Pride is just a strange, strange time for me, and I’m guessing for many of my LGBTQIA+ brothers and sisters.
Folks are hosting virtual Pride events, but for me and my family the highlight of Pride has always been the parade. My kids tell me that Providence (RI) Pride was their favorite event of the year. People of all ages, colors, and creeds gathered downtown for a day of fun and joy and celebration. We marched as a church. We waved banners and wore silly hats and cheered for the crowd as the crowd cheered for us. The City of Providence was never happier or more together than on Pride weekend.
My Pride story is a family story. It’s a story of my family finding its family: a community of people committed to living without shame; people of all different identities committed to accepting and loving every inch of themselves and every part of every other. Nothing needs to be hidden. Everything can be talked about. Vulnerability, instead of a sign of weakness, is lifted up as a sign of strength. Pride is a time of honoring those who have gone before: martyrs and heroes and loved ones lost who had the courage to live their truth, and because they chose to do so, paved the way for those of us who would follow to more perfectly manifest what, for me, is nothing other than God’s boundless, unconditional love.