America, Put Your Swords Away!!

Photo by Joel Auerbach
The Erickson family I grew up in did not really have a concept of Lent. We knew about Palm Sunday. And of course Good Friday was central. Easter was a huge day. Sunrise Service was a highlight every year. My father and I would get up early and make the 10 mile or so drive to our church in the pre-dawn light. We’d most years have the service outdoors and watch the sunrise over the Hudson Valley hills. The moments were filled with a reverent joyfulness. 

The Son has Risen! Oh death where is thy sting? Salvation overcomes sin. Love overcomes hate. Light overcomes darkness. The moral arc of the universe bending toward the side of justice despite the injustice just two days before, the death of innocent’s guileless life. Love conquers all. That was what Easter was all about.

Yes, this was nice, priceless actually. The fresh donuts and hot cocoa after the service wasn’t all that bad either.

I’d stay for the 10am service. My father going to pick up my mother and my other siblings who were not the early risers. Sunday’s service would be especially joyous too. Then a big late lunch at my grandmother’s home with all the colored eggs you needed or wanted.

But Lent? Not something we did. We certainly were not alone. Though, as with Advent, Lent is becoming more common in Evangelical circles.

So when I arrived here 5 years ago, I had to do a crash course on the practice of Lent. I delved into the history and the meaning. Very interesting stuff for this history buff.

Like with Advent, Lent is a mostly post-Nicene practice. In 325, there was a huge council that met in a Roman town called Nicea. The Council of Nicea in 325 is pivotal in church history. For it was then and there that church doctrine and most of church practice was made clear and pretty much mandatory, at least if a church wanted to remain in Rome’s good graces. 

The practice of Lent was by then rather uniform. It consisted of a 40 day fast Monday through Saturday for 6 weeks. The fast ended at 3pm everyday and began again the next morning. Sunday was feast day for those weeks. During Holy Week, between Maundy Thursday and Easter, the fast became especially strict with no meat, no fish, no sexual relations allowed.

However, years before Nicea, things were not as formalized nor as long. Initially, in fact, the fast was merely a Holy Week practice.

The 40-days of Lent are believed to derive from the practices surrounding Baptism. Before a new convert was baptized, there was a 40 day period of fasting, penitence, and contemplation.

Scholars also state that the 40 day period was also tied to the early celebration of the Day of Epiphany, which marks the day that Jesus was baptized. The Day of Epiphany on January 6 would include the baptism of new believers followed by a 40 day period of fasting, prayer, and contemplation. This mirrors Jesus baptism followed by 40 days in the desert doing the same -- fasting, prayer, and contemplation.

What’s more, the practice of paschal Baptism, Baptisms on Easter day, took hold around the time of Nicea and after. We see from all of this that there was a strong link between Easter and Baptism going back to the earliest days of the church.

And what is Baptism? Baptism is basically the practice of 
Christians representing their inner transformation with an external ritual. Inner transformation in the Christian tradition means dying to the old self with its old selfish ways and being reborn to a new self in Christ, a truer self marked by compassion and love and godly wisdom. The baptism simulates the old self going back to the waters of the womb, which amounts to a life submerged in water. This is followed by a rebirth of the new self coming out of the waters.

We now see Lent as a time of practicing humility and repentance. It begins with Ash Wednesday where ministers and priests mark people’s forehead with dirt and say, "from dust you were made, till dust you shall return." Yes, humbling indeed. We are then encouraged to repent and ask forgiveness for our bad choices, our harmful ways, our selfish tendencies.

So with that background in mind, I want to talk about guns in America for a little bit. Let me say first of all thoughts and prayers are nice all year long. But during Lent, those thoughts and prayers have a specific purpose. The purpose of thoughts and prayers during Lent are repentance for our wrongs, our selfishness, our harmful ways. And, America, in the wake of the national tragedy at a high school in Parkland, Florida, we have a lot to repent for.

One of our leaders, in the House of Representative said just yesterday, in the wake of such a tradition, “this is a time to step back and count our blessings… [a time for] pulling together.” No, this is the season of Lent. This is a time to repent of our mindlessness, our heartlessness, our selfishness and seek forgiveness for the sake of transformation.

The Evangelical tradition I was raised in tells me that without repentance, a turning away from wrong, and a transformation, a heart-turning toward righteousness, thoughts and prayers are nothing more than human niceties. Only repentance and transformation makes our thoughts and prayers real and effective. Without the Big Bang of a heart-change, our thoughts and prayers fall on the empty ears.

So I put out the original title for my homily this week – “Big Bang or God” – on Wednesday, in the afternoon, after a morning in Bolton. I then returned home and heard the news about the school shooting in Florida. I immediately thought about changing the title. I worried the title sounded insensitive to the latest news of gun violence. The big bang of guns is too frequent a reality in America. There have been some 8 school shootings in American in 2018, and 2018 is not even 50 days old. And that is just school shootings.

But even if we see the Big Bang in this new destructive way, as the collective big bang of guns everywhere in this country, we are right to ask Big Bang or God?

In a recent CNN op-ed, writer Jay Parini, a practicing Christian, rightly describes America's gun obsession as akin to a cult. He wrote on the 16th, "[too many American citizens] are in something like a cult... [And] like all cults, [the cult of guns is] one difficult to break from, to stop or influence." Parini goes on to say something I could easily have written, albeit maybe not as eloquently, "As a Christian, I'm appalled by the hypocrisy I see among others of my faith, particularly those who are our leaders in government and show eagerness to participate in this cult. They worship false idols in the form of weapons, and turn their back on the teachings of Jesus, who did not equivocate when it came to violence...It is safe to say that nobody in the cult of guns listens to Jesus."

The gun in America has become an idol instead of a tool. It is an idol that has replaced a loving God with weapons of war.

Certainly, this is nothing new. Human beings, even the writers of our most sacred scriptures, have too often replaced God with the idol of war, conflict, and violence. It is our task to ceaselessly resist the temptation to place other gods before the One God of Love, Grace, and Mercy. Idols, surely are luring and give us temporary feelings of safety and security, but an idol in the end is the child of deception and delusion, what classic Christianity calls the devil. Any idol is of the devil, guns included.

What would Jesus do? What would Jesus say about the pervasiveness of weapons and their use on young innocents? If you are a Christian, you simply cannot avoid Jesus. Jesus could not be clearer. In the pinnacle of his teachings, the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says this: "You have learned that they were told, 'Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth.' But what I tell you is this: Do not set yourself against the man who wrongs you. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and offer him your left."

When his disciples were like politicians vying for the title of the most powerful, Jesus rebuked his disciples by lifting up children as the benchmark for faith and saying, "And whoever welcomes a little child like this in My name welcomes Me. But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to stumble, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea."

When Peter upon Jesus being betrayed and arrested drew a sword and struck a soldier, Jesus rebuked him, "Put your sword away! He who lives by the sword shall die by the sword."

So America, especially those who deem America a Christian nation, I beg you to follow the Christ you claim.

America, put your swords away!!

Transform them into good plows and good work.

America, put your swords away!!

Place them onto the trash heap of history filled with empires and cultures that have withered away on the battle fields and mass graves of our own making.

America, put your swords away!!

We are living and dying by those swords. Our schools are wracked in fear. Our parents are tormented by the images of schools in lock-down, children racing away in terror from mad men with guns.

America, put your swords away!

Our children are dying. The millstone is around our necks. We are drowning in the depths of suffering seas salty like our tears.

America, put your swords away!!

Let this Season of Lent be a season of repentance for our mindlessness, our heartlessness, our selfishness when it comes to the scourge of weapons of war. And may it lead to transformed hearts and new hope.

America put your swords away!

Receive your new baptism, put away old, dying individual selves, enter again the womb of living waters where compassion flows, be born anew rising as a new collective self walking the path of love, peace, and righteousness.

America, put your guns away!!

Music as a Metaphor for God

So I have a friend, a dear friend in fact, someone I respect and admire. When the subject of religion comes up, he half-jokingly and half proudly will declare himself an agnostic when it comes to notions of God and atheist when it comes to organized religion. He points out regularly in these discussions how the Abrahamic view of God is faulty and even dangerous and how organized religion has hindered progress more than its helped.

He is one of many and often has good points. The religion of Jesus, for example, often acts exactly the opposite as Jesus and to what he taught. Religion too often has become ideology and has been behind too many a conflict. It brings to mind that Gandhi quote that is quite common to hear. “I like Christ but I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.”

At the same time, my friend loves music. This love reaches the level of the spiritual. It is sacred to him. Music provides him so much meaning, comfort, and joy. It is as essential to him as God is to others.

Whereas my friend and I disagree when it comes to religion and God, when it comes to music we are in sync. There is common ground there. Music is sacred to me, essential, a source of meaning, comfort, and joy.

This interesting dynamic of otherwise irreligious or even non-spiritual folks loving music on such a fundamental level got me really thinking this week. It got me pondering the notion that maybe for some music is akin to God. Music represents something integral, vital, something consistently there for them when they need it.

What if music is another way to describe, point to, get at what is ultimate, which some call God?

There is some precedence for this idea. Music and religion are closely tied to each other. In the Bible, music is frequently mentioned as a vehicle for worshiping God, as a means to recall God’s gifts in the faithfuls' lives, to remember the joy given from God.

Hymns, psalms, praise songs are a part of the Jewish tradition described in the Hebrew Bible, aka the Old Testament. The same continues in the New Testament. That we sing hymns and songs in this church connects all the way back to the early church and even before to Christianity’s Jewish ancestors.

Music is similarly important in Islam, at least in the musical reciting of the Quran. Buddhism has chanting and percussive instruments that accompany chanting. Hinduism has a long history of sacred music.

Music and religion all over the world are inextricably linked. And it’s been that way from the very beginning.

Even philosophy, religion’s secular cousin, has an important strand of thought on music. I won’t go into it here, but look up Pythagoras and music and you’ll see what I mean.

So music and religion are tied at the hip, as they say.

But I tend to think it goes even deeper than that. Religion and music are not only tied together, but they come from the same place, from the space of the spirit, from the mind of God.

I’d dare say that Music is one of the most perfect metaphors for God we have.

What is a metaphor? Well, a metaphor is a literary device that seeks to describe, show, elucidate a subject not in a literal way as you’d find in a dictionary but in a way that is poetic, literary. An old example of a metaphor is this – Love is a rose. Of course, love is not a rose. But the idea of a rose helps us to understand what love is.

Well, music is a perfect metaphor for God. God is perfected music, for example.

I ask you to bring to mind your favorite piece of music or one of them. Just sit with it a bit. Now, let us probe why music is a perfect metaphor for God.

First of all, music is intangible. You cannot see music. Yes, you can see someone playing music, someone hitting organ keys, like Violet just did, someone blowing air into a sax, trumpet or harmonica, someone strumming a guitar, or striking drums. But you’re not seeing music itself. There are no printed musical notes floating in the air like you’d see pictured in a comic strip. You hear music, not see it.

So, we hear music. But we can also hear a garbage truck crushing trash or wind whistling through an old building. What makes music a special kind of sound?

It is the feeling, the experience of the music in your mind and heart that separates music from other sounds. But that feeling, that experience of music that makes music so special, is intangible.

God is similar. We cannot see God. We don’t hear God in the same way as we hear someone talking to us at a party, using their mouth and their vocal chords. God does not have a mouth or vocal chords. Even those who say they hear God’s still small voice, for example, mean it differently. We sense God, we experience God in our hearts. Like music, experiencing God’s presence is more than rational. 

If God or music are only rational, if we simply intellectually conceive of God or music, we are missing something essential to what music or religion is all about.

Okay, so let us go back to our favorite piece of music. Bring it back to your mind. Try to experience that music in your heart. If you listen closely enough, you can hear something rather profound about music. 

Music is a great uniter. Yes, it unites those who are different and even in opposition a lot. There are plenty of examples of cultural differences and divisions bridged by music. I think about this Palestinian/Israeli chamber orchestra who do just that – bridge the divide through music. Maybe members of Congress should think about all learning to play instruments and creating a marching band.

Maybe the reason music is so good at this is because music includes within it the gift of harmony. What is harmony? What does it do? Well, harmony takes a diversity of notes and unites it into one sound or one song. In other words, music makes real e pluribus unum – out of many, one. Multiple notes, rhythms, instruments, melodies and harmonies can be put together to make one song, one piece of music.

God does the same thing, right? Think about the Trinity. The Trinity is a harmonious trio of Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit. One music with 3 equal and interrelating parts.

And for you Unitarians out there, who believe God is one, well, if God is in all, as Ephesians 4:6 says and if God is understood and seen in Creation, as Romans 1:16 says, then God is like the singular melody moving in the universe, uniting the universe with all its diversity and multiplicity into one song. God is a melody playing through the many layers of sound, enabling all sound to move together in one sacred hymn.

Some don’t see this at all, I know. Some may see these thoughts as merely sappy rhetoric. Some, on the other hand, think God to be a real, literal big man upstairs in heaven. Some think God to be a fictional character created by the human mind. And some think music to be simply sound waves that sound “pertty” and that’s all. And that’s okay, I guess.

But could it be for those who, like my friend, find in music something most meaningful, something as close to sacred as something can get, as something that creates, sustains, and enhances human community, could it be for those who see music as essential to their lives, that music is just a gateway to getting at God. Could it be that music and their experience of music is akin to spiritual faith, their deep, soulful experience of music assimilating the experience of God?

Maybe music is a safer, less baggage-laden, less abused and, on a positive note, more open word for God?

It seems to me that indeed some people’s deep love and appreciation for music reaches the level of spiritual faith.

I am not making a value judgment here. I am not saying this is a bad thing necessarily. God works in mysterious ways, as they say, and so who I am to say. What I wonder though is how to open the doors of church to them, how to invite them to share in community with us.

You might remember a couple years back a piece on NPR about this crazy venture in Albuquerque, NM called the Church of Beethoven. As the story goes, a classical musician by the name of Felix Wurman, who played in the local symphony had an idea pop in his head as he performed at a church one Sunday. He thought what if instead of the music being more secondary and background to the service it became central and the focus? It seemed to him the music invoked more spiritual depth than the sermon or the other parts of the sermon. So he tried to make his thought – which was to have music be the focus and poetry and quiet prayer surrounding it -- a reality. The Church of Beethoven was born. And it has been a huge success and spread to other cities.

Now , as a complete replacement for the real mission of the Church – spreading the love of God – the church of Beethoven is not enough and is not advised. But I think it points to the fact that people yearn for sacred experiences and sacred community. The role of a church community is to foster both. And lofty words or discursive notions don’t always get people there. If something like the Church of Beethoven can teach us to learn the importance of simplicity, listening, and less intellectualism, then something good has happened.

As for what would Beethoven think of a church in his name, well, I will answer with a prayer attributed to him and let you be the guide. And this prayer will be a good way to end the words of this sermon.

"O God, give me strength to be victorious over myself. Guide my spirit; raise me from these dark depths that my soul, trans ported through Your wisdom, may fearlessly struggle in fiery flight; for You alone understand and You alone can inspire me.

One more thing. We praise Your goodness that You have left nothing undone to draw us to Yourself; but one thing we ask of You, O God; that You not cease Your work in our improvement. Let us tend toward You, no matter by what means, and be fruitful in good works."