How beautiful upon the mountain are the feet of the messenger who announces peace. So says the prophet Isaiah. Those words were later applied to Jesus. How difficult it is to hear such an announcement these days. Such an announcement comes to us now as if through static, like a radio station long out of range. Every so often, a moment of clarity occurs. Only to fade again. I’m trying to hear the voice of Jesus right about now. It’s hard to hear that voice across so much static.
Let’s begin our litany of static in 1998. April 20, 1998, Littleton, Colorado. Columbine High School. 13 dead. 24 injured. July 29, 1999, Atlanta, Georgia. In the stock exchange. 9 dead. 13 injured. September 15, 1999. Fort Worth, Texas. At a Baptist church. 8 dead. 7 wounded. November 2, 1999. Honolulu, Hawaii. At an office building. 7 dead. December 30, 1999. Tampa, Florida. A hotel. 5 dead. 3 injured. December 26, 2000. Wakefield, Massachusetts. 7 dead. February 5, 2001. Melrose Park, Illinois. An office building. 5 dead and 4 wounded. July 8, 2003. Meridian, Mississippi. At a Lockheed Martin plant. 7 dead. 8 wounded. December 8, 2004. Columbus, Ohio. At a concert. 5 dead. 7 wounded. March 12, 2005. Brookfield, Wisconsin. During a church service. 7 dead. 4 wounded. March 21, 2005. Red Lake, Minnesota. At a school. 10 dead. 5 injured. January 30, 2006. Goleta, California. In a post office. 8 people dead. March 25, 2006. Seattle, Washington. In a public space around Capitol Hill. 7 dead. 2 injured. October 2, 2006. Lancaster, Pennsylvania. In a one room Amish school house. 6 children dead. 5 injured.
A moment of clear reception, born of a scene from the 1985 film Witness, starring Harrison Ford. It’s one of the most sensitive treatments of gun violence, or indeed any violence, in popular culture. A Philadelphia detective hides among the Amish in Lancaster County, a religious community dedicated to the practice of nonviolence. My mother’s family comes from an old order Brethren tradition, close cousins of the Amish. I once lived in Lancaster County, and when I was in 5th grade, my parents let me see Witness, despite its “R” rating, because of the film’s obvious devotion to the Amish. To this day, I maintain a deep and abiding respect for the Amish. In one scene, a young boy discovers the detective’s gun in a drawer. The detective unloads the weapon, and after unloading it, tells the boy that it is safe, letting him handle it. The boy does so with fascination and awe, until his mother enters the room, and sees him. She takes the gun away, holding it in front of her with two fingers, as if it were a soiled rag. She knows that it is not an object fit for a human being. Later, in the scene shown on your bulletins, the boy sits with his grandfather, who explains why guns must never, ever, be handled. His reasoning is born from Scripture. A gun is designed to kill other human beings, the grandfather tells the boy. We cannot, we must not, participate in that, he tells his grandson, for the Scriptures command that we must never kill. He quotes a verse of Scripture: “Therefore come out from among them (meaning, in this context, those addicted to violence), and be ye separate.” God always opens to us a way other than violence, the old man says. I watched the film last Sunday night after we rang our church bell 59 times. That scene, the one on your bulletins, with a boy and his grandfather, working through the implications of an American epidemic, moved me to tears.
Static again: February 12, 2007. Salt Lake City, Utah. An open public space. 6 dead. 4 injured. April 16, 2007. Blacksburg, Virginia. Virginia Tech University. 32 dead. 23 injured. October 7, 2007. Crandon, Wisconsin. A public space. 6 dead. 1 injured. December 5, 2007. Omaha, Nebraska. A mall during Christmas time. 9 dead. 4 injured. February 7, 2008. Kirkwood, Missouri. A city council meeting. 6 dead. 2 injured. February 14, 2008. DeKalb, Illinois. At Northern Illinois University. 5 dead. 21 injured. June 25, 2008. Henderson, Kentucky. At a plastics factory. 6 dead. 1 injured. March 29, 2009. Carthage, North Carolina. A nursing home. 8 dead. 3 injured. April 3, 2009. Binghamton, New York. At an immigration center. 14 dead. 4 wounded. November 5, 2009. Fort Hood, Texas. An army base. 13 killed. 30 wounded. November 29, 2009. Parkland, Washington. A coffee shop. 4 dead. 1 wounded. August 3, 2010. Manchester, Connecticut. A beer distributor. 13 people killed. 30 wounded. January 8, 2011. Tuscon, Arizona. A press conference. 6 dead. 13 injured, including Rep. Gabriel Giffords.
More static, this time disguised as a piece of vacation fun: A newspaper article, published at some point in the early or mid 2000s. It’s about a new phenomenon in Las Vegas, gun ranges that allow you to learn what it feels like to fire all the weaponry from your favorite action movie. Pistols, but also M16s, Uzis, AK-47s, and God only knows what else. I read it with fascination. A student of theology, with a heritage in the nonviolent Anabaptist tradition, I think to myself: I’d try that. It sounds like fun.
The static continues: September 6, 2011. Carson City, Nevada. An IHOP. 5 dead. 7 wounded. November 14, 2011. Seal Beach, California. At a hair salon. 8 dead. 1 wounded. February 22, 2012. Norcross, Georgia. A health sauna. 5 people killed. April 2, 2012. Oakland, California. A university. 7 dead. 3 injured. May 20, 2012. Seattle, Washington. A café. 6 dead. 1 wounded. July 20, 2012. Aurora, Colorado. A movie theater, during a late screening of a Batman film. 12 dead. 70 injured. August 5, 2012. Oak Creek, Wisconsin. A Sikh Temple. 7 dead. 3 injured. September 27, 2012. Minneapolis, Minnesota. An office building. 7 dead. 1 injured. December 14, 2012. Newtown, Connecticut. Sandy Hook Elementary School. 27 dead, most of them children. 2 injured. March 13, 2013. Herkimer, New York. A barbershop and an oil change facility. 5 dead. 2 injured. April 21, 2013. Federal Way, Washington. An apartment complex. 5 dead. June 7, 2013. Santa Monica, California. Another apartment complex. 6 dead. 3 injured. July 26, 2013. Hialeah, Florida. More apartments. 7 dead. September 16, 2013. Washington, D.C. The Naval Yards. 12 dead. 8 wounded. February 20, 2014. Alturas, California. A Native American tribal office. 4 dead. 2 wounded.
Something like clear reception again: On a journey through the American West – Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, California, Arizona – in the summer of 2016. We stop every few hours at gas stations to let the kids run, to stretch, to find coffee. The shadow of casual violence is ubiquitous. Every convenience store carries flashlights, fashioned in the shape of bullets. A rack of toy firearms is placed at a child’s eye level. T shirts are emblazoned with machine guns and threatening slogans about people who disrespect the flag. In Utah, rolling through a suburb on the way to a lakeside campground, a big sign at a strip mall, displaying a machine gun, invites any and all to a firing range, as if it was a bowling alley, or a movie theater. In West Yellowstone, Montana, a barbeque joint displays bumper stickers, most of them bearing slogans and images pertaining to firearms, and who ought to be at the receiving end of those weapons. Liberals. Foreigners. Hillary Clinton. An uneasy feeling spreads across my abdomen, into my chest. It stays with me, and no amount of beauty throughout that western landscape can shake it. I think to myself: I do not feel at home here. I wish to have no part of this. Something about the casual relationship to violence within America feels terribly wrong.
More static, more violence: April 3, 2014. Fort Hood, Texas. Again. An army base. 3 dead. 12 wounded. May 23, 2014. Santa Barbara, California. A university campus. 6 dead. 13 wounded. October 24, 2014. Marysville, Washington. A high school. 5 dead. 1 wounded. June 11, 2015. Menasha, Wisconsin. On a bridge. 3 dead. 1 wounded. June 17, 2015. Charleston, South Carolina. Mother Emanuel AME Church. 9 dead. 1 injured.
A moment of utter clarity: An October evening in 2016. Almost 25 people on our Wheels of Justice journey gather in Charleston at the Mother Emanuel church, sharing a meal with members of that church, eating in the same space in which the killing occurred. It’s impossible to forget that fact as we eat. At the end of our time together, a choir stands to sing “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand, All Other Ground Is Sinking Sand.” What does it mean to sing those words in a church basement where a mass shooting has taken place? What does it mean to sing those words in America, where Jesus and guns exist side by side, with no evident tension, as in a sign for a gun shop I often see when I drive through Tennessee: Jesus Is Lord. Gunrunners. Can the two, Jesus and guns, be pried apart? Do you have to encounter a crucified and executed Jesus, shot through by bullets, in a South Carolina church, say, before you can see that in our age, Jesus is found among the carnage of torn human flesh? Is that the solid rock upon which we must stand?
Static, fuzz, violent confusion: July 16, 2015. Chattanooga, Tennessee. A military recruitment center. 5 dead. 2 wounded. October 1, 2015. Roseburg, Oregon. A community college. 9 dead. 9 wounded. October 31, 2015. Colorado Springs, Colorado. A public space. 3 dead. November 27, 2015. Colorado Springs, Colorado. Again. A Planned Parenthood Clinic. 3 dead. 9 wounded. December 2, 2015. San Bernardino, California. A Christmas office party. 14 dead. 21 wounded. February 20, 2016. Kalamazoo County, Michigan. A shooting spree in several public places. 6 dead. 2 wounded. February 25, 2016. Hesston, Kansas. An office building. 3 dead. 14 injured. June 12, 2016. Orlando, Florida. A gay, lesbian, trans, and queer nightclub. 49 dead. 51 injured.
December 29, 1890. The Wounded Knee Massacre.
A clear signal: One week after the Orlando nightclub shooting, a group of travelers from Old Lyme stand at the foot of the mass grave at Wounded Knee, struggling to comprehend how the Army Cavalry could have opened fire that day in December, slaughtering more than 300 people, the vast majority of them women and children. To this day, Wikipedia declares that it was a victory for the United States. But what kind of victory? As we stand there, I wonder aloud if there is a through line, extending from the slaughter at Wounded Knee, to the slaughter at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, where in America it becomes first thinkable, and then doable, to shoot and kill that which we do not understand, that which we do not fathom, that which we wish to replace. I ask our group to stand at that mass grave for a long time, as long as we can stand it, in hopes that somehow, by confronting the tragedy of firepower, one more Golgotha, one more site of crucifixion, the illusion might be broken. Soon though, it’s time to go. We can’t stay there forever. On our way out, I purchase an overpriced dream catcher from a Lakota craftsperson, an amulet in the greater dream of overcoming the American violence represented at that site. The man who sells it to me stands at Wounded Knee most every day. He and a few others are there as witnesses. They carry their own dreams. Some of those dreams, I expect, are closer to nightmares.
The signal fades again: July 7, 2016. Dallas, Texas. A public protest. 5 dead. 11 wounded. July 17, 2016. Baton Rouge, Louisiana. 3 dead. 3 wounded. September 23, 2016. Burlington, Washington. A mall. 5 people dead. January 6, 2017. Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. An airport. 5 dead. 6 injured. April 18, 2017. Fresno, California. A downtown shopping area. 3 dead. May 12, 2017. Kirkersville, Ohio. A nursing home. 3 dead. June 5, 2017. Orlando, Florida. An awning manufacturer. 5 dead. June 7, 2017. Tunkhannock, Pennsylvania. A supermarket. 3 dead. June 14, 2017. San Francisco, California. A UPS depot. 3 dead. 2 injured.
October 1, 2017. Las Vegas, Nevada. 59 dead. 527 injured.
Is it possible to hear the voice of Jesus speaking through all that damaged flesh? It’s hard, I know. Maybe it comes to us in the following way, through the writings of the Apostle Paul, himself haunted by a murder he once helped to instigate. It’s his writing about food and eating that intrigues me right now. Paul addressed disputes that were occurring about the eating of particular foods in churches in one of his letters. Some people thought particular animals were unclean to eat. They not only wished to refrain from eating those animals themselves, but argued strenuously that others should do so as well. Others understood themselves to be free to eat this or that, and wished to demonstrate that freedom. Paul asked those individuals to exercise their freedom by refraining from eating food that would be offensive to others, for the sake of those with a weaker constitution.
It’s an argument that’s often cited around those with a weakness for alcohol. Sometimes it’s teenagers. Sometimes it’s those who suffer from addiction. Those who have the freedom to partake choose to voluntarily refrain, choosing to abstain, because of the damage their freedom may cause to those who struggle to regulate themselves.
I’ve come to wonder if the same argument should be made for guns and firearms in America. I’ve come to wonder if even those of us who enjoy recreational shooting, who enjoy hunting, who occasionally visit firing ranges, who let our kids play with toy weapons, might need to refrain from doing so. I’ve come to wonder if we need to do that as a way of insisting not upon our own rights, or our own pleasure, but deferring to the weakness and fragility of the culture we inhabit. I’ve come to wonder if the Amish are right, knowing they must not even handle a weapon, because of the way their souls will become contorted.
The grandfather in the film Witness tells his grandson that God always provides a way other than violence. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but I wish to believe it. I wish to be among those who live as if that was true. In the final scene of the film, as gunfire erupts on the Amish farm, the grandfather gestures for his grandson to ring a bell. The bell brings all the neighbors running. It’s a sign that something is wrong, and they gather as a community as a man with a shotgun threatens another. They stand as witnesses, and their gaze prevents another killing.
Might we, here in Old Lyme, stand as those witnesses now? Might we be the ones who heed the warning of Jesus, that those who brandish swords shall die by the sword, or, to put a contemporary spin on it, that those who brandish guns shall die by guns? Might we be the ones who resist the seductive lure of violence in all its forms? Might we be the ones who come running to stand as witnesses to an American epidemic? Might we be the ones who practice an alternative way found in the Scriptures and in some of the best parts of our history? Might we serve as witnesses?
I don’t have solutions to the problem of gun violence in America, or other kinds of violence either. But I wish to be among those who practice another way. I wish to help create and mold another way, like the one the old Amish grandfather shares with his grandson. Perhaps that’s the enclave we need to create here in Old Lyme.
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who comes to announce not violence, not warfare, not the love of firearms, but the practice of nonviolence, the gospel of peace. I’m straining to hear the signal. I’m trying to hear the announcement of peace. I think I hear it. Can you?
 Statistics compiled from a list published by Mother Jones: http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2012/12/mass-shootings-mother-jones-full-data/
This morning we welcomed the Rev. Dr. John Selders to the pulpit. John is the minister of Amistad United Church in Hartford, and the leader of Moral Mondays CT, along with his wife Pamela Selders. John and Pamela traveled together on our most recent Tree of Life Journey, and John will be one of the leaders on our upcoming journey in January 2018. We were privileged to have John with us today!
Click below to hear his sermon, No written text is available.
On what do you depend? On whom do you depend? What is it within your life that you cannot live without, that you gives you reason to be? What is it that you depend upon for a sense of well being in the world? What do you depend upon in order to stay alive?
Those are questions with an old lineage, extending back to antiquity, and perhaps beyond that as well. But it was in the early 19th century that the question was given its fullest expression in the writing of one of my heroes, a man named Friedrich Schleiermacher. He’s relatively unknown in American churches, but he deserves to be enshrined in every progressive congregation throughout the land, for he is the architect of liberal Christian thought. He was a theologian and philosopher at the University of Berlin, but he was also a pastor of a large and thriving congregation in the city. He was one of the founders of that great university, and he carried on a friendship with some of the most vibrant poets and novelists in the Romantic period. He was a lover of music, a family man, and a dedicated friend to many. When he died in the 1830’s, a parade of some 20,000 people followed in his funeral procession. Schleiermacher was a giant of a man, and he deserves to be known by those of us who navigate the streams he charted. Specifically, he deserves to be known for a formulation embedded in his theology. Religion, he says, springs from the feeling of absolute dependence. He builds everything upon that foundation. Religion begins from the feeling of absolute dependence.
It’s a formulation that still resonates, even after all these years. We need theologies of dependence and absolute dependence – rather than theologies of autonomy or independence. Such a theology resonates with the deepest knowledge of what it is to be human. We come into the world as tiny infants, absolutely dependent upon others for our well being. If we’re not held, if we’re not touched, if we’re not spoken to, let alone fed or clothed, something within us withers and dies. We come into the world as dependent creatures. But it’s also true that we leave this world as dependent creatures, whether that happens in old age or sometime before that. We leave the world much as we enter it, requiring care and support, and a good deal of love. In between, we grow toward greater degrees of freedom and autonomy, something worthy of celebration. Even so, we forget our earlier dependence, and we bury the knowledge that such dependence will, one day, come again. Not only that, too often we ignore the ways we actually are dependent, even in the prime of our adult autonomy.
Schleiermacher would have us become aware of how dependent we are within the world, how each of us is a fragile, delicate, and beautiful node within a complex and systematic web of planetary interdependence. He would have each of us trace and map those webs of dependence, beginning with the most elemental things. We depend upon food. We depend upon water. We depend upon air. We depend upon shelter. But we depend upon far more than those basic elements. We depend upon love and the nurturing care of at least several important individuals throughout our lives. We depend upon those older than us to teach us things. We depend upon our bodies, to do the work we need to do, to remain healthy. But we depend upon more still. We depend upon institutions, governments, universities, businesses, to create a stable framework within which we can live. We depend upon an economy – but not just one economy, but many interconnected economies. We depend upon the knowledge and skills of other people, to grow our food and to build the things we use, and to fix those things when they break. Beyond that, we depend upon culture, to provide expressions of emotional depth that somehow resonate within us – culture is that which keeps us from killing ourselves, Cornel West tells us.
But then we can keep spinning the web of dependence farther and farther out, this complex and organic system of interdependencies that extends past physical and biological dependence and into the very cosmos. It’s here that Schleiermacher leaps, pushing farther still, asking if even that complex system of interdependencies extending into the cosmos is itself dependent. He wonders if even that complex web might be dependent upon a transcendent reality, which we call God, a reality that somehow and in some way holds that delicate web together, even as that transcendence bends back, becoming interlaced within that delicate web. To be confronted not only with one’s dependence, but absolute dependence, is to be humbled, for humans are but small nodes within a complex whole. But it is also to be empowered, for humans thus become integral to the functioning of that whole. It means that everyone and everything plays a part in the cosmic drama.
In the 21st century, I can think of no greater symbol of absolute dependence than that of a simple cup of water. Water is something that most of us in affluent communities in North America take for granted. But water is also that upon which each and every one of us is absolutely dependent. Indeed, water pollution, or water scarcity, is something that will likely affect all of us at some point in the not too distant future. For many, it’s already a dire threat, or an ongoing predicament affecting everything about their lives. And it’s poised to become one of the major drivers of geopolitical conflicts around the planet, as communities compete for water resources and water security. Some years ago, Kofi Annan, then the General Secretary of the United Nations, stated that “fierce national competition over water resources has prompted fears that water issues contain the seeds of violent conflict.” 85% of the world’s population resides in the driest half of the planet, most especially in sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly 1 billion people across the planet do not have reliable access to clean drinking water, and between 6 and 8 million people die every year as a result of water born diseases. Water is that upon which every one of us depends, but it’s also that which exposes the massive inequalities that bedevil our planet.
Nowhere is the disparity of water scarcity and water abundance more clear than in Palestine. If you’ve traveled with us on any of our Tree of Life journeys, you’ll know that many villages in the West Bank receive no more than two hours of flowing water every week. If you want to know whether you’re looking at an Israeli settlement or a Palestinian village, you just look to see if there’s a dark cistern on the roof to collect rainwater. If there is, you can know for certain that it’s a Palestinian village, for every drop of water that falls must be collected and stored. A normal occurrence throughout Palestine is to shower, if you can, with a bucket at your feet, to collect runoff water so that it can be used for other ordinary tasks. Meanwhile, it’s possible to gaze across the walls of Israeli settlements that have full swimming pools, and to see sprinklers keeping plants irrigated. The Negev desert has been made to bloom with agricultural crops, all of which consume immense amounts of water. It’s a microscopic version of a global pattern, by no means limited to Israel and Palestine, where wealthy countries control and consume water supplies with profligacy, while poor or dependent countries suffer the consequences of that profligacy.
The prophet Amos writes that justice will one day flow down like water. But in our time, justice is flowing water. The planetary dependence that we all participate in can be demonstrated by no better symbol than a cup of water. That cup demonstrates how each of us depends upon clean water to survive. It reminds us of the human solidarity we share with others for whom water is scarce. It reminds us of our planetary obligation, of our global interdependence with people and cultures unlike our own. The cup of water that we share in communion today reminds us of the fragile and interconnected web that we participate in. And the cup warns of the consequences of failing to appreciate our interdependence.
When Jesus shared a meal with his disciples, wine became a reminder to look for the risen Jesus in the common elements, the common dependencies of life. Water is such an element today, a reminder of all we share in common on this World Communion Sunday, and of all we stand to lose.
But the wider question, rooted in the engagement of a 19th century theologian, remains: on what do you depend? On whom are you dependent? In what ways are you absolutely dependent? Learning to answer that question well is at the heart of what it means to be human in the world. On what, and on whom, do you depend? May the water we share today guide you in your own reflections on those questions
I conclude with words from Green Grass, words from the Standing Rock Camp, where water became precious: Mini Waconi. Water is Life. Amen.
What Plato is to philosophy, what the Sistine chapel is to painting, what Shakespeare is to drama, what Tolstoy is to the novel, what the Beatles and Dylan are to rock and roll, Mozart’s Don Giovanni is to opera. It belongs to the immortals. It belongs in the pantheon of the best that has been written or composed or thought in human life. Goethe wrote to his friend Schiller that it was a singular achievement, never to be repeated in the history of opera. The composer Charles Gounod spoke of Don Giovanni as “that unequalled and immortal masterpiece,” and he let it be known that the opera had, for him, thrown open the gates of heaven. For Pierre Jouve, the French poet and novelist, Mozart’s opera “ascended to the highest plane of revealed truth, the threshold of the world beyond.”
Theological writers have joined that chorus of praise over the years. Karl Barth, one of the greatest theologians in the 20th century, listened to Mozart every day before beginning to write volumes of theology. Of Mozart, Barth wrote: “(He) created music for which ‘beautiful’ is an inadequate expression; music which is not entertainment, nor pleasure, nor edification, but flesh and blood.” Don Giovanni stood at the summit of Mozart’s creative output. But it was Soren Kierkegaard, nearly a hundred years before Barth, who wrote the most impassioned and rapturous praise for Mozart in general, and for Don Giovanni in particular. “Immortal Mozart,” he writes. “You to whom I owe everything—to whom I owe that I lost my mind, that my soul was astounded, that I was terrified at the core of my being—you to whom I owe that I did not go through life without encountering something that could shake me.” Kierkegaard went on to devote more than a hundred pages of writing to Don Giovanni in his philosophical and theological masterpiece, Either/Or. Those pages rank as one of the most powerful pieces of music criticism ever written. They stand as one of the most important theological treatises of modernity.
It’s our great good fortune that Salt Marsh Opera is starting a run of performances of Don Giovanni in the next several weeks. And it’s our great good fortune to welcome Adelmo Guidarelli to our service this morning, and to be able to hear a small fragment of the opera in our worship. You could do well to meditate on Don Giovanni in this particular moment of American, and indeed, world history. You could do well to meditate on all that Kierkegaard writes about the pursuit of aesthetic pleasure in his reflections on the opera. But more than that, you could do well to think about such things on a Sunday given over to questions of stewardship, which is to say, to questions about what it is we actually value and love as human beings. My wager this morning is that Don Giovanni is the perfect entryway into questions of eros and desire, love and meaning, God and life.
But first, a brief word about the opera itself. It is, of course, a retelling of the legend of Don Juan, drawn from source material dating from the early 17th century. The Don is a wealthy aristocrat, wholly devoted to the pursuit of erotic pleasure. His life is centered around seduction and erotic conquest. Early in the opera, in the piece we heard earlier, Giovanni’s servant Leporello enumerates Giovanni’s conquests. “This is the catalogue,” Leporello sings: “640 women and girls in Italy, 231 in Germany, 100 in France, 91 in Turkey, but in Spain 1003.” Yikes. The plot itself centers around a murder that takes place as Giovanni is attempting to seduce a young woman. When her father appears, Giovanni kills him with a sword, and then escapes into the night, in search of further adventures in seduction. Shortly after that, he seeks to disrupt the wedding of a young couple in the countryside, attempting to lure the soon to be bride into his embrace. But even as Giovanni pursues his conquests, those he has hurt unite to stop him from creating further damage. It is, finally, the ghost of the murdered man who intervenes, appearing at a banquet feast to drag an unrepentant Giovanni into the fires of hell.
In truth, however, it’s not the plot or the libretto that has proven fascinating over the years. It’s the music, combined with the spectacle of a man wholly immersed in the pursuit of aesthetic pleasure that has captivated audiences, critics, and philosophers. And here, Kierkegaard becomes especially insightful. For Kierkegaard, Giovanni isn’t simply a rake or a libertine who deserves to be punished, though he is most certainly both of those things. Giovanni is, rather, a failed existential hero, on a doomed quest in pursuit of the absolute. He becomes a symbol of the person wishing to be consumed by immediacy, wishing to be immersed in the eternal present, wishing to become lost in a moment of ecstatic rapture. For Kierkegaard, Giovanni isn’t merely a figure of vanity or sexual addiction. He becomes a figure for the person wishing to become totally and fully immersed in an experience of beauty. It could be the beauty of another body, or of a piece of music, it could be the beauty of a painting, or a piece of architecture – it could be immersion within anything that heightens human awareness and desire. What makes Mozart so thrilling to Kierkegaard is that he created a fully immersive piece of music that demonstrates that truth, creating an aesthetic experience for the listener and viewer that mirrors the aesthetic immersion of Giovanni. To submit to the opera is to yield to that experience of sublime beauty.
For most people today, it’s not opera that produces such an experience, though it might be if more people bought tickets to Salt Marsh. To judge by the style section of The New York Times, these days ecstatic experience is often sought in travel, or a fussy meal, or an article of clothing or jewelry. If you’ve ever scrolled through someone’s Instagram account, you’ve likely encountered a version of Giovanni’s quest in the pictures of meals or clothing or exotic destinations or drinks or beautiful bodies or urban splendor, all of it testifying to that desire Giovanni represents, which isn’t finally for sex, but for immediacy, for ecstasy, for an eternal present. To read the style section of the Times, to scroll through Instagram, suggests a Giovannian quest for immersion in an aesthetic experience is alive and well for many of us today.
That quest for beauty and fulfillment is a noble one, up to a point. For Kierkegaard, Giovanni becomes a demonic figure only because his quest turns in upon itself. What begins as something inherently good becomes an experience of consumption and waste, where beautiful experiences are simply tallied up, and then discarded. Instead of opening to a greater, or a wider sense of communion, Giovanni’s quest collapses into the fleeting pursuit of the interesting, the titillating, the thrilling. Giovanni’s greatest fear isn’t death, but boredom. The threat of punishment or retribution is far less compelling than the threat of the dull or uninteresting. Giovanni thus becomes an inverted saint, a distorted apostle, a disfigured prophet who fails so completely only because his quest was itself so nearly divine.
What I find compelling about Don Giovanni, and about Kierkegaard’s analysis of him, is how contemporary Giovanni feels, how close he remains, even 230 years later. He is, in a way, the ultimate representation of the individual in the throes of consumer capitalism. Giovanni ultimately becomes a man without weight, without substance, without depth. His only special quality is a greater or lesser discrimination of what he wishes to enjoy. His life’s theme is a simple one: carpe diem, seize the day, enjoy oneself. But he is unreflective, uncomplicated, unattached to anything or anyone beyond himself. He knows nothing of struggle. He confronts nothing of substance within himself or the world around him. He knows nothing of the weight of decision, of having to stake one’s life on a truth or a reality greater than himself or his own vanity or his quest for personal fulfillment. We can all probably supply the names of those who conform best to that description. I’ll leave it to you to supply your own. But what makes Giovanni so captivating for me is less the way he resembles other people, but rather how he resembles a dimension of every human being, latent within some, manifest within others. What makes him captivating is how we can recognize portions of ourselves within his tragic quest. I know I do. There is a little of Don Giovanni living in my soul, just as there is, perhaps, a little of Don Giovanni living in you. But I think there’s something more within us as well.
And here I think religion becomes helpful. We do long for beauty. We do wish to experience ecstasy. We do yearn for immersive and total experiences in which time stops, if just for a moment. We are shaped by a desire for rapture and transport. But absent some sort of attachment or commitment to something outside of ourselves, to something greater than ourselves, we become little Giovannis, tossed about by every wind, chasing this or that teasing fancy. In so doing, we become insubstantial. That’s why Kierkegaard describes an ever steeper ascent into beauty, where a desire for the aesthetic eventually gives way to a desire for the ethical, and where a desire for the ethical eventually gives way to a desire for the transcendent, which we dare to name God. To become fully human, to become fully alive, on this account, requires each of us to say yes to something bigger than we are, to commit to something larger than the pursuit of this or that pleasure. To become fully alive, we’re asked to root ourselves in the concrete particularities of this or that relationship, this or that vocation, this or that struggle. To become fully human and fully alive is to have to work at something, to invest yourself in something, to attach your energies to something worthy of your attachment. For Kierkegaard, and for many others far wiser than me, to become fully human and alive is to exist on a ladder of ascent, where we’re little by little invited out of ourselves, out of our individualistic pursuits and pleasures, and into a greater and wider experience of the world. To become fully human and alive is to encounter ourselves not simply as pleasure centers in search of aesthetic adventures, but to encounter ourselves as dependent – dependent upon the kindness of strangers, dependent upon the relationships that sustain us, dependent upon meaningful work and activities to keep us grounded, dependent upon the institutions and traditions that form us, dependent upon art and culture to articulate our depths, dependent upon the natural world for air and shelter and water, dependent upon faith, upon God, to nourish our spirits. To become fully human and alive is to experience oneself in a state not of independence, but of interdependence. At its best, the experience of beauty leads us to form greater and deeper bonds of attachment and affection that make us interdependent.
I’ve entitled this sermon after a series of Psalms that begins with Psalm 120 and continues up to Psalm 134. They’re called the Songs of Ascent. They’re poems that were recited or sung as pilgrims traveled up to Jerusalem during holy days – if you’ve ever traveled to Jerusalem with us on one of our Tree of Life trips, you know that on the way to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, the road takes a sharp incline, for Jerusalem is built upon high ground. “I lift up mine eyes to the hills,” Psalm 121 begins, and we can imagine ancient travelers reciting those words as they made their way through the hills that lead toward Jerusalem. I think we need songs of ascent, of the sort the Psalmists celebrated, but also of the sort that Kierkegaard outlined in his philosophy. In this era that seems to celebrate the Don Giovannis of the world, where humans are simply bundles of appetites, where individuality is prized above all else, where isolation and loneliness seem to be of pandemic proportion, where cynicism about public service or about institutions of any kind is all too easy to succumb to – in such an era, I’m interested in visions that allow us to ascend toward something larger than our appetites. We need it in our political leaders. We need it among civic organizations at all levels. We need it in our universities, in our high schools and middle schools and elementary schools. We need it in businesses and corporations, and God only knows that we need it in our religious institutions. I’m amazed sometimes at the way religion has been privatized, so that Christianity becomes a matter of me and Jesus and nothing else. That’s one more way of turning us all into little Don Giovannis, absorbed in a private experience of bliss. That’s not the Christianity I believe in, or belong to. I believe in a gospel that leads us in a song of ascent, moving us toward ever greater and wider visions of God and of the world than ourselves alone.
That’s why I continue to believe in this thing called church. And it’s why I continue to believe not only in some abstract vision of a thing called church, but in the particularity of this community, of our community here in Old Lyme. It’s why I believe the work we do around here matters in a very real way. The work we do with refugees and immigrants, the relationships we build with our Muslim neighbors, these things matter, because they remind us of the beauty of our interdependence with one another. The food we serve in the food pantry and at the New London soup kitchen, these things matter, because they remind us of the beauty of our interdependence with one another. The journeys we make to Palestine or to Haiti or to Green Grass matter, because they remind us of the beauty of our interdependence with one another. The prayers that we pray and the songs that we sing matter, because they remind us of that beautiful truth, that we are dependent upon realities that far exceed our comprehension. And the money we give, the money we give, matters. That too is an expression of beauty, a demonstration that we are not our own, that we exist in ever widening spheres of connection and grace, of love and support. This church, this community, is a reminder in a world of Giovannis that there exist dimensions of beauty and of life that call us to ascend beyond ourselves, into a wider world of connection and interdependence. I don’t know that we do it perfectly. I don’t know that we always even do it well. But I believe that’s a vision worth dedicating yourself to. I believe this is a place worth being a part of, worth giving yourself to.
When you receive your pledge card in the mail, I invite you to sit with it for a little bit. I invite you to reflect upon what it is that calls you out of yourself, what it is that leads you in a song of ascent, what it is that helps you to become more connected and interdependent, more gracious and whole, more fully alive and fully human within the world. And I invite you to consider giving some of your time or your money to whatever that something is. I hope you have such places in your life. And I hope our church is among them. If it is, consider giving generously. If it’s not, then I invite you to come and find me, and share how we can do better. Because this is a song of ascent that I wish to keep learning, a vision that I wish to keep perfecting, lest we all become little Giovannis in the world. We don’t need any more of those right now. And so I think it’s worth it to make this ascent together.
Oh, and one last thing: when Don Giovanni takes the stage in another couple of weeks, go see it. Absorb yourself in the performance of one of the wonders of human expression and creativity. Enjoy it in all its splendor. May it help to shape your own song of ascent through the world. Amen.
 Quotes in the following two paragraphs taken from Naugle, David, “Søren Kierkegaard’s Interpretation of Mozart’s Opera Don Giovanni : An Appraisal and Theological Response,” http://www3.dbu.edu/naugle/pdf/kierkegaard_dongiovanni.pdf
Texts: “Let the Trees Be Consulted,” and “We Have Forgotten Who We Are”
Stand by Me
I’ll conclude our series of reflections with what, to me, seems an improbable but true occurrence. One of the traditions that’s emerged in our Green Grass visits these past several years is to host a karaoke night. We set up a tent just beside the little church, and then someone arrives with sound equipment and a database of several thousand songs. As dinner is served, people take turns at the microphone. Some take the task of singing very seriously. Some treat it lightheartedly. Some have good voices. Some have less than good voices. But it doesn’t really matter. It’s become an annual, and improbable, ritual of connection, where folks from a Connecticut village and those from a Native American Reservation sing Johnny Cash and Elvis and Guns n Roses songs together. People drift in and out of the tent over the course of the evening, kids are run around outdoors, and some folks listen from their cars, honking their horns at the end of each song as a means of applause. The crazy thing about it is that it works. Karaoke helps a group of disparate people with widely varying stories to find their commonalities, and to find joy with one another. I give props to Stephanie Kenny for hatching such an idea.
But this year a very poignant moment took place during the karaoke night. One of the residents of Green Grass, a woman who’s been with the partnership for many years, dedicated a song to all of us here in Old Lyme. It was Ben E. King’s classic song “Stand by Me,” from 1961. “When the night has come, and the land is dark,” the song begins, “and the moon is the only light we’ll see. I won’t cry, I won’t cry, no I won’t, be afraid, just as long as you stand, stand by me.” In its original form, it had been a gospel song, a plea to God to stand by some lonely soul. King’s version took it out of the church, and turned it into a love song between individuals. But on the Dakota Plains, it took on another meaning entirely. It became a plea. It became a declaration of fidelity. It became an acknowledgment of pain. And it became a touching testimony to what our partnership has become over the years. I stood in the doorway of the Green Grass church, just listening, and marveling at the relationship that so many of you have cultivated over the years. Stand by me was the plea, for the land is dark, and the moon is the only light we see. Stand by me.
It’s a theological virtue embedded in that song. To stand by someone is to exhibit what some of the biblical writers call steadfastness. It has to do with a kind of steadiness and unwavering commitment. It has to do with a sort of longsuffering. It has to do with accompaniment, being willing to live and operate amidst challenges. It has to do with having the interests of the other at heart. To stand with someone, in the sense implied by Ben E. King’s song, is to exist in lonely and dark spaces with another, and to find mutual reassurance and comfort that the other is present, is there. That’s what it means, I think, to be steadfast. In places throughout the Bible, the writers describe the presence of God with each one of us as precisely that, as steadfast. Those same writers often celebrate those who possess a steadfast heart. To be steadfast, I believe, is to be one who stands with another. “When the night has come, and the land is dark…stand by me.”
We’re called to do that, to continue to do that, with our friends from Green Grass. But we need them to stand with us every bit as much as they need us to stand with them. It might be that we need them more. We tend to see the world through the lens of material goods and either abundance or privation of those goods. But I think we tend to forget how spiritually and culturally thin our lives are. We don’t remember, or have never learned, the power of ceremonies and of ritual. We don’t remember, or have never learned, the power and art of storytelling, of living by stories. We don’t remember, or have never learned, what it is to be people of prayer and sacrifice. We don’t remember, or have never learned, what it is to honor land and trees and ancestors as living presences within our lives. We don’t understand what it is to encounter the world from the underside of history, to encounter the world as the vanquished, the forgotten, and the overlooked – such realities open an entirely different perception of the world. When we visit Green Grass, or any of our partnerships, we must never forget that as often as not we are the impoverished ones, poor in spirit, poor in soul, poor in understanding. It is a great gift that our friends at Green Grass have stood with us, even as we’ve stood with them. We’ll continue to do that, I hope for a long time to come.
Let me finish with a more general, and perhaps also a more particular question, for each of you. Where are you being asked to stand right about now? Who in your life needs you to stand by them in the dark of night, when the moon is the only light you see? Where are you being asked to exhibit steadfastness, in the biblical sense of that word? There are, at times, relationships or settings that require us to part ways for the sake of health and well being. I recognize that and offer no judgment about it. But I’m interested in the opposite of that these days. Where are you being asked to double down right now? With whom, or with what, are you being asked to stand? Maybe you’re a parent, wishing you could escape the confines of your domestic life. Maybe you’re a spouse, tasked with caring for an ailing partner. Maybe you’re in a job that’s burdening you, but at which you’re needed. Maybe it’s to a project or to research that you’re asked to stand. Maybe it’s to this church, to this community, and to the precious work that’s been entrusted to us, that you’re being asked to stand. I don’t know, and I won’t answer for you. But to stand by someone, or something, the way our Green Grass friends have stood by us, the way we’ve stood with them, is to slowly become fully formed as human beings, to slowly become formed as people of faith, shaped and molded by this reality we dare to name God. With whom, or with what, are you being asked to stand?
“When the night has come, and the land is dark, and the moon, is the only, light we’ll see. We won’t cry, we won’t cry, no we won’t, shed a tear, just as long, as we stand, stand by one another.”
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