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.”
The biggest reason I enjoy going to South Dakota is that I get to see old and new friends. It was good to see my friends Angel, Jessie, and Aspen again. We had fun beading together, playing kickball, and hula hooping. I was really excited about Morning Start camp with Kylie and Morgan. I liked making our tee shirts. Travis taught us how to draw buffalo and eagles. I also liked having my cousin Anna with me. It was fun to do Karaoke night with everyone. One special thing I remember this summer happened on buying day. Aspen and I took care of a little boy named Liam during the busy day, and Aspen’s aunt gave me a gift of some earrings that she made for buying day to say thank you.
Sabina Jungkeit’s Green Grass Reflections
If you’ve ever been to a summer camp twice in a row, you can easily tell that it will be different the second time around. It will always change. Maybe for the better, maybe for the worse. And that’s okay. Green grass is an amazing place to visit. This year was different in a good way. My cousin Anna was with us. It was amazing to see my friends there after a year. It’s kind of hard to stay in touch when you’re so far away from them so seeing them was one of the best parts of my summer. Also I was really interested in the ways the Lakota People have been protectors of the water, especially at the No DAPL protests. I hope they find ways to resist the black snake (the oil pipeline). Even if some things changed, this trip was as amazing as ever.
I’m so glad that I got to return to South Dakota again and I hope that I’ll get to go last year.
Stephanie Kenny’s Green Grass Reflections
Last Saturday, I had an interesting experience that brought me way outside my comfort zone, skydiving. Now, I won’t get into the details, but falling 125 miles per hour from 14,000 feet has a way of “waking you up”. I am happy to be back on the ground with my feet firmly planted but it did get me thinking about today and what I would share with all of you.
There are so many amazing moments when we travel to Green Grass, I always find it hard to pick just one story to reflect on. But, seeing as it’s an anniversary of sorts, let’s jump outside of our comfort zones for just a moment shall we?
So there is a plane outside… don’t worry, I will not ask you to skydive, but simply to join me in a little call and response. When I say Mni Wiconi you all say as loud as you possibly can Water is Life! Ready? Let do it!
Me: Mni Wiconi
Congregation: Water is Life!
Me: Mni Wiconi
Congregation: Water is Life!
Me: Mni Wiconi
Congregation: Water is Life!
Do you feel that, that energy stirring in the room right now? This was the energy we felt out at Green Grass. The call of the water protectors was thick in the air and the stories shared from Standing Rock kept the fire burning.
One year ago, this very weekend, Mary Tomassetti, Mattie Renn and myself packed a van filled to the brim with supplies donated by all of you, friends and members of this congregation. We drove for 30 hours to deliver those supplies to a protest camp that had formed in Standing Rock, North Dakota. Our friends from Green Grass took part in this monumental gathering against an oil company, the Dakota Access Pipeline or DAPL, that was set to burry a pipeline underneath the Missouri River.
After months of enduring unprovoked arrests, tear gas, pepper spray, water cannons and direct hits from rubber bullets, the Trump administration, just days after inauguration, gave the go ahead to build that pipeline.
On February 22nd at 2pm water protectors were made to leave camp, the only home they had come to know for nearly a year. A camp that had become a sustainable community, with no money exchanged; a camp that had become a place of healing for many of our friends; a camp that provided purpose to those that were lost.
And without a place to go, many were left homeless or stranded. Deserted and beaten by the very government that is supposed to be protecting them.
However, it was not the end you see, but merely the beginning. Their legacy and their stories continue on. Our friends are known as water protectors and water protectors are known as heroes.
Travis Harden, who many of you know, spent months out at Standing Rock. One day he found a red cape and mask amongst the piles of donated clothing. He became the true physical representation of a hero. His superpower, spreading joy and inspiration through his music and stories through-out the camp. You can imagine that Super NoDAPL Man quickly became an internet sensation!
This year, as 23 of us descended upon Green Grass, it became clear, the water protectors, the energy and the spirit were everywhere. Men, women and children each with a story to tell about their time spent at the camp and what it meant to them.
At each social gathering, at every shared meal, the water protectors were there. At the Morning Star day camp, while singing Karaoke, even at our sunset communion service, the water protectors were there.
They were also present at this year’s Tribal Crafts buying day, many now living on the powwow grounds in Eagle Butte. They brought with them flags and knives used at the camp, dream catchers, beadwork, quilts and more.
For those of you who don’t know, Tribal Crafts in a non-profit incorporated in 1987 through hard work and dedication of a few of our very own church members.
Every Year, Tribal Crafts schedules what we call buying day where artists come from all over the reservation to sell their goods. On this day we sit and visit with all of our Lakota friends, old and new.
Anyone that has had the opportunity to take part in the Green Grass partnership knows first-hand the value in meeting with these artists. Their stories and traditions come alive in their artwork and they are more than happy to tell you what’s new in their lives and what they are working on next.
We had 54 people walk through our doors that day, and nearly all of them water protectors. Not only did we hear stories of their artwork, but of the camp, keeping that spirit alive and the sacred fire burning.
You’d hear the call, Mni Wiconi, and fists would raise in the air as if to say, this story is only beginning.
Our friends out at Green Grass are working hard to build a sustainable community to reflect what they discovered at the protest camp. Oscar High Elk and his friend Marla have been pouring sweat and energy into this venture, digging a well, building a storm shelter and dreaming of what it will be.
They have plans for a school, a place for traditional medicine, a learning place for sustainable living, a place where drugs and alcohol are not welcome, a place of healing for many that are
sick with abuse or depression. A place where the community can go to find purpose and that moment that “wakes them up”.
Oscar made this dream catcher from fresh willow branches from the Morreau River located behind the Green Grass church. The Morreau is a tributary of the great Missouri which our water protectors were working to save.
The dream catcher is said to catch the good dreams and allow them to rest in its web. For me, something as beautiful and as simple as peeled willow woven into a web, represents what this movement is all about.
Water, life, love and peace. The dream that we all wish for will find its way onto the web of life and into our world.
I’m guessing that Oscar has no idea how much this dream catcher moved me, or that I would be mentioning his name today. In fact, I wasn’t sure until I found myself falling from the sky.
Green Grass is but a small community on the reservation but… I believe in many ways, they are the keepers of the dreams. The renewal and love you feel when you return from a trip like this is hard to explain and often it takes me a while to come back to the everyday norm of work and activity. In fact, sometimes it takes something like jumping out a plane to wake me up from the fog.
I look to the water protectors as a sign of hope and courage and who I should model my life after.
The vision for what this world could be nearly came into fruition at Standing Rock. I for one am ready to continue that dream by living more simply, by living with love and light and joy; by acknowledging the wrong that has been done, not only to our Native American friends, but to mother earth and the plants and animals that live upon her.
So I stand here today and raise my fist up high. I will continue to share the stories to keep that sacred fire burning.
Nancy A. Mol Green Grass Reflections –Messages and Signs
This has been a journey of awakening for me on many levels. So many messages and signs were seen and felt by me on this trip. I drove in a minivan with Mary Tomasetti along with her mother, Mimi. Any trip with Mary is an adventure and this was a double adventure. I say that only with affection. We drove in caravan with Steve and his family. Having never been past Washington D.C, riding to Duluth Minnesota and then on towards Green Grass in South Dakota, was a unique experience. Both in going and returning, I’ve never stopped at so many Motel 6s and Comfort Inns. I’ve heard someone say that “life begins at the edge of your comfort zone.” This is true. Despite being out of my usual element, I went to a number of James Beard noteworthy, eating spots with the Junkeit and Tomasetti clans. I so enjoyed the comradery while traveling, learned some real gems from Mary and became far more confident with my map and atlas skills. The changes in landscape were amazing. Before leaving on this trip, Don Gerber told me about the expansive skies. He was right. They were breathtaking. The photo below was taken with my phone one night in SD, while riding in Steve’s van.
When we left Rapid City, traveling towards Green Grass, we stopped at a visitor’s site of the Badlands. I could only stand motionless, as Travis played his beautifully, painted drum and sang to his ancestors. How small I felt at this majestic scene and could not help but sense past souls who were there. Earlier, I recall having a similar feeling as I walked along the waterfall and creek at Pipestone, Minnesota. Once we arrived at our lodgings, just outside the reservation, Ginny Speirs and I hunkered down in a hunting cabin. The night before we were to arrive at Green Grass, I felt apprehensive. Will I be of any help to anyone at Green Grass? What can I possible do there, never having been there before? Will I know the right things to do or say? It was a long night but the next morning I had an “ah ha” moment, realizing that I just needed to be me. When I arrived at the church, I was amazed at seeing all the swallows flying around. I looked up what swallow symbolizes and read that it means love of family and friends. This was where I needed to be. The people I met – those living on the reservation, the families, the minister who was just starting to work at Green Grass- seemed all so peaceful and open. I have been working at our Food Pantry for nearly 15 years and I have not sensed those feelings from many of our recipients. Attending to some ceremonies on the reservation opened my eyes to true reverence and respect for another culture.
On the day before we departed from Green Grass, I experienced my first buying and selling day. So many artists and crafts people brought their creations to a large room at a local motel. Coinciding with buffet style lunch and dinner, their wares were presented. How fortunate I was to be able to peruse the room admiring and purchasing treasures.
The morning of departure from the lodge and cabins was a little chaotic. While travelers were packing and moving their luggage and possessions into vehicles, along with the multitude of treasures for our Tribal Craft room, I sensed some tensions rising in the group. I stepped back from the phenomena occurring in front of me and tried to be still. I heard my phone ding and looking down, I saw that I had received an email. I clicked on the mailbox and read that it was a Daily Bible Verse James 1:17. I have never subscribed to Daily Bible Verses and was overcome knowing that this was a message from my husband Jim. I opened the email and read the verse. These are the words I read. “Every good gift and perfect gift is from the above and cometh down from the Father of lights with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.” At that moment, I was filled with an incredible sense of abundance and the feeling that I will never be alone.
Right now, I am reading a book titled The Grace in Living. To me, Grace can be a feeling or an action that evokes abundance as well as gratitude and acting through one’s heart, with kindness. I have felt Grace at the Badlands, looking up at the skies, being with friends at Green Grass, with fellow travelers and here with you.
Kylie Hall Green Grass Reflections
When asked, as a traveler inevitably is after every trip, how my time in Green Grass was, I have always found it difficult to formulate a real answer. Adjectives such as “fun,” “interesting,” or “eye-opening” can always be used in a pinch, but they never seem to encompass the whole experience of the journey. The truth is that the trip has far too many layers, too many meanings and purposes, to be grasped in one or two words. Trying to find even a couple of sentences that would do so is futile and, at times, mildly frustrating.
I first went to Green Grass just after turning twelve, and I have returned every year since. This leads to another difficult question I have often been asked; “Why do you keep going back?” Its answer is one I have never been able to securely put words to. In truth, it’s more of a feeling. A sense of belonging as soon as you step onto the lawn in front of the tiny church placed snuggly between the rolling hills of the South Dakota plains. The feeling of your heart beating faster as you observe a sunset more beautiful than any you’ve ever seen before, every single evening. The perceptible release of the weight of normal, tedious responsibility to make room for the bustle and also the tranquility of a day on the reservation. The suspension of time; to me, it is not so much a deceleration, as I have heard it be described before, but rather a notion in the back of your mind that time is no longer something that really exists, and definitely not something that matters. The immersion into a fascinating culture, so very different from your own. The sense that you are a part of a family including every person you see, although you may not know many of their names. That in particular feels so nice compared to the world in which we live, where the need to put things in organized containers has separated the people themselves. All of these sensations and more make up the one feeling that brings me back to Green Grass every year.
I know that at first glance, the excursion may seem to be composed of mostly idle chit-chatter, while most expect to see a hammer-and-nails mission trip. I myself have described the Green Grass trip to others as our church “visiting friends” on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, because those words feel appropriate on some levels. However, that does not mean our trip is not worth the time, energy, and money that goes into it. Those that have gone on this mission trip have done something that is in some ways less valuable, but in other ways more, than seeing to physical needs. We are showing people in Green Grass that there is someone out there who is still thinking and caring about them. The people of Green Grass and our church are learning from each other, listening to each other’s stories, and opening up channels of communication that may never have been opened before.
Of course, I am by no means saying that the types of mission trips which build houses or feed families or distribute education supplies are not important and necessary. On the contrary, these are vital to making the world a better place, and our trip to Green Grass certainly does some of this too. We prepare lunch and dinner for anyone who drops by the church every full day we spend in Green Grass. We fix up the church, because there is always at least one problem there; an issue with the plumbing, a lack of propane, or perhaps a broken refrigerator. We also organize a day every year during which the Tribal Crafts organization buys as many Native-made crafts as they can from as many people as possible to bring back to Connecticut, where we sell them in order to bring back money the next year to buy more crafts. This helps to give people a small source of money while also expressing to them how valuable their talents are. Tribal Crafts is something I have always been drawn to, partly because each of the hand-crafted pieces has a story and a meaning, but I suspect also because participating in this appeases the part of me that wants to be doing physical things right away and seeing immediate results. Knowing that the money we spend will go to paying water bills, feeding children, and quite simply surviving in this expensive world does make me feel a sort of sense of justification.
However, caring for physical needs should not be the only part to a mission trip. In the modern world, we can talk to the people in Green Grass from across the country in Connecticut, and yet, we are never truly communicating with a person unless we are sitting beside him or her and listening to his or her voice as it really is while they share with us his or her stories. We need to learn from the people of Green Grass just as much as they need our help. They teach us how to sit down and just breathe, how to make connections with people unlike ourselves, and how to absorb every little bit of beauty around us.
This past year, I helped run a day camp for the children of both sides of the relationship in order to help foster new friendships to connect our groups. Through this experience, I have learned that there is a sort of wisdom in young children, evident in their tendency not to flutter around the edges of their thoughts or desires when communicating them to others, but rather to get straight to the point. They are honest—both to others and to themselves. This helped all of the children that attended the camp to make friends in such a short time without thinking about the fact that they speak, look, and live differently, because they see straight to the heart without their vision being blurred with prejudice. Because the children got so close to each other, they were able to teach each other about their cultures, sometimes without even realizing that they were doing so. I believe that this part of the trip is one of the most important parts, as the friendships they make now will one day become the friendships that help change the world. I was honored to provide a setting for the children to begin those relationships.
I believe that my experiences in Green Grass have turned me into someone much more equipped to go out into the world and make it a better place. I believe that I am now someone who appreciates that there are real tragedies in the world, ones that I am lucky enough to never have to personally experience. Tragedies that I now know I can help fix. But I hope I have also become someone who knows of the power of little things- the ability of one conversation to make a whole day brighter, or the importance of one bond between two seven-year-olds. These are lessons everyone deserves to learn, and this, along with so many other things, is the value of the Green Grass trip.
Everything I Do Is Gonh Be Funky (From Now On), or, Keeping Church Weird
To begin, a preview of sorts. There’s a commercial that Starbucks put out a few years ago for one of its canned espresso drinks. It’s ingenious, and I hope whoever thought it up was handsomely rewarded with stock options and canned espresso drinks. Here’s the premise. An office worker named Glenn is getting ready for work in the morning, and he’s looking a little glum about it all. He pops open a can of ready made espresso, and he takes a sip. And suddenly, there in his apartment, that 80’s band “Survivor” shows up, the ones that sing “Eye of the Tiger” from Rocky. And they’re singing just for him: “GLENN! GLENN, GLENN, GLENN, they sing. They’re in the bathroom with him as he shaves, on the bus during his morning commute, and on the elevator in his office building, helping him get charged for his day in middle management, and fueling dreams where “One day he just might becoooooome….supervisor.” But then the commute ends, and the band’s job is done. They look dejected, until another person walks by, drinking a Starbucks canned espresso. They brighten, and set out in pursuit. “ROY! ROY, ROY, ROY, they sing.
Now, say it was you. Say a band followed you around for an hour every day. What would your song be? Let me ask the question in a different way. In baseball, every time a batter takes the plate, they have theme music that plays for a few seconds to get them amped and inspired and ready. And so say it was you, stepping up to the plate. What would your song be?
Hang on to that question for a bit. We’ll come back to it. And don’t worry too much. If you can’t think of anything, I’ve got a suggestion for you. But more on that in a few minutes.
For now, let me take you on a brief tour. If you ever pass through Portland, Oregon, or Austin, Texas, or any number of other towns for all I know, you might see bumper stickers and window signs that say the following: “Keep Portland Weird.” “Keep Austin Weird.” Amidst the pressing challenges of gentrification, that slogan is a way of reminding everyone that what makes those cities remarkable is not how similar they are to everywhere else. What makes them remarkable is how different those cities feel. They fairly pulse with creativity, filled with everyone from artisans to urban farmers, from intellectuals to young entrepreneurs. But even as that energy attracts all sorts of new residents and businesses, it also brings with it that which would homogenize those towns and populations, rendering them somehow more sterile. I take it that something like that happened in Manhattan in the 90’s. Something like that happened in San Francisco in the 2000’s. It’s happening in other places too. It’s not that those cities become terrible places. They just become a little less risky, a little less edgy, a tad more one dimensional. Thus the plea: keep Austin weird! Keep Portland weird.
One of our members told me about a seminar she attended recently that used that slogan to admonish churches, and those who show up there, not to lose their distinctive character and flavor. Just as some residents of Portland or Austin wish to resist the creative flattening of their cities, this speaker was admonishing churches to claim and celebrate what makes them distinctive, interesting, pugnacious, and dynamic. Annie Dillard writes that church too often becomes a sort of garden tour of the Absolute. She writes about how if we really took seriously some of the claims that are made on Sunday mornings, we’d need to wear crash helmets, because God only knows what sorts of challenges we’d be taking on. Finding the courage to speak the word “God,” or learning the stories of Jesus, or hearing about the prophets, or discovering the stories of the earliest disciples, is to encounter something like a holy madness, a divine folly that defies social convention and good sense alike. The life and ministry of Jesus was an attempt to lure and seduce us with a mad vision of the world. They’ve become stories that wish to crack something open within our souls, stories that wish to chase us out of the doldrums of respectable conformity to the mores of the day. The Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul were both seized by that vision. You are to be a peculiar people, one writes. Do not be conformed to the ways of this world, the other says. Let me paraphrase a little: if you take all these stories about Jesus seriously, you’re going to wind up being a little strange, a little weird, a little funky. Don’t dodge that. Accept it with enthusiasm. Keep this thing we call church peculiar, weird, funky.
Now I know what some of you are thinking. Some of you are skeptical, because churches are, as often as not, places that wind up being the opposite of weird. For younger people especially, church is a tool that the decent and the upright use to press you into a less interesting mold. And young people are often right about that. Churches have functioned as the places people go to banish their deepest selves – the questions that haunt us, the desires that would undo us, the passion or creativity that stirs within us. As often as not, churches become the places we go to receive stability and comfort, the institutional equivalent of grilled cheese and tomato soup on winter’s night, which, I hasten to add, I do sort of love. We need comfort, and we all love grilled cheese, but my God, we need so much more than that if we’re going to be worthy of this thing called faith. We need to be those who are peculiar. We need to resist being pressed into a narrow mold. We need to keep the churches weird, places not of bland conformity but places of outrageous and provocative and I hope deeply ethical forms of life. And so, consider this license to get a tattoo or a piercing this week, for the sake of your souls. Go ahead. Consider this license to dye your hair a fuschia or magenta color. Consider this license to free your inner weirdness, because I do think it’s a sin to stifle those parts of ourselves.
But these days, it’s a different sort of weirdness that interests me most. It’s what we can call the ethics of maladjustment. In reading through some of Martin Luther King’s writings recently, I came across a passage in which he speaks of the need not to become adjusted to reality, not to become adjusted or conformed to various social conditions, but to declare ourselves maladjusted in relation to those conditions – discrimination and segregation, physical violence and tragic militarism. Those are realities to which no person of faith and conscience should ever be adjusted, King argues. He then names a small cadre of the maladjusted whose company he wishes to keep – Amos, Jesus, Lincoln, even Thomas Jefferson, who, in an era grossly adjusted to slavery, wrote immortal words about “all humans being created equal.” We need the courage of maladjustment, King writes. And he implores his readers to be so maladjusted that they’re willing to risk themselves for the sake of the reality that Amos, and Jesus, and even King himself pointed toward: the sanctity of the world, the equitable distribution of resources and the dignity and worth of every human being. In a culture where those values are maligned, we need the courage to risk an ethic of maladjustment. We need the freedom to be weird.
The world has changed since King wrote those words in the late 1950’s. The world is both depressingly similar to the one King described, but it’s also more dizzying. And so we may need to summon other kinds of weird just about now. We may need to summon other forms of maladjustment. Just last night, we had a celebration of our immigrant roots here at the church, a celebration meant to remind us all of our common ancestry as pilgrims and wayfarers. But that event was necessary only because of a new reality to which we’re being asked to adjust, where human beings without documentation are being driven or intimidated out of our country. To such a reality, we must become maladjusted. There’s a new reality to which we’re being asked to adjust, where those who don’t belong to a state are declared illegal, becoming those resembling the ghosts or shades of Hades, forgotten, left over, and without material form. No human being should be declared illegal. To that reality, we must become maladjusted. We’re being asked to adjust to a reality in which children and young people without documentation are at risk of being forcibly removed from the country, and where Haitians, after relocating here and rebuilding their lives here after the earthquake are at risk of being sent away. To that new reality, we must remain maladjusted. We’re now being asked to adjust to a new reality where refugees proliferate around the world, a reality to which no one should have to adjust. But in addition to that, we’re being asked to adjust to a reality in which those refugees are unwelcome within our national borders. We’ve now halved the number of refugees we took previously, which was already pathetically low. To that new reality, and countless others like it, we must remain maladjusted. We must remain a peculiar people. To those new, and yet also depressingly old realities, we must hold on to our distinctive weirdness as people of conscience.
Let me put a finer point on it still. After Charlottesville, there were bold statements from nearly everyone that white supremacy has no place in American life, which is absurd, because we all know that white supremacy is as American as any of the things that Ken Burns gets excited about – baseball and jazz and national parks and wars. Even so, it was good to see business leaders and political leaders alike finding some moral clarity about the issue. But let’s be real: it’s easy to get incensed about scary white folks descending on the UVA campus with torches. It’s easy to get incensed about Nazis and Confederate flags, and mobs that beat up and kill black people and their allies. I’m as bothered by those realities as anyone. But the white supremacy that worries me far more is that contained in all of the developments that I named earlier. The white supremacy that worries me is the pronouncement about DACA and the Dreamers, and the possible revocation of the rights of Haitians who fled here after the earthquake, and the so called Muslim ban, and the steady uptick of deportations. The white supremacy that worries me most is the hypocrisy of denouncing the Klan, while shrugging away all the other ways that white supremacy is on the loose right now, in health care debates and voter suppression and the elimination of social services, while saying that it’s just the winds of change that are blowing. That’s the most seductive adjustment we’re being asked to make right now, yielding to the voices that claim we have no social obligations at all, yielding to the cynics who would ask, like the Pharisees, “well, who is my neighbor anyway?” To that cynicism, we would all do well to remain deeply maladjusted.
Now, there may be some among us who are uncomfortable with how I’m framing things right now. There may be some who wish to put on the brakes and come at all of this from a different angle. And I’ll concede that I might be missing this or that nuance. I’ll give you that. But if we’re more worried about this or that inflection or nuance in a sermon than the fact that human beings all around us are being designated illegal, and steadily targeted for humiliation, abuse, detention, surveillance, fines, and deportation, I would argue that we’ve lost our distinctiveness. I would argue that we’ve become all too adjusted. Maybe it’s time to risk maladjustment. Maybe it’s time to quit worrying about propriety and appropriateness in churches, and to risk the project of making, or keeping, church weird. If all this legislation being threatened right now actually does go through, we’re going to need to risk making the church very weird indeed, which may well include housing people right here in our facilities if we need to. It wouldn’t surprise me if that’s where we’re headed.
Being maladjusted to the times, keeping church weird – these are, to my mind, very serious issues, involving thoughtful and considered responses. But I also think we need a spirit of joy and of play in the midst of it all, which is what brings me back to my original question: say you had a band following you throughout this particular moment in time, playing your song. Say you were stepping up to the plate, trying to knock one into the bleachers. What would your song be? If you don’t know, I’ve got a recommendation for you.
My recommendation is a song written by Allen Toussaint in the late 1960’s, and recorded by Lee Dorsey in 1969. It’s the song from which I’ve borrowed my sermon title, called “Everything I Do Is Gonh Be Funky (From Now On).” It’s been covered many times throughout the years, but most recently, it appears on a tribute album to Allen Toussaint released by Stanton Moore. We stumbled into a record shop down in New Orleans one Friday night to find Moore’s band performing, and they gave up a blistering version of “Everything I Do.” And I stood there going, yes, if I had a band following me, if I were stepping up to the plate, that’s the song I would want for inspiration. Funk is originally an African term, meaning something like sweat, or body odor, in its original Kongo form. But it soon became a word identified with the integrity of one who worked hard, who worked out, to achieve his or her aims. To encounter one who has funk, in the African sense of that term, is to encounter a person of spirit and exertion, one who gives off a positive energy, one who has a deliberate and powerful vision that cuts against the current. To be funky, in that sense, is to be blessed with the gift of maladjustment.
We need funk in our lives as people of faith. We need to remind ourselves again and again who we are and what we take to be true. We need to be those who do things a little differently. We need to be those who put a little swagger in our walk. We need to carry ourselves into the world with a positive energy that makes others go, “Where’d you find that?” That’s the meaning of funk. The funk is what all people of faith ought to possess in times like these. The funk is what I believe a church following in the paths of Jesus ought to possess all of the time, not just some of the time. Everything I Do Is Gonh Be Funky From Now On, Lee Dorsey sings. Here’s a clip of that beautiful song.
Keep church weird. Make it funky. And may Lee Dorsey’s band follow you around for the rest of the day, and maybe for a long time after that.
 King Jr., Martin Luther, A Testament of Hope (New York: Harper One, 1991), pgs. 14-15.
 See Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit (New York: Vintage Books, 1983). See https://english.stackexchange.com/questions/17228/where-does-funk-and-or-funky-come-from-and-why-the-musical-reference.
Today I wish to talk about baptism, about remembering our baptism. We’ll get to that important ritual in a few minutes, but first, a story about songs and waters, blues and floods, baptism writ large.
As I’ve struggled to process the damage and destruction of Hurricane Harvey, it’s been an old blues song that’s been on constant repeat in my mind all week. It’s by Charley Patton, the greatest of all the Delta blues singers. It’s called “High Water Everywhere, Parts 1 and 2,” recorded in 1929. Patton chronicled the watery destruction caused by the Mississippi flood of 1927, when melting snow and rain caused that river to swell and break its levees. It broke first in Missouri, and then Arkansas. But the worst break was at Mound Landing, 18 miles north of Greenville, Mississippi, a break that flooded much of the Mississippi Delta. By the time it was over, sixteen and a half million acres of land were flooded in seven different states. 162,000 homes were destroyed as well as 41,000 other buildings, and 600,000 people were made homeless. Patton was there, and his song chronicles the sheer menace of the waters. In the first part of the song Patton keeps moving to towns on higher ground, only to find the waters have reached there as well: places like Vicksburg, Greenville, Leland, Rosedale – all flooded, all washed away. By the second part of the song, Patton exhibits a worn resignation as he witnesses the catastrophe. “Lord, the water is rollin,’ got up to my bed,” Charley sings. A little later, at the end of the song, he bears witness to the disaster, stating simply: “I couldn’t see nobody, an’ wasn’ no one to be foun.’” Charley knew a thing or two about liquid apocalypses. More than 70 years later, Bob Dylan recorded a song in tribute to Charley, also called “High Water Everywhere.” Dylan’s song channels Patton’s ghost seventy years later. “Things are breakin’ up out there,” Dylan growls, as if he was planted in 1927 during the Mississippi flood, or in 2005 during Katrina, or in 2017 during Harvey. “It’s High Water Everywhere,” he says.
Charley Patton’s songs have been my accompaniment this week as I’ve scrolled through story after story about Houston. Dylan’s song too has been on constant repeat as I’ve offered prayers for that city and wondered about how or if we might respond. Those songs, and the images circulating through various news outlets have me thinking anew about the meaning of water in Christian and Jewish thought, and whether the symbols of Christian faith, especially baptism, might have a particular resonance and relevance now, in the aftermath of so much destruction. And so let me put forth a thought that’s both provocative and challenging. For all of us who live in the 21st century, water is akin to our unconscious, that which we wish not to think about, that which we wish to banish to the recesses of our imagination, even as, from time to time, water surges forth into our public consciousness during storms or other crises. Water is our ecological unconscious. The more we banish it, the more forcefully it reasserts itself. The time has come to confront the power of water. The time has come to remember the significance of baptism.
Water, we learned this week, was a part of the cultural unconscious of Houston, as swamps, bayous and wetlands were paved over in the name of “development,” to make way for all those malls and parking lots. It was more or less forgotten or ignored, until the sky poured 50 inches of rain onto the city. Water was a part of the cultural unconscious of Flint, Michigan, polluted by industrial runoff until residents of that city started becoming sick. It was an afterthought, until it became a public health catastrophe. But let’s be honest – have you thought about Flint’s water supply lately? Water was a part of the cultural unconscious surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline, all but ignored until the Lakota tribe began raising the alarm about the danger to their water supply. Let’s be honest – have you thought about Standing Rock since the camp was sweeped clean? Water was, and is, a part of the cultural unconscious of New Orleans, until Katrina deluged the city and the levees failed. Let’s be honest – prior to this week, when was the last time you thought about Katrina? Still, there comes a time when water reasserts itself, forcing humanity to contend with its awesome and threatening and contaminating, and yes, also sustaining power. But then the floodwaters recede, rebuilding occurs, and the cultural unconscious takes over once again, until the next storm, the next flood, the next deluge.
This summer, our family experienced flooding on two different occasions in New Orleans, on two different Saturday afternoons. You can see evidence of the first of those on your bulletins this morning. That’s a picture taken from the front door of the house in which we were staying. We had been having lunch at a restaurant across town, and the skies opened up while we ate. It was a pleasant enough meal, but getting to the car afterward was like standing under a garden hose. We piled into our van, drenched, and began driving home, only to find our way blocked by floodwater everywhere we turned. After an hour or so of slow navigation, we got close to our house, only to find it surrounded by thigh deep water. And so we left our car about a block away, took off our shoes, and waded home. Several hours later, after the rain stopped, the pumps beneath the city caught up, and sucked the streets dry. Everyone came out of their houses, picked up the trash, shook their heads, and went on with life. The water was out of sight and out of mind, a piece of the cultural unconscious of the city once again. Until it happened again two weeks later, and we had to wade home all over again. As in each of our personal lives, try as we might, the unruly and unmanageable unconscious will assert itself from time to time. The violence and force of that assertion often depends upon how forcefully the unconscious has been repressed.
I wonder: how long will it be before we face 50 inches of rain here on the Connecticut Shoreline? Irene can shake us for a while, flood our homes, cut off the power, but no sooner do the lights go back on and the shore front building continues. Sandy can deliver a jolt, but then the event recedes and we quit giving water a whole lot of thought. In the years following those storms, we’ve hosted several public conversations about what it all portends, and a handful of folks show up. But how long do we have? You’ve seen the reports about how quickly the Arctic is melting. You’ve seen the reports about the disappearing ice shelves in the Antarctic. How long until we feel the effect of all that extra water here in Connecticut? Dylan said it best: things are breakin up out there. High water’s everywhere.
Water contains the power of life, but these days I’ve come to think that we need reminders of its ambiguity, of its terrible destructive powers in addition to its life giving powers, lest it recede into our unconscious yet again. Troubadours and bluesmen like Dylan and Patton aren’t the only ones who can help. They stand in a long line of seers and visionaries who have both celebrated and lamented the power of water throughout the years. In truth, they stand within a Scriptural tradition that we need to recall right now.
I’ve often reminded you of the ambiguity of water in biblical literature. Whenever water appears in the Bible, it is always the symbol not only of life, but of chaos. In the Bible too, water is akin to the unconscious – a potent force that it is all too easy to ignore, but that must be confronted if healing and wholeness are to occur, if life itself is to continue. In the Bible, the waters must always be confronted, not ignored, which is what the ritual of baptism means. We can think of God shaping the chaotic waters into something with form in the early verses of Genesis, one of the first acts of creation. We can think of Noah, the sole human being who is willing to confront the challenges of water in the early chapters of Genesis, thereafter saving himself and the animal species that he could. When the Hebrew slaves flee Egypt, they pass through the Red Sea, symbolizing the chaos of their captivity, while their pursuers eventually drown within that chaos. The Hebrews must walk through the waters if they are to achieve their freedom. When Jonah flees from the call of God, it is into the watery chaos that he is flung, where he undergoes a transformation in the belly of a beast. That pattern is replicated in the New Testament, when Jesus appears before his cousin John to be baptized. He’s pushed into the watery void, where he too experiences a transformation, one that begins his public ministry. Later, it’s Peter who sinks in the water as he undergoes the rigors of becoming a disciple. He sinks and splutters. Later, after the resurrection, when Peter first spots Jesus on the shore of Galilee, he leaps from a boat back into the water. It’s a rich and symbolic moment suggesting immersion into a formless and watery void as somehow necessary if one is to find new life. Again and again throughout the Bible, in addition to being a necessity for living, water is also that which humans would rather forget or ignore. But in story after story, characters within the Bible are asked to confront water as if it were a form of the unconscious, to submerge themselves in the waves and swells. Water is always the occasion of confrontation, contention, struggle, and transformation.
And so what does it all mean? To start, it means that faith isn’t just about being led beside still waters, as Psalm 23 has it. It has to do with getting wet. But more than that, I confess that it’s the images of Peter being immersed in water have come to have another connotation for me this week. As the images of Harvey’s destruction were broadcast, I began to wonder if Peter might be just the figure we need right now. I began to wonder if Peter was the person within our tradition who reminds us of the need to keep water at the forefront of our consciousness, leaping into the water, if you will, rather than remaining safely on shore, where the water can remain far from our conscious thoughts. I began to wonder if people of faith in the 21st century ought to be those who, like Peter, become immersed in water, in the challenges of water, in finding ways to live with and in water, rather than suppressing, forgetting, or ignoring the challenges of water. Like Peter, I wonder if we in the 21st century are called not to ignore the chaos of water, but to throw ourselves into it, metaphorically speaking, lest more and more people be cast into it in a far more literal way. How many people will need to lose their homes and their lives before we confront the challenges posed by water? How many of the poor and vulnerable will lose everything before we realize that this isn’t a problem for those poor folks down South, or on some Pacific Island, but is rather a global issue affecting all of humanity? What I began to wonder was whether this is what it means to remember our baptisms here in the 21st century.
Sitting on one of my shelves is a book of old photographs of river baptisms in the early 20th century, many of them taken at the very time Charley Patton was singing “High Water Everywhere,” at the very time that many people were still contending with the displacement caused by the Mississippi flood. Vast throngs of congregants crowd the banks of various riverways, many standing on bridges or even rafts in order to get a better view of the baptism ritual. In the center of each grainy photo stands a preacher, and with him a solitary individual, waiting to be immersed into the chaos. The paradox of their watery immersion can’t be lost on those individuals, for even as the waters embrace them in this moment of baptism as a source of life, those same waters had the power to sweep them away when the rains came. And yet down they go, into the void, in photograph after photograph. What were all those people gathered at those old American rivers doing when they descended into the watery void?
In part at least, I think all those gathered around those waters were visiting the source of life and the source of sorrow, all at once. I think they were confronting the terrible ambiguities of water, which somehow mirror the terrible ambiguities of the human heart. I think they were doing so with a tenacity and courage that we might do well to revisit just about now. I believe that all those river folk were somehow coming to terms with water, accruing a kind of wisdom that I suspect many of us have lost. And so in honor of all those old time immersion baptisms, in honor of Peter and the baptism he undergoes in the Sea of Galilee, in honor of Jesus in the River Jordan and Jonah in the Mediterranean, I would have us all remember our baptisms. I would have us remember the blessings and threats of water, rather than letting the waters recede back into our unconscious lives.
But I would have us remember our baptisms in honor of those who are suffering the effects of Hurricane Harvey as we speak. I would have us remember our baptisms in honor of those who suffered, and continue to suffer, the effects of Hurricane Katrina, or Sandy, or Matthew. I would have us remember our baptisms as a way of merging our faith tradition with a public consciousness about water that we desperately need right now. I appreciated reading a proposal this week about the need for a Green New Deal, which would create funding and jobs around levees, dams, locks, canals, pumps and drainage systems, as well as other mechanisms for living with water. Meanwhile, draft plans are being submitted for the construction of a border wall between the US and Mexico, a complacently stupid project that will solve nothing and help no one. A Green New Deal is a project that would actually help millions of people. It would be a public way of remembering the lessons of baptism.
But we need to do it too. We also need to remember our baptisms, our encounters with the waters. I don’t have a solution to climate change or encroaching water any more than anyone else. But I do think we have an obligation to remember our baptisms as more than just a private, arcane symbol. In this instance, in this moment, I believe it has to do with keeping issues surrounding water from receding back into the collective unconscious. Maybe that means creating a work team to help restore homes in flood damaged areas sometime this fall. Maybe that means that while we’re in a holding pattern, waiting for another refugee family to arrive, we inquire whether evacuees from East Texas and Louisiana need it during the clean up process – that was a need after Katrina, and it may emerge as a need now as well. We’ll see. And we need to keep learning about the ways rising tides and massive storms will affect the Northeast – including Old Lyme. Is that what it means to remember our baptisms here in the 21st century?
On the popular HBO series Game of Thrones, they’re fond of saying that winter is coming. I think they’ve got it all wrong. I’d prefer to say: Water is coming. As Charley Patton reminded us 90 years ago, as Bob Dylan reminded us 16 years ago, as Katrina reminded us 12 years ago, and as Harvey reminded us just a few days ago… it’s high water everywhere.
This is a call to us all to remember our baptisms.
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