September 10th – Steve Jungkeit – with audio
Texts: Romans 12: 1-2;
I Peter 2: 1-10
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.