A Sermon for Proper 15; Isaiah 5:1-7, Psalm 80:1-2, 8-18, Hebrews 11:29-12:2, Luke 12:49-56
I was all set. Isaiah opens with a love song. Anathea Portier-Young compares its beginning to Song of Song (Portier-Young). So, I was going to Sing you a love Song, well quote a verse, you remember it
I want to sing you a love song
I want to rock you in my arms all night long
I want to get to know you
I want to show you, the peaceful feelin’ of my home (Murry).
Then I was going to follow Isaiah, I mean this morning’s prophecy, by singing a song of betrayal, The lack of justice and righteousness is a betrayal of God’s intent when humanity was formed from the dust of the earth, and drawn from bone and flesh (find cite). And like Isaiah’s song, these verses are songs of deception
Smiling faces sometimes
Pretend to be your friend
Smiling faces show no traces
Of the evil that lurks within …
(Beware) beware of the handshake
That hides the snake …
beware of the pat on the back
It just might hold you back …
They don’t tell the truth
Smiling faces, smiling faces tell lies. (Strong and Whitefield)
And then I was going to expound on how all this compares to what I see as the fundamental shift (forever in the making, literally) that sets the stage for the 17 mass shootings beginning in El Passo through last Thursday, including multiple shootings in Philadelphia and Chicago (Gun Violence Archive). I had nearly 600 words sketched; I was halfway done.
And then Friday, the 42 anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death, while I was running errands, on KASU, I was listening to NPR – Here and Now’s Jeremy Hobson interview Eugene Jarecki about his documentary on Elvis Presley titled, what else, ~ The King (Hobson).
was born in Tupelo … where he was marinated in a poor community of farmers. Particularly, he was marinated in the black community as well, which affected him musically, culturally and socially.
… had been trying to introduce white Americans, to a black sound, which he understood had such extraordinary depth of contribution …. He was struggling and struggling…. And then along came this guy who, [is] this black sound with a white face. Phillips … saw a marketing opportunity, where for Elvis … there was a real genuine musical love and connection.
Jarecki goes on that for Elvis to do
music that came out of a black musical tradition, it was an amazingly courageous and daring thing for a white guy to be doing.
But it’s totally different to then look at the never-ending theft by white America of blackness and of stealing from black people their culture, … as we once [stole] their labor.
For example; Hound Dog was originally recorded by Big Mama Thornton, but never was received well by the white audience, and she never got credit after Elvis covered it (Hobson).
Andrew Lapin’s review notes
The film dwells not on the King’s hits but on all the career decisions he made that seemed to defy common sense, that slowly led to his undoing: enlisting in the military and shipping out to Germany at the height of his popularity; signing a record setting movie contract instead of developing his sound; living out his remaining years in Vegas feeding his pill addiction with another lucrative payroll.
… [L]ured by the drugs of fame and money, Elvis was eaten by the American Dream (Lapin).
Jarecki recounts that
Emmylou Harris [has said] — being a country boy and suddenly exploding into supernova levels of power and success — had never happened to anybody before. He had no role model (Hobson).
And as goes the King, so go his subjects. “If Elvis is your metaphor for America,” in his story we see (Lapin)
the seeds of how America herself has gone wrong, and he’s like the battering ram of all that. He’s at the front of it taking the first incredible wave of seductions and undermining and abuse, from carbohydrates to drugs to consumption to vanity to violence (Hobson).
Like the biblical prophets, Jarecki is always political so the interview with Ashton Kutcher catches us when he says
“he believes his level of fame has eclipsed his talent, and how he shouldn’t by any rights be this much of a sought-after public figure” [making him] just another Elvis (Lapin).
All this comes together with Isaiah in a single snippet of Elvis’ music
Hey, now, hear what I say Oh, wow, you better stay don’t run away I need your love (Presley).
There is an argument that Elvis dies at 42 because at some point in his journey he ceases to get the love he needs that or any other night. He falls prey to the same arrogance that leads people of Judah to unleash such violence upon each other. How, as a people, they pervert the firstfruits of vineyard, a divine blessing to be tithed for the welfare others, calling to mind mutual obligation (Leviticus 18:12) so it becomes wild, and sour, denying themselves, their neighbors, and God of the love they need (Portier-Young). In a world where Judaism, Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, Shintoism and Yoruba all seek to define God in the in vision of their original conversion relationship, where we argue over the divine’s name (Yancy) and everyone is smacking everyone else with the solid truth of our conversion experience (Temple) violence, in mass shooting, in immigration disputes, in corporate greed, revealed in decisions that value profit over human life stories like the 737 Max debacle, ever-increasing drug costs, next to no economic stimulus from a trillion-dollar tax cut, in road rage and in “not in my back yard” prevails.
As long as justice is supplanted by bloodshed, there is the risk the vineyard, we, will be devoured, trampled, transformed into a wasteland overrun by briers and thorns.
As long as righteousness is supplanted by a cry, there is the risk that the vineyard, we, will be dry, devoid of life-giving rain from heaven.
As in prophetic tradition, I also see other stories.
A woman pinched a bottle of ketchup from a Perkins restaurant and shortly later had an accident. So, she replaced the bottle with two, confessing her action, and sharing her story. The restaurant owner posted the story on Facebook, saying she would have never missed the bottle. Heinz got wind of the story and offered to pay for the person’s car repairs. Heinz said the person has gotten in touch with them privately (Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc.).
Walter, a young black man, 1st day, at his job at Bellhop’s, was to help the Lamey’s move. The night before, his car broke down, so he started walking the 20 miles to the client’s house. 14 miles into his journey he is picked up by police officers, who believe his story, that he is walking to work, take him to breakfast, then to a shelter so he can get some rest, and finally to the Lamey’s Walter shared some of his story, including his Marine background, and moving with his mom to Alabama after Katrina. The Lamey’s started a GoFundMe to raise money to help replace his car, which they posted on Facebook. Bellhop’s CEO Luke heard of Walter’s story, drove to meet Walter and as a special thankyou gave Walter his Ford Escort (Hohman).
20 years ago, a stranger gave Mevan and her mother, who were living in a refugee camp near Zwolle, Netherlands, each a bicycle. For Mevan it was far more than a gift of money, it was a gift of self-worth. Recently she retraced her family’s journey from Iraq through Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Russia to Zwolle. She started looking at old men, in an effort to find her benefactor to say thank you. In a last-ditch effort, she posted a 20-year-old picture on twitter with her story and asked for help finding the man. 3000 tweets later his family recognized him and arranged a meeting. She got to see him, and thank him for his generosity to her, her family and another lady he taught Dutch to.
the “most important thing for me is how these small acts of kindness really helped shape me as a person and actually, even when things are very dark or bleak, there are these small acts of kindness that can happen between people and that can mean a lot.” (Da)
there are sour wild grapes, and yes hedges are in shambles, walls are trampled down, the land is overgrown with briers and thorns, a waste.
it is parched for lack of rain (or drowning in it), and yes justice is supplanted by bloodshed, and righteousness is supplanted by cries (Isaiah 5:3, 5-7).
there are divisions beyond reckoning (Luke 12:49).
there are other clouds that witnesses (Hebrews 12:2) to those who know the love song God/Jesus/Spirit sings to all people all the time.
there are the ways in which our voices, by acts, small acts, of righteousness and justice may join a swelling chorus and then who knows the story that will follow, as we follow in as we follow in Jesus holy steps.
Da, Chantal. 24 Years Ago He Gave a Refugee Child Her First Bicycle. 12 8 2019. <newsweek.com/24-years-ago-he-gave-refugee-child-her-first-bicycle-now-shes-finally-found-him-say-thankyou->.
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Hohman, Maura. CEO Gifts His Car to College Student Who Walked 20 Miles. n.d. 16 8 2018. <people.com/human-interest/walter-carr-walks-20-miles-to-work-ceo-gifts-car>.
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Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. New Jersey ketchup thief’s apology note goes viral. 10 8 2019. <wwlp.com/news/viral/new-jersey-ketchup-thiefs-apology-note-goes-viral>.
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Strong, Barrett and Norman Whitefield. lyrics smiling faces sometimes. n.d. Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC. 18 8 2019.
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