Sunday, March 22, 2015

House of the rising sun

Psalm 51: 1-12; John 12: 20-33 
New Ark United Church of Christ, Newark, DE 
March 22, 2015


               No one really knows where this song comes from. Some say it traveled over from England, the tune bearing a resemblance to an English ballad, Matty Groves. The earliest recording was in 1934 by two Appalachian folk artists as a folk ballad. It’s had multiple incarnations, from The Rising Sun Blues to a French version, Les portes du pénitencier. It’s been recorded by hundreds of artists, including Roy Acuff, Glenn Yarborough, Bob Dylan, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Nina Simone, Andy Griffith, and Dolly Parton. The subject of the song has been variable, sung from either a woman’s or a man’s perspective. Many have tried to interpret the song, to find the actual location of this house, either a brothel or a gambling hall. Others think it is a metaphor for a slave plantation or prison.

           The song finally reached international acclaim when it was rearranged and recorded by the British-invasion group, The Animals, in 1964. It’s about a life gone bad, of the inexorable pull of sin and degradation.

           Sin is not a word we like to use in progressive, liberal Christianity, as well as sinner and salvation. These words conjure images of fevered preachers like John the Baptist of old and dredge up emotions that can damage the human psyche, like shame and guilt. It’s difficult for us 21st century, post-modern middle class Christians to imagine that we sin. We make mistakes, we do things we’re sorry for, we leave tasks undone or do them halfheartedly, we may hurt someone unintentionally. We know we’re imperfect. Sin sounds more like what we hear on the news; Ten Commandment stuff like murder and killing, stealing, a politician caught having an affair or lying about it.

           Sin is anything that separates us from God and each other. And so the psalmist prays for God to remove whatever obstacles are preventing connection, relationship, wholeness with God. Not only that, but the psalmist welcomes God’s reproof, God’s word of challenge, to set us back on a path toward God’s righteousness. The writer of this psalm knew that in order to fully encounter God’s holiness and glory, to be restored to joy that first we must fully encounter our sinfulness. Or as Jesus would put it, a seed must first be buried in the earth and die before it can give new life. As we heard from the gospel of John, if we hold onto life just as it is, we will destroy that life, but if we let it go, reckless in our love, we’ll have real life, forever and eternal.

           Our lives exist just as they are in part because of sinful systems. Poverty, education, our justice system, how we grow our food, energy, the economy, the prison industry, the military industry, the inequality of citizens. Our nation was formed on the self-evident truths of human equality and unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, yet almost 240 years later we still haven’t figured out how everyone can live that way. Sin is both an individual and a collective reality. Some of our sin and suffering is due to our own deeds. Yet also for millennia human beings have suffered due to the domination system we created and live in.


           In their wisdom the biblical writers used imagery and metaphor for sin, such as blindness, paralysis, leprosy, hemorrhaging, exile, wandering, estrangement, a closed heart, and death. This is why when Jesus healed, he also offered forgiveness; why God allowed God’s people to suffer the circumstances of their actions but was always trying to bring God’s people home; why God’s shepherd left the ninety-nine in search of the lost one. God is always offering us the free gift of grace.

          German Lutheran pastor and anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer coined the phrase “cheap grace” as “grace that we bestow upon ourselves”. “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.” For God, grace is freely given. But for us it is costly. Before grace comes remorse and repentance. Grace comes with the call to follow Jesus. Grace compels us to surrender like a seed surrenders to the soil, to die, that something new might grow.

(to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun")
Amazing grace, how sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me
I once was lost but now I’m found
Was blind but now I see.

‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear
And grace my fear relieved
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed.

            Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Church, the Body of Christ, is our house of the rising sun; not one where we find ruin and despair, but one where we can be found when we are lost, regain our insight when we have been blind to our sin. The church is supposed to be the safe place of both confronting our sin and the inexorable pull of grace and unconditional love.

Photo by Amy Myers

           Part of our hubris is thinking that it all rests on our shoulders, what we do or don’t do, say or don’t say; that the choices, actions, or behaviors we engage in make all the difference in the world. That is partly true. But do we also trust that there is a power at work in the world that works not only through us but also through all of creation? Have we not known times of rescue, of being brought through the storm? Acknowledging that God is God and we are not means that we are not in charge, that we are servants, not masters. We are apprentices and disciples, and Jesus is our teacher, our guru, our rabbi, our prophet, our lama.

           The United Church of Christ is not exactly known as a “come to Jesus” kind of church. But that’s exactly what Lent is for. It’s a time to examine our sin and the sin of this world, how we participate in it, and through prayer and scripture, a relationship with Jesus can transform our lives and our life together.


           What if we were transformed, in the words of Walter Brueggemann, “into a community of glad obedience”? Imagine what the Church would look like if we surrendered completely to the grace and love that God offers us. In order for this love to take hold within us as a community, our need for control and security needs to die. Any thought of success or fear of failure as a church has to die. Our worship of the past and our anxiety about the future has to die. Our reluctance to forgive and our unrelenting memories of those who have wronged us have to die. Our need to hold onto life just as it is has to die. In letting go of these things, we surrender to God’s reckless love. We are dead to sin in order that we may love and live abundantly, giving glory to the One who died for the sake of love.

           So, New Ark United Church of Christ, to what do we need to surrender, to obey, to die so that God might bring forth a new thing? What would it look like for God create a clean heart in us? What would it mean for us to renew a right spirit? What does it mean to each of us and in our life together that Jesus died and lived again?

            O God, return to us the joy of your salvation, and let a generous spirit sustain our lives.

Through many a danger, toil, and snare
I have already come
‘Tis grace that brought me safe thus far
And grace will lead me home.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we first begun.

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