Dan Thompson and Rev. Josh Pawelek
Part I, Introducing the Grateful Dead
This morning’s service explores spiritual insights in the music of the Grateful Dead. The Grateful Dead was an American Rock and Roll band, formed in San Francisco in 1965. They lasted 30 years, through many changes in culture and taste, until the death of one of their founding members, Jerry Garcia, in 1995. They fused many musical styles including folk, rock, reggae, jazz and bluegrass. They played some 2,350 shows. The remaining members continue to perform to this day, collaborating with a huge array of musicians.
To those of us who loved them, the Grateful Dead spoke to two spiritual yearnings: freedom and community. Freedom to be who you really are, to pursue the things you really like, to step away from the button-down world of business and school and see and experience things in a different light. And in proclaiming that freedom, what emerged was a community—not only of fans and music lovers, but of fellow travelers, searchers, experimenters, counter culturalists, peace-lovers, and out-of-the-box thinkers—people who still share a common bond today, nearly twenty years since Jerry’s death.
The point of this service is not to turn you into a deadhead. But rather to use the Grateful Dead experience—and to identify music in general—as a kind of stepping stone to enlightenment, our May ministry theme here at UUS:E. The Grateful Dead had some unique successes in terms of their longevity, their output, the huge record breaking crowds that attended their shows year after year, the poeticism of their lyrics, the sense of community that grew up around them, and tie dye. We cannot forget tie dye. And so I invite you this morning, as they themselves might invite us, to “come hear Uncle John’s band by the river side. Come on along or go alone, he’s come to take his children home.”
Dan purchased this service at last year’s Goods and Services Auction. Just a reminder: this year’s auction will happen on Saturday the 18th and yes, there are sermons for sale! Today is a little different than the usual bought sermon in that Dan has written quite a lot about spiritual insights he draws from the Grateful Dead’s music and he will be speaking this morning as well.
A few years ago Dan had read a story in the New York Times about two rabbis who offered a weekend retreat in Litchfield County called “The Grateful Dead: Blues for Challah” (which was a play on the title of a Grateful Dead album, “Blues for Allah.” It was a weekend of discussions, sharing, playing music, singing and philosophizing about the connection between the Grateful Dead’s music and Jewish people. And Dan thought, there must be connections between the Dead and Unitarian Universalists. And that’s what this morning is really about.
But before we go further, I want to confess a fear. Unitarian Universalists often profess a strong identification with the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. Because UU ministers marched with Dr. King, because a few UUs lost their lives protesting segregation, the Civil Rights movement is a primary lens through which we view our relationship as a faith community to American history. It is also true that quite a few UUs have a fairly strong identification with (or at least fond memories of) the 1960s counter culture—peace, love and happiness; sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll, Woodstock, bell bottoms, long, beautiful Hair, alternative spirituality, communes, co-ops… and hippies. Though not entirely by their own design, the Grateful Dead was and is the quintessential 1960s counter culture band. In a 1989 Rolling Stone interview, Jerry Garcia said the real part of the 1960s was not the political part or the social part, but the spiritual part. There’s a lot about the counter culture that I like, but my fear is that we 21st century UUs will become overly associated with that culture as in, “oh, they’re a bunch of 60s lefties,” or “a bunch of 60s radicals,” or worse, “a bunch of hippies.” the problem is that in today’s world the hippy identity is not what it used to be. it’s become a stereotype, and quite often a negative one. I’ve never wanted to serve a 21st century congregation with a 1960s reputation. So, a service on the Grateful Dead? Uh-oh! Wear your tie-dye? Yikes!
In the end, I’m not really concerned. In the end, there is something much deeper here than hallucinating hippies frolicking naked in the mud at Woodstock. The Grateful Dead subverted and even shattered many norms and crossed many lines through their music, their lyrics, their do-it-yourself business practices, and their invitation to their fans to be present or, as writer and music producer Steve Silberman says, “to be however you wanted to be, however you felt just at that moment.” Indeed, he goes on, at a Grateful Dead concert “people were freed up to do what they naturally do—to play, to ponder the mysteries at the heart of everyday existence, and to build community with kindred spirits.”
Part II, What A Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Freedom
Grateful Dead concerts—shows—were always unique, never carbon copies. Night after night the band changed the set list and the song arrangements. Time was an elastic concept on a Grateful Dead stage. A song ended only when every possibility embedded in the structure, and set loose by the group’s improvisational empathy on that particular night, was tested and fulfilled. The band would often flow from one song to another without a break, and although sometimes those transitions were entirely too long, they were remarkable transitions—as much a part of the show as the songs themselves. The band would often drop into weird time signatures, 7s and 11s (instead of 3s and 4s) sometimes with members playing each to their own time… Fans rarely heard the same song played the same way twice. Perfection was not the point. Where most other artists try to perfect their stage show and get everything just right and repeatable and synched up with the lights, it was the sense of imperfection, of change, of adaptability that made a Grateful Dead show an expression of freedom.
Of course this was not the unbridled freedom we might associate with musical anarchy. Each band member was an individual creative entity, but creative in relation to every other band member. They trained themselves to listen intently to each other and to feel each other’s energy. And they trained themselves to listen to the audience, to feel the audience’s energy. They played to that energy. They had a saying that the music played the band. For them the entire experience—the audience, the venue, the song selection, the energy—made a whole. Freedom yes, self expression yes, innovation yes, creativity yes, but always responsive and responsible to the whole.
So what you were left with, with a good show, was this feeling of being lifted up, of participating with the show, of anticipating where the show would go, and moreover, experiencing this with the entire audience… because the audience reaction often guided where the band went with its music. And so, yes, you had this organic whole… a unique experience. And that is the experience that people still talk about today…
It seemed natural, easy, free. It seemed to just flow. But it actually took years of practice. It took hard work. At the beginning they practiced almost daily, and sometimes twelve hours or more. The incredible jams that they played, that we deadheads loved, with changing time signatures and keys that seemed to float around on their own didn’t just happen, they took thousands of hours of practice. And this reminds me that anything that seems new or interesting or exciting or simple, often takes many hours of practice to make happen.
It reminds me that to be successful, to gain joy, to spread joy, it is really, really important to do what you love and love what you do. Because it can take years to become really good at something. We might say practice brings freedom. Is that enlightenment? I suspect it is.
I want to address two aspects of freedom that seem to coincide with peoples’ experience of the Grateful Dead. First, freedom within the music. Although Jerry Garcia is often identified as the leader of the band, there was no leader. Bassist Phil Lesh once said that “nine times out of ten if someone tried to take charge … it would just dissolve in their hands.” Guitarist Bob Weir said it is pointless to try to tell each other what to play. Each musician was free to bring their ideas, their energy, their creativity into each song, night after night, such that no performance was ever repeated. Garcia once described the band as a process rather than an event.
It strikes me that this is akin to what we expect our Unitarian Universalist faith to look like. We want each member and friend to bring their full self to the life of the congregation—their energy, their creativity, their passions, their beliefs. If we told each other what to believe—if we asked everyone to confess the same creed—if we expected everybody to think and act alike—it would dissolve in our hands. We wish for each other the freedom to be who we are. But what keeps it together? There must be some limit to our freedom, some boundary. Well, in talking about what kept the Grateful Dead together, philosopher Horace Fairlamb says the band’s unity was not “the spontaneous product of selfless yea-sayers, but more like the opposite. It was the product of strong personalities who shared a vision with enough commitment to make it work.” And what was the essence of that vision? It had something to do with valuing community as much as individual expression. It had something to do with a desire to listen and respond to what others are doing—to revel in the way one’s own ideas can be shaped and positively transformed by what others are doing—to recognize that in a community where acceptance matters more than agreement and diversity matters more than sameness, we have enormous opportunities for growth. Freedom yes, self-expression yes, innovation yes, creativity yes, but always aware of the other, always responsive to the other, always accepting the other, always open to the possibllity of change in oneself, always responsible for the health, well-being and positive growth of the whole.
Second, freedom beyond the music. In working together in spontaneous, creative ways; in the nightly discovery of new musical paths, members of the band and members of the audience would describe an intense, communal, even spiritual experience, the emergence of a group consciousness. Fairbanks cites drummer Bill Kreutzman’s speculation that “there is some great power, be it God or whatever, that enters the Grateful Dead on certain nights , and it has to do with us being open and getting together with the audience.” Garcia, more cautiously, called the experience “some kind of intuitive thing.”
I can vouch. It was Tuesday, September 27, 1994, the first of six shows at the Boston Garden, and my first Grateful Dead show. I was not a deadhead, though my then girlfriend, Stephany, was. We went to see the show. I was skeptical. I was more of a hard rock, alternative rock, heavy metal kinda guy. The Dead? Nah. Not my thing. I promise you I took no drugs that night and I saw very little drug use inside the Boston Garden. I was moderately impressed through most of the show, until they played the song “Standing on the Moon.” Something happened. Some spirit of the music, of the evening, of the crowd swept me up and for a moment I was enveloped. Whatever it was, it was palpable. For a moment I lost myself in the whole. And I’ve heard countless Grateful Dead fans talk about a similar experience.
I don’t for a minute believe this essentially mystical experience they’re describing is unique to Grateful Dead concerts. People report these kinds of experiences in response to all sorts of music, all sorts of art, all sorts of physical activities, all sorts of worship. It’s an experience of ourselves stepping out of ourselves into a larger connection, a feeling of oneness. In our Unitarian Universalist sources we call it the direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder, affirmed in all cultures, which moves us to a renewal of the spirit and an openness to the forces that create and uphold life. Often fleeting, often momentary, it’s an experience of freedom beyond the constraints of our daily lives, our bodies, our culture. It’s refreshing. It’s rejuvenating, even inspiring. This kind of experience is one of the reasons the Grateful Dead were so immensely popular. And I believe this kind of experience is one human beings long for.
Part III, What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been: Community
Philosopher Steven Gimbel writes that the spirit of the Grateful Dead “gave rise to a culture all its own. The traveling carnival that landed in fields, parking lots, and campgrounds across the country several times a year was filled with folks eager to dance over all the conventions that were socially enforced in the white-bread world they sought to leave. Each tour was a living laboratory, an experiment that was one part social engineering and one part chaos theory. There was an ethos to the parking lot, a social code, an economy, and customs all its own. It was a nomadic culture within a culture that attracted those who felt that there must be a different way.”
I certainly agree. For deadheads, the Grateful Dead was much more than a band. It was a reason for gathering together. To unite. It was a shared experience. The people who self-identified as Deadheads sometimes spent summers trailing the band from venue to venue. Some of them set up camps and makeshift markets where they sold trinkets and beads and tie-dyed clothing. They knew not only the lyrics to all of the songs, but the order in which they had been played at the shows they had attended. It became a community of like-minded people who simply wanted to be there for the joy and connectedness it brought them.
I never called myself a Deadhead, at least not until fairly recently. But what did it for me was that I came to realize that if I brought my guitar to a sing along there was probably a handful of Grateful Dead songs that everyone knew and could sing along with and maybe even play along with. And that was the case more than any other group I could pull from. And that finally made me realize that yes, there is that thread of community and as much as I might want to deny it, I am a part of it.
I can vouch. It was spring break, March 1987. I was on tour with the Oberlin College Steel Drum Band in the Washington, DC area. The Grateful Dead were playing four hours away at the Hampton Roads Coliseum in Hampton, VA. We had a day off. We decided to drive to Hampton and set up our drums in the parking lot at the Coliseum.
The first thing I noticed when we arrived is that people were living there—tents, campers, vans everywhere. Lots of laundry drying in the sea breeze. Then I realized we had set up in what appeared to be the middle of an open air bazaar. People were selling jewelry, clothes, food, drugs. I’d always heard about the phenomenon of people following the Dead. Now I was part of it for a day.
We played and played and played. A crowd swarmed around us and danced. It seemed to go on for hours. People came with hand drums and tambourines and joined in. At this point, I can’t remember how long we actually played. I do remember people talking to us once we were done, people wanting to know who we were, where we were from; people thanking us for being there. I remember people wanting to feed us. I could perceive an underground economy in the parking lot, one in which sellers would try to earn a few dollars, but certainly would not balk at bartering or giving away their product for free. There was a sense of flexibility, of many ways to conduct business, of friendliness, of mutual concern, or genuine interest in strangers—a sense of real community. All of it mirrored the way the Grateful Dead conducted their own life as a rock band. I liked it. I was glad I went.
Music can tell us about truth and beauty. It can enlighten us, or just as easily pull us away from enlightenment in the glitz, the glamour, the selling of sex. But the Grateful Dead preferred its audience to seek enlightenment. They said “come join us, be as you are, if you’re weird, that’s ok; if you’re not that’s ok too. We accept you just the way you are, and you accept us just the way we are. Acceptance. I like that. That’s what makes a community.
Rev. Josh: Acceptance. That’s what makes a community. Amen and blessed be.
 Jerry Garcia, Rolling Stone interview, #566, 11/30/89, p. 73.
 Silberman, Steve, “Half Baseball Game, Half Church,” in Gimbel, Steven, ed., The Grateful Dead and Philosophy ( Chicago: Open Court, 2007) p. x-xi.
 Gimbel, The Grateful Dead and Philosophy, p. 19.
 Ibid., p. 19.
 Jerry Garcia, Rolling Stone interview, #566, 11/30/89, p. 73.
 Fairlamb, Horace, “Community at the Edge of Chaos,” in Gimbel, The Grateful Dead and Philosophy, pp. 18-19.
 Gimbel, The Grateful Dead and Philosophy, p. 23.
 Gimbel, Steven, “Some Folks Trust to Reason,” in Gimbel, ed., The Grateful Dead and Philosophy ( Chicago: Open Court, 2007) p. xvii.
Rev. Josh Pawelek
There it was again, that feeling of profound sadness. Tears welling up. Utter disbelief. How can this be real?
There it was again, that feeling of fear. Am I safe to leave my home? Are my children safe? What will I tell them? They love Boston. We visit friends and family there. Mason was born there. I’ll bet we’ve walked up and down Boylston Street at least twenty times in his eleven years of life. His beloved green line runs right beneath the spot where those bombs exploded. Continue reading at HartfordFAVS….
Molly Vigeant, a youth member of our congregation, wrote and performed this poem for our Earth Day service on April 21, 2013. I asked her to write a poem that makes the link between our disconnection from the natural world and the phenomenon of mass violence. Thanks Molly!
The disconnect between life and the living
Longs to be mended
Day after day
That it’s all okay,
A man enters a school,
Not a single fear
But fear radiated
Shook the whole world,
Runners going to the finish line
In the fires,
Runners now running
This hopeless fate
Pain in exchange for pain.
Grief for grief.
If we listen to the wind
And free ourselves,
Maybe then the pain of the world can be lessened.
The people alive and dead,
Have souls here to stay
We are in nature
And nature is in us
This planet is our home,
We need to feel it in our bones
Connect and stop ignoring
When a child is born
We welcome them,
Tell them to be who they are,
Tell them they can be anything they dream of,
We tell them to
breathe in the world,
yet our air is stale
were you ever taught to breathe?
We ignore the nature outside of us
in attempt to nurture the nature within us
But the imbalance
Kills off both,
We don’t realize what we’re doing,
We don’t mean to do it.
We don’t think about it.
We don’t feel it.
This is how we live.
But the disconnect
And the living,
May unearth these planted souls,
Or we may wash away
Without another day
All the things,
We never got to say
And without another day
All the things,
We may never get to say
As I sat down to write my column for the church’s May newsletter, my dad called to tell me about bombs exploding at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Very soon after I learned of a distant relation (my brother’s brother-in-law) who was at the finish line. He escaped unharmed, but his friend was injured. Then I learned that my other brother, who was running the Marathon, is OK. Then my wife sent a Skype video message. She’s traveling with a group of exchange students in Italy, and heard about the bombing from a waiter in a restaurant in Rome. Already my colleague, the Rev. Lynn Ungar, has written a grounded, comforting piece in response to the tragedy. At least for me, her words say exactly what needs to be said in the immediate aftermath of a tragedy like this:
We don’t know, and we can’t imagine. And maybe it isn’t such a bad thing to sit with those two facts. We don’t know. And so it does no good to speculate about foreign terrorists or domestic terrorists or mental illness or right-wing or left-wing conspiracies. We don’t know. Maybe by the time you read this, we will. But for the meantime we just have to live with horrible suffering for no known reason….
However many of these horrible, heart-wrenching events happen, they will only be perpetrated by the most infinitesimal fraction of the population, while the rest of us watch and pray and donate blood and do whatever we can to hold safe not only our children and our friends, but also complete strangers whose suffering we can, alas, imagine. I can’t say whether it’s enough, but it’s how we live in this world.
I was originally going to share a few thoughts on enlightenment in my newsletter column. Enlightenment is our ministry theme for May. I was wondering whether I should address the Buddhist concept of enlightenment or offer a few reminders about the influence of the European Enlightenment on Unitarian Universalism. But not now. After listening to the news; after watching the footage of carnage and chaos on Boylston Street in downtown Boston; after connecting with friends and family who live in Boston; and after explaining once again to my boys that “something bad” happened, that someone set off a bomb in Boston (my boys love Boston), that I wanted them to hear it from me and not someone else, and that we are safe (how many times can I keep assuring them of this before they start to doubt my words?)—after all this I am reminded that whatever degree of enlightenment we’ve attained in our lives, however spiritually advanced we are, there are moments in which, as Rev. Ungar says, “we don’t know, and we can’t imagine.”
This is one of those moments. How to understand it? How to explain it? Yes, there will be answers. The authorities will likely figure out who did this and why. The perpetrators will likely “feel the full weight of justice,” as the President said in his remarks about the bombing. But how can we ever fully understand what goes through the mind of someone or someones intent on wreaking this kind of havoc? How can we ever fully understand what drives someone or someones to carry out this kind of violence? What could have possibly broken them so much that they would feel so driven to break others in this merciless way?
Our hearts go out to the victims and their families.
At the time of the Newtown shooting I counseled our congregation that in the wake of tragedy we are required to do three things: ground ourselves; attend to the suffering, whatever form it takes; and then enter into the work of repairing the world. This same advice applies now. I think it’s the right pastoral advice. But I admit it feels like a lot in the sense that so many people are still working through the trauma of Newtown. “Now we must add the trauma of Boston?” asked one of my parishioners on the phone. ”Yes, I think we must,” I said. “Whether we like it or not, whether we’re ready or not, what choice do we have?”
We may not be ready. But life has taken a tragic turn. My prayer for us is that we may turn with life into this tragedy and respond to it in all the ways it asks us to respond. My prayer is that we may respond to it with all the grace and dignity we can muster.
Rev. Josh Pawelek
“What happens when we recycle bottles and cans?” asks Kathleen Mctigue in her meditation. “They are transformed; they are made into something else. Though it may seem a homely analogy for something as lofty as our souls,” she continues, “that’s exactly what we’re after. In our inconsistent and often clumsy ways, we’re aiming for transformation. Each time we take ourselves in hand and change our direction, ask forgiveness and start anew, we reaffirm our belief that we are redeemable.”
Our April ministry theme is redemption. The spiritual questions I’m introducing into our congregational life this morning are “What redeems you?” and “What redeems us?” I suspect for many of us the answers to these questions do not flow easily off our tongues. There may be some stumbling blocks. Redemption is one of those haunting religious words for Unitarian Universalists. Its history leaves an odd—even unpleasant—taste in our mouth. What is that taste?
Broadly speaking, when the minister suggests that we are somehow in need of redemption, even if we call it something else like change or transformation, there’s always the possibility—the risk—that the congregation will hear it as an allegation that there’s something wrong with us, that we’re somehow broken and need fixing, that we’re fallen and need salvation, that we’re estranged and need reconciliation. This contradicts an oft-stated assumption at the heart of our spirituality, that each of us—all people—possess inherent worth and dignity just as we are; that our spiritual lives are not about becoming someone or something else—better, fixed, perfect, saved—but rather becoming more fully who we already are. As we just sang, “Return to who you are, return to what you are, return to where you are, born and reborn again.” It’s not that we think we’re perfect as we are. We know we’re not. But we are who we are, and if we understand the quest for redemption as an attempt to reach some idealized spiritual standard, it will likely distract us from that central spiritual task of learning to accept and embrace who we are.
That’s one potential stumbling block. We typically encounter another when we consider a particular way (not the only way, but a particular way) Christians (not all Christians, but some) have interpreted and used the suffering and death of Jesus as a model for what it means to live a spiritual life. In short—and please understand I am speaking very generally about a highly nuanced conversation that has been going on for nearly 2000 years—humanity’s sinfulness is so great that there is nothing anyone can do to fully redeem themselves. There is no price any human can pay to bring themselves into right relationship with God. We are stuck where we are. But we aren’t without hope because God has the power to redeem humanity. To exercise this power, God takes a human form, lives a human life, and suffers a violent human death. In so doing, God pays the price for human sinfulness. God’s suffering and death redeem humanity. Some Christians argue that this redemption only works if one professes faith in it. Others, like our Universalist (and some Unitarian) forebears, felt that Jesus’ suffering and death redeem all people regardless of belief.
There’s no doubt in my mind that this understanding of redemption will be a stumbling block for many of us if our goal is to reclaim redemption as a useful spiritual concept. For so many of us, myself included, it’s just unbelievable. And, to be sure, there are many Christians who wrestle with this unbelievability as well. But I want to be very careful not to disparage the beliefs of others. That’s not my intent. While I may find it unbelievable, I also recognize this particular belief has provided immense comfort and inspired incredible strength and resilience to millions upon millions of people throughout history. For people who’ve lived—and who live—under the yoke of social, political and economic injustice, the idea that God would take human form and experience human suffering—the idea that God’s story is the story of a victim succumbing to but then overcoming violence and oppression—has profound resonance. In the midst of suffering, the idea that “God paid the ultimate price for my redemption” is a source of great hope and courage. For those who have nothing else, such faith is everything. It literally saves lives. Far be it from me to argue it is incorrect simply because I don’t believe it.
Having said that, it is also true that this scheme of redemption is at times applied in a way I find highly abusive and I have no misgivings about naming it and confronting it when I encounter it—the same way I would name and confront religiously motivated terrorism, honor killings, sexism or homophobia. It’s the idea that because Jesus suffered on the cross, one’s suffering at the hands of others is somehow warranted, that one’s suffering at the hands of others is itself redemptive because it mirrors Jesus’ suffering. Slaves were at times told to endure their suffering at the hands of their masters because it was Christ-like and they would be rewarded in Heaven. Battered women are at times told to endure their suffering at the hands of their abusers just as Jesus endured his. This is not OK, not a path to redemption. I agree with the cliché that “whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” I understand suffering is part of the human condition. I have witnessed people suffer through disease, grief, even the violence of oppression and emerge from it stronger, wiser, more compassionate, more loving. This is part of the beauty of the human spirit. But I object to the notion that the violence anyone suffers at the hands of others is inherently redemptive and we should just accept it, or that God—and this is the implication—wants some people to suffer at the hands of others because it’s good for their souls. In my view, this is an abuse of Christianity for the purpose of justifying violence whether in the home or on some more grand scale. It is an attempt at misdirection, an attempt to make violence invisible by calling it something else, rather than exposing it for what it is: a diminishing of the human spirit. Or, in more traditional language, evil.
So, there are stumbling blocks in our encounter with redemption. If you’re wary about a sermon entitled “A Life Redeemed,” there are any number of reasons why your wariness makes sense. Nevertheless, I find spiritual potency and power in this word. I believe it can help us think differently about those places where we’re stuck. It can, in Rev. McTigue’s words, help us “loosen the pinching in our hearts and live with more wonder, serenity, kindness and wisdom.” It may can us deepen our spiritual lives. What redeems you? What redeems us?
As I seek to answer these questions for myself, it feels important to name that whether I experience myself as redeemed or not, my gut tells me there are no cosmic consequences. This isn’t about the eternal status of my soul, Heaven and Hell, divine punishment or reward. I have this life to live in this world as best as I can. If I’m going to experience redemption, it’s going to be in this life in this world, not in some other life in some other world. It’s going to be “this-worldly” redemption. As Rev. McTigue says, this “isn’t about saving us, but instead shaping us, and it’s the most certain redemption available in this sweet world.”
I like this idea of shaping as a metaphor for this-worldly redemption. Imagine you’re a sculptor and your life is the sculpture. Each day you mold, form and fashion your sculpture, you shape your life, and in the evening you review your work. Some evenings you like what you’ve created. The sculpture captures exactly what you envision for your life. But even so, you recognize the next day may bring new experiences, new insights, new feelings, and thus the work of shaping continues. Of course, some evenings you review your work and realize you haven’t gotten it right. You’re close, but not quite there. Or you’re way off the mark. The way you’ve lived, the decisions you’ve made, the way you’ve treated others, the way you’ve presented yourself to the world—none of it aligns with your vision for yourself. You want to do better, not because you fear divine punishment, but because you feel in your heart you can do better. So, the next day you start to reshape your sculpture: new angles, new edges, new interplay of light and shadow, a different expression, a different posture. This opportunity to make changes, to try again, to reshape your life, is the path to “this-worldly redemption.” Rev. McTigue says, “Each time we take ourselves in hand and change our direction, ask forgiveness and start anew, we reaffirm our belief that we are redeemable.” Each day we have the opportunity to exchange the life we needed to live yesterday for the life we need to live today.
Do we pay a price for this-worldly redemption? Sometimes. If the shaping of our lives today includes recognizing and acknowledging we were wrong yesterday, admitting we hurt someone yesterday, admitting we had a role to play in the breakdown of a relationship yesterday, then yes, one could argue we pay a price. One could argue that offering a heartfelt apology is the price we pay for forgiveness, and sometimes we don’t experience redemption until we’ve been forgiven. This works for me, nut I’m not convinced “paying a price” is a helpful way to think about this-worldly redemption. It reminds me of European elites in the Middle Ages purchasing indulgences to erase sinful behavior and thereby get into Heaven. It reminds me of wealthy corporations going to court, losing, paying a hefty fine—because they can—and then going back to business as usual. Paying a price doesn’t always guarantee a transformed life. Sometimes paying a price is a way of avoiding the work that redeems us. I prefer to imagine a sculptor shaping and reshaping their work, day in and day out. Not everyone can pay; but certainly we each have some capacity to shape and sculpt our lives.
Let me flip this around for a moment. If we each have this capacity; if we can be redeemed by the work of our own hands, what happens if we don’t pursue it? What happens if days and weeks and years go by and the sculptor hasn’t touched the sculpture, hasn’t even looked at it? You’ve brought nothing new to your work for a long time—no new ideas, no new feelings, no new experiences. You wake up and the last thing you want to do is the work of shaping a life. Your muse isn’t singing. At best you’re going through the motions of a life. You don’t feel creative. You lack desire. You’re stuck. Perhaps we call this depression, perhaps melancholy, sadness, despair, a funk, a rut; maybe it’s boredom. Maybe it’s genuine confusion about your direction in life. Maybe it’s fear you won’t succeed. Maybe it’s that generalized anxiety about the future so many people report these days. Whatever form it takes, this condition is real and common. Sometimes it emerges in response to a genuine crisis in one’s life: the death of a loved-one, the loss of work, the experience of violence or betrayal. Sometimes it emerges in response to the ways life can overwhelm us—too many obligations, too many hours at work, too many details, too many conflicts, too little self-care. Sometimes it’s culturally induced, as in those situations where certain cultural norms—norms for beauty, body-type, success, wealth, happiness, sexuality, family, mental health—seem unattainable. When we can’t reach them we feel diminished, unworthy, imperfect, unsavable and broken, even when we know such norms are arbitrary, unfair, manipulative and often racist, classist, sexist and homophobic.
Again, this experience is real and common. But it’s not destiny. The more I engage in ministry, the more I am convinced we each have a calling. We each have natural gifts. We each have something about which we are passionate—something that lights us up and energizes us, something that makes us come alive. Yes, it is very easy in our culture to grow distant from it. Yes, it is very easy to become alienated from it. But the self that lives in response to a sense of calling, in response to passion—that is our true self. That is the self we encounter in that internal place where our conviction resides, where our voice is strong, where we know our truth. This is who we really are. In those times when we grow distant from this self, it’s as if we’ve actually become someone else—someone we never intended to be. We’ve somehow allowed ourselves to be shaped by forces larger than ourselves into a life we never chose for ourselves. Perhaps we’ve been spiritually kidnapped or hijacked. No matter how we name it, in response to such alienation the work of redemption is the work of returning to our true self, the work of accepting and embracing who we really are, the work of pursuing our calling, the work of exchanging the sculptor who refuses to sculpt for one who welcomes each day as an opportunity to shape a life. In all those moments when we come back to our true self, we experience a life redeemed.
If this begins to answer the question, “What redeems you?”—and I hope it does—I also don’t want to lose the question, “What redeems us?” That is, what redeems us collectively? I raise this question because I believe there is much more to this-worldly redemption than the work of redeeming our individual lives. This is not a new message from this pulpit. We live in proximity to infuriating, entrenched and devastating social and economic injustices. We live in proximity to crushing poverty. We live in proximity to urban and suburban violence, domestic violence, gang violence and, despite Connecticut’s new gun laws, I think it’s fair to say we still live with the potential for mass shootings. We live in a time of war. We live suddenly again this week with the renewed threat of nuclear conflict. We live with the specter of environmental collapse. We live with all those false division between people, divisions of race, class, religion, sexuality, politics and on and on. And we live in the midst of immense suffering—not the kind that occurs naturally and inevitably in the course of human living, but the kind human beings visit upon each other, sometimes with calculated, malicious intent; sometimes simply by refusing to see it, by looking away, by calling it something else. All of this may have longstanding historical roots. All of this may have the shine or the stink of inevitability and intractability. All of this may point to some apparently fatal flaw in human nature. But none of it—none of it!—is right. None of it is acceptable. None of it is destiny. Unless we give up. But friends, giving up runs counter to the human spirit. Those who give up and accept the reality of oppression are either those who’ve been spiritually kidnapped or spiritually hijacked by greed, power or fear; or those who’ve accepted the lie that their suffering will be rewarded in some other life.
What redeems us in us in light of the reality of injustice and oppression are our collective efforts to subvert and transform them. What redeems us are our collective words and deeds that help shape a more just society. What redeems us are our collective attempts to build the beloved community.
Amen and Blessed Be.
Rev. Josh Pawelek
The warm April sun on our backs; the soft, dark smell of soil turned over; warm, fresh rain on pavement; worms, mice, ants, tulips, daffodils; after winter’s gray days, deep snow and cold, bitter wind, all these heralds of spring enter our lives with redemptive purpose. All these heralds of spring invite us to make a change—to exchange our tired, rusty, frost-nipped winter lives for rejuvenated, reborn, green-tipped spring lives. All these heralds of spring invite us to break through the thawing earth and exchange our entombed lives, our closed in lives, our constrained lives for daylight lives, for free, unencumbered, passionate, inspired lives. All these heralds of spring enter our lives with redemptive purpose. Continue reading….
The Rev. Josh Pawelek
“Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?”
I like this song on Easter morning. It reminds us we live in a world where far too many people, for far too many reasons need safe harbor, need of sanctuary, shelter, safety; need caring, love and compassion, comfort and solace, respite and rest. It reminds us we live in a world where far too many people, for far too many reasons, need real help, need choices, opportunity, access, a “seat at the table,” a voice; need freedom, liberation, justice, peace. But the song doesn’t just point to needs. That’s easy enough. It also seeks to inspire in us a certain commitment. It asks everyone—those singing and those listening: will you, will I, will we be people who harbor those in need? Will you, will I, will we be people who take the side of the oppressed, who take the side of the incarcerated, of immigrants without papers, families without homes, workers without work, children in failing schools, women who’ve been battered, victims of violence, people whose land has been stolen, people struggling with addiction, people living with mental illness, people living with HIV/AIDS, and certainly people who still experience the pain of discrimination and second class citizenship because their committed, loving relationships are not recognized in law.
Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you? As much as any of us might want to answer this question with a resounding, “Yes,” it’s not easy. There are always risks. If I take the side of the persecuted, the oppressed, the victims of violence, isn’t it possible the same forces threatening their lives might seek to threaten mine? When the Roman guards were leading Jesus to his execution, when the mob had gathered to jeer at their scapegoat on his way to Golgotha to be crucified, his disciples were nowhere to be found. Just one day earlier Peter had said to Jesus, “I will lay down my life for you.” And yet on the day of the crucifixion—Good Friday—Peter three times denies knowing Jesus. Risks always accompany taking the side of persecuted people. Peter wasn’t willing to take them.
I’m becoming more and more convinced that the whole point of the Easter story is to expose the violence people do to people—to name it, to reveal it, to show how entire communities can resort to it, as if it will somehow solve their problems. Virtually everyone in the story sanctions the murder of Jesus in some way. Only the three women—the three Mary’s—who gather at the foot of the cross are willing to be with Jesus in his suffering.
If I’m correct that the point of the story is to definitively and unwaveringly reveal the reality of violence in human communities, then the story’s message is that violence is wrong, that violence, persecution and oppression redeem nothing. The story asks its hearers and readers to consider the question, which side are you on? Would you harbor me? Would I harbor you?
Jesus is crucified. The next day is the Sabbath, the day of rest. On the third day the women return to the tomb where Jesus has been laid. They discover the stone rolled away, the tomb empty, and with slight variations depending on which version one reads, they hear the news that Jesus has risen from death: the Easter miracle.
I think most of you know that while I view Jesus’ execution as a largely settled historical fact—there are multiple reports of it in the Jewish and Roman historical records—I view the resurrection as metaphor—a potent and multi-layered symbol. For me, the value of this symbol begins with its unmistakable affirmation that the Sacred—however we understand the Sacred—is fundamentally opposed to and will always seek to overcome violence in human communities. In the face of violence, injustice and death, the Sacred affirms life. It encourages us not to succumb to fear as Peter did, but in the very least to sit faithfully by the side of those who are suffering, to call for water to moisten their parched throats; and when the opportunity presents itself to say, “Yes, I do know this person who is being persecuted. This person is visible to me and this persecution is wrong.” It makes available to us sources of love far more powerful than any violence any persecutor can bring to bear.”
The value of this symbol lies in its power to remind us in the deepest places of our being that though violence, persecution, oppression and injustice may at times seem overwhelming, may at times seem to have prevailed; and though the many ways in which we suffer as human beings—physical illness, mental illness, depression, loss, grief, broken dreams, broken relationships, personal failures—may at times seem insurmountable, there is nevertheless a rhythm of life and its beat is powerful; its beat never stops; its beat keeps coming around and around. Days keep dawning. Waves keep crashing. Tides keep pulling. Hearts keep beating. Lungs keep breathing. Love keeps coming. That’s the rhythm and it has the power to help us overcome; to bring us back to our true selves, back to our most authentic selves, back to life.
Even after the longest winters of our lives, spring arrives—that’s the rhythm! Stones roll away. Prophets proclaim good news. Wounds heal. Communities come together, find their purpose, start to organize, build life anew. Birds, once again, sing at the break of day. Buds, once again, appear on branches. Grass, once again, grows high and green. Hope, once again, rises in our hearts. If we can attune ourselves to the rhythm of life, if we can catch its pulse and start to sing, dance, create along with its ancient, powerful, undying beat that began in the heart of that one, tiny seed, then we too can come back to life refreshed, rejuvenated, resurrected, filled with joy, filled with passion, filled with new-found courage to meet our challenges, to bear witness to suffering and violence, to struggle for justice, to pursue our dreams. If we can catch its pulse and start to sing, dance and create along with its ancient beat then we too can rest securely in the knowledge and the faith that our pain and grief will subside in time and that beloved community is possible, a more just society is possible, a healthy planet is possible; that we are justified in being hopeful people and that, in the end, love prevails. Love prevails. Love prevails.
Oh yes: the rhythm of life is an awesome and powerful beat. On this Easter morning, as spring finally arrives all around us, may we feel its pulse. May we start to dance. May we add our joyful noise to its undying song.
Amen and blessed be.
 This refers to Ysaye Maria Barnwell’s Sweet Honey in the Rock piece, “Would You Harbor Me?” See: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i0XBXJjoXJ4. To purchase this song, find the “Sacred Ground” album at http://www.sweethoney.com/discography.php.
 Luke 13:37b.
 Earlier in this service we read Carol Martignacco’s The Everything Seed. For more info see: http://www.amazon.com/The-Everything-Seed-Story-Beginnings/dp/1582461619.