(with The Gospel According To... Bruce Springsteen coming up this Sunday night in Fitzroy... another Bruce related article... this is a sermon I preached in Fisherwick Presbyterian Church a few years back. It was based on Revelation 19 and I found Bruce Springsteen and The Beatles appropriate for that particular occassion)
In the morning Bruce Springsteen and his Sessions Band release the CD and DVD of the live concert they played at The Point Theatre in Dublin last November. The Seeger Sessions as they were originally called was a wonderful little accident that has given Springsteen a whole new lease of life, making him an heir to the civil rights folk music that first gave us Bob Dylan in the early sixties. In early 2006 Springsteen released a whole album of songs that had been recorded by Pete Seeger back in the fifties and sixties. When he took it on tour it was for a few limited dates only. I happened to get to see that tour in Dublin in May of 06. So successful was this spectacle of Bruce and near twenty musicians that an extended tour was soon planned.
Now, what has that got to do with the New Testament book of Revelation? Quite a lot really. This is not a man reaching for some tenuous link with what he knows best, trying to trendy up the Scriptures. The remarkable thing about many of the songs that the civil rights movement chose to use to energise the resistance to racial oppression and domination was that they were old hymns, rooted in the spirituals and blues of the slaves of the nineteenth century. In the Seeger Sessions Tour Programme Springsteen describes one of the songs, Mary Don’t You Weep, “one of the most important Negro spirituals, predating the Civil War.” He goes on to say that the Mary could be the Virgin Mary or Mary Magdelene or Mary of Bethany but that is not what the main content of the song is based on. Indeed the song is an Old Testament song where we find the singer standing where Moses stood at the Red Sea and seeing Pharoah’s army getting “drownded.”
“Brothers and sisters don’t you cry
They’ll be good times by and by
Pharoah’s army got drownded
O Mary don’t you weep.!
The title of the album itself is We Shall Overcome and again Springsteen says of this, “the most important political protest song of all time, sung around the world, wherever people fight for justice and equality.” In this song there is a real belief that peace will finally dawn, that those who stand for justice shall overcome, “Well, here in my heart I do believe/That we shall overcome someday.” On the CD and DVD released tomorrow this idea will be embellished by a wonderful version of When the Saints Go Marching In. These are songs of another day; a day when the world will be turned upside down, when peace will come, justice will reign and the oppressor will be vanquished at last.
Are you getting my drift? If John was releasing his Patmos Vision tomorrow he might well call it We Shall Overcome. As people left the Seeger Session concerts there was all kinds of talk that they had been in some kind of Church experience. The power of these hymns become protest songs had the ability to lift people, strengthen them and give them a glimpse of a transcendent vision. And so the songs of Revelation. These are songs sung by a people living under the evil power of a dominant Empire being given a vision without which they would perish but with which they can find hope, restore the preciousness of their humanity and resist the moulding and shaping of the powers of the age.
This also happens to be the week when many of us have celebrated the 40th Anniversary of The Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Revelations has similar wild imagination. Tangerine dreams and marmalade skies in Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds and questions of how many holes it might take to fill the Albert Hall can be compared to men with hair like woman, breastplates of iron the sound of whose wings was like thunder! Charles Manson of course recognised that this could be a description of the Beatles and that their experimental piece Revolution 9 should have been Revelation 9 where this description is given. We should also remember that in the middle of Sgt Peppers, on George Harrison’s Within You, Without You , often called the sermon, he sings “We were talking about the love that’s gone so cold/ And the people who gain the world and lose their soul/ They don’t know/They can’t see/ Are you one of them.” In the dominant culture of the sixties where God was being squeezed out by materialism there were songs resisting.
Anyhow Revelation is the work of a poet whose vision of another day is a resource to strengthen the people of the day it was written in. It can and should be seen as a worship book. Eugene Peterson sees it as such. He writes, “The Bible ends with a flourish: vision and song, doom and deliverance, terror and triumph. The rush of colour and sound, image and energy, leaves us reeling… John… has worship on his mind, is pre-eminently concerned with worship. That is what we find here in what Derek called The hallelujah chorus.
But this is not worship for worship’s sake. I have to confess that I am very dissatisfied with modern worship music. It seems to me to be often worship for worship’s sake. I don’t find the Bible caught in such a self indulgent cul-de-sac. As worship was for the Israelites, as it was for the black slaves on the plantations of the southern states of America, as it was for the civil rights movement, these songs have a function and that function is theological, missiological, spiritual forming and never consumerist. One of the reasons that the Spirituals are able to last for a couple of centuries is that it was a functional song for the people singing it at a time when all other art had been tainted by the Renaissance and become art for art’s sake. So today, consumerism affects the making of art rather than function. Even the worship songs we sang tonight were not written for a Church service but to sell Cds. That has an impact.
Back to the pastoral concerns of the worship writer John of Patmos. John was watching believers being crushed underneath the pressures to conform to the Roman Empire. The writing of his vision was for their survival. Springsteen is singing the songs written for the same reason when racism was dehumanising the African America in a place where they had to use different toilets and parts of the bus. Beatle George was trying to battle against the decadent materialism of the swinging sixties. So what should our modern day Christians be writing against. Where are we being crushed and squeezed? Who is our domineering Empire? It is much easier for the persecuted Church around the world to recognise their oppressor.
Last week at our end of year service in Chaplaincy I read from a brilliant book called Colossians Remixed by Brian Walsh and Sylvia Keesmaat. They write, “Is there an empire in the shadow of which we live? Are there cultural forces that seek to take captive our imaginations? Well, think about it for a moment. The average North American person is confronted everyday by somewhere between five and twelve thousand corporate images, all geared to shaping our consumer imagination. Whether you are running a political campaign for the highest office in the land or selling a peculiar brand of cigarette, it’s all about image! A society directed by the consumerist imperatives of global capitalism is driven by images with a vengeance. And these images – purveyed especially through the quintessential image producing medium television – must change constantly in order to create and sustain an insatiable desire for more consumerist goods and reach the ultimate goal of economic abundance.”
In the Old Testament the believer battled idols. In the New Testament it was Empire. And us? We need to be aware of the idol and Empire that squeezes us into its mould and sucks the imagination from our minds and blood from our souls to dehumanise us as precious creatures of a creator and precious children adopted into the family of the King of kings; the Master who will eventually defeat all the dehumanising as we read here in Revelation 19. Worship songs should always re-humanise us, always give us a realistic view of our world and the transcendent hope we long for.
It was Children’s day here in Fisherwick this morning and we looked at conformity with the children. We quashed the idea of being like everybody else whether it was in the play written by Max Lucado about wooden people with green noses, or in the Fischy Music songs or the Scriptural readings from Matthew 6 and Romans 12. In one of the closing prayers by Thomas Webb I got a window into tonight’s sermon. In his prayer he confessed how hard it is to not conform and asked that God would give them strength to resist. That is exactly what this Hallelujah chorus is. It is here to capture that imagination lost to consumerism. We imagine how it is going to be and so live it right here and now. Was it Ghandi who said, “Be the change you want to see?” Worship that is caught in a Sunday night bubble for its own sake is fake and futile. Worship like we see and hear in Revelation is about strength for Monday morning. It is giving us a glimpse of heaven that will give us the steely intransigence to stride into Monday to bring God’s Kingdom and His will on earth as it is in heaven.
That was the essence of the slaves’ Spirituals. Mary Don’t You Weep, We Shall Overcome and When The Saints Go Marching In were to empower for the fight. They remind us that we are part of a story. The story started at the beginning and a very good place to start. We are reminded by Springsteen that we were part of a story that includes Moses and the defeat of the Empire of the day in Pharoah’s army getting drownded. The story goes on until the Hallelujah chorus will ring out in Revelation 19 time! In between we will gather around a table, remembering another part of the story, that we were redeemed, that the Lamb of God took away the sin of the world, that we are heirs of the father and joint heirs with that lamb. Jesus asked us to re-enact this sacrament for the same reason that John wrote the last book in the Bible; to ready us for the steely intransigence of tomorrow. If it is an act in itself it is fake and futile. If we use it to re-invigorate our imaginations then we will live differently as a result. We are part of a story. Let us believe. God has freed the slave before. He wants to release us now. And one day we will be free forever! Hallelujah! Amen!