Monday, June 17, 2013

Fathers' Day, Forgiveness. And the power of back up singers...


Church is quiet when I arrive. In the darkened sanctuary I hear music. Is it Stephen? No, Jeremy’s father practicing for his appearance later this afternoon in the Sanctuary service. It’s good to hear him. 

I do the set up by myself. Anna and puppy are first to greet me. Then my friend Mark from our Presbyterian United Nation Ministry( and his wife Tricia, national organizer of the Covenant network,( a committed circle of liberal churches dedicated to expanding the place of lgbtq folk in our church. Currently their most important issue is marriage equality. It’s great to have them here, where the deepest roots of that movement were born.
Our friends Mark and Tricia

It’s father’s day. As we get into the scriptures, the first lesson is Naboth’s vineyard, I Kings 21: 1-10, (11-14) 15-21a. Where the worst king of Israel, Ahab, lusts after poor Naboth’s vineyard and his wife, Jezebel, goads him to take it by setting Naboth up for assassination. I recall tjat one of my favorite sermons was preached by William Sloane Coffin, Jr. who preached this in the context of US intervention in Central America. The US was Ahab, the countries of Central America, Naboth’s vineyard. As a former CIA operative, the prophetic Coffin even understood the targeted assassination part. Sadly, those same dynamics continue today in US foreign policy. With drones and the free right of assassination by a President, even more.

The Gospel reading was from Luke 7:36-8:3, the woman who bathes Jesus’ feet with her tears and hair. In John, she’s Mary Magdalene, here she is unnamed. 

But I start somewhere else. 

Does anyone know the names Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Lisa Fischer, Táta Vega, Judith Hill and Claudia Lennear? John R immediately says they have to do woth music.I ask how he knows and he says, because I know music. 

I talk about the movie i saw with Katherine yesterday, Twenty Feet from Stardom. They were all back up singers. Most all of us here have heard them...they're on most of the big hits of our lifetime.    And they essentially changed the sound of American music.  A sound born in the black churches with the preacher testifying up front and the choir responding. Most of thee singers came right out of the  church choirs.  And they brought that name sensibility to their pop music work. 

Many times they were not even  listed, not even named.  In some cases, if you worked for Phil Spector, who ran a virtual slave plantation operation, you could wind up with someone else's name on your work.

Its also amazing that though several tried, becoming individual stars themselves never seemed to work. The beauty and power of what they did came from the being together. It also involved stepping out, taking risks, being willing to go places they  hadn't been before, and music hasn't been the same since. 

Now bear with me. Our Gospel story seems to be about forgiveness.
Notice Jesus is  eating at the home of a Pharisee. For starters. Someone said you can't confess unless you already know you're forgiven. Who do we have here?  A city woman a sinner, why do we assume her sin was sex? Could it just have easily been  insider trading?
Note it also doesn’t name her Mary Magdalene, although like the story in John wherein Holy Week  Mary Magdalene  does a very similar action, she is named by John. 
So Simon objects. And Jesus says, Simon, I have something to say to you...
Whenever someone says, ...I have something to say to you, you know somethings coming. In response to Jesus’ parable, Simon’s  very reluctant response is prefaced by I suppose....

But here is the key question. Jesus says to her your sins are forgiven. So I have to ask, What exactly does does that mean? We get  all emotional but do we really believe there’s a scorebook that God keeps and we’d be punished  if Jesus didn’t erase all the bad marks? Do we really believe that?

There are many explorations of the complexity of forgiveness. From Simon Wiesenthal’s classic, The Sunflower, where he poses a question and has a widely diverse variety of religious thinkers respond. ( to Helen Whitney’s in  depth exploration in her film for PBS. (Which we showed and discussed at West-Park with Helen herself.) (

I recall that in the Jewish tradition, you can't forgive what wasn't done to you, eg, I can’t forgive a Nazi war criminal for the holocaust or my friend Col. Dale for bombing Serbia. (Not that they are the same.)

I think what it is about is  forgiving ourselves. That's the hardest part. It is always  so much easier to forgive someone else than ourselves. Jesus is allowing her to forgive herself. It’s been said many times around our clergy circle, forgiveness is giving up for all time the hope of a different past.
It is the letting go.When we forgive others, it is not reconciliation, It has not restored relationship nor  does it say it’s ok. It only says I let this go, I will not let this that happened to me define  my life or control my life. I will reclaim my life. Likewise, Forgiving yourself allows you to move on. 

At the very  end we get Mary Magdalene  ( who had seven demons-- what was that? How I wish Luke had written that story...), the wife of Herod's steward Chuza, Susannah,  and many others....

They are if you wish, the back up singers....the disciples are upfront in the spotlight, but it is these women, named sand unnamed that  keep the narrative moving forward, and in this there is a metaphor for is we background singers, if we stick together, work out our harmony, our parts, who can make the change happen...

As the sermon, ends, I ask everyone to remember one good story about their fathers. There are stories of baseball, and fishing. Deacon James has a good story about fishing and how eels scared him. Nirka a beautiful story about late nit Cuban sandwiches.( I can almost taste them. )Amberley a story of a birth father and a stepfather.  I remember my father, who turned to teaching because that was his passion. Who said If you follow your heart the money will follow. While my mother shook her head. And as I did with mothers, I ask everyone to name whee theirs  were from. Massachusetts, Ohio, Toronto,Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Canton, China; Somerset, Pennsylvania; Managua and Granada and Leon, Nicaragua; Long Island and Jamaica.......all these places, all these fathers present with us now...

The Fathers' Day Hat
I share my hat. I'm a man of many hats. But this one is specail. Though it's beaten up and worn, it's not only the last hat (style) that Roberto Clemente wore. it wa a Father's day present back when my fmuly was young and we all lived in Pittsburgh.

Late in the service, Stephen arrives. He’s been asleep. After we close, we review the minutes of last week’s congregational meeting. Especially the resolution. 

All day long I’m having a back and forth with Gary on the steps. He comes. he goes. It worries me.

Stephen has work to do in the office. i come back for the latest in Sanctuary NYC’s Hear it Out play series. This time a new play by virtual renaissance man, musician. musical theatre writer, director, filmmaker Rod Gailes, Rubin +Booker T  LIVE at the Hard Rock. A story set in the wake of 9/11 but about fatherhood, ambition, male bonding and self-discovery.Still needs work, but powerful writing.  Once again, our walls have been blessed. 

I’m haunted by how hard it is to forgive yourself. 

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