Texts: Genesis 1:1–2:4a + Exodus 14:10-31;15:20-21 + Isaiah 55:1-11 + Daniel 3:1-29 + Romans 6:3-11 + John 20:1-18
It was a Friday in November, 1963 when the nation found out that their president, John F. Kennedy had been killed. News of his assassination spread quickly as televisions in lunchrooms and living rooms flickered on to share minute by minute coverage of the events taking place in Dallas. All across the country people dropped whatever they were doing and waited for any bit of news that might make sense of this shocking tragedy.
Leonard Bernstein, the famous Music Director of the New York Philharmonic, was in meetings that afternoon when the news came to him that Kennedy was dead. The two men were friends, and Bernstein was a frequent guest at the White House. So it was perhaps not unexpected that Bernstein was approached the following day, Saturday, by CBS to create a memorial program that would air the following day, a Sunday. Bernstein accepted and worked quickly to select the music.
The obvious choice would have been a requiem, and many orchestras across the country did just that. Bernstein, however, went a different route. On Sunday, November 24, just days after the president’s assassination, Leonard Bernstein led the New York Philharmonic and the Schola Cantorum of New York in a nationally televised memorial featuring Gustav Mahler’s Resurrection Symphony. Speaking the following evening at a fundraiser for the United Jewish Appeal of Greater New York, Bernstein explained his decision.
“There were those who asked: Why the Resurrection Symphony, with its visionary concept of hope and triumph over worldly pain, instead of a Requiem, or the customary Funeral March […]? Why indeed? We played the Mahler symphony not only in terms of resurrection for the soul of one we love, but also for the resurrection of hope in all of us who mourn him. In spite of our shock, our shame, and our despair at the diminution of [humanity] that follows from this death, we must somehow gather strength for the increase of [humanity], strength to go on striving for those goals he cherished.”
Near the end of his remarks he said this,
“We musicians, like everyone else, are numb with sorrow at this murder, and with rage at the senselessness of the crime. But this sorrow and rage will not inflame us to seek retribution; rather they will inflame our art. Our music will never again be quite the same. This will be our reply to violence: to make music more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.”
This story came back to me after my dad shared David Brooks’s column from yesterday’s edition of the New York Times (04/03/2015) titled, “On Conquering Fear.” In it Brooks reflects on the power of art to rouse us from the apathy and skepticism that are the byproducts of living in a constant state of terror and learned helplessness. He begins by offering a commentary on the story of the Exodus read in Jewish homes on Passover, the ending of which we’ve already heard tonight (Ex. 14:10-31;15:20-21). He writes,
Storytelling becomes central to conquering fear. It’s a way of naming and making sense of fear and imagining different routes out. Storytellers expand the consciousness, waken the sleeping self and give their hearers the words and motifs to use for themselves. Jews tell the story of the Exodus each generation to understand the fears they feel at that moment. Stories create new ways of seeing, which lead to new ways of feeling and thinking.
That is what we’ve been doing here tonight. Telling the old stories of salvation inherited from our Jewish sisters and brothers, stories of God’s hand in history creating us in love, liberating us from oppression, providing abundantly despite our fear of scarcity, accompanying us through the times of trial.
These are the stories the followers of Jesus knew by heart, the stories they’d heard passed down from generation to generation in oral traditions and songs and plays and dances and dramas. These stories were in their blood.
These were the stories that Jesus himself drew on as he gathered women and men around him to dream of a world made new, a world in which the hard lines between empire and colony, master and slave, man and woman, Greek and Jew were softened, blurred, obliterated. Stories that reminded us that in the beginning we were all made in the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26).
These were the stories the disciples would have heard echoing in the miracle of loaves and fishes multiplied until all were fed. “Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat!” (Isa. 55:1)
These were the stories the followers of Jesus might have remembered as he was led away by the Roman guard to be tried by Pontus Pilate. “Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, who has sent his angel and delivered his servants who trusted in him.” (Dan. 3:28)
Then the news came on a Friday that the man they’d loved, and trusted, and followed, was dead. He wasn’t just dead, he’d been killed, and not quietly, not out of sight, but on a cross on a hill, in plain view for everyone to see. The message was clear: be afraid. Do not be fooled by this dreamer. The world as it is is the world as it ought to be. The empire rules and you are its subjects. Obey and live. Rise up and die.
Rome thought that would be the end of it. That the people would mourn, perhaps even riot, but they knew how to deal with that. That’s what crosses were for. What they were not expecting was Gustav Mahler’s second symphony, the Resurrection symphony. They were not expecting the insurrection only artists can lead, the kind that begins with a story and ends with a new creation. Somehow, somewhere, on that Saturday between the cross and the triumph of the empty tomb God, the artist who spoke creation into being with a word, whose image and likeness is imprinted on every soul, moved once again over the waters. The story spread quickly. The cross on which the teacher hung was as empty as the grave in which they laid him. The empire is unmasked! Death, where is your power now?
These are the storied waters by which we baptize, and tonight we celebrate with our brother Ryan who has responded to the call of the Holy Spirit to come and die. To come and die to the numbing death of conformity to a culture of violence. To come and die to the wasting death of complicity with a culture of scarcity. To come and die to the corrupting death of privilege in a culture of supremacy. To come and die to the tragic death of waste in a culture of consumption and degradation. Ryan has heard the call to die to all that is killing us, and to rise with Christ, the firstborn of a new creation. So we celebrate with him, and his family, and his beloved, Rachel, and with the whole church, the rebirth of a new disciple, a new storyteller, a new artist in the commonwealth of God, the anti-empire, the reign that has no end.
Sisters and brothers, there are so many reasons to weep. From the senseless massacre of human lives in Garissa, Kenya to the racialized violence that plagues our streets and swells our prisons. The sources of our grief are always before us, terrorizing us, numbing us into submission to a nightmare passing as reality. What we need is a story, a song, a symphony to rouse us to life. Jesus said to the weeping woman, to Mary whom he loved, “do not hold on to me … but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ Mary went and announced to the disciples, ‘I have seen the Lord.’” (John 20:17) So I say to you: do not hold on to this story, this life-giving work of art, but go and tell anyone who will listen that you have seen the Lord, who is not dead, as they claim, but alive and being born again and again in you and me, in these waters and all who emerge from them.
This will be our reply to the cross: to proclaim the gospel more intensely, more beautifully, more devotedly than ever before.
Credit where it’s due goes to the Leonard Bernstein Office’s website for details shared in this sermon.