Texts: “The Guest House” by Rumi * Mark 14:32-34 (Jesus in Gethsemane)
I’ve been feeling a bit depressed of late. Maybe it is the smoke from the west coast that shrouds Edmonton’s sun. Maybe it is the death on Friday of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a feminist icon and U.S. Supreme Court Justice. Maybe it is the inability of Canada’s governments, along with so many others around the world, to eliminate the new coronavirus after more than six months of trying.
But I also feel a bit sheepish about feeling blue. The Way of Jesus is one of depth and passion; and while there are lot of feelings to be experienced on this Way, depression is not one of them.
This thought reminded me of a conversation I had 15 years ago with the minister of Kingston Road United Church in Toronto. I first stumbled into Kingston Road United in September 2001 following the 9/11 attacks on the United States; and over time, I became friends with the minister, Rivkah Unland. Both of us lived near the shore of Lake Ontario in the Beach neighbourhood of Toronto, and sometimes we talked as we walked along the Boardwalk.
One time in 2005 she told me she was feeling blue; and what came into my mind was a song of Neil Young’s called “My, My, Hey, Hey.” It is from a 1978 album called “Rust Never Sleeps,” and it includes the following lyrics:
“My, my, hey, hey / rock n’ roll is here to stay / It’s better to burn out than to fade away / . . . Out of the blue and into the black / . . . The King is gone but he’s not forgotten / This is the story of a Johnny Rotten / Hey, hey, my, my.”
I wondered if this song could inspire Rivkah to turn her depression into something more productive – to figuratively move out of the blue and into the black.
I also suggested she could turn the song into sermon series. The first could be about how our blue moods mask more powerful emotions like anger, fear, or desire; and how following the Way of Jesus might help us to go deeper.
The line “The King is gone but he’s not forgotten” probably refers to the death in 1977 of Elvis Presley, who was known as the King of Rock and Roll. But for a second sermon, I suggested she could riff on the idea that it might also refer to King Jesus.
The line “this is the story of a Johnny Rotten” refers to an English punk singer, who was at the height of his notoriety in 1978. This could be the basis for another sermon on the rebellious and upsetting nature of Jesus as told in the stories of the Gospel.
The line “it’s better to burn out than to fade away” could be inspiration for a final sermon on leading a life of passion instead of one of safety.
She didn’t adopt this idea. But today, I’ve decided to give it a try.
Jesus expresses many emotions in the gospels: anger when he overturns the tables of money changers in the Temple; joy when he preaches in Galilee; compassion when he feeds the hungry and heals the sick. In today’s short Gospel passage, which is set just before his arrest and execution, Jesus expresses distress and sorrow. The Way of Jesus is powered by big emotions.
The 13th Century Persian poem, “The Guest House” we heard this morning is about welcoming big and difficult emotions. Rumi says they are guides from beyond and that sometimes they clear our hearts for some new delight.
Of course, the anger and fear that lie buried under our blue moods are not only to be welcomed. We also need to treat them with respect and care.
In recent years, social media companies like Facebook and Google have amassed enormous amounts of finely detailed information about our every whim, mood, and instinct. This unprecedented store of personal information has allowed unscrupulous actors to manipulate our anger and fear to thwart social progress.
When millions of people are being manipulated on social media platforms to hate their neighbours on the basis of citizenship, skin colour, or sex, humanity’s ability tackle issues like COVID-19 or climate change is hobbled.
Like Facebook, churches are powered by passion. But the goal of a community of faith is not weaponize these emotions. Instead, we use them to pursue goals of solidarity, equality, and love.
I have been depressed lately because racist leaders seem to be having so much more success in manipulating popular anger and fear than those of us who would rather use our passions to further justice and love.
But the stories of Jesus also remind us that the spiritual life is not about so-called success or failure. It is about the joy of standing up for our values, win or lose. We may not always get the progress we want. We may not always succeed in eliminating an infectious disease or curbing pollution. We may not always see the push for equality going forward.
But our strong emotions remind us that we are still alive, and they alert us to what is most dear to us. The King is gone. But we’ve not forgotten him. He reigns inside our hearts, even inside the Johnny Rotten’s among us. And instead of feeling blue, the Way of Jesus invites us to dive into the deep end and so move into the black and beyond into a new life that shines with all the colours of the rainbow.
I sensed some of this in 1978 when I first heard Neil Young’s song. I remembered it after I had returned to church 15 years ago. And in the challenging year of 2020, I’m am sure the message of his song and of the gospels can still resonate with my heart, and yours, and move us toward passion and joy, come what may.
May it be so. Amen.