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“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.” (Ps 19:14)
I recently read a book by the New York Times Classical music critic, Anthony Tommasini. It’s called The Indispensable Composers. They’re indispensable because they changed the music. They studied what had come before them, but then they pushed it in a new and original direction.
I was pretty young, not sure how young. I remember watching a skit from Saturday Night Live. I think I’m remembering this correctly. There were parents who grew up and loved the music of Mozart, and they were furious with their son Beethoven for writing and playing scandalous, decadent music on the piano that just sounded like noise to them.
That skit lingers in the back of my mind after all these years because when I watched it, I didn’t know that there were different kinds of Classical music. I assumed that Classical music was Classical music, that Beethoven was the same as Mozart.
I didn’t realize that parents back in the 18th century could be as upset with their kid’s choice of new music just like parents were when I was young, or as parents who grew up in the 60’s and 70’s could be with their kids who are now listening to rap.
Tommasini is a very well-respected music critic. His job is to report on the quality of the musicians’ work, but he’s also listening for innovations and insight, for new directions.
In his book he shares repeated stories from history of resistance to these kinds of changes. He felt so bad for one critic who trashed the opera La Boheme, the most successful opera in history, that he wrote as one critic sympathizing with another, “I shall refrain from identifying him.”
Tommasini points out how hard it is to recognize the direction, never mind the inevitability, of change when you’re living through it. We’re all living through a period of change right now. With a pivotal election just around the corner, with protests for racial justice in the streets that are leading to violence and murder, with a deadly virus that still kills one thousand Americans a day and which has caused many to worry about their finances, our nation hasn’t felt this vulnerable and divided in ages. And it’s impossible to see into the future and how this will all sort out.
The American Psychological Association reveals in two polls conducted this summer that a staggering 83% of us say that worrying about the future of our country is a big source of personal stress. 83%! This is a time of transition. The normal is changing. And the stress comes from not knowing how it’s going to change, and it’s effecting just about every one of us.
Will change lead to more division and violence or will that possibility lead to a greater appreciation of community?
Do you remember how the Syrian civil war started? It was 2011. The Arab Spring was beginning. There were peaceful protests in a couple of Syrian cities asking for reasonable changes. Assad, instead, sent in troops, and the violence he started spiraled out of control. Today that escalation has led to between 380 and 580 thousand deaths.
I know, or maybe I only hope, that I’m being pessimistic, but what if our country started something that spiraled out of control too?
NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said last week that he wished the league had "listened earlier" to Colin Kaepernick when he began protesting during the National Anthem back in 2016. Now, entire NBA basketball teams and Major League Baseball teams have refused to play because of the racial violence that continues in our country.
I know that a lot of people are terribly upset by the protests in our country, but in this time of transition and change maybe we all need to listen better to each other because I worry about the long-term consequences of making believe that we can use force to make problems disappear.
Roger Goodell said he wished he listened earlier. I worry about events spiraling out of control and then all of us saying we wish we listened earlier. This is why I’m part of the 83%.
But listen to whom? That’s the rub of the whole matter. That’s why the New York Times music critic cut some slack to the contemporary critic who panned La Boheme when it first opened because he knows how hard it is to make a judgment in the moment when everything is changing.
But listen to whom? I’m biased. I don’t only trust in Jesus’ example and gospel as good advice to listen to. I count it as inspired advice to listen to. I think it always applies. And I think today’s reading from the Prophet Ezekiel is also extremely timely.
It is revealed to Ezekiel, “Mortal, I have made [you] a sentinel for the house of Israel.” (33:7) It becomes Ezekiel’s responsibility to share God’s word and warning with the people of God, and if he does not, if he remains silent, then God will judge him complicit.
Church and church people have inherited this role of prophet, of being the people’s sentinel. If we avoid the confrontation and say nothing, then God’s warning to Ezekiel will apply to us. So silence and spectator are not options.
Last Sunday we heard a sermon about the Golden Rule. It is a universal spiritual truth. Treat others as you would like to be treated. Part of that is empathy. I was driving this past Monday and I only caught a snippet of the conversation on the radio so I don’t know who said it, but the speaker said empathy is imagination. A person came up to the speaker, a Black man, and told him, “I can’t imagine what it is to live as a Black person today.” The man’s response was one word, “Try.”
Try to imagine what it must feel like to believe that the entire system is stacked against you. It’s not about an argument whether it’s true or not, it’s about empathy, about accepting that minorities feel this constant discrimination and fear. Try to imagine what that must feel like – every day.
And if we don’t like that feeling, then as followers of Jesus, sentinels in the words of Ezekiel, then we have to speak up and speak out and change the normal. That’s the Golden Rule and it’s Jesus’ advice that’s worth listening to.
The other advice that Jesus consistently shared, even to the point of passively going to the cross, is that we must strive to be a peaceable people. One of the things I am most proud of in our country is a history of political competition that is non-violent.
This is not about the Second Amendment. This is about being a peaceful people. If you come to argue your point by carrying an arsenal, first of all it tells me that your arguments are weak, and second that you are prepared to use violence rather than debate because they are so weak.
If you can envision, somehow, Jesus showing up to a confrontation with the Pharisees, the scribes, the priests, the Romans, holding a spear or a dagger, then you need to re-read the Gospels. If Jesus is completely opposed to violence, then as his sentinels we must speak out against it whether it is used by the Left or the Right. It has no place in our politics, and that’s Jesus’ advice.
We don’t know what the future holds. We are in a time of uncertainty and transition. But now more than ever we need to trust in the eternal advice of Jesus, and we have been entrusted as God’s sentinels to share that advice with the world so that the world can’t say, “We wished we listened earlier.”
That Jesus may help us stand as God’s sentinels and share the gospel message of empathy and peacefulness, for this we pray in His name. Amen.
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