Celtic Soul at the End of a Very Bad Week

hqdefault[At the end of a very bad week, the Wine Before Breakfast community joined with our friends at the Church of the Redeemer for a Eucharist service resonating with the music of Van Morrison. The texts for the evening were Isaiah 65.17-25 and Luke 21.5-19. And the songs we played were “Stranded,” “Call me Up in Dreamland,” “The Healing Game,” “Why Must I always explain,” “If I Ever Needed Someone,” “Cry for Home,” “Till we get the Healing Done” and “Tupelo Honey.” We added in “Brown Eyed Girl” as a bonus and a dance tune at the very end of the evening. This is the sermon, and you need to know that the band was playing the tune to “Moondance” after the gospel reading and as a prelude to the sermon.]

So my friends, what do you think?

Is this “a marvellous night for a moondance”?
Is that the meaning of that supermoon that is rising over us tonight?
Is it “a fantabulous night to make romance
neath the cover” of this November sky?

Or does the lunar event tonight suggest something else?

At the end of this particular week,
it might be tempting to interpret tonight’s supermoon
as a “dreadful portent.

Is this one of those ominous “signs from heaven”
that Jesus was at pains to explain in tonight’s gospel reading?

It could go either way, couldn’t it?
It’s been a bad week for us.

And it was the middle of a bad week for Jesus.

Standing on a corner in Jerusalem,
Jesus points at the Temple in all of its architectural wonder
and ostentatious Trump-like beauty,
and says that it is all coming down.

Addressing the very symbolic heart of his culture,
Jesus says that not one stone will be left upon another.

And Jesus knows that socio-economic collapse
and the dissolution of political structures
are always accompanied by mass upheaval.

There will be wars and rumours of war, he says.
There will be talk of mass deportations,
walls of exclusion,
and bombing the hell out of people.

And there will be strongmen who will come
and say, “the time is near,
it is time to make America great;
I will fulfill the promises,
and I am the only one who can do this.”

But do not be led astray, Jesus says.
Do not believe their lies.
Do not follow them.

And then, he pushes it further and tells them that
things will get much, much worse before they get better.

They will “lock you up,”
throw you in detention centres,
and make water-boarding look like child’s play
in their interrogations.

Betrayal will be added to betrayal
and some will die.

Yea, not exactly late night comedy.
Not even the well-reasoned opinion of a pundit.

So, listening in on Jesus in the middle of his bad week,
… at the end of what has been a pretty devastating week for us,
maybe this isn’t such a marvellous night for a moondance.

And then, to make matters worse,
to compound our hurt, anxiety and anger,
with loss, grief and sorrow,
Leonard Cohen has died.

I know our focus tonight is Van Morrison,
but Van wouldn’t mind if we took a moment to pause for Leonard.

Do you remember the chorus in Cohen’s “Democracy”?

Sail on, sail on
O mighty Ship of State
To the Shores of Need
Past the Reefs of Greed
Through the Squalls of Hate
Sail on, sail on, sail on, sail on.

Yes, the State should sail to the shores of need.

Real need.
Like safety for refugees.
Opportunity for the dispossessed.
Ecological healing for generations to come.
Racial justice for the oppressed.
Relief from misogynistic hate.
And the restraint of economic greed.

Sail on, sail on
O mighty ship of State!
To the shores of need,
past the reefs of greed,
through the squalls of hate.

But this week’s election celebrated a life of unrestrained greed
culminating in a campaign that sailed precisely on the squalls of hate,
indeed, that was energized by a storm of hate.

And this is no way to arrive at the shores of need.

Yep, it’s been a tough week.

So that is why we are offering up some Irish comfort food tonight.
Maybe some Celtic soul can provide us a moment of solace.

You see, while only Leonard Cohen can evoke apocalyptic dread
with lines like, “the blizzard of the world has crossed the threshold,”
Van Morrison also knows something of being stranded
at the edge of the world.

Isn’t that kind of the way it feels this week?

I’m stranded at the edge of the world
It’s a world I don’t know
Got nowhere to go
Feels like I’m stranded

Anyone in the room feeling that way tonight?

Somehow stuck between the devil and the deep blue sea.
Stranded on your own little island, eyes open wide.
Deeply disoriented, with no ability to sort it all out,
no way to really discern the times.

Or have you ever felt that you tried and you tried,
but that obstacle was just too wide
and your head hurts and your hands are tied?

Is that how you feel at the end of this disastrous week?
Overwhelmed and powerless?

Like all great artists,
like all great songwriters,
Van Morrison knows frustration,
names the disorientation,
and gives evocative voice to the pain.

This is the pathos of Van Morrison.
And it is in such pathos that hope is born.

Here I am again
Back on the corner again
Back where I belong
Where I’ve always been
Everything the same
It don’t ever change
I’m back on the corner again
In the healing game

You see, while both Jesus and Van Morrison
can get a little testy from time to time …

Always telling people things
they’re too lazy to know.
It can make you crazy,
it can drive you insane.
So tell me why must I always explain …

nonetheless, their hard-nosed pathos is always in the service of hope.

That’s what is so amazing about Van Morrison.
That is what constantly draws so many of us
back to his music again and again.

You see, Van Morrison is in the healing game.
And in the service of healing,
this artist has plumbed the depths of jazz, Celtic soul,
gospel and Mississippi Delta blues.

If Van Morrison is a healer,
then these musical traditions were his medical school.

He has listened to those choirboys sing their songs of soul,
and he’s added his voice to the homeboys singing praise.

Sing it out loud
Sing it in your name
Sing it like you’re proudSing the healing game

And to sing these songs,
to find the resources for healing,
indeed, to enter into pathos and come out with hope,
Van Morrison has walked
down some ancient streets,
he has travelled some ancient roads.

Twice in our Morrison repertoire tonight,
we meet the very same lines.

First, in “The Healing Game” he  sings,

down those ancient streets,
down those ancient roads
where nobody knows
where nobody goes

If we are to be in the healing game,
we need to go where few will go anymore.

We will need to walk down some ancient streets,
perhaps stopping to listen to some old-time street corner prophets
preaching their message of healing.

And then a second time,
in “Till we Get the Healing Done,”
Mr. Morrison beckons us
to walk down those ancient paths.

Down those old ancient streets
Down those old ancient roads
Baby there together we must go
Till we get the healing done

So what happens if we take Van’s advice on this?
What happens if we walk down an ancient road
and listen in on another poet of pathos,
another poet of hope,
another poet who was in the healing game,
another street preacher?

I mean, isn’t that what Isaiah was all about?

Standing in the ruins of old Jerusalem.
Standing, like Jesus after him, on the corner in a failed city,
this ancient poet has a vision.
And it is of nothing less than a new heaven and a new earth.|
Here is a breathtaking and audacious vision of new creation.

In the face of sorrow, the prophet sees joy.
On the streets of anguish, he perceives delight.

But how could this be?
How could new life come out of a culture of death?
How could hope spring forth from cynicism and despair?
How could we even begin to dream of healing in the face of such terrible wounds?

Well, it can only happen,
if justice overrules oppression,
if compassion replaces hate,
and if generosity overcomes greed.

You see, like all great poets and songwriters,
Isaiah trades in imagination.

Like Van Morrison and like our beloved Leonard Cohen,
Isaiah fights his battles with words, with images, with metaphors,
because he seeks to set free captive imaginations.

What we have seen in the last week,
and what Isaiah saw in the ruins of Israel
is the failure of imagination,
the inability to imagine life radically different from the status quo.

And make no mistake,
this is a political and an economic imagination
that we are talking about.

So Isaiah starts to dream.

The ancient prophet paints a picture
that has such deep and powerful resonances in our own world.

In this new city, this city of delight, imagines Isaiah,
the sound of weeping and the cry of distress will be heard no more.

No more will African Americans cry out, “I can’t breath.”
No more will young people cry out, “Don’t shoot me.”
No more will mothers weep for their lost daughters.
No more will the cry of distress be heard from Attawapiskat or La Loche.
No more will the night be pierced by the scream of sexual assault.

And no more will an infant only live a day.
No more infant mortality.

No more will the elderly be disregarded or disrespected.
No more premature death.

They shall build houses and inhabit them.
No more homelessness.
No more expropriation.

They shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit.
No more oppressed labourers in the fields of industrial farming.
No more Mexicans sending strawberries for our tables,
while there is hardly enough rice and beans to feed the children.

No, this is a vision of people enjoying the work of their hands.
This is a community-building vision of full and life-giving employment.

They shall not labour in vain.
No more meaningless wage labour.

And no more will they bear children for calamity.
No more children born into poverty.
No more children born into abuse.
No more children born into a world despoiled by their parents.

And since the prophet is evoking a world that we can scarcely imagine,
he takes full liberty with his metaphors and even imagines a world
in which the wolf and the lamb will feed together.

You see, Isaiah is singing a song of new creation.
This is a song that dares to imagine a world of deep and profound shalom.

They shall not hurt or destroy
on all my holy mountain, sings the prophet.

As impossible as that may well seem for us to imagine.

Van Morrison says that we’ve got to go down those ancient streets,
and walk those ancient roads,
till we get the healing done.

Isn’t this exactly what Isaiah invites us to?
Isn’t Isaiah’s breathtaking vision precisely what healing looks like?

Till you deal with the poison inside.
Till you live in the glory of the One.
Till you look at the mountains every day.
Till its truth and its beauty and its grace.
Till we’re living in the grace of the Lord.
Till we get the healing done.

And Van knows that this healing is all about coming home.
He knows that our deepest disease is our homesickness.
He knows that Isaiah’s remarkable vision,
is nothing less than a cry for home.

And so Van Morrison calls us with a deep pastoral love
to listen, to wait, to hear,
the cry for home.

Only in that cry,
and only in the imagination that such a cry evokes,
will there be healing and hope.

And finally, though it hardly needs saying,
none of this happens without God.

For Van Morrison and for Leonard Cohen,
for Isaiah and for Jesus,
healing is found in God, and nowhere else.

So it isn’t surprising that Isaiah’s revolutionary vision
of socio-economic and political reversals,
his vision of radical and mind-blowing ecological harmony,
his vision of a life beyond distress and oppression,
all comes down to God.

I know, dear friends.
I know that after a week like this,
we might well be asking, where the hell is God in all of this?
You wouldn’t be wrong to think that these are pretty god-forsaken times.

But there is no true revolution without God.
There is no healing without God.
There is no way through this pain without God.

And Van Morrison gets to the heart of it when he sings,

Lord, if I ever needed someone,
I need you.

Someone to hold onto
And keep me from all fear
Someone to be my guiding light
And keep me ever dear

To keep me from my selfishness
To keep me from my sorrow
To lead me on to givingness
So I can see a new tomorrow

There is almost an embarrassing intimacy to this piety.

To call on you when I need you
And I need you very much
To open up my arms to you
To feel your tender touch

But Isaiah would not have been embarrassed by Van’s prayer.
You see, at the heart of his revolutionary oracle,
we hear God say,

“Before they call I will answer,
while they are yet speaking I will hear.”

God is that close.
God is that attentive.
God is in the midst of our crisis.
God is in the fray of our fraying culture.
God is in the house tonight.
God is in bread broken and wine poured.
And tonight, God has an Irish accent.

Brian Walsh
Brian is an activist theologian and the CRC Campus Minister at the University of Toronto. He engages issues of theology and culture, and has written a couple of books you might want to check out. His most recent offering is entitled Kicking at the Darkness: Bruce Cockburn and the Christian Imagination.

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