The great Jewish artist Marc Chagall, while immensely talented, would probably have never achieved the fame he would come to enjoy, much less the commissions and sales, if he had remained in Belarus, if he’d even survived Stalin’s purges. Paris called and Chagall answered, not once, but twice, before and after the revolution. It is the City of Light, drawing painters and poets like moths to the flame, a thousand locks weighing down a lovers’ bridge, dissolute genius
Toronto has its own charms, but it is no Paris. There must be dissolute artists in Toronto, but I’ve never heard of them. Nonetheless, in the same way that Paris acted as the incubator for the genius developing in Chagall and countless other artists, musicians, and writers, so Toronto acted as an incubator for an American genius.
After dabbling in his craft in Pittsburgh, he crossed the border, and during three glorious maple leaf years, developed with the CBC important set pieces and an on-screen persona he would bring back to the US in 1966. Even so, it almost fizzled, for funding was unsure until the Sears Roebuck Foundation came to the rescue, leading to national syndication, and the rest, as they say is history, generation after generation raised with visits to the Neighborhood of Make-believe, the realm of King Friday the XIII, kids raised with Daniel Striped Tiger and Ana Platypus, and “Won’t you be my neighbor?”
He was, of course, Fred Rogers, Presbyterian minister, kindly neighbor, a children’s Yoda. And I am glad he is gone.
Not that there is even the slightest whiff of scandal. He appears to have been as squeaky clean in real life as he was on television, a vegetarian for ethical reasons, dying with his wife of over 50 years by his side.
But I’m still glad he is gone, because at the rate accusations of sexual harassment, assault, and worse are coming out, it seems like only a matter of time before his name came up too, and it would break my heart.
The news we have been hearing week after week is important, the naming of names. We must stop predators with power, must make the workplace safe, public spaces safe, cyber-spaces safe. Still, I fear that in our appropriate outrage we may be losing the ability to tell the difference between degrees of behavior, between inappropriate flirting and rape, between misuse of power and violence, though you should be subjected to neither. I fear that we will become numb, just as we have with mass casualty shootings, losing any fire that could result in meaningful change.
But most of all, right now, I am just soul weary.
Who next? Is there any man who can be trusted? Who gets to decide which dirtbag has to go and which one gets to stay? Because the court of public opinion, driven by corporate media, is a kangaroo court. And what other skullduggery are we missing while these stories dominate the headlines.
The Hebrews in late Exile didn’t know who to trust either. This was the group addressed in today’s text, mid-6th century BCE, two centuries after the original Isaiah, son of Amoz. We know nothing about the prophet, often called Second Isaiah, only about the time and the task. It had been almost fifty years since the first group was hauled off to Babylon, an entire generation born in this strange land, never knowing Jerusalem or the magnificent Temple of Solomon.
They thought they understood how things worked, how their relationship with God worked, but then they didn’t. They clearly did not understand. The Davidic monarchy was supposed to be forever, permanent, but then it wasn’t. The prophet was trying to offer hope to the soul weary, to the confused, and was trying to make sense of what was happening, this time in captivity that they thought would be brief, for God would deliver them, but then God didn’t.
The prophet, he or she, and we suspect it might be a she, was weaving a new story, a new way of believing, that included scraps of the old and beloved but incorporated the fabric of actual existence, that accommodated reality, for what good is a system of belief if it is disconnected from real life?
It is a beautiful thing, the art of making meaning, of up-cycling belief, always on the edge, weaving hope and responsibility. Today’s reading makes promises, big promises, divine forgiveness, the greatest promise of all. Going out with joy and coming back with peace sure sounds like a good plan. Sign me up.
It starts with an invitation to the table, one that is at once both spiritual and material, but as we do with Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer, we try to make it only spiritual. It is a revolutionary text, was a revolutionary text them, still is now. The premise is simple: you should be welcomed and able to eat well, to drink deeply, no matter if you are rich or if you are poor.
Who gets a place at the table?
The rich didn’t want the poor at the same table. Hebrew law, Hebrew values, required care for the vulnerable, the widow and the orphan, established a jubilee to release those with debts they could never pay, placed special emphasis on preserving ancestral land, but that didn’t mean they wanted them at the same table.
There was still the stink of that old theology that equated misfortune with sin, so the poor were poor for a reason, the blind were blind because of some sin, lepers were lepers because they deserved disease.
The followers of Jesus, this radical that spent most of his time with lepers, outcasts, the poor, this radical that declared God’s preference for the oppressed, his own followers soon fell into class division. Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth is mainly a corrective, for the rich followers were enjoying the best bread and wine before the poor followers arrived.
But I’m not really that interested in the justice piece today, though we cannot call ourselves followers of the Jewish prophetic tradition or of the Jesus gospel if we ignore it. Right now, I just want to talk about the table. Or the field with the bonfire and the keg. Or the card table with a bowl of peanuts. Because I am soul weary, and I just need a break. I need fellowship. Some of you might need it too. And I need a good laugh.
The country singer Brad Paisley sings of those who are outstanding in their field, a play on words, for it is all about a Friday night kegger in a field, a place where you don’t have to worry about using the wrong fork. He sings:
We ain’t nothin’ special, we ain’t no big deal
But if you wanna throw a party
in the middle of nowhere
We’re outstanding in our field.
Come to the table. Come to the bonfire. For you shall go out in joy, and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Or maybe the satellite radio in Billy’s truck will burst into song and we’ll be clapping our hands. That’s alright too.
It is okay to be a little soul weary. It is okay to need a little laughter, a little song, simple pleasures and no pressure. It is okay to be outstanding in your field. The problems will still be there in the morning. Injustice will still be there in the morning. The agents of Satan will still be grinding down the vulnerable, in the name of Mammon and, sadly, in the name of Jesus, tomorrow just as today. Take a night off. Even the most faithful need some balance.
And I’m not just talking about this over-scheduled season of happiness on demand.
I remember when I was a kid, my mom and dad would have other couples over to play cards. And really, it was just cards.
Unless I’m missing something, there is this huge hole between when your kid ages out of playdates and when you finally retire where social time and fun just don’t seem to fit. And there are no guarantees after retirement, for while I see some of you playing cards, far too many are in their own homes, lonely, or have created tasks and schedules for themselves far more demanding than any they faced in the work-a-day world.
We need more keggers. We need more cards.
Of course, we also need to share the good news that God is love, to spend time in prayer, and to throw a monkey wrench into the gears of oppressions, a big darned monkey wrench.
But sometimes, a beer and a game, bean bag toss or a frisbee, time out standing in your field, or somebody’s field. Time around a kitchen table with a deck of cards or one of these cool new games like Exploding Kittens (it is a real thing) or Cards Against Humanity.
We don’t live in the Neighborhood of Make-believe with King Friday and Ana Platypus. Trolley does not mark our transition into safe space, nor do sneakers and a cardigan. But we can create safe space for one another. Without laughter and joy, we become sick, in body, in spirit. Without joy, we cannot do gospel in the world, that crazy Micah vision of justice, love, and humility, much less the whole in-breaking kingdom, reconciliation with God thing.
Sometimes we need to refill the well.
I love the t-shirt that says “Introverts Unite! Separately. In Your Own Home.” But even introverts must be able to find a small safe space with friends.
I’m betting Dungeons and Dragons is having a bit of a comeback after Stranger Things, the Netflix hit that focuses on D&D playing middle-schoolers. Maybe I need to be a dungeon master again. Maybe I need to have fun, not facing a screen, but facing a human. Or better yet, humans.
Come. Eat and drink. Clap and sing and laugh. Tap the keg and light the fire and shuffle the cards. If we are going to survive to do gospel, we need some joy. Peace and joy, not one on-demand season, but even in February.
May we be out standing in our fields, like shepherds keeping watch, belly laughs and love. Come to the waters. Come to the keg. Hear the satellite radio and the angel voices. They are real.