Saturday, March 8, 2014

Meet Me Out in the Street: Bruce Springsteen Lenten Un-Quiet Day

St. Mark's Church in East Longmeadow
I am grateful today to be part of a Lenten Un-Quiet Day with my boss, the Rt. Rev. Doug Fisher and the Rev. Laura Everett, Executive Director of the Mass Council of Churches focused on the theology of The Boss, Bruce Springsteen: Prophet of Hope. Grateful also to the people of St. Mark's Church in East Longmeadow for hosting us. Below is a manuscript for the sermon I preached at the concluding Eucharist.

Over the past year or so that I’ve been hanging around Bishop Fisher I’ve noticed that he often begins sermons by saying:  “for the next ten minutes we’ll be thinking together about this or that.” It’s nice to let people know how long they are going to have to listen. Our bishop was initially formed in the Roman Catholic tradition and as you have probably realized by now, is a native New Yorker who talks pretty fast. He is a master of the ten-minute homily. But he is not standing here right now, is he? I was formed more by the Wesley boys and I most definitely did not grow up in New York City. I can barely clear my throat in ten minutes. So, for the next fifteen or sixteen minutes …

…well, what exactly? This slot in today’s agenda is a bit different from what Doug and Laura did so well this morning. What exactly is it we have been doing here today and what is it that we should be doing now? Worshiping Bruce? No; we are all clear where our true allegiance lies this Lenten season and beyond it to the empty tomb. Doug likes to refer to “the Prophet Bruce” and he’s right. I’ve never once heard him say, “The Messiah, Bruce.”  That job is most definitely taken. So this sermon, like all preaching, should point us to the living God who is revealed in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

But the prophetic task, whether we are talking about Jeremiah or John the Baptist or Dorothy Day, is to point God’s people to this living God and to help us to imagine what is possible here on earth as it is in heaven. The prophets help us to dream with God. As Walter Brueggemann has reminded us, the prophets are more poets than social activists and they do what all poets do: they help us to see with eyes that see and to hear with ears that hear. Or as Abraham Joshua Heschel once put it, they “hold God and [humankind] in one thought at one time, at all times…whose greatest passion is compassion, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.” Bruce is a prophet of hope in precisely this sense, whose greatest strength is love and defiance of despair.

We have become too used to a world where “the poets down here don’t write nothin’ at all, they just stand back and let it all be.” The true prophet calls us out to the streets, to listen for a Word on the street and to pay attention with compassion and love to what is unfolding right now in the neighborhood. My personal hope for today was that it might stir our collective imagination and that this music might touch our souls and inspire high hopes in us—because I think when that happens we have a better shot at entering into a holy Lent. If we leave here today feeling more committed to doing the work that God has given us to do, then this day will have been more than just a lot of fun. Some music narcoticizes us. It is an escape from reality. But Bruce wakes us up and points us to the streets.

So that is the reason for the gradual song which may initially seem like an odd choice. Even within the extensive Bruce canon I could have gone for something far more overtly spiritual, even if not religious. But part of what I think does make Bruce a prophet is not only that his lyrics are very often steeped in the religious language and images of his Roman Catholic upbringing, but that his language and syntax come from the streets of Jersey. So we heard these words:

When I'm out in the street
I walk the way I wanna walk
When I'm out in the street
I talk the way I wanna talk
Baby, out in the street I don't feel sad or blue
Baby, out in the street I'll be waiting for you

When you think about it, Jesus spent a lot of time himself in the streets of Palestine – way more than he spent inside of the Temple. In fact usually when he was in the synagogue or Temple he was getting into trouble with those who wanted to insist on liturgical and theological correctness—that he talk the way they wanted him to talk and walk the way they felt a religious person should walk. Out in the street, Jesus walked the way he wanted to walk, and talked the way he wanted to talk—with authority—about the Reign of God breaking into this world.

An "icon" for the day
There is another, more personal reason for this choice of gradual. This song is from the album, “The River,” which was released in October 1980, the fall of my senior year in high school. I had known of Bruce and listened to some before, but it was through that album that I fell in love with his music, and then worked backwards and forward ever since.  Springsteen’s vision spoke to me then and now about my own hopes and dreams. At some deep level the kind of music that really touches our souls brands us and marks us in those late teen-age years, at least it was that way for me. Ah, I hope when I get older I don’t sit around talkin’ about glory days—but I probably will.

Paired with the readings for this past Wednesday, where our Lenten journey began, I started paying attention to the different places in Bruce’s music where he invites us into the streets. With the eyes of a poet, Springsteen helps us to see again and again that there are operas out on the turnpike and ballets being fought in alleys every day. And that "incident" over on 57th Street. Hiding on the backstreets, racing in the streets, we find our neighbor, the one we have been commanded to love. 

Some of you who may not even be huge Bruce fans may remember the film, “Philadelphia,” starring Tom Hanks, about a lawyer who is fired because he has AIDs. Springsteen wrote a song for that film, you may recall, which includes these words: 

I was bruised and battered, I couldn’t tell what I felt
I was unrecognizable to myself
I saw my reflection in a window, I didn’t know my own face.
Oh brother, are you going to leave me wastin’ away
On the streets of Philadelphia?

What a haunting Lenten question! And it compels us to ask: sister/brother, who are we leaving, wasting away, on the streets of Springfield and Pittsfield and Worcester and Fitchburg and Webster? And what are we going to do about that in these next forty days and beyond?

Like all poets, Springsteen pays attention. And then he invites us to pay attention, too. Perhaps no song is more haunting than his homily on the shooting death of a 23-year-old immigrant on February 4, 1999. Forty-one shots were fired outside of Amadou Diallo’s apartment by plain-clothed officers from the New York City Police Department. As you may recall, all four officers were acquitted.

          41 shots, Lena gets her son ready for school
          She says, “On these streets, Charles
          You’ve got to understand the rules
          If an officer stops you, promise me you’ll always be polite
          And that you’ll never, ever run away.
          Promise Mama you’ll keep your hands in sight.”
          Is it a gun, is it a knife?
          Is it a wallet? This is your life.
          It ain’t no secret
          No secret my friend
          You can get killed just for living in your American skin.41 shots…

Bruce started playing that song again after the shooting death of Trayvon Martin. But sadly there are too many occasions to play it, too many people killed in their American skin. What do we do with that? Springsteen claims that “we are baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood.”  I think that is a call to recognize the distance between the American reality on our streets and the American dream. 41 shots. 41 shots. The repetition invites us to repentance. We are changed—or at least we are invited to change—simply in hearing such a song.

Today’s readings from Holy Scripture are a repeat from this past Ash Wednesday.  Many of you have heard and even preached on these texts within the past 72 hours. But in this time and this place, on this day, notice with new eyes how they really do compel us to take to the streets. The poet we call “Second Isaiah” refuses to stand back and let it all be, inviting us to imagine streets to live in—not in some distant heaven but in Jerusalem and Philadelphia and New York City and Springfield.  

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in.

Today’s gospel reading reminds us what happens when religious people take to the streets as posers rather than repairers of the breach, as people with hollow words but no actions to back those words up, as people who are holier than thou. The world does not need a Church this Lent or any time of the year to be sent out into the world to be more pious, so that we can be seen giving alms in the streets and praying on the street corners. The world needs us to be neighbors. As Pope Francis put it this past November, the Church must be reformed to create a more missionary and merciful church that gets its hands dirty as it seeks out the poor and oppressed.

Bishop Doug Fisher, The Rev. Laura Everett, and Me
As these forty days of Lent unfold, notice that after Jesus returns from the desert the gospel readings will include Nicodemus coming to Jesus at night, and the encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well, and the man blind from birth who is given his sight, and Lazarus coming forth from the tomb and that great encounter between Jesus and those two grieving sisters. It’s all in the Bible and yet it’s not hard to imagine this material in the hands of Bruce Springsteen: they are all about authentic human encounters that reveal something of the holy God, not in some ethereal or spiritual way but in the midst of gritty, real lives. Do you remember what Martha says to Jesus when he finally arrives to pay his respects to her brother, Lazarus? Amid the stench of a rotting corpse she says: “You know Jesus if you’d come earlier my brother wouldn’t have died…” The pathos in that statement is so palpable. But we tend to sanitize it in church; like Edith Bunker we’ve been taught to stifle it, and to avoid such raw emotion. But that is false piety, not authentic faith.

Lent is an invitation to return to God with all our hearts. In a few moments we’ll gather at the table where all are welcome—as we truly are: spare parts and broken hearts. So ultimately I think the purpose of an Un-Quiet Day is the same as that of a traditional Quiet Day: it is an invitation to the observance of a holy Lent “by self-examination and repentance, by prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.” (BCP 265)  We might add that a little Springsteen can’t hurt either.

In her new book, City of God: Faith in the Streets, Sara Miles writes about finding God in the Mission District of San Francisco. 
...this was my neighborhood. And it was God’s. How had I managed to not see God for so long, when he’d been sending out signals for twenty years as unsubtly as a popsicle vendor ringing the bells on his pushcart and screeching paleeeeetas every time I ventured outdoors? 
And George MacLeod, who was the Moderator of the Church of Scotland instrumental in restoring the Iona Community: 

I simply argue that the cross be raised again at the center of the market place, as well as the steeple of the church. I am recovering the claim that Jesus was not crucified in a cathedral between two candles, but on a cross between two thieves; on a town garbage heap at a crossroad of politics so cosmopolitan that they had to write his title in Hebrew, Latin and Greek; and at the kind of place where cynics talk smut and thieves curse and soldiers gamble. Because that is where he died, and that is what He died about, and that is where Christ’s men and women ought to be, and that is what church people ought to be about.

Bruce himself couldn’t have said it any better. Meet me out in the street.


  1. Rich. Preach it man! Nice work.

  2. Rich. Great sermon. I'd like to hear you every week! Great being a fellow member of St Wulstan's with you. Harold Lohr

  3. If I fall behind, wait for me ...

    Marianne Swenson