(Played over the speakers from Don McLean’s version)
A long, long time ago
I can still remember how that music used to make me smile
And I knew if I had my chance.
That I could make those people dance
And maybe they’d be happy for awhile
But February made me shiver
With every paper I’d deliver
Bad news on the doorstep
I couldn’t take one more step
I can’t remember if I cried when I read about his widowed bride
But something touched me deep inside
The day the music died.
(The congregation sings along together)
So bye, bye, Miss American Pie
Drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry
And them good ole’ boys were drinking whiskey and rye
Singing “This’ll be the day that I die.
This’ll be the day that I die.”
In the name of the three that I admire most: The Father, The Son and the Holy Ghost – Amen.
For some of us, that’s not as easy as it sounds.
One of the common strands that binds White America together, is that we are absolutely awful at weeping. I don’t know why that is, but it is. Maybe it’s something handed down from our ancestors … people like my British grandparents. When my uncle Jack’s plane was shot down and he was killed in World War II, they did the British thing. They quietly shut the door of his bedroom and just didn’t speak of it. And Jack’s grave went unvisited until my father made his own solitary trek there 50 years later.
And really, it is a White America phenomenon. Broadly speaking – and of course there are exceptions – this isn’t a malady that effects Black America. I don’t know if that’s because those of us who are black have had so much more to grieve about as a people, so much more raw pain that there doesn’t seem to be much point in holding it back. Or maybe there’s a piece of ancestral legacy, too.
But America’s black roots give us a whole musical tradition of deep pain -- the blues. John Lee Hooker. Elmore James. Bessie Smith. I think that’s where the phrase “they could really wail!” must come from, because that’s what the blues does … it reaches deep into the heart of pain and just lets it pour on out. Wails like a mother after her child. And just like the brightness of Easter has everything to do with the darkness of Good Friday. Gospel music draws its glorious power not from some naïve and Pollyanna hope, but from truly singing the blues, truly walking through that valley of the shadow of death and there finding God is there to comfort.
When John’s Gospel tells us “Jesus wept,” White America gets uncomfortable. So uncomfortable that the largely white scholars who gave us the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible softened the language to “Jesus began to weep.” Like somehow he just started but don’t worry, he didn’t really cry. White America hears “Jesus wept” and gets nervous. That doesn’t sound like a strong leader. That doesn’t sound like something I’d be comfortable doing in front of a big group of people.
Black America hears “Jesus wept” and says, “Yep … that sounds about right to me.”
I think that’s why Don McLean’s American Pie has such a special and lasting place in White America. In many ways, it is White America’s national song of lament.
A lament sung by a people who confuse stoicism and silence with strength.
A lament sung by a people who tend to cry and tremble only when we’re alone and when no one else can see. Who instead just smile and turn away.
American Pie is a lament not so much for Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper and the plane crash that took their lives, but a lament for the death of what seemed like a golden age of simplicity and innocence … at least for those of us who didn’t have to worry about being on the wrong side of the Jim Crow South.
And of course, we as the Episcopal Church have been shaped by that dominant White America culture. I was taught in seminary that funerals are supposed to be services of the resurrection … and that my job as a priest was to put on a white stole and talk about Easter, never mind if we hadn’t given ourselves a chance to really be in Good Friday … I guess that’s something we’re supposed to do somewhere else. At home. By ourselves. In private.
And yet … Jesus wept. Think about that for a second. It’s not that Jesus, of all people, is afraid of death or is somehow robbed of his faith in the face of death. I mean, he’s just finished saying “I am the resurrection and the life.” Saying “Hey, I wrote the book of love and I have faith in God above!” And yet with bad news on the doorstep, he couldn’t take one more step. Something touches him deep inside and he weeps for his friend who has died. He allows himself to be in that place of grief, to sing the blues, deeply, publicly … so much so that even the first reaction of the Jewish authorities who were reaching the crescendo of their persecution of him was to be moved themselves and say, “Wow. See how he loved him!”
John’s Gospel tells us “Jesus wept.” Perhaps the most powerful two words in scripture. But most of my experience of us doing the same thing in the church is when people come up to me and either apologize for their tears
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to cry”
or talk about how grateful they are that they didn’t, like they dodged some terrible bullet.
“Wow. That almost had me in tears there for a second.”
Man, that’s like us saying, "Oh, I'm so sorry something happened here that actually moved me ... that actually put me in touch with my pain in a way that has some integrity. Oh, I'm so sorry that something real happened here. In us. In me."
We’ve gotta get over that!
The story of the raising of Lazarus is a story of great hope, but the hope has its roots not in Jesus’ cry of “Lazarus, come out!” but in the tears he shed as he cried before that tomb. A Jesus who weeps is a Jesus who stands among us and tells us that weeping isn’t a sign of weakness or lack of faith. That weeping is about being deeply human and about being deeply moved by the genuinely hard and even tragic things that happen to all of us in life. About letting something touch us deep inside on those days when it feels like the music has died.
Someone once said that the difference between false faith and true faith is that false faith says, ‘Do not worry; that which you fear will not happen to you,’ and true faith says, ‘Do not fear, that which you fear may well happen to you, but it is nothing to fear.”
A Jesus who weeps tells us that life in Christ is not about a stiff upper lip and fearfully closing the door on those things that seem unbearably painful. On the contrary, life in Christ is about weeping openly and together in our grief, resisting the temptation to lash out at each other from it. Opting instead to carry each other through it. It’s about weeping long and hard and together when we need to, but it is not about weeping forever. Because even as we weep, it’s about trusting in a Christ who even as he weeps with us has the power to call life out of death and unbind what is bound.
Yes, as our funeral liturgy says, we are people of the resurrection. But that cannot happen unless we also embrace being people of the crucifixion. To name that which is dying and which has died. What or who has died for you? What or who is dying in your life right now? We need name those things not just in the silence of our hearts or alone in our room but together. To shed tears not just alone but together and to hold onto each other through the darkest of nights. But then, even as we still weep, to join with Jesus in singing a different end to the song than what the world would have us sing.
To respond when people hear us singing the blues that we actually do have some happy news, and not just smile and turn away. To invite people into this sacred store where we’ve heard the music years before and say yes, the music will still play.
And when in the streets the children scream, the lovers cry and the poets dream, we will proclaim another word has been spoken. That the church bells have not been broken. And that the three that we admire most … the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost … have not caught the last train for the coast, because this music has not died.
And because of that we -- black, white, comfortable with grief, uncomfortable with grief – all of us can weep and not be afraid. We can trust that no matter how dry the levee seems, there will never ever be a day the songs we sing in this place fade away. And we can trust that when the time comes, knowing it is never the end, we can stand with Jesus and sing, not without pain, but without fear and with great hope: “This’ll be the day that I die.”