January 31, 2016

An Old-Fashioned Word

Freddie Mercury, the legendary lead singer of the rock band Queen, died of AIDS in 1991. In April 1992, Queen’s surviving members, a host of pop and rock stars, and over seventy thousand fans met up at London’s Wembley Stadium to honor the late musician and to raise money and awareness to fight the disease that killed him. MTV broadcast the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert around the world and I watched the whole thing in my parents’ basement.

The concert had two acts. In the first act, some of the era’s big names in rock music played short sets of their popular songs and covered some of Queen’s hits. Metallica, Guns n’ Roses, and Def Leppard all took the stage. U2 beamed in a ZooTV performance from California. In the second act, Queen took up their instruments and invited their friends to sing Freddie’s part. Elton John and Axl Rose sang “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Robert Plant sang “Crazy Little Thing Called Love,” and Liza Minelli closed the night with “We Are the Champions.” It was a glorious hot mess of music.

In the midst of it all, however, two performances stood out and have stood the test of time. Backed by Queen and a choir, George Michael delivered a soaring version of the song “Somebody to Love.” I remember being transfixed as I watched it. Then, in a performance that’s come back into people’s consciousness because of David Bowie’s death earlier this month, he and Annie Lennox sang my favorite Queen song, “Under Pressure.”

From the song’s iconic opening bass line, “Under Pressure” is rock and roll at its best. It’s emotional, grandiose, a little bit silly, and beautiful. Watching the performance now, one senses that Bowie and Lennox and the crowd, too, recognized that the moment was theirs for the taking so they took it. The moment, the song, the people—everything the concert was supposed to be.

“Under Pressure,” which Bowie co-wrote and recorded with Queen in 1981, is a song about pressure—specifically, the pressures so many of us feel pressing down on us at work and in life.

“Pressure pushing down on me, pressing down on you.”

The song’s music video underscores the nature of our anxiety by featuring images of rush hour traffic, imploding buildings, soup lines, and B-movie horror flicks.

But “Under Pressure” doesn’t just give voice to life’s anxious struggle. Instead, there’s greater power in this song because it also prescribes a better way forward.

“Under Pressure” takes the point of view that love is our salve and hope amid life’s press—real, open-hearted, self-giving love.

This song isn’t a tribute to the hedonism of some old rock and roll clichĂ©. “Under Pressure” is a song about love without an ego, sacrificial love. Heaven help us, it might even be about the love that we call holy.

At the tribute concert, as the performance reaches its crescendo, Lennox darts across the stage—her movements against a chaotic musical break embodying life at its most frantic pace.

Bowie takes the mic to sing, “Insanity laughs under pressure we're cracking.”

And then everyone, led by Annie Lennox—who summons up her tremendous vocal power—thunders in response, “Why can’t we give love one more chance?”

As the question echoes through the night—“Give love! Give love! Give love!”—Bowie brings about the song’s blissful resolution.

‘Cause love's such an old-fashioned word

And love dares you to care for

The people on the edge of the night

And love dares you to change our way of

Caring about ourselves

The love that “dares you to care for the people on the edge of the night,” the love that “dares you to change our way of caring about ourselves”—I think there is something holy about love like this, and that’s why I believe that the performance of “Under Pressure” at the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert of 1992 puts us in a position to receive a Word of Grace from First Corinthians this morning.

Of all the Christians with whom Saint Paul ministered, the church in Corinth, Greece is the one we talk about most often here at John Street. I think it’s fair to say that we give the Corinthians that honor because our cities share so many things in common.

Corinth, like New York, was a port city and an economic engine. It was a place of great wealth, deadly poverty, and tremendous cultural diversity. Corinth was a city of wild ideas, a melting pot of religions, and a candy store of vice.

It was also a place in which people eagerly received the Good News of forgiveness and new life through Jesus Christ.

The church in Corinth embodied the city’s diversity. In fact, through Paul’s letters, we get a glimpse of a community whose members seemed to have very little—if anything—in common beyond the fact that they had all been baptized.

Now, from Paul’s perspective, the common thread of baptism should’ve been enough to hold the church together and to revolutionize the lives of the people, but his plan wasn’t working so well.

Corinthian Christians badgered one another, and exploited one another, and fostered a spirit of distrust and suspicion in most everything they did.

It seems that the Corinthians had no problem believing that God loved them. They just couldn’t accept that God dared to love the people that they judged to be their social, economic, and spiritual inferiors, too.

“I get why you love me, God,” they seemed to say, “but that guy, and her, too? Are you serious?”

This parochial mindset and Paul’s efforts to overcome it are the immediate context for First Corinthians 13, a passage that was destined to become one of the Apostle’s greatest hits.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends.

Unfortunately, this is easily the most sentimentalized passage of scripture in the New Testament. Stripping Paul’s passage of its context as a tonic to a fractured community, the modern church has reduced his inspired teaching about love into a syrupy sweet concoction of pleasantries.

But I don’t believe in this modern love.

You see, we face a great temptation to hear Paul encouraging us to be nice to each other, but telling people to be nice to each other was hardly the reason Jesus ended up on a cross or Paul at the cutting edge of a Roman sword.

But, more than being nice, this love carries a barrier breaking message of empowerment and makes possible a community that refuses to play by the old rules dictated by race, wealth, and gender.

This love is powerful and unsettling stuff. This is the love at the heart of God’s Good News.

Jesus said, “So what if you love your own kind—the people who think like you, and act like you, and care about you and have your back! Loving them is just what we call not being a jerk.”

Ok, that’s a bit of a paraphrase, but Jesus did say this to his disciples,

Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous.
Paul intended his rhapsody on love to propel his listeners into the new and grace filled way of life Jesus created. His words about patience, kindness, truth, and endurance were meant to release people from their bondage to self-interest and to set them loose to love the people they once judged to be unlovable, to care for those they once ignored, and to build up the same neighbors they used to push around.

“Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three,” Paul writes, “and the greatest of these is love.”

‘Cause love's such an old-fashioned word

And love dares you to care for

The people on the edge of the night

And love dares you to change our way of

Caring about ourselves.

When was the last time you accepted love’s dare to go out—even to the edge of the night—and to embrace the hurting and lonely people you found there?

About twenty years ago, David Bowie reached out to Trent Reznor with an offer to collaborate on some music and to tour with Reznor’s band, Nine Inch Nails. Reznor’s career and fame were exploding upward at that moment and he eagerly accepted the chance to work with one of his heroes. However, by his own admission, drugs and alcohol took him to a very low place during that tour.

Reznor remembered that there were moments when Bowie—who famously fought the battle to live soberly and got clean in the early 80s—gently nudged him to find a better way, but Reznor continued to use and drink.

A few years later, Reznor got clean, too, and in sobriety decided that he wanted to talk to Bowie about their time together.

When that meeting happened, Bowie told him how he really felt.

“I’m David Bowie. After all I went through to straighten my life out, do you think I enjoyed living through your Gen-X junkie drama?”

No, that’s not what happened at all.

Here’s now Trent Reznor describes that meeting.

I reluctantly went backstage, feeling weird and ashamed, like, "Hey, I'm the guy that puked on the rug"…And I started to say, "Hey listen, I've been clean for ..." I don't even think I finished the sentence; I got a big hug. And he said, "I knew. I knew you'd do that. I knew you'd come out of that."
He concluded, “I have goosebumps right now just thinking about it. It was another very important moment in my life.”
‘Cause love's such an old-fashioned word

And love dares you to care for

The people on the edge of the night

So what about you? Will you accept love’s dare today.

Will you go the margins—even to the edge of the night--and embrace the hurting ones you find there?

Will you accept love’s dare to go without looking for an ego trip, but with a sense of self-sacrifice and surrender to the One who holds all us pressured and cracking creatures together?

I pray that you will, I pray that I will, and that God’s patient and kind love—that beautiful old-fashioned word—will change us and our way of caring for ourselves.

Thanks be to God for this Good News. Amen.

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