The Hometown Blues | Sojourners

The Hometown Blues

"If you tell a lie, it will be all over the country in a day or two. But if you tell the truth, it will take 10 years to get there." ~ Eddie "Son" House

The blues great, Son House, offered this truism in an interview early in the last century. It was before the age of digital media and I'm tempted to speed up the chronology of his statement a bit. Thanks to social media a fallacy can spread like wild fire. In mere hours the entire globe knows...But it doesn't really matter, does it? The truism is still true...Often the false statement is simply more popular, more attractive, more readily desired than the true statement.

Sometimes we push the truth to the side.
We can't handle the truth.
The falsehoods we sometimes tell ourselves are easier to believe.
They represent the things we wish were true for better or for ill.

Eddie "Son" House was a baptist preacher in the early part of the 20th century who had an interesting conversion experience. After spending much of his early preaching career proclaiming that jazz was the "devil's music" he converted. He was walking down the street, as the story goes, and he heard the most surprising sound of glass on steel. Someone was playing their guitar using the neck of a glass bottle as a "slide." The sound of glass on steel pierced Son's soul.

For a while he tried to keep his pulpit while he played the blues. The tension would prove too much for him and he quit preaching. He chose to play and sing becoming a master at "bottleneck guitar" blues. His career took off and in short order was playing parties and at road houses. He even recorded an album or two. His version of "Preacherman Blues" was a huge hit. Living in the tension as he did, it's no wonder.

Oh, I'm gonna get me religion, I'm gonna join the Baptist church
I'm gonna be a Baptist preacher, and I sure won't have to work...

His life would become even more complicated, however, when, during a brawl at a performance, he shot a man, according to his own testimony, in self-defense. Son House would serve 17 months of a five-year sentence in a Mississippi labor camp for manslaughter. When he was released early, he was told to leave his home in Mississippi. His safety could not be guaranteed. So, he did. He moved to Rochester, NY and was not heard from again; not for 20 years when, during the folk revival of the 1960's, some young musicians tracked him down and brought him out of the shadows back into the limelight. His fame as a master blues musician rapidly spread.

Biographers of the time were tempted again and again to laud House as a hero of sorts, a lost bard from a simpler time. They tried to hold him up as a pure soul. But House wouldn't allow it. He sang the blues. For him, this was truth-telling music, music that was intended to give you as much of the story as possible, the good interwoven with the bad, tragedy and victory set up next to one another. House himself had wrestled with addiction most of his adult life. He had two failed marriages and, as you have already heard, had a bit of a violent streak. He was no hero. He was just a man.

He played the blues because through that music he could offer something like the truth...the fullness of life in all its complexity.

This morning we're presented with a couple of puzzling stories from scripture. First, David has to conquer Jerusalem, the last Canaanite stronghold. This act of violence against even the blind and the lame will secure the unity of the kingdoms of Judah in the south and Israel in the north. Jerusalem wasn't an Israelite city. It was a Canaanite city. David wasn't the builder of a great metropolis. He was the conqueror of a lonely city state.

Before Jerusalem could be the city of God it first had to be conquered, it's weakest citizens put at risk. "Whoever would strike down the Jebusites,” said David, “let him get up the water shaft to attack the lame and the blind, those whom David hates."

It is an interesting story to hear this morning as we raise money to support Palestinian communities in need of the most basic resources like water. It might challenge some of our assumptions of who is virtuous and who is not. It highlights just how difficult it is to know who is in the right.

It's not that this passage is some deep, hidden secret in the Bible. It's not like we're offering some expose on a 24-hour news channel. Of course not. But this passage serves to remind us that the stories we tell ourselves, such as the stories of a heroic King David who establishes a golden age for God's holy people, are more often reflecting a much more complicated reality where the good and the bad are so interwoven that we cannot even imagine how to begin to untangle them.

Reality is never as quick and easy as the story of a boy and his slingshot and the fall of a giant.

We love stories about giant killers, about underdogs and their bravado. And we want them to be true. We want them to reflect the best of who we are and in many ways they do. But, truth be told, we are just as likely to tell these stories to cover up reality as we are to tell these stories to uphold reality.

Human history is a history of communities displacing one another by violent means.
Human history is a history of communities struggling over the control of resources.
Human history is a history of communities seeking their own benefit while their neighbors die of thirst.

We must uphold our saints and heroes. Yes. And in so doing we must shine the light of truth-telling into the darkness of the realities in which we live.

Rabbi Brad Hirshfield, an outspoken leader for the peace and reconciliation movements in Israel, says that stories such as this one are in the Bible not because they demonstrate the heroic virtue of figures like King David, but because they serve to remind us of how everything can come off the rails and how quickly we turn violence into a virtue by proclaiming, "And David became greater and greater, for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him."

We hold on to these stories to remind ourselves of when we did it wrong.
We hold on to these stories to remind ourselves that we are responsible for our own actions.
We hold on to these stories to tell the truth.

And the truth is what Jesus offered the people of his hometown in this tale from Mark's Gospel. Jesus offered his prophetic witness of truth-telling. He held up a mirror and showed them who they were. He held up a mirror and said to them, "The Kingdom of God is with you."

They were enraged that one of their own would do such a thing.
He was utterly astonished that the people who had raised him were incapable of facing their own truth.

He also knew that if they could not face the realities of their own complicated lives they would not be able to embrace the healing and forgiveness that God offered.

Jesus had the blues. He had the hometown blues.

So, rejected, he fled his hometown.

Then he sent his apostles out into the world proclaiming peace, healing the sick and the lame, and prepared to face the same rejection. People don't like to be reminded of the complications of real life. None of us like the feeling of being judged when the mirror is held up before us.

We don't like to be reminded:

  • that our heroes may have been warlords
  • that our nations don't have pristine histories, or that we haven't always made the right choices
  • that the poor are poor because of the decisions that we all make
  • that war is a choice
  • that violence is a choice
  • that the walls dividing communities are actually walls of our own making. They don't grow on their own.

We don't like to face that reality — even when someone is saying, "But God knows this already. God loves you already. God is waiting for you embrace the truth about yourself so that you can choose the truth of the Kingdom of God."

According to scripture, those who are sent to proclaim the Kingdom don't come in power. They come carrying the bare necessities, less than what they think they might need, really. They come in apparent weakness, arms open, hands open, as people in need. They come bearing peace...and truth.

Proclaiming the Kingdom of God is not about telling someone that they are bad.
Proclaiming the Kingdom of God is, instead, like singing the blues. It's about all of us facing all we are, the good and the bad, and offering that to God because God can work it out.

God can show us how to bring peace to communities.
God can show us how we might serve one another in stead of keeping one another down, that our safety and success is not contingent upon another's failure and loss.

All God asks is that we face the truth about ourselves.
No more.
No less.

We cannot enter the Kingdom of God without first embracing the entire truth of the reality we already live in. We cannot enter the Kingdom of God without first singing the blues.

God asks that we sing the blues...the whole story of who we are.


Tripp Hudgins is a doctoral student in liturgical studies at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif., and associate pastor of First Baptist Church of Palo Alto, Calif., (where this sermon originatec.) You can read more of his writings on his longtime blog, "Conjectural Navel Gazing; Jesus in Lint Form" at Follow Tripp on Twitter @AngloBaptist.

TEXTS: Mark 6:1-13, 2 Samuel 5:1-10

Images: Guitar frets, hand by Péter Gudella/Shutterstock. Jesus "Ecce Homo" by Dolci via Wiki Commons.