Singing the Blues

Jeremiah 8:18-9:1; Luke 16:1-13

Information about the First Nations Version available here

One of my professors in seminary, Greg Mobley, used to tell us that the closest we, as modern minded people in the west could get to understanding where the Hebrew Prophets were coming from was to try to understand the Blues.

When I say the blues, I don’t mean simply being sad; but rather the genre of music born out of the African American experience in the Mississippi Delta in the early 1900s that eventually birthed almost all modern popular music: country, R&B, rock and roll, jazz, and hip hop all are descended from those Delta blues, by way of Chicago, Nashville, Los Angeles, or Harlem.

Blues music, isn’t one note emotionally- it’s not all about sadness or despair; there’s anger, there’s joy, there’s bravado, there’s love and lust, there’s the whole range of human expression. What is unique about the blues lyrically is that it tells the truth. There is no idealism in the blues, and there are no easy answers, no tears that are easily dried, just the simple and hard truths of hard lives.

Likewise, our prophet Jeremiah felt the struggles of his people not from a distance but in a deeply personal way. I believe that he would have fit in nicely in the Mississippi Delta. Known as the weeping prophet, his words have provided voice for many who are suffering from pain, just as the words of BB King or Aretha Franklin have in our time.

Jeremiah said, “My joy is gone; grief is upon me; my heart is sick.” BB King sang, “The Thrill is gone, the Thrill is gone for good.”

Jeremiah said, “Listen! The cry of the daughter of my people from far and wide in the land: “Is the Lord not in Zion? Is her King not in her?” Robert Johnson sang, “Lord, I feel like blowing my old lonesome horn Got up this morning, my little Bernice was gone Lord, I feel like blowing my lonesome horn Well I got up this morning all I had was gone”

The Prophet, telling the truth, weeping over what has been lost, that Jerusalem has been defeated, her treasures raided, her temple torn down and her children exiled.

The Blues Singer, singing the truth, that their beloved is gone, left like a thief in the middle of the night. The thrill is gone, and the world is lonesome. All I had is gone.

The blues and the prophets like our Jeremiah, and our Jesus, are at times raw and real. Indeed, one of the hardest things for us to hear both in the blues and from the prophets- both ancient and modern- is that it might already be too late; Bernice is already gone, the harvest is past and the summer is ended, climate change is not a distant issue for the future, but a present lived reality.

The system has failed us. The famous balm of Gilead is noted mostly for its absence. There is no easy way out.

Thus we should not mistake vulnerability for stupidity. The truth is never foolish. Robert Johnson and Aretha Franklin knew exactly what they were doing. Jeremiah is not an idiot. Jesus is no dummy. Our gospel reading today reminds us that we are called to be discerning, to work the system- albeit to ends that the system might not reward. But even so, often those systems will fail us; our plans fall by the wayside. Sometimes there is little left for us to do but sing the blues.

But for a moment let us take a step back and learn a little more about our readings. Jeremiah was not actually a bullfrog, he was a Hebrew prophet that lived in the 7thth ish century BC in Jerusalem. He originally rejected being a prophet as he said he was too young, but as happens in the Bible, when he started complaining about it, God put the words in his mouth and sent him on his way.

The kingdom of Judah was in a precarious position at this point. Although King Josiah was vigorous and reform minded, doing good work reforming the operations of the temple and the state, he had just been killed in battle, and King Jehoiakim came to rule. He was no King Josiah; he undermined his predecessor’s reforms, and corruption abounded. The people of God were not in a good place, and Jeremiah saw that it would not get better.

Jeremiah is especially upset about the abrogation of the temple’s responsibilities; the temple was supposed to mediate between God and the people of God, atoning collectively for the sins of the people through ritual sacrifices and other good works.

Yet the men in charge of the temple preferred to preach about the easy lies instead of the hard truths. Healing becomes impossible when sins are not acknowledged, and they would not be able to find a balm in Gilead because there would not seek it. The temple authorities ignored their past and, refused to discern good from evil in the present, and ignored the future of the people in their care.

But this does not mean we are called to give up on our systems, our ways of doing things; indeed, how we engage with them is vitally important, as our gospel reading suggests.

This parable, often called the parable of the shrewd or dishonest manager, is one of the most widely debated parables of Jesus.

In the story, there’s a manager of an estate, a farm, a plantation, and he’s been made aware that once the owner’s coming back, he’s not going to have a job anymore. The manager says, basically, well, that’s no good- I’m too old to go back to digging ditches, and too proud to be a beggar, so to get a new job, I need to make folks like me.

There’s a concept in the business world you may have heard of: OPM- Other People’s Money; resources that aren’t ours personally. People tend to be a little more free and loose with those than their own. This manager certainly is. He starts making deals with people over their debt with his boss. When the boss comes back, he doesn’t punish the man; his attitude seems to be more of the “Don’t hate the player, hate the game” type.

People have often wondered who is who in this story metaphorically- is God the boss and Jesus the manager? Or are we supposed to be the manager?

I believe our translation today- the First Nations Indigenous American translation does a good job of getting us to the heart of the parable’s meaning; what is the meaning of success? Is there a way to interact with the system- especially the systems of wealth and money, that serve the Kingdom of God?

The shrewdness that Jesus alludes to is not about accumulating the most wealth; I made that mistake when reading it, so conditioned am I to looking for getting the most as shrewdness. What Jesus calls shrewd is the ability to give away as much as possible. He reminds us that there’s not much use for wealth beyond a certain amount other than to get more of it. This is especially true in the long run; we can’t take it with us.

Jesus prods us into asking the question: What if instead of us serving our wealth, our wealth served others. Help each other out, especially the poor and outcast, Jesus says; that way if you’re ever in need, they’ll help you out too.

Many of the concerns Jesus had were the same ones that Jeremiah had: How do we determine what can be healed and what is beyond repair? When are we called to work the system, and when is it too late? Is the system beyond repair? If so, what’s next? What should normal people do in the middle of this slow rolling disaster? When are we called to shrewdness, toward using wealth for giving it away? What about when is all we can do is sing the blues?

To sing the blues is not to give up; it is not to give up hope or fall into despair; it is to bare the soul to God and our fellow humans in a way that calls attention to the pain in the world. It is a recognition that the end has come and gone already. Yet the Good News is the singer is still here, and because of that, even through the tragedy and pain, God is still here. What more do we really need?

As we enter a moment of silent prayer and meditation, I invite to consider: when have we worked the system and made things better? When was a time that all we could do is sing the blues?