Sermon: Simple Song

2019 April 14
by Rev Ana Levy-Lyons

Jesus was a relatively young rabbi when he rode into Jerusalem to such acclaim – the tradition says he was 33 years old. Old enough and special enough to have accomplished quite a bit – healing, teaching, working miracles, starting a movement. But not old enough apparently to be craving the peace and simplicity that many of us crave as we age. In fact, he was hungry. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem showed a bit of the aggressive risk-taking that we associate with testosterone-fueled young men. He had persuaded ordinary people – also mostly young men – to leave their families and follow him and he told them, “if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one.” He went in expecting a fight and he predicted that he would not make it out alive.


Jesus had grown up simple, as a peasant, in a dusty little agrarian village where life was simple. He was used to teaching sitting under a tree or on a little hill, using metaphors of seeds and plants and birds and flowers. He was idealistic and pious. Now Jesus entered the big city – the complex social and political territory of Jerusalem with dueling Roman gods and the Hebrew God, Jewish priests colluding with their occupiers, cross cultural currents buffeting everyone, money gumming up the gears of religion, wealth alongside poverty. He voluntarily, intentionally inserted himself into the middle of this complexity. As of this day that we commemorate as Palm Sunday, Jesus was not in Kansas anymore.


The Leonard Bernstein song we heard at the beginning of today’s service says, “Sing God a simple song. Make it up as you go along. Sing like you like to sing. God loves all simple things, for God is the simplest of all.” This clear, almost Zen-like image of spirituality feels lightyears away from that embattled city of Jerusalem. But it’s a vibe that resonates for me and maybe for you as well. It’s one where our connection to the holy is childlike and effortless. Nothing fancy. No rituals, no elaborate prayers. Just sing like you like to sing. Express how you naturally express and whatever comes out, it will be embraced by the universe. It’s the impulse behind the prayer, “May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, God.” May my simple song be enough. It’s what we all deep down crave: may I be enough.


Jesus also embodied this spirituality of simplicity. He had been teaching it all along. He taught his followers to stop stressing about everything so much and making everything so complicated and just have faith. “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or about your body, what you will wear. …Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”


He also taught his followers to pray spontaneously and directly from the heart. When he spoke the prayer now known as the “Lord’s Prayer,” he wasn’t saying that we should use those exact words. He was giving an example of praying in his own words, talking directly to God. He prayed with familiarity. Sing like you like to sing. Pray like you like to pray. God loves all simple things, for God is the simplest of all.


So Jesus at the moment of entering Jerusalem embodied a paradox: a guru of simplicity hailed as a king in the layered, baroque complexity of a high stress city. The country Jesus meets the city Jesus. That very paradox was his secret sauce. He didn’t retreat from the social and political world and stay in his pastoral comfort zone. He rode his donkey straight into the messy complexity. But he also didn’t leave his spiritual simplicity behind. He carried it with him, inside him, as the bedrock of his connection to God. It was that inner place that he taught from. It was that clear conviction that he drew from as the authorities tried to trip him up with trick questions. He could hold onto the truth of that quiet place inside as things got worse and worse for him outside.


Most of us have a country self and a city self. And I don’t mean literally rural versus urban. I mean we have a place inside us that remembers, however faintly, our innocence. That takes delight in the taste of a freshly-picked tomato. That knows that we don’t have to worry about anything because life takes care of the birds of the air and the lilies of the field and will surely take care of us. That can still sing a simple song and find faith. That’s the country self. Then there’s a part of us that is more sophisticated and intellectual; that’s engrossed in the business of life, the social world, the injustices of our time, the fights, the failures, and the victories; that buys the groceries and invests in mutual funds and watches Rachel Maddow, referring to her in casual conversation as just “Rachel.” That’s the city self.


One of the great challenges of life, I believe, is to marry the two. A life spent dwelling in just the country self can be escapist and navel-gazing and impoverished for lack of engagement with the world. We can never know how real our spirituality is until it’s tested against the pains and troubles of real life. But a life spent in just the city self can be empty of meaning –  striving and spinning around a hollow core with no spiritual or moral grounding. We get the full human experience when we can keep a core of connection with the holy – the expansive inner place where everything is completely fine, where we are one and we are loved and when we can fully engage with our lives –  with our messy families and our work and trying to make social change that we know probably won’t succeed.


Each exists within the other, like the yin-yang symbol, and this is the central image of Palm Sunday: Jesus at the threshold between the country self and the city self; between the simple song and the justice-seeking complexity; between the lilies of the field and overturning the tables of the money-changers. He models a way to integrate the two into one powerful life force.


In this spring season, I invite us all to make some space to reflect and even pray on how we are doing with balancing these two elements in our own lives. Do you need the strength to dive outward into the complex world more fully? Or do you need the faith to step back a bit, go inward, and find your simple song? Next week, we’ll have our annual Easter fire ritual. Between now and then, I want to invite you to do a little preparation and ask yourselves – Which direction do you need to ride your donkey? Toward Jerusalem or away from Jerusalem? And what’s holding you back from doing it right now? See if you can ready yourself to imbue your piece of flash paper with whatever is holding you back. And then let it go.


Together, maybe we’ll find that our simple song is not so simple. Like a drop of water, it reflects the entire world within it. Each one of us contains multitudes. We’ll never be able to grasp all of it at once. So in the meantime, just sing like we like to sing. Make it up as we go along. And hope to arrive at that which is simplest of all.





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