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Go Down, Death – 10/30/2016

James Weldon Johnson was a lawyer and an activist and a diplomat, and also one of the great poetic voices of the Harlem Renaissance. Among his most famous works is a collection of poems called, “God’s Trombones,” which attempted to capture the style of preaching he heard growing up in a black church in Jacksonville, FL. That title – God’s Trombones – comes from the voices of the preachers he heard in church, which seemed able to express and to amplify the full range of human emotion; just like a trombone. In one of the passages in his book, Johnson paints a picture of a God who reigns as a king in heaven; a king who watches over each of his earthly subjects, and takes a keen interest in each one. He writes,

Day before yesterday morning,

God was looking down from his great, high heaven

Looking down on all his children,

And his eye fell on Sister Caroline,

Tossing on her bed of pain.

And God’s big heart was touched with pity,

With the everlasting pity.


And God sat back on his throne,

And he commanded that tall, bright angel standing at his right hand:

Call me Death!

And that tall, bright angel cried in a voice

That broke like a clap of thunder:

Call Death! — Call Death!

And the echo sounded down the streets of heaven

Till it reached away back to that shadowy place,

Where Death waits with his pale, white horses.


And Death heard the summons,

And he leaped on his fastest horse,

Pale as a sheet in the moonlight.

Up the golden street Death galloped,

And the hoofs of his horse struck fire from the gold,

But they didn’t make no sound.

Up Death rode to the Great White Throne,

And waited for God’s command.


And God said: Go down, Death, go down,

Go down to Savannah, Georgia,

Down in Yamacraw,

And find Sister Caroline.

She’s borne the burden and heat of the day,

She’s labored long in my vineyard,

And she’s tired —

She’s weary —

Go down, Death, and bring her to me.

On this Sunday, each year, we gather to remember those whom we have loved and lost. And that can’t help but to make this a solemn occasion: in every death there is loss, and sorrow, and grief. But there can also be relief in death: the prospect of rest from a hard life, or simply a long one, well-lived. Every life is different, and so not every life has to bare the same degree of struggle or pain. The gift of being alive, of having the privilege to experience the world we share, and be a part of it – that makes the hard parts worth it. But when life ends, the labor of it does too. Yet still, whatever it was that we accomplished in our too-short time here continues further on without the need or benefit of our toil. It passes to those who loved us and knew us. The work of their hands carries us on, as the memory of us persists in those who continue the effort and live to savor its fruits.

The neuroscientist and writer David Eagleman put out a book several years ago called “Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives.” In it, he offers forty different possible versions of the afterlife, a bit like James Weldon Johnson offered his. In one of these forty little stories, he imagines that after we die, we go on to a mundane but spacious location, “like an infinite airport waiting area.” There’s coffee and tea, and efficient fluorescent lighting. Everyone is actually there to wait to pass on to the real, final afterlife, about which nothing is known, other than the assurance that it is much nicer than its antechamber.

The dead only move along into their final state when someone on earth says their name for the last time. This might mean very little waiting at all, or it might take an extremely long time. The vast room has an exaggerated ratio of famous people to more anonymous folks, because anyone who can manage to get their name into the history books can expect to be sitting on the moderately comfortable chairs for a very long time. The folks who have the hardest time in this arrangement are the ones who are remembered for the wrong sorts of reasons, by people who never knew them or particularly cared for them. Eagleman gives the example of a farmer whose farm became the site of a small liberal arts school after his death. Every week the tour guides mention his name in the course of their duties, connecting him to a school he knows nothing about and cares nothing for, causing him linger on. But if a person remains known on earth for who they were in life, the experience of waiting isn’t bad at all, no matter how long it is.

That is what we owe to the ones we love, we who live on after them. To remember them kindly, and honestly. To take wisdom, inspiration, courage – all that we can, really – from the experience of having known them. They have passed on into the rest beyond death; the work, however, continues. It is up to us to do it, so that the memory of them might continue to shape the world of which they were and will always have been a part.

A few years ago, the radio journalist Scott Simon sat with his mother in the hospital, accompanying her through her final days of life. With her participation and blessing, he cataloged the experience on Twitter, typing out short little snippets of their time together. In one of those tweets, he records the following:

Mother asks, “Will this go on forever?”

She means pain, dread.


She says, “But we’ll go on forever, you & me.”


Nothing in this world lasts forever, and eventually the joys of life end together with its hardships. But there is, never the less, and no matter what formula for an afterlife we do or do not entertain, a sense of the eternal in the communion we share with the people we love. Long after they, and we, are gone, it will continue to echo through the universe.

A Feast of Trumpets – 10/2/2016

The much-beloved episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation titled “Darmok” turned 25 years old, this past week – which means that it has officially crossed the line between the cultural references I have to be careful with using, so as not to alienate the older members of my audience, and those I have to be judicious with, so as not to alienate the younger folks. But, anyway. In this episode, Jean-luc Picard, the captain of the USS Enterprise, encounters a new species of aliens which pose a peculiar problem. You see, he and his crew depend on a universal translator for communication, an extremely helpful piece of 24th-century technology which can translate any language into any other language. The translator does its job with this new species, but it can only translate the raw, direct meanings of words. The newly encountered language, however, depends entirely on metaphor – every phrase and sentence contains a reference to characters or events in stories and legends from this alien society. Without an understanding of those stories, all the captain’s initial attempts at communication fail. He can understand every sentence, but he can’t gain the meaning expressed by any of them; tensions flair, and the prospect becomes very real that this first encounter may turn violent.

I begin this morning with a reference that I know not all of us know, about what can happen when we try to communicate with someone whose references we don’t know, because today’s worship honor’s a festival that I know many of us do not know much about. So, a few facts to begin with. The setting of the sun tonight will mark the beginning of Rosh Hashanah, to be followed in about a week and a half by Yom Kippur – together these are knows as the High Holy Days and the time between them, the Days of Awe. In the Jewish tradition, this is the most sacred time of year, even though they tend to be little-understood in American society in general. Rosh Hashanah is the Jewish New Year – or rather, the most important of several different New Years in the Jewish tradition, sort of like the difference between the modern ideas of a calendar New Year and a fiscal New Year. It literally means, “the head of the year,” and in the Bible itself the Hebrew the term for this observance is Yom Teruah: “day of blasting” Blasting as in the blast of sound from a horn – specifically the ram’s horn or shofar, which we heard earlier. One of the more poetic translations sometimes offered for that title is the Feast of Trumpets.

It is traditional to blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah, but the traditional liturgy calls for much more than just belting out one brief, simple blast. A complex and physically demanding series of notes is required, culminating in a blast so long and loud that it should leave the person delivering it spent and out-of-breath, and the congregation hearing it shaken with awe. The Baal Shem Tov, the great eastern European mystic credited with founding Judaism’s Hasidic movement, is said to have told a story to explain the power of the sound of the shofar.

Once there was a prince, who was the son of a wise and just king, who ruled over a noble country. The prince was taught right from wrong, instructed by his father in morality and ethics, and grew to be a kind and curious young man. One day, his father gave him a set of instructions to complete his learning. He sent his son to a far-off country, where none would know or care that he was a prince, and told him to live among the people there, to seek work and a livelihood, and learn what he could among them.

The prince found that this new country was not like his own. For the people there did not seem to care for one another; most times they were indifferent, but when they were not indifferent, they were cruel. The prince did his best to make a new life among them without losing himself and the values he had been taught, but he could not struggle against the whole society surrounding him forever. Eventually, their customs became his customs, and their way of thinking his way of thinking. Over time he lost his ethics, and his language, and his old name, and even the memory that he had ever been a prince. He became just another unfriendly face in a cold and callous country.

But then, one day, long after he had forgotten himself, a carriage came to his adoptive city, carrying the monarch of some far off nation on some diplomatic mission. Recognizing his father’s carriage, the prince remembered just enough of himself to know how much he had forgotten. He ran to his father, but he realized even as he did, he would never be recognized. Nothing remained of his once fine robes, his face was worn and changed by a hard and bitter life, and he could no longer remember his own first language. Peering through the window of the carriage, seeing no recognition on the king’s face whatsoever, the prince did the only thing he could think to do: he cried. He wailed, in fact, wordlessly and loud – a lament for all that he had lost of himself. This is what caused the king to finally recognize his own son: the sound of his child’s cry.

This is the sound that the Baal Shem Tov compared the sound of the shofar to. He understood it as the cry of his people, recognizing their connection to the Divine – bent, broken, and all but lost in the mistakes of the year now passing away – and crying out to God to renew that relationship. I think that he was quite obviously right, at least as far as his observation that the scream of your child has a unique effect on the mind of a parent. My experience has been that both of my children can scramble my brain pretty much any time that they want to. But that sense of being scrambled usually comes when I’m trying to focus on anything other than them and them alone – that’s what they’re crying about, after all. The sound of one of their wailing forces me to zero in on them and whatever they have going on – it clarifies what my priorities are, in that moment, similar to a different Jewish story about the observance of Rosh Hashanah.

In a rural Jewish village, in the old country, a man took his teenage son to the synagogue for the first time on Rosh Hashanah. The son new nothing of the prayers or the liturgy; he didn’t even recognize what was going on or what day it was without having to be told. The story is vague on exactly why this is; the oldest versions I could find describe the son as simple or uneducated. But his father clearly knows the prayers himself, and values going to the synagogue, and becomes embarrassed at his child’s questions, and frustrated to be made a spectacle of in front of the whole community. It seems unlikely he had simply neglected to teach any of his religion to his child; more likely, he hit some barrier he didn’t know how to reach beyond. Perhaps the son has a learning disability, or a cognitive disability; it may be that a prayer-life grounded in reading and memorization is beyond the young man’s grasp.

Sitting next to his son, red-faced and almost shaking with frustration, the father tells him to just be quiet, so that perhaps not everyone in the village will realize his shame: that his child cannot join in on even the most basic prayers. The son was quiet – until he heard the sound of the shofar. He listened to the instrument as it played its part in the service, and when it was through, he stood up and answered it in the only way available to him. The son was a shepherd, and he would often whistle to his sheep – so he whistled as long and as loud as he could, until the sound filled the sanctuary. And his father was even more embarrassed than before. Now, there is a mystical idea in the Jewish tradition that Heaven is like a vast city, set all around the outside with gates that open and close in order to let in certain prayers and keep out others. So this story concludes with the secret that on that particular Rosh Hashanah, all of the heavenly gates were closed, so that no prayer on earth could be heard, until that young man whistled, wanting with all his heart to offer what he could to his community, to join the congregation in their worship – in that moment, every gate was thrown open, and the prayers of the world could enter Heaven once more.

The sound of a trumpet – or of a shofar; the cry of a child; the voice of a person once silenced, but yearning to be heard; any of these things can serve to wake up the soul, just a little bit more. To disrupt our complacency, to shake us out of our moral slumber and challenge us to see the world a little bit more honestly. In medieval images of angels, you sometimes see them blowing great long horns. Such images are sometimes associated with the end of time – that trumpet blasts will hail the day of judgement and the end of history on earth. In an old black-and-white movie I remember watching with my mother once, when I was a child, Jack Benny plays an angel sent to earth to blow that fateful trumpet blast. Luckily for everyone alive, he can’t seem to do the job right, and even more luckily, he is not actually an angel at all, but an earthly trumpet player in an orchestra who’s fallen asleep on the job.

The angel horns from those medieval paintings and statues are called clarions. That name shares a Latin root with the word clarify, and that’s exactly what the shofar, and each of these other sounds, and any number of other jarring confrontations to the senses can serve to do: to clarify things for us. The shofar is the clarification of the ending of one year and the beginning of another, but every moment is the end of a year’s worth of moments behind it and the beginning of another year ahead of it. I would say, in point of fact, that each moment has its own trumpet blast, its own clarifying signal, challenging us to put down what we’re doing and do instead what must be done. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, we shrug-off, ignore, or just honestly miss the voice or the scene or whatever it was that, if we had actually fully experienced it, would have helped us to remember ourselves, and moved us closer to being the best that we are capable of being.

In one oft-remembered moment from our own Unitarian Universalist history, the poet, naturalist and iconoclast Henry David Thoreau landed himself in jail in the town of Concord, for refusing to pay a tax in protest of the institution of slavery, then nearly twenty years from being officially ended in this country. His friend, the great essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson, came to see him and asked, “Henry, what are you doing in there?” Came his reply, “Waldo, the question is, what are you doing out there?” It’s rare that the moral confrontation of any given moment is as loud a trumpet blast, metaphorically-speaking, but Emerson and Thoreau’s story reminds us that sometimes the difference between what we are doing and what we ought to be doing really is put that startlingly simple for us.

In that old episode of Star Trek: the Next Generation – and I can call it old, now, because as of this week it has attained an age at which a human being would be able to rent a car without any exorbitant, additional fee – the key to understanding a language based on unfamiliar metaphors was to work alongside someone who spoke it. Facing a challenge together necessitated many attempts at communication. Even when most failed, it was possible to learn, bit by bit, a little at a time, until the beginnings of understanding formed. Similarly, I submit that we are called to listen for the trumpets that herald each new moment and sound the particular challenge of the now – racial injustice, wealth inequality, and environmental crisis have all been sounding quite loudly in my ear, of late. This isn’t something to be done with the expectation that we’ll catch that clarion every time, or even more than a tenth of it. It’s to be done because, bit by bit, we learn – about the trouble of the world and our own power to answer it. And from that learning, the possibility of purpose to drives and shapes our lives begins to form.

Take a Knee

In the first congregation that I worked, each of the lovely, ornate box pews included an odd element that I didn’t immediately identify on first seeing them. They seemed a little like very short, very narrow benches, set opposite to the actual seats, and their tops weren’t level – they had a distinct slant to them. Having always lived, up to that point, outside of New England, and gaining my experience of Unitarian Universalism there, where our congregations tend to be more distantly removed from the Christian history in which our movement has its origins, I guessed that these distinctive pieces of church furniture were footrests. Based on my observation of their use by congregants, I think that was a common misunderstanding. It was some months before someone more knowledgeable than I explained that actually these were kneelers, meant to provide something more comfortable than the hard wood floor when the liturgy called for the congregation to kneel.

Of course, that congregation, like the overwhelming majority of Unitarian Universalist congregations – including our own – no longer had any collective religious practice of kneeling. But in the Catholic and Orthodox traditions, and in many branches of Protestantism, the congregation is called to kneel in every service, particularly when receiving Communion. If you’ve ever visited a masjid – a Muslim house of worship, the term for which literally means “place of prostration” – then you know that they most often lack pews or rows of chairs, and are generally carpeted throughout. This is because in Islam, the standard position for the worship service and for prayer is on one’s knees, frequently on a special rug or sajjada. (One such sajjada, which was given to me as a gift from my little brother, hangs on the wall of my study at First Parish.) Judaism is much more circumspect about kneeling than are the other two Abrahamic traditions. This is not because it is considered somehow wrong or undesirable as a position for prayer, but because it is held to be such a profound and powerful religious act that it is reserved, in almost all cases, for the holiest day of the year: Yom Kippur (which will be observed this year in October). And while the most familiar image you have of a Buddhist in seated meditation may be with their legs folded, kneeling (depending again on the particular branch of Buddhism) is also very common.

To kneel is a cross-cultural sign of reverence and respect; it is a physically-serious position, not a comfortable or casual one. But lately, it has become a point of significant contention, as a wave of silent protest – sparked by Colin Kaepernick, of the San Francisco 49ers – has seen athletes kneeling at sporting events during the Star-Spangled Banner. Kaepernick and many others have chosen to kneel, rather than to stand, during the national anthem in order to protest racial injustice, conditions in which black and brown people can be and are being killed without anyone being held accountable for their deaths. As he himself put it, “…this country stands for freedom, liberty, and justice for all. And it’s not happening for all right now.” I, personally, applaud this protest, and I am not alone in doing so, but the voices speaking against it – calling it unpatriotic, hateful, even somehow criminal – have been very loud indeed. We live in an era when the extraordinarily simple and personal act of kneeling can be a flashpoint of anger – this is how far apart we are stretched as a nation in our understanding of the racial reality that we and the 318 million other Americans live within. For all the hate that has been heaped upon him, the burning of his jerseys, the challenges to his patriotism and his person, Colin Kaepernick has, by taking a knee, challenged his country to talk more about that racial reality, and perhaps to actually engage more actively in changing it.

Such a dialog begins at home, which is why I and your Social Action committee have committed to making learning and deep conversation around race and justice a priority for our congregation this year. As one beginning for this dialog, I hope you will make a special point to join us for Sunday worship on October 23rd, to help me welcome our guest, Cherish Casey, to speak about working for racial justice, particularly here in Essex County. The next night, on Monday, October 24th, I’ll begin the first in a series of workshops here at First Parish on race as an idea, an experience, and a force that shapes the world we live in. I hope you will consider joining us for that, as well.


In Faith,

Rev. Kelly Weisman Asprooth-Jackson


First Parish Church

225 Cabot St

Beverly, MA 01915


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