Sermon preached Good Friday, March 25, 2016
Texts: Tenebrae readings from John’s gospel
Do you ever consider some of the events that took place in your birth year? In 1959, yes, that is sounding longer ago all the time – in 1959 Hitchcock’s North By Northwest and Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot were released into theaters. A few seminal jazz albums were released: Miles Davis, Kind of Blue; Dave Brubeck Quartet, Take Five. Buddy Holly died in 1959, as did three famous jazz musicians: Sidney Bechet, Lester Young, and Billie Holiday.
If you know the music of Billie Holiday, you will never forget her voice. She has a way with a song, and one song that she made famous was quite unusual, “Strange Fruit.” The song is unusual because it is about racism in the United States and includes startling imagery about lynching.
Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
The song, penned in 1937 and recorded by Holiday first in 1939 was intended to raise consciousness about race relations in the United States. It has been put into the Grammy Hall of Fame.
A song about lynching has a strange relationship with today, for the story we tell is about a death, a death that was also a miscarriage of justice. Jesus was executed by an empire threatened by his popularity and by his challenges to both political and religious authorities.
But I want to take the idea of “strange fruit” in a different direction for just a few minutes, before we hear the story again. I think we tell this story because it has and continues to produce “strange fruit” in the world. When someone is executed unjustly, we would expect that injustice to produce the fruits of anger, rebellion, vengeance and violence. Our world tears itself a part because of the fruit of violence enacted, the fruit of revenge taken. Shiites in Iraq, long repressed by Sadaam Hussein in turn mistreat Sunnis, and some of those Sunnis are now the backbone of ISIS. It is an old, old story.
Jesus death produces a strange fruit, though. Instead of vengeance, compassion is produced. Instead of the narrowness of anger, this death often leads to a wider perspective. While this death reveals how awful human persons can be, it also shows how deep love can go, and how strong and courageous it can be. That’s why we tell this story again and again, because of the power it has to produce seemingly strange fruit. This story still has the power to send ripples of love, ripples of justice, ripples of joy into the world.
Lawrence Ferlinghetti, a poet famous in the 1950s, published in 1958 his well-known book A Coney Island of the Mind, and in that book was a poem entitled “Christ Climbed Down.” The images are from both Good Friday and Christmas. Let me share just a few lines.
Christ climbed down
from his bare Tree
and softly stole away into
some anonymous Mary’s womb again
where in the darkest night
of everybody’s anonymous soul
He awaits again
the very craziest
of Second Comings
When we hear this story again, we also remember that Jesus does not stay crucified, dead and buried. He climbs down from his bare tree, rises up from the tomb leaving it empty, and produces strange fruit in those who follow.
As we hear this story again – wrenching, piercing, puzzling – may it dig deep into the soil of our souls. May that soil be turned over, ready to receive seeds that will produce fruits of love, justice, joy, reconciliation – strange fruits for a death to produce, the very craziest of Second Comings. Amen.