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The Music at Ground Zero

The Reverend Dr. James Gertmenian

May 7, 2017
Luke 9:51-62

A sermon preached on the Occasion of
The Installation of Matthew Gaventa as Senior Pastor
University Presbyterian Church
Austin, Texas
The Reverend Dr. James Gertmenian

A Reading from the Gospel of Luke

When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; but they did not receive him, because his face was set towards Jerusalem. When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, ‘Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?’ But he turned and rebuked them. Then they went on to another village.

As they were going along the road, someone said to him, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’ And Jesus said to him, ‘Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.’ To another he said, ‘Follow me.’ But he said, ‘Lord, first let me go and bury my father.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.’ Another said, ‘I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.’ Jesus said to him, ‘No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.

Dear friends, I know that my role right now is to preach a sermon, and I’ll get to that right away, but  I cannot begin without saying – with your indulgence – a brief word directly to your new pastor.    Matt!  I’ve known you since you were born.   Your parents are among the dearest friends I have or expect to have in this life.  And then there are wonderful Sarah and amazing Charlie.  Such richness!   My heart cannot contain the hope I have for you in this new chapter of your life, nor the confidence I have in you for it.   But more than my hope, more than my confidence, is the love I would lay across your shoulders today like a mantle, something that will always be there for you to wear in the years ahead.  Thank you for inviting me to be here today.   And a similar word to this congregation:   Boy, did you strike gold in your selection of a pastor!   (And from what I’ve learned about you, I can see that the good fortune is mutual.)  You know, it was said of George Whitfield, the early Methodist preacher, that he could bring his hearers to tears simply by the way he pronounced the word “Mesopotamia.”    I can’t say whether Matt will match that, but what I do know is that this man – this good-hearted man – will lift you with his faith, win you with his humor, stir you with his intellect, and challenge you with his honesty.  I envy you the many Sundays ahead . . . and all the days in between as this new partnership unfolds.

Now, on to the task at hand.  The text that guides this sermon is the 51st verse in the 9th chapter of Luke’s gospel.  It’s a short verse that comes at the fateful moment when Jesus turns from his ministry in pastoral Galilee toward the deadly conflict that awaits him in the city, the conflict on which everything hangs.  The verse reads simply, “Now when the days drew near for him to be lifted up, [Jesus] set his face to go to Jerusalem.”   Will you pray with me?

Let the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts together be ever acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock, our redeemer, and friend.  Amen.

On May 27, 1992, at the height of the Bosnian war, the city of Sarajevo came under heavy shelling.  There was nothing particularly new about this; Sarajevo in those days, dubbed by one person as “the capital of hell,” had been crumbling for months under the weight of ethnic hatreds, nationalist insanities, and the seemingly limitless ability we human beings have to wreak destruction on one another.  The shelling was a daily occurrence.   By mid-1992, most of the civic and cultural institutions of the city lay in ruin:  the Post Office and telephone exchange, the Gallery of Modern Art, churches, mosques, hospitals, schools, and, near the heart of the city, the prestigious Sarajevo Opera Theater, now just a pile of rubble.  Food was hard to come by.  Hunger was a constant, gnawing presence.  So it was that on May 27, despite the danger, dozens of people were lined up outside of a bakery near the center of town . . . one of the few bakeries in Sarajevo that had continued to operate.  The people were waiting for bread.  Just bread.  I want you to see them there, go back and stand with them there amid the bombed out buildings, maybe feel their hunger.  Do you have it?   Do you remember?  Then, suddenly from overhead, the dreaded whistling of shells; Explosions.  Chaos.  Carnage.  When the dust cleared, twenty-two men, women, and children, seekers after bread, lay dead in the street.  Do you remember?

From his apartment window about a hundred yards away, Vedran Smailovic, the principal cellist of the Sarajevo Opera Theater, watched the horror unfold.  A native of Sarajevo, Smailovic had suffered with his city, had felt the fear, had smelled the death, had tasted the despair.   Who knows what he must have thought later that night, having watched twenty-two of his fellow citizens perish in an instant?  Who knows how the soul mends itself at such a time (Oh, Newtown! . . . oh, Aleppo! . . . oh, Darfur!).  Who knows if the soul can mend itself, how the mind tries to put the shattered pieces together, how the spirit searches for strength to go on?

But the following afternoon, when a new line had formed outside the bakery (for every day the need for bread returns, every day the hunger) people saw Smailovic approach the shell crater where the twenty-two had died just hours earlier.  He was dressed in a black suit and tie – his performance attire.  He was carrying his cello and a chair.   He set the chair down amid the bombed buildings and the rubbled streets and in the presence of all those hungry and shell-shocked souls.   He sat down at Sarajevo’s own “ground zero.”  He sat down not knowing where the next mortar round might fall or when the next sniper’s bullet might be fired.   He sat down.  And in that forsaken, silent place that had been starved for beauty, parched for hope, hungry for peace . . . a sound:

(Nora Karakousoglou plays Albinoni’s Adagio in G-minor)

 (Smailovic plays the Adagio 22 years later in the rebuilt National Library in Sarajevo)

You recognize the music as Tomaso Albinoni’s Adagio in G-minor.   The “Cellist of Sarajevo,” as Vedran Smailovic came to be called, played this same sublime music many times over in Sarajevo in the days that followed, at funerals, in bombed out buildings, for anyone who would listen, and even if no one listened.   He must have known how hauntingly apt this piece of music was for those days, since the only extant manuscript of it, a charred fragment, had been found in Dresden, Germany, after the allied fire-bombing of that city in World War II.  This  music had already survived one holocaust; perhaps it could help the Sarajevans survive another.   So, from a bomb crater in the capital of hell, a solitary cellist made his stand against the powers of darkness.

This may seem like a rather somber opening to a sermon by a guest preacher at what is to be a celebratory worship service.  I would understand if you expected something a bit lighter.   But I make no apology here.   I wanted to tell the story of Vedran Smailovic, and I wanted you to hear the  Adagio itself . . . because even though they seem mournful on first blush, to my mind they hold within them an implacable, abiding, life affirming joy, an unexpected joy, a profound joy, and it’s that joy I want to get at, because it as good an antidote as I know – the only antidote I know – for the toxic times in which we are now living. That’s why I asked my friend Ara Carapetyan to invite  Nora Karakousoglou to come and play for us this afternoon, to share this music and this story, because while Texas is surely not Bosnia, and our days are not nearly as fraught with difficulty as those of the beseiged Sarajevans, the fact is that even without shells falling, the very infrastructure of compassion in our country is under attack, and many of the institutions providing for the common welfare are crumbling before our eyes.   A buried, pressured seam of ethnic and religious and racial tension, like the one that pulsed at  the heart of the Bosnian war, is showing signs of rupturing here in our midst.  A tragic meanness is betraying us.   Immigrants are shunned, Muslims vilified, women disempowered, the sick abandoned, refugees turned away, sexual minorities again marginalized, the poor forgotten.  Civil discourse withers; the very foundations of truth are shaken.  The corridors of power are strewn with abandoned principles, and they are redolent of an unseemly greed.  Again, it is surely not the same as what the Sarajevans suffered, but you cannot listen to the news these days without recognizing that we are in trouble, under attack – not, as we are told, by terrorists disguised as refugees (they are not the problem) or by transgender people in the wrong bathrooms  (they are certainly not the problem) or by the threat of some overweening welfare state (that isn’t the problem) – but under attack by a rhetoric and a spirit of fear that are infecting our national  soul.   As a result, inky despair stains our days.  We wonder if we are capable of anything better.  So, in the face of it, what people need is what the cellist of Sarajevo gave to his city: the gift of fierce, unbowed, resilient joy.  Fearless joy.   Joy that serves as the base for righteous action.  This joy of which I speak has little to do with happiness, nothing to do with frivolity or gaiety.  It is not a denial or ignorance of the world’s ills.  Quite the contrary.  This joy is an immovable affirmation of life in the face of death, of beauty in the face of ugliness, of deep goodness in the face of evil.   I wonder if you’ve heard it, and if you have, where you have heard it.   I know:  the Adagio is in a minor key and it is somberly paced, but listen!  It is strong, solid, unbowed and unbending.  It is heroic music, embodying the kind of joy that will not succumb to earthly travail.  This is, I believe, the same joy that was ignited at the white-hot moment when the universe came into being, the same joy that flooded the world from the darkness of an empty tomb.

But it wasn’t just the music that Smailovic played.  It was where he took the music that made it heroic.  He forsook the artist’s protected stage, and he went to the unprotected space of Ground Zero.  He could be called, I think, one of the iconic heroes of our time.  Put him up there with the lone student who faced down the tanks in Tiananmen Square.  With John Lewis on the Edmund Pettis bridge in Selma.  With Malala Yousufzai’s stirring witness in the presence of a repressive, murderous Taliban.  And with the batallions of first responders at America’s own ground zero in 2001.  Each and all of them, like Jesus,  set their faces to go to the Jerusalems of their time.  They went to the darkest possible place.  And here’s the thing:  the heart of Smailovic’s heroism wasn’t that he braved the shelling and the snipers.  That’s part of it, to be sure, but what was truly heroic about him was that he took his highest value, the best thing he had – his music – and he tested it against the despair of his time.   If he had been shot, or killed, that would have been tragic.  But he risked more than his life.  He risked his soul by putting his music out there and claiming, in essence, that it was stronger than the shells and the bullets, stronger than the darkness that was enveloping Sarajevo.   Now, even with the acclaim that came to him afterward, one might still wonder:  was he right?  Was the music stronger?   After all, the war dragged on despite what he did.   More people died.  The destruction continued.  Maybe Smailovic was nothing more than a quixotic oddball, a naïve romantic.  What do you think?   Do you think that his music was stronger?  It’s a fair question.  You could make an argument either way.  But in the end of the day,  I have to believe that years from now, his story will still be told, and people who are struggling and afraid and losing hope will take heart and will hear echoes of that implacable, saving joy.   I believe that on May 28, 1992 and for many days after that, the most powerful force in the city of Sarajevo was embodied not in the armaments of warring armies but in the music and the presence of Vedran Smailovic.

Now we have to get personal.  Now it gets hard.  Because now, on this celebratory Sunday in May, 2017, we have to realize that it’s not just a story about a Bosnian cellist, not just a touching morality play.  Now it becomes a blunt and challenging question about us.  About you.  About me.  About our church.  About the Church.  And, God help us, we don’t get to walk out of this sanctuary today without hearing it.  “What of our own music?   What of the church’s music in America today?  What of the church’s faith?  Where and in what ways are we willing to perform them, to test them?  At ground zero?”  We know how right they seem in here.   We know how beautifuly they resound in our sanctuary precincts.  But the burden of faith is that it must work at the worst place in the world, or it doesn’t work at all.   Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, because if faith doesn’t work in Jerusalem, where crosses cast their hellish shadows, what good can faith possibly be?

“Love your enemies,” Jesus said, “and pray for those who persecute you.”   “Judge not, lest you be judged.”   “If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” “Sell your possessions and give the money to the poor.”  Beautiful, all of it.  Noble sounding.  But does it work in the real world?    “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth”  “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”   “Seek and you shall find.  Ask and it will be given to you.”  “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”  It’s all lovely.  Stirring.  But does it hold up at Ground Zero?   Do the proclamations of the church – including the searing proclamation made just weeks ago – that Jesus is risen – hold up when the deportation forces knock at the door, when the child is hungry because food stamps have been cut back, when doctor gives a damning diagnosis and there is no insurance, when truth is traded away for fiction and integrity for thirty pieces of silver?    Do they hold up?

A hothouse orchid, taken into the cold world, wilts immediately.   Is it the same with the radical teachings of Jesus?   Take them to ground zero . . . whatever your ground zero is, whatever the world’s ground zero is at the moment.  Do Jesus’ words wilt?  Are they quixotic, foolish, as some “realists” might suggest?  Or do they have, as I believe they do, a subversive, surprising, scandalous power that is equal to, greater than the manifest danger and darkness of these days.  A CNN reporter asked Vedran Smailovic whether he was crazy to play his cello out in the street where the shells were falling.  His reply?  “Why do you ask me if I am crazy to play my music, but you do not ask them whether it is crazy that they are shelling Sarajevo?”   To play the church’s particular music out in the street is to challenge the prevailing wisdom, to challenge the madness – the insanity – of our culture’s inverted values.  And that is exactly what we are called to do.

At the height of the civil rights movement in 1963, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, sent a telegram to President Kennedy in which he said that what was needed was “moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.”   Not moral probity, keeping your nose clean, but moral grandeur which means getting your hands dirty.   Not spiritual curiosity which is genteel and safe, but spiritual audacity, testing the limits of our concepts of God against the darkness of our days,  wrestling the divine to the ground in the middle of the night, as Jacob did by the River Jabbok.  It means losing yourself, being swept up by a spirit that you cannot control.  Moral grandeaur and spiritual audacity!  That’s what the great, wounded world waits for today.  The world will no longer have much appetite for or interest in a church that minces and dabbles but never commits.  With a church whose creed is more precious to it than its calling.  So, let the church set its face to Ground Zero and there risk itself, spend itself, and even lose itself.  With humility, with imagination, with warm care for one another, and with such courage as God sees fit to give us, may we grow into the fullness of this calling – joining the company of those through the ages whose music, whose gifts, whose lives, illuminate the world even today with dazzling, healing joy.

Thanks be to God.  Amen.