Don’t quietly step outside – Sermon – Sunday, September 26, 2021

There is a story this week in The New Yorker Magazine by Michael Azerrad, titled “My Time with Kurt Cobain.” The article outlines the history of his friendship with the grunge legend before his untimely death by heroin addiction and suicide in 1994. He wrote the book Come as You Are: The Story of Nirvana after being asked by Cobain to “Just tell the truth.” Following Cobain’s death, Azerrad describes how his grief, and perhaps shame or guilt, affected him, writing: “For many years, if Nirvana’s music started playing, I would quietly step outside until it was over. I never played it at home, either. Hearing it triggered such vivid, intense memories—and feelings of regret. The music’s strength…only reminded me of all the hints I’d missed, things I could have done and stupid things I shouldn’t have done….Until recently, I hadn’t read anything about Nirvana, either. I didn’t want other people’s reminiscences and speculation to muddy my own memories. “Who put these fingerprints on my imagination?” Elvis Costello once sang. I didn’t want someone else’s fingerprints on my memories.”


It made me wonder about what we select in our lives to quietly and deliberately step out of the room for. Because I suspect we do this far more than we realize. And so, what is the deeper impact on our ability to make peace with our past, our history, our story; to make amends for the things we didn’t say, the stupid things we did do; how do we heal our scars both emotional and physical, our relationships, and to move forward?


What is at risk when we leave a part of the story out, whether it be the lyrical genius of a rock legend; a mere two scripture verses from the lectionary, or entire portions of our nation’s tragic and horrific history of its attempt to erase the language, culture, and spirituality of our Indigenous siblings through Residential Schools?


In our first reading this morning, we hear the only part of Esther’s story included in the lectionary. And as author Ashley Wilcox notes, the story ties up neatly: Esther tells the king about Haman’s plot to kill the Jews, reveals that she is Jewish, and saves her people. Haman gets what he deserves. The Jews celebrate, and Mordecai creates the holiday Purim. Isn’t that lovely?


Except… Verses 7-8 are omitted from our reading. Within these verses, the king leaves the feast while Haman stays to beg Esther for his life. When the king returns, he sees Haman on the couch where Esther is reclining and thinks that Haman is sexually assaulting the queen. The king is angry when he thinks that Haman is violating his wife—THIS is why Haman is taken away. Why is it left out Wilcox asks? Because its neater? Because we shouldn’t discuss sexual assault on a Sunday morning in church? Or is it because Esther’s refusal to correct the inaccuracy makes her “unattractive”? Wilcox asks…what does it mean in a greater story largely about men encountering God, when the few Chapters about women omit pieces of the story that are primarily about those women?


Perhaps we leave part of the story out because it makes people uncomfortable and so is easier to leave out than to reconcile violence with characters that otherwise appear to be heroes. Either way, the impact is important to note.


In our Gospel today, we hear Jesus using adages of self-harm to refer to social responsibility: one may trip up oneself through conduct harmful to others. The foot can take you places you dare not go. The hand can reach where it shouldn’t. The eye can gaze with malicious intent. A limb’s amputation, therefore, may be required to save the whole body—drastic surgery is necessary in emergencies if one hopes for the Kingdom of God.


This message from Jesus, who is known for healing bodies, not hurting them; and for casting out demons, appears shocking. But at its heart I think is the idea that we are to shed light upon that which fails us, that which haunts us, hurts us as a whole people of God, that which cuts us off. We must end that behaviour—not ignore the reality or truth…the hints we missed, things we could have done, and stupid things we shouldn’t have done—but rather, we should refuse to participate in continuing that behaviour, cut it off at the roots, prevent its capacity to grow and fester. We should leave ourselves no alternative but that which leads to the greater health and wellness of our community.


I attended elementary school in the 1980s. I tried, unsuccessfully, to get my hands on the textbook we used around grade 3 when I first remember learning about Indigenous People. I recall stories about longhouses and Head Smashed-in Buffalo Jump, about igloos and nomadic life. I heard nothing about Residential Schools until University in the late 1990s. Maybe like those who created our lectionary, the school system believed it was “too uncomfortable” to teach the messy, painful, tragic portions of our Canadian history. Or, educated in the Roman Catholic School Board, maybe they didn’t like that they had a hand and a mouth that played a role in the treatment and death of those children ripped from their homes and sent to Residential Schools. Maybe it was easier on consciences to simply “step outside” when the story got too close for comfort. Easier to be the ones placing fingerprints on other people’s memories, instead of owning up to the memories.


The result is that I, like most of you, I imagine, am still relearning the truth. From courses, readings, from watching the Doctrine of Discovery, from participating in the Blanket Exercise; from keeping aware of the work with the Diocesan All My Relations and St James’ Indigenous Relations Circle, by visiting the memorial to the children killed at Residential Schools on Parliament Hill, by noticing that flags around our city remain at half-mast. We must be more intentional now about making space for and listening to the truth that comes to us from our Indigenous brothers and sisters, acknowledging the very part of the story we would like to omit, because it is ours to carry also.


In his New Yorker article, Azerrad wrote of that avoidance: …a few years ago, at a loud bar in the East Village with some friends, several songs from (Nirvana’s) 1991 blockbuster album, “Nevermind,” started playing at high volume. This time, instead of stepping outside, I stayed and listened. And you know what? Those are great, enduring songs played by a world-class rock band and sung by one of the great rock singers. Despite Kurt’s torment—or in a determined attempt to overcome it—Nirvana made life-affirming music. It made me feel better.


It is a privilege we have taken as a white people, as settlers, as the historic narrators of a national history—to choose whether or not we step outside and avoid the pain and discomfort, or whether we choose to stay and listen. And if we choose wisely…that is where we can own our truth, heal ourselves, and offer peace to those who’s memories we participated in muddling. In staying and listening, that’s where truth and reconciliation meet. *That* might make us feel better.