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January 7, 2018

“Free Like Phish”

Rev. Dr. David A. Kaden

>>O God, we believe. Help us in our unbelief. Amen.<<

On December 30, 1995 I was in Madison Square Garden in New York City at a Phish concert. One of my younger brothers was with me. It was the first time we’d ever seen Phish live. With a “Ph” instead of an “F” in their name, Phish , for those of you who may not know, is, to put it bluntly, a great rock and roll band, heirs to the late Jerry Garcia’s Grateful Dead legacy – a band that blends that old 1960s psychedelic image with blues, bluegrass, jazz, funk, and even salsa sounds. Phish is especially known for their stunning concert light-shows, which, if you’re curious, you can watch on YouTube.

I was listening to Phish this week – while writing this sermon, in fact. And I was trying to remember their setlist on the evening of December 30, 1995 when my brother and I first saw them in the flesh. I asked Google for help. Google sent me to the website phish.net, and there I found a library of information that I never knew existed. Zealous Phish fans with apparently a ton of time on their hands have catalogued setlists from every single live Phish concert ever. You can type in a song title, and phish.net will tell you when and where it was performed. It will produce every setlist from every live concert, and even tell you how fans rated the concert on a 1 to 5 scale, 5 being the best show ever. The December 30th, 1995 show scored a respectable 4.181.[1]

On that evening twenty-two years ago in New York City, Phish performed the song “Free” – a song with lyrics that are just ambiguous enough, like any good poem, to make one endlessly speculate about their meaning. Phish fans debate the song’s meaning with as much vigor as scholars who pore over every word and phrase in scripture. Fans marshal arguments defending one interpretation of the song as a message about being free of drug addiction. Other fans argue that the song is really about being free from the highs and lows of life – hovering above the fray like a Stoic, so to speak. Still others say the song is about tossing your partner overboard into the sea, and then being free (the interpretations are quite varied). And the interpretation I like best, hears in the song “Free” a description of birth: “ Swimming weightless in the womb ,” sings Phish , “ bouncing gently round the room. In a minute I’ll be free, and we’ll be splashing in the sea … I feel free! Free! Free! ” – lyrics that remind me of Ian McEwan’s novel Nutshell about a baby in a womb.

Phish.net says the song “Free” was most recently performed live by Phish a week ago, on December 31, 2017 at Madison Square Garden.[2] It was one of Phish ’s final songs of 2017. A song about birth and new possibilities and the promise of being “free” as 2018 dawns – a powerful way to greet a new year. It calls to mind for me that beautiful story in the Sacramento Bee on January 2nd.[3] The story told of a mother who gave birth to twins. Joaquin was born at 11:58 pm on December 31, 2017. His twin sister Aitana was born at 12:16 am on January 1, 2018. Twins who shared the same womb for nine months, born less than twenty minutes apart, yet forever sharing different birth years. New birth to close one year; new birth to open another.

Birth is so pure and theologically rich. It marks a beginning. A brand new, pristine baby enters the world full of hope and promise. And, unless born with addiction or a genetic malady that changes the equation, every baby enters our time and space untainted by the world’s dirt; no knowledge of its injustices; ignorant of its fetishes with race and class, and its craving for war. Regardless of family wealth or family poverty, regardless of place – a cozy hospital, a warm bath at home, a refugee tent, or a Bethlehem manger – every baby is born through water and blood, and gulps that first breath and exhales that first cry; opens those tiny eyes and listens with those tiny ears, experiencing the world for the first time. And in those first few fleeting moments, the newborn is, as Phish sings, “free” – free from the womb; free from a name that will mark them for life; free of the categories we use to classify, label, organize, and even oppress each other. Everything is new and fresh, and full of hope. It’s why our baptism, which we remember today, is often described in scripture with birth language. Baptism is a throwback to birth – to those first, newborn moments of being free – free from the accumulated trash that life dumps on us: the self-doubt, the career doubt, the doubt about our parenting abilities or our professional abilities, about whether we’re good enough to hang with our peers, or have enough saved (or anything saved) to ride out life’s storms, or whether our kids or grandkids will turn out alright, or whether our health will hold out a few years longer, or whether tomorrow will be better than today. Baptism is a wet symbol of salvation; and salvation is encased in the gospel; and the gospel announces that we are free – free like Phish . “I feel free!,” sings Phish . “Free! Free! Free! Free!” New-birth-kind-of-free. Splashing-in-the-ocean-kind-of-free.

…Birth, baptism, and water are theological categories one finds strewn throughout scripture. Today’s reading from Genesis – the Bible’s first words – opens scripture with water and new beginnings as creation “swims and splashes in the sea” – to return to those Phish lyrics – and emerges from water like a baby being born. Christianity has a long tradition of holding that God created “out of nothing,” ex nihilo in Latin. It’s a philosophical argument, not a biblical one. If something existed out of which God created – the reasoning goes – then how do we label that “something”: is it co-existent with God, and thus divine? Does God have an equal? To avoid this thorny problem, theologians just asserted that God created ex nihilo , out of nothing, that God pre -existed creation. But that’s not what Genesis says. Genesis says there was water in the beginning. And that God’s wind – God’s spirit – breathed across the stormy waters, calming them in order to bring forth life. It’s birth imagery. “God creates the world in herself,” says theologian Catherine Keller, and then gives birth to it in the midst of chaotic waters.[4]

Today’s Psalm adds a birth cry to this Genesis birth story. The Psalmist sings about God’s voice over many waters – a thundering voice – a voice, a cry that shatters trees and shakes the earth and stills the sea. It’s a cry like that of a mother giving birth. The poet who penned Psalm 29 was deliberately recalling the creation-birth story from Genesis, when God cried out, and her baby creation emerged pure and pristine from water. Emerged “free.” Our two gospel readings for today carry these themes further. The story about the Wise Men searching for the new baby is a symbolic tale about how God’s new creation light spills beyond the confines of a single group of people to include all people and all creation. And in Mark’s gospel, an adult Jesus gets drenched in baptism; and a dove, a spirit, a wind, a breath from God – like the wind of God in Genesis – blows over him as he emerges new and fresh and reborn – empowered for the gospel ministry of setting people free – “Free” like Phish . I love how artist Daniel Bonnell depicts the baptism of Christ. Jesus emerges drenched from the waters, rising up with arms outstretched in the shape of a cross, as the Dove hovers above him, and a dawning sun illuminates him from behind. He’s wet; but he looks free.

Water in scripture sets people free. It marks the arrival of salvation. It symbolizes a deep cleansing of the soul – a new birth into a new way of life, full of possibility and hope, like the birth of those twins at the end of 2017 and the beginning of 2018. The Genesis creation story is a story of birth and new beginnings out of water. The story of Noah’s flood is a story of salvation through water. Hagar in the story of Abraham’s son Ishmael is saved when an angel provides a spring of water to quench her thirst. The Psalmists sing of a God who transforms parched ground into pools of water. Israel is saved when the waters of the Red Sea are parted, and saved again when the Jordan River stops flowing. The ancient prophets sang of a day when a new Exodus awash in new waters would save the the people from exile. The prophet Ezekiel called this freeing water a river of life deep enough to swim in. In John’s gospel, Jesus calls himself “living water” that will quench spiritual thirst forever; and when he says this to the woman at the well, she is set free from her broken past. The writer of Revelation called this liberating water the “water of life.” The band Phish sang of “splashing in the sea” to set us “free.” The old Celtic Christians viewed water as a “thin place” where God’s realms clashes with ours; and they likened baptism to passing through a door: “This day is a new day that has never been before,” they would chant. “[It’s] the opening [of a] door.” And when St. Paul wrote about baptism in his letters, he called it a new creation, an exodus-like liberation, a new beginning, like being re-born “free.” Baptism, says Jesus, marks us with the name of God – Father, Son, and Spirit – words that grant a new identity; and words, as novelist Ian McEwan writes, “can make things true.”[5] To remember our baptism – even if we were baptized as babies – is to claim again that ancient truth that we are claimed by the One who makes all things new and beautiful – the One who once entered baptismal waters, was kissed by God’s spirit, and marked as God’s own child forever. Knowing this love, sets us free. Free like Phish .

…Philosopher Peter Rollins tells a parable about a man named Caleb that illustrates the power of love to set us free.[6] Rollins writes, “There was once a young man called Caleb who was obsessed with gathering up possessions and gaining status. He was so driven by the desire to succeed that, from an early age, he managed to become one of the most prominent and influential figures in the city. Yet he was not happy with his lot. He worked long hours, rarely saw his children, and often became irritable at the slightest problem. But more than this, he knew that his lifestyle met with his father’s disapproval. His father had himself been a wealthy and influential man in his youth. But he had found such a life shallow and unsatisfactory. As a result, he had turned away from it in an endeavor to embrace a life of simplicity, fellowship, and meditation. Caleb’s father had taught him from an early age about the problems that come from seeking material and political influence, and he warned Caleb in the strongest possible way to embrace a life that delves deeply into the beauty of creation, the warmth of friendship, and the inspiration derived from deep and sustained reflection. Caleb’s father was an inspiring man, well loved by all, and Caleb could see that his father, while living in a modest way, was at peace with himself and the world … . Because of this, Caleb often looked with longing at his father’s lifestyle and frequently detested the path that he had personally chosen … . It was true that his father was a happy and contented man, but he was also concerned about his son, and on any occasion when they spent time together, he would criticize Caleb for the life he had chosen. But one day while Caleb’s father was reflecting upon his son’s life, a voice from heaven interrupted him, saying, ‘Caleb is also my son, and I love him just the way he is.’ Caleb’s father began to weep as he realized that all these years he had been hurting his son through his disapproval and criticism. So he immediately visited his son’s house and offered a heartfelt apology, saying, ‘Please never feel that you have to change what you do or who you are. I love you without limit and condition just as you are.’ After that day, the father began to take an interest in his son’s life again, asking questions about what he was doing and how his work was progressing. But increasingly, Caleb found that he was no longer so interested in working the long hours. Soon he started … to spend more time with his family and began to take less interest in what others thought about him. Eventually, Caleb gave up his work entirely and followed in his father’s footsteps, realizing that it was only after his father had accepted him unconditionally for who he was, that he was able to change and become who he always wanted to be.”

…That story is a parable, which means it is true at a deeper level than whether or not it actually happened. It is true that love transforms us. It is true that love sets us “free” – free like Phish . How might your life change – how free might you feel – if you accepted such nonjudgmental love from God?

Our every encounter with water serves as a reminder of this love. When you wash your face, said Protestant Reformer Martin Luther, you can remember your baptism.

…Let me close with words from a UCC minister about how even taking a shower can remind us of our baptism. The words go as follows: “You who made the world, You who move the waters, You who make the rains to fall on the just and on the unjust, Surely you can do this: Let a bit of the water that closed over the sacred head, just a drop that dripped off the sacred beard, only a little of what was wiped from the sacred eyes, let just one molecule of the same water that saved the Savior be in this spray. Let it hit me like a mother’s kiss, and let it whisper ‘You are baptized. You are baptized. You are free.’” Amen.

1 http://phish.net/setlists/phish-december-30-1995-madison-square-garden-new-york-ny-usa.html?highlight=215

2 http://phish.net/setlists/phish-december-31-2017-madison-square-garden-new-york-ny-usa.html

3 http://www.sacbee.com/news/state/california/article192663879.html

4 Catherine Keller, Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming (New York: Routledge, 2003), 191.

5 Ian McEwan, Nutshell (New York: Doubleday, 2016), 58.
6 Peter Rollins, The Orthodox Heretic: And Other Impossible Tales (Brewster, MA: Paraclete, 2015 [2009]), 131-133.