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Trifling

Preacher: 
Rev. Quinn G. Caldwell
Date: 
Mar 6 2011
Scripture: 

Transcript

Will you pray for me? Lord, may the words of my lips and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Is there anyone here that’s heard the anthem that the choir just sang before?

Or perhaps I should ask if there’s anyone here that hasn’t heard O Fortuna before. If there is, do have the guy sitting next to you check for a pulse when he passes you the Friendship Pad, because it’s hard to imagine being alive in this world, or at least in this country, without having heard that piece before. A lot. The Patriots blast it at the beginning of home games as they enter the field at Gilette. Will Schuester and Sue Sylvester waged battle against each other while it played in the background in a recent episode of Glee. Old Spice and Gatorade have both used it in commercials. Jay Leno and Conan O’Brien play it whenever they show a photograph of Dick Cheney. Sean Hannity often plays it between clips on his radio show, and the list goes on: professional wrestlers, rockers, rappers, horror movies, video games, whenever somebody wants you to know that something epic is happening, it is the go-to piece.

What’s ironic is that the text of O Fortuna is completely unsuited to most of these uses. As you can see from the words printed in your bulletin, it actually has nothing at all to do with the vast majority of situations into which it finds itself shoehorned. But here, today? In a service of worship of the God of Jesus Christ?

It actually has nothing to do with church, either. Harry and I just wanted to do it because it’s awesome.

But if the text has nothing to do with God, its context does. O Fortuna is part of a much larger work by Carl Orff called Carmina Burana; we’ll hear another piece from that work as today’s prayer response. The texts that Orff set to music come in turn from an 11th hor 12th-century collection of hundreds of poetic pieces known collectively as Carmina Burana, or “Songs of Beuern”, after the Bavarian monastery in which the manuscript was discovered in the early 1800’s. You can see a page from it on the insert in your bulletin.

Though virtually none of the original music survives to this day, scholars believe that what appear to be poems were actually song lyrics, and all of the pieces were originally to be sung. They were written in a mix of Latin and several vernacular languages. A similar collection called the Carmina Cantabrigiensia, or “Songs of Cambridge”, was compiled and copied in England sometime in the early to middle eleventh century.

Both the Carmina Burana and the Carmina Cantabrigiensia are the work of a group of clergy who called themselves the Goliards. The came from all across Europe and, if they were who they claimed to be—no one knows who they actually were—they were not only clergy, but also university students. University students then were pretty much the same as university students now, which means this: clergy or no, they spent the vast majority of their time skipping class, listening to music, being angry at the system, and getting wasted.

Their works are known for being satirical and, according to one source, “bibulous”, a word I had to look up and which means “given to or marked by the consumption of alcohol”. Though the Goliards were clergy, the pieces in the Carminas are none of them about religious matters, at least not explicitly—unless you count songs about priests and maidens “playing the games of Venus” among the flowers to be a religious matter. The songs are, with few exceptions, about fate, love, sex, or drinking—or all four. They wanted not only to have fun, but to make good people blush.

But they were not only about partying and iconoclasm, these guys. They were also mad. Mad at the growing contradictions and abuses within the medieval church (you know the list: indulgences, the Crusades, the selling of ecclesiastical favors, and more), and though they were clerics themselves, they were strongly anti-clerical. They were on a mission to point up the hypocrisy and silliness at least some of their brothers were engaged in. They expressed their feelings not only by writing songs about more or less forbidden topics, they also did, well, let’s call it “performance art” as well. Some of their performance pieces are described in a letter from the University of Paris to the French king asking him to do something about their behavior. It says,

“Priests and clerks.. dance in the choir dressed as women.. they sing wanton songs. They eat black pudding at the altar itself, while the celebrant is saying Mass. They play dice on the altar. They cense with stinking smoke from the soles of old shoes. They run and leap throughout the church, without a blush of their own shame. Finally they drive about the town and its theatres in shabby carriages and carts, and rouse the laughter of their fellows and the bystanders in infamous performances, with indecent gestures and with scurrilous and unchaste words.”1

They played games in processions involving herrings tied to their feet, they brought donkeys into churches to preside over fictional masses, they did everything they could to make the establishment mad. And all the while, that establishment, and the well-behaved and sober everywhere, clucked their tongues and muttered epithets at those ill-bred, trifling college students and their uncouth ways—couldn’t they see that this was not the way to make a change? Successive councils and decrees throughout the 1200’s restricted the Goliards’ actions more and more, until by the 1300s or so, they disappear, leaving behind nothing in the historical record but complaints from the man and—thank God—the Carminas.

But though that may be all they’ve left in the historical record, their effect on history is nearly incalculable. For consider this: they anticipated the Protestant Reformation by several hundred years. Centuries before the powerful and the well-behaved would do anything about the abuses in the church, these trifling little college students were doing guerilla theater in the aisles trying to point the problem out. Of course it would take the might of princes and Councils to eventually bring the Reformation to fruition, it started with a bunch of hard-drinking grad students poking the system from the underside in drag.

But that’s not all. Many scholars believe that the Carminas are the first recorded instances of secular music anywhere in the world. Certainly people were singing secular songs in their daily lives for as long as humans have had voices, but the Goliards were, evidently, the first ones to take that kind of music seriously enough to write it down in manuscripts, illuminate it with cover art, and pass it on. Let your mind spin for just a moment on the cumulative effect that secular music has had on the world and you’ll see why I think the Goliards matter. Unfortunately, I do think that means that they are in some sense responsible for Justin Bieber, which does not endear them to me, but I’m willing to forgive them because there is one more point to make about them.

Not only is the Goliards’ music the earliest preserved secular music we have, it’s also among the very first recorded examples of the use of vernacular languages in formal works. Though much of the Carminas are in Latin, they also include French and German, the language of the common people. This is significant because, while the written vernacular was certainly being used for day to day life in those days, no educated person of the day, seeking to create anything that would last, would have dared or deigned to write using any language but Latin. No educated person would have considered the language of the peasants refined enough to say anything important. 300 years before Wycliff decided English was good enough for the Bible, five hundred years before Martin Luther decided German would do, these guys that the bishops and popes were dismissing as ruffians and scalawags, they were taking what regular people had to say seriously. And they sowed the seeds of revolution with beautiful, brilliant songs in the common tongue about topics that made the elders blanche.

 

You know this: when the revolution comes, more often than not it starts not in the halls of power, not from the mouths of the ones that the powerful listen to, not from the brains of the ones formed by the way things are, but from the hearts of the ones who see the ways things could be. Eventually, the big changes do require that at least some of the powerful people in the world get on board. But when it starts, the revolution never looks like a very big deal. It always starts in ways that the world thinks are silly, vulgar, offensive, trifling, a big waste of time, ways that might even be silly, vulgar wastes of time—until, that is, they overwhelm the world.

“Why do you have to listen to that noise?” the parents ask. “Can’t you listen to real music?” And then rock and roll overwhelms the world, and ends a war, and changes everything.

“Why do you spend so much time on that site? Why are you always staring at your phone and tapping away with your thumbs?” they ask. “Can’t you spend your time on sites with actual content?” And then Facebook, Twitter, and You Tube are transfigured into political forces that power a revolution that overwhelms an Egyptian despot, and changes everything.

“Why are you listening to that peasant?” they ask. And then that peasant starts to shine like the sun, and the creator of Heaven and Earth comes down and says, “Listen to him,” and everything—everything—changes forever and ever and ever.

 

When it came time to win the world back for love, God could have chosen some angel or archangel or something to do it, some celestial power. Instead, God chose a trifling little human, made from the dirt and probably covered in it as well. God could have chosen a priest, or a king to bear the message to the people. Instead, God chose a peasant from a backwater town. And the people laughed—at first. They clicked their tongues and shook their heads. They mocked him, they spit on him, they beat him, and they killed him. But you know what happened then.

And then one peasant told another, who told another, who told another, and suddenly it seemed that every knee was bending at the luminous name of Jesus.

In Lent, we tell the story of Mary’s boy, that angry kid from Nazareth who drank too much and partied too much and hung out with the wrong crowd. We tell about his improbable rise from nobody to gadfly to torture victim to murder victim to Lord and Lover of all. It is a good time to consider the ways that small things can get big fast when they have the power of God behind them.

So this Lent, we will put our belief that trifling things can start great revolutions to the test with our Lenten series, Grow; you can read about it on the other side of the bulletin insert. Together, we will read the book Mudhouse Sabbath and gather each week for a presentation and discussion about a particular spiritual discipline—and then we will take that discipline on for a week. At the end of the forty days of Lent, having test-driven a bunch of disciplines, we will celebrate Easter by each choosing one of these practices to take on throughout the fifty days of Easter, checking in and supporting one another as we go. And then we will gather again on Pentecost to see what God has wrought.

Will small things, things the world doesn’t get or appreciate, things like taking a day off or eating intentionally, aging well or practicing hospitality, can these transform the world? Will they make you a disciple? Will they change anything, much less everything? We don’t know, but here’s what we do know:

It starts small. Just a trifle, just a little silly bit of nothing much. Like a mustard seed, a grain of wheat. Like a thief in the night, like a little bit of yeast. Like a bunch of misbehaving college students. Like a dumb Web site. Like a peasant who turns out to be the God of love.

Like you.

Amen.

1 Boorstin, Daniel J. The Seekers: The Story of Man’s Continuing Quest to Understand His World. New York: Random House. 1998. Google book accessed 3-5-11.