Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News
The Rev. Kevin M. Goodman
On Thursday evening, at the Democratic National Convention, Khizr and Ghazala Khan, the parents of the fallen Iraqi War hero Captain Humayun Khan, told a story.
Mr. Khan shared, "Like many immigrants, we came to this country empty-handed. We believed in American democracy — that with hard work and the goodness of this country, we could share in and contribute to its blessings. We were blessed to raise our three sons in a nation where they were free to be themselves and follow their dreams. Our son, Humayun, had dreams of being a military lawyer. But he put those dreams aside the day he sacrificed his life to save his fellow soldiers. (I believe) Hillary Clinton was right when she called my son 'the best of America.' We can't solve our problems by building walls and sowing division. We are stronger together."
People cheered. Others cried. Many pondered the images of Muslims that have been held up before us in the previous weeks. I heard the story of faithful Americans. Others heard "those people are coming to kill us."
What story have you heard?
What story do you need to hear?
"The Wiz" debuted on Broadway in October, 1974. It is a musical retelling of The Wizard of Oz from the African-American perspective. It won seven Tony awards, including best musical. The story is well known. Dorothy is blown out of Kansas by a tornado. Her house falls on a witch. She travels down a yellow brick road, meeting friends who have been told by others that they are stupid. Have no heart. Lack courage. As they travel together, they share each other's stories, realizing that they have come to believe what others have said about them.
When "The Wiz" debuted to critical acclaim, my grandmother was genuinely perplexed. "Why did they have to take our favorite movie and tell it from the black perspective?" she would ask. I wouldn't call my grandmother a racist. Her father was a civil rights lawyer, a man she loved deeply. My pawpaw was the man I wanted to be. He was a faithful Catholic, a man of principle and reason, a lawyer who fought for those who had no voice, whose stories remain untold. He travelled all over Mississippi and Alabama, signing up and defending an African-American's right to vote.
I would visit him on weekends. The Ku Klux Klan would stop by to burn crosses in his yard. I was terrified. My pawpaw, - not so much. He would say, "these people are just ignorant. They don't know the world. One day Kevin, there will be no races. We will have loved each other so much, we will all be the same color."
Because he had raised my grandmother, because his stories shaped and formed my entire family, I was a little taken aback by my grandmother's reaction to "The Wiz." She wasn't a racist. But it was racism. It was something she didn't recognize within herself. Everything she read, every song she heard, every picture in magazine she saw supported and affirmed her life experiences. She heard and read and saw her story. "The Wiz" was not how the story had been told. When the popular narrative is challenged, we experience discomfort, discontent.
The stories around us are changing rapidly. We are so surrounded by bad news. A police officer kills a citizen over a busted out tail-light. An armed civilian kills cops from skyscraper rooftops and city street corners. Terrorists are killing everyone and everything. There's Brexit, a failed Turkish coup, Syrian refugees, unrest in Afghanistan, the Palestinian crisis, the Chinese encroachment, the Rio Olympics, the Republican National Convention, the Democratic National Convention, email theft from Russian Hacks, violence right here on the streets of Chicago, and it goes on and on and on.
We are so overwhelmed by these shifting narratives, we have no time to reflect on how these stories change us, challenge us, shape us, call us to something new. Often, we just have time to react. Stories shape and form us as people of the United States of America.
In the broadway musical "The Wiz," Evillene, the wicked witch of the west, owns a sweat shop. She enslaves her people, in order to crank out the latest fashions demanded by the residents of Emerald City - a city ruled by elite urbanites. The citizens of OZ control the poor and disadvantaged residents by encouraging them to dream about the lifestyle of the rich and famous.
"Live our life. See our story on TV. Admire our photographs in the Vanity Fair. Believe the promises of wizards and politicians and all of this can be yours."
When I can't find myself in the stories that surround me, I come to believe that my story is irrelevant. My life has no value.
What story are you hearing?
What story do you need to hear?
Evillene, the wicked witch of the west, sings an amusing musical number called "Don't Nobody Bring Me No Bad News."
Evillene says, "I wake up already negative and I have wired up my fuse... When you're talking to me don't be crying the blues. You can verbalize and vocalize but just bring me the clues... If you're gonna tell me something tell me, something I can use but don't you bring me no bad news. Don't you bring me no bad news."
As an Emerald City outsider, Evillene is trying to shape her narrative. Control her story.
What story are you hearing?
What story do you need to hear?
Our Old Testament reading this morning is from the book of Ecclesiastes. It is one of my favorite books however calling it a book is misleading. It is an odd gathering of platitudes, of fortune cookie sayings, presenting a sarcastic yet whimsical look at the absurdities of this life. The sayings are attributed to Qoheleth which literally means "teacher."
Qoheleth is frustrated with the limitations of humankind and is downright jealous and angry with God who created all of this. Qoheleth's anger comes across as cynicism. God has freedom. Limitless. Is unbounded. But God, you created a world full of voices of dissent. I am right. The "other" is wrong. I have worked for all that I have but why? What do I get from all of this? What am I entitled too? Why do I feel entitled to things I did not even earn? Things I inherited from others. Is this vanity?
Is all of it just vanity?
In the midst of all the noise, the hatred, the blatant disregard for human life, the total disgust of the other, the teacher is struggling to figure out what is good and true and why.
The Good News for us is Jesus walks into our world, in the midst of all the mess, to change the narrative. To open our hearts. To challenge our thinking. To remind us of our story.
Sometimes I understand totally the frustrations of Qoheleth, the teacher of Ecclesiastes. The people of God have forgotten who they are. We have forgotten our Holy Story. We are not listening. We ignore God. We do not love our neighbors. We murder. We steal from the poor. Leave the hungry for dead. Do not welcome the stranger into our homeland.
Don't nobody bring me no bad news.
What stories are you hearing?
What stories do you need to hear?
Jesus shares stories of healing for the tossed aside and forgotten. Fair wages for the working poor, for all in the vineyard, and all you have to do is show up. The hungry fed. The dead brought back to life.
When the stories of ALL the people of God are heard and claimed as sacred, the mission and ministry of the people of God is clear.
Have I heard the story of a transgendered person?
Do I know what happens to a refugee family?
Can I possibly understand or imagine the amount of trauma experienced by a police officer during the course of a day?
Even Jesus was changed by listening to story.
The Canaanites are mentioned over 150 times in the Bible. They are depicted as wicked, idolatrous people who were descended from Noah's grandson Canaan. A Canaanite woman's daughter was possessed by an evil spirit. No one, not even Jesus, cared about the experiences of the Canaanites. But she yelled after him and demanded that he hear her story. Jesus's friends begged him to send her away. She is bothering me. She is yelling after us. She is a Canaanite. Who cares?
"Get away from us you dirty Canaanite woman."
Annoyed, Jesus said to the Canaanite woman, "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs."
She answered, "Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."
Suddenly, in an instant, Jesus' eyes were opened. The narrative in his head shifted. Jesus answered her, "Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish."
And her daughter was healed instantly.
I take great comfort knowing that even Jesus had to listen to the experiences of others in order to change his prejudices.
What voices am I hearing and ignoring?
What story do I need to hear?
At the end of "The Wiz," Dorothy realizes she has been changed through sharing and hearing and becoming a part of the stories of her friends. She is able to recognize her heart, her brain, her courage, her God-given dignity.
Dorothy sings, "Suddenly my world has changed its face but at least I know where I'm going. I have had my mind spun around in space and thanks be to God I've watched it growing."
May it be so for all of us.