Spinning Wheel – A Sermon on Luke 4:14-21 for Epiphany 3C

Blood Sweat & Tears

This sermon explores the need to set the captives free. It was inspired by a Globe and Mail article written by David Clayton Thomas, former lead singer of Blood, Sweat & Tears and dedicated to the memory of an old friend who did not “go naturally” and will never be forgotten! You can listen to the sermon here to get you in the mood, watch the video of Blood, Sweat & Tears below

The year was 1969. I was just twelve years old and my family had only recently moved to Ladner, a small village south of Vancouver. I was the new kid in a tightly knit grade seven class. I remember being angry, a lot. Being twelve is tough, but being twelve and new in town; well that’s a kind of hell I wouldn’t wish on anyone. There were only two places I felt safe: One was my bedroom where I could escape into my books or listen to music. The other place was music class. We had a really cool, young teacher, she must have been fresh out of teachers’ college, because she had all these new ideas about something she called music appreciation. The songs we sang in Miss Conroy’s class were songs off the radio. Some days she’d let us put our heads down on our desks and she’d just play music and all we had to do was appreciate it. Not all of the music was stuff we’d heard on the radio, sometimes Miss Conroy would sneak in some jazz; not any kind of jazz I’d ever heard before, improvisational jazz; it was so cool to my twelve year-old ears that I gave Miss Conroy a pass when she would slip into teacher mode and put some classical music on the record player.

One day, Miss Conroy announced that we’d been listening to her music long enough; it was time we began to listen to our music. Miss Conroy explained that she was going to divide us into pairs and each pair would have to work together to select a piece of music to bring to class and share it. We would have to explain to the class, why the piece that we choose was worth paying attention to. Now even though there were all sorts of pieces of music that I thought would be great for this assignment, I began to panic. Who on earth would want to work with me on such a project? The thought of being teamed up with anyone of my classmates struck fear into my heart. I didn’t have any real friends in this class and as the new kid I knew that nobody would want to be stuck with me. Vision’s of being left out, all alone without a partner began to overwhelm me, as Mrs. Conroy announced that we would be drawing names out of a hat in order to determine who our partners would be. When my turn came to pull a partner’s name out of the hat, I didn’t even know what to hope for. I didn’t know people well enough to want anyone in particular to be my partner, there was only one person in the whole class that I knew that I knew well enough to know that I didn’t want to be my partner. I, like all my classmates was positively terrified of, for the sake of this sermon I’m going to call him Kenny. Kenney sure wasn’t twelve; he was a few years older than the rest of us. He was a big guy; dark hair, good looking, and unlike the other adolescent boys in the class, Kenny had already started shaving. Once during the lunch hour I witnessed Kenny bullying a younger boy into eating an apple core that had been discarded a few days earlier. The kid ate the rotting core rather than face whatever it was Kenny was threatening him with. Kenny was big, tough and loud. Most of us were frightened of Kenny and because kids are cruel, behind his back we diagnosed him as crazy. But there was something about Kenny, maybe it was his good looks, maybe it was the buckskin fringe jacket that he sported, or maybe it was just his wildness that made him the talk of the jittering boy-crazed girls in the class. So, I was more than a bit upset when of all people, I pulled Kenny’s name out of the hat. What piece of music could the two of us possibly have in common and how was I even going to talk to him? Miss Conroy slipped perilously into my bad books on the day she forced me into the company of the dreaded Kenny.

Ours was an uneasy partnership. There was precious little conversation involved. Kenny picked the piece of music. Kenny told me what I was going to tell the class about our piece of music. Fortunately, I actually knew and liked the piece that Kenny had chosen. It had been a big hit the previous summer and I owned a copy of the record. The only problem was that my copy was a 45. Kenny insisted that we just had to use the version that was on the album; not the version that they played on the radio off the 45. The version on the album included the trumpet solo that never made it onto the 45. It would have made the song too long for the hit parade! And that’s how I ended up in front of my classmates, standing beside a boy, who though handsome and tough had suddenly become monosyllabic as I struggle to explain why our choice of Blood, Sweat and Tears, Spinning Wheel, was music well worth appreciating.

What goes up must come down

spinning wheel got to go round

Talking about your troubles it’s a crying sin

Ride a painted pony

Let the spinning wheel spin

You got no money, and you, you got no home

Spinning wheel, spinning all alone

Talking about your troubles and you,

you never learn

Ride a painted pony

let the spinning wheel turn.

Did you find a directing sign

on the straight and narrow highway?

Would you mind a reflecting sign

Just let it shine within your mind

And show you the colours that are real

Someone is waiting just for you

spinning wheel is spinning true

Drop all your troubles, by the river side

Catch a painted pony

On the spinning wheel ride

Someone is waiting just for you

spinning wheel is spinning true

Drop all your troubles, by the river side

Ride a painted pony

Let the spinning wheel fly.

They just don’t write songs like that anymore. Kenny was right, the trumpet solo, is a must. Blood, Sweat and Tears had the best horn section. They could take a mediocre song and turn it into something special:  “Spinning Wheel,” “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” “God Bless the Child,” “Hidey Ho, Hidey Hi,” “And When I Die.” Thanks to Kenny, I bought every LP that Blood, Sweat and Tears ever recorded.

So, what has any of this got to do with this morning’s Gospel reading? Well the words that the writer of the Gospel of Luke puts into the mouth of Jesus of Nazareth have been spinning round in my head all week long. I keep hearing Jesus quote the words of the prophet Isaiah. “The Spirit of our God is upon me: because the Most High has anointed me to bring Good News to those who are poor. God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison—to proclaim the year of God’s favour.” The year of God’s favour is the prophet Isaiah’s way of describing the year of Jubilee. Written into the Jewish law was a provision meant to address the systemic injustices that creep into the law as time goes by. It is said that every 50 years a Jubilee would be declared.

During the year of Jubilee, debts would be forgiven, property would be restored to its rightful owners and prisoners would be set free. We don’t know how often or how widespread the practice of Jubilee was. We only know that it was an ideal held up to the people as worthy. It seems that even the ancients knew that corruption and neglect takes its toll over time in any system.

Here today in Canada we can see in our own system of justice that corruption and neglect coupled with laws enacted to quench the public’s thirst for revenge or quell our fears, have lead to systemic abuse in our prison system. In Canada, both prisoners and correction officers are being held captive to a system that sure could use a little jubilee. The case of Ashley Smith has shone a light upon the ridiculous systems that exist in our prisons that force inmates and guards into impossible situations. Our prison system is broken. Our prisoners languish, while our correction officers become frustrated to the point of burnout. And the situation is only going to get worse as we lean more and more toward the American model of privatizing the prison system. The passage of the recent omnibus bill, which promises a get tough attitude toward crime will ensure that more and more young people will end up incarcerated. Which will no doubt prove profitable to those new private prisons that may be coming sooner than we think. Crime rates are lower than they have ever been in Canada, and yet we are more afraid than we have ever been. This get tough on crime attitude is nothing new, but is it necessary, is it prudent, or is it even useful? I don’t have the answers here. But I can’t listen to the words Jesus is said to have spoken without wondering what Jubilee might look like here in Canada. “The Spirit of our God is upon me: because the Most High has anointed me to bring Good News to those who are poor. God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison—to proclaim the year of God’s favour.”

What goes up must come down

spinning wheel got to go round

You got no money, and you, you got no home

Spinning wheel, spinning all alone

Talking about your troubles and you,

you never learn

Ride a painted pony

let the spinning wheel turn.

David Clayton Thomas was the lead singer for Blood, Sweat and Tears. David Clayton Thomas is a Canadian. On Wednesday, David Clayton Thomas wrote an article that appeared in the Globe and Mail. I’d like to read that article: “I’m not an expert in the criminal justice system.

Just a product of it. The story of Ashley Smith, the teenager who strangled herself in her prison cell as guards watched, has prompted me to speak out. But for fortune, that could have been me. At 15, I ran away from a brutally abusive father. Homeless, freezing, I broke into office buildings for a place to sleep. It was a relief to be arrested. At least it meant a roof over my head and three meals a day. I did not know it also meant a free education in a predatory, upside-down society where the strong rule, the weak are victimized and the inmate code is all that matters. The guards lock the doors and enforce the rules, but the inmates run the joint. Break the rules and you get a few days in the “hole.” Break the code and you can get killed. Fighting is a survival tool, but it’s assault in the eyes of the law, punishable with more time.

If a kid is driven to attempt suicide or self-harm, well, that’s also punishable. That’s how Ashley Smith, originally charged as a juvenile with a minor crime, ended up serving time as an adult.

I was just one of thousands of lost, homeless kids – kids you see on the street every day. I was not beyond redemption; they just treated me as if I was. The lessons of prison guarantee failure after release. In no time I was back, recycled for four more years in hellholes like the Burwash Industrial Farm, a notorious labour camp south of Sudbury that has since been closed. Are we treating troubled kids any differently today? Clearly, the vicious cycle of recidivism is alive and well. A staggering 90 per cent of young offenders sent to prison reoffend within two years, according to a recent Manitoba government report. And meanwhile, despite evidence that it is ineffective policy, the federal government is getting “tough” on crime, imposing mandatory sentencing and building more prisons to house more criminals, even as the crime rate continues to fall. More and more prisoners show up with mental illnesses. They don’t get better in jail. They get worse.

Every one of these men and women was once a kid we didn’t care about. These aren’t “other people’s” kids. These are your kids, your neighbour’s kids. A full 6 per cent of Canadian children aged 12-17 were accused of a crime in 2010, according to Public Safety Canada statistics. Most were not charged or imprisoned. But new changes to the Criminal Code will ensure that ever more of them are crushed in the gears of the criminal justice system. Music saved me. It was a crazy fluke that I ever discovered my talent. At the age of 21, two convictions under my belt, I walked out of Millbrook prison with 20 bucks in my pocket, a mail-order guitar and the dream of becoming a blues singer. I survived a system that fails us all. Not Ashley Smith.

When she strangled herself in her segregation cell, the only people who could have saved her watched and did nothing. Call it crying for help, attention-seeking behaviour, whatever you want. She did not deserve to die. Canada’s Correctional Investigator has repeatedly called for an end to solitary confinement. Nobody listens. Now, as a coroner’s inquest reconstructs her last moments, all of Canada is watching. Will we fail her once again? Will we do nothing once again? The cold gears of our justice system are tearing apart others like her at this very moment. Why do we remain unmoved? She wasn’t someone else’s kid. There but for fortune, she could have been yours. Could have been mine. Could have been me.

“The Spirit of our God is upon me: because the Most High has anointed me to bring Good News to those who are poor. God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison—to proclaim the year of God’s favour.”

Nobody ever messed with me when I started high school. While my classmates faced the trials and tribulations of being first year students, nobody bothered me. Being Kenny’s friend had all sorts of perks. Kenny took care of his own. Kenny was wild, and always getting into trouble, and all the girls wanted to be near Kenny. There’s just something about a bad boy that teenage girls find so attractive. That Kenny actually spoke to me did wonders for my social life. Unfortunately, Kenny didn’t last long in high school. He dropped out shortly after the Christmas holidays. I heard of him from time to time. He was in and out of reform school and then in and out of prison. I ran into him in the city once. We were in our twenties. I was working for a tour operator and Kenny was looking for work. We shared a cup of coffee. Talked about the old days and promised to meet up for a drink sometime. I heard years later that Kenny died in prison. He would have been about 35 when he died. I don’t know what he was in prison for. I don’t know how or why he died. I don’t have the answers. I do know that each of us shares a responsibility to at the very least ask some questions. We need to ask the tough questions so that together we can figure out what jubilee might look like.

Blood, Sweat and Tears last big hit was a song entitled: “And when I die.” Like all of their music, I don’t ever hear a Blood, Sweat and Tears tune, without thinking of my friend Kenny.

And when I die, and when I’m gone,

There’ll be one child born

In this world to carry on,

to carry on.

Now troubles are many, they’re as deep as a well.

I can swear there ain’t no heaven but I pray there ain’t no hell.

Swear there ain’t no heaven and I pray there ain’t no hell,

But I’ll never know by living, only my dying will tell.

Yes only my dying will tell.

Yeah, only my dying will tell.

Give me my freedom for as long as I be.

All I ask of living is to have no chains on me.

All I ask of living is to have no chains on me,

And all I ask of dying is to go naturally.

Oh I want to go naturally.

The Spirit of our God is upon me: because the Most High has anointed me to bring Good News to those who are poor. God has sent me to proclaim liberty to those held captive, recovery of sight to those who are blind, and release to those in prison—to proclaim the year of God’s favour.” Let the spinning wheel spin! Amen.

Blood Sweat & Tears 45

One thought on “Spinning Wheel – A Sermon on Luke 4:14-21 for Epiphany 3C

  1. Pingback: Un sermón de Lucas 4: 14-21 para la Epifanía 3C | Evangelizadoras de los apóstoles

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s