No Mercy – The Rev. Morgan Allen – Church Building

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On the evening of Holy Saturday (the day between Good Friday and Easter Sunday), my wife and I went to see the great Nils Lofgren at One World Theater, that small venue off Bee Caves Road.  We took our places near the stage and with no more than a half-dozen people in the whole room younger than we two, we waited with the assembling crowd.  I have seen Lofgren many times over the years, but always as a guitarist with The E Street Band, and, despite my faithful, Lenten study of him and his expansive catalogue, I remained unfamiliar with his biography and with his solo work.

Reading the liner notes from his 2014 box set,[i] I learned of Lofgren’s birth on Chicago’s South Side in 1951, and I learned that at five-years-old a car struck Nils while he played on a construction site near his home.[ii]  Like a super hero’s origins, then, maybe this accident burdened the boy with the remarkably modest stature he has maintained into his adulthood, while blessing him with his spectacular hand-eye coordination and agility,[iii] for even as he now approaches seventy-years-old, he remains as much sprite as man.  Therefore, shaking his slight hand after that Austin show, I took care not to squish those magic fingers while inviting him to Easter Sunday the next morning here at Good Shepherd.  He politely declined, explaining that he would celebrate the holiday by spending time with his wife and dogs.[iv]

While, this Easter, Nils was returning to his family, exactly 50 years ago this fall, he was leaving his parents, just a few weeks into his senior year of high school.  He “put a note of apology…under [his] pillow…hitchhiked to the airport, flew to [New York City], subwayed to Greenwich Village…and found [himself] in an upstairs dressing room at the Fillmore East with The Animals, who were performing there.”[v]  After that first night, though, Lofgren caught pneumonia and, nine days later, returned to his mom and dad.  Upon convalescing their son, the Lofgrens made the unorthodox “decision to [allow Nils to abandon his studies and] stay in his old room while pursuing [his rock-n-roll] dream[s, albeit while paying] a reasonable rent, [following] all house roles, [and keeping his daily] chores.”[vi]

That same winter, Nils found his way backstage “at The Cellar Door[, a club] in D.C, where [none other than] Neil Young handed [Nils] his…guitar and listened to [Lofgren] play…[Nils would watch] four Neil Young & Crazy Horse shows that weekend, [after which the Canadian frontman] encouraged [Lofgren] to “look him up” if [Nils ever] got to [Los Angeles].  Still just 18, Nils did make it to L.A, and did “look up” Neil Young. [vii]  In fact, upon their reconnection, Young asked him “to play guitar, piano, and sing a bit” on what would become After The Gold Rush, one of the greatest rock albums of all time.[viii]

Among the setlist Nils Lofgren played for us week-before-last, I most enjoyed the song, “No Mercy,” first released in 1979.  The original recording opens with the backdrop of sounds from a Madison Square Garden boxing match, over which Nils sings:

Out for the First, atmosphere is heavy,
world title lays on the line.
Strong and proud, he is much older[, but]
I’m the faster, I’m in my prime.

  Third Round late, he starts to tire,
open cut over his left eye.
Smelling blood, [my] attack is relentless.
In the box seats, I see his girl cry.

“No mercy!”  No quarter,
no place to hide from me or the man.
Lefts and rights never came in harder.
“No mercy!  Take it while you can!”[ix]

These first stanzas hint at a perspective uncommon to the boxing trope: unlike a Rocky film, the action of this contest does not carry the meaningful suspense, for the protagonist knows from the outset that he’s better than his opponent.  Here the contender expresses ambivalence about whether he will follow through and realize his potential dominance, thereby locating the drama within his own heart, not as a struggle with fear or uncertainty, but as a battle with the consequence of worldly victory…not as a struggle with fear or uncertainty, but as a battle with the consequence of worldly victory.

Today’s Gospel appointment immediately follows the more familiar “Road to Emmaus” story, when “[Jesus] was at table with [Cleopas and his companion…When he] took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them[…When] their eyes were opened, and they recognized Jesus; and [then] he vanished from their sight.”[x]  After Cleopas and his friend return to Jerusalem to tell the eleven disciples what had happened to them at supper, today we pick up the story at the moment of Jesus’ reappearance, when he says to all those gathered, “Peace be with you.”[xi]  Now, despite the Emmaus tale they’ve just heard…and despite the reassurance of Jesus’ own words…still the disciples “were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.”[xii]  In response, their teacher asks, “Why are you frightened, and why do you raise doubts in your hearts?”[xiii]

As in last week’s “Doubting Thomas” story from the Gospel of John, Jesus offers his pierced hands and feet as corporeal evidence of his identity, punctuating his offer with the invitation, “Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones.”[xiv]  In response, the disciples “still did not believe…because of joy and amazement.”[xv]  Hear that again in the NIV translation: they still did not believe…because of joy and amazement.

So in this Easter story, the disciples’ grief and fear do not carry the meaningful suspense of their “unbelieving,” as at Jesus’ arrest or at his crucifixion.  Rather, the disciples’ joy bears the drama as an uncommon obstacle to belief, their struggle with wonder and amazement at God’s eternal victory… the disciples’ joy bears the drama as an uncommon obstacle to belief, their struggle with wonder and amazement at this news, this experience of God’s eternal victory.

Returning to “No Mercy,” Lofgren continues:

Back in my corner, they scream, “No mercy!”
“Put him away!  Don’t let him recover!”
[I could feel]
Someone’s eyes drill holes in my head,
It [was] his proud, determined mother.

 [With her watching,]
I wish another could do this thing for me:
his eyes are flooded, God, he can’t even see!
I’ve hungered this title, but now it don’t seem right.
I fight back tears as I destroy his life.

 Crying, “No mercy!”  No quarter,
no place to hide from me or the man.
Right and wrong never come in order.
“No mercy!  Take it while you can!”[xvi]

As the young contender nears victory, his distinguished opponent’s frailty moves him, and he can see just far enough into the future to know that his own reign will be equally fleeting.  Further, with pugilism as the presiding metaphor, boxing’s mercilessness demands destruction of one, for the achievement of another.  In other words, by this world’s rules, there can be only one champion, humankind constantly set in competition against itself:

“No mercy!” we learn on the playground.
“Don’t let him recover!” we shout in the public square.
“Take it while you can!” the marketplace demands.

When reviewing a commentary on today’s Gospel, at first glance I misread the word “angelophanies” – as in the appearance of an angel to a person, an angelophany – I (self-revealingly) misread the term as “angel-phobias,” which, of course, I quickly posited as “the fear of angels,” or, in this context, “the fear of an angel’s good news.”  See, this world’s mercilessness so orders the expectations of the disciples, that their joy at Jesus’ appearance prompts their disbelief.  That is, the very idea that God would show mercy to these sorrowed believers with triumphs of love over loss, and life over death…that news is simply too good to risk joy in believing, and as Jesus shows the disciples his hands and feet, his reassurances only exaggerate their uncertainties.

In response to this doubt, Jesus asks, “Have you anything here to eat?” [xvii]  While a seeming non sequitur, as in Emmaus Jesus chooses a supper table as the setting for announcing the world’s reconciliation…a supper table.  See, rather than a boxing match, Jesus calls a dinner party for the “[opening of] their minds to understand the scriptures[.  And after sharing a piece of broiled fish, he says] to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sin is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations…you are witnesses of these things.”[xviii]

For the waifish Nils Lofgren, I can imagine that he conceived his own struggle for rock-n-roll stardom as a bloody competition of one-upmanship, a struggle made emotionally complicated by the friendships with those same people the music industry would pressure him to fight for position and popularity.  For him and for us – at school and at work – for the disciples and for the whole world, Jesus’ Resurrection inaugurates a world bound by companioning, rather than competing; by reconciliation, rather than wrath; by devotion, rather than destruction.  With the supper table as his chosen setting to share the Good News, and our dining together as his invitation, we – “in joyful obedience” to this gracious God – we, too, “bring into this fellowship all of you who come tonight in faith: baptizing, confirming, and receiving in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.”[xix]  For with thanks for your call to these sacraments, your faith entrusts us as continuing witnesses “to these things.”

Friends,[xx] you empower the Church’s Good News, even as we empower one another’s discipleship, and as we again enact these mysteries together, I pray that you will supper here in love and mercy all the days of your lives.

Alleluia!  Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen, indeed!  Alleluia!

 

[i] Lofgren, Nils.  Face The Music.  Fantasy, 2013.  A massive 10-disc set (9 CDs, and 1 DVD), I have been faithfully plowing through (and enjoying) the music.  These “liner notes” are actually a 100+ page booklet, with a lengthy autobiography from Lofgren.  I love all the details, but they can weary congregational ears when all told from the pulpit…so I’ve shared a few in these endnotes.
[ii] Face The Music, p. 11.  Lofgren explains that, following his recovery from his accident, he began taking accordion lessons at age six.  He writes, “The lessons started with waltzes and polkas…I loved the study of music.  The teacher told my parents not to let me play more than a half-hour-a-day, or I’d burn out and quit.  Never happened.  I played a couple-hours-a-day, and it was always a great escape and therapy for me.  Still is.”  Indeed, when we saw him, he brought out his accordion for the encore, and regaled us with the spectacularly fast “Flight of the Bumblebee.”
[iii] Nils’ spinning way too fast whilst shredding the solo during “Because The Night” has been an E Street staple since the ‘80s, up to and including when I most recently saw them in April of 2016.  Of the way he plays with (seemingly) all ten fingers and his whole body, Nils explains that his family moved to Maryland, and soon his brother, Tom, taught him to play guitar.  Nils played with a thumb pick that happened to be in the case of the instrument his father had around their very musical home.  He writes, “around that time, I started meeting fellow teenage guitarists who informed me rock must be played with a flat pick.  But I couldn’t face starting over and sucking for another nine months so I stuck with the thumb pick.”  This unusual style of his strum hand – a mix of banjo and guitar – would become his hallmark.
[iv] The Lord calls us as evangelists…you can’t blame a guy for trying!  Lofgren very graciously spoke to everyone who waited in line for a visit; autographed anything the fans brought to him; and even made time to have his picture made with those who requested it.  We were nearly last in the queue, and Missy – patient as Job – waited with me.  Fortunately, I did not faint upon greeting the rock star.
[v] Face The Music, p. 16.
[vi] Face The Music, p. 17.
[vii] Face The Music, p. 26.  Of his engagement on After the Gold Rush, Lofgren writes: “With great disappointment, I informed [Neil and record producer, David Briggs] that I wasn’t a professional pianist.  Briggs and Neil pointed out to me that I’d won classical accordion contests, which I confirmed.  They said they just needed some simple piano parts and they thought I could handle it…Who was I to question the great Neil Young and David Briggs’s judgment?  I shut my neurotic mouth and simply said, ‘Yes, thank you!’
“One day, during a lunch break, Ralphie Molina (drummer) and I stayed in the studio, jamming on the ‘Southern Man,’ half-time groove.  At some point, I double-timed the beat a la the classic polka feel.  We got into a roaring groove that Neil and Briggs walked back in on, returning from lunch.  ‘What’s that?’ they inquired.  ‘That’s the ‘Southern Man’ riff double-timed like a polka groove,’ said I, the accordionist on piano.  Neil and Briggs loved it, and it became the new solo and outro groove in the song which you can hear clearly as a dramatic shift in feel and energy in this ominous recording.  My accordion expertise accidentally put to great use!
“Anyway, when we were finished with the album, Neil gifted me his funky Martin D-18 acoustic guitar that I used on the record.  Still my most treasured guitar.”
[viii] While Rolling Stone can make me crazy with their preference for 1960s and 1970s rock stars, they did get this one right, ranking After The Gold Rush at #74 in their 2012, “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.”  However, that they rank Billy Joel’s The Stranger (#70) ahead of any Neil Young calls their whole enterprise into question.
[ix] Lofgren, Nils.  Nils.  A&M Records, 1979.
[x] Luke 24:30-31.
[xi] Luke 24:36.
[xii] Luke 24:37.
[xiii] Luke 24:38.
[xiv] Luke 24:39-40.
[xv] Luke 24:41a.  Different translations of this verse prove interestingly distinctive: “And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, ‘Do you anything here to eat?’” (New International Version); “While in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering, he said to them, ‘Have you anything here to eat?’” (New Revised Standard Version); and “And while they yet believed not for joy, and wondered, he said unto them, ‘Have ye here any meat?’” (KJV).
[xvi] Lofgren, Nils.  Nils.  A&M Records, 1979.
[xvii] Luke 24:41b
[xviii] Luke 24:45-48.
[xix] The Book of Common Prayer.  The Church Hymnal Corporation.  1979.  These phrasings from the “Thanksgiving Over The Water” in the baptismal ceremony, pp. 306-307.
[xx] While I preached this sermon all day – including the 7:30a and 10:30a morning services – the intentions here focused on our evening service’s baptisms, confirmations, and receptions.  The recording on the Good Shepherd website is from that 6:00p service, and I’ve left those more particular references in this text.