Take Me to Church - A Sermon from October 29th, 2017
Reformation Sunday: Hozier and the state of the Church
Twenty-two-year-old Hozier’s mid-tempo soul song is a powerfully tense expression of waffling and tension. The lyrics move back and forth between lightness and darkness – truth and lies. In many ways it’s surprising that it was a chart topper. The rich and phantasmatic imagery is a testament to the diversity of musical tastes in the popular music sphere, despite the efforts of Max Martin and other Swedish producers to monopolize the pop music industry around familiar formulas that drive sales. As most musically minded people know Max Martin has written more number-one singles than anyone recent musicians, excluding Paul McCartney and John Lennon. So, I believe that the success of a quirky twenty-two-year-old Irish folk singer can give us hope for something beyond the compositions of the Swedes over the past twenty years.
Hozier’s tune seems to resonate with people. The fact that it topped the charts in 12 countries and spent 23 consecutive weeks at the top of the US Hot Rock Songs chart is a testament to that fact (it tied the record for the longest-running # 1 song in the history of that chart). As the song opens we hear this big E-minor chord – it’s a traditionally dark rock n’ roll key. But then the song immediately moves to G-major which is a happy pop-song key. Pop music loves G-major. So, from the outset we get this tension. It’s a disorienting beginning that sets us up for the rest of the song. He’s waffling back and forth harmonically in a way that mirrors his disillusionment with his faith. Hozier, like all good song writers, writes music that parallels and illuminates the message he inscribes on our souls in his lyrics. The music is itself full of the very thing he’s singing about and that’s precisely what makes this song so powerful. And it’s probably just me, but this song reminds me a lot of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” - or, perhaps, just the Jeff Buckley cover that I'm fond of. Maybe it’s just the parallels in speaking about sex and religion in the same song, or maybe there’s something deeper in the music itself. Someone with a deeper knowledge of music could probably analyze that better than me.
But I think that this song can be an appropriate one to analyze on Reformation Sunday. It’s been five hundred years since Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Chapel – an action that condemned the Catholic Church and initiated the Protestant Reformation. So, it’s not without a parallel in mind that I decided to open today’s sermon with Hozier’s “Take Me to Church”. This song is also an indictment, an amazingly deep call to empathize not only with the experiences of our gay brothers and sisters, but all those who struggle with pains that the church may have heaped on them at some point.
This song wasn’t a hit just because it pointed to many of the terrifying and violent experiences of gay people throughout Ireland and much of the world. Yes, the music video displays a rather brutal scene of vigilantes murdering a gay man and Hozier is himself gay, but the song seems to resonate because it is intentionally vague. When you listen to it, you it doesn’t speak to that issue alone. You have to know that background information ahead of time to realize that.
I think that this song was successful precisely because it hit a nerve – it diagnosed a central and undeniable element of Western culture. Affluent Westerners haven’t given up on spirituality or even belief in vague type of monotheism. Sociologists and missiologists have been noting the dominance of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism for quite some time now (since 2005), but this is not the same thing as Christianity, nor is it the same as religious practice. And I wouldn’t say that Hozier’s song represents this worldview necessarily, I actually think that his honesty and self-awareness go a bit deeper. However, I do think that the Moralistic Therapeutic Deism we see around us rests in a similar type of tension and disillusionment.
Five-hundred years ago Martin Luther indicted the church for its corruption and faithlessness. As the reformation went on, the reformers took up a motto that was meant to be a reminder of sorts – “reformed, but always reforming.” As Protestants, we reformed Christianity, but we should never think that this task is finished. We need to learn from our predecessors and traditions, for if we fail to do that we’ll lose sight of the lessons of the past and a sense of identity, but we should also work to remind ourselves that God is still speaking. God doesn’t stop speaking precisely because God is still at work. Christians are not deists precisely because they believe in an active and present God who works and moves within creation both to effect salvation and redemption, but also to effect healing and restoration. And in order to do that, God often uses his people – the Church – to bring Good News and hope to places where it seems absent.
And perhaps that’s what Hozier is addressing. Maybe that is what has led to a time where large swaths of our society have embraced moralistic therapeutic deism. The Christ they’ve been shown may not have had room for them. That seems to be Hozier’s message. He seems to believe and yet he also seems to believe that a fundamental aspect of his humanity has been cast aside. So, while Martin Luther may have given us theological reasons to be wary of indulgences or the idea that we could earn our salvation, Hozier seems to present us with a personal encounter with Roman Catholicism that speaks to the heart. But I don’t think that we should take this to be a problem confined to Roman Catholicism. Protestantism has been just as guilty when it comes to failing to meet the example of Jesus. And that’s why I think we need to remind ourselves that we’re not done changing. We’re not done moving. And We’re not done learning. God is still working to mold us into better people – into more faithful people capable of better expressing the love that God has for us.
That’s what grace does. God is faithful not only insofar as came to suffer and die for us, but also in the manner that God helps us grow in our faith. We all struggle. I struggle with my faith! That’s natural and that’s why we can all relate to Hozier. But God is also faithful in his work to help us grow and change as people, because we all need to become more like Jesus. We all need to reform such that we can come together in ways that better illustrate the kinds of things we heard in this morning’s scripture – love of God and love of each other. So, I want to close with one more scripture. This one comes from 1 John 4:7-9:
“Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.”
 Max Martin has written and produced for The Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears, NSYNC, Katy Perry, Maroon 5, The Weeknd, Lana Del Ray, Kelly Clarkson, P!nk, Taylor Swift, Ariana Grande, Demi Lovato, Hilary Duff, Adele, and Denniz Pop.
 Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is defined with the following criterion, which appeared behind me as I preached: 1) a god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth. 2) God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and most world religions. 3) The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself. 4) God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem. 5) Good people go to heaven when they die.