GUEST ESSAY: Sermonizing on what Joni Mitchell said

The following is adapted from an Oct. 30, 2022, sermon given by retired Presbyterian minister Doug Minnerly, who was guest ministering that day at Kanawha United Presbyterian in Charleston, W.V. Doug is a good friend whose sermons are always thought-provoking. I showed up to hear this one and was struck by its unusual juxtapositions and use of Joni Mitchell lyrics. I asked if I might reprint it. He adapted the sermon into the piece below. ~ Douglas John Imbrogno

Side door at the front of Kanawha United Presbyterian Church in Charleston WV | october2022 | photo

By Doug Minnerly

I am an “Honorably Retired” Presbyterian Minister member of the Presbytery of West Virginia, Presbyterian Church (USA). Many of us spend our retirement regularly substitute preaching in various churches around our “presbytery,” our version of a “diocese,” or even continuing in various pastoral positions. I, however, rarely accept preaching gigs, though I could probably preach just about every week (and, so, earn some extra cash). But, then, what would be the point of being retired? I take retirement very seriously; it’s a full-time job.

Doug Minnerly

I regularly attend Kanawha United Presbyterian Church in Charleston, WV where my wife and my son are members. As an ordained minister, according to our denomination’s polity, I cannot be a member of a particular church. Rather, my membership is registered with the presbytery itself. Though retired, as an ordained minister I am still authorized to do all those ministerial things: preaching, Sacraments, marriages, etc. On occasion, our pastor needs to be away on a Sunday, and I am pleased to be able to fill in for him, if he needs me to do so. Such was the situation on Sunday, October 30, 2022.

Many preachers in our tradition use “The Revised Common Lectionary” to choose the biblical texts from which they will craft a sermon. The lectionary is a three-year cycle of readings drawn from both the Old Testament (as we somewhat arrogantly call the Hebrew Scripture) and the New Testament, the four Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) and a collection of Epistles (letters) to various Christian communities / churches from the first century CE.

For October 30, 2022, the lectionary presented the text of Luke 19:1-10 as the Gospel reading—the well-known (among Christians) story of a rich tax collector named Zacchaeus who climbs up a sycamore tree to better see Jesus who is making a stop in Zacchaeus’ home town. Zacchaeus is said to be short of stature, hence his need to find a higher vantage point.

We usually present this story as a kind of charming fable of the power of Jesus to touch the hearts and minds of “sinners” like Zacchaeus, causing them to immediately repent of their sins and, in Zacchaeus’ case, to pledge to atone for and make right the wrongs they have committed. Interestingly, we almost never know if they actually follow through on their pledges.

Joni Mitchell photo by Jack Robinson/Getty Images. Shot in New York, November 1968 for the fashion magazine Vogue.

Joni Mitchell, a poet/musician whose music has been very important to me for well more than 50 years, released a song in 1991 that draws heavily from the story of Jesus and Zacchaeus. It’s called “Passion Play (When All the Slaves are Free).” It’s not the only song Joni has written that draws from biblical texts.

I have found her understanding and interpretation of these texts to be as good as any out there. As she does better than anyone else with matters of life and love, she uses her keen, incisive skill with language and her deep insight into the human condition to go straight to the heart of the matter with those texts. So, in preparing my sermon, I drew heavily from Joni’s song, particularly the haunting refrain: “Who you gonna get to do the dirty work when all the slaves are free?”

Following, is a somewhat re-worked version of my sermon. I offer this at the request/suggestion of the editor of this journal who happened to be present when I delivered it.

“Who you gonna get to do the dirty work when all the slaves are free?”

“Passion Play” is a song about Jesus; about the effect Jesus has on people, especially “lost” people, invisible people, people who, if seen at all, are seen in a bad light by the self-righteous establishment of their communities. It’s a song that casts Jesus in the role of a freer of slaves.

According to Luke, at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus casts himself in that role, declaring that he has been anointed by the Spirit and sent “to bring good news to the poor . . . to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

That got him in trouble with his own neighbors who had known him all his life. So much so that they wanted to take him and toss him off a cliff.

After all, you tell me:

“Who you gonna get to do the dirty work when all the slaves are free?”

The poor, captive, oppressed, blind, lost people, whose encounters with Jesus we read about in the Gospels, quickly realize that this man, this “heart healer,” as the song calls him, sees them as they are for who they are and not as others see them.

Beyond that, he also sees them for who they can be, who they should be. Jesus, “this diver of the heart,” sees past the “accidental circumstances” of peoples’ lives—their poverty, their illness, their social status, their sinfulness—looking deep into the core of their being, seeing there the real person. He exposes the true reality of their humanity—the divine image in which they are made. He shows them what he sees, and, with grace and truth, also shows them a way to begin to live in that reality, newly brought to light.

Now, Zacchaeus may not fit into the categories of the walking wounded I just mentioned. He is neither poor, blind, captive, nor oppressed. Maybe.

But people like Zacchaeus become caught in traps of societal assumptions, expectations, and prejudices. The text describes him as “a chief tax collector [who] was rich.” Zacchaeus accumulated his wealth, by hook and by crook, through his position as a chief tax collector for the occupying Roman Empire. His job as a tax collector alone is sufficient reason for his neighbors to call him a sinner. And, since he is a sinner, his neighbors can have no difficulty nor be faulted to treat him as a social pariah, if they so choose.

Though rich, he is of little more worth to the “righteous” citizens than the blind beggar Jesus heals just before he calls Zacchaeus out of the sycamore tree.

The searing question, “Who you gonna get to do the dirty work when all the slaves are free?” goes to the heart of another question as old as human history: why are those in power unwilling to allow justice to prevail?

But I think we have a perverse need for social pariahs, people we can label as “other,” less-than-human, non-productive members of society. We righteously say we’d be better off without them when, in truth, we need them. They are the collectors of our garbage of bigotry, hatred, anger. We need to “keep them in their place” because, you tell me:

“Who you gonna get to do the dirty work when all the slaves are free?”

In Joni’s song, Zacchaeus calls himself “a sinner of some position.” He, like so many people who have been “put down” for so long, came to believe what he had been told about himself. So, he began to behave in ways that live up, or down, to the assumptions and expectations of the community.

Shakespeare explored this very theme with devastating accuracy in his play The Merchant of Venice” through the character of Shylock. Read Shylock’s heart-rending speech “Hath not a Jew eyes…” to get a sense of what I mean. And, yes, the play is deeply problematic for contemporary sensitivities; rightly so. But it still speaks to this issue.

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Zacchaeus, like Shylock, became what he had been told he is—a sinner of some position. Jesus, on the other hand, sees him with different light.

The song says:

“Oh, climb down, climb down,” he says to me
From the middle of unrest.
They think his light is Squandered;
But he sees a stray in the wilderness
And I see how far I’ve wandered.

When Jesus calls Zacchaeus to come down from the tree and go fix lunch for him, our text says, “All who saw it began to grumble and said, ‘He has gone to be the guest of one who is a sinner.’”

Jesus seems to have had a habit of doing that. He also seems to have had no problem whatsoever inviting himself for a meal whenever the mood struck him. That, in fact, is the essence of the Christian practice of Communion, which we call “The Lord’s Supper,” a community meal where, according to our theology, Jesus is both host and guest.

VIDEO: Joni Mitchell performing “Passion Play (When All the Slaves Are Free”

Joni puts the crowd’s reaction this way:

Oh, all around the Marketplace
The buzzing of the flies,
The buzzing and the stinging,
Divinely barren and wickedly wise
The killer nails are ringing.

Here, she inserts an unexpected, jarring reference to Jesus’ impending death by crucifixion: “The killer nails are ringing.” In Luke’s Gospel, the Zacchaeus incident closely follows Jesus predicting his own death and resurrection. It is in turn soon followed by Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem just days before his crucifixion.

Where Luke placed the Zacchaeus story leads us to ask, “What could this charming little fable of repentance and salvation have to do with Jesus’ impending death?” And what does the question, “Who you gonna get to do the dirty work when all the slaves are free?” have to do with anything about the story?

Here’s how this enigmatic line appears in the context of the song:

Enter the multitudes
In Exxon blue
In radiation rose
Misery, you tell me:
Who you gonna get to do the dirty work
When all the slaves are free?

I fully admit that I have no idea what “Exxon blue” and “radiation rose” mean. Something to do with environmental damage caused by careless corporate greed, I imagine.

But the searing question, “Who you gonna get to do the dirty work when all the slaves are free?” goes to the heart of another question as old as human history: why are those in power unwilling to allow justice to prevail? Why do the politically powerful so often and so readily use oppressive violence against their own people and brutally suppress domestic movements seeking basic human rights?

Well, you tell me:

“Who you gonna get to do the dirty work when all the slaves are free?”

Women hold up signs with the image of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini outside the UN offices in Arbil, the capital of Iraq’s autonomous Kurdistan region, on September 24, 2022, during a demonstration denouncing her death in Iranian custody. | SAFIN HAMED/AFP/Getty Images

We’re seeing this playing out right now in Iran, a deeply troubled nation that traded enslavement to a brutal secular dictatorship under the Shah of Iran for enslavement to a brutal religious dictatorship under the Ayatollahs of Iran. Protests across that nation have been ignited by the death in police custody of a young Kurdish woman, Jina ‘Mahsa’ Amini, who was arrested for not wearing “proper attire” in public.

Her death, which the police claim was from “natural causes” but her family claims was the result of beatings she received from the police, has spurred the protests, many led by women. The incident has also highlighted the ongoing discrimination and oppression of Iran’s minority Kurdish population.

After all, you tell me:

“Who you gonna get to do the dirty work when all the slaves are free?”

My wife, Susan, just finished directing a play she wrote called “Failure Is Impossible,” about West Virginia’s key role in the passage of the 19th Amendment to the United States Constitution, giving women the right to vote. We learned from Susan’s play that over the Suffrage movement’s 70-plus years history, women were routinely beaten and brutalized by police during protests and rallies. Women were arrested essentially for not keeping to their proper place in society. Dozens of women were even imprisoned at the federal workhouse in Occoquan, VA where they were subjected to terrible abuse, including force-feeding, humiliation, and torture.

Because, you tell me:

“Who you gonna get to do the dirty work when all the slaves are free?”

The Women’s Suffrage movement in the United States was also closely tied to the Abolitionist movement. Why did we have to fight a bloody, devastating Civil War to end institutional slavery in our nation? Why did we have to go through the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement? Why do we still seem to be fighting the same battles for equal justice under the law?

Well, you tell me:

“Who you gonna get to do the dirty work when all the slaves are free?”

The current radical, right-wing legislative actions to strip American women of rights they had already fought for and won, enabled by a rogue, ideology-driven Supreme Court, are in their own way motivated by the same question:

You tell me:

“Who you gonna get to do the dirty work when all the slaves are free?”

From Pharaoh’s steadfast, hard-hearted refusal to grant Moses’ request to “let my people go,” as told in the Book of Exodus, to the Mine Wars in our own part of the world, to contemporary freedom and human rights movements at home and abroad, the motivation for those in power to deny “liberty and justice for all” seems always to come down to the question, asked in many different ways, but with the same intent:

“Who you gonna get to do the dirty work when all the slaves are free?”

Joni’s reference to the nails of Jesus’ crucifixion suggests, rightly so, that Jesus was killed for freeing people as socially far apart as a blind beggar and a rich tax collector from the societal chains of slavery that have been keeping them from living fully human lives.

Miracles aside, Jesus mostly did this simply by seeing people as people—fully human, fully made in the divine image, as worthy as anyone else to enjoy the fullness of life, regardless of the accidental circumstances of their lives.

Any one of us can do what Jesus did.

Where most don’t even want to look, we can learn to see a stray in the wilderness and bring them back into the fold. We can learn to use the same light Jesus used to see beneath the obvious to the divine reality at the core.

That light will never be squandered, when we shine it on those whom the powerful have consigned to huddling in the darkness.

To answer his critics for going to be the guest of one who is a sinner, Jesus proclaimed, “Today salvation has come to this house, because he too is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek out and save the lost.”


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