The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Fight or flight?

Lent 2C

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

The Gospel lesson appointed for this morning picks up one verse too late.  The text this morning begins with the Pharisees warning Jesus that Herod wants to kill him, but we miss the context that would help to explain that.

In verse 30, just before where we started reading this morning, we hear that familiar line from Jesus about how “the last will be first, and the first will be last.”  By anyone’s account, Herod was clearly among the “firsts” of his generation, so it’s easy to see how he might have felt threatened by Jesus.

The Pharisees, probably in an effort to get Jesus out of their own way, warn Jesus that he should flee from Herod’s wrath.

In the field of behavioral psychology, we discuss one of the basic animal instincts: the fight or flight response.  When threatened, humans and animals assess the threat, and quickly decide whether to try to counter it, or to run from it.  But in the story that we read this morning, Jesus models another way.  When facing Herod’s threat, Jesus neither fights back nor runs away.  Instead, he responds with compassion: his desire to gather the children of Jerusalem “as a hen gathers her brood under her wings.”

For Jesus, feeling threatened is not an occasion for fighting back, but for drawing in.  When the first are last and the last are first, it’s not about excluding the well off, the powerful, the leaders.  It’s about extending that welcome to everyone else, too.

James Cone, a theologian at Columbia University, wrote a book called God of the Oppressed, in which he spoke about what he called God’s preferential option for the poor.  He points to moments throughout the Bible like this one - this last/first dynamic - as evidence that God is on the side of those who have been oppressed.  But I’m not so sure that’s what it’s about.

The world most certainly has a preferential option for the wealthy, and the influential, and the powerful.  They have every courtesy extended to them.  They have every option the world can give.

The radical shift that God makes is not in denying them anything, but extending those same options and courtesies to all of the others whom the world has always deemed unworthy.  It’s not about excluding anyone from anything, but about extending opportunities and grace and love to others that had previously been left out.

Bishop Michael Curry of the Diocese of North Carolina wrote: “the gospel transcends marginality and creates the context for the emergence of a new humanity, a new community, born not of social custom but of the spirit of God.”

In this new community, the social customs of privilege and poverty are eradicated.  The poor, in receiving blessings, take nothing from the privileged.  Privilege, on the other hand, always excludes the poor.

There is a degree to which we are all people of privilege.  I think I’ve always sort of known that, but nowhere was it clearer to me than when I traveled to Ghana several years ago.  Everywhere we went, we were surrounded by extreme poverty, and everything about us screamed privilege: from the air conditioned busses on which we rode, to the comfortable hotel beds in which we slept, to the abundance of the food that was available to us to eat, to the clothes we wore - even our personal hygiene habits.  As my mentor, the Rev. Elizabeth Kaeton often reminds me, “soap is a middle class value.”  This all stood out to me in Ghana because I wasn’t used to thinking of myself as particularly powerful or privileged.  As a seminary student who had been in school for most of his life, I certainly didn’t consider myself rich.  Financially, I was struggling.  But in a country where the average income was about $350 per year, I was wealthy.  I had brought far more money than that with me simply for souvenirs and gifts.  Seeing the world from that wider perspective had shown me an aspect of myself that I didn’t yet know.  For the first time, I could see my privilege glaring.

But the last/first dynamic isn’t just a tool to guilt us into seeing our privilege.  There’s a degree to which we are all ‘the last’, in some ways, as well.

Another story that I heard from Ghana was of an American woman visiting a small, isolated village.  The women of this village had to walk long distances every day to a well where they would retrieve their family’s water for the day and carry it home in large pots on their heads.  They had to do this every day, no matter how hot it was, or how tired they were, or whatever else.  If they didn’t, their families wouldn’t survive.

The American woman expressed her amazement at this work, and even her pity on them for having to perform it.  She explained to them that in her home, the water was right inside.  That she could turn it on or off as she needed, and that there was always more than enough.  To her surprise, the women of the village expressed their pity for her - about how sad such an existence must be.  The American woman was confused about how running water and indoor plumbing might elicit pity from these poor women of the village.  They said, “We make the walk each day together.  We tell each other stories.  We give each other advice.  If you don’t have to go to the well each day, when do you do that?  When do you tell your stories?”

What had seemed to the American woman as a pitiful existence, was seen by the Ghanaian women as the riches of their community - as something to be valued.

We all take a turn as the least and the lost and the last.  We usually try very hard to hide it, but we all know what it’s like to be on the outside looking in.  Whether we’re facing relative financial hardships, or an absence of real community, or fractured relationships, or failing health, or whatever else - we’ve all suffered in our own way and we’ve all felt like we were at the back of the line.

Just like my trip to Ghana helped me to see the world from a wider perspective, our observance of Lent is meant to do that for us as well.  As we walk with Jesus into the wildernesses inside us, it opens our eyes not just to ourselves, but to all that we share with the world around us - the pain, the joy, the ways in which we’re the first: the privileged and the powerful; and the ways in which we’re the least, the lost, and the last.

Neither the last/first dynamic, nor the season of Lent are about guilt or depravation, but they are about recognizing that wherever we are - however we feel - Christ is longing to gather us into the comfort and security of God’s embrace, as a mother hen gathers her brood.

In that embrace there are no firsts nor lasts.  No one is powerful and no one is lowly - at least no more than anyone else.  No one’s existence or comfort or security is at the expense of anyone else’s.  There is only love.  Enough for everyone and always more.

When faced with Herod’s threat, Jesus could have fought or he could have fled.  Instead, he loved.

May our own experiences of wilderness, and the broader perspective it offers, give us that same courage.  Amen.

Friday, February 22, 2013

FCS: Nice Work If You Can Get It

Quick facts:
  • Show: Nice Work If You Can Get It
  • Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, February 21, 2013
  • Time: 7:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: Open-ended
  • Venue: Imperial Theatre
  • Running time: 2:35 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Okay in terms of stage view - I was in the orchestra, about five rows from the back, on the aisle, stage left.  The seat was great, however, in that it was RIGHT next to the exit I needed to make a quick getaway!
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: A good-timing playboy meets a beautiful bootlegger and they fall in love.

My thoughts: I've often said that a bad night at the theater is still better than most other nights.  Tonight, for the first time, I began to seriously question that position.  I've never come so close to leaving a show at intermission as I did tonight.  I didn't leave, mostly because I wanted to write about it, and it wouldn't seem fair to do so without seeing the whole thing.  But it was a pretty rough go making it through.

I went into this show - from the first time I heard about it - with an odd mix of apprehension and optimism.  On one hand, who doesn't love the music of Gershwin?  Beyond that, who doesn't love Matthew Broderick and Kelli O'Hara?  But on the other hand, do we really need another Crazy For You-esque, sappy love story set to the uber-familiar tunes of the Gershwins?

Turns out the answer is no.

The book, by Joe DiPietro, was overly predictable, and sadly, even if it wasn't, there wasn't much there worth the effort of predicting.  It failed to live up to the wit and whimsy of the Gershwin music and lyrics it was there to support.  The story slogged through on the back strained and vastly overused efforts at slapstick comedy.

Of the last Gershwin show I saw, Porgy and Bess, I wrote: "Probably the most important show I've seen this year - maybe longer."  Nice Work... is the polar opposite.  Thoroughly unimportant.  Of course not every show has to make a social statement, or advance the canon of the theater in some meaningful way, or anything like that.  But if it doesn't have those things, it ought to at least have something to offer other than a rehash of old music and a platform for stars.

The stars were, of course, a delight.  It was fun to see Kelli O'Hara and Matthew Broderick live.  Both of them were engaging in their musical performances.  But the show leans far too heavily on that star power, and fails to give them much with which to truly shine.

The one really shining experience, however, was the set design by Derek McLane.  It was beautiful and clever.  From the opening scene, when the interior of a prohibition era speakeasy folded in on itself from all sides - like an open flower regressing to its bud - to reveal the exterior of the building and the dock on which it sits, I knew I was in for a treat.  Each succeeding scene followed suit, revealing one grand and creative view after another.

Despite my deep disappointment, the audience around me (composed mostly of octogenarians) were thrilled with all that they saw and heard.  The applause was sincere and I heard more than one person comment that it was "spectacular" and "amazing".  I'm sorry I didn't get to share their view.

Nice Work... has already had a longer run than I might have predicted had I seen it earlier, but I'm sure the show is destined for an even longer life through a turn in lower market tour stops and following that, years of high school musicals.  It seems to have been written less for Broadway and more for that afterlife that is sure to come.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Not if the ticket was free.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  I'm sure there are many people who would love this show, but there's simply too much good theater out there to waste a recommendation on this.
  • Twitter review:  If you want Gershwin music that badly, buy a CD.  There are plenty to choose from.  If you need Matthew Broderick that badly, rent a movie.  Again, choices abound.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

FCS: Manilow on Broadway

Quick facts:
  • Show: Manilow on Broadway
  • Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, February 14, 2013
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: March 2, 2013
  • Venue: St. James Theatre
  • Running time: ~1:45 (no intermission)
  • My seat: Not great - near the back of the mezzanine, stage left, but it was alright for this type of concert performance
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: The 1970s pop star that keeps coming back for more, even all these years later, in a concert performance on Broadway.

My thoughts: "I was the Justin Bieber of the 70s.  Really.  Ask your mother."  So says Barry Manilow in this, his latest concert - now appearing on Broadway.

After all these years, one would expect that Barry Manilow, who later this year will be 70 years old, would begin showing his age, and in this concert, those expectations were met.  Manilow sang all of the old hits he's long been famous for, but he's clearly beginning to slow down.  His voice is still as ever there as it ever was, but he's moving a little slower, and he seems a little less sure on his feet - proving that there's only so much a face lift can do to convey youth and vigor.

I had seen Barry Manilow once before.  In 1995 my high school show choir was asked to sing back up for him in his Lafayette, Louisiana tour stop.  We got to see most of the show, since we were singing as a part of the encore.  After the show we got to meet with him, and somewhere there exists a picture of me and the choir with him, wherein his arm is draped around me.

In many ways, this concert was basically the same one I saw those 18 years ago.  The biggest change, however, was that this time Manilow interspersed his songs with stories of his life and career, and occasional commentary on the state of popular music today.  He almost couldn't help coming across as something of a curmudgeon.

At one point he spoke of having made his career writing melodies.  He said, "Whatever happened to the melody?  Did you all see the Grammy's the other night?  I miss the melody.  Oh well.  I'll keep doing what I do."

The audience was decidedly older, as might have been expected for an event like this, so it was particularly strange to have glow sticks distributed to us as we entered.  I had to show several of the older women around me how to operate them.  So on the whole, it seemed less like an actual pop concert, and more like the memory of one revisited and re-staged.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Once was enough.  I'm glad I went.  It was a nice night out.  But once was enough.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  Oh, my mother would have loved it, along with a crew of "women of a certain age".  But I wouldn't particularly recommend it outside that circle.
  • Twitter review:  A museum exhibit of a time gone by...

Sunday, February 03, 2013

to be continued...

Epiphany 4C

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen.

We join the Gospel story this week already in progress from what we read last week.  It’s always true that the vignettes we read are a part of a larger story, but only rarely is it as blatant as it is this week.

Just as last week’s reading might as well have ended with the words “To be continued…” plastered across the screen, this week’s should begin with an announcer saying, “previously, in the Gospel of Luke…”

The episode is literally cut off in the middle.  Last week didn’t say much without the context of this week, and this week means nothing without the background of last week.

Last week we heard Jesus read those familiar words from Isaiah: “The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me 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.”

He read those words to the people in the synagogue in his hometown - in Nazareth.  He had been traveling throughout the region teaching and healing and doing wondrous signs, and he had returned to Nazareth - his home - to be with the people with whom he had been raised.

By this point in the story, he was established around the region as a wise teacher and a worker of miracles.  News of this Jesus - Joseph’s son - from the humble home of the village carpenter, had spread back to Nazareth.  It’s only natural to assume that they must have wanted a piece of the action for themselves.  They must have felt some hometown pride in his ministry.  If Jesus could do all of the things that he had done in foreign territories for other people, surely he could do something for the people of Nazareth as well.

This story always makes me think about a scene from the musical “A Chorus Line”.  The show takes place during an audition for a show - a particularly grueling audition, in which the participants are asked to bare their souls for the director, not just to demonstrate their talents.  There are a few songs where the characters talk about the various traumas and humiliations that had brought them to where they are today.  In this one line of one song, the character is remembering her childhood in the voice of her grandmother when she sings, “Why do I pay for all those lessons?  Dance for grandma.  Dance for grandma.”

In his hometown - where his fame has preceded him - I imagine that this must be how Jesus felt.  In his hometown, they couldn’t wrap their minds around his significance.  They just wanted to see some of the tricks that they’d been hearing about, as though he were just another traveling entertainer.

But Jesus knew that the signs and wonders that had come to define him were about more than that.  He wasn’t just a part of some circus act that was there to perform on command.  When he tried to explain what he was about to the people of Nazareth, they became enraged.  They wanted to hurl him off of a cliff at the edge of town.

I think it’s worth asking: what was behind that rage?

Rage is a powerful emotion.  It usually isn’t standard operating procedure for most of us.  It means something.  It comes from passion.

So what was behind the rage of the people of Nazareth?  It would have made just as much sense for them to become annoyed: to roll their eyes and dismiss Jesus as a fraud.  It would have made sense for them to not have faith in him; after all, “Is not this just Joseph’s son?”

But that they became enraged, speaks to something deeper.

Throughout the lessons that we read today, a recurring theme seems to be that of familiarity.  We hear it in the first lesson from Jeremiah.  God says to the prophet - and by extension, to us: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.”  We were known and set apart for the work of God while we were yet in our mothers’ wombs.  When it comes to God, we are not simply some Johnny-come-lately.  We are known, and understood, and accepted with whatever faults or limitations we bring.  And despite whatever faults there may be, we are endowed with the gifts God needs us to have.

We hear echoes of familiarity again in that most familiar passage of Paul’s to the church in Corinth, wherein he speaks to the nature of love: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude…”  You know those words.  We often hear them at weddings, but their advice is helpful in all of our loving relationships.  Love which first blooms in the fertile fields of familiarity.  And despite whatever powers, or prophecies, or knowledge - we remember that it is all for naught without love.

Nazareth must have been a very familiar place for Jesus.  He grew up there.  He was familiar with them and he knew their ways; just as they were with him.  They loved each other - even though they didn’t always understand each other.  Their emotions ran deep.

Love is a power that can fuel every life-giving thing in this world.  But when it is neglected or misunderstood, it can be a place from which deep pain and anger can grow.

Rage is the equal/opposite of love.  You can’t get to rage without love waiting somewhere in the wings.

It would have been easy for Jesus to just give them what they wanted.  He could have performed a few tricks for them, and satisfied their curiosity.  He could have stayed with them to bask in their love and familiarity and he could have become a local celebrity.  It would have been an easier life than that to which he was called.

But he was called to something more.  He was called to bring comfort and freedom and healing to more than just the people of one little town in the Israeli countryside.

The story is still “to be continued”.  But in this episode, we learn a bit more about this Jesus character.  We learn that he’s willing to sacrifice the easier temptations of life to answer a higher call.  We learn that he’s willing to challenge people - even the people with whom he is most familiar, even the people he loves.

The story is still unfolding.  Now we see in a mirror dimly, but soon we will see face to face.  We will come to know fully, just as we have been known.  Amen.

Friday, February 01, 2013

FCS: The Mystery of Edwin Drood

Quick facts:
  • Show: The Mystery of Edwin Drood
  • Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, January 31, 2013
  • Time: 7:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: March 10, 2013
  • Venue: Studio 54
  • Running time: 2:40 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Fair.  Midway back in the orchestra, just under the balcony edge, far stage left side.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: Allison Cimmet in the role of Princess Puffer, usually played by Chita Rivera
Synopsis: The unfinished Charles Dickens mystery brought to life on a Victorian era stage, where the audience chooses the ending.

My thoughts: First of all...  WOW.  It's been a long time since I've written one of these!  I've seen a few shows since my last review, but with all of the busy-ness involved in moving, and starting a new job, and figuring out a new life in a new city, I've let my writing slip!  I may end up getting to the three shows I've missed writing about, but they've all already closed...  I'm getting on this one, because I didn't want to make it four!

Anyway....  On to the show!

I went into this show, not really knowing what to expect.  I'd never seen it before, nor heard the cast recording.  I knew the bit about the audience choosing the ending, but really that was about all I knew.  I didn't know that it was semi-backstage.  I didn't know the cast would so consistently break the fourth wall.  I didn't even know it was a comedy.  Frankly, had I known more about it, I probably wouldn't have seen it.

But I'm pleased that I did.

Earlier this week, while watching an episode of Glee (dear Lord, forgive me...) the theater bug struck again.  I didn't really know what I wanted to see, but I knew I needed a Broadway musical fix, and fast.  While there are lots of great off-Broadway and other productions, I needed a strong dose of the Great White Way.

And The Mystery of Edwin Drood didn't disappoint!

It was big theater, big acting, big score, and big story all rolled into one.  A classic night at the the theater.

As I've written many times before, comedy isn't usually my thing.  Frankly, I find it tedious.  Usually what works as comedy doesn't work for me.  But this show was a clear exception.  The jokes were witty - at least enough to justify the occasional slapstick and crude humor!

The music of this show isn't really my favorite.  There weren't many numbers that got me excited, with the decided exception being "Don't Quit While You're Ahead".  I actually - literally - walked away whistling it.  It kept me entertained while I waited for my car after the show.  I even woke up this morning with it still stuck in my head.  But aside from that one delightfully catchy tune, there were no other memorable moments of the score for me.

Many members of the audience may have been disappointed because Chita Rivera was out last night.  I've seen her before in another production, so I know what a treasure she is, and I'm sure that she would have been remarkable, but even so, her understudy, Allison Cimmet, was a pure delight in the role.  She was so natural that it was hard to imagine if Ms. Rivera had been in.

Before the show began, members of the cast wandered about the theater interacting with the audience (cue the fourth wall!).  The character that came up and spoke with me as I waited in my seat was Mr. Jasper, played by the brilliant (and brilliantly handsome) Will Chase.  Perhaps it was just that early personal interaction, or the fact that he was one of the leading men, but I couldn't keep my eye off of him the rest of the night.  His performance had me in the palm of his hand.

Another standout in the cast was the young Nicholas Barasch playing Master Nick Cricker.  While he was a delight, he shone almost too brightly.  At times his magnetism was a distraction.

The standout member of the cast last night was Jim Norton, in the roles of the Chairman and Mr. William Cartwright.  He is clearly a brilliant actor.  His ability to shift between character with precision and clarity was a marvel to behold.  Equally precise was his command of comedy - a difficult art, to be sure.

The set design is very flat - composed mostly of drops and props.  But it is effective - both in portraying the era in which it is set, and in telling the story.

The lighting design was equally effective.  Most notably, I was drawn to the scene in the opium den, with the lovely painting of silvers and blues.

On the whole, the production reminded me a great deal of Peter and the Starcatcher, which I so loved last year.  The similarity was particularly in its pacing and witty execution of comedy, though the Victorian era setting also put the Peter... "steampunk" effect to mind (though this was not a "steampunk" show).

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Sure.  It's not the kind of show that changed my life, but it was a lot of fun.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  I would.  It's a light night at the theater, with lots of laughs and over-the-top performances.  Lots of people would like that.  I saw it with two friends, and they both had a great time, too.
  • Twitter review:  A fun night!  Definitely worth your time.