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, March 31, 2013

Eat chocolate. Drink Bourbon. And curse at the top of your lungs!

Easter Day, Year C

In the name of the God who creates, the Christ who triumphs over death, and the Spirit who refreshes us all.  Amen.

Earlier this week, I saw what was, perhaps, THE perfect, Easter-ready Facebook status.  My friend, who first became my friend because she was the mother of one of my friends in high school, seemed to have the Easter moment pegged to a T.

She said, “Oh my gosh, I can’t wait for Lent to be over so I can curse again!”

Try as I might, I can’t think of any Holy Week cry that better anticipates the joy of a coming Easter.

Cursing with the joy of the Risen Christ.  It’s beautiful.

Throughout the season of Lent, many of us take on disciplines to try to reconnect with God, and with our Spiritual center.  Sometimes we give up chocolate, or drinking alcohol, and smoking, or bad language, or certain unhealthy foods…  The idea is that we wander with Jesus in the wilderness of our own souls.  We try to find some symbol of those things that make us feel most separate from God.  We cut it out of our lives.  And we pray that in the emptiness, we’ll find God again.

I’m always amazed at the synchronicity of springtime and Easter.  I know it’s by design.  I know it’s not true everywhere - our brothers and sisters in the Southern Hemisphere celebrate Easter with the first brisk days of autumn.  But here, we celebrate Easter with Spring - with new life beginning to peek through the hard earth and emptiness of winter.

It wasn’t that long ago that snow covered the ground.  And, of course, Easter is early this year, so it may yet again before it’s all said and done.

But even so, as I walk around the churchyard, and the neighborhood, and go about my daily life, signs of life are beginning to peek through the bleariness of the now-fading winter.  Green shoots are popping up and daffodils make their first emergence.  The birds are returning, and the insects.  It’s as if all of creation is asserting its life.  Everywhere you look there is life breaking through the darkness.

As the women walked to the tomb - the tomb that they would find standing empty - on that still-crisp morning before dawn, the world must have seemed so empty.

The quiet hung around them like a blanket.

But they had work to do.  The friend they had been following for three years had died.  The life that they had embraced, and their hope for the future, and their sense of security had been shattered.

They felt empty and alone.

The felt abandoned by God.

The couldn’t know what else to do, so they went to work.  No one knew what the days ahead might bring, but for now, they could honor their love for Jesus by preparing him for burial.

They couldn’t bring him back, but they could honor him.  So that’s what they set out to do.

It’s hard to overestimate the shock they must have felt when they got to the tomb and found that Jesus wasn’t there.  They must have been afraid.  They must have been angry.  They must have been confused.  Had his body been stolen?  Had he somehow survived the terrible ordeal?  Could he have possibly walked away as he had been walking just days before?

Then suddenly, two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.  Other gospel writers call them “angels”.

With what must have been a note of sarcasm, they said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

“He is not here, but has risen.”

Suddenly they remembered: that’s exactly what he had said would happen.  His peculiar words in the days before his death all started to make sense.

Somehow, life had triumphed over death.  Somehow this Jesus - the ordinary man given to extraordinary things, the son of Mary and Joseph, a carpenter - somehow this very same simple Jesus had become the Christ of God.

They had come to anoint him for death, but God had already anointed him for life.

This all happened around Passover - in the early spring.  We usually think of the Near-East lands as barren wildernesses and deserts, but it’s not all that way.  The rain comes in the spring.  And the lands burst with flowers and new life.

These women had walked to the tomb in darkness and cold, but they ran home in the light - across green fields and flowers of every shade and sort.

Life had triumphed over death.  Everything that had made them feel separate from God had melted away in the warm light of the new day’s sun.

That’s why my friend’s Facebook status was the perfect anticipation for Easter.

In the light of Easter - in light of the Resurrection - those things, which had once made us feel separate from God, seem to fade away.

So, eat your chocolate.  Drink your bourbon.  Curse at the top of your lungs if you must!

Because while it was important to have examined ourselves through the season of Lent, and while it was important to seek out the ways that we shut God out of our lives, it’s Easter now.  And the truth that we’ve learned is, nothing we can do can separate us from the love of God.

God has triumphed over even death.  And no simple human imperfection can compare with that.

Nothing we can do can separate us from the love of God.  The love of God will always win.

Alleluia!  Amen.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Keeping vigil for Christ

The Great Vigil of Easter

It was the early morning hours.  Just after the sun had begun to peek over the horizon.  In the first functional moments after the Sabbath: the first moments when the women could return to the work that in the rush before the Sabbath had been left undone.

The words of the messengers that greeted them seem sort of harsh: “Why do you look for the living among the dead?”  In the midst of their mourning, they were being chided – teased, even.

The truth is, they weren’t looking for the living among the dead.  They were looking for the dead.  They were looking for their friend, and teacher.  They were looking for their brother, their son, and their Lord.  And they knew that he was dead.  They had seen him laid in the tomb in the early evening.

But it was morning.

I’ve always experienced the early morning hours as a kind of mystical time.  There’s something soul feeding about watching the night be overtaken by the day – watching the vulnerability of darkness give way to light, watching the stillness begin to stir.  Somehow God seems more accessible during those times.  Things that seemed imperceptible in the night gain unexpected clarity in the morning.

That’s how it must have felt for those women on that morning.  In the nighttime of their grief there were so many questions and so few answers.  The events of the week that had preceded must have seemed like a flash as they recalled them.

It must have seemed to come from out of nowhere.  One day they were following this wandering Galilean – following his teaching and his miracles.  The word had spread and his celebrity had grown.

Then into Jerusalem.  He was greeted as a king – hailed and applauded.  The people had come out to cheer him.

But somehow there was a shift.  The crowds of admirers became angry mobs.  It had all happened so fast.  How could it have happened so fast?

They must have been filled with questions and bewilderment as they approached that tomb.  But there would be still one more shift.  The light would win out over the night.  Perhaps there would be no answers.  Perhaps there would be more questions and confusion.  But there would also be life.  Where they had expected to find death, they would find life.

This is why we keep vigil.  This is why we sit up and wait through the telling of our stories for the new fire to shed its light.  We wait in the sure and certain hope that through the darkness of death, a new light will begin to shine.  We wait, not for answers, but for life.  And it comes.  Amen.

(this sermon is edited from a previous version which appears here)

Friday, March 29, 2013

Waiting and Why?

Good Friday

It’s been something of a crazy week. Of course churches keep a crazy schedule this week, but that’s  not really what I’m talking about. Like every Holy Week, we traverse a kind of emotional rollercoaster.

From the child-like exuberance of our Palm Sunday Processions, to its shocking turn toward the solemnity of the rest of the week, there have been many ups and downs. And today is no exception. In the course of just this day our story will take us high upon the cross and low into the tomb – a kind of living image in miniature of the highs and lows of the rest of the week.

I imagine this service must be something like what it was like on that day in Jerusalem so long ago. After the crowd lost the energy of the moment that spurred them on in the trial, after the beatings and abuse, after the humiliating walk to Golgotha, after the hammering of the nails through flesh and into wood and hoisting the cross and its cargo into position… After all of that, there must have been at least a moment of peace. Perhaps some of the crowd grew bored of the spectacle. Perhaps the spectacle began to die down. After all of this, there must have been some moment when quiet intruded on the agony. There must have been some moment for reflection, even if those present couldn’t really know what they were reflecting upon.

So it makes sense for us to suspend the spectacle and to allow the quiet to intrude and to make space for the real work of today – the work of the quiet.

I’d like to share a poem that I think of every year on Good Friday.
Feeding the New Calf
by Joyce Sutphen

The torso comes out slick and black,
after hoofs that are yellowed
like smoker's teeth, the back
two legs crossed over each other and
the head last, bunched over front legs.

Minutes later he is standing wobbly,
and the blunt mouth is sucking at my arm,
tongue rough as sandpaper, tickling along my
skin, ripping up the fine hair over my wrist.
I tie him with a rope of bailing twine,

Shake out a chunk of straw around him,
as the dust rises in the sunlit aisle. I pet
the wet coat that curls over his sharp
backbone, scratch ears that are thick as
tulip leaves, bent in the womb. Angus baby.

I think of the blue-gray afterbirth, like a shawl
he wore, now left in the gutter, of his mother,
how she groaned him out of her belly, her back
rocking back and forth in the metal stanchion,
the velvet fold of her throat on the cold cement.

After I pour the milk into a pail, I go to
where he is lunging on the rope, where he is
singing a desperate duet with his mother:
din of soulful mooing. I get him to suck
at the nipple, pulling his mouth over to it
with my hands dipped in his mother’s milk,
my small solid fingers and not her warm udders,
no peach-veined bag to sink his cheek on.

The clouds sunk in his large brown eyes
float blue. He nudges me, hard.

When I first heard this poem, it struck me how much this picture of birth is similar to the picture we paint in our annual reliving of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

Birth and death really aren’t that different. They stand together as some of the messiest and most mysterious moments of our lives. Of course, doctors have done amazing work explaining the processes of both birth and death to us, but they never can really get at the biggest question around these most significant life transitions – “why?”

Today the story of Jesus’ death was told again. We tell it again and again because we need to hear it again and again. It was messy. In was inhumane. It was wet and cold and lonely.

It was life.

Like the cold, wet, messy story of the birth of a calf, the story of Jesus’ death on the cross was simply the truth of life. Neither good nor bad in its own merit. Just truth.

Theologians have tried to answer that persistent question – “Why did he have to die?”

If you listen to the story of the Passion as it is told in John’s Gospel, you hear of a Jesus who is in full control. Even to the moment of his death he was at work fulfilling the prophecies of ancient Israel, until at last he speaks those final words, “It is finished.” The words of the prophets have been made true, and now the time of death has come. He submits in humble service to humanity and to God.

So according to John, it seems that the answer to the question of “why” is about fulfilling the prophecy – about making the messiahship of Jesus appear valid to the skeptics.

Others throughout history – and probably people in this room – think that Jesus had to die as a kind of sacrifice for our own fallenness and brokenness. Like the offerings to God in the Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus was the ultimate offering. The best, first, and only Son of God – slain in exchange for our life. He suffered so we wouldn’t have to.

More recently theologians have begun to examine the crucifixion and death of Jesus as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. As one who challenged the prevailing authorities of his day, Jesus (not surprisingly) encountered resistance. When he refused to back down in the face of that resistance, the social powers began to fear him, and in a predictable reaction, that fear drove them to murder.

It’s a common story. Those who challenge authority risk the wrath of authority. And Jesus certainly challenged the authority of his time.

So, why did he have to die?

All of these are attempts at an answer to that question. I won’t stand here and presume to tell you which one is right. In the mystery of this Holy Week, I wouldn’t be surprised at all to learn that they all are right, in their own way.

But our job here today is not to figure out the answer to that persistent “why?” The “why” can wait. In the weeks and months and years that stretch out before us we can start to tackle that one. Like his friends who were left behind, we, too, who are left behind will have time enough to wrestle with “why”.

Today we are not doctors or theologians. Today we let the questions rest.

Today we are poets. We simply stand in awe and observation like a poet who reflects on the mysterious holiness of the transitions of life.

When the time was right, the calf of Joyce Sutphen’s poem sloughed off its mother’s womb in a messy and lonely journey to all that would lie ahead. A beginning – entirely natural and perhaps even predictable, yet unlike any other.

And when the time was right, our Jesus would become the Christ. He would slough off the weight of this world in a messy and lonely journey to all that would lie ahead. “It is finished,” yes. But it’s only beginning.

So we wait.

In awe and wonder at the mystery and the holiness, we wait. And we watch. And like a poet, we take it in, as much as we can, because there will be time enough for the “whys”.

(this sermon is edited from a previous version which appears here)

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Re-membering what it all comes down to

Maundy Thursday

Mandatum novum.  “I give you a new commandment.”

That’s where we get the name for this day - “Maundy Thursday”.  It comes from the Latin, mandatum novum - “I give you a new commandment.”

Today marks a shift.  During most of Lent we are engaged in a recreation of Jesus’ wandering in the wilderness before he begins his earthly ministry.  We submit ourselves to an annual season of spiritual wandering – examining those ways in which we have grown separate from God, and hopefully marking those separations with occasions of repentance, turning ourselves ever more God-ward.  It’s in the context of that repentance and reconciliation that we can enter fully into the joy of the Resurrection.

But today, our focus shifts.  We enter the Triduum – the final days of preparation for Easter.  Where we had been wandering, we now press forward – toward a certain goal.  And with a new commandment to lead our way.

It’s remarkable that our first stop along the way is what it is: the institution of the Lord’s Supper.

On the night before Jesus was to be betrayed, and beaten, and humiliated, and eventually killed - before all of that, he took one final moment of personal privilege.  He gathered around a table for fellowship with his friends - the people whom he had called on this strange journey with him, and the ones who had left everything behind to follow him.  In one final act of private, intimate love, he shared a meal with them, and his final words of advice.

“Love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you should also love one another.”

After the miracles surrounding his birth…  After his childhood wandering away from his parents in the temple…  After the teachings…  After the feeding and the healing…  After all the signs and wonders…  It all comes down to this.

“Love one another.”

That’s what it’s all been about.

In the dark days ahead, that’s what it will be about then, too.

I think it sometimes gets lost on us - in the ritual and the familiarity of Sunday after Sunday - but that’s what it’s about each time we gather around this table, too.  It’s about remembering that we are one body.

We come from our various lives and positions and experiences.  We all have our own joys and traumas and sadnesses and concerns.  There is so much that makes us seem dis-membered.

But the bread breaks, and the wine is poured out, and as we all take our own little piece of it, we become united in the bread and in the cup.  We remember the new commandment, and we are re-membered into the Body of Christ we were called to be.

This is the sacrifice to which Jesus called us.

This is the sacrifice that Jesus modeled for us.

The sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

Taking what was dismembered and re-membering it.

That’s the new commandment.  Remember how I have loved you, and love each other just that lavishly.  Just that recklessly.  Love one another in risky and sacrificial ways.  Just love.

That’s what it all comes down to.  Even when things seem most bleak, it all comes down to love.  Amen.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Getting close to Jerusalem

Lent 5C

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

We’re getting close to Jerusalem, now.

In the story we’re told that this dinner and anointment happened just six days before Passover.  And in the story of Jesus, Passover means something else entirely.

Moreover, we’re told that it happened in Bethany - the quiet little village just beyond the Mount of Olives - where Jesus will pray and be betrayed.  As the crow flies, it’s just about two miles away.  You could almost hear the Palm Sunday crowds and their shouts of “Hosanna!” from there.

We’re also told that it’s all happening in the home of Lazarus.  You know Lazarus.  The one over whom Jesus wept.  The one who, just days before, had died.  The one who now hosts him in his home.

John tells us that from the day that the high priests of Jerusalem had learned that Lazarus had been raised, they had planned to put Jesus to death. (John 11:53)

The threat he posed to the established authority was too great.  He had to die.

We’re getting quite close to Jerusalem, indeed.  Along with all that that entails.

You have to imagine that the tension was rising.  It was unspoken among these close friends, and it was tempered by the still-fresh joy that Lazarus was still among them, but there was something electric in the air - something that said something big was about to happen.

Jesus certainly knew.  After giving life back to Lazarus, Jesus went into hiding.  He no longer “walked openly among the Jews”. (John 11:54)

He knew he was getting closer to Jerusalem, and those closest to him could feel the shift.

Perhaps it was in an effort to ease that growing tension that Mary launched into such a lavish display of affection.

And perhaps it was out of that tension that Judas exploded into a fit of rage at the waste.  Perhaps he felt threatened by the tension in the air, and when we feel threatened we often want to retreat, to hoard our resources, and to reserve them for leaner times.

One thing was clear - at least to the writer of the gospel - Judas wasn’t protesting about what he said he was protesting about.  It was about something deeper.  Something hidden.

John makes that much clear.  Judas cried out for the poor, but we know he didn’t really care.

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock this week (and maybe even if you were), you had to have heard the news that our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters now have a new Pope.

The former Archbishop of Argentina is a member of the Jesuit order - the Society of Jesus - a monastic order that has been traditionally known for its commitment to education and science, and it’s embrace of the lowest and too-often forgotten members of our communities.

Throughout his life up to this point, Pope Francis has been recognized for his commitment to the poor.

It’s been interesting to hear this discussed by the American news media.  We don’t often hear or have conversations about the poor in our popular culture.  Even in recent years, when we’ve been talking about things like income inequality, the conversation is usually focused more on the very wealthy - not on compassion for the poor.

So perhaps this will be the new Pope’s lasting contribution.  I’ve heard many people complain and worry about the Pope’s conservative beliefs.  It’s unlikely that he will usher in any new thinking for the Roman Catholic Church about things like women in leadership, or contraception, or marriage equality, or the future of the celibate priesthood.

But at least he has us talking openly about the poor.  That can’t be all bad.

I’m not convinced that it’s actually going to lead to anything - like policy shifts, or significant increases in charitable giving - at least not right away; but it seems promising to even have it mentioned in our wider conversations.  It’s at least a step in the right direction.

The writer of John makes no bones about it - Judas didn’t actually care for the poor.  But, just as with the journalists and television anchors this week, it must have been a big step in the ministry of Jesus even to have him talking about it.  The message was getting through, even if it was just being spun to serve his own personal interests.

But in these last days, it must have brought Jesus comfort to know that the message was, at least, starting to get through.

He knew his next steps.  He knew that he was getting closer to Jerusalem.  He knew that everything was about to change: for himself, for this movement that would become his church, and for everyone whom he loved.

Change is frightening.

When we stand on the precipice of the unknown, we’re bound to feel the tension.

Even when we’re surrounded by a loving community and close friends, we’re bound to feel the tension.  We may respond like Mary: lavishing generosity to try to ease the tension.  We may respond like Judas: in a kind of diffuse, misdirected anger.

But whatever our response, the anxiety and the tension around change is real.

That’s what Jerusalem represents in this story of ours: tension.  The unknown.  Suffering.  Betrayal.  In short: change.

And now we’re getting quite close.

The story isn’t over yet.  It’s just about to change.

The only thing left to do is to pray.

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Pottery and bread

Evensong on Wednesday in the Fourth Week of Lent, year 1

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

Pottery and bread.

These are the two images we hear in the readings tonight: pottery and bread.  Humble human creatures - stuff of the earth, that through human toil become elevated - they take on new meaning and importance.

It’s in signs of humility like these where God often appears most clearly.

I’ve never done pottery, but I have known potters and have been amazed at the symbolism that emerges from their craft and their art.  Sitting at her wheel, the potter wets her hands and slowly molds the dry, dead lump into something more.  As if by magic, it grows and stands to attention, a hole is pushed down in the center, and the creation rises up higher than it was before and opens itself wider into a new creation.

There are times when its earthen properties seem to take over.  There are times when it falls into an ugly and useless lump, and the potter’s work seems a waste.

But she molds again.  She takes it back to its original form and tries again - however many times it takes until the image in her mind makes its way out through her hands and embodied into the clay.

I do, however, have more experience with bread, and it many ways, it’s quite similar.

We start with stuff from the earth: wheat and water, salt and yeast.  We mix the ingredients into an unrecognizable and unusable lump.  Kneading them together with our hands, they begin to take on a new life.  With time and patience, they rise up.  We beat them down and knead them again, but again, they rise.  With more time and patience and also a bit of heat, they are transformed, from the unusable lump it once was, into actual sustenance.

Throughout most of this Lenten season, I’ve been preaching about self-examination.  Lent is a time that we set aside in our lives each year to look inside us for something that had been lying dormant - some emotion or insight, some revelation of God or some deeper awareness to where we’ve been called to minister in God’s name.

But as this season turns toward Easter, it’s time for us to shift our focus.  Soon Easter will be dawning.  And like the bread and the pottery rising, we need to begin looking for ways to find new life in the world around us.

Where will we see new life rising up?

If experience is any indicator, we’re most likely to see it not in the things that we tend to glorify or the grandeur that we most easily admire.  New life is likely to be a bit humbler than we’d normally expect.  It’s likely to take some work.  And it’s likely to grow from simple beginnings into some final product that turns out to be more than just itself.

On that first Easter, new life was found by women humbling themselves to dress the dead.  And it was found in an unlikely itinerant Palestinian rabbi.  Born the homeless son of an unwed mother, he would grow into something bigger than just himself.  He would be bread.

As we walk the streets of East Falls and our wider communities over these next few weeks, I invite you to join me in looking for the humble beginnings of something more.  Look for resurrection and new life.  Not at the tops of our beautiful steeples and towers and altars, but in the streets.  In the gutters.  In the eyes and hearts of our neighbors.

That’s where God will be working.

That’s where we need to be working, too.   Amen.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Letting them walk away

Lent 4C

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

I finally realized last night what was troubling me.

After a week of thinking about the Parable of the Prodigal Son and what I might have to say about it, but always coming up feeling sort of empty, I finally realized the problem: I was focused too much on the ending.  I was focusing too much on the party.  So much so that I had a hard time really grasping it.  I couldn’t really wrap my mind around the Prodigal Son’s return, or the Prodigal Father, for that matter, and his joy at his son’s return, because in my familiarity with the story, my mind just skipped ahead.  And in that skipping, I missed everything that had brought me through the story.

I doubt I’m alone in that.  We all know the story pretty well, don’t we?

A father had two sons, and evidently considerable means.  The elder son is a faithful worker, learning the family business and biding his time until his time would come - the time when he would be the leader of the family and the inheritor of the family fortune.

The younger son, however, had other things on his mind.  He was impatient.  He was eager to see the world.  He was eager to get on with all that was his due.  He was uninterested in biding his time.  His time was now.

So he went to his father and demanded his share of the family fortune.  He wanted all that would be his, but without the wait.

In the parable, we hear nothing of the father protesting.  We don’t hear that he warned his son that this might not be the best course of action.  He didn’t offer any advice.  He just did as was asked.  He divided his possessions and sent his son on his way.

This younger son went off on a wild adventure.  He ignored the proper Jewish morals he had been taught and squandered all that he had.

Of course then things went from bad to worse.  Not only was he penniless, but the entire land fell victim to a famine.  He couldn’t even survive as a beggar, because no one had anything to give.  His only hope for survival was to work for a pig farmer and to eat what was left over from their feedings.

It was a grim existence.

But what was happening back home?  What had become of the ones the Prodigal left behind?

We all know how the story ends, but what else is there to the story that we’re not hearing?  We hear of the father’s rejoicing when his lost son has returned, but what about before?  What about that moment when he watched his son walking away?  What about the days and weeks that followed that were spent wondering if there might have been something more he could have done?

Have you ever had to sit by and let someone in your life walk away?  When we know the whole story it’s nice to focus on the ending - on the return, the reunion.  But in that moment - the moment when they walk away - there is no promise of reunion.  There is no fatted calf.  There is no party.  There is only the pain and the emptiness of a relationship ended.

Of the emotions we focus on most in this story, one is the joy of the father, but what must he have felt before the joy?

This is one of the reasons this parable works during Lent.  It’s a reminder of the complexities of life that we all face.  Most of us focus on the party, but there’s more to the story than just that.  In fact, though it’s sometimes hard to remember it, the party isn’t really the end of the story.  The end of the story is about the older brother refusing to come to the party, and the father trying to explain his joy.

But the older brother felt slighted.  He had been faithful.  He had remained with his father while his younger brother had left them for irresponsible and selfish living.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is about more than just the return and the party at the end.  It’s about the father’s grief and sadness.  It’s about the older brother’s jealousy.  It’s about the younger brother’s contrition.

In just a few weeks, it will be Easter.  If this church is like every other church I’ve ever been a part of, things here that day will look a bit different.  We’ll have extra people in the pews and a big celebration.  There will be joyous singing and smiles.  Probably reunions of people we haven’t seen in a while.

But while we will eagerly and happily welcome our guests that day, you all know a bit of a secret that they won’t know: it’s about more than just the party.  The story we celebrate is richer and more complex than can be gleaned from just the happy ending.

It takes time to get to the happy ending.  It requires wading through everything else.  You have to have known the pain and the uncertainty, and sometimes even the jealousy and the greed.

That part’s not always fun.  But it is a part of the whole story.

Today is Refreshment Sunday, or Mothering Sunday, as our friends in England call it.  That’s why I’m wearing the Rose vestments today.  It’s a little respite from the season.  It’s a reminder, here in these dark days of Lent, that there are brighter days ahead.  The time for celebration will come.

But before we can celebrate, we still have a little more work to do.

If the celebration is to mean anything at all, we have to sojourn through the whole range of emotions.  We have to feel the pain and the uncertainty.  We have to live through it.  We live in the promise of the celebration to come, but it’s not quite here yet.

The father’s joy at his younger son’s return would have been empty if he hadn’t felt the pain of his leaving.  Sometimes we have to just let them walk away.  They may not always come back, but when they do, there will be joy.

Lent can sometimes feel like a long road to have to walk.  Easter can sometimes seem so far away.  But it’s closer now than it has ever been.  And tomorrow it will be closer, still.  The time for celebration is near. 

Just wait.  Amen.

Friday, March 08, 2013

FCS: Ann

Quick facts:
  • Show: Ann
  • Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, February 28, 2013
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: Open-ended
  • Venue: Vivian Beaumont Theatre at Lincoln Center
  • Running time: 1:55 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Acceptable.  Because of the layout of this theater and the stadium seating, no seat is really bad, per se, but I was pretty far stage right, so I was looking at most of the action from the side, and the upstage set was a bit obscured.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: A first person retrospective on the life of the former governor of Texas, Ann Richards - a legendary Texas personality.

My thoughts: I was VERY excited to see Ann.  I remember growing up seeing her campaign ads on television in Shreveport, Louisiana.  In my liberal, Southern home, Ann Richards was a much-admired icon.  So, while I usually prefer musicals, I made an exception for Ann because of my deep admiration for Ann Richards as a person, and my interest in her life as the subject of a play.

Holland Taylor's portrayal of this animated figure is admirable.  My southern ears often cringe when people from beyond our region attempt to look, act, and sound like us.  But to my delight, the Philadelphia native was effective.  Not flawless, to be sure, but better than most.

Holland Taylor's writing, unfortunately, did not reach to heights of her performance.  While it was funny and occasionally off-color - much as Governor Richards was, herself - the character that Taylor presented lacked depth.  She delivered one-liners and zingers that had the audience laughing, and she told biographical facts about the former governor's life, but failed to draw it all together in an inspiring and moving way.  At times, the evening felt like little more than a very entertaining historical lecture - not unlike one might find in the streets of Philadelphia from tour guides dressed as Ben Franklin or Betsy Ross.

The premise of the show's beginning was that the governor was giving a graduation speech at an unknown Texas college.  Somehow along the way, however the premise seemed to shift at first to a flashback of the governor in her office, and then, unpredictably to her office in New York City after leaving Texas, and then even more inexplicably, to after her death and remembering her life.  Frankly, this final premise would have made more sense for the continuity of the story as a whole - but shifting premises throughout the performance caused me to disengage with the experience of the character and instead, spend my energy questioning where we were at a given moment and how we got there.

The scenic design, by Michael Fagin, was beautiful and intricate - particularly in the Governor's Office scene, with one very notable exception.  For some reason, Richards seemed to be sitting on the wrong side of her desk.  She sat across the desk from the audience, but the desk drawers were facing the audience.  It was peculiar and distracting.  Was this some quirk of Governor Richards?  Or was it an oversight on the part of the scenic designer?  There was one moment where the governor opened a drawer to retrieve something from it, but couldn't this have been done from the other side of the desk?  This feels like a nit-picky criticism, but these little things can be a real distraction.  If a set is intended to be realist, such details must be represent the reality that the design team is attempting to convey.

The projection design, by Zachary Borovay, when functional, was effective.  For example: in the opening scene, the famous Ann Richards keynote address at the Democratic National Convention was portrayed.  Video of the actual event was projected onto the kind of "pull down" projector screen one might find in a typical school.  As the video progressed, Taylor's first appearance was behind the screen, collaboratively with the projections, making an interesting hybrid between live action and video.  It was an effective use of projections.  As the scene ended, however, the projections grew beyond the boundaries of the screen - effectively killing the effect.  Though I love the tasteful and measured use of projections in theater, this is an example of the designer taking a good thing and pushing it beyond its usefulness.

In preaching, one of the early mistakes that new preachers often make, is that they try to tell the congregation everything they know in their first sermon.  It seems that projection designers often seem to make this same kind of mistake - they use every trick in their portfolio, without regard to whether or not it is helpful.  Oftentimes less is more.

Though my criticisms of this production may seem somewhat harsh, the real takeaway is that it was a good night at the theater.  It was funny without being silly, and it shared the story of a character who could use a lot more popular attention.  It made me want to read Ann Richards' writing.  It engaged me enough to want to dig out more.  So while it was, in some significant ways, a flawed attempt, it was a good attempt.  I'm glad that the production is running and I am glad to have seen it!  I hope others will as well.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Probably not.  But I'm glad I did this once.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  My brother, who is a professional political consultant, would get a kick out of it.  My father, who like all of us men in the family has a bit of a political junkie side to him, would enjoy it.  He's also a bit of a Texas junkie, as well, so that couldn't hurt.
  • Twitter review: A few hiccups, but definitely worthwhile.