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, May 26, 2013

Fix it!

Trinity Sunday, Year C

In the name of God: One, Holy, and Living.  Amen.

Earlier this week I was rereading an article in the New York Times from several years ago about what it calls, “Our Fix-it Faith”.  It explores the prevailing belief that technology can fix any problem we throw at it.  That somehow, knowledge and its applications will always be enough to triumph over the effects of ignorance and hubris.

The article was written in the context of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but every day, it seems, we hear of more problems that simply need to be “fixed” or that should have been “fixed” before they became problems.

The guiding principle in our culture seems to be that perfection and ease of living and freedom from troubles is the standard - the baseline.  And anything that falls short of that high bar challenges our faith in ourselves and our faith in our leaders.

Through our knowledge and our intelligence, no problem that we ever face should ever get out of hand.  If it does, it shakes our faith.

But this faith-shaking seems to happen almost every day.  Our faith is shaken by acts of terrorism.  Our faith is shaken by bullying and violence in our children’s schools.  Our faith is shaken by the still-struggling economy.  Our faith is shaken by natural disasters.  All of this, of course, intermingles with our own unrelenting cycles of challenges and tragedies that don’t make the news or enter the national consciousness every day.

We live in an age when we expect everyone to know everything right now.  And when it’s proven that they don’t, it shakes our faith.  And when our faith is shaken, we look for people to blame.

Even so, our quest for stability and control fails again and again.

Perhaps this is part of why the church is more countercultural now than it has been since before Constantine.  For, perhaps, the first time since the fourth century, our teachings are actively in contrast with the pervasive teachings of the dominant culture.  Where our culture insists that technology, and progress, and knowledge will be our salvation, the church persists in teaching that our salvation is in Christ alone.  Where our culture teaches that all shall be well through greater knowing, we hear Jesus say, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.”

There is still truth to be revealed.  There are still things we don’t know.  And that’s okay.

That’s a bold proclamation for our time.  To a people consumed with zeal for answers and understanding, our Christ says, “All in time.  Take a breath.  Not yet.”

On Trinity Sunday the church is particularly susceptible to attempting to give in to the demands of the culture.  When faced with the occasion of celebrating the Holy Trinity, we can find ourselves tempted to explain or define the Holy Trinity – the ineffable truth of one God in three persons.

I have, over the years, uncovered a few metaphors that help me to wrap my mind around the concept of the Trinity.  I have understood the Trinity to be expressive of the diversity of God.

As I survey the diversity of creation, it makes sense to me that God is One who is best known through diversity.  When considering the God who made the birds of the air and the beasts of the fields and the fish of the sea – not to mention the air and the fields and the seas, themselves; as well as all of us in all of our diversity – it seems unfair to try to contain that God in simple, human terms.  That God cannot be expressed in any linear, two-dimensional fashion.  That God needs a Trinity – built-in diversity to accommodate the diversity represented by it.

Or, I have thought of the Trinity as the method by which we, in our own complexity, commune with a God of infinite complexity.  Our bodies – our sensations and experiences and interactions – connect us with Christ, God in human form.  Our creativity connects us with the Parent, the Ultimate Creator of all that is or was or ever will be.  Our wisdom, both innate and acquired, connects with the Holy Spirit – writhing through our experiences and understandings to reveal the Divine where it had before been elusive.

These three live in us, as individuals and in our communities, as aberrations from our humble humanity to reveal the one God.

But even the best metaphors are just that: metaphors.  They are not knowledge.  Despite whatever poetic thinking we may impose on the Trinity, we don’t really know it any more than we did before.

And that’s okay.

The church, like any great teacher, is at its best when it finds the point of transition between filling us with answers and information, and leading us to wrestle with the deeper questions.  It’s the shift from acquiring knowledge to cultivating wisdom.

It’s not easy.  And it is countercultural.  The world begs us to fill it with answers.  But life in this world is not a short-answer question.

Jesus, our teacher, knew this.  He knew that knowledge would not give us the answers that our quest for understanding would.

“I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.  When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…”

All in time.  Take a breath.  Not yet.

We keep seeing, right now and in the physical world, what happens when our faith is misplaced: when we trust in ourselves and our own creations as our own, personal saviors.  We are seeing what happens when we abandon the lessons of the Trinity and ignore the interconnectedness between the Creator and all that is created.

Simple answers are never answers enough for the complex realities of life.

We have seen it before and we will see it again.

But the Spirit of truth is guiding us into all truth.  There are no easy answers.  But there is Wisdom: rejoicing before God always; Wisdom, rejoicing in the inhabited world and delighting in the human race.

For that, I give thanks.  Amen.

Friday, May 24, 2013

FCS: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella

** Note - pardon the delay...  I'm just now catching up on last week's show!

Quick facts:
  • Show: Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella
  • Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, May 16, 2013
  • Time: 7:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: open-ended
  • Venue: The Broadway Theatre
  • Running time: 2:20 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Not bad.  In the rear orchestra, under the mezzanine, stage right.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: The stage version of the 1950s TV movie musical, telling the classic tale of Cinderella.

My thoughts: When Cinderella receives her invitation to the prince's ball from her fairy godmother, she says, "But it's torn!"  Her fairy godmother says, "Don't wait for everything to be perfect."  It's good advice in general, but for too many Broadway productions, it seems, the advice is taken a bit too liberally.  Fortunately, however, this production of Cinderella was already perfect.  There was no need to compromise at all!

I entered the performance with basically low expectations.  I expected it to be silly, overly saccharine, and generally un-fun.  Furthermore, I was disappointed in my plans for the evening, as the friend who was planning to see the show with me couldn't make it at the last moment.  So I had prepared myself for disappointment all around.

It wasn't long, however, before this spectacularly executed production transported me into the world of Cinderella.  I often wonder how much of my own baggage from a hard day or week, or preconceptions about a show that I'm bringing with me into the house might temper my ability to enjoy a show.  But this production proved that a strong show can rise above those kinds of things.

Every element of the performance and the production as a whole was simply perfect.

Laura Osnes, in the role of Cinderella, was simply a dream.  I've seen her (and have been mightily impressed by her) in the past - most notably in the role of Bonnie in the commercially unsuccessful but excellent production of last season's short-lived Bonnie & Clyde.  But Osnes seems to have been made to play Cinderella.  Her physical beauty glows on the stage, but in a familiar way.  Her singing is unmatched.  Something about her pulls you into rooting for her before you even really know who she is.

Similarly, Santino Fontana, in the role of Topher, the prince who will fall in love with Cinderella, seems perfectly made for his role.  He is handsome and naive, and just cartoonish enough without taking it too far.

Harriet Harris, of "Bebe Glazer" fame from the television show Frazier, seems mostly to be playing herself (or at least the role she's made famous), but fortunately, it also works nicely in the role of Madame, Cinderella's evil stepmother.

All of the stellar performances took place in the context of an also-well-oiled-machine of a production as a whole.

The sets, designed by Anna Louizos, were magnificent.  The transitions between the moving pieces and scenes, from inside Cinderella's house to the woods around it, to the prince's castle, and everywhere in between, were simply flawless.  I noticed the sets only insofar as I remained amazed by them.  They effectively transported me between the many places through which the stories were told.  The focus was never the sets, but they were always a star along with the performers.  It couldn't have been designed and executed any better.

The choreography, by Josh Rhodes, was delicate and elegant - always appropriate to the experience as a whole.

Finally, I must say a word about the stagecraft.  It's so easy for "magic tricks" on stage to go over the top (think Ghost: the musical...).  There's a fine line between amazing and eye rolling.  But in this story about magic, it was as magical as you'd expect.  The transitions between "Crazy Marie" and "Fairy Godmother" and between Cinderella the peasant and Cinderella to the would-be princess simply blew me away.  I actually don't know how they did it.  Usually part of the fun for me in watching these kinds of things is the figuring it all out.  But I was so transported by the entire experience that I wondered if it might actually be magic!

In conclusion, the production was far more engaging, transcendent, and thrilling than I ever might have imagined that it could be.  I don't recall a more magical night of theater, and not many that pulled me in to another world as completely as Cinderella!

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Yes!
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  Definitely.  Anyone who could use a dose of magic (my friend that missed it could have used it!).  Anyone who appreciates good theater.  Anyone who is a child at heart!  Anyone who wants a classic night of enchanting theater.  They just don't make 'em like this anymore - except, sometimes when you get lucky, they do!
  • Twitter review: Engaging, transcendent, and thrilling!  Go!

FCS: Annie

Quick facts:
  • Show: Annie
  • Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, May 23, 2013
  • Time: 7:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: open-ended
  • Venue: Palace Theatre
  • Running time: 2:25 (one intermission)
  • My seat: Okay.  At least as far as the Palace goes.  It was among the worst seats in the orchestra - second to last row, far stage left - well under the lip of the mezzanine.  BUT - as this is one of the largest theaters on Broadway (clocking in a capacity of 1,743), and since it has both a mezzanine and a balcony, I've sat in far worse seats.  Years ago I saw Elton John's and Tim Rice's Aida there in the back of the mezzanine, behind a support beam.  More recently, I saw Priscilla, Queen of the Dessert there on the last row of the balcony.  While it was an excellent show and managed to keep my attention, those seats were FAR worse than tonight's.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: The musical tale of little orphan Annie - from the old comic strips, and the old musical, and the two film versions.

My thoughts: Well...  It wasn't great.  It wasn't bad, but it wasn't great.  It was good.  But it wasn't great.

Sadly, however, for a show this iconic, and for Broadway, great is the bottom line.

I was very excited to see Jane Lynch cast in the role of Miss Hannigan.  It seemed like inspired casting - and a thrilling opportunity to see the current reigning heir to legacy of Carol Burnett!  But sadly, while her performance was very good, it simply wasn't great.

I've heard a lot of hype about Lilla Crawford in the role of Annie - mostly that she was passed over for a Tony nomination.  But based on the performance I saw, I can see why she was.  Her singing is certainly strong, and she is, without question, a very talented child.  But her attempt at a street kid's New York accent from the 1930s was uneven, to the point of being a distraction.  The role would have been much more successfully executed if she hadn't tried to add an unnatural accent on top of everything else.

The projection designs by Wendall K. Harrington were sparse, and usually tasteful.  There was a moment in the song "N.Y.C." where it did go a bit over the top for a moment with some sort of abstract fireworks image, but fortunately that was a fleeting occurrence and not the norm throughout the show.  In the opening sequence, the newsreel projection was helpful in setting the stage for the story to follow, but unfortunately, it didn't play well with the set.  The opening "curtain" was a series of clotheslines holding an array of white garments, and they served as the screen for the newsreel projection.  But it was difficult to see it on the uneven surface.  When the "curtain" went up, each of the lines seemed to move independently - which was a satisfying effect - but it might have been worthwhile to have them move before the newsreel segment began to reveal a more appropriate projection surface - perhaps a bed sheet...

The remaining production elements were all lackluster.  Adequate, but not engaging.  Sufficient, but never evocative.

The set design by David Korins was a particular disappointment.  While there was a lot of movement, it never transported me.  Every scene got the job done, but in uninteresting and unconvincing ways.  The orphanage wasn't convincingly slummy or dirty.  The Warbucks mansion wasn't sufficiently grand.  For a production of Annie on Broadway, and in a venue like the Palace, I'd expect something on the order of a Sunset Boulevard kind of set for the mansion.  Instead, it was a more like a large scale community theater production.

The one fairly clever element of the set design was a kind of room-sized storybook piece with "pages" that would turn to represent different rooms in the mansion.  Each page had doors that characters could walk through as if they were walking through room after room of the mansion.  It was a good idea, but again, it was presented on a bit too small of a scale to really be effective.  I found myself thinking things like, "Oh.  Look what they're trying to do.  Isn't that a good idea."  Not, "Wow! What a magical way to take me through the many rooms of the house!"

The most successful element of the set design was one brief scene in the White House.  Without attempting to present the space literally, the set conveyed the spirit of the space in conjunction with evocative use of lighting and perspective.  If the rest of the show had been designed with that much effective precision, it would have been an entirely different experience.

Despite the many elements of the production that felt underplayed, even so the quality of the writing and the joy of the story survived in the end.  There were many moments where I laughed.  Many moments were touching.  But it could have been (should have been...) so much more.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  No.  Enough said.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  Probably not.  I suppose it's a good introduction to a Broadway experience for children, but it doesn't quite reach the standards that I tend to expect, so I wouldn't spend a lot of energy encouraging others to go.
  • Twitter review: An unimaginative retelling of a familiar story.  Even so, it was good.  Not great, but good.

Sunday, May 19, 2013


Pentecost, Year C
Acts 2:1-21
John 14:8-17

In the name of God our creator, Christ our savior, and the Holy Spirit who still empowers us and guides us.  Amen.

Everything about the Christian story seems, at its core, to be about pushing us.

Pushing us past the boundaries we have erected.  Pushing us into new ways of thinking.  Pushing us into more authentic ways of living and acting.

But perhaps most of all, the Christian story is about pushing us ever more out into the world.

And nowhere, in all of the Christian story, is the narrative about going - of our being pushed - more explicit than it is in the story of Pentecost.

The disciples are huddled together.  It’s been nearly two months since the resurrection, but still they keep huddling.  Of course they haven’t been simply hidden away the whole time.  We heard about Thomas being away somewhere when Jesus first appeared to the disciples.  We know that Peter took them fishing.  But even despite the episodic ventures beyond the confines of their secure little community, the pull was always back into the huddle.

Even as late as Pentecost - 50 days - nearly two months following the Resurrection - even then, the disciples were still walking timidly through their new world.  Even then, their timidity and fear kept pulling them back into their familiar circle.

One of the images of Pentecost that has never really sat well with me is that of the “birthday of the church”.  This is something I’ve heard about as long as I can remember - the idea being that on Pentecost the Jesus movement went from being a small band of followers, to a church in the world - growing and expanding and spreading the message of Jesus to everyone.  Not just to the few that were fortunate enough to have been personally called while he walked among us.

Different places where I grew up put differing levels of emphasis on this “birthday” idea, but sometimes it went so far as having a birthday cake for the church, and candles, and balloons, and streamers, and an atmosphere not far from that of a child’s birthday party.

That idea always made me sort of uncomfortable.  Even as a child, I somehow knew that it didn’t really make sense.  Having a birthday party for the church seemed to be trying to anthropomorphize it; but even as a child, I knew that the church wasn’t a person.  It’s bigger than just a person.  Its purpose is higher than any person.

Giving the church a “birthday party” seemed somehow belittling - like we were trying to hold the church in too small a box.  Like we were trying to hold God in too small a box.  A simple “birthday party” like I might go to some Saturday morning for any of my friends seemed a bit too trivial for something as big and as important as the church.

But this week, after years of hearing it, the metaphor of the “birthday” of the church started making sense to me for the first time.

It’s less about parties and cake and balloons and streamers - and more about birth.

As the disciples are huddled together, the Holy Spirit fills the room “like the rush of a violent wind”.  Suddenly, tongues of flame descend and rest on each of them, and they begin speaking in languages, not their own.

They speak in all the languages of the world.  They speak in a multiplicity of voices that can reach the ends of the earth.  They speak with a surety that pushes them out of their security and their huddled enclosure into a world aching for their message.

They speak with the voice of the living Christ.

Like a mother laboring to push new life into the world, the Holy Spirit labors to push us, the followers of Christ, beyond our huddled enclosures into a world that aches for our message.

And the church is born.

Whenever we speak the truth of Christ in tongues that seem foreign to us; whenever we speak the truth of Christ to people who seem foreign to us; whenever we speak the truth of Christ beyond the safety of our own huddled enclosures; then the church is born.

It’s not about cake, and streamers, and parties - it’s about being born.  It’s about the labor.  It’s about being pushed into the world and taking our first breath, and having it fill us with life like the rush of a violent wind.  It’s about the promise that in this new life we will stand up, and walk, and carry the message to the farthest reaches of the earth - even if those unreached places are just around the corner, or even just outside ourselves.  Even if that means that we’ll have to speak in ways that seem foreign to us, to people who seem foreign to us.

There are those who say that the church is dying.  And maybe it is.

All around us church attendance is dropping and church giving is dwindling.  The impact and influence of churches on our wider society is slowly chipping away and eroding.

But in the places where that isn’t true, it’s because the church is being reborn.  In those places, the church is learning to speak in new ways to new people.

Birth - and even rebirth - is a painful experience.  Laborious, even.  But it’s a labor of love.  It requires moving from our places of safety and security into places of vulnerability.  It requires moving from huddled warmth into the cold vastness of the outside world.  But it also involves moving from darkness into the light.  From confines, into freedom.

And the same Spirit, who pushes us into the world, supports us and guides us through it.

“I will ask… and [God] will give you another Advocate, [the Holy Spirit], to be with you forever.  This is the Spirit of truth… [who] abides with you, and [who] will be in you.”

We needn’t do it alone.

Birth is frightening, but it’s the only thing that leads to life.

We are being pushed.

Past the boundaries we have erected.  Past our old ways of thinking.  Into authenticity and truth.  Into and among new people and experiences that we never could have imagined.

We may try to scratch and claw our way back into some sense of safety and security, but we are being pushed.  Into new life in a new world.

And the Holy Spirit, our Advocate, is with us.  Pushing us.  And showing us the way.  Amen.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Deeper than nostalgia

Easter 7C

O God: Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit to strengthen us, and exalt us to that place where our Savior Christ has gone before.  Amen.

Have you ever encountered a really great love song?  One of those songs that sneaked up beside you and touched the most private recesses of your soul when you didn’t expect it?

I was reminded of one of those experiences the other day.  While wandering through Center City, and smelling the blooming wisteria, my mind wandered back to springtime a few years ago.

I had been away visiting family and friends around the South.  I flew into Nashville where I borrowed a car from my parents and spent the next week on a road trip through Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama, before finally heading back to Tennessee to fly home to the northeast.  I stopped all along the way to reacquaint myself with the people and places that make up many of the stories of my life.

It was a great week.  I love a good road trip, and it was one of those times that really fed my soul.  The car I had borrowed was a convertible, and the weather was just perfect, so I drove along those many miles with the top down, listening to mindless music too loudly, seeing familiar sites, and all the while accompanied by the fragrances of the South – honeysuckle, Confederate jasmine, and pine.

It really was a great week.

When I was finally headed home, I decided to keep wrapping myself in that blanket of nurturing familiarity just a while longer, so I listened to one of my favorite bands: the Indigo Girls - one of their earlier albums that best fit my mindset.  Hearing it on that trip was like seeing another old friend again after a long time away.

Out on the highway, in the middle of nowhere, it hit me: this old familiar song – a love song – that touched me in a new way.  It isn’t your typical love song.  It’s not meant for a person, but for that peculiar union of place and time.  It’s something like “nostalgia” but deeper in your gut than that word usually seems to imply.

The song is called “Southland in the Springtime”.  The chorus says, “There’s something about the Southland in the springtime, where the waters flow with confidence and reason.  Though I miss her when I am gone, it won’t ever be too long, ‘til I’m home again to spend my favorite season… there’s no place like home and none more pleasin’, than the Southland in the springtime.”

As those words enveloped me my eyes welled with tears.  It wasn’t because I was sad to be leaving the South.  It certainly wasn’t because I was sad to be headed home.  It was because those words were, for me, so true.  They touched my own experience of those past few days (and those days’ relationship with the rest of my life) in a very deep and intimate way.  They caused a divine comfort to surround me – like an embrace from something or someone that was more than present.

I had that same feeling when I read this Gospel with new eyes about a few years.  I forget exactly when it was, but I was preparing to preach on an passage from the 18th chapter of John and I was feeling stumped by it.

John’s Gospel can be that way sometimes – at first glance it can sometimes seem a little obtuse.  The style of writing can, at times, come across as so deliberate and calculated, that it almost seems to explain away any hope of clarity.  “As you, God, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me….  The world does not know you, but I know you; and these know that you have sent me.  I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

Right.  It almost sounds like the kind of puzzle you might find in the Sunday paper: see if you can rearrange these words to make a coherent sentence.

I’ve learned that – though it’s true in all of the Gospels, it seems somehow more so in John – that context is key.  When I’m stumped by a passage or a story, sometimes the key to beginning to understand it is as simple as reading the things around it.  Allow it to set its own stage.  Some of its meaning might begin to flow from there.

So I first REALLY read the seventeenth chapter of John while preparing to preach on the eighteenth chapter of John.  I remember sitting in the church where I was serving at the time with a Bible, feeling utterly confused.  I’d already read the appointed text and about a chapter after it before turning back a couple of pages to begin reading the chapter before.

Then it struck me.  This is a love letter.  It’s a love letter about us – about me and about you – written millennia ago to God, but with us – the church of the ages – in mind.

It really is quite humbling – to be so loved through the centuries.  It’s humbling to recognize that the Bible isn’t just a collection of stories about people long ago, but that it’s connected to our story.  We were mentioned right there in the seventeenth chapter of John.

Jesus’ prayer for us was not about what we would do.  Instead, it was about who, and how, we would be.  He prayed that we would be “one”.  He prayed that we would be in relationship with one another and that those relationships would be characterized by love.  That’s how Christ lives even now: in our love.

We need that prayer now more than ever.

Our culture values individualism.  We honor those who are said to have pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps.  Even those from more evangelistic Christian traditions than ours talk about each individual’s “personal” relationship with Jesus.

But that is not Christ’s prayer for us.

In this closing episode of his long goodbye, his prayer is not that we will be strong, rugged individuals.  He doesn’t pray that we will be capable of tending to ourselves in matters of our own livelihood and faith.

He prays that we will be faithful in our relationships.

It’s a love song that reaches us “like a tapestry passed down through generations” – like an embrace from someone who is more than just present.

In the collect today we pray that we will not be left “comfortless”.  This final “good bye prayer” of Jesus - his love song to God about us - is our comfort.  It’s the answer to our own prayer.

May we all know that love.  May it be as familiar to us as a pleasing scent that brings back fond memories.  May we practice it in each of our own relationships, and may we all experience Christ living, still, in that love.  May we allow our individual threads of this still-living tapestry of history to interweave themselves into the still-living community of Christ.  May his prayer - his love song - be our own.  In it, may we all be one.  Amen.

(a previous version of this sermon appears here.  You can also hear the song "Southland in the Springtime" in that post.)