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, October 27, 2013


Pentecost 23, Proper 25C

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

One of the most amusing maneuvers in the world of political communications is the “Non-apology Apology”.  I’m sure you’ve heard them.  Some politician gets caught in a gaffe.  They’re overheard saying what they really think about their opponent.  When public pressure begins to mount, they offer a half-attempt at the appearance of an apology and say something like, “I’m sorry if I offended anyone.”

It’s not that they’re sorry for what they’ve said.  They don’t really see a problem with what they’ve said.  They just wish they weren’t having to live with the repercussions of their actions.

It’s a “Non-apology Apology”.

This morning, in the gospel lesson, we hear something very much like that in its style: “Ungrateful ‘Thanksgiving’”.

The Pharisee of the parable - supposedly a holy man - isn’t really grateful so much as he is bragging.  Bragging about all the pious things he does.  Bragging that he’s better than others.

It’s a bit of a silly prayer, because God knows not only all that he does, but all that is in his heart.  And his prayer tells us that it’s not really gratitude.

Last week, the message we heard was to “pray always and not to lose heart.”  But this week we hear that there’s a way that we do these things.

Yes.  We should talk to God.  More importantly, we should listen for God.  But until we figure that out, talking is a decent place to start.

But it’s not enough just to talk.  It doesn’t make sense to try to play politics with God.  It doesn’t make sense to try to reason with God, or to convince God of your way of seeing the world.

It’s true that we will all, at one time or another, probably argue with God, but that’s another matter entirely.  Where we go wrong is when we try to manipulate God.  It’s the most futile pursuit we might ever attempt.

One of the truths we hear from Jesus over and over again is that he has no time for hypocrisy - particularly among the pious.

False gratitude is a particularly insidious kind of hypocrisy.  The Pharisee knew that God required and expected gratitude, but the only gratitude he could muster was for himself: for how good he was; for how superior he found himself to be.

He wasn’t actually grateful to God.  He only tried to appear to be.

But God knows what is in our hearts.

That’s interestingly also one of the convictions we hear over and over again from people outside the church.

When I was first learning to preach, my mentor gave me an invaluable little bit of advice that I still take to heart.  She told me to never lie.  Never try to preach something you don’t really believe, because the congregation will recognize it instantly, and they won’t forgive you.  Never try to tell them what you think they want to hear in favor of what you think they need to hear, because they’ll stop believing you.

Don’t be a hypocrite.

It may seem like simple advice, but it’s worth remembering.  And not just for those of us who are called to stand in this pulpit and to preach, but for all of us who are called to share the love of Jesus with the world we inhabit (and that’s all of us).

One of the surest ways to drive away potential visitors to the church is for us to lie to them.

People have well-honed, built-in hypocrisy detectors.  Sadly, for too much of our history, we in the church have given people outside of the church too many reasons to need them.

I remember the story my father tells of one year when he was growing up: the First Baptist Church in town was holding its annual revival.  They decided to go around the countryside around the town trying to rouse up all of the heretics and backsliders to bring them to the Lord - which, of course, meant to bring them to the church.

A group of parishioners visited the home of one of the town’s most notorious “sinners”.  If Hance Koon had ever been to church, no one could remember it.

The good people of First Baptist Church put on the hard sell.  They told Hance about all of the rewards that awaited him in heaven.  They told him about how God so loved the world that He gave up his only Son, Jesus, to death on the cross.  They told him about the eternal damnation and punishment that awaited him if he failed to come along.

After all the arguments had been made, one of the men asked him, “Now Hance, don’t you want to come with us and be a Christian?”

Hance leaned back and put his feet up, he lit a cigarette and said, “I could haul every Christian in the First Baptist Church to the edge of town in a two-wheel wagon.”

Like most people we encounter today, Hance had a well-honed, built-in hypocrisy detector.

The church may have been full, but Hance suspected it was really empty.  He knew that these people weren’t really in it for God, even for Hance.  They were looking to make themselves feel good, and he wanted nothing to do with it.

As we interact with the world around us each day; as we each do our part to try to make this church grow and to help it succeed, we’d be wise to remember the story of Hance Koon.  We’d be wise to remember the story of the hypocritical Pharisee.

The people demand more of us, and so does God.

Fake apologies won’t work in politics.

Fake gratitude and conditional love won’t work in the church or in the world.  God and God’s people will see right through it.

Real Christians first have to be real - both in our prayer, and in all the rest of our lives.  Nothing less will do.  Amen.

Sunday, October 20, 2013


Pentecost 22, Proper 24C

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

Prayer is a touchy subject.

It’s easy to treat it like a letter to Santa or a birthday wish list mailed to Grandma.  And if that’s your mindset, it’s even easier to be disappointed by it.

There’s a degree to which the gospel lesson we read today even helps to feed that kind of misunderstanding about prayer.  A quick read makes it sound as if we can just stamp our feet long enough and get all of our demands met.

The persistent widow cried out for justice so long and so annoyingly that the unjust judge finally gave in just to shut her up.  Surely God is better than an unjust judge!?

But it doesn’t take very long in a life of prayer to get the idea that it doesn’t always work that way.

Last weekend, as I was resting on Sunday afternoon, I was flipping through the television for something mindless to half-watch while I curled up with the dogs on the couch.  That movie “Bruce Almighty” was on TBS.  Have you seen it?

Bruce is a struggling television personality in Buffalo, New York, desperately hoping for the anchor job, but he keeps getting stuck with puff pieces and so no one takes him seriously.  In the last straw, as he thinks he’s finally starting to move up the ladder, he learns that his nemesis has been given the job.  He explodes.  Aside from embarrassing himself on the air and loosing the job he did have, he cries out to God, whom he thinks is pitting the world against him - declaring that he could do a better job than God, whom he thinks has clearly been ignoring all of his prayers.

The next day, God contacts him, and offers to let him take over.

Of course, lots of humor ensues as Bruce explores his new divinity and all of the powers that it holds.  He uses it in lots of little ways to win his job back, to get his girlfriend to forgive him for being rude to her, even to wreak a little “justice” on some people who had done him wrong the day before.

But before long, the responsibility of being God begins to take over.  Most notably, the prayers overwhelm him.  It seems the more he answers them, the faster they come in.  To try to deal with it once and for all, he just ignores the particular prayers and blankly answers them all, “Yes.”

The next day, everyone has won the lottery.  But since the winnings had to be divided evenly among the winners, everyone just got their dollar back.

It’s a funny movie, and a sweet little reminder that God and prayer don’t always work exactly the ways that we’d want them to: that prayers aren’t just magic ticks on a wish list - because that wouldn’t work out; but even that’s not really the point.  The fact that it just wouldn’t work out isn’t the whole story.

One of the things that makes me nervous about this increasingly “spiritual but not religious” culture that we live in, is that I wonder what will become of people when they have their times of greatest need.

My worry isn’t just about the survival of the church; the church will go on in one way or another.  My real worry is about all of these people that the church is failing to reach.

Every day, in churches across the country, priests are approached by non-members seeking the services of the church - baptisms, weddings, funerals - without any interest in becoming a part of the church.  People seem to remember that faith communities play a role at those pivotal moments in all of our lives, but they forget that that role is stronger and even more pivotal when it’s supported by all of the other connective tissue between those pivotal moments.

Faith is a practice of persistence.

It’s not just about showing up on Easter Day.  Easter Day doesn’t mean nearly as much if you haven’t journeyed through Lent.  It’s not just showing up on Christmas Eve.  The candles aren’t nearly as beautiful if you don’t watch them twinkle through the memory of hearing again the promise and expectation of hope that preceded it in Advent.  And none of it means much without the stories of Jesus and his followers that we hear all year long, week in and week out.

It’s not just about the big moments, or the products, or getting what we need when we need it.  It’s about that faithful persistence.

And it’s the same way with prayer.

You don’t have to sit at the bedside of many dying people before you realize that God isn’t just some genie in a bottle.

Many of our prayers are never answered in the ways that we want them to be.

But even so, prayer is significant.  And it helps.  It helps most when it’s a part of a pattern of persistence.  Prayer helps most when it’s the product of a relationship that’s been formed over time.  In good times and in bad times.

I started realizing that I was getting good at prayer when I caught myself arguing with God - sometimes even getting angry.  That’s when the relationship started getting real for me.  I’d moved on from wish lists, or even little “thank you note” prayers, into something more honest.  It wasn’t long after that that I figured out how to say what needs to be said, and then to shut up and listen.

It took persistence to get to that point.  Sometimes, even now, it still takes persistence to get back to that point when I’ve fallen away.  (And I’m always falling away.)

I still don’t always get what I want.  In fact, I don’t often get what I want.  But I have gotten a relationship with God.  A relationship that has been meaningful, and that has brought me peace, and that has guided me through difficult times.

It’s not magic.  Like all relationships, it’s work.  And like all relationships, it’s not just about the big moments, but all the sinews between those big moments that make those moments big.  Amen.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

FCS: Big Fish

Quick facts:
  • Show: Big Fish
  • Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, October 3, 2013
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: Open-ended
  • Venue: Neil Simon Theatre
  • Running time: ~2:30 (one 15 minute intermission) - I didn't watch the time too closely, but this is about what I recall...
  • My seat: Good.  I was on the 5th row, stage left, near the center of that section.  There were times when my view was obstructed, but on the whole it worked out alright.
  • Ticket source: Playbill Discount Club
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: A stage musical following the same general story of the 1998 book and the 2003 film of the same name.  While I have seen the film, it's been a long time, and I don't remember a lot about it, so I can't speak to whether or not the stage adaptation is "true" to the original story.  But generally, it's the story of a father who tells tales of a wild life to his son, who never really knows what to believe, or even whether or not to believe.

My thoughts: Big Fish isn't one of those "important" works of the theater that changed my life or my worldview in any radical way, but it was a fine piece of theater.  The production was masterfully executed, which, quite frankly, is the least I would expect from such a masterful assembly of talent.

I've often recognized that one of the aspects of the theater that I feel least equipped to write about it the nature of directing.  I understand music enough to be conversant there.  I have enough of a gut instinct to speak about choreography - at least emotionally.  Over the years I've learned a bit about lighting and projection design from friends and observation.  But I've never really wrapped my mind around how to observe or judge the work of directors.  My guess is that the director is largely the "big picture" person behind a show - pulling together all of the smaller moving parts and using them to mold the larger narrative.  But I don't really know how that happens, or how to tell if it's happening well beyond my own "big picture" judgements about whether a production works or not.

But witnessing the work of five-time Tony award winner Susan Stroman - I can't say that I now really understand the role of the director any better - but I can at least recognize greatness when I've seen it.  Clearly she's doing something that works.  Everything, from the movement of the people and the sets, to the dynamics of the costumes (designed by the equally brilliant and Tony-winning William Ivey Long), to lighting and color palettes - every aspect of the production came together in a seamlessly woven story.  The aims of the book and score could not have been communicated more clearly.

If that's what a director does (and I think it is) it was done well in this production.

This was one of the shows that I was most excited about seeing this season - mostly because it was an opportunity for me to see "live in living color" the always brilliant Norbert Leo Butz.  He's one of those Broadway stars that I've admired and listened to for a long time, but have never seen live.  His performance, of course, didn't disappoint.  This Louisiana native wasn't terribly thrilled with his attempt at an Alabama accent, but c'mon...  He's Norbert Leo Butz.  Who cares?!  He clearly connected with his fellow performers and delivered a performance that was more emotionally stirring than any excellence in merely acting or singing might offer.

He was joined in the cast by the equally talented Kate Baldwin and Bobby Steggert.  It's almost hard to think about what the bright spots in the production are, because there are simply so many, but for me, one of them was clearly Bobby Steggert.  He captured a youthful, self-assured naivete in such a compelling way.  He gave himself over to his character and took me along for the ride.  I don't actually know if I've seen Steggert before or not, but it was hard for me to imagine him in another role.  As far as I can tell, he was born and lives as Will Bloom.  It's not that his performance was some sort of technical genius, but is was utterly honest.  I believed him from curtain up to curtain call.

(update: after writing these words about Steggert's honesty, I discovered this lovely blog piece he'd written about his surprising - and surprisingly recent - "coming out" story.  He talks about the ongoing work of coming out, and the benefits he's enjoyed as a gay man as he's perfected his craft as an actor.  This would be worth reading at any time, but as this Friday is National Coming Out Day, it seems particularly appropriate this week!  I heartily commend it to you.)

I'll admit that I'm a bit later writing this review than I normally am - I saw it in the final days of previews and had planned to publish on opening night.  Unfortunately, the weekend got away from me, and now I'm coming to it a little less fresh than I usually do.  This is exacerbated by the fact that I made a friend in the theater, and didn't do my usual note-taking during intermission.  It was more fun to chat!

But what I do remember, and what I do want to impress, is that it's a lovely show.  It's the kind of show I'd want to take my mother to see.  It's full of feel-good and emotional moments.  I left the theater energized.  So like I said at the outset, it's not "life changing" theater.  But it's good theater.  It represents some of the best that Broadway has to offer in terms of design, performance, and sheer magic.  It's definitely worth your time.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Sure!  I probably won't knock people out of the way to get tickets, but I'd definitely see it again.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  Like I said above, this would be a great one for my mother.  It's the kind of show that you can proudly take out of town visitors to see.  They'll feel like they've had a great Broadway experience.
  • Twitter review:  A feel-good night studded with bright stars and lovely creative design.