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, November 24, 2013

Spiritual Whiplash and Sovereignty Through Love and Grace

Last Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
Luke 23:33-43

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

There are certain dates and transitions on the liturgical calendar that can leave you feeling like you’ve been struck by a kind of spiritual whiplash.

To be fair, the lectionary progression over the past few weeks has been trying to prepare us for this.  It was introduced a couple of weeks ago when Jesus and the Sadducees got into a discussion about the resurrection.  Remember that?  If a woman has been married to too many husbands, how could a resurrection-reality handle that?  Whose property would she be?

Jesus, of course, said it wasn’t about that.  It wasn’t about working out justice among the dead, or ownership, but more about celebrating life that, through God, was eternal.

Then last week, we got one of those familiar warnings from Jesus about difficult times to come.  He warns his disciples not to get too lost in the good times they were having, because there are even better times coming.  But those better times wouldn’t come easily.  There will be valleys to cross and trials to face before we can get to the mountaintop that’s in store.

Even so - even though there has been foreshadowing and warning, even though there has been talk of suffering and even resurrection - even so, this morning’s lessons came as something of a shock.

Perhaps it’s the festive holiday season that seems to be blossoming all around us.  There are television stations and radio stations that have already dedicated their programming exclusively to Christmas themes.  Store windows and displays look like winter wonderlands.  Christmas lights are even beginning to twinkle on the evenings’ edges.

Everything around us seems to be trying to push us toward joy, and hope, and celebration.

But in the church, we’re not quite there yet.  We’re not ready to blindly stumble into the holidays.  There are valleys to cross through before we get to that higher mountaintop that awaits.

So today - a day revered for its celebration of Christ the King - we first make a stop at the scene of Jesus: the crucified, Jesus: the oppressed, and even in the midst of that, Jesus: the loving, and Jesus: full of grace.

How else might he become a King?

The scene is shockingly graphic.  Three men: beaten, bloodied, and hanging in humiliating and painful display.  The crowds gathered to mock them and to abuse them.  They were there to assure that their deaths would hold no dignity and no peace.

But even so, the men found something of a community among themselves.  It’s hard to imagine them so casually chatting each other up in the midst of such unspeakable personal traumas.  But, I suppose, in all of our lives we have to make peace with our difficulties wherever they are, however we can.

So there they are, chatting.

One says to Jesus: if you’re so great, why don’t you just fix this.  Why are we here suffering if you’re who they say you are?  For that matter, why are you here suffering?

The other criminal intervenes: leave him alone.  He’s not like us.  He’s made enemies, but he’s done no wrong.  My only prayer is that he remembers me even as he earns his reward.

In the midst of the suffering and the humiliation and the world of these three men crumbling around them, a glimmer of humanity breaks into this unimaginable place.

One of the things that’s most moving for me about this exchange is that we never know the crimes these men have committed.  We don’t know who they are.  We don’t know their social standing.  And even though we know almost nothing about them, we get a glimpse into their hearts.

It’s that anonymity that gives this story real power.

When it comes to earning God’s forgiveness and Christ’s favor, it really doesn’t matter who we are, or how we got there, or even what we did.

Was this man sentenced to death for some small offense?  Perhaps he was stealing food to live.  Or was it something bigger?  Had he committed murder?

Through the frailty of our human lenses of judgement, these things matter.  We hear of “mortal sins” - those things which are unforgivable.

But through the love of Christ, the crime doesn’t seem to matter.  The power to forgive trumps any condemnation.  Love triumphs over criminality.  We’ve all heard that expression - “love the sinner, but hate the sin”.  In the presence of Jesus, the sin doesn’t even seem to matter.  The guiding principle is: “love the sinner”.  Full stop.

That’s Christ the King.

He may not have been a messiah or a king in the ways that the people expected him to be.  He may not have exerted his power in the ways that the one criminal wanted, or in answer to the mocking soldiers and crowd.  He may not even exert his power in the ways that we often hope or pray.

But Christ’s “kingship” - Christ’s power - comes through the power of an unimaginable power to love in even the harshest circumstances.

It doesn’t matter who we are.  It doesn’t matter what we do or what we’ve done.  We are never beyond the reach of Christ’s saving embrace.  We are never too far gone that we can’t be brought back into the fold.

Even his own oppressors benefited from his unfettered forgiveness: “forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”

This is “Christ the King”.  A king unlike any other.  With a life, death, and resurrection unlike any other.

We’ve come to the end of our annual celebration of remembrance, but we start again tomorrow - expecting the baby whose humble beginnings will be our unexpected savior and King.

This is Christ the King.  Amen.

Friday, November 22, 2013

FCS: A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair

Quick facts:
  • Show: A Bed and a Chair: A New York Love Affair
  • Special Event
  • Date: Thursday, November 14, 2013
  • Time: 7:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: November 17, 2013
  • Venue: The Main Stage at New York City Center
  • Running time: 1:30 (no intermission)
  • My seat: Fair. Second row of the balcony, near center.  So no obstruction at all, but I was pretty high above the stage, so I spent the whole show staring almost straight down.  A bit of a pain in the neck - literally!
  • Ticket source: This is one of the rare times that I ACTUALLY paid full price for tickets!  This event was just NOT to be missed!
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: A musical revue of the music of Stephen Sondheim as reimagined through the jazz lens of Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center band - starring Cyrille Aimée, Jeremy Jordan, Norm Lewis, and Bernadette Peters.

My thoughts: So I'll be honest.  I really can't believe I got to see this in real life.

I was a little nervous going into the show that I was approaching it with expectations set too high, but now I know the truth: there's simply no way that expectations for this assemblage of talent could have been set too high.  It was simply one of the most thrilling theatrical experiences I've ever had.

I've long been a fan of Stephen Sondheim - I mean, how can you not be?  Generations to come will study his genius in much the same way that we study Bach today.  Then, to have that genius paired with the unmatched jazz talents of Wynton Marsalis.  THEN, to take that product and hand it over to these brilliant performers.  I just can't.  Whoever had this idea - THANK YOU!

The cast was led by none other than Sondheim's own, Bernadette Peters.  It was indescribable fun to hear her give the "Bernadette treatment" to Sondheim favorites that she hasn't previously been associated with.  Standing on the shoulders of Elaine Stritch and Patti Lupone she gave brilliant service to a newly reimaged "Ladies Who Lunch" (from Company) in a unique medley which included "Agony" (from Into the Woods).  Another of the many highlights of her performance was her treatment of the classic "Broadway Baby" (from Follies).  Now that it's been done, you really haven't lived until you've heard Bernadette Peters interpret that classic!

She was joined by the always brilliant Norm Lewis.  I haven't often seen him live, but in the few times I have, it's been an unmatched joy.  He has a softness, and gentleness of spirit that makes his performances evocative and moving.

I was an early fan of Jeremy Jordan.  I first saw him in the out-of-town tryout for Newsies, the on Broadway in Bonnie & Clyde (which, I still attest, didn't get the loving it deserved!), then again on Broadway in Newsies.  I was his fan long before his movie with Dolly Parton or Smash!  But as much as I loved him in each of those roles, this performance really showed growth for him as an artist.  He was vocally stronger than I've ever seen him, and he also seemed more emotionally in touch with his characters.  It it great to see him developing into a legend!

In reality, Jordan got some of the best numbers of the night - and some of the ones that were most brilliantly re-imagined.  His two highlights for me were "Losing My Mind" (from Follies, and delightfully, in its most recent revival, sung by Bernadette Peters - that must have been daunting!) and the most engaging version of "Giants in the Sky" (from Into the Woods) that I've ever heard.

The one member of the cast that I hadn't heard of before was Cyrille Aimée - but wow!  Does she have chops, or what?!  If you haven't encountered her before - I highly recommend her.  The Washington Post describes her as having "a voice like fine whiskey - oaky and smooth, with a hint of smokiness."  I can't think of a better description.  With French and Dominican roots, she was raised in France and those tones continue to resonate in her jazz interpretations.  If you are at all a fan of leading lady jazz, you must look into Cyrille Aimée.  You won't be disappointed.

Though the friend who accompanied me to this production didn't agree with me, one of the more musically satisfying moments of the night for me was the instrumental version of "Send in the Clowns" (from A Little Night Music).  Though I do love this wildly popular song, it's not among my favorite Sondheim songs.  But this instrumental jazz interpretation nearly left me weepy.  It was woody and soulful with much of the melody carried in the deep resonances of the baritone saxophone.  An absolutely haunting rendition.

I really can't overstate was a deeply moving and joyful evening this was.  One of the things that I love most about live theater is that we, as members of the audience, get to participate in a moment.  We get to share space with talented people and ideas.  This felt like such an important "moment" in the history of musical theater.  As I said at the outset - I still sort of can't believe that I got to be a part of it.

My sincere hope is that the producers will have the wisdom and foresight to release an audio recording of this production.  As thrilling as it was to hear it, it would be equally disappointing to imagine that I might never hear it again.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  God, if only!!  It was a very short running limited engagement.  I seriously considered making a trip up to see it again before it closed, but it just would have been too irresponsible for me.  Alas, I'm left praying for a recording!
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  YES, YES, YES!  Everyone!
  • Twitter review:  Words can't describe the perfection of this engagement.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

FCS: A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder

Quick facts:
  • Show: A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder
  • Broadway
  • Date: Thursday, October 31, 2013
  • Time: 8:00 p.m.
  • Closing date: Open-ended
  • Venue: Walter Kerr Theatre
  • Running time: 2:20 (one 15 minute intermission)
  • My seat: Fair.  In the mezzanine.  Stage left.
  • Ticket source: TDF
  • Understudies: none
Synopsis: An Edwardian-set musical comedy about a man attempting an unlikely rise through the aristocratic ranks in England.  He is aided by chance, but does his bit to "assist" chance a bit as well.

My thoughts: A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder is a delightful, and delightfully original new work on Broadway.  It made its way to Broadway after out-of-town runs first at the Old Globe Theatre in California and then at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut before making the Broadway transfer this fall.

A rare treat in the current age of the Broadway musical, Gentleman... is truly a musical for musicians.  It is cleverly written in every aspect: wryly funny, smart musically, and with a tightly designed book.  It is masterfully performed by a team of highly skilled and artful singers - which is perhaps most surprising among its many attributes, in this current age of the "pop sound" that's so prevalent on Broadway.

Don't get me wrong - I'm not attacking the rise of pop music and singers on Broadway.  I loved Newsies, Rent, Wicked, many others...  But it is a bit of an increasingly rare treat to hear truly excellent, classically styled musical performances from the Broadway stage!

The cast is led by headliners Jefferson Mays and Bryce Pinkham.  Mays receives much attention as the Tony award-winner who plays a stunning eight roles, but equal accolades should go to Mr. Pinkham in the role of Monty Navarro - around whom the story revolves.

As stunning as their performances were, they were matched in the enviable talents of the entire cast.  This is one of those rare ensembles that benefits from a strong cast at every angle.

One of the highlights of the production was the beautiful scenic design by Alexander Dodge.  He captured the Edwardian era completely and sucks the audience into the world of Monty Navarro.  The sets were a match to the superb, complex, and layered musical score (by Steven Lutvak).  It brought me back to my earlier theater-going days when I was regularly awestruck by the magic of changing sets.  Of course I knew that I was in the same place, and the stage hadn't moved, but with the revelations of each new scene I felt magically transported to a new world.  The book, by Robert L. Freedman, gave Mr. Dodge a lot with which to work, and his designs magnificently rose to the challenge.

The one area of disappointment in the creative design team was the projections by Aaron Rhyne.  They weren't a complete failure, but the work failed to live up to the standards of excellence embraced by all the other aspects of the performance.  There were a few moments when the projections were a bit over-the-top - I recall a moment where large Union Jacks were distractingly projected...  Fortunately, that wasn't the norm, but even when not over-the-top, the work was generally uninspiring and did little the advance the story.

My biggest fear about this production is that, on the whole, it may be a little too smart for most Broadway audiences.  It's the kind of show that serious musicians and serious theater aficionados will love, but I'm afraid the tourist crowd - with limited opportunities and time frames, and a penchant for the more familiar - might not gravitate to Gentleman... enough to keep it afloat for long.

But don't let the box office numbers fool you - A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder is a magnificent execution of a magnificent show.  While it may not be destined to join the ranks of the legendary productions we all know and love, it probably should.

Closing arguments:
  • Would I see it again?  Definitely.  And when/if a cast album is released, I'll be among the first in line to buy.
  • Would I recommend it to others? If so, who?  Absolutely.  I really think it has a wide enough appeal that anyone who makes it through the doors would probably have a good time.  But it is a must-see for musicians, and people who see a lot of theater and have come to expect the best.
  • Twitter review:  A fun show that's defined more by it's brilliance than it's very present humor.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Beware that you are not led astray

Pentecost 26, Proper 28C

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

“Beware that you are not led astray…”

In a gospel lesson that seems to be all about wars and famine and pestilence, those are the words to cling to.

“Beware that you are not led astray…”

It’s tempting on a day like today to turn away from the Gospel and focus instead on the Old Testament lesson, but we don’t even get much help there.  Malachi tell us, “the day is coming, burning like an oven, when all the arrogant and evil doers will be stubble; the day that comes shall burn them up…”

Where, then, is the hope?

Shall we focus on days “burning like an oven”?  Or shall we instead focus on Jesus, with his promises of wars and insurrections, and betrayals, and death?

The lessons today aren’t the kinds of lessons that are likely to inspire adherence to the faith.  They aren’t the kinds of lessons that tend to move poets and songwriters into responding.  They’re not the kinds of lessons that give us peace in our moments of deepest despair.

But they’re not all there is to the Christian story and experience.

“Beware that you’re not led astray…”

We’re nearing the end of the Christian year.  We’re one week away, actually.  And over this past year we’ve heard a lot about the life of Christ as well as the Christian life.  From the season of preparation in Advent to the celebration of Jesus’ birth; the giving of light and recognition at Epiphany; the long seasons of marveling at Jesus’ miracles and learning from his teachings; from journeying with him to the Cross in Lent to the exuberant joy and surprise of Easter and its succeeding celebrations of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  In practicing the Christian year, we practice the reality of human experience.  There are ups and downs and all of them add up to the fullness of God’s dream for us.

The worldview we hear from Jesus today comes near the end of his time on earth.  In the pages that follow, Luke walks us through the seemingly climactic last days - “seemingly”, because we all know that the real climax comes later - after the “last days”.  But in the midst of those “last days” - before any of us knew how the truth would unfold - there would be great pain and fear and uncertainty.  The disciples needed to be prepared.  Their faith needed girding if it were to endure the days to come.

There are moments in the Christian faith and life when we feel on top of the world.  There are moments when the lessons we read are all about hope and peace and prosperity.  There are moments when we look to the future with hope.

But then there are those other moments…

There are days when the weight of the world around us is a little heavier than we think we can bear.  There are days when we see the suffering of this world and we wonder where (and even if) God is.

Throughout human experience and even still in our own lives, there have been radical ups and downs.  There have been lows from which recovery seemed impossible and highs so high we couldn’t see the ground.  And both are true.  Both represent aspects of the faith and neither negates the other.  Nor do any of the ordinary times in between.

It reminds me of a season in my own life, and one of the lessons I learned there.

Near the end of my time in seminary, I found myself reflecting on the experience: I remember thinking so vividly in my first year that I thought I’d found heaven on earth.  I had moved halfway across the country to a place I had never been and where I knew no one.  I had taken a giant leap of faith and it had seemed to be paying off more richly than I could have imagined.  New worlds were opening before me.  New ideas were forming within me.  New relationships were blossoming.  I was beginning to know myself more than I ever had before.  It was as if I were standing looking over the new heaven and the new earth about which Isaiah had prophesied.

And then there was fall and then there was winter in my second year.  Suddenly, this “heaven on earth” seemed to be more like hell on earth.  What had once felt like a leap of faith began feeling more like stumbling toward a far-off finish line.  My “new world” turned out to be just New Jersey.  My new relationships had blossomed into deep friendships - but they weren’t without their own challenges.  And knowing myself turned out to be not quite as easy as it had once seemed.  There were days when it was hard to make myself get out of bed.  There was an insurrection gurgling up inside me - and it seemed to be not for me, but on me.

And then there was fall and then there was winter in my third year.  By the end of that final year of study and formation things had balanced out.  I began to see that seminary was neither “heaven on earth” nor “hell on earth”, but instead it was just earth.  And like all creation, I could see that it was good.  But though my experience had evened out a bit, the “promised land” of my first year was no less true, nor was the anguish of my second.  Just like this Christian year has been, the highs and the lows were all part of the same existence - neither canceled the other.  Both represent truth.

Just as it would be unreasonable and untrue to expect everything to be perfect, and nurturing, and happy all the time, it’s equally unreasonable and untrue to get lost in the challenges of life.

“Beware that you are not led astray…”

Beware that you don’t get lost in a sea of unreasonable expectations of perfection - life doesn’t live up to that.

But also beware that you don’t get lost anguish and fear - that’s never the whole story, either.

God is in both.  Not either.  Not both individually.  But both together.  God is in the pain and the redemption.  God is in the suffering and the salvation.

The joys and pains of every human experience - whether it’s through parenting or love or whatever else - always adds up to the fullness of an experience more true than any one of its aspects.  And through the joys and pains of our lives the one common thread remains - just as it has remained through all of the highs and lows of the Christian life.  The truth is that whether we are on top of the world or in the pit of despair, there, too, is God.  No matter our circumstances, we are invited into deeper relationship with God.

It’s not always easy.  Jesus teaches that again and again.  But it’s also not always hard.  Christ teaches that.  Every Good Friday has on its heels an Easter morning begging to burst through. 

“Beware that you are not led astray…”

It’s the end of the church year, but there’s a new one waiting in the wings.  There are yet more ups and downs and good times and bad, and lessons to be learned in the midst of it all.  Beware that you are not led astray.  Because by your endurance you will gain your souls.  Amen.

(this sermon draws from a previous version published in 2010)

Sunday, November 03, 2013


All Saints' Sunday, Year C

In the name of God: who was, and who is, and who is to come.  Amen.

Sometimes I wonder why anybody would want to be a Christian.

There’s this great misunderstanding out in the world that says that Christianity is about being nice and doing good deeds.  But Jesus keeps telling us that it’s not.  It’s about turning the world upside down to deepen our relationships with God and with each other - even when that’s not easy or nice - no matter how much the world disagrees.

Sometimes, in our own efforts at either growing the church or trying to make ourselves feel better about a life that can sometimes be hard, we find ourselves perpetuating the misunderstanding: If only we could be nice and do good deeds everything would be okay.

If that were the case, I suppose more people might want to be Christian; but life proves, again and again, that that is not the case.  Sometimes life is hard - even for us good folks.  Sometimes the powers and structures of the world push us down.  Sometimes we catch ourselves participating in the powers and structures of the world that push others down.

You can see why most people might want a cleverly packaged Christianity that wraps everything up nicely with clearly defined borders.  It would be a lot easier that way.  It would certainly be easier than the Jesus way.

But instead we get this: “Blessed are you who are poor…  Blessed are you who are hungry…  Blessed are you who weep….”

I often joke with parents at baptisms.  So often they are nervous that the child will cry during the baptism, or make a fuss during the service, but I tell them that it’s nothing to be ashamed of.  In fact, it’s a good sign.  I tease that it shows that the child knows what they’re in for!

The gospel lesson for today is another example of how true that little joke is. Christianity would be a lot easier to swallow if Jesus had just said, “Blessed are the people who get along alright and mind their own business.”

But, no, that’s not the faith we have received through the ages and continue to receive in our own lives.

Today we have an interesting confluence of events.  It’s All Saints’ Sunday - the day we set apart to remember those saints, both known and unknown, who have led the faith through history even to us.  It’s also a day when we celebrate new baptisms and remember our own baptismal covenant - reminding us of and reaffirming the promises that we make to continue to lead the faith through to others still.

It’s a day of intersection: past, present, and still unfolding; in the presence of the God who was and who is and who is to come.

It might feel a little bit incongruous to celebrate a baptism - a young life and a new initiation into faith - on the same day that we remember the saints who have gone before.  But really, All Saints’ Day, and even the whole of the Christian life, is more about embracing those incongruities than we usually feel comfortable admitting.  It’s in turning the world upside down, and upending expectations, that we truly find Christ: the one who turned the shadow of death into morning; the one who triumphed over death on Good Friday to show forth the light of Easter Resurrection.

“Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled.

Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.”

“Do to others as you would have them do to you,” isn’t just about going along to get along.  It’s not just about playing nice so as to not upset the apple cart.

It’s actually more about intentionally upsetting the apple cart.  It’s about radically changing the way we interact with the world because through Christ, we’ve seen another way: the way of love, justice, and peace.

All Saints’ Day is about remembering the ones who showed us the way: the famous ones who are celebrated by the church around the world, and even the simpler ones.  The saints in our own lives who have taught us what it means to live lives of love, justice, and peace.

None of us stands alone.  We stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before, and we are the shoulders on which others will stand, and in fact, already do.

We are not only surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, but we help to make up that cloud for others on the way.

Today we welcome Isabella into that cloud, just as we remember all of those who have brought us this far.  Parents and grandparents.  Aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers and sisters.  Teachers and mentors.  Friends, and even enemies.  All the ancestors of our faith.

They have brought us through the ages to this moment.  And they lead us, with all who follow us, into the upended faith that is still unfolding.  Amen.

(portions of this sermon appeared previously here)