Sunday, May 28, 2006

“Look What God Has Done”: Sermon from May 7, 2006

SILVERSIDE SERMONS


 

David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.

Pastor, Silverside Church

Wilmington, Delaware


 

Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation

www.silversidechurch.org


 


 

Sermon Series Summer 2006

God on Broadway:

Thoughts About God from the Musical Stage


 

May 7, 2006 Sermon #1

“Look What God Has Done”

The Color Purple


 


 

I.


 

    In Alice Walker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Color Purple, there is a pivotal scene that properly becomes central also in the film and the Broadway stage adaptations of her unforgettable collection of characters and stories. The novel version of a most important conversation explains both the book’s title as well as the core perspective on God and religion on which all interpretive methods must be based.

    The crucial dialogue to which I refer has Celie and Shug, both of whom were black and had grown up poor and without the benefit of formal education, discussing each other’s views of God. Celie’s view of God–what we might expect from a fundamentalist Protestant perspective held by almost all residents of the rural 1930's south Georgia area where the story is set–has nothing at all, NOTHING AT ALL, in common with Shug’s progressive view.

    There is no suggestion as to why Shug, who grew up as the PK, the preacher’s kid, of the pastor of the local church, should have found her way to such a progressive view of God while no other residents of the community seem even to have questioned what they’d inherited; we might assume that the fact Shug had both bucked the norm and traveled a great deal beyond her home had something to do with her contrasting, conflicting perspective on who God is and what God is about. However, that is mere conjecture. We’ll think more about the views themselves in a moment, but now I want to read the brief excerpt from the novel to which I refer.


 

    Celie asks her lover, Shug, “What God do for me?”


 

    Shug answers, “Celie! He gave you life, good health, and a good woman that love you to death.”


 

    “Yeah,” Celie continued, “and he give me a lynched daddy, a crazy mama, a lowdown dog of a step pa and a sister I probably won’t ever see again. Anyhow, the God I been praying and writing to is a man. And act just like all the other mens I know. Trifling, forgitful and lowdown.”


 

    “Miss Celie,” Shug came back, “you better hush. God might hear you.”


 

    “Let `im hear me. If he ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place, I can tell you.”


 

    Shug explained, “Once us feel loved by God, us do the best us can to please him with what us like...[I]f God love me, Celie, I don’t have to [go to church, sing in the choir, feed the preacher, and all like that]. Unless I want to. There’s a lot of other things I can do that I speck God likes.”


 

    “Like what?” Celie asked her.


 

    “Oh, I can lay back and just admire stuff. Be happy. Have a good time.”


 

    Celie challenged Shug with blasphemy at this point–having already acknowledged that she, Celie, was also blasphemous.


 

    Shug wouldn’t buy it: “Celie, tell the truth, have you ever found God in church? I never did. I just found a bunch of people hoping for him to show. Any God I ever felt in church I brought with me. And I think all the other folks did too. They come to church to share God, not find God....Tell me what God look like, Celie.”


 

    Celie resisted answering but finally gave her thoughts: “He big and old and tall and graybearded and white. He wear white robes and go barefooted.”


 

    Shug laughed and then got to the heart of her understanding: “God is inside you and inside everybody else. But only them that search for it inside find it. And sometimes it just manifest itself even if you not looking, or don’t know what you looking for.”


 

    Celie noticed that Shug referred to God as “It” rather than “He.”


 

    Shug insisted: “God ain’t a he or a she, but a It.”


 

    “But what do it look like?” Celie asked.


 

    “Don’t look like nothing. It ain’t a picture show. It ain’t something you can look at apart from anything else, including yourself. I believe God is everything. Everything that is or ever was or ever will be. And when you can feel that, and be happy to feel that, you’ve found It....Listen, God love everything you love–and a mess of stuff you don't. But more than anything else, God love admiration....I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don't notice it” [Alice Walker, The Color Purple (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1982), pp. 199-203].


 

    There is so much for us to try to absorb here, and we will finally get around to trying to scratch the surface. For now, I want to allow you to hear just a bit of Alice Walker’s NON-fiction voice.


 

    An open critic of the war in Iraq, she had been arrested in New York for protesting the war early on. Bill Moyers interviewed her on a PBS special, and in the midst of a conversation about all kinds of subjects, The Color Purple came up. Moyers played a clip from the movie version of this moving conversation between Celie and Shug.

    Afterwards, he asked Ms. Walker a fascinating question.


 

MOYERS:     Those are enduring words. Are there still... is there still any color purple left out there in the world?


 

WALKER:     It’s everywhere. That’s the point. You know, the reason it’s called The Color Purple is that we used to think that purple was rare. I mean, just like we thought incest was rare, or we thought that a certain kind of beauty was rare, or that we thought whatever was rare....In fact, it is everywhere; it is in everything.


 


 


 


 

The Color Purple

“Look What God Has Done”

 

by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, and Stephen Bray


 


 

CELIE

DEAR GOD, DEAR STARS, DEAR TREES,

DEAR SKY, DEAR PEOPLES, DEAR EVERYTHING, DEAR GOD:

GOD IS INSIDE ME AND EVERYONE ELSE

THAT WAS OR EVER WILL BE.

I CAME INTO THIS WORLD WITH GOD,

AND WHEN I FINALLY LOOKED INSIDE, I FOUND IT,

JUST AS CLOSE AS MY BREATH IS TO ME.


 

CELIE/NETTIE/SOFIA

RISING . . . . . . . . .


 

ADAM/OLIVIA

RISING . . . . . . . . .


 

SHUG/MISTER

RISING . . . . . . . . .


 

CELIE/NETTIE/SOFIA/SHUG/MISTER/ADAM/OLIVIA

LIKE THE SUN IS THE HOPE THAT SETS US FREE


 

CELIE

YOUR HEART BEAT MAKE MY HEART BEAT

CELIE/NETTIE/SOFIA/SHUG/MISTER/ADAM/OLIVIA

WHEN WE SHARE LOVE.


 

FULL COMPANY

LIKE A BLADE OF CORN, LIKE A HONEYBEE,

LIKE A WATERFALL, ALL A PART OF ME.

LIKE THE COLOR PURPLE, WHERE DO IT COME FROM?

NOW MY EYES ARE OPEN,

LOOK WHAT GOD HAS DONE.


 

ENSEMBLE

IT TAKE A GRAIN OF LOVE TO MAKE A MIGHTY TREE.

EVEN THE SMALLEST VOICE CAN MAKE A HARMONY.

LIKE A DROP OF WATER KEEP THE RIVER HIGH,

THERE ARE MIRACLES FOR YOU AND I.

LIKE A BLADE OF CORN, LIKE A HONEYBEE

LIKE A WATERFALL, ALL A PART OF ME.

LIKE THE COLOR PURPLE WHERE DO IT COME FROM?

NOW MY EYES ARE OPEN.

LOOK WHAT GOD HAS DONE.


 

CELIE

I DON'T THINK US FEEL OLD AT ALL.

I THINK THIS IS THE YOUNGEST US EVER FELT.


 

CELIE & ENSEMBLE

AMEN!


 


 


 


 

II.


 

    The Broadway musical version of “The Color Purple,” presented by Oprah Winfrey, opened less than a half-year ago, on December 1, 2005–having done a summer’s worth of pre-Broadway performances in Atlanta during the summer of 2004. The play is truer to Alice Walker’s novel than is Steven Spielberg’s film version–which, nonetheless, is a great film. In any case, you heard Celie singing words similar to those given in the novel from Shug to Celie, and by the end of the play Celie “gets It,” so to speak. This is the final song in the production. Celie traveled a long way to get to this point of understanding and to a God whom she could love and from whom she could feel love.

    Most of the words you heard a few moments ago were sung by LaChanze, who portrays Celie on the Broadway stage. She brings the words to life.

    I have no idea if Alice Walker would agree with me or not, but I read her characters’ “nature religion” perspectives as “panentheism.” What you heard read to you earlier in the service as a “reflective reading” precisely defined “panentheism.” It comes from an online site called ChristianCadre.org. Again:


 

No view of God is larger than the panentheistic view. All other theisms (deism, theism, polytheism, animism, pantheism, atheism) are fragmented theologies compared to panentheism. This is the ground for an inexhaustible faiththat God is present right now, in every cell of our bodies, in every beat of our hearts, in every person, in every star, in every loving thought, birthing every particle of every atom of the entire Creation into a constant stream of existence, the invisible Nothing and Nowhere that brings forth Everything and Everywhere. God in all things and all things in God invites wonder, and wonder invites all to touch God.


 

    “Panentheism” differs from “pantheism,” a term many more of us are familiar with, in that pantheism suggests God is all, and all is God. Two Greek words have been joined together: παν (pan, all) and θεος (theos, God/god), pantheos–pantheism–all God, God all. “Panentheism,” in contrast, is a word that has been created from three Greek words–the two you just heard sandwiched around a very common preposition: εν (in)–pan, all; en, in; theos, God/god.

    One scholar breaks it down for us:


 

both panentheists and pantheists share the view that the universe and every natural thing in it is pervaded by divinity. However, since panentheism postulates that the universe is contained within God and not God in the universe, panentheists believe in a God who is present in everything but also extends beyond the universe....In other words, God is the universe but is also greater than the universe....A panentheistic belief system is one which posits a god that interpenetrates every part of nature, but is nevertheless fully distinct from nature. So this god is part of nature, but still retains an independent identity.


 

I believe that Shug and Celie express views that are closer to panentheism than to pantheism.

    Whatever the case, most of us within the mainline Christian tradition–even those of us out on the liberal limbs–have some serious rethinking to do if we want to hear the potential truths of Shug’s and later Celie’s realizations about God. Fundamentally, we haven’t yet shed either the world view or the anthromorphisms of those who first began to conceive of a monotheistic God.

    While many of us–not all of us–have long since affirmed that God is one or that there is only one God, we have failed to allow ourselves to benefit as modern women and men from the insights of ancient Abraham and the earliest sisters and brothers who, with him, began to believe and, eventually, challenge the notion of multiple deities. In other words, because we have wanted to affirm the insights about monotheism passed down to us from Abraham and Sarah through their children and grandchildren, we have not bothered to re-set their perspectives in a modern, scientific setting. What is still happening is that many or most of those who want to affirm monotheism believe it is also necessary to believe in a pre-scientific cosmology and a god who looks and acts like an ancient near Eastern monarch.

    What does this mean pragmatically?


 

 

  • God is “out there” somewhere–more specifically, “up there” somewhere. God is far, far removed from us. God is dwelling in the heavens or the skies way, way above what we can see or even imagine very well.


 

  • God is “up there” looking down on us earthlings who live on this big, flat island called “earth.” Occasionally, God makes “house calls,” but, for the most part, when God wants to get a message to us, God sends a messenger of some sort to bring us that divine word. Sometimes, the messenger comes to us when we’re wide awake, but the messenger may also come in our dreams.
  • Not only does God send messengers to deliver messages, but also God has servants surrounding God who do everything else for God as well. An ancient near Eastern sultan did nothing for himself except, perhaps, to feed himself; he even had others who bathed him most of the time. Those pioneers who first conceived of God as a personal being–and the only being of that kind in existence–had only a sultan or a king to draw on for a working image of what God–the greatest of all rulers, they thought–must look and act like. So, for example, when God created the heavens or skies and the earth, God called forces and objects into being from God’s throne; God wasn’t doing manual labor! Even when God got around to creating woman and man–at least in one of the powerful mythological stories from Hebrew lore–God is reported to have said, “Let us make humanity in our own image.” The “us” pronoun refers to God along with God’s helpers or servants in the minds of those who conceived of God on the divine throne calling the shots–with capable and willing servants, eager even, ready to “hop to” as soon as God gave a command.
  • God isn’t particularly relational in most of these conceptions of God; although there are certainly exceptions to this notion. For the most part, God gives commands and enjoys the adoration and obedience of God’s subjects; there is very little notion that God is chummy or chatty.
  • God is in complete control of everything and every person. A beautiful sunrise here; a tsunami there. A plague here; disease recovery there. All depends on God’s mood.
  • The very instant someone would dare to disobey or inadvertently displease the ruler, that person would have been instantly put to death. The only real decision to be made was how much suffering the person who botched it up had to endure. The evolving view of God, then, made God fearsome and largely aloof.
  • If you didn’t know where God was, how would you go about finding God anyway? Well, you couldn’t so you wouldn’t. You did know that appeasement was the name of the game, and you certainly knew that God had people keeping watch over you at God’s command. They could easily and quickly find you if that’s what God ordered them to do, but if you wanted initiate contact with God in any way you had to offer more sacrifices than usual and/or you could look around for places others believed God or God’s messenger had come to them. These occurrences were so rare that shrines were usually erected to commemorate the experience. It was also thought, from all indications, that once God had visited a certain spot God would more likely return to that spot rather than some random other place. And besides all that, everybody knew God preferred to make visits atop mountains–since that meant less travel for God; it was less of a trip for God to come down from the heavens or skies to a mountain top than all the way down to a plain or, much less, a valley.


 

    Except for this latter notion, most traditional and conservative monotheists today believe of God just about what the earliest monotheists also believed about God. “Omnipresence” has caught on by now, and few monotheists believe that God is limited by space; God is near us when God chooses to be and in ear shot if we want to make contact with God. Otherwise, the God of the twenty-first century differs very little than the pre-scientifically conceived deity of Abraham and Sarah who first began to be noticed as a singular entity, at the earliest, 4500 years ago and probably not that long–more than likely, 3000 to 3500 years ago.


 


 


 


 

III.


 

    Common sense would suggest that the longer people have interacted with God, the more they/we would know about God–individually and collectively. Common sense should also let us know that if God created, blessed, and affirmed the universe, the cosmos, the earth, then God is more than likely very much a part of what God has created rather than so removed from it. We have put our common sense out to pasture, though.

    This is not an ancient Hebrew error. Indeed, they were victims of pre-science and the world view that, more or less, was shared by most peoples of the world. And, yes, God was far removed; and, yes, God was limited by space and time. But the world that God had created according to many of their most treasured stories was not inherently evil by any means, and God who created it all could very well be reflected in its beauty, in its functionality, in its intricacies.

    Hear three psalms:


 

O Lord, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens....When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? (Psa 8:1,3-4 NRSV).


 

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims divine handiwork (Psa 19:1 NRSV, adapted).


 

Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty, wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers (Psa 104:1-4 NRSV).


 

    You see that we cannot blame the Hebrews entirely for these foundational misconceptions; we do have to accept the fact that dualism came along on the watch of Greeks and others who postulated that all matter–including flesh and earth and tree and flower–is unclean. Only spirit, in this way of thinking, is good. Thus, another reason was born to make it intellectually impossible in several cultures to see God as intimately a part of God’s beautiful world. The end result has been not only confusing, but also tragic. We have allowed thought-distortions centered in a god, who by that god’s very essence, cannot be a part of the only world we humans can actually know intimately and reliably–the world of matter and of human experience.

    I think it’s fascinating that the Hebrew word for spirit, ruach–capital OR lower case “s”–can also mean anywhere it’s used in the Hebrew Bible: “breath” as in God’s breath or human breath as well as “wind.” Exactly the same translation possibilities exist for the New Testament Koine Greek word, pneuma (πνευμα) building on the same strand of thought as ruach.

    So Shug, and finally Celie, came to understand that they could both see God and feel God in communion with nature; they also grasped in a way Native Americans always had, as far as I know, the interconnectedness of all parts of the created order: “Like a blade of corn, like a honeybee, like a waterfall, all a part of me.” I believe these realizations are going to have to be a part of all modern understandings of God to some degree. I say this for several reasons–most importantly, the natural world isn’t inherently evil. I mean to apply what I’m saying here to human beings as well. There is nothing inherently evil in human flesh or the beautiful flowers before us or in the pew on which you sit. It makes sense for God to reveal Godself through the beauty of nature.


 

    Emily Dickinson:


 

    Some keep the Sabbath going to Church,

        I keep it staying at Home -

    With a bobolink for a Chorister,

        And an Orchard, for a Dome (No. 324, St. 1, 1862).

(Shug and now Emily haven’t helped the cause of attending church today! Maybe I should have omitted those parts!)


 

    These are the words of Edwin Markham:


 

    We men of Earth have here the stuff

    Of Paradise - we have enough!

    We need no other stones to build

    The Temple of the Unfulfilled -

    No other ivory for the doors -

    No other marble for the floors -

    No other cedar for the beam

    And dome of man's immortal dream.


 

    Here on the paths of every-day -

    Here on the common human way

    Is all the stuff the gods would take

    To build a Heaven, to mold and make

    New Edens. Ours is the stuff sublime

    To build Eternity in time!


 

    Robert Creely’s words continue this emphasis:


 

I...used to think, you know, in the woods walking, and as a kid playing in the woods, that there was a kind of immanence there - that woods, and places of that order, had a sense, a kind of presence, that you could feel; that there was something peculiarly, physically present, a feeling of place almost conscious ... like God. It evoked that (Robert Creely and the Genius of the American Common Place).


 

    Another something we should be hearing from Shug and Celie as they sing, “God is inside me and everyone else that was or ever will be....Look what God has done,” is the importance of modern mysticism in religious experience. “Mysticism” as a word to define a way or a quality of knowing God refers to a kind of union of human being with God. All the barriers–including place, space, matter, doctrine, and over-intellectualization–are knocked away, and the human spirit is immediately intertwined with the essence of God Godself. “I came into this world with God, and when I finally looked inside, I found It.”

    Mysticism–whether Jewish or Hindu or Buddhist or Christian or Muslim–is interested in and concerned with a mystical union and communion with whatever you call or conceive of as ultimate reality. Many Christians would call this ultimate reality “God,” and mystical union could rather easily occur with God’s essence, which might be referred to as “the Spirit” or “the Holy Spirit.”

    Some would say it’s normative to have this kind of union with God–practically all the time. Charismatics, for example, who speak in tongues as a part of their regular worship and personal prayers believe that becoming unified with God’s Spirit in that kind of powerful manner is routine and something that should be happening regularly to all people who truly have faith.

    Others, including some very pious women and men in the history of the Christian church who made a literal vocation of waiting for the presence of God to unify with their own spirits, would say that such union is overwhelming and that though it is life-changing for the good this kind of experience is rather rare–and may happen very infrequently in the lives of even the most devout.

    The main point, though, is that God can be experienced directly by those alert and open to such an experience. I’d say some of us would be fearful of the very idea of such an event, much less the experience itself. It’s much easier for God to be and to stay “up there” somewhere!

    Former Roman Catholic priest, Matthew Fox, has founded a movement that is now called “creation spirituality.” Fox’s goal for his movement is “to awaken authentic mysticism, revitalize Christianity and Western Culture, and promote social and ecological welfare by using the wisdom of ancient spiritual traditions and the knowledge of contemporary science.” He’s definitely on a pathway many of us would take delight in walking also.


 

  • We need to be rid of the god who dwells above us and beyond us.
  • We need to be rid of the god who has chores for us to do and becomes enraged if we don’t get to them immediately or aren’t up to them at the moment.
  • We need to be rid of the god of the ancients and many moderns with them who tries to deal with us through innumerable intermediaries rather than Spirit to spirit.
  • We need to be rid of a god silly enough to create a sphere so filled with impurity that this god can’t even visit those of us who dwell within that sphere.


 

    You might do well today to think of the very real ways–the practical and non-intellectually insulting ways, the natural and the mystical ways–God is trying to relate to you so that God may embrace you with the fullness of divine love. “Just as close as my breath is to me.” Amen.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone”: Sermon from May 14, 2006

SILVERSIDE SERMONS


 

David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.

Pastor, Silverside Church

Wilmington, Delaware


 

Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation

www.silversidechurch.org


 


 

Sermon Series Summer 2006

God on Broadway:

Thoughts About God from the Musical Stage


 

May 14, 2006 Sermon #2

“You’ll Never Walk Alone”

Carousel


 

I.


 

    The Rogers and Hammerstein musical, “Carousel,” is a dark story. They based their stage play on a play, “Liliom,” by Hungarian playwright, Ferenc Molnar, and mixed in with plenty of scenes and songs that are funny and happy, domestic violence, separation from loved ones, and death punctuate the plot. In 1999. Time magazine named “Carousel” the best musical of the twentieth century.

    The action centers in a small, unnamed New England fishing village between 1873 and 1888. As the musical opens, every time since its premiere at the Majestic Theater in April of 1945, the “Carousel Waltz” is playing, and the audience sees an amusement park where fishermen, young ladies who are employed at a local mill, and lots of children have gathered. Each one seems to be enjoying the carnival.

    Two young ladies especially, Carrie and Julie, are having a grand time, and Billy Bigelow, the barker employed to draw people to the beautiful carousel, is flirting openly with Julie. Unfortunately, Carrie and Julie are insulted by a Mrs. Mullin who happens to own the merry-go-round. Billy defends the pretty mill workers and is fired on the spot for daring to speak in such a manner to his boss.

    He’s at best a happy-go-lucky kind of guy and at worst a drifter who doesn’t seem to mind so much that he has just lost yet another job. Instead of bemoaning his fate or worrying about how he’ll find work, he invites Julie to have a beer with him. Julie coyly accepts the invitation.

    Soon they are chatting along, and the subject of love comes up. Each describes the kind of person who would be her or his ideal spouse. Billy finally just asks Julie out and out if she would ever marry a man like him. She says that if she loved him she would. Julie then sings, “If I Loved You,” a show-stopper in its own right.

    Well, in time they do, in fact, fall in love and get married. They have some happy moments and some sad ones. Financially, to no one’s surprise, Billy and Julie aren’t making it; they have to live with her cousin, Nettie, in crowded conditions. Probably more than once, Billy has dealt with his personal failures by taking his anger out physically on Julie. She stays with him because she loves him, because she keeps hoping he’ll change, and because she believes love requires her to stay. That’s the subject for another sermon! But, for now, I’m simply giving you an overview of this haunting little tale.

    The next thing we know, it’s June, and everybody in town is getting ready for the first clambake of the season. It’s at the clambake that Billy finds out Julie is pregnant with their child.

Billy’s attitude about life changes immediately. He is absolutely determined to mend his ways and do whatever it takes to support his wife and their child. In his well-remembered song, “Soliloquy,” he ponders over how he will be a father to a boy and then is stunned with the notion that their baby might be a girl. Though he believes it would be easier to parent a boy than a girl, he realizes he’ll be happy with either gender, and he also realizes how much he will love the child and how much he actually does love his wife. It’s a real turning point for Billy.

    Billy decides he has to have a “jump start” on gathering the funds he will need to support his wife and child. In what he hopes will be his last less-than-respectable effort to make money, he agrees to be involved in a robbery after which he will earn money only in respectable ways. Something goes wrong, though, and the robbery attempt is thwarted. On the spur of the moment, Billy decides he’d rather die than spend his life in prison so he stabs himself—intending to die.

    Julie, as you can imagine, is devastated. She is brought to the scene of the attempted crime where she throws herself on Billy’s blood-stained body as he is dying. In just a few minutes, he is gone, and Julie’s cries show us how her heart is truly broken. She loved him despite his numerous faults. She has no clue how she will get along without Billy, and it’s at this point that her loving cousin, Nettie, sings the song on which we focus our attention today: “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It’s a beautiful, moving, inspiring, hopeful song, and in many ways the whole musical hinges on it. You’ll hear it in a few moments right here in church! And we’ll think through what it might have meant. That song isn’t the end of the story, though.

    I guess lots of folks in the audience are very surprised to see that Billy arrives in heaven. He didn’t seem heaven-bound, but I suppose the fact that that’s where he landed is an indication that the next realm isn’t populated by the purely pious–which I take to be GREAT NEWS for many of us in this congregation!

    The core Billy hasn’t changed. He tells two heavenly attendants in his defiant manner that he has no regrets at all about how he lived his earthly life. He is sentenced to Purgatory for fifteen years; now, that’s no fun, but at least there’s an end in sight.

    At the end of his Purgatory probation, Heaven’s Starkeeper permits Billy Bigelow to return to Earth for one, single day in order to do something to keep him out of Purgatory for the duration. Before he goes, the Starkeeper tells Billy that his child turned out to be not his “boy Bill,” but his “girl Louise.” He snatches a star right out of the skies that he intends as a gift for Louise.

    As it happens, he finds that Louise is an unhappy child–or, at least, unhappy when he finds her, and Billy hates that. He decides to make himself visible to her even though he’s a stranger to her. Billy tries to give her his gift–that gleaming star from the skies, but Louise refuses it. In frustration, he slaps her, and we aren’t surprised. Same ole Billy! As he makes himself invisible, Louise tells her mother what happened and explains that the slap miraculously felt like a kiss. Without allowing Julie actually to see him, Billy confirms his love for her even though she can’t hear him.

     Having thus made amends in a way, Billy is there for Louise's school graduation. Still invisible, he presses her to have confidence in herself. Although she does not hear him, she feels the message. Through this good deed, Billy is granted permanent entry into Heaven. It’s a “good works” theology that we shouldn’t affirm; but it shapes the story, and so we leave it alone for now.


 


 


 


 

    II.


 

    The meaning of the song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” is not crystal clear. Many monotheists immediately think Nettie, and later others in the show, are subtly referring to God even though God isn’t mentioned “by name” in the song. There is certainly a sense in which a part of the meaning must be related to friends and loved ones who’ll never let you go through the hardest of times alone. And, since Billy’s presence remained with those who had once loved him and whom he loved, there is that possibility also.

    My take on the matter is answered by the inclusion of the song and the musical in this sermon series. I think the song suggests that Heaven is not far removed from and uncaring toward us earthly strugglers and seekers. Hopefully, there are others who by their physical presence will keep us from having to walk through the tough times all alone, but even if there are no others around, God goes with us through the hardest and most lonely of experiences.

    The first time I ever heard the song sung, I was in college–out somewhere in rural East Tennessee preaching as a youth evangelist. You should have known me then! My hair touched my shoulders, and I had a full beard–but so did many American men in and around the bicentennial year.

    I was at some little country church, where the pianist was sort of the choir director and the soloist most every Sunday I gathered. She said she’d been having voice problems, but the Lord had shown her that she should stop smoking on Saturday in order to give her voice its best shot for Sunday. She had followed the Lord’s leading, and, praise God, she said, she was there to sing to the glory of God that day. (After church, she was outside smoking so I guess God only wanted her to stop smoking until she sang!)

    Anyway, I was deeply moved. I’d never heard the song before. God was naturally the force or presence being alluded to in my mind, and we all need the presence of God and the presence of loving people around us to help us get through our toughest times. We don’t want to have to face the difficult twists and turns all alone.

    I heard a delightful radio interview with Marvin Hamlisch over the weekend, and he talked about his teen friendship with Liza Minelli as well as how he met her wildly famous mother, Judy Garland. Hamlisch didn’t touch on this part of Judy Garland’s personality, but it was she who once asked, “If I'm such a legend, then why am I so lonely?”

    Loneliness is frightening. It can scare someone literally to death. Mother Teresa, of all people, once reminded us that loneliness “and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.”

    Someone has said:


 

Loneliness is a very powerful emotion. It can lead to depression, illness, even suicide. Although it may often hit old, sick or handicapped people, it is very common among young people too.


 

    What images and experiences come to your mind when you think “lonely”?


 

 

  • I think of Hannah, the Hebrew scripture heroine, who believed that her barrenness was a sign of God’s disfavor towards her. She sucked in all of society’s senseless summations about the worthlessness of women who couldn’t produce children, and especially male heirs, for their husbands. Finally, all she could do was weep and pray. She was embarrassed in the presence of women who were mothers. She couldn’t face her husband at all, and she could barely bring herself to talk with the priest who noticed her praying tearfully in the Temple day after day. Society with its views of God in the forefront had taught Hannah of the God who punished sinful women by keeping them from being able to bear children, and thus from receiving full affirmation as human beings. Eventually, Hannah would have a child, but she was so fearful of displeasing God again in some kind of way that she sent him to live in the Temple at a very young age–believing that God would be most pleased if her son, Samuel, were prepped for the clergy life from childhood on. So, sweet Hannah never got to enjoy the company of her son to any great extent, as he grew up in the Temple.
  • I’m also thinking lonely Elijah–one of ancient Israel’s greatest prophets who, at one point, was on top all the way. He was the Billy Graham of the ancient Hebrew culture. He preached revivals all over the place and warned those who turned from the God of Israel that there would be Hades to pay! Elijah made the mistake, though, of stepping on the toes of the first lady of the kingdom. She had married a Hebrew, but she didn’t like the Hebrew religion or its clergy. She decided that Israel and the whole world would be better off without a religious fanatic like Elijah. She ordered him put to death. He had thought he was too far up the ladder of religious success ever to have his life put in danger. He advised and preached to the king! He often visited the White Hou– I mean, the palace. When the nation went to war, he was called on to preach nationalistic sermons to remind them that God was on their side all the way. Poor old Elijah ran and hid in a cave, and he whined to God like you wouldn’t believe! He even tried to tell God that he, Elijah, was the only faithful person in all of Israel–not just the only faithful clergyperson, but the only faithful person period! Now that sounds more like Robertson and Falwell than Billy, but that’s what Elijah said. He was a lonely guy there in that cave, and while we might laugh at his arrogance the loneliness unto despair wasn’t funny at all.
  • When I think of lonely people whom we meet in the pages of the particular collection of Jewish and Christian scriptures we have today, I can’t help thinking of the women who stood with Jesus until he died, who watched his rapid burial, and who walked that lonely, lonely walk back to his tomb after the sabbath was over so they could properly anoint and embalm his body.
  • I also think of lonely Jesus who knew finally that if he didn’t Romanize his message and make the Kingdom of Rome superior to the Kingdom of God he was doomed to this world. He was praying, he was sweating in that garden in communion with God, “Must I die for telling the truth, God?” He had taken a few of his male disciples with him to pray alongside him, and as he wept in realization that Rome wouldn’t let him live, he found those presumably closest to him asleep.


 


 


 


 

III.


 

    Maybe you know lonely too.


 

  • You’re the one person in an entire organization, as far as you know, who realizes something isn’t right, something unethical is going on. And no one seems willing to call out an enron-wrong, but you, maybe you. What will happen to your job? Who will turn against you? Who will burn you for speaking out? Talk about a lonely feeling! And isn’t there more corporate corruption these days than fairness on the commercial front?
  • Who’s the one kid who just says, “No!”, to drugs in that particular collection of cronies? Do we adults forget how lonely and isolating it is for a young person to buck the crowd? To risk verbal abuse and rejection simply for saying, “I don’t want to use drugs. I don’t even want to try them. You do what you want to do; that’s your business, but I’m saying, `No’”?
  • Lonely is a young military mother shipped out for foreign duty when her baby is only six months old. She sits on some sand some where far from where her baby is growing up in the care of a father-only or, often, a mother-substitute. First words, first steps, first haircuts and hard-bottomed shoes–all in the view of someone other than her, that baby’s mother. Telephone sounds and home videos aren’t the same as being there. And who cradles that baby in the night when she or he cries out for comfort? The baby is lonely for her or his mother and doesn’t even understand what that feeling is yet. The mother, though, knows all too well.
  • Grief is, in part, constructed with patches of loneliness–the almost immediate loneliness, which logic tells us to expect when we’ve lost a loved one to this world; and the side-swipe loneliness that weeks, months, years after the doctor said, “He’s gone. She’s gone,” overtakes us unawares. The former kind of loneliness made sense to us–though that didn’t make the pain go away. The delayed and lingering loneliness surprises almost everyone, though, who hasn’t yet gone through it. A song you knew to be her or his favorite is played on the radio or at the concert. You hear yourself using the present tense to talk about something she or he did or said. And, suddenly, the full scale loneliness of loss overtakes you once again–as if the death happened just yesterday.
  • You’re the only one in your family or circle of friends who follows a progressive line of theological thinking. Your views are cast aside by the whole family or friendship circle as pointless, and you find yourself with no one to whom you can attempt to articulate your profoundly felt views of God. Since God is important you, this hurts. You’d like to be able to talk about what means so much to you with those who are nearest and dearest to you, but you can’t. It’s the same way with anything important to you that you know you can’t discuss with your loved ones for fear of misunderstanding and/or rejection. Think about those people in the world for whom embracing the teachings of Jesus means absolute and permanent ostracism by one’s family.
  • My friend, Will Campbell, in one of his novels has a character who is as lonely as lonely can be, Will’s narrator explains, because he has nobody to be lonely for. That’s a haunting thought!
  • Julie Jordan has draped herself over Billy Bigelow’s bleeding, dying body. She had been powerfully lonely already, married to and in love with a man who might make love to her at one moment and slap her the next, but she knew she’d be even more lonely without him–having to let him go before he grew up into true adulthood. She had once seen so much potential in him, and there was so much unfinished business between them. How could she go on without him?


 

If I loved you,

Time and again I would try to say

All I'd want you to know.

If I loved you,

Words wouldn't come in an easy way

Round in circles I'd go!

Longing to tell you,

But afraid and shy

I'd let my golden chances pass me by!

Soon you'd leave me,

Off you would go in the mist of day,

Never, never to know

How I loved you

If I loved you

(Rogers and Hammerstein II, “Carousel”).


 

    Nettie pulls Julie up into her arms and comforts her as Billy is taken off to Heaven. Nettie tries to console her, encourage her with the words you heard earlier today:


 

When you walk through a storm

Keep your chin up high

And don't be afraid of the dark.

At the end of the storm

Is a golden sky

And the sweet silver song of a lark.

Walk on through the wind,

Walk on through the rain,

Tho' your dreams be tossed and blown...

(Rogers and Hammerstein II, “Carousel”).


 

Nettie was going to be there for Julie as she always had been, but there are places where those who love us most and best cannot go with us.

    Once we realize that God is within us, the nearness of God makes considerably greater sense. There is no where we go that we have to go without God. Queried the psalmist:


 

Where can I go from your spirit, [O God]? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you (Psa 139:7-12 NRSV).


 

That’s a very, very powerful realization.

    Who or what can separate us from God and God’s love?

Paul answered: I am absolutely convinced, he said, that


 

neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from God and God’s love (Rom 8:38-39 NRSV, adapted).


 

    The psalmist again:


 

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. God makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters; God restores my soul. God leads me in right paths for the divine name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, [the valley of the shadow of death], I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me (Psa 23:1-4 NRSV).


 

God goes with us through all of life and to the very end of this life; we may know God’s presence even when physical function and consciousness wane and fail. Perhaps, as some of us believe, God continues walking with us into the next realm as well.


 

Walk on, walk on

With hope in your heart

And you'll never walk alone...

(Rogers and Hammerstein II, “Carousel”).


 

Amen.

“You’ll Never Walk Alone”: Sermon from May 14, 2006

SILVERSIDE SERMONS


 

David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.

Pastor, Silverside Church

Wilmington, Delaware


 

Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation

www.silversidechurch.org


 


 

Sermon Series Summer 2006

God on Broadway:

Thoughts About God from the Musical Stage


 

May 14, 2006 Sermon #2

“You’ll Never Walk Alone”

Carousel


 

I.


 

    The Rogers and Hammerstein musical, “Carousel,” is a dark story. They based their stage play on a play, “Liliom,” by Hungarian playwright, Ferenc Molnar, and mixed in with plenty of scenes and songs that are funny and happy, domestic violence, separation from loved ones, and death punctuate the plot. In 1999. Time magazine named “Carousel” the best musical of the twentieth century.

    The action centers in a small, unnamed New England fishing village between 1873 and 1888. As the musical opens, every time since its premiere at the Majestic Theater in April of 1945, the “Carousel Waltz” is playing, and the audience sees an amusement park where fishermen, young ladies who are employed at a local mill, and lots of children have gathered. Each one seems to be enjoying the carnival.

    Two young ladies especially, Carrie and Julie, are having a grand time, and Billy Bigelow, the barker employed to draw people to the beautiful carousel, is flirting openly with Julie. Unfortunately, Carrie and Julie are insulted by a Mrs. Mullin who happens to own the merry-go-round. Billy defends the pretty mill workers and is fired on the spot for daring to speak in such a manner to his boss.

    He’s at best a happy-go-lucky kind of guy and at worst a drifter who doesn’t seem to mind so much that he has just lost yet another job. Instead of bemoaning his fate or worrying about how he’ll find work, he invites Julie to have a beer with him. Julie coyly accepts the invitation.

    Soon they are chatting along, and the subject of love comes up. Each describes the kind of person who would be her or his ideal spouse. Billy finally just asks Julie out and out if she would ever marry a man like him. She says that if she loved him she would. Julie then sings, “If I Loved You,” a show-stopper in its own right.

    Well, in time they do, in fact, fall in love and get married. They have some happy moments and some sad ones. Financially, to no one’s surprise, Billy and Julie aren’t making it; they have to live with her cousin, Nettie, in crowded conditions. Probably more than once, Billy has dealt with his personal failures by taking his anger out physically on Julie. She stays with him because she loves him, because she keeps hoping he’ll change, and because she believes love requires her to stay. That’s the subject for another sermon! But, for now, I’m simply giving you an overview of this haunting little tale.

    The next thing we know, it’s June, and everybody in town is getting ready for the first clambake of the season. It’s at the clambake that Billy finds out Julie is pregnant with their child.

Billy’s attitude about life changes immediately. He is absolutely determined to mend his ways and do whatever it takes to support his wife and their child. In his well-remembered song, “Soliloquy,” he ponders over how he will be a father to a boy and then is stunned with the notion that their baby might be a girl. Though he believes it would be easier to parent a boy than a girl, he realizes he’ll be happy with either gender, and he also realizes how much he will love the child and how much he actually does love his wife. It’s a real turning point for Billy.

    Billy decides he has to have a “jump start” on gathering the funds he will need to support his wife and child. In what he hopes will be his last less-than-respectable effort to make money, he agrees to be involved in a robbery after which he will earn money only in respectable ways. Something goes wrong, though, and the robbery attempt is thwarted. On the spur of the moment, Billy decides he’d rather die than spend his life in prison so he stabs himself—intending to die.

    Julie, as you can imagine, is devastated. She is brought to the scene of the attempted crime where she throws herself on Billy’s blood-stained body as he is dying. In just a few minutes, he is gone, and Julie’s cries show us how her heart is truly broken. She loved him despite his numerous faults. She has no clue how she will get along without Billy, and it’s at this point that her loving cousin, Nettie, sings the song on which we focus our attention today: “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” It’s a beautiful, moving, inspiring, hopeful song, and in many ways the whole musical hinges on it. You’ll hear it in a few moments right here in church! And we’ll think through what it might have meant. That song isn’t the end of the story, though.

    I guess lots of folks in the audience are very surprised to see that Billy arrives in heaven. He didn’t seem heaven-bound, but I suppose the fact that that’s where he landed is an indication that the next realm isn’t populated by the purely pious–which I take to be GREAT NEWS for many of us in this congregation!

    The core Billy hasn’t changed. He tells two heavenly attendants in his defiant manner that he has no regrets at all about how he lived his earthly life. He is sentenced to Purgatory for fifteen years; now, that’s no fun, but at least there’s an end in sight.

    At the end of his Purgatory probation, Heaven’s Starkeeper permits Billy Bigelow to return to Earth for one, single day in order to do something to keep him out of Purgatory for the duration. Before he goes, the Starkeeper tells Billy that his child turned out to be not his “boy Bill,” but his “girl Louise.” He snatches a star right out of the skies that he intends as a gift for Louise.

    As it happens, he finds that Louise is an unhappy child–or, at least, unhappy when he finds her, and Billy hates that. He decides to make himself visible to her even though he’s a stranger to her. Billy tries to give her his gift–that gleaming star from the skies, but Louise refuses it. In frustration, he slaps her, and we aren’t surprised. Same ole Billy! As he makes himself invisible, Louise tells her mother what happened and explains that the slap miraculously felt like a kiss. Without allowing Julie actually to see him, Billy confirms his love for her even though she can’t hear him.

     Having thus made amends in a way, Billy is there for Louise's school graduation. Still invisible, he presses her to have confidence in herself. Although she does not hear him, she feels the message. Through this good deed, Billy is granted permanent entry into Heaven. It’s a “good works” theology that we shouldn’t affirm; but it shapes the story, and so we leave it alone for now.


 


 


 


 

    II.


 

    The meaning of the song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” is not crystal clear. Many monotheists immediately think Nettie, and later others in the show, are subtly referring to God even though God isn’t mentioned “by name” in the song. There is certainly a sense in which a part of the meaning must be related to friends and loved ones who’ll never let you go through the hardest of times alone. And, since Billy’s presence remained with those who had once loved him and whom he loved, there is that possibility also.

    My take on the matter is answered by the inclusion of the song and the musical in this sermon series. I think the song suggests that Heaven is not far removed from and uncaring toward us earthly strugglers and seekers. Hopefully, there are others who by their physical presence will keep us from having to walk through the tough times all alone, but even if there are no others around, God goes with us through the hardest and most lonely of experiences.

    The first time I ever heard the song sung, I was in college–out somewhere in rural East Tennessee preaching as a youth evangelist. You should have known me then! My hair touched my shoulders, and I had a full beard–but so did many American men in and around the bicentennial year.

    I was at some little country church, where the pianist was sort of the choir director and the soloist most every Sunday I gathered. She said she’d been having voice problems, but the Lord had shown her that she should stop smoking on Saturday in order to give her voice its best shot for Sunday. She had followed the Lord’s leading, and, praise God, she said, she was there to sing to the glory of God that day. (After church, she was outside smoking so I guess God only wanted her to stop smoking until she sang!)

    Anyway, I was deeply moved. I’d never heard the song before. God was naturally the force or presence being alluded to in my mind, and we all need the presence of God and the presence of loving people around us to help us get through our toughest times. We don’t want to have to face the difficult twists and turns all alone.

    I heard a delightful radio interview with Marvin Hamlisch over the weekend, and he talked about his teen friendship with Liza Minelli as well as how he met her wildly famous mother, Judy Garland. Hamlisch didn’t touch on this part of Judy Garland’s personality, but it was she who once asked, “If I'm such a legend, then why am I so lonely?”

    Loneliness is frightening. It can scare someone literally to death. Mother Teresa, of all people, once reminded us that loneliness “and the feeling of being unwanted is the most terrible poverty.”

    Someone has said:


 

Loneliness is a very powerful emotion. It can lead to depression, illness, even suicide. Although it may often hit old, sick or handicapped people, it is very common among young people too.


 

    What images and experiences come to your mind when you think “lonely”?


 

 

  • I think of Hannah, the Hebrew scripture heroine, who believed that her barrenness was a sign of God’s disfavor towards her. She sucked in all of society’s senseless summations about the worthlessness of women who couldn’t produce children, and especially male heirs, for their husbands. Finally, all she could do was weep and pray. She was embarrassed in the presence of women who were mothers. She couldn’t face her husband at all, and she could barely bring herself to talk with the priest who noticed her praying tearfully in the Temple day after day. Society with its views of God in the forefront had taught Hannah of the God who punished sinful women by keeping them from being able to bear children, and thus from receiving full affirmation as human beings. Eventually, Hannah would have a child, but she was so fearful of displeasing God again in some kind of way that she sent him to live in the Temple at a very young age–believing that God would be most pleased if her son, Samuel, were prepped for the clergy life from childhood on. So, sweet Hannah never got to enjoy the company of her son to any great extent, as he grew up in the Temple.
  • I’m also thinking lonely Elijah–one of ancient Israel’s greatest prophets who, at one point, was on top all the way. He was the Billy Graham of the ancient Hebrew culture. He preached revivals all over the place and warned those who turned from the God of Israel that there would be Hades to pay! Elijah made the mistake, though, of stepping on the toes of the first lady of the kingdom. She had married a Hebrew, but she didn’t like the Hebrew religion or its clergy. She decided that Israel and the whole world would be better off without a religious fanatic like Elijah. She ordered him put to death. He had thought he was too far up the ladder of religious success ever to have his life put in danger. He advised and preached to the king! He often visited the White Hou– I mean, the palace. When the nation went to war, he was called on to preach nationalistic sermons to remind them that God was on their side all the way. Poor old Elijah ran and hid in a cave, and he whined to God like you wouldn’t believe! He even tried to tell God that he, Elijah, was the only faithful person in all of Israel–not just the only faithful clergyperson, but the only faithful person period! Now that sounds more like Robertson and Falwell than Billy, but that’s what Elijah said. He was a lonely guy there in that cave, and while we might laugh at his arrogance the loneliness unto despair wasn’t funny at all.
  • When I think of lonely people whom we meet in the pages of the particular collection of Jewish and Christian scriptures we have today, I can’t help thinking of the women who stood with Jesus until he died, who watched his rapid burial, and who walked that lonely, lonely walk back to his tomb after the sabbath was over so they could properly anoint and embalm his body.
  • I also think of lonely Jesus who knew finally that if he didn’t Romanize his message and make the Kingdom of Rome superior to the Kingdom of God he was doomed to this world. He was praying, he was sweating in that garden in communion with God, “Must I die for telling the truth, God?” He had taken a few of his male disciples with him to pray alongside him, and as he wept in realization that Rome wouldn’t let him live, he found those presumably closest to him asleep.


 


 


 


 

III.


 

    Maybe you know lonely too.


 

  • You’re the one person in an entire organization, as far as you know, who realizes something isn’t right, something unethical is going on. And no one seems willing to call out an enron-wrong, but you, maybe you. What will happen to your job? Who will turn against you? Who will burn you for speaking out? Talk about a lonely feeling! And isn’t there more corporate corruption these days than fairness on the commercial front?
  • Who’s the one kid who just says, “No!”, to drugs in that particular collection of cronies? Do we adults forget how lonely and isolating it is for a young person to buck the crowd? To risk verbal abuse and rejection simply for saying, “I don’t want to use drugs. I don’t even want to try them. You do what you want to do; that’s your business, but I’m saying, `No’”?
  • Lonely is a young military mother shipped out for foreign duty when her baby is only six months old. She sits on some sand some where far from where her baby is growing up in the care of a father-only or, often, a mother-substitute. First words, first steps, first haircuts and hard-bottomed shoes–all in the view of someone other than her, that baby’s mother. Telephone sounds and home videos aren’t the same as being there. And who cradles that baby in the night when she or he cries out for comfort? The baby is lonely for her or his mother and doesn’t even understand what that feeling is yet. The mother, though, knows all too well.
  • Grief is, in part, constructed with patches of loneliness–the almost immediate loneliness, which logic tells us to expect when we’ve lost a loved one to this world; and the side-swipe loneliness that weeks, months, years after the doctor said, “He’s gone. She’s gone,” overtakes us unawares. The former kind of loneliness made sense to us–though that didn’t make the pain go away. The delayed and lingering loneliness surprises almost everyone, though, who hasn’t yet gone through it. A song you knew to be her or his favorite is played on the radio or at the concert. You hear yourself using the present tense to talk about something she or he did or said. And, suddenly, the full scale loneliness of loss overtakes you once again–as if the death happened just yesterday.
  • You’re the only one in your family or circle of friends who follows a progressive line of theological thinking. Your views are cast aside by the whole family or friendship circle as pointless, and you find yourself with no one to whom you can attempt to articulate your profoundly felt views of God. Since God is important you, this hurts. You’d like to be able to talk about what means so much to you with those who are nearest and dearest to you, but you can’t. It’s the same way with anything important to you that you know you can’t discuss with your loved ones for fear of misunderstanding and/or rejection. Think about those people in the world for whom embracing the teachings of Jesus means absolute and permanent ostracism by one’s family.
  • My friend, Will Campbell, in one of his novels has a character who is as lonely as lonely can be, Will’s narrator explains, because he has nobody to be lonely for. That’s a haunting thought!
  • Julie Jordan has draped herself over Billy Bigelow’s bleeding, dying body. She had been powerfully lonely already, married to and in love with a man who might make love to her at one moment and slap her the next, but she knew she’d be even more lonely without him–having to let him go before he grew up into true adulthood. She had once seen so much potential in him, and there was so much unfinished business between them. How could she go on without him?


 

If I loved you,

Time and again I would try to say

All I'd want you to know.

If I loved you,

Words wouldn't come in an easy way

Round in circles I'd go!

Longing to tell you,

But afraid and shy

I'd let my golden chances pass me by!

Soon you'd leave me,

Off you would go in the mist of day,

Never, never to know

How I loved you

If I loved you

(Rogers and Hammerstein II, “Carousel”).


 

    Nettie pulls Julie up into her arms and comforts her as Billy is taken off to Heaven. Nettie tries to console her, encourage her with the words you heard earlier today:


 

When you walk through a storm

Keep your chin up high

And don't be afraid of the dark.

At the end of the storm

Is a golden sky

And the sweet silver song of a lark.

Walk on through the wind,

Walk on through the rain,

Tho' your dreams be tossed and blown...

(Rogers and Hammerstein II, “Carousel”).


 

Nettie was going to be there for Julie as she always had been, but there are places where those who love us most and best cannot go with us.

    Once we realize that God is within us, the nearness of God makes considerably greater sense. There is no where we go that we have to go without God. Queried the psalmist:


 

Where can I go from your spirit, [O God]? Or where can I flee from your presence? If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast. If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me, and the light around me become night,” even the darkness is not dark to you; the night is as bright as the day, for darkness is as light to you (Psa 139:7-12 NRSV).


 

That’s a very, very powerful realization.

    Who or what can separate us from God and God’s love?

Paul answered: I am absolutely convinced, he said, that


 

neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from God and God’s love (Rom 8:38-39 NRSV, adapted).


 

    The psalmist again:


 

The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. God makes me lie down in green pastures and leads me beside still waters; God restores my soul. God leads me in right paths for the divine name’s sake. Even though I walk through the darkest valley, [the valley of the shadow of death], I fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod and your staff—they comfort me (Psa 23:1-4 NRSV).


 

God goes with us through all of life and to the very end of this life; we may know God’s presence even when physical function and consciousness wane and fail. Perhaps, as some of us believe, God continues walking with us into the next realm as well.


 

Walk on, walk on

With hope in your heart

And you'll never walk alone...

(Rogers and Hammerstein II, “Carousel”).


 

Amen.

“Sabbath Prayer”: Sermon for May 21, 2006

SILVERSIDE SERMONS


 

David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.

Pastor, Silverside Church

Wilmington, Delaware


 

Wilmington’s Progressive Christian Congregation

www.silversidechurch.org


 


 

Sermon Series Summer 2006

God on Broadway:

Thoughts About God from the Musical Stage


 

May 14, 2006 Sermon #3

“Sabbath Prayer”

Fiddler On the Roof


 

I.


 

    If you want to be tempted to pray or DRIVEN to prayer, become a parent! The physical and emotional aches and pains necessary for your kid to grow up “normally” will rip out your heart, and if there are extra troubles–“more than her share”; “more than his share”–count on lots of lost sleep. Also, count on lots of sessions of unplanned prayer prayed from every theological point of view about which you ever knew anything! Beg, plead, bargain, appeal to karma, increase your offerings, bless the pope, order your own copy of the Koran from amazon.com, recite both the prayers you have memorized: “God is great, God is good...”; and, “Now I lay me down to sleep....” We’ll do almost anything to ensure the safety and well-being of our children. From birth to death–their birth, and our death!

    Many of you know me to be a doting, protective or over-protective single dad–at least, when I was able to be overprotective, I was! (The “doting” and “protective” or “overprotective” parts are only for ME to say or assign. Nothing makes me angrier, interpersonally and not politically speaking, than for someone to try to tell me how to relate to my own children.) And I can tell you, so be warned, it’s only going to be worse when I’m a grand dad–not that I have any announcements to make!     

    Being not just the only parent in the home with both boys for several years, but also the only blood-relative in multiple states gave Jarrett, Carson, and me a unique kind of closeness–in spite of our own tense and unsettling times. I loved being their parent during their growing up years just as I still love that role today, and the one thing that I regretted at all about being the only parent in the household was that sometimes supportiveness for struggling kids and teens is better doubled up in the person of two parents. If you saw me on television recently, on “Community Crossfire,” you heard me trying my best to explain this to State Representative Plant and former Councilman Oliver.

    Indeed, I had my sleepless nights, and I’m so grateful that my own Mom and Dad were always as near as the phone. I like Senator Clinton, and I think it does, in fact, “take a village.” Grandparents often are in those villages and are such amazing gifts–not just to their grandkids, but also to their children trying to raise the grandkids, close by or at a distance. Cheers to Bob Kasey and Creative Grandparenting for all that organization has realized and implemented!

    Anyway, parenthood gives us our focus for today’s musical and the song on which we center. The musical is “Fiddler on the Roof,” based on stories told by Sholom Aleichem. It is set in Anatevka, Russia, in 1905. Anatevka happens to be a small Jewish village where a good-hearted dairy farmer, Tevye, and his wife, Golde, live with their five daughters. They are devout Jews. The family isn’t financially wealthy and has to struggle to get by. On top of a long pattern of attempting to cope in order to survive, things get more complicated and challenging because of tsarist rule.

    Tevye sings “Tradition” as the production’s prologue, and he gets right to the point of the centrality of God in their lives and in all things, as far as he could tell. Tevye staunchly defends traditions. Not having traditions would be stupid, he thinks, and he insists that, without them, everybody in his village and beyond would be as shaky as a “fiddler on a roof.” That’s pretty shaky, you know!

    One tradition, which confronts him and his family, is the arranged marriage plan. There are five marriages to arrange in his and Golde’s family! Taking care of five daughters and getting them all married off was a matter of great financial concern for Tevye and Golde–especially Tevye as the head of the family and the provider for his wife and daughters. He worries about the currency and coins of it all as the daughters wonder about who the village matchmaker will match each of them up with.

    The matchmaker, Yente, has a key role in the community and will be especially important to Golde’s and Tevye’s family for the next few years. (Yente was played by Beatrice Arthur when the production first opened on Broadway in 1964.) Tevye's daughters wonder if the matchmaker will ever find them the men of their dreams, and, frankly, to hear Yente’s proposals for matches, the prospects aren’t very good!

    While busy with his daily chores of milking and then delivering milk, Tevye has to wonder what it would be like if he didn’t live his hand-to-mouth existence. He’s fantasizing, and he has a vivid imagination! He wonders what in the world it would be like if he were a rich man instead of a poor man. He is actually praying about it:

Dear God, you made many, many poor people. I realize, of course, that it’s no shame to be poor. But it’s no great honor either! So, what would have been so terrible if I had a small fortune?


 

Tevye sings the rousing “If I Were a Rich Man.”

    Right on the heels of such celebrative thoughts, sounds of happiness are silenced. A group of villagers, in addition to an outsider, Perchik, come to Tevye with the sad news of a violent outburst in the next village. Outsiders couldn’t easily fit in among the tradition-oriented people of Anatevka, but Perchik found a place among them. Initially, he’s a part of the group who shares the frightening news that the tsar is flexing his muscles, and innocent people in Russia and as near as the next village are being hurt as a result.

    Tevye ends up inviting the outsider, Perchik, a young revolutionary, to his family’s home for Sabbath dinner. This is quite some honor! He intends for Perchik to share his ideas with the five daughters who know almost nothing about the world beyond their small village.

    Eventually, the meal is ready, and the prayer before the meal is prayed by Tevye and Golde. The focus of their Sabbath prayer is on the present and future well-being of their daughters. We see the intensity of parental concern in this prayer. It is practical. It is loving. It is expectant. The parents want a better life for their daughters than they have had thus far–even though their lives have been filled with love. All of us parents who love our children always want more and greater happiness for them.


 


 


 


 

II.


 

May the Lord protect and defend you.

May He always shield you from shame.

May you come to be

In Israel a shining name.

May you be like Ruth and like Esther.

May you be deserving of praise.

Strengthen them, Oh Lord,

And keep them from the strangers’ ways.

May God bless you and grant you long lives.

(May the Lord fulfill our Sabbath prayer for you.)

May God make you good mothers and wives.

(May He send you husbands who will care for you.)

May the Lord protect and defend you.

May the Lord preserve you from pain.

Favor them, Oh Lord, with happiness and peace.

Oh, hear our Sabbath prayer. Amen

(“Sabbath Prayer,” by Sheldon Harnick,

“Fiddler on the Roof”).


 

    Did you notice in this moving prayer that Golde and Tevye ask for nothing for themselves personally–not a single thing. They are concerned in this prayer prayed on their central day of worship for their daughters’ happiness and well-being. That, I think is very parental. A good family therapist would probably remind parents that such a practice is not a good thing, is not sufficiently respectful of themselves, the parents. And yet, Golde and Tevye simply sang what their hearts gave them to sing; they simply thought first about their daughters and would get back to worrying about themselves when each of their daughters was OK...MAYBE.

    Golde and Tevye pray for their daughters’ protection by God against whatever or whomever might assault them. They ask that God defend their daughters if, in fact, there is an attack of any sort. Remember, violence is breaking out virtually next door. These are real requests, not worn out phrases from old “tried and true” prayers.

    We wonder how many similar kinds of prayers are prayed around this world on any given day by parents who, with their children, live in war zones. We wonder how many parents whose children, whose daughters and sons, are sent away to fight in wars that some call “just” and others call “unjust” pray a similar kind of prayer not just each day, but hour by hour each day.

    Golde and Tevye hope that one or all of their daughters might become forever remembered in the Jewish religion in exactly the way Ruth and Esther are held in esteem by all the Jews after them.


 

 

  • Ruth, not born a Jew, but kind of adopted as a Jew through marriage as well as through her own embracing of the God of Israel, who reared her children well and eventually saw her great-grandson become the greatest king in Hebrew history.
  • Esther, the Hebrew beauty who became queen to a pagan king who didn’t know her ethnicity, but who put her life on the line for her people when their safety was threatened by one of that king’s anti-Semitic advisors.


 

Great role-models these women for all people–for Golde’s and Tevye’s daughters in particular.

    The parents pray that the daughters will be safe, free from pain–that they will do well as wives and mothers. They pray that their daughters will be united with good husbands who will make it a matter of personal responsibility to see that their wives are well provided for. And, even with violence moving ever closer to Anatevka, they pray for peace for their daughters and their daughters’ future families.

    It’s a beautiful prayer, whether or not we agree with its theology or its form. We understand the parental depth from which the words were uttered, and we take note of the fact that it was a “sabbath prayer,” not just an “every day” prayer. The sabbath made everything more important, kicked up a notch Emeril, I suppose, would say. Once when Rabbi Cohn, my dear friend who is now an MSNBC television personality, invited me to attend an instructional class for seekers at his Temple Sinai in New Orleans, I heard him explaining sabbath to would-be converts as well as to Jews who simply wanted to know more about the basics of Judaism. I was so impressed, while I kept reminded that Jesus was a Jew, that I wanted to convert, but he told me in front of the group that the local, liberal Baptist minister would be prohibited from converting to Judaism since he was of greater service to Judaism by continuing to preach against anti-Semitism in our Baptist pulpits than on the roles of a synagogue.

    Anyway, this is what Rabbi Cohn said about sabbath: on the sabbath, everything is a bit better, a little more intense, a little more important. The sabbath meal isn’t run of the mill. Sex, he told his audience, was better on the sabbath, and since this was long before Viagra or Zestra, I wasn’t sure how he could make such promises! (And, by the way, that wasn’t why I wanted to convert!) Prayer is important every day for practicing Jews, but especially on the sabbath. In any case, you see how pivotal these prayers were to Golde and Tevye; they were sabbath prayers.

    What decent parent doesn’t want a better world, a better life, greater security, and the absence of serious struggle for her or his child? Whether or not we understand prayer forms and theology sufficiently enough to pray the “perfect” kinds of prayers in this regard (and there are no such things, by the way), we parents who are in touch with the Spirit of God within us can’t help expressing our concerns for our children to the God whom we know loves us and them.

    There’s another song, “Any Day Now,” that was written for the film version of “Fiddler.” It was sung by Paul Michael Glaser playing Perchik, but clipped out of a film that, even with cuts, ran for three hours! In any case, when the thirtieth anniversary version of “Fiddler” was celebrated on CD, this very important song was included, and though it was sung by a young man in love with one of Golde’s and Tevye’s daughters his vision is still of a world those parents wanted for their children.


 

    All our four-star hopes will be fulfilled.

    Together what a clean and shiny world we’ll build.

    For the dust and decay will be swept away.

    Any day now, it will happen.

    Yes, the river will rise and the dam will burst.

    Any day now, any day.

    And the first will be last, and the last be first.

    Any day now, any day.

    When a million hands will be untied,

    A million doors and windows will be opened wide.


 

    And the chains will be snapped and the whip be burned

    And the swords be turned into plowshares.

    Any day now, any day.


 

    And the storm will subside and the thunder cease

    And the sounds of peace shall surround us.

    Any day now, any day (“Fiddler on the Roof”).


 


 


 


 

III.


 


 

    Once, when Jesus was giving his disciples a few pointers on prayer, he was encouraging them, first and foremost, to pray. The form didn’t matter nearly as much as the practice. In that conversation, as Luke reports it, Jesus asked–rhetorically, we presume:


 

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will [God] give the Holy Spirit to those who ask? (Luke 11:11-13 NRSV, adapted).


 

Perhaps, the Matthean version if more familiar to us:


 

Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your God in heaven give good things to those who ask? (Matt 7:9-11 NRSV).


 

    More words attributed to Jesus on the subject of prayer:


 

So I say to you, “Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened” (Luke 11:9-10 NRSV).


 

Literally speaking, at least on the surface, that is so NOT true! First of all, not everything we ask for in prayer is given to us. THANK GOODNESS!!! And surely we know by now that God isn’t an order-fulfillment service operating out of noblegod.com.

    Second, just knocking on a door doesn’t mean by any stretch of the imagination that the door is going to be opened. How many people in the world try their best, give their lives, trying to have a worthy door opened to them, and it never happened?

    Third, those who seek–even after good things–don’t necessarily find them. Many of us and many people in the world with us spend our lives looking for something without finding it.

    If we hear Jesus literally here, we’re going to have a very distorted view of him and of prayer. The fact is that Jesus, as in his parables, was only trying to make a single point–not give a detailed instructional manual. His single point is that we should pray. Certainly, God hears us, and sometimes we do find our way to those realities about which we have prayed; but more often than not the change that prayer effects is the change in the person doing the praying.

    Furthermore, if I ask for wisdom, that is one thing. If I pray for the latest model camel to ride from Jerusalem to Cairo, that is entirely something else.

    Without a doubt, Jesus’ teaching here presupposes that those who pray ask for and seek what legitimately belongs to the realm of prayer.


 

  • His prayers taught that real prayer deals with finding a way for all of humanity to have their basic needs met, not one person praying for her or his materialistic extravagances.
  • Jesus prayed that God’s rule would become the rule in every nation over the face of the world and, therefore, that God’s loving will would be done among all people.
  • Jesus taught his disciples to pray for relational and communal wholeness that began among people who didn’t hate and hold grudges, but who, instead, consistently practiced forgiveness.
  • He showed in his praying that human beings had to and have to keep on their toes in order not to be overtaken by evil, always alive and well in the world and always luring the willing and the apathetic into its ways.


 

    So, ask prayerfully, and something will be given to you. Who knows what? Maybe insight, maybe patience!

    Keep knocking on the right kinds of doors, and some worthwhile door is eventually going to be opened to you. That just makes sense. If we knock on the wrong kinds of doors, though, guess what will be opened to us!

    And seeking is good, because it’s only through seeking that we can hope to find truth. The seeking itself becomes the goal; the important thing is THAT we keep on seeking God’s truths in a world that too often effectively covers them up.

    Again, Jesus’ teaching on prayer in this context isn’t supposed to be the basis for false promises about prayer as magical incantation. It was intended to encourage us to pray, to encourage us to commune with God who is within us. It was meant to keep us reminded that lives well lived aren’t lived as if independent from God.

    This whole saying was introduced by what Jesus intended as a funny little reminder that we human beings should keep on praying. Again, we don’t read anything into it except a reminder that we humans need to pray, and we might even say prayer is the most natural thing in the world.


 

And Jesus said to them, “Suppose one of you has a friend, and you go to him at midnight and say to him, `Friend, lend me three loaves of bread; for a friend of mine has arrived, and I have nothing to set before him.’ And he answers from within, `Do not bother me; the door has already been locked, and my children are with me in bed; I cannot get up and give you anything.’ I tell you, even though he will not get up and give him anything because he is his friend, at least because of his persistence he will get up and give him whatever he needs (Luke 11:5-8 NRSV).


 

    So fictional Jews, Golde and Tevye, pray as did a real Jew named Jesus. They prayed for their daughters both because they believed in prayer as proper and worthwhile, and because–in the end–parents know there’s only so much even the best of parents can do. Eventually the children are grown, and all they may be able to carry with them is what you have shown them about your love for them and God’s love for them; everything else is up to them.


 

Sunrise, sunset

Sunrise, sunset

Swiftly flow the days

Seedlings turn overnight to sunflowers

Blossoming even as we gaze


 

Sunrise, sunset

Sunrise, sunset

Swiftly fly the years

One season following another

Laden with happiness and tears

(“Fiddler on the Roof”).


 

    You may or may not agree with the theology of Golde and Tevye, even if you like their songs, but you CAN understand their love for their children and their desire that those children walk into the future with an awareness of the God of love in their lives. The daughters will mature and eventually take at least some of their sabbath meals elsewhere, but the sabbath prayers, the persistent prayers, of Golde and Tevye for their children are not likely to change, ever.

    Amen.