Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Sermon from June 25, 2006

    SILVERSIDE SERMONS


 

    David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.

    Pastor, Silverside Church

    Wilmington, Delaware


 

    Wilmingtons Progressive Christian Congregation

    www.silversidechurch.org


 


 

    Sermon Series Summer 2006

    God on Broadway:

    Thoughts About God from the Musical Stage


 

    June 25, 2006 Sermon #8

    Thoughts from The Altar Boyz in Three Movements

    


 

    Introduction to The Altar Boyz


 

Back in early March, I had just a glimmer of a notion that Id like to preach a series of sermons about how God is portrayed in the musical pieces of Broadway shows. In New York, I saw The Color Purple and had time and money to see one other production. I went online and studied the options.

 

Altar Boyz, an off-Broadway production and Outer Critics Circle Award winner for the best off-Broadway musical, caught my eye, and I read a bit about the musical and decided to see it. With a name like that, it should have some kind of religious content that I could affirm or react against; either option can make for an interesting sermon jumping-off point. I made a call and was able to get a good seat even on short notice; for me that means front row or an aisle not too far from the stage.

I made my way to the unusual theater, got my program, and took my seat. It was a smaller theater, but the place was packed. I glanced at the program notes, but didnt know any of the performers so didnt dwell there. The premise sounded interesting: a Catholic boy band had come to New York to sing the Christian message. OK. I thought I had come to a religious concert or else a thinly veiled story about young men who sing the Christian message. Either way, the Christian message was going to be sung about, and you and I both know that my chances of hearing my faith sung about in ways that are meaningful for me, and not theologically offensive, are slim to none. But Id paid for the ticket, and I was in New York, not far off-Broadway; and I wasnt about to miss a minute of the excitement even if that meant hearing the Christian message in a way Id have to grit my teeth and endure.

The three musicians came out and took their places, center upstage, and almost immediately the rock-sounding instrumental music began. Oh, Lord, I thought, Ive just paid to hear rock music! Ninety minutes of this without an intermission!

Im not sure exactly how long it took me to realize that what I was watching was intended to be at least some part comedy, some part parody. Maybe the first clue was when the five dancing actors sang their names: Matthew, Mark, Luke, Juan...and Abraham. Hes Jewish! Why a Jewish kid had joined with four Catholics to recruit for Christianity was never explained, but his fervor was no less pronounced than the four Gentile boys.

 

What began to unravel was a sight to behold and a treat to heareven though the musical styles for some of the numbers would not be my first choice under normal circumstances. This boy band was poking fun at religious fundamentalism, traditional evangelism, and doctrinal close-mindedness. They sing and dance without stop for some ninety minutes and make me laugh almost non-stop. There are some reflective, more serious moments, but they are few and far between; and some of their most important points were made while causing the audience to laugh.

It turns out that Altar Boyz is a national phenomenon with serious repeat fans including many of the big name performers centered in New York. Perhaps well take a trip together to see the Altar Boyz when they come to the Dupont Theatre this upcoming subscription year.

In any case, for today, listen to them with joy and with care. They give us lots to think about. We wont like all they say or how they sing it, but theyre onto something; and they give us the joyful reminder that religion and God-talk need not be stodgy!


 


 


 


 

    I Believe


 

[Abe]

One beam of light, is enough to see where youre going

One wrong turn, is enough to loose your way

One choice, is all you have to make

One ounce of faith could save the day

I believe, that I came to know you for a reason

I believe, that the things that you say will come true

I believe that with you in my life I'll make it

I believe in you.


 

[Juan]

One mistake, doesnt have to mean that it's over


 

 

[Luke]

One bad day, only means there's work to do


 

[Mark]

One night, is sometimes all it takes


 

[All]

To realize one thing is true

I believe, that I came to know you for a reason

I believe, that the things that you say will come true

I believe that with you in my life I'll make it

I believe in you


 

[Matthew]

Take a picture of me now, take a look at who I am

Yesterday I wasnt half as strong


 

[Abe, Juan, Luke, and Mark]

Take a picture of us all, what weve been and what we are

Look at that, and tell me Im wrong


 

[Matthew]

I BELIEVE!


 

[Abe, Juan, Luke, Mark]

That I came to know you for a reason


 

[All]

I believe, that the things that you say will come true

 


 

[Matthew]

Oooohhh


 

[All]

I believe that with you in my life Ill make it

I believe in you

I believe in


 

[Matthew]

You


 

[Abe, Juan, Luke, Mark]

I believe in


 

[All]

You-ooh-hoo

(this and all lyrics quoted in this sermon from Altar Boyz)


 


 


 


 


 

This song is a kind of prayer. The singers are confessing their belief to God that their connections to God were not/are not happenstance.

Im not much of a believer in either fate or divine providencein the sense that God has planned for everything that happens to everyone or in the sense that God is orchestrating anyones life moment by moment, move by move. I do, however, think its safe to affirm that the life-force, life-source we call God lures us to affirm Gods presence within us, and if we do that we could say that it was Gods will.

 

The phrase will of God is misunderstood if it means God has a plan for any or all of us that is superimposed upon our existence against our own wills. A better way to express what is often meant by will of God is to say hope of God. In so far as God may have feelings that in any way parallel or resemble human emotionswhich, admittedly, is a stretch, but its often the best we can dowe would be in the ballpark to believe that God HOPES human beings will open themselves up to the reality of their Creators presence within them. And if we do, its hardly an accident since were made the way were made.

Its rarely pure chance that someone has the powerful experience of opening herself or himself up to the presence of God. Most of us who do have been taught that its a good thing to do by someone whom we love and trust.

Be all of that as it may, the Altar Boyz believe that with God in their lives theyll be able to make it through lifes challenges. I think Gods presence within us should indeed have an impact on how were able to handle and deal with and process the tough turns life brings to most of us, and I dont consider it a crutch to thank God for Gods willingness to walk with us through the painful and lonely experiences. This is not a way of saying that we abdicate control of our lives to someone other than ourselves; its a simple recognition that a power, a presence of complete love is bound to make a positive difference in how we cope and where we end up on the other side of the crisis.

I would go so far as to say along these lines that simply affirming that God is or that God exists doesnt mean a lot or matter a great deal. If God exists, and Gods existence has no impact on how we live and look at life, then whats the point? I dont think its selfish or needy to expect to get something healthful out of our relationships and associations.

 

Affirming that God is, and not having that change how we live for the better means we have left our knowledge of God, our experience with the presence of God within each of us, to be nothing more than intellectual assent. I believe in God, someone may declare.

Uh, OK. AND?

Does that mean anything to you at any deep level? Does that change your life? Does that have some impact on how you relate to others? Does that have anything to do with your values and your ethics? If we have a sense that God is, we should be able to answer each of these questions and others like them affirmatively.

Much of the Christian church throughout the ages hasnt liked the book of James a great deal. The word is: it just barely made the final cut when the canon of Christian books that we now call the New Testament was finalized three hundred or so years after Jesus execution. And Martin Luther, powerhouse for the Protestant Reformation, didnt like it at all.

Luther, as a devout Roman Catholic, had bought into the notion that good works had something to do with putting people into a right relationship with God. Part of what troubled him and eventually led to his bold challenge to the powerful papacy of his day was his discovery that the Christian scriptures emphasize Gods grace as the only reason any one ever comes into a right relationship with God. God loves us period, and good works cant buy our way into Gods embrace here or in the hereafter.

Living through upheaval that the Reformation brought to every level of European life, Luther had no patience for the book of James emphasis on works again. Faith without works, insists the Epistle of James, is dead. And to further complicate Luthers life, since he believed wholeheartedly in a living and active devil, the book of James says, Devils believe [in God], and they tremble!

 

Luther called the book of James a right strawy epistle and further dismissed it by saying, I maintain that some Jew wrote it who probably heard about Christian people but never encountered any. Luther must have been drunk! We know he was anti-Semitic, but in this statement he ignores what he knows about all the early Christians beings Jews!

Anyway, belief in Gods existence is fine, but it isnt enough to change a life or a world. Faith without works really is dead! Its not about our perfectionthankfully so, since were all imperfect. Believing in God doesnt keep any one of us from making mistakes along the way any more than believing in God ever got Luthers heart and mind clear on the subject of Jews. But if we began to think in terms of having our faith prompt us to take care of those around us who struggle rather than treating faith as something that causes us always to focus on how well we measure up morally and intellectually in a vacuumnot only would we be changed, but also the world.


 


 


 


 

    Everybody Fits


 

It doesnt matter

If youre yellow or white or red

It doesnt matter

If youre pregnant and youre unwed

It doesnt matter

Cause the truth it can

Set you free, everybody fits


 

[Abe]

Everybody fits!


 

 

[Mark, Matthew, Luke, Juan]

It doesnt matter


 

[All]

Every murderer on death row

It doesnt matter

Every prostitute that you know

It doesnt matter

Welcome to the

Fraternity, everybody fits in God's great


 

[Abe]

Family, you and me

We fit into the family... yeaaah!


 

[Abe]

Somedays, you just cant begin

You feel, outside looking in

Its like, youre the odd man out

[Mark, Matthew, Luke, Juan]

Let me, help you

End your doubt


 

[All]

It doesnt matter

If youre different and out of place

It doesnt matter

If theres acne upon your face

It doesnt matter

Take my hand and then

You will see

Everybody fits in Gods great


 

 

[Abe]

Family


 

[Mark, Matthew, Luke, Juan]

Strangers


 

[Abe]

Seem to, stop and stare


 

[Mark, Matthew, Luke, Juan]

Wonderin


 

[Abe]

Why youre, even there


 

[Mark, Matthew, Luke, Juan]

Feeling


 

[Abe]

So left out and wrong


 

[Mark, Matthew, Luke, Juan]

I'll show


 

[Abe]

You that


 

[All]

You belong


 

 

[All]

It doesnt matter

If you have a gigantic nose

It doesnt matter

If youre born with eleven toes

It doesnt matter

You can trust and

Believe in me

Everybody fits in God's great


 

[Abe]

Family


 

[Mark]

In the family of God youll learn

That there is no such thing as others

All the women and men on Earth

Can be your


 

[Mark, Matthew, Luke, Juan]

Sisters and your brothers


 

[Abe]

Sisters and your brothers!


 

[All]

It doesnt matter

If youre wrinkled and old and grey

It doesnt matter

If you face Mecca when you pray

It doesnt matter

Won't you listen and

Hear my plea, everybody fits


 

 

This song was worth the cost of being in New York for a few days. Its my new theme song, and I dont know if Ive ever heard a more honest assessment of how Jesus taught us to look at others.

The childrens camp leaders this week taught a really beautiful group of children the meaning of the Golden Rule, and we all owe our gratitude to those who worked so very hard to plan the week and carry it out so successfully! I think the children got it; how we adults need to revisit it!

If we could live our lives with the kind of full acceptance of others that the Altar Boyz sing about in this song, we could live by the Golden Rule, and we could thereby come dramatically closer to living according to Jesus example. Thats what the Christian calling was originally all aboutnot to deify the amazing carpenter from Galilee, but to try to live like him. Sadly, across the centuries, in most branches of Christianity, the litmus test for determining who was and who was not a Christian came to be a series of doctrinal affirmations about Jesus with no provision for making orthopraxy even a part of seeing who was a follower of Jesus or not.

How ironic! Jesus gave no doctrinal exams. Instead, he tirelessly went to strugglers and fretted over how he could best minimize or alleviate suffering, and when he asked others to join him in his work there were no tests to take or ordination processes to get through. If you want to be a follower of Jesus, the verbal portion of your score will count very little; how well you actually, day by day, live like Jesus, thats the tell tale sign. It really does seem to me that if you believe in Jesus message enough to try to emulate it in care and concern for people who hurt and struggle then you believe enough of whatever it is anybody needs to believe.

 

Some of Jesus contemporaries were drowning in the sea of beliefs and rituals that were portrayed by their religious leaders as mandatory for anyone who was truly a child of God. Theyd heard that Jesus wanted to get away from the rules-based notion of religion, but surely they couldnt give up ALL the rules. Maybe some could be peeled away, but everything couldnt go, they thought.

They did a wise thing. They asked Jesus directly rather than speculating about what he might have thought. Mercy! Were they surprised at his response!

Jesus answered, Well, it all boils down to only a couple of things. That alone nearly threw these seekers into shock. They wanted a reduction in rules, but they couldnt believe Jesus would throw out of the hundreds on the list leaving only two, comprehensive though they may have been. That was overdoing it, they thought. But they had sought out Jesus for his opinion, and they got it. There arent hundreds of rules and rituals to keep; theyre arent even ten. There isnt a list of things you have to believe. What it all boils down to, said Jesus to the seekers, is loving God with your all and loving people around you as much as you love yourselves.


 

What about offering sacrifice?, they asked Jesus.


 

What about pain of the sick and dying?, he asked them.

What about Torah?, they asked him.


 

What about the poor people among ussome of whom are starving and most of whom have no shelter?, he asked back.


 

Love God with your all, and let the love God is always initiating overtake you until you cant help doing good things for othersthe neighbors you like and the foreigners you dont.

 

We all know, dont we, that individuals and institutions inevitably create an approved list for who we will care about, who we will minister to, who we will give the time of day. The list spit out by the Altar Boyz is comprehensive, though. Jesus could be singing right along with them because once his ministry had matured he truly cared for all and wasnt willing to leave any struggler off his list of people worth loving.

Some of the kinds of people on the list we heard from Broadway probably shocked us. Ive heard the song many times by now, and Im still shocked when I hear the blatant reminder that God loves prostitutes (and their pimps too!). God loves all the murderers on death row (and those who went free on technicalities!).

You know, this kind of radical love for others when its sung about should also remind all the people on the list who arent made to feel loved in most societies in todays world that they are loved by God anyway. It doesnt matter!


 

    
 


 


 


 

    Jesus Called Me on My Cell Phone!


 

[Matt]

Looking outside of my window

Watching the world passing by

Feeling so terribly lonely

Wanting to sit down and cry

Suddenly I felt a presence

Ending my deep dark fears

There was this heavenly sound

Of something ringing in my ears

 

Jesus called me on my cell phone (Jesus called me on my cell phone)

No roaming charges were incurred (ooooo)

He told me that I should go out in the world

And (ahh) spread his glorious word (word)


 

[Mark]

Walking the streets of the city

Feeling such feelings of strife

Leaving my friends all behind me

Running away from my life

Suddenly I felt a presence

I got a second chance

There was this vibrating feeling

On the belt-loop of my pants

Jesus paged me on my beeper (Jesus paged me on my beeper)

He called from heaven up above (ooooo)

He said I should go to the ends of the Earth (ahhh)

And spread his glorious love (love)

OOohOooOh


 

[Abe]

Im losing your signal, Lord

Can you try your call again?

Please Lord, Im a losing ya

Im a going in a tunnel and I cant see the light!


 

[All]

Jesus


 

 

[Luke]

Called me on my cell phone (dialing his Nokia he called me on the phone)

The clearest voice I ever heard yeah

He beeped me! (He beeped me)

He faxed me! (He faxed me)

He emailed my soul!

And said (and said)Till the day I'm dead (till the day Im dead)

That I must spread his glorious word. (word)


 


 


 


 

I loved this one. I thought I was going to have to be carried out of the theater for sure. Im glad I had caught onto the parody element of the production by this point!

Plenty of people who believe they are in good with God, in TIGHT with God, claim to have heard God speaking to them audibly and through all sorts of objects and circumstances. Most basically, those who believe that God speaks directly to human beings giving them specific instructions about how to cope or what step to take or what numbers to pick for Lotto almost constantly attribute to God practically any thought that passes through their minds or any impulse that pushes them to take any kind of action.


 

  • I was in Barnes and Noble the other day, looking for a book to read on vacation, and the Lord led me to romance section, one woman explained. I carried several of the paperbacks over to the coffee section and glanced though a bunch of them while I sipped my latte. Suddenly, I heard God speaking to me right there not five feet from the frappacino machine. God said, `Put more romance back into your marriage. Hallelujah! It was the voice of God! I just know it was!
  •  
  • Someone else says, God has spoken to me and told me that we must go to war. Gods words were unmistakably clear. Not to go would be a violation of Gods divine plan.
  • How many murders have been committed by mentally ill people who believe that God spoke to them, giving them specific, step-by-step instructions about how to kill someone or someoneseven their own children, for example?


 

I dont believe that God speaks audibly to human beings, and I dont think God ever has. I dont think Abraham heard an audible voice telling him that he and Sarah would be the parents of hoards and generations of people. I dont believe Moses really heard an audible voice at the burning bush. I dont believe that Saul who came to be called Paul heard an audible voice chastising him for persecuting Christians, and I dont believe that Jesus heard an audible voice at his baptism telling those gathered to celebrate the baptism with him, This is my beloved son in whom I am well pleased.

I do, however, believe that the presence, the spirit of God lures us to understanding and to acts of wholeness for ourselves and ministry to others. Im pretty sure God isnt telling our roofers which shingles to use on our roof repair, but Im pretty sure God is luring us to keep at these outreach ministries, which have defined this congregation for most or all of its 170-year life.

I was telling the Thursday night crowd about the floral arrangement that was delivered to the funeral home in Knoxville when my grandmother died back around 1970 or so. I was sixteenish and neither theologically sophisticated nor informed. I didnt know much, but I knew there was something wrong with that floral piece even though it had been sent my some well-meaning soul. Beside some pretty, fresh flowers on a piece of rectangular Styrofoam covered with fabric, there was a childrens plastic play telephone. The receiver was off the hook, and in big gold, shiny metallic letters the message was spelled out: Jesus Called.

 

That was a popular sentiment, and that flower idea made some of the florists lots of money. I know because my Dad was a deacon in our large country church so I often went to the funeral home with him when he called on a family whod lost a loved one. Since I was going to be a preacher when I grew up and had been preaching since I was fourteen, it was regarded in the Beaver Dam Baptist Church in Halls Crossroads as a good thing for me to be around death as much as possible.

Anyway, I began to see the arrangements everywhereevery time Dad and I went into a funeral home. I felt like the only person in Halls and maybe all of Knoxville who didnt believe that tragic death and uncontrollable pain were Gods ways of calling people out of this world and into the next.

I love the reflective reading today from the book of First Kings. Elijah is having a bad time, and hes angry at God for not protecting him from his enemies. Elijah physically runs away from where his life is in danger, and he gets himself out into the middle of no where and hides in a cave. Hes so down in the dumps that about all he can manage to do is sleep.

When he is alert, he gets angrier at God by the moment because God hasnt come to pat him on the back for being a good prophet under duress, and God hasnt spoken a word to him to encourage him in his struggle; at least, he hasnt heard God. Considering what all the drama hed been through, he expected God to speak to him in huge, dramatic waysthrough high winds and earthquakes and brush fires and other disturbances of nature and through his cell phone. Yet, every time Elijah heard or saw one of those, Gods voice was no where to be heard.

 

Finally, Elijah heard nothing from his cave except sheer silence. The sounds on the mountain he was used to and the disturbances didnt surprise or distress him, but when there was utter silence he went out of his cave to see what in the world was going on. And in that silence, the message from God came to him.

Elijah heard in the silence what the Altar Boyz managed to hear over their cell phones, pagers, faxes, and emails: share Gods love. They made their point, but we should laugh with them about that and, in real life, be prepared to wait for the silence and in the silence to get Gods word for us.

Amen.

Sunday, June 18, 2006

Sermon from June 18, 2006

    SILVERSIDE SERMONS


 

    David Albert Farmer, Ph.D.

    Pastor, Silverside Church

    Wilmington, Delaware


 

    Wilmingtons Progressive Christian Congregation

    www.silversidechurch.org


 


 

    Sermon Series Summer 2006

    God on Broadway:

    Thoughts About God from the Musical Stage


 

    June 18, 2006 Sermon #7

    The Impossible Dream

    Man of La Mancha


 

    In Gratitude to Mona Bond


 


 

    I.

 

The musical, Man of La Mancha, is based on an adaptation of Miguel de Cervantes satirical novel, Don Quixote de la Mancha. Cervantesan aging and unsuccessful playwright, poet, and tax collector as well as an impoverished lower noblehas offended the church-controlled state and is, therefore, brought to Seville and imprisoned until he can be tried by the Spanish Inquisition for his offense: mocking the government in one of his plays. His faithful, manservant, Sancho Panza, joins in his imprisonment.

His fellow prisoners seem to be mostly thieves and prostitutes. They become immediately intent on stealing everything they can from him. All he is really concerned with saving is his current work in progressa play about a delusional knight, Don Quixote. He decides that he can change their minds about keeping his manuscript he encourages them to join him in a role play of the works contents. They become a court, and he, with the help of his servant and some members of the court, acts out the saga of Don Quixote.

So, Cervantes plays the part of the deluded knight, and Panza takes the role of the knights loyal and attentive squire. The two characters, within the confines of the dreary dungeon, go out into the world on make-believe horses to restore chivalry as they battle the worlds many evils and right these wrongs.

They soon encounter monstrous giants. Quixote bravely rides forth to slay them. They prevail against him, and he attributes the loss to the interference of his arch enemy, the evil Enchanter, whom he knows that he will meet in mortal combat some day. In reality, as Panza points out, those giants were actually windmills.

Next, the two men happen upon a roadside inn. Quixote believes that its a castle. Entering the inn, he sees Aldonza, the serving girl-who moonlights as a prostitute, as a beautiful lady and the love of his life, the woman he had waited all these years to meet. He will dedicate all his brave undertakings henceforth to her. He names her Dulcinea and sings a great love song to her.


 

 

I have dreamed thee too long,

Never seen thee or touched thee.

But known thee with all of my heart.

Half a prayer, half a song,

Thou hast always been with me,

Though we have been always apart

(this and all quotes lyrics in this sermon from the musical,

Man of La Mancha).


 

Aldonza is infuriated that Quixote refuses to see who she is and what she is in reality.

In time a barber arrives at the inn/castle, and when Quixote spies the barbers water basin, he believes that his helmet, the golden helmet of Mambrino, has miraculously found its way back to him. Theres a ceremonious helmeting event that even the barber is caught up in.

Quixote is now ready for the formalizing of his knighthood. The innkeeper is the representative of royalty who will do the dubbing. As he waits, Aldonza/Dulcinea interrogates him about his irrational and ridiculous ways. He responds by telling her his credo, his motto for living, and it is the beautiful, challenging, inspirational song, Impossible Dream, also called The Quest. We will hear that sung in a few moments, and the core of that song will provide us our focus for our spiritual and practical reflections for today.

I could not preach a sermon about this song without remembering the soloist who first sang it in a church setting in my own hearing. Her name is Mona Bond. She is an amazingly gifted mezzo-soprano and, without even a close contender, my favorite singer in all the world. Mona was the alto soloist at St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans for many years including all five years of my tenure there. In addition to her work with the church, she is a professor of voice at Loyola University and one of my dear friends.

 

For many years, when Dr. G. Avery Lee, my predecessor, was the pastor of the church, Mona sang this song once per year when Avery would preach his sermon also entitled The Impossible Dream. The beginnings of this practice were tragic, actually. Averys wife, Ann, had died after long years of struggling with cancer of the nose and face that took all her facial features and her vision before taking her life. In part to honor Anns courage in the face of such a debilitating and disfiguring disease and in part to state his intent to go on living despite his loss, his sermon and Monas song became annual events, and those who loved Ann and Avery never tired of hearing the sermon and certainly of hearing Monas rendition of the song that could and should well become the credo for all people who have to find a way to live with adversity and who establish as nonnegotiable the fact that they will not stop living because of lifes losses, injustices, and other tragedies.

I believe that we have always had a handful of individual Quixotes in our world. Thank goodness for that! What I think we lack and have always had too few of are group and institutional Quixotes. Institutions for the most part come around to voicing the lyrics of power and popularity sung to the tune of self-interest.


 

To dream the expedient dream

To stoop to unspeakable lows

To thrive, tacitly blessing the wrong

To fight only our selfish foes... (not from the musical!).


 

You know the rest.

The amazing thing about Quixotes song, sung to his Dulcinea, is that for a moment, for a brief unexpected, unexplained, unwelcome instant, she buys into his hope. She buys into his dream. She buys into his reality.

 

Tragically, as always seems to happen to Quixote himself, when she tries to live by his optimism and determination to do good, she is defeated. In this case, Aldonza is beaten and raped by some of her fellow inmates while Knight Quixote and Squire Panza are away from the inn/castlethemselves being robbed of all their possessions by a band of roving thieves.

Upon their return, they find Aldonza hurting physically and emotionally. She has lost her fervor for changing the world, and she sings a song of denunciation of Quixotes once-stirring impossible dream.

On the heels of this great sadness for Quixote, the Enchanter makes an appearance as the Knight of Mirrors. He defeats Quixote and adding insult to injury forces him to see that he, Quixote, is a pathetic, old, deluded, laughable joke of a human being.

Next we see old Cervantes back at home, defeated and dying. Aldonza, of all people, finds him and is heart-broken. She cant bear to see him as he is, and she cannot bear to be without at least the memory of the hope he once gave hereven if it was short lived. She pleads with him to rememberto remember who she was and who he believed her to be, to remember what he had lived for, refusing to give up his dream even when he faced defeat upon defeat. Her pleas stir him to remember, and he rises to restate his dream once more before collapsing into Aldonzas arms where he dies.

The prisoners having seen Cervantes and Panzas drama are deeply moved. They return the manuscript to him and sing him off with their support as he is taken to his real trial before the Spanish Inquisition. There is much more to say, but for now let us leave it at this: we must never diminish the power of a dream for a better world.


 


 


 


 

    II.


 

The book of Revelation was known before the year 96. Things were very bleak for Christians living under the rule of the Roman Empirewhich would have been most Christians in the world at that time; the Roman Empire was huge in its reach. Matters were also bleak for Christianity as a religious movement. It was still in its infancyless than seventy years old at mostmaybe much younger depending on when the actual break from Judaism actually occurred, leaving Christianity no longer a Jewish sect but its own independent entity. Some scholars would not date the beginnings of Christianity as a separate religious movement before the year 60, meaning thatin that caseChristianity as a branch of monotheism wasnt more than thirtysomething when the horrors surrounding the composition of the book of Revelation were happening.

Any way we slice it, though, the religion was in danger, from all indications to insiders, of being eradicated from the face of the earthdestroyed in its infancy by an especially vicious Emperor named Domitian. He was not the first Roman Emperor to hate Christians, but no leader had hated them more than he.

Domitian was one of the Emperors who had claimed divinity for himself and taken that designation with utter seriousness. He believed, as had several of his predecessors, himself to be a living god. A good polytheist, he didnt think he was the only god, but he expected to be treated with the same honors and obeisance that any of the other goddesses and gods deserved and demanded.

 

What this meant in pragmatic terms for Jews and Christians during most of the last fifteen years of the first Christian century was Domitians complete willingness to allow them to worship their God as long as they also worshiped him in the approved ways throughout the vast Roman Empire. Though Baptists wouldnt show up on historys stage for another 1500 years, Domitian anticipated one of their distinctive practices in order to make sure everyone within the Empire worshiped him appropriately: he appointed a committee. The Emperor Worship Committee was as powerful as Homeland Security and the FBI combined. They had spies and monitors and proctors and eves-dropping laws so that Roman citizens along with the Empires captured subjects could be kept up with.

Functionally speaking, what Domitian asked of the non-divines over whom he ruled with absolute power was very simple. At certain, established times of day or week, sounds were made throughout the Empire calling all people within the Empire to worship their Emperor-god, Domitian. The simple rule was, if you fell face down before one of the many idols of Domitian erected throughout the Empire, you were OK; if you didnt, you were in trouble, and I mean serious trouble.

If the Emperor Worship Committee reported you as refusing to worship the Emperor, a host of measures could be taken against youranging from imprisonment to torture to death, typically by gruesome execution. According to legend, one of the ways Domitian enjoyed using Christians whod received the death penalty for refusing to acknowledge his divinity was to run stakes through their bodies and have those stakes placed around his outdoor eating area where the bodies would be set on fire to provide light for his guests joining him for dinner.

 

Very few Christians had families untouched by the Emperor Worship Committee and the cruelty of the Emperor himself. As more and more Christians died, it began to seem to them not only that their religion was being destroyed as loved one after loved one disappeared or died, but also that the whole world was coming to any end. They believed that in the face of such radical evil the world itselfeven the earth as they pictured itcould not survive. Their world, THE WORLD, must be coming to an end. Surely, if through no other means, God would not tolerate such evil and, as in the days of Noah, would have to destroy most of what had been created in order to eradicate evil from what had been intended as such a good thing. Some of you have lived through several wars and rumors of wars in which you had to wonder if the world could survive what was happening and what it could lead to.

I take the time to tell you this because the book of Revelation (always singular!) faces the reality of the prevalence of evil in the world and yet dreams of a better time. The evil isnt portrayed as anything less than evil. The prevalence of evil isnt treated as an overstated perspective by fanatical doomsayers; it, indeed, is widespread, and the writings of Revelation make no bones about how bad things really are. YET, some of the most hopeful images in all of scripture, yea in all of world literature, are to be found in its carefully crafted symbols.

In the end, so to speak, there is no more hopeful book in Judeo-Christian scripture than the book of Revelation. It is not the most chilling book imaginable if not read in toto. Taking segments out of context can leave one scared to death, which is why fundamentalist preachers and opportunist writers like Tim Lahaye have become rich off their literalizing of the symbols of the book of Revelation.

John, the seer, who sees all of these grotesque and wondrous images recorded in what he called The Apocalypse, The Unveiling, in a dream/vision, didnt think for a second that anything he ended up writing about from his dream was literal in his time or would be literal at some future time beyond. As a matter of fact, Johnlike most of the biblical prophets in whose company I would place him if he were, indeed, an historical personwas concerned with his own time and the immediate future, not some far-future time and place completely unknown to him.

 

Speaking of symbols in the book of Revelation, did you realize on June 6 that you were living through the most evil day on the current calendar since the year June 6, 1006? If not, I should have told you! Ill tell you now, and just be thankful the world didnt end as the Revelation literalists predicted it would.

What do June 6 in the year 6, June 6, 1006, and June 6, 2006, have in common? Well, if youre willing to wink at a troublesome zero or two, you can construe that all three of these could be designated as 6-6-6 (VI-VI-VI!). Youre supposed to shudder when you see three sixes in a row; at least you were in Johns day.

EverythingEVERY THINGin the book of Revelation is a symbol. Nothing is literal on the surface. Numbers, colors, animals, soundsyou name it! Symbols. Symbols are supposed to point to truths and ideas, but in themselvesby definitionthey are not literal. They are not that to which they point. For example, the jackass is a symbol in American journalism for a Democrat, and we all know that Democrats arent literally jackasses! (Maybe that wasnt the best illustration!)

In the book of Revelation, the number 7 is the perfect number. The number 6 falls short of perfect and means that something is missing; something is wrong. If one were to put three of those sixes togetherside by side, she or he would have created a symbol for evil. Imperfection tripled in this mannernot by multiplication in this instanceyields, leads to evil.

 

Well, if one ignores the fact that John knew nothing about the calendar by which we live today; and if we ignore the fact that the calendar by which we live today is off by about six years because of a medieval monks error in calculating the date of Jesus birth so that its actually just now Y2K not 2006; and if we believe that were supposed to literalize what John used merely as a symbol, then we have a great case for the fact that every 1000 years after Jesus miscalculated sixth birthday party, evil will utterly overtake the whole world.


 

Heres a little something from Denver on the subject:


 

There's absolutely no evidence that anything at all dramatically violent or otherwise unusual will take place on June 6, 2006, but the Denver police are being vigilant anyway.... [They] are trying to anticipate other people being kooky in developing some kind of numerological apocalyptic plot. Even if that's the case, though, such a threat requires a series of misunderstandings. First, there have to be [those] who really have the literal belief that something related to the number 666 will bring about the End Times, or the ascension of The Beast....Then, [they] have to ignore that clear fact that the year is not six. It's two thousand and six. There are three digits that come before the six. So, numerologically, there is no 666. If anything, it's 662006. Is that the zip code of the Beast? Finally...[because of calendar errors] if Satan comes to rule the Earth on June 6, 2006, then hes either late or early (http://www.irregulartimes.com/666date.html).


 


 


 


 

    III.


 

 

John, whose often wild visions that make up the book of Revelation, saw hope and wholeness against the backdrop of destruction and despair. How in the world could the following come from someone who was watching his world fall apart and who himself was in prison, awaiting probable execution, because of his refusal to bow down before one of Domitians statues when the gong or the trumpet sounded?


 

 

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, Salvation belongs to our God [not Domitian!], to our [one and only] God, who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb! And all the angels stood around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne [not before Domitians statue!] and worshiped God, singing, Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God for ever and ever! Amen. Then one of the elders addressed me, saying, Who are these, robed in white, and where have they come from? I said to him, Sir, you are the one that knows. Then he said to me, These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb [that is Jesus who was the first martyr for this new twist on monotheistic thinking]. For this reason they are before the throne of God, and worship the Lord day and night within Gods temple, and the one who is seated on the throne will shelter them. They will hunger no more, and thirst no more; the sun will not strike them, nor any scorching heat; for the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of the water of life, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes (Rev 7:8-154 NRSV, adapted).


 

Sometimes, the world makes us feel that hoping for much within it isnt a great bet, isnt worthy of the energy required to hope against hope, and most of us are among the most privileged group in the world in terms of financial means and political freedom. If the world seems bleak to us at times, hopeless and unfriendly even, how much more for those who never live a day without struggle for basics and without fearful confrontations of some sort!

In Johns vision of what might happen in the next short while to him and his people, he didnt see an unending run of Domitians madnessnot by any means! That alone was astounding. He didnt look into the short-term future and see much of Domitian period! Certainly not everything he saw was rosy and happy, but in the end his dream led him to believe that evil on earth wouldnt have the last word!

I want you to understand that Im not suggesting God gave John this predictive dream that was or is a blueprint about anything exact. Im not even sure there was a John who in real life had a dream and was imprisoned for his refusal to worship Emperor Domitian. There has long been some strong evidence that the book of Revelation was originally performed as a drama in seven acts. (Remember, 7 is the perfect number in the books numerology!) If it is the case that the book of Revelation was a performance drama before it was a literary piece to be read, there are several possible problems that are immediately settled.


 

 

  • The most significant of these is: how could Christians write and circulate a document trashing Rome and the Roman Empire even with symbols? The way I was taught, that problem was settled because the Romans werent able to understand the symbols. To some degree, that had to have been at least partly true, but if the Romans could have gotten a hold of a copy of the document, they most certainly would have worked with their scholars until they figured out enough about it to know that they, Rome, were getting trashed, that they were the bad folk, and that they were going to be trounced in the end. We know good and well that the Romans would have reviewed and/or confiscated any written documents that the Christians were passing around and found a way to understandso the notion that this subversive text was widely published and read but consistently misunderstood by the Romans is a perspective with lots of holes in it.
  • Theres something more, though. We know that there were very few copies of any document at that time; even if there were, say, several of these making the rounds, most people couldnt have read one and would never have known about the hope the composition offered. A drama, a performance, settles this issue too. Anybody could watch a play and get at least a part of a message, and since the dramatic tradition at that time for the Greek and Roman worlds was for a handful of actors to perform several roles, this play could have been acted out most any where and to groups small enough not to have the Romans snooping around any more than they did already under Domitians rule.
  •  
  • Finally, as to problems with the traditional ways the book of Revelation has been interpreted, if the lines to the great play, the play of a faithful preacher having a symbolic vision that would have made sense to the Jews but not to the Romans, if these lines were only in the heads of the actors and the piece were performed first and only later put into writing, Romes spies and scholars would move much more slowly in their ability to interpret what Johns vision revealednamely that Rome wouldnt win, that evil would not have the upper hand over good when all was said and done, and that those who had suffered at Romes hand their gruesome and humiliating deaths were already in a better and brighter world where they were treated as conquerors, not as criminals!


 

One of the fascinating facts that occurred to me as I prepared this sermon for today was what Keith Powell told us last week about the play, The Island, which many of us saw at the Contemporary Stage Company on June 9. While apartheid prevailed in South Africa, Athol Fugard had this play came into his creative consciousness, but he couldnt write it down. Had he written it down, he would have been found guilty of treason with a document in the states hand to prove its point. Fugold would have ended up on Robben Island with Mandella! Thus, the play was at first unwritten, a performance play only. Only later, when it was safe or safer did Fugard write it down. Exactly the same thing could have happened with the book of Revelation too!


 

Back to the content of the book of Revelation and the dream of John. How encouraging and comforting to the families of those who had been executed by evil incarnate, Domitian, that their loved ones would forever more be sheltered by Godplenty to eat, plenty to drink, and a comfortable place to commune with God forever more. What a dream!

If John, a powerful character whether real or fictitious, is in prison on the Isle of Patmos, expecting to go to his execution every time he hears a guard walking his way, can allow such a glorious and hopeful vision to take shape in his consciousness (maybe in his subconscious mind first), how much more should we be able to dream great dreams?

 

To dream the impossible dream

To fight the unbeatable foe

To bear with unbearable sorrow

To run where the brave dare not go


 

To right the unrightable wrong

To love pure and chaste from afar

To try when your arms are too weary

To reach the unreachable star


 

And the world will be better for this

That one man, scorned and covered with scars

Still strove with his last ounce of courage

To reach the unreachable star


 

What happens if we who in the present world and who have more reason to hope than any people in the world as it is and more ways to eradicate or weaken evil IF WE WOULD, what happens if we let ourselves stop dreaming impossible dreams?

Ill tell you what! Then the world goes to hell in a handbasket! Then Domitians and Hitlers and ben Ladens prevail unchecked and unopposed! And not only will evil get a stronger hold than it already has, but also there would be no other advances for the betterment of humankind!

I asked some of my friends and some of you, my parishioners, to answer one of two questions: 1) What would not have happened in this world had someone failed to do some serious dreaming of impossible dreams? 2) What seeming impossibility might become possible if enough people let themselves dream impossible dreams?


 

 

  • Our TRU-DEE Burrell said that without impossible dreams, the human family is going to keep on believing that world peace may come through outward means, while the reality is that until people are changed from within, changed spiritually, there will be no peace.
  • My friend, Marcus Foster, a military nurse who has worshiped with us recently, said that without big dreams, the world hunger issue will never be settled because of peoples selfishness and the reality of power abuse.
  • My friend, Troy Holden, who is an equine surgeon, said there would be no internet and therefore no way for him to have the latest information treating and caring for animals. He said that those vets who advise in matters of public health would be critically hampered in their access to information that could help save human lives in the face of such threats as bird flu.
  • Our Else Miller said that only dreaming impossible dreams led to the new norm in the US and some other parts of the world where lots of folks are still able to be healthy and active into their eighties and beyond! Bob Miller pointed out that only dreaming dreams will lead to control of global warming.
  • Others of you didnt read your email!


 

We must not stop dreaming. Dreaming is a part of our calling. If we stop dreaming with God, human suffering and relentless injustice will prevail!


 

This is my quest

To follow that star

No matter how hopeless

No matter how far


 

 

To fight for the right

Without question or pause

To be willing to march into Hell

For a heavenly cause.


 

Amen.


 


 


 

© Copyright, Silverside Church, Wilmington, DE, June 18, 2006

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Sermon for June 11, 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


 

June 11, 2006 Sermon #6

“Bring Him Back”

Les Miserables


 


 

I.

    The musical, “Les Miserables,” is based on Victor Hugo’s expansive novel of the same title. Set in an unsettled age in France, it’s hard to think of any major, classic literary theme that isn’t at least addressed. Certainly the tension between good and evil runs throughout the plot, but, more than simply juxtaposing the two, Hugo wants to have us understand not only that good can challenge and counteract evil, but also that, at times, good redeems evil and the evil doer. A subplot, it seems to me, deals with the question, “What is true evil?”     

    It is a highly theological piece, and God is clearly the God of grace and redemption. Some of the characters become embodiments of such divine attributes–notably the central character, Jean Valjean. And the message is clearer than clear that anyone who experiences good and grace is responsible for passing it along to the next person, to the next generation. If good comes to you, you are not to be the final link in the chain.

    There’s a hint of Greek tragedy in the story in the sense that punishments may severely outweigh the crimes. That’s really how the story gets started, as a matter of fact.

    Valjean as a young man in poverty steals a portion of bread in order to keep his family and himself from starving to death. He is apprehended and sentenced to prison with hard labor for an extended term–nearly twenty years. He grows angrier by the day in that prison. Resentment and hatred swell within him, and we certainly understand why.

    When he is finally released, he commits what is regarded as a more serious crime. Unable to find lodging because he is a former convict on parole, he is taken in by Bishop Muriel.

    As the bishop sleeps, Valjean steals some silver pieces and makes a run for it. He is caught by the police. It turns out that this bishop is a close friend and confidant of none other than Napoleon; he could have made Valjean’s life even more hellish than it already had been! But here we see the first great act of grace in the story. The bishop covers for Valjean, twisting the truth by saying that the silver pieces were gifts; this gets the authorities off Valjean’s back.

    Valjean has no idea how to react to such kindness. He would have known what to do with more punitive measures from individuals and institutions, but he had no idea what to do with living kindness and grace. Well, the bishop being a clergy-type tells him–which here is a good thing. (I wouldn’t go so far as to say that everything clergypersons tell people to do is good by any means!!!)

    I am going to laugh and cry many times throughout the play, but I am gripped early on by Valjean’s confessional song and the offended bishop’s ever-so-brief song of absolution and challenge, which without a doubt begins shaping Valjean into the embodiment of grace in a society, in a world, of evil upon evil. One act of grace, one act of kindness reshaped and redirected a man who could have been lost to angry criminal acts for the rest of his lifetime.

    This is part of what Valjean sings when he realizes how his life

has been changed by the bishop’s grace:

...why did I allow that manTo touch my soul and teach me love?He treated me like any otherHe gave me his trustHe called me brother

My life he claims for God aboveCan such things be?For I had come to hate the worldThis world that always hated me.One word from him and I'd be backBeneath the lash, upon the rackInstead he offers me my freedomI feel my shame inside me like a knifeHe told me that I have a soul,How does he know?What spirit comes to move my life?Is there another way to go?I am reaching, but I fall

And the night is closing inAnd I stare into the voidTo the whirlpool of my sin

I'll escape now from the worldFrom the world of Jean ValjeanJean Valjean is nothing nowAnother story must begin!And this is what the priest sings in response to what amounts

to Valjean’s confession:

But remember this, my brotherSee in this some higher planYou must use this precious silverTo become an honest man

By the witness of the martyrsBy the Passion and the BloodGod has raised you out of darknessI have bought your soul for God!

(these and all lyrics quoted in this sermon from “Les Miserables,” the musical).


 

    Valjean has no concept of how he can do good deeds as long as he is perceived by his society as nothing more than an ex-convict on parole–always under the watchful eye of the state’s representative, Inspector Jarvert, who is always around somehow just waiting for him to make any little slip up. Eventually, Valjean breaks his parole, runs away, and assumes a new identity. But he does not take on this new identity in order to do evil deeds; instead, he has to do this in order to do the good to which he knows he has been called.

    One of Valjean’s own great acts of grace, the type he will be performing for the rest of his life, is his rescue of young Marius who is seriously injured by establishment forces in the 1832 Student Uprising. Marius has recently fallen in love with a young lady whom Valjean has raised as his own daughter since her mother had died while she, Cossette, was still a little girl. The love Marius feels for her, “A Heart Full of Love,” is clearly reciprocated.

    Valjean is happy for his “adopted” daughter, and when he learns that Marius will participate in the student revolt he joins in as well, in order to try to protect Marius from harm. In the conflict, Inspector Javert, who has made it his life’s work to find and re-arrest Valjean ever since the broken parole, is on the verge of losing his life. He is saved by Valjean when the angry students could have killed Javert. Valjean could have taken delight in seeing Javert suffer and die, but instead–man of grace that he has become–he saves Javert’s life.

    Javert has no idea what to do with grace; all he knows is how to make, keep, and enforce rules and laws. In the face of grace–which is unmerited favor–Javert takes his own life.

    Valjean is mortified when he sees that Marius has been injured in the revolutionary conflict. He heroically rescues Marius, and in order to escape notice of the military and the police, he has to carry Marius away from the battle scene through the sewer system of Paris. In a very moving prayer, which you will hear sung in a few moments, Valjean prays that God will preserve the life of the seriously-injured Marius. Unconscious, Marius has no idea who rescued him, and–tragically–he will eventually turn against Valjean for lies he has been led to believe. That is another story or sermon.

    All we can focus on here is Valjean’s act of grace toward Marius, the affection he felt toward the man with whom his “adopted” daughter was in love, and how he–Valjean–wanted to pass on to the next generation, particularly to Cossette and Marius, the grace he had known. What truly impacts us for the good, we cannot keep to ourselves anyway.


 


 


 


 

II.


 

    What caught you most about Valjean’s prayer for Marius?


 

God on highHear my prayerIn my needYou have always been there


 

Valjean understands that in all the reversals of fortune through which he had lived, God is the source of his various salvations.

    This is a sweet and sentimental as well as a potentially destructive notion. He is correct in assuming that God is with us in our times of struggle and crisis and need, but he’s not on target in assuming that God wills for some to escape the pains of life while willing for others to suffer and endure them. It is not God’s will that any should suffer. If we suffer, in fact, God’s will is violated. That was never God’s plan. If we suffer, we bring that on ourselves, OR we are innocent bystanders hit with the results of someone else’s evil or some random, sad circumstance that is truly nobody’s fault–a hurricane, going hunting with unnamed but armed political leaders, for example.

    Valjean, also, is still looking upwards to connect with God’s presence instead of looking within himself where the presence of God truly dwells for all of us. We would want to introduce him to Shug Avery, who knows this truth and who is probably performing just down Broadway somewhere. Even so, Valjean is praying for someone about whom he cares deeply, and there is nothing more natural or more appropriate than that. It’s just that we should thank God for already acting in ways to enrich our lives and lure us and others to wholeness; we don’t and we shouldn’t try to talk God into doing something we portray as an act God would just as soon not be bothered with.

    Back to Valjean’s prayer for Marius.

He is youngHe’s afraidLet him restHeaven blessed.

Bring him home.He’s like the son I might have knownIf God had granted me a son.The summers dieOne by oneHow soon they flyOn and onAnd I am oldAnd will be gone.

Valjean probably won’t have his own biological son by this point in his life. But, Marius may marry the young woman whom he, Valjean, has raised as his own, and he sees that Marius could become like a son to him as a result of this union; that will be a great gift.

Bring him peaceBring him joyHe is youngHe is only a boy


 

And, after all, why should our children die in needless battles–in the case of Marius, at the hands of his own countrymen! Valjean continues to pray and to plead:


 

You can takeYou can giveLet him beLet him live


 

Valjean is this wonderful character–a Christ-figure even. He does good deeds as far and as wide as he can–even for those who hate him. He makes sacrifices for the well-being of others and often suffers for his trouble.

    Sadly, though, he never stops seeing every act, ultimately, as God’s act. That is an awful place to be theologically and, in my mind, psychologically.


 

  • Every sorrow, every loss, every tragedy–acts of God.
  • Hurricanes, floods, pestilences, plagues–acts of God.
  • Failed relationships, sickness, hardship, dark nights of the soul–acts of God.


 


 

God had not willed or allowed Marius to be wounded. God had not willed the student rebellion, nor had God willed the suppression of peasants and the non-aristocracy by haughty and heartless power mongers. Before Valjean ever uttered a prayerful word, God’s power was already pulling Marius back to whatever health his body would permit to be restored after its injuries.

    If God bargained and traded life for life, which thankfully is not the case, Valjean would even have traded his life for Marius’s:


 

If I die, let me dieLet him liveBring him home.


 

    Remember how it’s supposed to work in “Les Mis”: an act of grace is supposed to lead the beneficiary of the act to, herself or himself, become a catalyst for other acts of grace in the world. Thus, if Marius does live after all, he should keep the good deeds rolling along.

    I can tell you, if haven’t seen the show, which recently celebrated its twenty-sixth year of performances from Paris to London to Broadway, this isn’t how it happens–in part–because Marius lacks knowledge of who saved his life. There is only a brief opportunity at the end of Valjean’s earthly life for Marius to discover the truth and thank Valjean for what he did. They both realize that they have to look to the world beyond for all wrongs to be made right.

    In any case, we can learn tremendously more from Valjean as someone who wanted to “pass the grace” rather than as someone who can inform modern progressive Christians theologically, and that is the matter to which I’d like to turn our attention just now. This is the reason I asked that the moving and fascinating story about Elijah and Elisha be used as our reflective reading for today’s time of understanding.

    Elijah, generally remembered as Israel’s greatest prophet, the epitome of prophethood, is near the end of his career. Since the calling involved a for-life appointment, this also meant Elijah was near the end of his earthly life, as the story was told. In his case that didn’t mean death; it meant being whisked up to heaven in a whirlwind, and–of course–the whole culture thought heaven was located up there somewhere.

    At this critical time in his life, Elijah is keeping company with the man who has already been tapped to be his successor. The younger man, soon to take on a great spiritual and professional responsibility, had the name Elisha–or something like that. Be aware that “Elijah” and “Elisha” are English efforts to pronounce names that even if the two men were historic figures they wouldn’t know to answer to. Any “j” sound in English has been added in or adapted somewhere along the way. There were no “j” sounds in either Hebrew or Greek–which means that Elijah wasn’t that guy’s name; Jeremiah and Joel weren’t the names of another pair of famous prophets; and, oh yeah, there was never anybody in those cultures named “Jesus” with a “j”; at least, we know that Yeshua was a much closer approximation to his actual name. Most significantly, none of this matters a whip stitch, but we shouldn’t be afraid to acknowledge it!

    While I’m on this brief, but very relevant, detour, I must say that the Christian Church has typically done a great disservice to the powerful stories in Hebrew scripture by trying to historicize them as if they are of no value unless they all happened just the way they have come down to us from thousands of years ago.

    The truth is that many of the great stories of the Hebrew faith are not based on historical events, circumstances, or people. And they were never told to be historically accurate. They were always told, however, to offer some kind of commentary on God and to create realistic enough situations to cause original and subsequent hearers to have to think about potential issues and challenges in their own lives. Think about Jonah and the big fish story, for example. I’m having a whale of a time thinking of a single story Jesus told and passed down to us that was “true,” if “true” means historical.


 


 


 


 

III.


 

    Again, let me remind you that the reason the story of prophets matters to me, especially today, is that it is an incredibly powerful tale of passing along good from one person, from one generation to the next–Valjean’s hope for Marius. So, Elijah and Elisha are walking along–both knowing that Elijah will soon pass off the earthly scene.

    At some point, Elijah told Elisha to wait where he was, that God was sending him, Elijah, as far as Bethel, and Elisha says, in polished prophetic Hebrew: “NO WAY! I’m not about to leave you now!”

    Nearing Bethel, some of the resident prophets saw them coming and walked out to greet them. Some of them tried to pull Elisha away from Elijah a bit in order to prove how prophetic they were as a way of dealing with their jealousy that Elisha was to be the next Elijah. From all indications, as the story is told, Elijah is right there, but for some reason younger people often think that older people lose all hearing capacities and can’t hear other people talking about them even when they’re in the same room or area–as if the older person isn’t even there!

    Elisha says to the prophets looked over for the big promotion, “Sh-h-h-h-h-h! I already know what’s going on here!”

    Elijah told Elisha, “You know, I have the feeling that I’m supposed to go over to Jericho now.” So the two men headed to Jericho, and when they neared Jericho, the same thing happened. Some prophets came out and whispered about old Elijah as if he weren’t right there in their presence, “Today’s the day the old guy kicks the bucket or whatever God plans to do with him.”

    Elisha again responds with a, “Sh-h-h-h-h-h-h-h!” This is all very biblical, you know.

    Evidently proving the point that God’s great prophets remain receptive and responsive to God to the very end of their earthly sojourns, Elijah said to Elisha, “This isn’t the place either. I’m certain God is leading me now to go the Jordan River.” Elijah’s protests notwithstanding, Elisha was still with him every step of the way.

    As they neared the fabled river, fifty prophets in the area walked toward them, but unlike in the other two episodes, this time the local prophets kept their distance–positioned to witness one of God’s great displays of power as a reminder that those who are faithful to God are never forsaken even when their careers are over, even when they are at the end of their earthly days. Standing at the edge of the Jordan, Elijah slips off his mantle, his outer garment, and with the mantle he struck the waters of the Jordan River. The waters opened just as they had when Moses, with his staff, parted the Red Sea.

    The waters kept themselves parted until the two men had crossed to the other side, and then the waters came back together. Undoubtedly, this moving scene was in the minds of the African slaves on the southern American plantations when on their lips were the words to the spiritual: “On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand and cast a wishful eye to Canaan’s fair and happy land where my positions lie.” The fifty prophets were amazed, but that was only part of what would amaze them before their day had ended.

    Now, a beautifully intimate conversation between the older prophet at the very end of his earthly pathway and the young man who will take up the causes to which his elder had given his life.

    Elijah asks Elisha, “What may I do for you before I am taken up into God?” (The implication of his question was, “God just parted the waters of a mighty river through me so ASK BIG!”).

    In what I think may be one of the most beautiful responses to any question asked in Judeo-Christian scriptures, Elisha answers Elijah, “Give me a double measure of your spirit.” In other words, “Nothing magic. Nothing dramatic–just lots of whatever it is you have inside so that I have some shot at keeping alive all you’ve begun.”

    Elijah, probably not surprised by much at this point in his life, was surprised nonetheless, and he responded to Elisha by saying,


 

“You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces (2 Kings 2:10-12 NRSV).


 

What now? What next?

    Elijah is gone and so is everything tangible except his mantle, which–for some reason–floated back down to the ground as he was being taken up in the fiery chariots on his way to another realm. Elisha heads back to the shores of the Jordan, clutching the only remaining earthly vestige of the person who had given his life to powerful preaching in an effort to keep his people spiritually focused on the one true and living God.


 

  • A newly appointed judge receives the gavel from her or his wise, highly-respected, long-sitting predecessor. What now?
  • A stage actor takes up a role long-performed by a popular, exceptional performer and moves into the dressing room of the person whose fame was built in the role; she or he prepared night after night in that very room. What next?
  • A preacher steps into the pulpit behind which a prominent, gifted, beloved preacher had shaped her or his career along with the spiritual values of a whole city and beyond. Now what?


 

What do we do with what belonged to someone else before us, someone who made a substantial contribution, which falls into our hands as we try to fill the role she or he filled to perfection or near-perfection for most of a lifetime?

     Elisha has the mantle of Elijah cradled to his breast as he stands on the side of the Jordan River to which he had walked with Elijah on his last earthly movement from one place to another. Now the waters have closed back over the path on which they moved from one side of the Jordan to the other. Elisha had only asked for a double measure of the man’s spirit, not for any instructions or protocol advice. Deep, deep in thought and still being observed by the fifty prophets who wanted his job but didn’t get it, Elisha suddenly


 

...took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the Lord, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over (2 Kings 2:14 NRSV).


 

He was going to be able to carry on. He was going to be able to keep alive the prophetic passion of the one who had been concerned about what he–Elisha–would need to continue passing along the reality of God.

    The earthly goodbyes of Valjean and Marius weren’t nearly so glorious, but their final meeting was an opportunity for Marius to find out about all the goodness in which Valjean had been involved and to see himself continuing that until they all met again in the next world minus the chariots for transportation.

    So, my dear friends, what good things once passed along to us are we, as a faith community, passing on to the next generation? If it all stops here, I wouldn’t say we’re wasting our time by any means, but I would say we’re selfish and short-sighted. I don’t think that’s true of us, and I don’t want it to be!

    I borrowed the congregational response today from a fellow clergyperson whom I don’t know from Eve or Adam, but the thoughts are absolutely on target:


 

Like Elijah and like Jesus, people of faith are always passing along a legacy, a mandate for mission; casting a mantle; anointing someone to carry on in our stead. We all respond in some way to a call to ministry. We may struggle with the call, may want to run back and flirt with the past and its securities, but eventually we head out and do what we hope is God's work: loving and caring, rabble rousing, building and planting, being priest and prophet. Eventually, we pass the mantle along to others, becoming a channel for God’s seeking of them.


 

Perhaps, if we are truly fortunate–like Elijah and like Valjean–we may be able to gaze into the eyes of a person for whom we have prayed, the person who will now carry the good we were privileged to carry on a long journey, all the way to the far side of the Jordan.

    Amen.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Sermon from June 4, 2006

SILVERSIDE SERMONS


 

David Albert Farmer, Ph.D., Pastor,

Silverside Church

Wilmington, Delaware

www.silversidechurch.org


 


 

Sermon Series Summer 2006

God on Broadway: Thoughts About God from the Musical Stage


 

June 4, 2006 Sermon #5

“How Glory Goes”

Floyd Collins


 


 

I.


 

    Rewind your memory to January of this year. There was a mining tragedy in West Virginia. After an explosion, the small town and the nation waited breathlessly to hear the news of any possible survivors.


 

The storm kicked up sometime before dawn [on a Monday] sweeping across the scabbed mountains and bare winter woods with enough ferocity to jolt people awake in [that] Appalachian hamlet. County Commissioner Donnie Tenney felt his blue farmhouse rattle. Thunder, he thought. The phone roused him again. It was his sister. Someone from her prayer chain had told her there had been an explosion at the Sago Mine. Men were trapped. Six miles away in Buckhannon, Upshur County’s only incorporated town, tiny St. Joseph Hospital prepared for multiple casualties. At the small Baptist church down the muddy road from the mine, anxious families slowly gathered. Nineteen men had entered the coal mine that morning. Only six had escaped. The tiny hollow was soon a jumble of network satellite trucks, emergency vehicles and the black cars of state officials (washingtonpost.com).


 

I began holding my breath when I first heard the story hoping, hoping that all of the trapped men might escape. Many of you, all of you perhaps, did the same. How utterly terrifying for the miners! How overwhelmingly frightening for the friends and loved ones of those trapped miners who gathered and watched for, listened for even the slightest hints that all of the miners might soon be rescued.


 

    How could any of us ever forget the forty-four hours following the explosion that trapped the thirteen men? The Sago Baptist Church became a kind of command post. That is where the Red Cross showed up with such useful items as blankets and cots. Country people cook in crises; suddenly there were hams and fried chicken and potato salad and cakes and pies. Professional counselors and preachers made rounds among the family members who prayed and wept and hoped and prayed some more.


 

    The first twenty-four of those fateful forty-four hours, rescuers were making a passageway for drilling equipment they would need to bring the miners out. As they worked, the information they gave to mining officials that, in turn, was passed on to the media sources, was grim news indeed: the carbon monoxide levels within the mine were too high to allow for human survival. No one was surprised, therefore, when the body of one of the entrapped miners was discovered, and the hopes of all were dashed.


 

    A few hours later, the news reports changed radically. The word was that the other miners were alive! The families waiting in the Sago Baptist Church were told to prepare to greet their rescued loved ones there in the church. The excitement and celebration were boundless.


 

    The first survivor was brought out of the mine and rushed to the little St. Joseph Hospital that had made thorough and intense preparations to treat each of the twelve surviving men. At that point, the reports said the other eleven men were comatose, but eventually the families who had been told to rejoice and to line up to meet their loved ones were advised, instead, that the remaining eleven men were, in fact, dead.


 

    Do you remember sharing their sadness and shock? Do you recall the intense criticism of the mining administration AND the media?


 


 

    Eighty-one years before the tragic scene of which I have reminded you there was a parallel event about which some of you may know. I did not know, until I began to learn about the song on which our thoughts for today are based.


 

    In 1925, near Cave, City, Kentucky, a miner by the name of Floyd Collins was trapped in a mine. In Collins’s case, access was established almost immediately, and a very small man from the area, Skeets Miller, was actually able to slip in and out through a narrow opening to get food and water to Floyd and to bring out information from and about him to the media. A media circus instantly grew up around the little town.

    Collins’s rescue seemed certain–just a matter of time, patience, and ingenuity; yet, on the seventeenth day of his entrapment, when the needed rescue equipment finally reached him, he was found dead. No one could believe it.

    A book about this tragedy was published in 1979 under the title, Trapped! The Story of Floyd Collins. It was written
by Robert Murray and Robert Brucker. This very popular book became the basis for the Broadway musical, “Floyd Collins.” The playwright was Tina Landau, and the composer was Adam Guettel.

    It opened on Broadway in 1996 and won the Lortell award for outstanding musical that year; Christopher Innvar played Floyd. In 1999, the musical debuted in London. Next year, there will be a film version of the tragic story; Billy Bob Thornton will star as Floyd.

    The song on which we focus today is entitled, “How Glory Goes.” It’s the only song Floyd sings in the show. It’s the final song of the production. Floyd sings it shortly before he dies having come so close, from all indications, to having been rescued. For us today, the recording will be of Audra McDonald. I can assure you that she sounds nothing like the original Floyd or any of the men who have played him on stage, but her voice is stupendous; and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to let us hear her sing what for me is a very thoughtful and moving song from the Broadway stage.

    I’m quite certain that people who have a sense that their earthly end is near are much more likely to think about the next realm than are all of those people who run around in the world day after day as if mortality was not a reality. Yes, there are those who have written off the possibility of any life beyond this one, and perhaps they will not ponder what existence in the next realm might be like under any circumstances. We, of course, respect that perspective.

    Most people, though, will at least wonder at some point about what it could be like to dwell in a new mode of existence unlimited by constraints such as time and physical finiteness. And we will wonder together about that very thing as we worship today.


 


 


 

II.


 

    The English word, “glory,” has come to refer to several     realities related to God. It has been used in Judeo-Christian scriptures to refer to the brightness of God’s countenance, for example. It has also been connected to God’s eternality, and for that reason the word is sometimes referring to the next realm of existence as well.


 

    To illustrate the first usage, I refer you to the scripture passage you have heard read today from 1 Kings.


 

And when the priests came out of the holy place, a cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord. Then Solomon said, The Lord has said that [God Godself] would dwell in thick darkness. I have built you an exalted house, a place for you to dwell in for (1 Kings 8:10-13 NRSV).


 

This is only one of several references in scripture to the dazzling nature of God’s presence. In this case, the priests were nearly blinded by God’s blazingly bright presence in a cloud; it was so bright, they could barely see well enough to perform their priestly functions.


 

    In terms of “glory” referring to God’s eternality and, thus, also to “the place” where human beings may enjoy greater intimacy in a realm of timelessness, I refer you to Colossians, chapter one:


 

...God’s commission...was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to God’s saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory (Col 1:25-27 NRSV).


 

    Paul had the pivotal position of carrying a purely Jewish Christianity into the non-Jewish world of his day. The news that God loved non-Jews as much as God loved Jews was, for all practical purposes, the best kept theological secret in the world. It fell to Paul to point the non-Jewish world of his day to the truth, to unveil “the mystery,” and part of that mystery was the startling reality that Jewish Jesus was the hope for all humanity since he was the bearer of God’s good news for all people. Thus, he was and is the “hope of glory,” the messenger of the news that God’s love extends to all people and throughout all places, including the world to come.


 

    Human beings have always wondered about the temporal “limits” of their existence. If there is another realm, if there is a place where God’s glory permeates all beings and things, what is it like and what is it like to be there?


 

    Paul pondered the matter a great deal, and for me one of the most beautiful images he found to describe what he sensed was that of “completeness.” When he wrote to the Corinthian Christians, part of what he said was:


 

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known (1 Cor 13:8-12 NRSV).


 

But, can we get down to brass tacks? No. No, but that doesn’t keep us from wondering!


 

    The Gospel of John’s Jesus said life in the next realm was like a big ole house–not a mansion in the sense of opulence, but a big ole house like Jesus would have envisioned such structures with clay or stone walls and openings for windows and solid floors, several stories high; side by side with lots of similar constructions. What Jesus wanted to emphasize with his image was that there’d be room for everyone who wanted to be there. This is my paraphrase of Jesus’ words in that pivotal John 14 passage:


 

Dear ones, try not to let your hearts be troubled. Yes, it looks like my time on earth is rapidly coming to a close, but I still want you to have confidence both in God and in me–in God because God is love and life to us and in me because I’m telling you the truth. In God’s realm, there are loads of places to stay for folks who want to be there; no one is turned away, as a matter of fact. If this weren’t the case, I surely wouldn’t be talking about it so late in the game. When I get to the next place, I’ll be getting ready to greet you when you come to join with all those who have already gone before us. You can be in the same place I’m going.


 

Marilyn Romenesko told me that she knew when her mother died recently that her mother went right to heaven. That’s how I see things too!


 

    Sometimes I wonder if more of us think more about the next realm–if we believe in one–when we’ve lost loved ones than when we’re thinking about what might come next for us. For example, I think it is very comforting to think of heaven as a place for our departed loved ones where everything painful and debilitative, everything unjust and irreparable disappears.

    Here’s a passage from the beautiful, hopeful book of symbols that has been kept at the end of most New Testament collections for hundreds of years–even though chronologically the Gospel of John was probably written after it was. This book, “The Revelation” (always singular, never plural!), “The Unveiling” was circulated among the severely persecuted Christians some time before Caesar Domitian’s reign ended with his death in CE 96. A Seer named John had visions of such things while he was in prison for refusing to worship Domitian who, like some, not all, other Roman Emperors before him, had declared himself divine and, thus, worthy of worship.


 

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with them; they will be God’s people. God Godself will be with them. God will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more...” (Rev 21:1-4b NRSV).


 

There is so, so much that could be said about these few verses! Heaven and earth are inextricably tied together! That’s impossible to miss. In fact, in this vision, heaven “comes down,” and–guess what! It stays down! It’s a symbol! Everything in the book is a symbol. This symbol shows us just what the writer says about God: God is with mortals; God dwells with mortals! In all times and places, God is not separated from humanity–not while they live in this world, and not when their lives in this world are over.


 

    United with God, death ceases, and when death ceases, so does mourning and so do the tears that grief brings. There is a convergence between divinity and humanity, and the result is such a strong bond that nothing biological can stop it.


 

    Written a few years after the book of Revelation–probably around the time the Gospel of John was written–there showed up on the early Christian scene the Gospel of Thomas. The opening words of this gospel on which the whole mysterious message of the book rests are: “These are the secret sayings that the living Jesus spoke and Didymos Judas Thomas recorded. And he said, `Whoever discovers the interpretation of these sayings will not taste death’” (Gospel of Thomas 1).


 


 


 


 

III.


 

    So what about heaven? What about glory? What is it like to live with God in a realm beyond the only realm any of us knows?


 

Is it warm?

Is it soft against your face?

Do you feel a kind a’ grace inside the breeze?

Will there be trees?

(this and all quotes of lyrics from

“How Glory Goes” from Floyd Collins).


 

Audra McDonald didn’t sound like any miner I ever met so it might be hard for us to remember that these words were being sung by a character playing a man trapped in a mine, shortly before his death. The Floyd Collins character is singing; he is voicing a kind of dialogical prayer.


 

    Trapped in a mine for two weeks and not rescuable despite the hype, surely he had to do some thinking about “what if” he didn’t make it out alive. It isn’t inconceivable by any means that he’d have pondered the next realm.


 

    Perhaps he was cold down in that Kentucky mine. Is heaven warm? He was surrounded by rocks and dirt and coal. Is heaven soft against your face? Not much air flow down in that mine. Does heaven feel like a kind of grace inside a breeze? He hadn’t seen trees in two weeks. Would there be trees in heaven?


 

Is there light?

Does it hover on the ground?

Does it shine from all around?

Or jes’ from you?


 

It was dark down there, darker than most of us can imagine. I’ve never been in a mine and have no plans to make a visit, but I have toured some of the touristy caves and caverns down in my home state of Tennessee. In one of those caverns once, when all the folks on the guided tour had reached a certain place, the tour guide had the lights turned off for sixty seconds. That was the darkest dark I’d ever encountered, and I don’t care to encounter it again.


 

    Floyd wondered about light in heaven from down in that dark, dark mine. And if there were light, as he hoped would be the case, was there any source of light other than God’s glory?


 

Is it endless and empty,

An’ you wander on your own?

Slowly forgit about

The folks that you have known?


 

Or does risin’ bread fill up the air

From open kitchens everywhere?

Familiar faces far as you can see,

Like a family?


 


 

Floyd is trapped, helpless. He’s had contact with only one person all this time, the man small enough to squeeze into the area where Floyd is stuck. His family and friends are on the outside. People are supposed to be doing everything they can to free Floyd, but were they really? Have they not, in fact, already begun to forget about him? If people on the outside really cared, wouldn’t he already be out?


 

    Or, is heaven much more like walking through his small town on the way to the mine early in the morning, when fresh bread is being baked in each household he passes? The smell of the freshly baking bread is magnificent, and just as satisfying are the familiar faces he sees as he walks along–everyone like family there. I’m sure he hoped that heaven was like a family reunion.


 

    Floyd keeps on with his questions for God.


 

Do we live?

Is it like a little town?

Do we get to look back down at who we love?

Are we above?

Are we everywhere?

Are we anywhere at all?

Do we hear a trumpet call us

An’ we’re by your side?


 

Where exactly is this heaven anyway? And what does one who has left this world for heaven see of this world from her or his new vantage point? Can they see anything at all from up there or over here or wherever they’re looking from? Remember that Billy Bigelow from Carousel did not get to look down on earthly life once he’d been admitted to heaven, but he was allowed to go back just for a day to help him settle something; and in the process he was able to help his loved ones.        


 


 

    What is our essence once we leave this world? Do we take up space? And how do we get to wherever we’re going? Does a trumpet sound like some say will occur at the end of time? Or are we just suddenly by your side, God?


 

Will I want, will I wish

For all things I should have done,

Longin’ to finish

What I only jes’ begun?


 

Or has a shinin’ truth been waiting there

For all the questions everywhere?

In a world of wonderin’, suddenly you know;

An’ you will always know...


 

When I get to glory, how will I think about what I’ve experienced in this world? Will I worry about what I left undone here? Will I feel remorse for what I should have done but didn’t do? All my questions will be answered when I get there, though. In time, I will understand fully.


 

Will my mama be there waitin’ for me

Smilin’ like the way she does

An’ holdin’ out her arms

An’ she calls my name?

She will hold me just the same...


 

I hate to be the new kid on the block! Will my loved ones who have left this world before me be there to greet me? Will I feel love for them and from them the way I’ve felt it here?


 

Only heaven knows how Glory goes,

What each of us was meant to be.

In the starlight, that is what we are.

I can see so far...

(From “How Glory Goes,” Floyd Collins).


 

How frustrating, in a sense, after all those good questions have been asked to have to be reminded that there’s no way to know what the next realm is like without going there.


 

    Only heaven knows how fully any human being reaches her or his potential. Only heaven knows what glory, what heaven, is like. That makes sense because, as far as we know, no one has ever gone to heaven for an extended stay and then returned to tell the rest of us about what she or he experienced. Some of the studies of those people who have had out of body experiences while their bodies were being resuscitated, for example, are intriguing. If these experiences are real and if the facts reported are accurate, there is an attention-getting similarity among the reports, and bright, bright light is in practically every one of these accounts. Still, those are very brief visits to the next realm–if that is what is going on. They don’t reveal much even if the reports are entirely accurate.


 

    We must be like starlight when we get to heaven, Floyd decided–all over the place, joined to countless other stars, each shedding some light because God’s light is so bright where we are, and being able to see so much further than anyone could ever see from the limitations of this world. That’s how glory goes.


 

Amen.