November 13, 2022 ~ Proper 28 ~ Thirty-third Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Twenty-Third Sunday after Pentecost ~ Isaiah 65:17-25; Isaiah 12 (No Psalm Connected with the Isaiah Reading); Malachi 4:1-2a; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13; Luke 21:5-19~ VIDEO OF THE FULL SERVICE: https://vimeo.com/showcase/7960701/video/771607447
“Surely God is my salvation, my deliverer; / I will trust, and will not be afraid, / for Yahweh, God, is my strength and my refuge; / God, Most High, has become my salvation, / my deliverance.” — Isaiah 12:2.
A couple weeks ago I started my comments with an apology since I talked about my theater background and that may bore some. Well sorry, I’m doing it again.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away I was sufficiently notorious to be invited to join— you do have to be invited— I was invited to join the A.S.C.A.P. Musical Comedy Workshop, a master class for writers of musicals. It was run by Charles Strouse, the composer of Annie. The late composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim who wrote the lyrics for West Side Story and both music and lyrics for A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, A Little Night Music, Into the Woods— the list goes on and on— Stephen would drop in to offer encouragement and advice.
Sondheim, who died at the age of 91 last November, was not only a great person of the theater, a genius, but was kind, generous, and perhaps one of the greatest teachers I ever met. I hope that offers some personal context as to what I will say and even why.
And so I want to address the writing in one of Sondheim’s early, obscure works— Evening Primrose. The libretto was by James Goldman— no slouch either since he wrote A Lion in Winter, a film for which Katherine Hepburn won an Oscar in 1968. Evening Primrose was written for televison and was broadcast only once, in 1966.
Confined to the 50 minute time slot of sixties anthology televison, the tale being told had a very Twilight Zone twist. It explored the possibility that mannequins in department stores are real people hiding from the real world. These mannequins become animated, come to life, walk around, eat, talk, have parties, talk live in the store.
The tale told in the script follows Charles, a poet fed up with the real world and its real challenges. He has stumbled across this alternate reality of mannequins and decides to retreat into it. There he meets and is smitten with a beautiful young girl, Ella.
She has lived in the store, lost in this separate existence, not because she chose it. Now 19, when she was separated from her mother at age six because she fell asleep in the women’s hat department, she was abandoned, never again contacted by her negligent family.
For Charles there seems to be security in this strange life. Everything one needs is in the store— food, clothes, protection from the weather. But Ella longs to leave this place of night and shadows. She wants to return to the real world, breathe fresh air, feel the breeze, the rain, see the sun. But she is also afraid of it.
Ella seeks guidance from Charles. And Charles is tempted to return to the real world with her but also realizes she has not seen the sun for years.
Perhaps that is the real reason Charles has fallen in love with Ella. She is innocent about that real world. He feels he knows the real world all too well and is horrified by it.
Ella believes she can leave the store with Charles since he does know the real world. He will protect her, guide her. She wants to dare, to take a chance. She has dreamed about it.
Ella starts to sing: “Let me see the world with clouds, / Take me to the world. / Out where I can push through crowds, / Take me to the world. / A world that smiles / With streets instead of aisles / Where I can walk for miles with you.”
“Take me to the world that’s real / Show me how it’s done / Teach me how to laugh, to feel / Move me to the sun. / Just hold my hand whenever we arrive. / Take me to the world where I can be alive.”
Charles, not so sure, addresses the dangers, the reality and sings, “The world is better here. / I know I’ve seen them both. / A poet doesn’t count for much out there. / We’d be cold and hungry in the winter— / A shabby room with cracked plaster— / You couldn’t get a job. / We’d end up hating each other. / We’d have fights. You’d cry.”
“I have seen the world / And it’s mean and ugly / Here— we could laugh together. / I love you Ella. / We’d be happy here. / Stay with me.” (Pause.)
The store opens the next morning. Two new handsome bride and groom mannequins have appeared. Those watching the TV show know these look exactly like Ella and Charles, except they are dressed for a wedding. Their faces are frozen in place. A decision has been made. They will stay in the world of mannequins. (Slight pause.)
These words are from the Scroll of the Prophet Isaiah: “Surely God is my salvation, my deliverer; / I will trust, and will not be afraid, / for Yahweh, God, is my strength and my refuge; / God, Most High, has become my salvation, / my deliverance.” (Slight pause.)
I believe these words from Isaiah are about having full trust in God. Hence, these words are about the real world in which we live and these words claim that we are called in the context of that real world to trust God.
God knows the world is real and it is not always friendly. Indeed, when this text was recorded the Assyrians were about to conquer the Hebrews. So yes, the world is often dangerous, precarious, unsafe, frightening place.
I know about that. I grew up on the mean streets of Brooklyn, New York, served in Vietnam. I have seen more violence, foolishness, incompetence, sadness, hardship in my life than I ever wanted to see. And yes, I often do want to feel more protected and be more protected than that for which the real world allows.
But perhaps because I know the real world, I also know its challenges. This is among the things I do know: I know I must not be challenged by the real world. Instead I must live in it, with it, through it and I must challenge the real world. (Slight pause.)
If a world filled with threats, with menace is to challenged, if that world is, therefore, real, it needs to be changed— the real world needs to be changed. And so I must not acquiesce to the dangerous, precarious, unsafe, frightening reality in that world. But how is that to be done? (Slight pause.)
I must affirm that God is real, is present, is with us. I must trust God. I must stand fast, affirm that God constantly teaches us about joy, love, peace, hope.
And I must know joy and love and peace and hope are real. I believe joy, love, peace, hope are much more real than the reality of any terrors found in the so called real world perhaps because I have seen and I live in that real world. (Slight pause.)
I suppose the question for today is this: can we, this church— even in a time of transition— challenge the world and challenge ourselves to trust God Who is present and teaches us about joy, love, peace, hope and can we move toward change? (Pause.)
My friends, unless we challenge ourselves, hope is just another four letter word. Unless we trust in God each and every day in the real world, unless we grapple with reality, then we might just as well all be mannequins— in a constant state of surrender— complacent, compliant. (Slight pause.)
The Gospel reading was the widow who gives to the treasury at the Temple. Was she so foolish that she did not know the real world? No— she knew the real world. And she also knew God calls us to trust in the reality of God. (Slight pause.)
The challenge of the work of this church, the challenge of our work, the challenge of real change is before us. It is vital work. And it is what we need to do in the real world.
What exactly is that work? It is the work of faith, of joy, of hope, of peace, of trust, of love. It is the challenging work of trusting in God enough to change.
So let us move forward with this in mind: we are surrounded by the reality of God who deeply loves us and deeply loves the world. God has commissioned us to work in and be a part of this world. Amen.
Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Benediction. This, then, is an précis of what the pastor said before the blessing: “The late theologian Henri Nouwen said this: ‘Praying demands that you take to the road again and again, leaving your house and looking forward to a new land for yourself and others. This is why praying demands poverty. Poverty is the readiness to live a life in which you have nothing to lose, so that you always begin afresh.’— Henri Nouwen. Perhaps the ‘poverty of spirit’ Jesus addresses in the Sermon on the Mount has to do with readiness to live a life in which you have nothing to lose, so that you always begin afresh with a willingness to change and a willingness to challenge life.”
A kind and just God sends us out into the world as bearers of truth which surpasses our understanding. God watches over those who respond in love. So, let us love God so much, that we love nothing else too much. Let us be so in awe of God that we are in awe of one else and nothing else. Amen.