Life As A Swing: How Theatre Prepped Me For Ministry In A Pandemic

In most theatrical productions--particularly large format musicals--the cast consists ofleads--those who are featured the most in a showensemble members--those who support the show tremendously, providing vocals, wonderful dancing, and often, facilitating set changesunderstudies-- those who are the next in line for lead roles should the performer call out sick or have an important engagement that forces them to miss a show. Usually, understudies are also in the ensemble, so they learn their ensemble track and the lead rolestandbys--those who understudy a very prominent role in the show that's usually the lead or a major supporting character. Many times, the standbys are not in the ensemble. They just cover that one lead track and are to be at the theatre during the entire show or within 15-30 minutes of the theatre should they need to go on at a moment's noticeAnd finally, the swings
No. No, I didn't say swingers😎 ... though, I mean, nothing's wrong with that. To each …

Foolish Foundations

 


Scripture: Matthew 7:15-29


My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus' blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
But wholly lean on Jesus' Name

On Christ the solid Rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand

These lyrics, penned by the English hymnist and Baptist minister Edward Mote, in 1834 capture a rugged spirituality born at the crossroads of great industrial advancement and civil upheaval. 1834. This is the year when new inventions are being patented every week while anti-abolitionist riots are breaking out in New York City—

The year that slavery is abolished in the British Empire while the Ursuline Convent in Massachusetts is burned to the ground by an anti-Catholic extremist group in the name of Jesus.
On Christ the solid Rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand,

Mote writes. I imagine him standing at the intersection of prophetic hope and indescribable despair with a pen and paper in his hands, trying to hold onto a fragile faith in an ever-changing world. These crossroads of chaos were traveled daily in this trespassed land and abroad. With great advancement came great anguish—with a promising newness at every horizon came a battle with an antebellum attachment to a dangerous yesteryear.

Oh, this was no time unlike our own, and I imagine that one could easily find themselves on the wrong side of history; I imagine that one could easily find themselves being sucked into the quicksand of foolishness that, even two centuries ago, was evident to those who dared to unveil the perils of the myth of white supremacy. This myth, stemming from the roots of Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism, is carved out by a first century Roman historian named Tacitus.

Yes, beloved, we are taking it back to the year 98 C.E. when, in his publication Germainia, Tacitus makes the case that a certain subpopulation of Germany is more ethnically pure and thus, morally and physiologically superior, laying the foolish foundations of ethnic supremacy that would spread like a virus across the globe. This pandemic is further explored in the 2015 publication, Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God, by Dr. Kelly Brown Douglas, in which she explicates Tacitus’ ferocious and foolish declaration of superiority, linking it to the unfortunate events of the Holocaust many centuries later, and carrying this idea of anglo-exceptionalism across the Atlantic.

Now, some of you may be bored with this history lesson—an unfortunate reality of how much our educational system has failed us as we sit around foolishly baffled at how history we hardly know keeps repeating itself. I come to you not to bring peace but a sword—a weapon of knowledge that will prick us out of the ignorance that keeps us bound and ritualizing vain sorrow during calamitous times like these.

Douglas reminds us that the early interlopers in this land “carried their Anglo-Saxon heritage across the Atlantic Ocean with a self-righteous pride. Believing that they were the true and chosen heirs to a divine Anglo-Saxon mission,” Douglas says, “they were determined not to betray their Anglo-Saxon roots, as they thought the English had done.” And so, Anglo-Saxon exceptionalism became Anglo-Saxon chauvinism, became the Manifest Destiny, became the Trail of Tears, became indentured servitude and chattel slavery, became Jim Crow laws, redlining, voter suppression, militarized police forces, a corrupt prison system, a lack of gun control—

a recreating and repackaging of unjust systems—

And now we find ourselves here today—once again—performing shock and sadness, ritualizing our tears, lighting our candles, patting ourselves on the back for protesting and painting the ground, wondering why we keep having to call out injustice—wondering why we keep having to sit through sermons about black lives mattering, wondering why we keep having to call out the “bad apples;”

And this is where meet Jesus. 

Jesus knew a little something about bad apples. In fact, Jesus knew about something much deeper than the apples—something that many of us don’t want deal with—something beneath the surface, deep into the soil that cannot be understood when we’re merely swiping at the branches. Jesus gives us the answer right here in our text today. It is an easy answer. It’s so easy that it’s hard, because we gloss over it thinking that “we”—this diverse conglomerate of people who call ourselves “Christians”—know what Jesus is talking about. Perhaps, one of our greatest sins has been our unwillingness to go to the ground with Jesus and dig at the roots in order to understand what he is naming in this moment.  

We meet Jesus towards to the end of his “Sermon on the Mount”—though it could be more aptly named “a bunch of lessons on some hills around town.” In this Gospel according to Matthew, the author pulls together several teachings and sayings of Jesus throughout the timeline of his ministry to create one concise lecture—a sort of Cliff Notes version for the young, energetic 1st generation community of Christ-followers. What began as a lesson to a few disciples about blessing the meek and poor becomes a powerful perlocutionary act to a growing crowd who begged to understand the difference between the sincere and the phony—who desired to know what truth was and what it wasn’t, especially in a corrupt society where their own religious and political leaders had proven to be disingenuous upholders of a hazardous status quo.

Yes, you know who I’m talking about:

àGovernors and Mayors co-opted by big banks who are stuffing their pockets so that they will stay quiet about inequity

àPastors more concerned with their personal wealth than the spiritual and economic wellness of their congregation and community.

Thus, Jesus says to the crowd, “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves.”



Who were these false prophets that Jesus spoke of? Who were these disingenuous leaders that Jesus was calling out? Some scholars suggest that Jesus is referring to the Essenes, a somewhat rogue and acetic group of Jews who had their own views on how one should live their life. Others suggest that Matthew—through Jesus’ words—is foretelling the false prophets that would come in Jesus’ name after his death. Regardless of these scholarly interpretations, it’s safe to say that Jesus wasn’t interested in giving a detailed description of the false prophet but, rather, pointing his audience to the signs so that they may discern it for themselves. 

Now, having been called a false prophet many times, I can attest to the fact that discernment is dangerous. Leaving “Christians” to their own devices has been fatal over the millennia. And here’s the thing: No one wants to think that THEY are the false prophet in any moment. It’s always someone else on the other side of the bipartisan line—it’s always someone else at the other end of the moral-political scale. It’s always something outside of us; but the interesting thing is that Jesus doesn’t linger on the falseness of the prophet—you see, we can get caught up in our philosophical debates about what’s true and what’s false. Jesus points us to the fruit that is brought forth, and more importantly, leads us to the foolish foundations from whence the fruits comes.  

Some might call the Roman historian Tacitus one of the original false prophets of the common era, callously laying down claims that would become a foundation for supremacy. He was not a bad apple; he sowed the seed of what would become a rotten and diseased tree whose roots stretch like tentacles across various lands and oceans—a diseased tree like the southern trees in Billie Holliday’s eerily infamous song, Strange Fruit— A diseased tree that is a foolish foundation upon which this country was built and upon which we stand right now as the sand quickens all around us with every disturbing cry: 📢“Black Lives Matter!” “Stop Killing Us!”

Thus, Tacitus isn’t alone in his false prophesying, for the same tree that existed centuries ago has continued to produce bad fruit right in front of our very eyes.



What does the produce of a diseased tree look like?

It looks like:
Religious leaders who say they stand with marginalized and persecuted folks but refuse to name the sin of white supremacy and racism in their editorial

It looks like:
Pastors and Bishops who say they stand on the side of justice but who still want to be able to shoot their shots with politicians in the back rooms of the secular synagogues

It looks like:
Mayors who say that they are for the people but you have to pull teeth to get them to condemn the unnecessary and unconscionable behavior of a militarized police state that sends peaceful protesters to the hospital with brain injuries from rubber bullets

What does the produce of a diseased tree look like?

It looks like:
A generic Christianity that wants be tolerated not revolutionary; a generic Christianity that cares more about not ticking off high-paying members than speaking truth to power

It looks like:
Institutions that are only just now speaking up about certain lives mattering because they care about your dollars (Hello, rainbows for Pride Month)

It looks like:
Being non-specific about what you really think or feel or believe about our LGBTQ siblings so that you can still have a seat at the Thanksgiving table across from your homophobic cousin.

It looks like:
Saying “Black Lives Matter” until a young trans-woman is brutally attacked on the streets of Minneapolis by people who are so-called protesting and you say nothing about it!


What does the produce of a diseased tree look like?

It looks like:
Not wanting to name the devils roaming around 1600 Pennsylvania Ave for who and what they are because you care more about your wealth than the health of your neighbor.

This is the folly Jesus is coming against! These are the foolish foundations that Jesus is calling for his followers to dismantle, lest they make their homes on the sinking sand of ongoing calamity, religious-political abuse, and deadly terrorism at the hands of those who have been called to protect and serve.

On Christ The Solid Rock I Stand
All Other Ground is
Foolishness and
Fascism and  
Fake news and
Facetious journalism and
Fickle solidarity.

Jesus calls us to the solid rock of truth, which means disrupting the status quos and abolishing the foundations of oppression upon which this society was built.

It means:
àtaking a knee at the 50-yard line and being fired, while supremacy has had its knee on the necks of black, brown, and indigenous folks in America for over half a millennium and is still employed

àrisking being kettled and tear-gassed for the sake of unearthing the diseased trees of police-sanctioned violence

àcalling for the abolishment of the law enforcement and the prison system as they are, and a reimagining of rehabilitative social services and governance

This is the solid rock that we are called to. From sinking sand to sensibility. From folly to wisdom.

In this crisis moment, we have an opportunity to cross the threshold from the corrupt ways up yesteryear to a new vision for God’s world—a vision that will require us to not just cut down the bad fruit and swipe at the dead branches like we’re used to doing, but to go to the ground, like Jesus did, digging up the roots of Sycamores and the Cyprus, the Poplar, Pine, and Oak, so that we may lay a new foundation.

Jesus calls us to a new foundation—a reparative foundation. And that foundation is not going to be predicated on patriarchal hierarchy or exclusionary practices that posit those who fall within a certain gender expression or relationship framework to be superior. It won’t be predicated on respectability politics and pointless pacification. It’ll be built by defunding brutal institutions in order to create mental health services. It’ll be built by dethroning dictators who promote murder and harm to citizens. It’ll be built by disrupting the status quo, over and over again, with righteous indignation until all are set free from the strongholds of capitalism and greed.

This is the call of the Christ-follower.
This is the work of the righteous who shall see God.

Matthew, unlike the other gospel writers, didn’t focus on the Jesus’ healing ministry. He was much more concerned with offering this community seeking strong and meaningful identity at the end of the 1st century something sufficient to hold on to—something sturdy to stand upon. By the time of his writings and compilation, the 2nd temple in Jerusalem had been looted and destroyed. There was great rebellion in the land and a people under the thumb of a very familiar tyrannical empire had had enough. Thus, for Matthew, it wasn’t about miracles, signs, and wonders.

àIt was about who you were going to be when the going got tough.

àIt was about how you were going to show up in the face of discrimination and harassment.

àIt was about what you were going to say that could shake the foolish foundations of a cancerous culture,

not for the sake of clout or political fame—for money or access to certain exclusive spaces—but for the sake of LIFE. We are doing this for the sake of life—not for the front page in the Observer or a photo op. We are writing and we are marching—we are funding justice organizations and we are feeding the folks—for the sake of Life!

That is miracle!
That is the sign!
That is the wonder!

And so it is that Matthew leads us to this moment of reckoning, with Jesus, and with each other, so that we may begin again from the ground up and with our minds and hearts fixed on a the New Jerusalem.  

Amen.



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