Sunday, April 08, 2018

Superstar: How a Rock Star and a Hippie Saved Me for Jesus

I was holding my breath Easter Sunday evening as the live performance of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ Superstar took the stage. Truth be told, I was prepared to be disappointed, fearful that this most recent adaptation of what, for my life, is a true classic in the telling of the story of Jesus of Nazareth, would fall short of the 1973 film version and the Broadway production which preceded it.

I need not have worried. The multicultural cast was stunning in the energy and talent they displayed. Jesus was black, beautiful and soulful. Mary Magdalene was self-assured and provocative. The disciples included punkers and women, a depiction that I believe is probably more consistent with history than the all-male telling of the gospels. The multicultural Sanhedrin had flashy robes and incredible voices. And, as expected, Judas stole the show. More than any previous Judas, he was spectacular.

Bravo, all!

“My Jesus…..”

Watching the show took me back to my first encounters with the musical. My Jewish friend from my days at the National Science Foundation’s summer institute at Virginia Tech had first exposed me to the London version. After listening to the album together, she asked me, “Is this what you believe?”

I wasn’t sure how to answer then, and only slightly more capable of answering now. Beliefs have never been the focus of my spiritual life then or now.  I just knew what I didn’t believe.

That would crystallize for me at an event in community college. I had gone with a friend to an outdoor Jesus festival at the bandshell in nearby Eustis. A local pastor had promised to speak about Superstar. I had just seen the film and I thought perhaps he could shed some light on the vibrant, enigmatic figure in the film who had emerged from the tepid constructions of “Jeeeeezus” whose last name was Christ and who had been reduced to the silver bullet for original sin that I had encountered most of my life and found wanting.    

Such was not to occur that night. The pastor began by calling the film blasphemous. I wasn’t even sure what that meant, it just sounded nasty the way the Southern drawling preacher spit those words into the microphone. But it was what he said about Jesus that made me realize that this figure he described was a force to be reckoned with.

“My Jesus never screamed like a little girl. My Jesus was not effeminate. My Jesus was strong, masculine. My Jesus was the king of kings, lord of lords, not some whiny wimp.”

I was stunned. Indeed, 45 years later, I still remember his exact words. The unabashed projection of redneck machismo onto Jesus seemed so transparent that surely anyone could see it. This was well beyond the muscular Jesus so beloved by far too many male clerics insecure about their own masculinity given their profession. This Jesus sounded more like a trash talking professional wrestler than a first century Jewish peasant.

He wasn’t just angry and hostile. He was barely human.

As the pastor railed from the stage about a Jesus he found so objectionable, his vitriol punctuated by the blinking Christmas lights surrounding the bandshell, I realized that his condemnations really weren’t about Jesus. 

Truth be told, some of that description applied to me, a college sophomore terrified that his dirty little secret might accidentally leak out. But I was even more terrified that should the Jesus the redneck reverend was describing be even remotely close to the actual king of kings and lord of lords, I could be assured that he could never ever love me, a man who kept four dreaded words buried deep in his soul: “I think I’m gay.”

It was a very long evening. But before the night was over, I realized that this man of the cloth - whom I prefer to believe had good intentions - had clearly elevated his own prejudices to the status of revealed truth. Ironically, in the process, he had unknowingly offered me the very key to understanding not only the film in question but to the means to make sense of its central figure, Jesus.

The pastor had begun each sentence with “My Jesus….” At some point in that diatribe a blinding light erupted in my head. Long before I would learn what words like “social construction” and “hermeneutics” actually meant, in that instant I realized that what I was hearing from this man was simply his take on this subject driven largely by the perceived needs he had brought to the process of understanding it. His use of the word "My" indicated ownership. And while the actual Jesus didn't belong to this man, his own construction of Jesus did. 

As I would teach my students in later years, if something can be socially constructed in a given manner, it can always be deconstructed and constructed in a different manner as well. As of that night, my own deconstruction project was off and running.

It dawned upon me that what appealed to me about this Jesus was precisely what terrified this man. He was human. He felt pain and anger. He grew frustrated with stupidity (Let those with ears hear!) even as he demonstrated the patience of Job for those who suffered. He spoke truth to power clearly aware of the consequences he would pay. Yet even as he resolutely strode toward his fate, he demonstrated the fears and questions that any authentic human being seeking to live into such a calling would experience.

This was a Jesus I could relate to. This was a Jesus I could empathize with. This was a Jesus I could love. More importantly, this was a Jesus whose Way I would be willing to follow.

A Torrent of Celluloid Jesuses

Superstar proved the first crack in the dam through which a torrent of popular films would pour, all seeking to examine who this Jesus of Nazareth actually was. Within months of Superstar’s release, Godspell would move from Broadway to a made-for-television movie. Despite the meager quality of production, the lyrical music of this play combined with the simplistic but loveable characters of New York’s hippie population gave many fellow hippies like me a Jesus we could actually love.

This was a Jesus who emphasized love of neighbor, the importance of not judging others, a Jesus who invited the viewer to move from the surface to the interior to understand the Gospels. And despite its occasional sappy numbers and silly affect, it was effective at breaking through the shell of a cold, brittle religion which was obsessed with sin – and thus with control – to touch the heart and the soul, the place where G-d resided and where one was thereby connected to all of Creation. 

Godspell was an unabashed love-in: Jesus meets Hair. For someone who was slowly falling in love with the Jesus he was finally discovering under all the suffocating theological constructions of so many centuries, it was a tonic for a bruised soul. When you’ve been told most of your life that G-d couldn’t possibly love you unless you repent from your very being, being able to sing Richard of Chichester’s prayer to see Jesus more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly held out hope that even I, too, could be loved by G-d and follow Jesus.

Gods Who Scare Little Old Ladies in Wheelchairs

There would be other celluloid Jesuses along the way to feed my passion for discovering more about this figure whose Kingdom of G-d I struggled to discern even as I regularly prayed for it to “come on earth as in heaven.”

In 1988 Nikos Kazantzakis’ provocative Last Temptation of Christ was brought to the big screen. Last Temptation  employed a “What if…?” approach to the life of Jesus. That  included his possible decision to avoid the cross for the comforts of ordinary family life. That possibility hardly shook my attraction to Jesus. If anything it deepened it. But it was a demanding film requiring nearly three hours of willingness to suspend judgment (as well as knowledge of how the story actually comes out in the gospels) to engage this film.

Clearly there were many unwilling to do so. My sister and her friend and I attended the showing of the film in Ocala that winter. It was a cold, drizzling day. A group of protesters stood out front of the theater holding signs whose majik marker words had long since begun to run down now soggy poster board.

One of the protesters was an elderly woman in a wheelchair. “Heaven is a wonderful place,” she said. Against my better judgment, I replied “Yes, I know.”  “And e-e-e-everybody can go there,” she continued. “Yes, I know.” Then the kicker: “But you can’t go there if you go see that movie,” at which point I temporarily lost my mind and responded “And that is unadulterated horse shit,” my sister now pinching my arm and muttering under her breath “Let’s go before you get us arrested….”

In retrospect, I regret my lack of consideration for this woman. I can hear my Mother’s voice whispering in my ears even now as I write about this (Now, Son, don’t be ugly!). 

What struck me about the woman’s comments was how brittle her construct of Jesus was much like that of the Baptist pastor so many years before. But, more than that, it was the fear in the woman’s voice that troubled me. 

Here was a woman at the end of her life, incapacitated, feeling compelled to go picket a movie in the rain. What was implicit in her actions was an all-or-nothing approach to faith that posited that if her understandings were right, everyone else’s had to be wrong. And at this point in her life and the level of existential investment she had in that understanding this near the Pearly Gates, she had much to fear should she prove wrong on that.

But what kind of god feels the need to scare little old ladies in wheelchairs to death? 

What kind of god drives otherwise reasonable men of average intelligence and educational attainment like the pastor to engage in frothy public displays of rage? 

It was then that I began wrestling with a notion that continues to feature heavily in my thinking today:

These constructions do not portray a god worth worshiping or a way worth following.

Mentally Ill Messiahs and Theological Snuff Films

The Jesus of Last Temptation would be followed by a Jesus of Montreal which sought to place Jesus in the 20th CE North American context. It was a very fine though disturbing film in which Jesus appears to become mentally unstable. This raised troubling questions for me:

·         Do we not presume that persons like Jesus who run around on our streets and subway systems talking about G-d, proclaiming that the homeless poor are blessed, are mentally ill?
·         Don’t we slap them in facilities as quickly as possible to fill them full of chemicals to make them “sane” again?
·         Do we not dismiss such persons as deluded zealots and ignore them so long as they stay out of our way?
·         Could we ever take such persons seriously? Should we?

In 2004 the guardians of muscular Christianity would stage a cinematographic  counteroffensive in Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ. A theological snuff film emerging from the dark recesses of the troubled mind of Mel Gibson known for bloody, macho filmmaking, this was Jesus in the Thunderdome.  Biblical scholar John Dominic Crossan would comment: “The question is not whether scourging and crucifixion were savage (of course!) or whether Jesus suffered terribly (of course!) but whether this film's unrelenting sadism is pornographic.”

Thinking I must see it to have an informed opinion to offer my students, it is the only film in my life from which I have felt the need to run from the theater to vomit.

Not only was the empire of atonement theology striking back, Gibson’s obsession with the suffering of Jesus was calculated. The point of this portrayal was clearly to induce the maximum level of guilt in every viewer deemed to have caused such suffering – Jesus was tortured because of MY sin (emphasis on MY).

Conversely, the film was designed was to evoke feelings of relief in the members of the tribe who presumed that they would be spared such suffering because they had gotten the theological formula right: *I* am blessed because Jesus has saved me from my sin!  Along with this relief came a largely unrecognized but presumed right to look with condescending pity toward all those outside the tribe presumed to be headed for hell. 

I sat with my feelings about The Passion for a long time after finally escaping the darkness – both actual and spiritual - of that showing. What had disturbed me so deeply? To paraphrase Superstar’s doomed Judas speaking to Annas and Caiphas, I found myself saying “It’s a film, it’s just a film.”

But I was not the same young man who had stood quaking in fear at the bandshell in Eustis so many years before as a bombastic Baptist ran out all his insecurities about his masculinity in critiquing the Jesus portrayed in Superstar. That night I had been teetering on the edge of simply walking away from a Christianity that seemed to have little room for people like me. But Superstar and Godspell had lit a fire in my soul. While I found very little to appreciate in the theologies which constructed a Christ who only dimly resembled the Jesus of history, who saved us from a tyrannical punitive deity, the figure of Jesus had become inordinately important to me.

Who was this man who ate with prostitutes and tax collectors, who wept openly at the death of a friend, who confronted the injustices of the Roman Empire which crushed his people and called out the Temple vassals who collaborated with them? How does a poorly educated carpenter’s kid come up with parables that induce such cognitive dissonance, drawing our understanding of reality into such question? What kind of man demonstrates compassion as the predominate way of relating to a suffering world, focusing on those at the bottom of the social pyramid most in need of hearing their humanity affirmed, in the context of a soul crushing empire?

Finding Jesus in Unpredicted Places

My search for answers to these questions would lead me in the late 1980s to two years of diaconal training in the diocesan Institute for Christian Studies before realizing I could never trust those leading the diocese to actually ever serve under them. Yet, my soul was restless and I began to suspect that I might actually be called to priesthood. Within three years I had closed my law practice, left my home, my family and five generations of roots in Florida and moved to Berkeley to begin seminary there. By a miracle I connected with a parish in San Jose who agreed to sponsor me for ordination and a bishop who agreed to ordain me.

Once there I would spend hours in the Graduate Theological Library where I did my work study reading everything I could get my hands on about Jesus. I would discover the world of Jungian depth psychology and how the Jesus story was a gold mine of symbols and life-saving archetypes.  I would spend weeks of my life in Central America at the end of Reagan’s Contra Wars observing first hand what little ones crushed by empire looked like. The gospels seemed so alive there.

In graduate school I would discover Jesus in the developmental schema of ethicists from Lawrence Kohlberg to M. Scott Peck to James Fowler whose systems spoke of authentic, autonomous figures whose name we remember often because they were martyred. Fowler spoke of the universalizing compassion figure who, ‘[h]eedless of the threats to self, to primary groups, and to the institutional arrangements of the present order that are involved… become a disciplined, activist incarnation -- a making real and tangible -- of the imperatives of absolute love and justice.”

Yep. That sounded like the Jesus I’d been seeking all my life.

Before it was over, I would connect with the Westar Institute whose scholars of the Jesus Seminar were trying to ferret out the actual Jesus from the voices of the developing Christian church of the next three centuries before anything remotely resembling a New Testament would be assembled. There I learned two important lessons.

The first was that the Jesus I sought to follow was concerned with a way of being human called the Kingdom of G-d, a way which reversed the wisdom of his – and our own – patriarchal world, focusing on its weakest, suffering members. The second lesson was at least as important. Convener Bob Funk repeatedly reminded the Seminar scholars and attendees at their annual meetings: Beware of a Jesus you find too agreeable. Funk knew only too well that the same tendency to construct Jesus in our own image that afflicts Baptists in bandshells and fearful elderly women in wheelchairs outside movie houses also affects those who would seek to know the “actual” Jesus in our own ways.

I have amassed a library of several thousand books (most of them at least partly read) in my search for this Jesus who sprang from my television set last week. On my walls are diplomas from seminary and grad school, ordination certificates and the sacred folk art I’ve collected across Central America from liberation theology spawned collectives. My computer files are full of papers, sermons and commentaries on various online sites about this figure over whom I have obsessed now nearly 50 years.

I cringed as I saw the very troubling images Easter night of a black Jesus being whipped by an empire who saw his people as the raw materials for exploitative production - much as my own countrymen and women have historically seen persons who shared the racial heritage of the star of this show. But I also found myself feeling something new: gratitude.

Like Judas, I still don’t know how to love him. Indeed, I’m still not sure who he was or what he was really about. And, like Bob Funk, I am cautious about any presumptions I’d make about either question.

But I am grateful for avant-garde artists, writers, musicians, lyricists, choreographers, playwrights and film producers who bring to life imaginings of a Jesus not defined by stifling theologies based in guilt and fear. I am grateful for the Jesus marked by complexity, humanity and compassion that they have allowed me to see. And I am only too aware that my life long search for Jesus - to know him more clearly, love him more dearly and follow him more nearly – began 50 years ago with a superstar, a hippie and an angry Baptist pastor.

That search continues today. Deo gratias. 


Harry Scott Coverston

Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami ShapiroWisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993) 

 © Harry Coverston 2018


Sunday, April 01, 2018

Divine Companion on Life’s Journey

[N.B. This is the sermon I preached at the Easter Vigil Eucharist, St. Richard’s Episcopal Church, Winter Park, FL, March 31, 2018]

May I speak in the name of the G-d who creates, redeems and sustains us? AMEN.

In the Hebrew cosmology, a new day begins each evening as the sun sets. The lesson from Genesis we just heard reflects that understanding: “There was evening and there was morning, a new day.” And so tonight we welcome a new day.

But this is not just any new day. It is the day that we Christians celebrate as the Day of the Resurrection. For liturgical traditions this feast day comes at the end of six weeks of reflection, self-denial and preparation for the Great Feast of Easter. Lent has offered us a symbolic journey through the desert, following the Way of Jesus who himself periodically sought out such times alone with the G_d he called Abba, Daddy. 

Our readings tonight reflect humanity’s journey with the Holy One. They reveal a G-d whom we recognize as the source of all that exists, a G-d who sustains our lives with divine presence and a G-d who awaits the souls of all created beings at the end of their life journeys. Our readings reflect a G-d who lies at the very core of our being and cannot be separated from us regardless of whatever life’s journey may bring us.

Tonight I ask you to reflect upon your own life journey, to try to become aware of G_d’s presence in your life. And I am going to ask you to assist me with this sermon. I will offer three short meditations and I will ask you to respond to each by singing a verse from a beloved hymn.

Be Thou My Vision is set to an ancient Celtic melody, a musical rendition of the beloved Celtic knot pattern which reflects our life journeys with all their unexpected twists and turns. I think you will quickly understand why I chose this hymn for this purpose. So let us begin.

Meditation One: G-d is the Source of All That Exists

The Priestly writers who composed the Genesis account in the Hebrew Scripture have done a remarkable job of talking about how all things came to be. While some would pose a false dichotomy between the words of Genesis and the findings of evolutionary science, in fact the Genesis account of the creation process accurately reflects the order of evolution. Initially there is nothing but G-d. Then G_d speaks and a Big Bang results, spinning into motion an evolving cosmos that we human beings are only now beginning to realize its immensity and its wonder these many eons later.

The final act in the Genesis narrative is the creation of the human being. We humans are created in the image of G-d possessing the potential to grow ever more into the likeness of G_d. While we are the last of the created beings in the narrative, it is important to remember that we are ultimately one of many created beings, not the only one who counts. And our creation comes with a task: we are given responsibility for caring for the Creation and for one another.

At the end of this creative process two immensely important things happen. First, G_d assesses the creative process just concluded with the creation of humanity. And G-d is pleased. It is very good. Not perfect, a Greek concept foreign to the mind of the Priestly writers six centuries before the common era, but very good. St. Clare of Assisi puts it very well in her last words: “I thank you, G_d, for creating me, a wonderful being!”

The second important thing to happen is that G-d blesses the Creation. Thus, we human creatures begin our journeys into the likeness of G_d with that assessment and that blessing. We are, indeed, very good creations. Not perfect but very good. We are called to take our spiritual journey to grow and develop into the likeness of G-d.. And G-d’s blessing rests upon us from the very beginning.

So I invite you tonight to consider your own origin in the very heart of G_d. And I invite you to take a moment to reflect in silence on the wonderful being G_d has created you to be and the divine likeness you were created to live into.

[Silence] Let us respond with verse one of Be Thou My Vision 

Hymn 488 (Hymnal 1982) Be thou my vision

1. Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart;
all else be nought to me, save that thou art--
thou my best thought, by day or by night,
waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.

Meditation Two: G-d Is the Ground of All Being   

The journey of the people of G_d has never been a smooth one. Early on we came close to being wiped out by a flood which swallowed up the Earth, saved by a righteous man who walked with G_d and responded to G_d’s call to save himself, his family and the animal kingdom. 

Our forebears, the people of Israel, became enslaved by the Egyptians to whom they had originally come for help during a famine only to make a dramatic exodus from Egypt pursued by Pharaoh’s army. There G_d takes the side of the slaves and delivers the Israelites in dramatic fashion at the Red Sea.

G-d will later watch in sadness as the people turn from worshipping the G_d of the covenant, the source of their very being and their constant companion, to prostrate themselves before the idols of the nations. Again and again the prophets of G_d call the people to return to their covenant. Again and again, they refuse. And as a result first Israel and then Judah will be swallowed up by invading armies, their peoples taken into captivity.

G-d is heartbroken. But even amidst the devastation of exile, G_d remains present, more than willing to breathe the spirit of life back into dead, dry bones, to renew Israel, to restore the covenant, to begin the spiritual journey anew. Even when G-d’s human creations seek to separate themselves from the G-d who created them and sustains them, G_d never lets go of us.

My guess is that each of us can relate to these stories. There may have been times when the presence of G_d was so strong it was palpable. And then there have been other times when G_d has seemed so far away as to be missing completely.

There may have been times when we have been angry at G-d, when we have gone our own way and ignored the G-d who was always present, patiently awaiting our response to G-d’s call to us, hopeful of our willingness to rejoin our spiritual journey into the likeness of G_d. Yet, in every case, even as we wandered, G_d was still there.  

And so I ask you to reflect for a moment on the journey of your own life, the moments when G-d’s presence was so near you could touch it and the moments when G_d seemed far away indeed. Where have you seen the presence of G-d in your life?

[Silence] And now let us respond with the second verse of our hymn.

2 Be thou my wisdom, and thou my true word;
I ever with thee and thou with me, Lord;
thou my great Father; thine own may I be;
thou in me dwelling, and I one with thee.

Meditation Three: G-d is the Destination of All Souls

The Gospel of Mark whose ending we heard tonight is decidedly different from the other three Gospels. Mark begins at the Jordan River. No virgin birth. No angels or shepherds. No flight into Egypt to avoid a bloodthirsty Herod. It ends just as abruptly as we heard tonight – no resurrection, no Jesus walking through walls, no ascension into heaven. Just an empty tomb. And some very frightened followers fleeing in terror.

Contrast that account with the preceding verses we have heard this Holy Week which describe the death of Jesus. He is clearly human. He wishes to avoid the pain facing him. The empire subjects him to the gratuitous infliction of pain and enormous suffering in a show of power. He feels abandoned by G-d, quoting a psalm of the condemned. And in the end, he dies, raised up on a Roman instrument of torture, naked, in full view of anyone brave enough to still be present. In Mark’s Gospel, it will be an empty tomb that has the last word.

But there is something very important to be noted in this account. Jesus clearly had to know that he was headed to his death when he entered Jerusalem amidst major upheaval and celebration. If the messiah was to come at any time, it was during Passover. The Romans were on high alert and the first thing Jesus did was to go to the Temple courts and shut down the lucrative businesses of offerings, money changing and tax collection. From that moment on, Jesus was a marked man.

So why did he do this? Why was he willing to engage in such provocative, dangerous behavior? Why was he willing to subject himself to the torture of the Romans and the suffering it would extract from his very soul?

Unlike his frightened followers running from an empty tomb, Jesus evidences something very different. He models existential trust. He intimately trusts the G-d he calls Abba, Daddy. He trusts he has correctly understood his calling to proclaim and to model the Kingdom of G-d even as it means that the way to that kingdom is also the Way of the Cross. And he trusts that G-d will vindicate him, raising him up from the dead to a place of honor in the heavens.

Tonight we celebrate the wisdom of Jesus because G-d has done exactly that.

The G-d Jesus reveals is an ultimately trustworthy G-d. Jesus trusted his very soul to the G-d who had created him, sustained him through his long spiritual journey to the cross, and whose strong but loving gentle hands awaited his bruised soul at the end of the journey. 

Tonight, the good news is that we can, too.

And so I ask that you consider where in your life you, like me, resemble Jesus’ followers fleeing from an empty tomb in doubt and fear. And where in your life do you follow the Way of Jesus, trusting G_d with your very soul?

[Silence] And now let us respond with the final verse of our hymn.

3 High King of heaven, when victory is won,
may I reach heaven's joys, bright heaven's Sun!
Heart of my heart, whatever befall,
still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

The gift that Jesus and his resurrection reveals to us this night is indeed a pearl of great price. Ironically, it has been ours from the very beginning even as we, like Jesus’ first followers, have often run away in fear from the prospect of death seeking to reassure ourselves with whatever theological formulae we believed would give us a measure of certainty.

The Greek word eucharist means thanksgiving. This is the night to express our gratitude for the great gift of Jesus and our trust in the G-d from whom all things come. How do we do that? By simply coming to this altar, holding out our hands and gratefully receiving “the gifts of G-d for the people of G_d.”

So let us come to this altar in gratitude. And every time we do may we be grateful enough to say like St. Clare, “I thank you, G-d, for creating me a wonderful being.”

Thanks be to the G-d who has created us.

Thanks be to the G_d who sustains us.

And thanks be to the G_d who awaits every single soul at the end of its life journey.

For it is into your hands, O G-d, that we, too, commend our Spirit.” AMEN.            

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding. Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

For what does G-d require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your G-d? (Micah 6:8, Hebrew Scriptures)

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. - Rabbi Rami ShapiroWisdom of the Jewish Sages (1993) 

 © Harry Coverston 2018