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Actors and preachers

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A Sermon for the Ordination of Jack Gilpin • St. John’s Church • New Milford, Conn. • December 15

By Fleming Rutledge

The moment I heard about the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School yesterday, I called Jack. A black pall has been cast over his momentous day, and we all acknowledge that. As Jack said on the phone, the problem of how to conduct an ordination in the face of an atrocity in the very next town is as nothing compared to the anguish of the parents and families who have lost their precious little ones. The lament of Jeremiah comes to mind:

Why is my pain unceasing,
my wound incurable,
refusing to be healed?
     (Jer. 15:18)

In the church, this is the season of Advent. It’s superficially understood as a time to get ready for Christmas, but in truth it’s the season for contemplating the judgment of God. Advent is the season that, when properly understood, does not flinch from the darkness that stalks us all in this world. Advent begins in the dark and moves toward the light — but the season should not move too quickly or too glibly, lest we fail to acknowledge the depth of the darkness. As our Lord Jesus tells us, unless we see the light of God clearly, what we call light is actually darkness: “how great is that darkness!” (Matt. 6:23) Advent bids us take a fearless inventory of the darkness without and the darkness within.

I mentioned something along these lines to Jack and he said, simply, “This is what I signed on for.” He understands that Christian ministry means living with the anguish and the inexplicability of this mortal life, not reaching too quickly for easy answers. The divine light breaks in upon us of its own will, independently of our wishes and desires. We must wait, and that means suffering.

Here is part of what the great poet W.H. Auden wrote about Advent in For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio:

…Ice condenses on the bone,
Winter completes an age.
The evil and armed draw near
The weather smells of their hate
And the houses smell of our fear;
Death has opened his white eye….

And T. S. Eliot writes in the same vein in Murder in the Cathedral:

The white flat face of Death…
And behind the face of Death
   the Judgement
And behind the Judgement
   the Void…
Emptiness, absence, separation
   from God…

I wrote this sermon before the calamity at the Sandy Hook school. As you can imagine, I have struggled with the thought that I should write a completely new sermon. Instead, I have made some small but significant adjustments to what I already prepared. This message, ultimately, is about God. In the final analysis there is no human answer whatsoever to the problem of evil. We can only continue to insist upon the reality and power of God in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.

So we move on to Jack Gilpin and his two vocations. I’m sure many of you have seen Jack on television, but my husband and our daughters have had the special privilege of seeing Jack performing on stage (the highest form of acting), always with the greatest delight and admiration. So I’m thinking now about the connection between acting and preaching.

Jack and Anne were prominent among many actors (and would-be actors) who were part of the congregation at Grace Church in New York City in the 1980s and ’90s. Some of them, in addition to the Gilpins, were very successful — one appeared several times in important roles on Broadway, one won a Tony, one has continued to appear in Hollywood movies, several still act in regional theatres, and so forth. So, as you can imagine, Scripture readings in the worship services at Grace Church were memorable. However, there was one hurdle that had to be overcome (Jack will remember this). Before the actors became great readers, they had to learn to stop acting!

The best way I can explain this is to refer to a passage written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the great Christian pastor and theologian who was executed by the Nazis. This is from his book called Life Together, and it’s about the proper way to read from the Bible. I’d like to read you a paragraph. I hope it will be edifying not only for those who read Scripture but also for those who listen to it being read.

How shall we read the Scriptures? … It will soon become apparent that it is not easy to read the Bible aloud for others. … It may be taken as a rule for the right reading of the Scriptures that the reader should never identify himself with the person who is speaking in the Bible. It is not I that am angered, but God; it is not I giving consolation, but God; it is not I admonishing, but God admonishing in the Scriptures. I shall be able, of course, to express the fact that it is God who is angered, who is consoling and admonishing, not by indifferent monotony, but only with inmost concern and rapport, as one who knows that he himself is being addressed. It will make all the difference between right and wrong reading of the Scriptures if I do not identify myself with God but quite simply serve Him. Otherwise I will become rhetorical, emotional, sentimental…. or coercive and imperative; that is, I will be directing the listeners’ attention to myself instead of to the Word. But this is to commit the worst of sins in presenting the Scriptures.

One of the things that I always noticed about our actors at Grace Church is that when they were just getting started as lay readers, they would emote. They would act out all the roles, including that of God. But as soon as they were given this passage from Bonhoeffer, they immediately — to a person — caught on, and they never made that mistake again. The actors became the best readers we had — not for the reasons you might think, not because they read dramatically or gestured theatrically, but because even when they learned not to act, they knew how to use their voices — and their posture — to communicate. They knew it from their training, but even more, I think they knew it by instinct. Instinct is God-given, and not everyone has it. It’s part of what makes a really good actor.

But another aspect of being an actor is being able to take direction. An actor who couldn’t take direction would never have a chance. Our actors at Grace Church were very much more ready to take direction from Dietrich Bonhoeffer than many other non-actor readers that I’ve known, who tended to push back. This reminds me of the story in Luke’s Gospel about Jesus and the centurion who had a beloved slave. The slave was sick and at the point of death. The centurion sent friends to tell Jesus that he didn’t have to come in person:

“Lord, I am not worthy to have you come under my roof … say the word only, and let my servant be healed. For I am a man set under authority, with soldiers under me: and I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this he marveled … and turned and said to the multitude that followed him, “I tell you, not even in Israel have I found such faith.” And when they … returned to the house, they found the slave well.
     (Luke 7:1-10)

This is not a story about slavery, or military leadership, or even healing. Rather, it’s a story about the power of the word of Jesus, and the authority of the word of Jesus. It’s a story about faith in Jesus Christ as the very Word of God. Taking direction from the Word of God is the very heart and soul of Christian faith, and certainly the heart and soul of ordination to the Christian ministry.

We have read Psalm 115. Here is the first verse again:

Not to us, O Lord, not to us,
but to thy name give glory….

The senior professor of New Testament at Princeton Theological Seminary, Beverley Gaventa, was a student at Union Theological Seminary, where Jack studied, at the same time that I was. When I saw her again at Princeton a few years ago, I asked her what she was working on, and she said she was writing a commentary on the Book of Acts. Knowing that Acts has been called “the most disputed book in the New Testament,” I asked her somewhat warily, “What approach to Acts will you be taking?” I was thinking of stuff like, is it historically trustworthy? what about its depiction of Paul? what sort of community was it written for? is it Jewish or Hellenistic? what genre is it? and so forth. What’s your angle on Acts?

Professor Gaventa said something revolutionary. She said, “It’s about God.”

It’s about God. In other words, the Acts of the Apostles is misnamed. It’s not about the actions of the apostles. It is about the actions of God. Now this may seem obvious to you, but it isn’t. More often than not, the Bible isn’t taught today as if it were about God. It’s taught as a repository of human religious thinking. It’s presented as an interesting and important document about human spiritual development. It’s treated as a collection of human imaginings about God. But this is precisely what the Bible is not. The Bible demands to be understood as the revelation of the one true God who is really God. This doesn’t have to be believed, of course, but it requires that we hear it the way it means to be heard, whether we believe it or not. It means to be understood as the Word of God. Not the dictated-directly-from-heaven Word, to be sure, but the true and living Word of God nonetheless.

The professor who taught Shakespeare when I was an undergraduate gave me a great gift for which I have been grateful all my life. He taught his students that Shakespeare is vast, colossal, inexhaustible. Shakespeare, he insisted, was bigger than any of us, bigger than all of us put together. He instilled in us a respect, indeed a reverence, for Shakespeare’s plays, and this evoked a corresponding humility in us. We were assigned various critics to read, but in the end, he used to say, “the critics are all bad” — including himself. The plays were indeed the thing. Only by submitting ourselves to the texts for months and years on end would we ever approach wisdom — by entering the world of the plays, by giving ourselves up to their shaping power, by allowing Shakespeare to reconfigure our horizons and open our eyes to new realms of understanding. This is totally different from the way Shakespeare is taught now. Students are encouraged to think of themselves as competent to interpret the text as they think best before they have allowed the text to have its way with them.

Jack, I don’t know much about how you have developed as a biblical interpreter since we were together during those great days at Grace Church when the congregation was full of people who went on to become theologians and professors of Bible and ordained clergy all over the map, in the Grace Church diaspora. I do know this: you have always been in the Lord’s sights. I know that you have pursued this course without flinching for many years. After all, you graduated from Union Seminary fifteen years ago. By now you are old enough to play Woodrow Wilson without makeup. We don’t know how many years you will have to use your gifts in the service of the Lord’s church. But we do know a few things. We know that God is one who calls. Why he calls some and not others we do not know; it is part of his inscrutable will. But the entire biblical enterprise depends on the premise that God calls people, and not just ordained people, either. As the Psalmist writes, “Our God is in the heavens; he does whatever he pleases.”

The first lines of Psalm 115 are the theme of this sermon: “Not to us, Lord, not to us, but to thy name give glory.” After this, the Psalmist asks, anxiously, “Why should the nations say, ‘Where is their God?’” Where, indeed? Where was God yesterday morning? Why didn’t he do something? We have to acknowledge that there is no ready answer to that. The question that Advent asks is, “How long, O Lord?” How long before all that is wrong with this world is made right? The lament of Jeremiah continues this way:

Wilt thou be to me like a deceitful brook,
    like waters that fail?

Is God deceitful? Has he abandoned us? Indeed, is there a God at all?

Psalm 115 does not answer these questions. Instead of answers we get revelation, a revelation of the God who alone is powerful, the God who alone creates, the God who alone is able to right wrongs. The Psalm mocks all the non-gods that human beings worship:

Their idols are silver and gold,
     the work of men’s hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
     eyes, but do not see…
They have hands, but do not feel;
     feet, but do not walk…
      (Ps. 115:4-7)

The gods that human beings create and worship have no power. They make false promises that they cannot keep. Instead, the people of God are summoned to faith in the true God:

O Israel, trust in the Lord!
    He is [your] help and [your] shield….
You who fear the Lord trust in the Lord!
    He is [your] help and [your] shield.
    (Ps. 115:9-11)

Jack, will you please rise? This is your calling: as never before, we need to help our people understand that it’s about God. This is an age that is drifting further and further away from faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, further and further away from faith in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It’s an age that prefers to pretend that it can create its own god. Therefore, when calamity strikes, there is no one home.

In the time that God gives you to lead the people of St. John’s in New Milford, the abundant gifts he has given you will help you to teach that the God of the Bible is truly God. You will continue to take direction from the Bible, live in the world of the Bible, give yourself up to the shaping power of the Bible, and allow the Bible to continue to reconfigure your horizons. Thus you and your flock will grow more deeply into trust in the Lord who is your help and your shield.

There will never be easy answers. Sometimes it will seem that there is no answer at all except what appears to be emptiness, absence. But this is what the servants of God have always known. As one of our Union Seminary professors, Kosuke Koyama, wrote, “Jesus Christ is not a quick answer. If Jesus Christ is the answer he is the answer in the way portrayed in crucifixion” (Mount Fuji and Mount Sinai).

Where was God yesterday? We see him only in the way Dietrich Bonhoeffer described him, as one who let himself be pushed out of the world onto the cross (Letters and Papers from Prison). But the power that is God’s alone is the power that raised the crucified Christ from the tomb. That power is the power that is able, in the words of St. Paul, “to raise the dead and call into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17). That power, Jack Gilpin, is the power poured into you by the Spirit … and it is the power poured into the whole church, and that means all those here today to uphold you. And so…

To [God] who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than we can ever ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.
     (Eph. 3:20-21)

Fleming Rutledge’s most recent books are Not Ashamed of the Gospel and The Lord Spoke to Abraham. She can be found at www.generousorthodoxy.org.

File photo: The rood screen at St. John’s Cathedral, Denver

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