"Godspell, Grace, and Grumpy Christians" – Matthew 5:13-20
“You are the salt of the earth; but if salt has lost its taste, how can its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything, but is thrown out and trampled under foot.
“You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
In 2013 I decided to return to the world of musical theater. Our local community theater in Paducah, Kentucky had announced their next production would be the revival of the 1970's iconic Steven Schwartz musical, Godspell. I auditioned and was selected to play the role of Jesus.
Godspell is a musical constructed around select stories from the gospel of Matthew (namely, several of Jesus’ parables) that culminates with Jesus’ crucifixion. The difficulty is that there’s no overarching narrative behind Godspell. It’s not a cohesive story, per se. Jesus simply shows up with some fun-loving friends, they each take turns singing and acting out these beautiful stories, and then Jesus is betrayed and killed. I suppose that is the beauty behind the production – it uniquely highlights the senselessness of the crucifixion. There’s no buildup or foreshadowing. Instead, stories of joy, forgiveness, morality, and faithfulness are met with unspeakable, inexplicable violence.
The first act is particularly energetic and joyful. The song that concludes the first act is a high-energy song called, “You Are The Light of the World.” It’s a song that the cast sings together – a visual and auditory demonstration of the unity of Jesus and his disciples. The text is taken from Matthew’s account of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
For this song, our director instructed us to line up at the edge of the stage, so that we could be right next to the audience. Our director knew that the audience would be singing and clapping along to this song, so she decided to have the house lights turned on for this number so that we could see the audience and feed off their energy.
Here's the song:
I loved singing this song. It was loud and exciting, and we didn’t have to worry about any choreography, which I appreciated. We simply sang into a sea of smiling faces, many of whom were standing, singing, and clapping right with us…except for that one couple.
I’m sure this happened every night of our show, but I only noticed it on the evening of our third performance. As the lights came up on the audience and we started singing, my eyes were immediately drawn to the man and woman who looked completely disengaged. All throughout the number I tried looking elsewhere and focusing on the people who were obviously enjoying themselves; but my attention kept coming back to this couple with the crossed arms and furrowed brows.
My response was to sing louder, move more energetically, and smile bigger. I wanted them to join in, feel moved, and share in our joy. But as we finished the number and walked off stage to applause, I looked back at the couple and saw they were still sitting, motionless, not joining in the applause.
As a performer, their response bothered me. I immediately wondered what I had done wrong. What about the show were they not enjoying? What could I have done better? I dwelled on this issue throughout the intermission.
But I wasn’t only concerned on a performance level; I was also concerned on a pastoral level; because every time I performed in Godspell I was singing not only as an actor, but also as a Christian and a pastor. I was putting my heart and soul into proclaiming Jesus’ promise to each and every person in the audience that he or she was the light of the world. How could that good news alone not make this couple smile?
That performance took place on a Saturday night, which meant I was back in church the next morning, once again proclaiming God’s promises, not to an audience in a theater but to the people in the pews at our little Lutheran church. Of course, leading worship and preaching wasn’t a performance. I wasn’t looking for my congregation to sing along with my sermon or respond with applause; but I do remember noticing several people who, throughout worship, kept their arms crossed, brows furrowed, and looked completely disengaged…just like the couple from the night before.
The lyrics of the song from Godspell ran through my mind as I looked out on the congregation.
“You are the light of the world.
But if that light’s under a bushel, you’ve lost something kinda crucial.
You gotta stay bright to be the light of the world.
So let your light so shine before men,
so that they might know some kindness again.
We all need help to feel fine.”
Those combined experiences raised a question that I still think about today. What is it about today’s church that keeps us from smiling when we hear the radical good news that the God who created us means to make us instruments of peace? Why isn’t our gut reaction to sing along to God’s word and let the stories of scripture move our feet up and out of the pews and in the direction of the poor, outcast, and marginalized who desperately need the good news?
There are countless reasons why people within the church would react to Jesus’ life-giving promises with apprehension, distrust, or indifference. For one, most of us don’t think highly enough of ourselves to believe that God loves us. If we cannot grasp this truth, discipleship is impossible.
Also, it is a fact that the life Jesus invites us to live is counter-intuitive and upside-down (a bizarro world, as Pastor Mark remarked last week): give up your life to save it, lead by serving, turn the other cheek when abused, beat swords into farming tools, find blessing by being a blessing, give to all who ask, forgive debts, speak truth to power, take up your cross, etc.
There are many sensible reasons to reject the truth of Jesus, but watering down Jesus’ promises and instructions to better accommodate our limited knowledge, experiences, and prejudices is not an option. The light of the world isn’t on a dimmer switch; the light of God’s word shines so brightly that it exposes every corner and crevice where sin would hide. The salt of the earth is pure – it exists to preserve and enhance. The city on the hill is a beacon for all people to join in singing the praises of the God of all creation.
Some people will refuse to join in. It is not possible to make others accept the truth and consequences of Jesus. But we keep singing. We keep striving to make the promises of scripture manifest in our world.
I pray that you would find Jesus’ words so convicting and energizing that you start tapping your toes and singing along. I pray that your fear would give way to the peace that passes all understanding.
I pray that the global Christian church would be emboldened to keep singing the song of freedom for all people…that it would drown out the voices of fear and hate.
And I pray that we will keep shining the light into he dark places and preserve the truth of the gospel no matter what obstacles are thrown in its way.