Tuesday, May 20, 2008

A South Pacific sermon


A Sermon for Easter Six (RCL-A)
27 April 2008
The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, New York
Delivered by the Rev. Canon Tom Miller


I am reminded of the scene in “The Graduate” when a businessman confronts Dustin Hoffman at a cocktail party and says he has only one word of advice for the young man starting out in life: Plastics. Well, today I have two words: South. Pacific. To be specific, South Pacific, the remarkably rich revival of the Rogers and Hammerstein classic, which I attended on Wednesday night.

Well, who would have guessed? In wondering why it hadn’t been revived before, some critics speculated that it might be too dated, too rooted in its time, too politically na├»ve, or that the plot might be too soppy. Well, the truth is, South Pacific is one of the most up-to-date and sophisticated musicals in New York, smart without cynicism; romantic without too much sentimentality, and politically relevant without partisanship. It’s taken me a lifetime to catch up with South Pacific. Truly: South Pacific opened on Broadway just a few months before I made my first appearance in the bassinette. I’d like to think it was a good year! But South Pacific went its way, and I went mine. But am I ever glad I finally caught up with it.

Here’s the thing I found so wonderful about this theatre piece: It is not afraid to look at human weakness and our struggle with issues of war, racism, class prejudice, brutality, and the troubled affairs of the heart. And it does so with humor as well as heart break, a fair amount of gorgeous song and emotional honesty, and always with the confidence that the human spirit can be courageous when it needs to be – or wants to be -- and that people can accomplish more by pulling together rather than by pulling apart. In other words, it’s not just optimistic. It’s hopeful.

Maybe that’s why some thought the material might be dated. We live today with all the same issues, and yet the prevailing mood is not particularly hopeful, but too often marked by fear and anxiety, which lead to hatred and violence; meanness at home and arrogance abroad. Our spirits seem vulnerable and too easily discounted amidst the harsh realities of our times. How thrilling it is, then, to once again see the world through the eyes of our better natures, to risk a little cockeyed optimism – not to mention that little thing called hope -- in the face of danger and paralyzing uncertainty. In that sense there is a nostalgic quality to this evening in the theatre, but it is a challenging and encouraging nostalgia that doesn’t simply summon up fond memories of a long departed time, but prompts a desire to regain the kind of hope that fills the stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theatre.

Suddenly we feel as if we might know deep down inside what the Letter of Peter challenges us to do: To claim and account for the hope that is in us. Rodgers and Hammerstein presumably account for the hope that was in them; James Michener accounts for the hope he witnessed in the Solomon Islands during World War II. And that hope is that we really are meant to love one another and to let love transform our prejudices, divisions, and to release the hope that is indeed within each one of us.

It’s been reported that when James Michener attempted to write about his experiences in the South Pacific, he tried to write a factual account of events and the details of the military operations, but that he kept being drawn back to the people, some seemingly very ordinary, some quite eccentric, some heroic, and yet everyone of them in their ways extraordinary, and so he ended up giving us the character portraits that make up the story of his book and the subsequent musical version. Perhaps that’s why we are inclined to trust the story. We connect on a very personal level and we can feel the truth of the struggle in the story.

I would like to take just three characters from South Pacific to illustrate the power of love – not simply romantic love, but redeeming and transforming love that challenges the received perceptions of our hearts and minds; love that is tested and in the testing found to be more profound, more enduring, stronger than the characters might ever have imagined; a love that frees them – and us – to hope for abundant life lived with integrity and full of grace and truth.

The first character is perhaps the least complicated. Lieutenant Joe Cable is from a prominent Philadelphia family. He’s young, a little full of himself, and ready to do his duty. And then he falls under the spell of Bali H’ai, “your own special island,” as the song has it, and there he meets a young Tonkinese woman with whom he falls in love. After the initial bliss – younger than springtime – the reality hits him. At least he is honest enough to face the difficulties of taking a Polynesian wife back to the Main Line. They would give a dinner party and no one would come, he sadly reminds himself and us. And so he rejects the young woman and is cursed by the girl’s mother, Bloody Mary.

In frustration and shame he sings about how hatred and prejudice are taught to us by our families and our communities. “You have to be taught before it’s too late, Before you are six or seven or eight, To hate all the people your relatives hate . . . ” It’s a humiliating self realization for Lieutenant Cable, and it’s a bracing recognition of truth for us in the audience. As atonement for his suppression of love, Cable goes off to accomplish an impossible mission that helps turn the tide of the war. Unable to love, he is ready to die.

Nellie Forbush is a little more complicated. She has a mother. She has a mother who writes her letters and reminds her of her provincial roots. Nellie is also an optimist in love with life on a grand scale. She’s in love with love itself, a perilous place for the heart to be. As Richard Rodgers wrote with another partner, Lorenz Hart, “Falling in love with love is falling for make believe.” And now, here in the South Pacific, Nellie’s notion of love on a grand scale is challenged by falling in love with the very singular man she keeps telling us is “a wonderful guy,” the French planter Emile de Becque. She overcomes her wariness and her mother’s likely disapproval to let herself think that she might actually marry him. The test of her love comes in the form of two mixed-blood children de Becque has fathered with a Polynesian woman. Knucklehead Nellie, as her friends call her with some justification, discovers how deeply rooted her racial concepts are, so rooted that she cannot overcome them and she ends the relationship. Well, but this is a test of love. The strength of the love she thought she had quenched asserts itself in her lover’s absence. Nellie steps in to help care for the children, discovers that in caring for them she finds she loves them, a focused and intentional love that frees her to love their father.

Emile de Becque is perhaps the most complex and has had a most interesting life. In his youth he killed a man in his village in France. We’re only told that the man was a bully. De Beque escaped to the South Pacific where he sought and found refuge from the brutality of the world. Now the war has come and threatened his sense of safety in isolation, but it has also brought Nellie and he finds, unlike Nellie and Cable, that he cannot, and indeed does not wish to, suppress this powerful love he feels within himself. The depth of his love is revealed when Nellie rejects him: “This nearly was mine.” One dream in his heart, one partner in paradise. And now he finds himself alone and abandoned. The test of his despair drives him to go along on Cable’s dangerous mission.

Without love there is no hope, nothing through which we can encounter the brutalities of life on the planet, short of running away and hiding from the world. Nellie rejects love, Cable finds himself powerless to accept it, and de Becque, now despairing in love, finds himself playing a part in the very brutality he once sought to escape. There may be hope in all this, but only if love prevails.

Now, my purpose here is not simply to give you a review of South Pacific or to encourage you to go to the theatre, though I certainly do. No, my aim is that you might give some thought to St. Peter’s reminder that we are all called to account for the hope that is in us. When he asks us to do that, he’s not suggesting we work up a theological treatise on hope. We are not asked to think about hope, but to live in hope and to proclaim how the love of God has freed us to hope. For God so loved the world . . . that he gave us love and hope in the flesh, in person, in Jesus, who endured the brutality of the world in love and thereby gives us hope.

Each one of us has been freed to love one another, individually, tribally and globally. It’s all that’s asked of us. Jesus left one commandment above all others: Love one another. This is the gift of Jesus Christ, who overcame the brutality of the cross and grave, so that we might love and hope in the power of the Holy Spirit.

There is one more thing I need to say about South Pacific. The name of the island on which Michener served in World War II, the island where the play takes place, is Espiritu Santo. The Holy Spirit. In the end, love and hope are not out there on a lonely island called Bali H’ai. Hope and love are alive in the hearts and minds of all of us who live together and struggle together right here on Espiritu Santo, and not just in 1949, but today in 2008, and indeed, every day of our lives.

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