Wednesday, August 29, 2007

God's fire

Thought you would appreciate this sermon for Pentecost XII, preached Aug. 19 by the Rev. Canon Tom Miller at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine.

There is a new production of Bernard Shaw’s St. Joan at the National Theatre in London. I attended a preview performance when I was there last month. The play received glowing reviews and has been hailed by one critic as a “potent political masterpiece.” While other writers have told the story by focusing on Joan of Arc as a saint and martyr, it is Shaw’s genius to tell all sides of the story with understanding and surprising impartiality. In Shaw’s treatment, we have some sympathy for church and state in what they perceive is a war of terror that challenges their authority. Then, too, we also get a critical look at Joan’s unbending individualism that threatens anarchy and raises legitimate questions about whether she is prophetic, obsessive, or possibly psychotic. At the very least the play offers a caution about people who claim to have private lines to God.

The play has been called a tragedy with no villains. But then there are no real heroes or heroines either. Despite efforts all round to avoid Joan’s legendary fate, every one, including Joan, is complicit in the outcome of the story – and that outcome is fire, the consuming fire that kills Joan but which also brings everyone to contrition by the final scene. And the cynic might well ask, what has been achieved in the end? Church and state dominate to survive and Joan only eventually becomes a saint as a kind of cosmic consolation prize. And the pattern will continue down to our own day.

It is no great surprise that the National Theatre decided to revive this particular play at this particular time in history. Once again we are playing with fire: nations reacting against threats to their security; religious authority in much of the world colluding with the state to preserve the old order, or at least the order in power, and actors on the world stage, in both leading and supporting roles, getting their instructions directly from God. And it all inevitably ends with fire.

The reality of that fire is all around us: in the flames of war, in flames fanned by fanatics on a mission, in flames ignited by reactionary forces bent on controlling others. And then there are the metaphorical flames to consider: flames of jealousy and insecurity that lead to abuse and murder; flames of hatred and self-righteousness that lead to exclusion and suppression and often enough to actual cruelty and murder; flames of rage and revenge. No wonder hell is pictured as a fiery furnace waiting to consume the sinful. We know that version of hell right here on earth.

And yet, fire is also central to our faith tradition and how we understand God to be with us and working for us. The pillar of fire that led the Hebrews through the wilderness by night is a majestic and reassuring image. Moses encountered the bush that was burning but was not consumed. In today’s Gospel lesson, Jesus speaks of bringing fire to the earth through the Passion about to be played out, and as a result of his death and resurrection, the Apostles received the Pentecostal tongues of flame, that fire that burns within the human heart and mind but does not destroy us, but rather continually inspires us to let God guide us, reveal divine reality to us, and to live in us and through us.

As much as we fear the fires set off by our worst excesses, we welcome the kindling of the spirit we call divine. As we often sing, “Come down, O love divine, seek thou this soul of mine, and visit it with thine own ardor glowing.” And the hymn continues: “O Comforter, draw near, within my heart appear, and kindle it, thy holy flame bestowing.” What a contrast the holy flame offers to humanity’s flirtation with the flames of destruction. From Moses to Jesus, the holy fire burns but does not consume. Holy fire enlivens us and fuels desire for God and for God’s righteousness on earth and in our lives. As William Blake envisioned a new Jerusalem even in the midst of a growing industrialism, the poet cried out, “Bring me my bow of burning gold! Bring me my arrows of desire! Bring me my spear . . . Bring me my chariot of fire!”

And so, when Jesus declares, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” we might well imagine that he cries out in reference to the holy flame of desire that is already burning in his heart and which will burn with its true brightness only when his own baptism of fire is complete. And the passion with which these words are recorded in Luke’s Gospel is profoundly powerful not only for the souls of the righteous, but for the sake of the world as well. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division.” Divine passion is too powerful not to challenge the established order. Divine passion is bound to unsettle those who experience it and unsettle those who feel terror at what may be prophetic witness but that might all too easily be psychotic delusion. Without such divine fire we would be lost in the flames of our own destruction.

And all this time you thought Jesus was the Good Shepherd, or perhaps you are a devotee of the Suffering Servant, the Teacher or the Great Physician. For you he is the Prince of Peace, Redeemer, or Christ the King. Yes, all right, Jesus is all of these things, but Jesus is also the one who tells us, “I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled!” We are given a picture of Jesus as the fire-bearer, the one who brings passionate desire to the earth so we can see what God’s passion looks like. We have seen the presence of God in the burning bush; the persistence of God in the pillar of fire, and now we witness the passion of God emerging from the sacred heart of Jesus, who understood that nothing of the story can be left out. Powers and principalities will play with fires that lead to death and destruction, but God offers flames of holy desire that bring us to life. As many seek glory in the fires of war, it is in the sacred flames of holy desire that we find the true mark of greatness in the world.

Stephen Spender wrote, “I think continually on those who were truly great – The names of those who in their lives fought for life, Who wore at their hearts the fire’s centre.” We have been given God’s holy fire to wear in our hearts, to let a holy flame burn at the center of our being. This is not fire to be played with, but fire to kindle and keep a continuing flame burning for the peace and justice of God to prevail in the world.

Bernard Shaw had it right, I think. We are all players in the affairs of the world, we are all complicit in the vain and foolish games we play with fire, and certainly no one is exempt from the destruction that ensues. The whole world suffers when the powerful in either church or state make security or certainty their idol. We suffer too when we keep our faith private and exempt ourselves from the sins of the world.

God does not keep to private places. As Gerard Manley Hopkins reminds us, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out like shining from shook foil.” That shining, that spectacular illumination of God, is the fire Jesus brought to earth. We see it before us, and we have it within us. And nothing can put out that flame except that our indifference can divert our attention from it, our arrogance can blind us to it, and our fears can mistake it for destruction.

The second verse of the hymn “Come down, O Love divine” goes like this: “O let it freely burn, till earthly passions turn to dust and ashes in its heat consuming; and let thy glorious light shine ever on my sight, and clothe me round, the while my path illuming.” May we have the wisdom to distinguish the flames of destruction from the fires of passion for life, and seeing the difference, may we not fear the fire of Love divine, and may the glorious light of that burning Love shine on the path before us and make a dwelling in our hearts forever.

Friday, August 24, 2007

A Midsummer Night's Dream

It was well worth waiting for. This is the best production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” I have ever seen. It’s also the first time I liked the mechanicals, the weaver, carpenter and other craftsmen who provide the low comedy, or rather lowest comedy. I always found them to be tedious, both in reading the play and watching it. But these six actors make them endearing and quite funny.

Director Daniel Sullivan has assembled an excellent cast and brings out each of the four plots -- the royals, the young lovers, the fairies and the mechanicals -- strongly in their own right, and then mingles them beautifully, not sacrificing any part.

As I said in my earlier mini review after Sunday’s rain-interrupted show, Jay O. Sanders is fabulous as Nick Bottom, the weaver. So is Jesse Tyler Ferguson as Francis Flute, the bellow’s-mender, who is a riot as Bottom’s bride in the mechanicals’ play. Tim Blake Nelson, Ken Cheeseman, Jason Antoon and Keith Randolph Smith make up the rest of the troupe and are also terrific.

This “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” more than makes up for long waits for tickets, rain, cold, buzzing helicopters and all the other variables of the Shakespeare in the Park experience. Catch it before it closes Sept. 9. A production like this will not come along again.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Dandelions & Honey: Notes on a Forsaken Island

Check out this book by Harry Kavros. It’s a collection of essays in which the author travels through the mythological, cultural, literary, culinary, theological and mountainous landscapes of Crete.

Monday, August 20, 2007

A Midsummer Night's Dream

The first half hour was so promising. Then the next two hours were all wet.
Oh the risks of doing Shakespeare in the Park! This “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” became a wet Dream Sunday night, but not before some good old the-show-must-go-on determination on the part of the Public, its cast and the audience.
My friend Carolyn and I had already skipped our picnic because of the rain, but we headed over to the Delacorte to see what would happen at curtain time. As the other hopefuls crowded around the dry space surrounding the theatre, we sat on a bench, me with an umbrella and Carolyn in a rain hat, and sipped the red wine she had bought for our canceled picnic.
We waited. And waited. And drank some more wine. And waited a bit more.
Finally, sometime after 9 the house opened to much cheering. By now it was only misting. We sat in our wet seats and watched the stagehands try to mop water from the wet stage. We were told when the curtain went up, our umbrellas had to go down, which didn’t seem necessary since there was plenty of room for the hardy band that was left to move away from an offending umbrella, but the young people who work for the Public are definitely rule happy -- Carolyn calls one of them the line Nazi -- so when the show started, we put away the umbrellas and shivered in the mist, which then became sprinkles, which then became light rain.
When the announcement came that the show was being canceled I didn’t mind, even though I was enjoying it. The irony, as Carolyn said, is that there have been plenty of times we would have been happy to leave early because the shows were so bad. This is one show I would have stayed for, had it only been misty, until midnight, which would have been the finishing time because of the late start.
Here’s what I liked -- Martha Plimpton as Helena and Jay O. Sanders (in photo) as Bottom standout as perfect for their parts. A glimpse of Laila Robins (in photo) as Titania gave the promise of much fun to come when she is knocked from her lofty perch by the spell that leaves her bewitched of Bottom. I was intrigued by Eugene Lee’s set dominated by a big bare tree and wanted to see what it would unfold.
So, does anyone know what the weather is for next Sunday?

Friday, August 17, 2007


“Ninety percent of my game is mental. It is my concentration that has gotten me so far.”
-- Chris Evert

I heard Martina say something similar once, that a person can only have one thought in her head at a time so she makes that thought one that is focused on her goal. This reminds me of one of my favorite scenes in the movie “A League of Their Own.” Geena Davis, who plays on a women’s professional baseball team, is talking to her coach, Tom Hanks. She says she wants to quit because it’s hard. He says, of course it’s hard. If it wasn’t hard everyone would do it.
That’s so true. If it wasn’t hard everyone would be successful athletes or writers or actors or singers or whatever. Too many people give up on their dreams because the way is hard. As the song from “Gypsy” says: “Some people sit on their butts, got the dream, yeah, but not the guts.”
Joseph Campbell said if you pursue your bliss, the money will follow. I have always found this to be true.

Monday, August 13, 2007

The Hanging of Razor Brown

Some southern gothic for late summer in New York. Le Wilhelm’s play has it all -- racism, alcoholism, a degenerate character from a leading family and a deep dark secret of the sexual kind. The ghost of Tennessee Williams roams the stage at 59E59 Theater C in this story, set in 1923 in a small fictional Florida town on the day of a hanging.
Madame Lecompte, the French teacher, has brought three of her students, young ladies done up in their finest frocks for the occasion, to witness the hanging. Safely removed from the carnival held in the town square to celebrate the event, the four watch from the local graveyard, which affords them a good view, while supposedly maintaining their dignity.
“It’s a paltry turnout to what they used to have when I was a girl,” Madame Lecompte says. “I haven’t been to a hanging in so long. I remember them as so much fun.”
The “star” of the day is Razor Brown, who used to work for Madame and who has been found guilty of stealing a pony. Although evidence surfaces to prove him innocent, town officials are too happy with the celebration of his hanging to listen. In fact, he’s put on display.
“He’ll have to stand around awhile so people can get a good look at him,” Madame tells her students, who are becoming increasingly unsettled by the whole spectacle. She says they must watch because “it’s part of growing up.”
And part of growing up in that time and place involves the acceptance of lies.
“They may be lies,” Madame says, “but they’re our lies. The truth would drive us quite insane.”
The chilling aspect of all this comes across better in the second act. I thought the first dragged a good bit, a sentiment I also heard expressed during intermission. The acting was solid across the board, so to make it a really tight and effective piece of theatre I’d like to see the play cut from its current two hours to 90 minutes without an intermission. Then there would be no distractions from the macabre world Mr. Wilhelm has created.

For information, visit

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Fool for Christ

I sat down with pen and paper to review this DVD, but I was so immediately involved that my paper stayed blank. From the opening sentence, “Well, Dorothy, here you are, 75 years old and in the clink again,” Sarah Melici drew me into the world of Dorothy Day. With her gifts for storytelling and acting, Melici transforms herself into the passionate 20th century journalist, social critic and cofounder of the Catholic Worker movement.

Melici has been performing this one-woman play, which she wrote with Donald Yonker, for many years. I haven’t been fortunate enough to see it live yet, but the quality of the DVD is first rate and it will be one that I will watch often.

It opens as Day is jailed after one of her many arrests; this one for protesting for farm worker rights. She then reflects back on her “checkered” life, with its affairs, abortion, brief marriage, the birth of her child and the birth of her faith and activism.

From the distance of years she can see how God was calling her. When she walked, “prayers just filled my head,” and if she had been tired or sad at the start of the walk, she felt “intense joy” at the end. The birth of her daughter “made me want to worship and adore.”

“For a long time, it was a lonely love affair,” she tells us, noting that following God was a “hard, lonely life” for others who were called, from Jonah to St. Paul. Her call was to serve the poor and she did that through the Catholic Worker newspaper and hospitality house, and decades of human rights protests. For her efforts, she faced not only multiple arrests, but much criticism.

“When we feed the hungry, they call us saints,” she said. “When we ask why they are poor, they call us communists.”

Through all her struggles, Day, as Melici portrays her so beautifully, is driven by love -- for God and for others -- and that is the message she emphasizes as she leaves her cell at the end, reminiscence finished. She quotes St. John of the Cross that at the end of life we will be judged on love.

If that is our judgment, Day, and Melici, should do quite well.

For information about the DVD and Melici’s performances, visit

Thursday, August 2, 2007

God's time

“God is not hurried along in the time-stream of this universe any more than an author is hurried along in the imaginary time of his own [script]. He has infinite attention to spare for each one of us. He does not have to deal with us in the mass. You are as much alone with Him as if you were the only being He had ever created. When Christ died, He died for you individually as much as if you had been the only man in the world.”
-- C.S. Lewis