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Friday, 12 June 2015

John-Michael Tebelak and the craziness of God


(14th June) 2015

  • 1 Samuel 15:34 – 16:13
  • Psalm 20
  • 2 Corinthians 5:6-10, 14-17
  • Mark 4:26-34

In the solemn delivery of liturgical reading, especially in an acoustic chamber as echoing as ours, we constantly lose the playfulness, humour, and divine madness that permeates so many of the texts of our faith. (Perhaps this is all the more so now I have opted for the longer and more demanding continuous cycle of readings instead of the ostensibly “related” readings we were using). No matter how good our readers – and you are good! – we are, especially as Anglicans, trained to deliver the text with theatrical gravitas. When we read or chant the psalms we do so with all the joie de vivre of the announcement of a death, the terrible heaviness of a police officer’s knock on the door at night. Do we dare to notice, for example, the craziness of God that gives the second portion of our Samuel reading a glorious and Godly inanity? Do we notice the wry humour with which the psalmist notes the trust some will place in tools of war, while he prefers to trust a God greater even than death? It’s not thigh-slapping, belly-wobbling humour, but it is humour nevertheless and it runs through many of our biblical texts.

We are, after all, Anglican, and we all the more so, for we are cathedral. In the lead up to Pentecost I mentioned the mad in-breaking of the Spirit that was the Charismatic movement of the 1960s and ’70s and perhaps even ’80s. It had its limitations, made its mistakes, danced ultimately on wrong paths, but I suggest that somewhere in the tiggeresque bounce of its ministrations there was an important truth.

That aside, in 1971 a young graduate student named John-Michael Tebelak went for a walk. He should have been finishing his dissertation, but, wearing overalls and a tee-shirt, meandered into the Cathedral of St Paul in Pittsburgh. He had been writing his thesis on ancient Greek and Roman mythology (people did that in those days!) but had become enraptured by the joy he found in the Christian gospels. He sought that joy in St Paul’s Cathedral, and felt that the Easter vigil above all should radiate irrepressible happiness. For his troubles he was frisked by police and left only with the sense that Christians had poured cement on to the tomb that was already sealed by a rock.

Over the next few days he wrote Godspell. He wrote Godspell in all its manic zaniness, and many Christian leaders dismissed the musical as demonic and anti-Christian, metaphorically frisking its lyrics as it was asked to leave the cathedrals and churches of the English-speaking liturgical world. I am less sure that the musical is demonic or anti-Christian, more sure that it is profoundly insightful and Christ-bearing. In the clowns’ mad manic dance there is a search for truth. It is a search that circumnavigates again and again and inescapably around the sayings of Jesus, but also by implication around the very being of Jesus.  (Tebelak was granted his Masters for the lyrics by his school, Carnegie-Mellon University. Coincidentally, amongst its alumni Carnegie-Mellon numbers two of the astronauts killed in the Challenger space shuttle disaster, but also John Forbes Nash, the subject of A Beautiful Mind, and Andy Warhol, whose mind was also arguably beautiful).

Amongst the manic, surreal joy of Godspell is the telling of the Parable of the Sower, that same parable that we haven’t read today. We aren’t reading the Parable of the Sower because it isn’t read in Year B, through which we are now travelling, but the mini-parables we have read this morning are Jesus’ own enlargements on the theme. There was seed that fell amongst weeds, that rose up, and was choked by the worries and concerns of the world, seed that died whilst carefully ensuring that anyone who wore overalls and a tee-shirt, tattoos or a nose stud was firmly frisked by police as they were sent out of the near-empty building.

In Godspell’s telling of the Parable of the Sower the young female narrator grows in confidence as the words break out of her. Under the watchful encouragement of the Jesus-character she journeys from stage-fright to eloquence, and from eloquence to holy madness, as the story crescendos and the final seed yields fruit, thirty and sixty and an improbable hundredfold. But before that she tells of the seed that fell amongst weeds, seed which rose up, and was choked by the worries and concerns of the world. She tells of the seed that, like Samuel, looked on appearance and height of stature, on mission statements and economic viability plans, on demographic assessments and ecological impacts, on canon laws and corporate memories of previous attempts, seed that waxed eloquent on the importance of horses and chariots but forgot the possibilities of God. And that seed choked.

In the minor seed-parables with which we are re-engaging Mark’s gospel-telling we find seed quietly germinating in the dark, or seed that is tiny bursting out in luxurious, manic, tangled mustard seed growth in which the birds of the air can find shade even if they have nose rings and tattoos. We find that the seed manically scattered by a dancing clown, (for in Godspell if not in the gospel itself that is the profound image), in the fruits of frenzied adoration of and devotion to God the ingredients of gospel, ingredients of resurrection hope and compassionate justice and uncontainable cruciform love are irrepressibly spread, and spread, and spread.

As we make our pledges of giving this understated Stewardship Sunday we should be looking far deeper into ourselves: as we reflect this day on our giving to the life of the church, and as we later hear the call to give generously to an appeal to empower women attempting to study at St John’s University in Tanzania, we should respond, madly, manically, to those calls. Alongside those responses we should look deeper still within ourselves, beyond even the linings of our pockets; we should assess anew the viability of the soils of our spirit, question whether we are able to be a place of mad, maniacal God-filled dance, of ridiculous giving of time and energy and love, a place where the light breaks in (as Leonard Cohen put it) or whether the weeds are already or for too long reaching out with choking tendrils. If John-Michael Tebelak were to walk into our midst would he find a dance or a dirge, dancing clowns or frisking police? The choice is ours if we wish to be a place of fertile faith for the generations who at this stage are voting firmly with their absence.

When John-Michael Tebelak (who tragically died of a heart-attack at the age of 32) left St Paul’s, Pittsburgh, he wrote Godspell. He incorporated into his clowns’ telling of the parable of the Sower a well-known and once popular hymn, though it may well be one we have not sung here in recent years. The clowns form a circle and dance, in the way we don’t dance, singing and dancing to these words:

We thank you, our provider,
for all things bright and good,
the seed-time and the harvest,
our life, our health, our food.
Accept the gifts we offer
for all your love imparts,
and, what thou most desirest:
our humble, thankful hearts.

All good gifts around us
are sent from heaven above;
we thank you, Lord, we thank you, Lord
for all your love.

Perhaps we too might one day find our inner clown and dance the mad, manic, mystic dance of thankful faith, the dance John-Michael Tebelak had to leave a cathedral to find. David whose ruddy face and clear eyes ultimately foreshadowed his status as God’s chosen, David the great king, was also the one that as Leonard Cohen again reminded us, danced before the Lord, earning the scorn of Milcah and the admiration of God. Perhaps we can be fertile soil, and  find that dance within these hallowed walls, and take it with us, with no frisking police to stop us, take it with us out into the streets and lanes into which God is calling us.

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