Godspell in a Men's Prison
A glimpse at what I got to do last Saturday...(for subscribers)
Last July I published an essay on The Corners about The Denver University Prison Arts Initiative, and my experience of an original theater piece that was staged inside a men’s prison:
(Many of you have asked if there will be a film available of that piece and I am told that yes, it is in the works…I will post it here whenever it’s made public)
A week ago Saturday, I spent the day inside two men’s prisons in Southern Colorado - both of which are in rehearsals with DUPAI for the musical, Godspell. The director, Clare Hammoor, asked if I would write a liturgy for the men using some of the biblical source texts from the play - and then have a theological conversation with the incarcerated cast and crew. My answer? “All day long”.
(The video below is about the staging of A Christmas Carol inside and outside the Denver Women’s Correctional Facility that took place before COVID - I saw this performance and it was gorgeous)
My experience of leading these men in a liturgy and a theological conversation was more deeply moving than I can possibly express. Their thoughtfulness, heart and appreciation overwhelmed me. At the end of each session I stood in the middle of a circle while they showered me with gratitude and I don’t think I have ever felt exactly that way before. All I know for sure is it is what it feels like to “receive a blessing”.
Below is the liturgy I created for them, it moves from scripture (read by them) to reflection (read by me) to prayer (read by them) to a song from Godspell (sung by us all) 3 times. I grew up listening to the cast recording of this musical; and singing these beloved songs, with God’s beloved children that day was the most worshipful moment I’ve had for a very long time.
A Liturgy For The Incarcerated Cast and Crew of Godspell
1. Centering movement or breath.
As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,
“See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,
who will prepare your way,
the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
‘Prepare the way of the Lord;
make his paths straight,’ ”
so John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And the whole Judean region and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him and were baptized by him in the River Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, “The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the strap of his sandals. I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”
3. Rev. Nadia:
So, in the spirit of full disclosure I feel you should know that I am not now, nor have I ever been, a crazy street corner preacher who waves her Bible wildly while shouting red faced at passersby. Repent! I’m not ruling it out as a possible career move in the future. But (for now) as an outsider to the crazy street corner preacher world, I must say I feel for those guys. Because what could their success rate possibly be? ? I mean, does shouting repent! at people actually work? just speaking for myself, never once has my life changed because a crazy guy with a sign yelled at me from a street corner.
But given the success John the Baptist had, you know, with all of Jerusalem coming to partake in his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, I wonder what the guy said exactly? Why did so many people come to him for his baptism? Because our modern street corner preachers who hold signs that say “repent” don’t have near the same results at all. Maybe because when I hear a preacher shouting “repent” what I really hear is he or she saying is Stop being bad. Start being good because if you don’t, God’s gonna be real mad at you. Which, to my ears, sounds feels like more of a threat than anything else. And that never works on me. Who wants their spiritual arm twisted until they cry Uncle….it’s like… religious bullying .
So I just can’t imagine that it was religious bullying which brought all of Judea and Jerusalem to be baptized by John. I mean, you guys know fear and threat can create change in behavior. No question about it. But they doesn’t really change your thinking. Threats don’t change your heart.
For that kind of change…change in thinking and change of heart it takes truth and promise. Namely truth and promise that comes only from God reaching into the graves we dig ourselves and bringing new life. Because if repentance comes from something other than a word of truth about who you are and who God is it’s not repentance it’s self-improvement.
And I’m pretty sure that what happened that day by the banks of the Jordon was more than just a massive wave of self-improvement.
Not to mention, when the Gospel says that John the Baptist came proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, and ALL of Jerusalem came to be baptized I kinda wonder if that wasn’t maybe a tiny exaggeration. Because I bet that not all of Jerusalem came. I mean, I bet the so-called good religious people, the people for whom the system was working, for whom life was easy, the peopl who were at the center of power – It’s hard to imagine those folks thinking they needed a thing like a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. I bet they stayed put that day.
And I bet the ones who did come to John that day were all the others, the ones for whom the offer of a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins sounded like good news. The last the least the lost the lonely and the forgotten – the sinners, I bet they RAN to the Jordon for that.
So if John came preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins then maybe it wasn’t so much so that sinners would confess and stop being bad. maybe it was so that all would hear the truth and promise about this God who comes near to us in the person of Jesus Christ - not so that we might be good but so that we might be new. John says to them Prepare the way of the Lord. Get ready for something new. Because, there is one who is coming who will change everything.
And the way in which John the Baptist prepares the people for the Gospel is by washing away their old ideas about themselves, washing away their old expectations about their lives, washing away the weight of every regret, every embarrassment, every tear in the waters of a river. And in so doing, all that untruth and shame and biterness floats away in the Jordon because the real thing was coming. The real thing, not a self-improvement scheme, not a reward and punishment system, not a political ideology. The real thing was coming so it was time to wash away their old ideas and get into some forgiveness. Forgiveness is what Preparing the way of the Lord looks like.
See, I believe it was the truth and promise of the Gospel and not religious bullying that compelled repentance and new life from the people of Judea. And my hope is that, even if only for a moment, that there is divine truth and divine promise in this service for you today. Amen.
God of the burning sand and thirsty ground:
you called John into the wilderness to announce a new creation
far from palaces of royal power;
make us ready for your intensity, the judgement that opens our senses to the poverty of our world and calls to life what lingers in death; through Jesus Christ, the one who is to come. Amen.
5. SONG - Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord
Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” But Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now, for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw God’s Spirit descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from the heavens said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.
7. Rev. Nadia
At the Baptism of our Lord heaven simply could not contain God the Father and God the Spirit who just have to interrupt the regularly scheduled programming to bring a very important message. That message is about the identity of Jesus.
The same guy who who just moments ago was standing in line at the Jordon with all the other rif-raf of Judea, God breaks open the heavens to speak the identity of Jesus as God’s son – God’s beloved in whom God is well pleased.
Identity. That is God’s first move.
And it is from this place of identity Jesus was then equipped for his purpose.
But check out the next few verses:
And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
And the Word that had most recently come from the mouth of God was This is my beloved in whom I am well pleased. Identity. It’s God’s first move.
Which means that when The Devil says to Jesus "If you are the Son of God...." he calls into question the very thing God JUST SAID. The devil calls into question Jesus' relationship with the Father because he is craft and he knows that Jesus, as with Adam and Eve before him, is vulnerable to temptation precisely to the degree that his is insecure about his identity in God.
So perhaps there’s a reason why, when Jesus was baptized and given an identity and purpose from God, that the devil’s first move was putting this very identity and purpose into question saying If you really are what God says you are… Identity. … It’s like the end of the spool of thread that when gotten ahold of can unwind the whole thing.
I wonder if we too are vulnerable to temptation: whether it be temptation to self-loathing, or self-aggrandizement; depression or pride, self-destruction or self-indulgence….I wonder if we are vulnerable to darkness precisely to the degree in which we doubt the identity and purpose given us by God.
In the book of Job, the devil is called ha Satan – satan – which in Hebrew means “the accusor”. So some of us here might believe in a literal devil, some might believe in evil, some might just know what it’s like to have that accusing voice in your head telling you you’re worthless.
It doesn’t matter which of these you hold to be true – what does matter is that it’s clear that the first move of the devil is always the same. Attack your identity in the divine. And the precision by which the Devil, or evil or darkness (whatever you want to call it) worms into our own lives in just this way is breathtaking. Like a radioactive isotope custom made for each of us calling into question our identity as beloved children of God.
The longer I try to participate in God’s redeeming work in the world the more I am convinced that there are indeed forces that seek to defy God. And that nowhere are we more prone to encroaching darkness than when we are stepping into the light. If you have ever experienced sudden discouragement in the midst of healthy decisions, you know this is true.
Lutheran Theologian Craig Koester says that From an earthly perspective, evil can seem so pervasive as to be unstoppable. And the current state of this world we live in seems supports that idea. But from a heavenly perspective evil rages on earth not because it is so powerful, but because it is so vulnerable. Koester claims that Satan rages on earth because he has already lost and he is desperate” So when the evil forces that seek to defy God whisper IF in your ear….if God really loved you you wouldn’t be here….If you belong to God you wouldn’t feel like this…If you really are beloved then you should have everything you want … Remember that you, all of You, like our Lord, have been given identity and purpose, so when what seems to be depression or addiction or narcissism or despair or discouragement or resentment or isolation takes over try picturing it as a vulnerable and desperate force seeking to defy God’s grace and mercy in your life and then tell it to piss off and say defiantly to it “I am God’s”
And this is not a matter of having high self-esteem by the way, This is about nothing less than God’s redeeming purpose in the world and that purpose will prevail. Indeed has already prevailed. Amen.
Lord of the desert river,
you search our depths
and call us by name:
may your ﬂame-born Spirit
open the heavens
that we might recognize you
in the one born of earth,
Jesus Christ, the Gift of Peace.
9. SONG - GOD SAVE THE PEOPLE
When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain, and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. And he began to speak and taught them, saying:
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
“Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
“Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
“Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
“Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.
“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. People do not light a lamp and put it under the bushel basket; rather, they put it 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.
The 12-step meeting I attended for years was next door to the Masterpiece Cake Shop - the one who went all the way to the US Supreme Court to seek “protection” from having to make a cake for a gay wedding.
One Saturday, let’s just say I was in a mood. So when I saw that the prime parking spot in front of the bakery was open, I took it, shot a quick pic of me flipping off Masterpiece Cake Shop, posted it on Twitter and went to my meeting.
I mention this because when Jesus says things like, you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world, I think for sure he for sure doesn’t mean me.
I mean, surely Jesus means people who don’t have drinking problems and who never post angry pictures on-line of them making obscene gestures at bakeries and –fancying it to be “activism” – surely those who Jesus would call the salt of the earth and the light of the world are a superior class of people nothing like me. This is what I told myself as I was trying to figure out what I related to in our text for today.
So, curious to know more, I went into the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew to try and discover what I could about who this special class of awesome, salty, light bearing people were.
Ok, this is where I offer an installment of “Pastor Nadia’s Nerdy History Of The Bible” - this week’s topic is: Chapters and Verses.
While having the Bible broken into chapters and verses makes it easier to find things and reference them. The Bible didn’t like, come with them . . . as a matter of fact, there actually were no chapter numbers in the Bible until the 13th century and there were no verse numbers until the 16th century. In other words, Jesus never like, sat down and divided his sermons into verses. So, this means that, believe it or not, you totally have permission to ignore the chapters and verses – like, go for it. Those separations were added hundreds of years later. I mention this because when I defiantly ignored the arbitrary separation between the 4th and 5th chapters of Matthew, it totally changed everything for me. Because honestly, some monk in the 13th century who was the guy who decided one day where Matthew chapter 4 ended, and where Matthew chapter 5 begins, is definitely not the boss of me.
I’ll show you what I mean: Our reading today starts at the beginning of chapter 5 but check out the last verses of chapter 4, which say this: Jesus fame spread throughout all Syria, and they brought to him all the sick, those who were afflicted with various diseases and pains, demoniacs, epileptics, and paralytics, and he cured them. great crowds followed him from a bunch of places I can't pronounce. (which is where chapter 4 ends which I’m sorry, is totally stupid because the first verse of chapter 5 says) When Jesus saw the crowds, (when he saw the demoniacs and epileptics and people in pain) he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.”
See, here’s why sometimes it’s good to ignore the chapter and verse separations. Because it’s so easy for us to default to hearing Jesus’ Sermon On The Mount as pure exhortation. As though he is giving us a list of virtues we should try and adopt so that we too can be considered blessed – you know, be meeker, be poorer, and mournier and you too can meet the conditions of earning Jesus’ blessing. But the thing is, it’s hard to imagine Jesus exhorting a crowd of demoniacs and epileptics to be meeker. He wasn’t telling the sick and the lame what they should try and become, he was telling them you are blessed and you are the salt of the earth and you are the light of the world.
Which is why for years now, I’ve been convinced that the Sermon on the Mount is all about Jesus’ lavish blessing of the people around him on that hillside who his world—like ours—didn’t seem to have much time for: people in pain, people who work for peace instead of profit, people who exercise mercy instead of vengeance.
Maybe Jesus was simply blessing the ones around him that day who didn’t otherwise receive blessing, who had come to believe that, for them, a blessing would never be in the cards.
What I am trying to say is that perhaps there were people in the crowd who totally had their crap together. People who had solid relationships and never had collection agencies calling them and always backed up their hard drives. People who only bought books at Lifeway and who didn't have terrible secrets and who knew exactly what they were doing. I mean, of course it’s possible those people were in the crowd, it’s just . . . that’s not who we are told were coming to Jesus.
The ones we are told were coming to Jesus, the ones presumably to whom he was preaching, were described as the sick, those who were in pain, who fought with demons, who were broken and addicted and late on their back taxes. Those who have more than one ex-wife, and who buy scratchers and think that maybe just a tiny bit of heroin might be a good idea. In other words, the salt of the earth and the light of the world are just the people who happen to be standing in the need of God. And standing in the need of God is standing in the way of blessedness in a way that already having it all together never has been.
I thought that to be the light of the world, to let my light so shine before men, I have to be whole, and strong, and perfect. I’d have to be in that special class of people I’ll never belong to.
But when I listen closely, I realize that nowhere in the Sermon On The Mount does Jesus say “here are the conditions you must meet in order to be the salt of the Earth.” He does not say “here are the standards of wholeness you must fulfill in order to be light for the world”. No. He simply looks out into the crowd of people in pain, people who have been broken open – who bear those spiritual cracks that let in the light, who have the salt of sweat and tears on their broken bodies, and says YOU are salt. You. You are light. You have that of God within you - the God whose light scatters the darkness. Your imperfect and beautiful bodies are made of chemicals with holiness shimmering in them…you are made of dirt and the very breath of God.
So please, don’t wait until you feel as though you have met the conditions of being holy. Trust that Jesus knows what he is doing. You are already holy. Don't try and be it. Know that you already areit. And then, for the love of God, take that seriously. The world needs it. You need it. This prison needs it. AMEN.
God of blessing,
shaming the strong
through the weakness of love;
turning upside down
the wisdom of the world:
may your blessing dwell
with the poor and hungry,
the grieving and abused;
may your peaceful revolution
be our joy and our reward
through Jesus Christ, the power of God. Amen.
13. Song Day by Day
14. Benediction – Rev. Nadia
In closing I offer you this -
I imagine Jesus standing among us offering some new beatitudes:
Blessed are the agnostics.
Blessed are they who doubt. Those who aren’t sure, who can still
Blessed are they who are spiritually impoverished and therefore not so certain about everything that they no longer take in new information.
Blessed are those who have nothing to offer.
Blessed are the preschoolers who cut in line at communion. Blessed are the poor in spirit.
You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are they for whom death is not an abstraction.
Blessed are they who have buried their loved ones, for whom tears could fill an ocean. Blessed are they who have loved enough to know what loss feels like.
Blessed are the mothers and fathers of the miscarried.
Blessed are they who don’t have the luxury of taking things for granted anymore.
Blessed are they who can’t fall apart because they have to keep it together for everyone else.
Blessed are those who “still aren’t over it yet.”
Blessed are those who mourn.
You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are those who no one else notices. The kids who sit alone at middle-school lunch tables. The laundry guys at the hospital. The sex workers and the night-shift street sweepers.
Blessed are the forgotten. Blessed are the closeted.
Blessed are the unemployed, the unimpressive, the underrepresented.
Blessed are the teens who have to figure out ways to hide the new cuts on their arms. Blessed are the meek.
You are of heaven and Jesus blesses you.
Blessed are the wrongly accused, the ones who never catch a break, the ones for whom life is hard, for Jesus chose to surround himself with people like them.
Blessed are those without documentation. Blessed are the ones without lobbyists.
Blessed are foster kids and special ed kids and every other kid who just wants to feel safe and loved.
Blessed are those who make terrible business decisions for the sake of people.
Blessed are the burned-out social workers and the overworked teachers and the pro bono case takers.
Blessed are the kindhearted football players and the fundraising trophy wives.
Blessed are the kids who step between the bullies and the weak. Blessed are they who hear that they are forgiven.
Blessed is everyone who has ever forgiven me when I didn’t
Blessed are the merciful, for they totally get it.
I imagine Jesus standing here blessing us all because I believe that is our Lord’s nature. Because, after all, it was Jesus who had all the powers of the universe at his disposal but did not consider his equality with God something to be exploited. Instead, he came to us in the most vulnerable of ways, as a powerless, flesh-and-blood newborn. As if to say, “You may hate your bodies, but I am blessing all human flesh. You may admire strength and might, but I am blessing all human weakness. You may seek power, but I am blessing all human vulnerability.” This Jesus whom we follow cried at the tomb of his friend and turned the other cheek and forgave those who hung him on a cross. He was God’s Beatitude—God’s blessing to the weak in a world that admires only the strong.