Jerry Springer the Parable
A sermon preached by Imogen de la Bere at St Saviour's St Albans on 6th July 2003
I’ve been turning into a bit of a bore this last fortnight on the subject of Jerry Springer the Opera.
This extraordinary piece of musical theatre is playing at the National Theatre to wildly enthusiastic, sell out audiences, but while funny and brilliant and spectacular, it’s not for the faint-hearted. Unlikely is the best word to describe everything about Jerry Springer the Opera. Briefly, the opera takes the format of the American TV show on which guests are interviewed by Jerry on the subject of their bizarre personal lives, the more colourful the better. As I understand it, because I’ve never seen the TV show, a guest is joined in the studio by his or her significant others in succession – partner, lover, parent, estranged best friend – and quite often real time fights – verbal and physical break out between the guests. The audience screams and shouts and tried to join in. So I am told. This makes great opera, it turns out, with lots of energetic chorus work, duets, trios, quintets, and wonderful arias as Jerry’s guests sing of the desires of their hearts.
It’s a highly complex piece of theatre, and the music is terrific, but the point of my talking about it is this: it’s also a work of theology. In the second half, Jerry, having been shot, is taken down to hell by the devil and forced to conduct a Jerry Springer Show in hell, to sort out the Devil’s age old dispute with God. The guests are the devil, Jesus, Adam and Eve, and finally, Mary. As they each enter the studio and the arena, the dispute becomes more and more heated and more and more theological, and Jesus finds himself increasingly beleaguered, attacked on all fronts for being weak, overly demanding, a failure, never around when he’s needed. What sort of son, demands his mother, gets himself killed like that? But I love all mankind, sings Jesus, and gets himself booed by the crowd in terms that aficionados of the show would recognise.
Irreverent and shocking to some – but if we turn to today’s gospel we hear something not dissimilar. Jesus goes home. And what sort of reaction does he get? Are they pleased to see him? You’d hope his mother was pleased, but what about James and Joses and Judas and Simon and his sisters? Certainly the extended family and the village was critical. Why otherwise would that sad comment have been recorded for posterity: ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’
Reading between those lines, we can hear James and Joses and Judas and Simon getting stuck into their brother –‘it’s all very well for you, drifting round the countryside, talking about God, but what about us, we’ve got Mum to look after, mouths to feed, and we’ll never get the girls married at this rate, and you could turn your hand to an honest days’ work and perhaps we could afford a new donkey….
Jesus, the evangelist tells us, ‘could do no deed of power there.’ Hardly surprising, surrounded by his family.
The truth encapsulated here is that the hardest place in the world to be a good Christian is your home.
You would think home the easiest place to be Christian – after all you select your spouse as someone compatible, you bring up your children according to your own value system; you are programmed to love your children passionately. Why would home not be the easiest place to demonstrate the Christian values?
Well it goes like this: under the eyes of our partner and our children our deepest person is revealed. The mean and selfish bits we hide from the world are evident to them. If we try to live a Christian life at home, we have to do it all the time, when we are tired, sick, disappointed, drunk. We’ve got to act like a Christian when we come in exhausted after a disastrous day at work and three hour battle with the transport system, and the cry goes up ‘What’s for dinner?’. We’ve got to live it when the child, loved and nurtured according to our beliefs, turns against them and tells us exactly what’s wrong with the way we have chosen to live. You’ve got to live it when your partner refuses to accept that you want only the best for him, and repudiates your health regime. You’ve got to live it when the children refuse to do homework or practise their instruments, when they insist on their right to self-determination, but you are sure you know best. You’ve got to live it when your daughter brings home a boy you really can’t stand, and know is quite wrong for her, a boy you then find louring in the kitchen in the morning. How easy is it to be a Christian then?
You have to live a Christian life under the spotlight of those, who just like Jesus’ family are the least inclined to think you a saint.
My sister is a good person, and lives a life of self-sacrifice and service to others. People would often say to me ‘O your sister is a saint!’ to which I always reply, ‘Yes, but have you ever tried living with a saint?’
Living the Christian life is walking a tightrope – too strict and moral and we fall short in love; too lax and easy-going and we fall short in goodness. Because we try to take the bigger picture, we know we must sometimes be stern, even critical. But how often that turns into manipulation, and has nothing to do with love or goodness, but is merely us trying to mould the others into our image of what they should be. How often our attempts to point out what is right for those we love makes us judgmental. Our loved ones know us so well that they can always turn the spotlight on us and expose our shortcomings.
I don’t think you can every get it right at home, but that is the worst excuse for not trying. Jesus still gave it a go at Nazareth; he went about the villages teaching though you can bet his brothers teased him and carped at him for it. But something must have rubbed off; after his death his brother James became an apostle. St Paul refers to him in his letter to the Galatians.
There’s a trap in this approach, of course. Many many Christian people, and I have to include myself in this, decide that because the home front is such a hard place in which to be a good Christian, that it is also sufficient. A lot of us adopt the approach that trying to live a good life, to love our families, behave decently at work, and be socially responsible is enough. But many of us are called to do more. Living the gospel at home is the prerequisite for living a Christian life, but it may not be sufficient. Of course, for some it will be all that they can aspire too, specially with a demanding or sick parent or a difficult child, or a struggle against poverty or disability. For those people, then, the home is both necessary and sufficient place to live out the Christian life.
But for many of us, there is plenty more we could do, not at the expense of our families and friends, because we must get that part right first, but as well as. Doing many good works outside the home does not excuse you being selfish and harsh within it. But being loving and kind within the home does not exonerate you – or me – from the requirement to do more.
Demanding? Yes. But what worthwhile life is not demanding? Family life is demanding – not even Jesus could win on the home front; all undertakings of any value are demanding. So of course the Christian life is demanding, sometimes seemingly impossible. Live the gospel at home and work for the kingdom abroad – almost impossible – almost, but by the grace of God, not quite. Would you have it any other way?