by: Denise Robinson
The Bible Meets Broadway: Mame
Matthew 1:18-23; Matthew 28:16-20
When I began thinking about Broadway musicals to use in a sermon series, Mame came to mind because of one song. “We Need a Little Christmas” was written for the musical starring Angela Lansbury and Bea Arthur which opened on Broadway on May 24, 1966. It tells the story of a wealthy eccentric woman named Mame Dennis whose bohemian, intellectual lifestyle is disrupted when her deceased brother’s 10-year-old son Patrick is entrusted to her care. Rather than change her style of living to conform to societal expectations, Mame introduces the boy to her off-the-wall lifestyle, instilling in him her favorite credo, “Life is a banquet, and most [people] are starving to death.” However, Mame’s life does change: first as Patrick begins to age and influence her and second when she loses all of her money in the 1929 stock market crash. She is forced to go to work for the first time in her life and, although Christmas is still some time away, as it gets closer Patrick is mourning a first Christmas without his father and Mame is mourning the death of her brother. Even though Patrick points out that its too early to decorate or celebrate Christmas, Mame is adamant that they “need a little Christmas now” to cheer them up.
Fast forward to over fifty years later and this wonderful year 2020 we’re having. Tell me if you think these words from the song might just resonate with us today: “I’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder, grown a little sadder, grown a little older. And I need a little angel, sitting on my shoulder, I need a little Christmas now.” Why is Christmas so important that we need it now? Well, if we’re honest, much of Christmas has to do with giving and receiving gifts, singing Christmas carols, eating too many cookies, and getting together with family and friends. It also means running to stores, charging too much on credit cards, office Christmas parties, and the feeling that there is too much to do and too little time to do it. But it’s August and we’re living in strange pandemic times. There are no carols playing, no one is baking Christmas cookies, it’s difficult to get together with family and friends, and many of us are just not in the mood. We are in a dark place and we could be in a dark place for a while. As the song says, we’ve grown a little leaner, grown a little colder, grown a little sadder, grown a little older. And we need a little Christmas now. We need a little Christmas to remind us that there is a light that shines in the darkness and the brightness of that light that will overcome the darkness. We’re in the dark, but light always prevails – and that calls for a celebration.
The Gospels of Matthew and Luke tell the story of Jesus’ birth. We focus on Matthew’s telling this morning and in the verses which Lori read for us, we are told that while Mary and Joseph were to name their child Jesus (which means “deliverer” or “savior”), he would also be called Emmanuel (which means “God with us.” Everything changed on that unexpected first Christmas more than 2,000 years ago. The trajectory of history, the future, even eternity, was transformed when God became man. Christmas reminds of the time when God literally came to be with us, became one of us, in the form of a baby born in a manger in Bethlehem. Jesus is the light of the world; God born of flesh come to be with us, to remind us that we are loved and we are never alone. Not God out of reach, not God out there somewhere. Not God cold and aloof, beyond us and distant. Not God angry and condemning. But God with us, where we are, in the here and now, where we breathe and live, laugh and cry, hope and despair, hurt and heal. God with us. Forever.
Back in December we celebrated the Advent season. The four weeks before Christmas are set aside as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. The term advent means “coming.” But Advent doesn’t just have to do with Christmas; Advent is a season that links past, present, and future. Because even as Jesus came on that first Christmas, Jesus comes to us today, and we await his second coming or coming again as a future event. One of the main traditions of Advent is the lighting of the candles on an Advent wreath. The lighting of the five candles represents Jesus coming to a world lost in darkness. Isaiah 9:2 says: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.” Every Sunday leading to Christmas Eve, we lit these Advent candles and they are out this morning and have been lit again so that we can see the light and remember what each candle represents.
The first candle we lit, one of the blue ones, is the candle of peace. We weren’t talking about COVID in December but we did talk about how when we face trials, when we live in times of trouble, when evil seems to be all around us, there is no peace. The Hebrew word for peace is “shalom.” It appears in Num. 6 in this blessing: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face to you and give you shalom, give you peace.” While “shalom” means peace as we think of it, the word means so much more than absence of fighting or violence. It means safety, completeness, and wholeness. Shalom is peace brought only by God. John 14:27 reminds us of the words of Jesus as he was preparing his disciples for a time fast approaching when he would leave them. Jesus knew they didn’t really understand; he knew that they would have doubts and fears and face persecution. In reassurance, Jesus made them this promise: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” My peace I give you; don’t be afraid. Jesus was not just reassuring his disciples; he was telling them that he was leaving them a part of himself. And his words were not just for his disciples, they are also for us. Jesus left with us his peace, the peace of God. Once again, “God with us.”
The second candle we lit, another blue one, is the candle of hope. We remembered that second Sunday of Advent that hope in the Bible is not wishful thinking. Hope is a secure assurance in the promises and faithfulness of God. As Heb. 11:1 reminds us, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen.” Hope grounded in faith waits and endures, it withstands trials and overcomes despair or fear – because God is our hope. We fear so many things in our lives: pain and illness, finances, job issues, the lives of our children and our grandchildren (or perhaps our parents and grandparents), violence, isolation and loneliness, the list could go on and on. Fear can lead to anxiety, depression, doubt, and isolation; it can paralyze us from acting. But hope overcomes fear. God’s faithfulness to us did not end with the birth of Jesus; the birth of Emmanuel was the incarnation of God with us. And God is still with us today through the presence of the Holy Spirit. Paul says in Romans 15:13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” Paul reminds us that faith leads to joy and peace and hope, all powered by the presence of the Holy Spirit. There is, after all, no individual who is hopeless who knows the grace of God and no situation that is hopeless to one who knows the power of God.
The third candle we lit, the pink candle, is the candle of joy. On that Advent Sunday, we were reminded that joy is a gift from God, the assurance that no matter our circumstances, God is with us. Happiness is external, it depends on what is happening around us and to us. Joy is internal; it is a gift given to us by God that transcends and overcomes our circumstances. We seek to find happiness; joy finds us as we put our trust in God. Happiness is temporary, but joy is everlasting. Joy comes to us when words fail and God takes over. As our closing hymn reminds us, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” Emmanuel, God with us.
The fourth candle we lit was the candle of love. It took love, a lot of love, for God to come to be with us. We live our lives without knowing the future. In December when we lit this candle, we had no clue what 2020 would bring. We could never have imagined going through the events of the past five months. But God knew what was going to happen when he, in the person of Jesus, came to be born on earth. John 3:16 says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son….” God knew what would happen and gave his Son anyway. What could possibly have motivated God to send His divine Son into this world to be born as a human child? And not just to be born as a human, but to die on a cross as a human? I don’t know about you, but I find it difficult to fathom that depth of love. Paul admits in Ephesians that God’s love is a love that surpasses knowledge. But there it is. God laid his love on the line by coming to us personally.
The last candle, the white center candle, was lit on Christmas Eve. It is the Christ candle, the one that unites all the other candles, the one that reminds us that God was, is, and will be with us. Our first Scripture reading this morning came from Matthew 1 and relates the birth of Christ, the beginning of the good news as by Matthew. Now we move to Matthew 28, the last chapter in Matthew’s Gospel and the verses which end his book. Jesus has lived, been crucified and buried, has risen from the dead, and now meets with his disciples. I am reading from Matthew 28:16-20. Jesus’ final words to his disciples as told to us by Matthew are words of commission (go and make disciples) and are words of promise (“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”). But these are not just words for the disciples, they are words for us.
There’s another song in Mame titled, “If He Walked into My Life.” Mame is singing about her relationship with Patrick, fearing that because of her faults in raising the boy she has lost the man. She looks back over the years, asking the same questions many parents ask. Was I too soft or too tough? Did I give enough? Did I give too much? She sings, “There must have been a million things that my heart forgot to say; would I think of one or two if he walked into my life today. Though I'll ask myself my whole life long, what went wrong along the way; would I make the same mistakes if he walked into my life today?”
We tend to think about our mistakes, wonder about what we said or failed to say, did or failed to do. But Christmas reminds us Christ came to die for all of us. He certainly gave enough; after all, he gave his life. But from then to now, Jesus has never asked if he gave too much. The gift we received that Christmas was forgiveness of sin and a life with a God who loves us. For those who believe in Christ and have accepted the gift he came to offer, we don’t need to spend our lives wondering what went wrong along the way or beating ourselves up for the mistakes we have made. The disciples Jesus met with in Matthew 28 were the disciples who fell asleep when he asked them to sit with him while he prayed and the disciples who deserted him when he was arrested. One of them even denied knowing him. But Jesus never mentions their failures when he meets with them; he expresses confidence in them that they will carry on his mission to go and make disciples of all people and he affirms his promise that he will be with them always.
I don’t know about you, but today I need these reminders. I need to hear Jesus say, “Remember, I am with you always.” That’s what Christmas is all about. God with us: from the time of Creation, through the birth of Jesus, and in the presence of the Holy Spirit. Christmas reminds us that we are cared for in this life, that we can persevere in adversity, and that we will move on to an eternal life in God’s presence. Christmas challenges us to turn away from our fears and become light to the brokenhearted, even as we too face and are in the storm, knowing that God has our back. Christmas is the promise that Christ is coming again and, on that day, we will fully realize the peace of Jesus, the hope of our faith, the joy of trust in God, and the depth of the love of God. On that day, all things will be put right and we will be present with God forever. That right there is glad tidings of great joy for all people. That is Christmas. And it’s not just for December 25th. It’s for August 16th and for every day in between. We need God today and every day; and thanks be to God for the promise that he is with us, always and to the end of the age.