by: Denise Robinson
The Bible Meets Broadway: Camelot
Micah 7:2-7; Deut. 31:6-8
Camelot was a 1960 musical by Lerner and Loewe based on T.H. White’s novel, The Once and Future King. The Broadway production starred Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet and won four Tony awards. In 1967, it was released as a movie starring Richard Harris, Vanessa Redgrave, and Franco Nero. When the show opens, King Arthur is nervously awaiting the arrival of his bride-to-be, Guinevere. At their meeting, Arthur, in the title song, sings to her of the joys of life in Camelot. He tells Guinevere the story of how he pulled the sword from the stone and became king, and the two are married. Five years later, Arthur sits with Guinevere is his study and lays out his wishes for a new society and a new kind of knight, with a focus on honor and justice. He is inspired to establish the Round Table with its motto, “Right for Might.” Another five years pass, and the fame of Arthur’s Round Table is spreading. A Frenchman named Lancelot du Lac has come to join Arthur’s knights and it seems Camelot’s greatness is guaranteed. But there are problems in Camelot and even in this 1960 musical Arthur calls it out as “sin.” Lancelot and Guinevere are falling in love and Mordred, Arthur’s illegitimate son, arrives at the court determined to destroy what his father has built. One night, after Arthur leaves Camelot on a hunting trip, Lancelot and Guinevere are caught together. By the end of the musical, Guinevere has retreated to a convent, Arthur and his knights are at war with Lancelot, and Mordred and his knights are at war with Arthur. The dream of Camelot is in shambles and all seems lost. But just before the morning battle, while in his camp, Arthur meets a boy by the name of Tom who has come to join the Round Table. He reminds Arthur of the idealism and hope he once had – when envisioning what Camelot could be, and in his last act Arthur sends Tom away from the battle, to grow to adulthood and pass on to future generations the ideals of Camelot. In this morning’s sermon, we will consider the message of the gospel in Camelot.
The medieval ideal of Camelot, noble knights, and the search for the Holy Grail (the cup used by Jesus at the Last Supper) has, at its core, often been viewed as Christian in concept, if not Christian in practice. As the title to T.H. White’s novel suggests, the Arthurian legend is not only that Arthur once lived and ruled as king, but that at some point in the future he will return as king. It brought together warrior knights and celebrated their skill with the sword, but demanded of them honor, humility, and gentleness. The problem, of course, is that this created a tension which could only be held in check for a short time. The ideals were in conflict with mankind’s natural desires. Even the main characters – Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot – had human failings and limitations. And, in the end, human weaknesses won out and ideals crumbled. So, setting aside the human failings, the sin, that led to the downfall of the imaginary place called Camelot, what lessons can we learn from Camelot the musical?
The first lesson we can take from this musical is that the kingdom of God is far greater than Camelot was or could ever be imagined. Arthur’s desire was to create a magical mystical Camelot out of flawed human beings and he, naturally, couldn’t do it. The knights want to fight, get drunk, take advantage of others, and live by the code that might makes right. Arthur hopes desperately to move them from the motto “might makes right” to that of “might for right,” and for a short time, it seems he might succeed. But human reality rears its ugly head. The two people he loves and trusts most – Guinevere and Lancelot – betray him. His son conceived out of wedlock and born to a woman he didn’t love – Mordred – comes to court and seeks to take vengeance against his long-absent father. When given the opportunity, Arthur’s knights go back to their old habits and it all implodes around Arthur. The dream of Camelot becomes a distant memory.
Micah 7, as read by Ethan, might well have been predicting the downfall of Camelot. The prophet speaks of hands that are skilled to do evil, the powerful who dictate what they desire, the son who treats the father with contempt, and the friend who betrays a trust. But in v. 7, it reminds us to look to, and put our trust in, God. For followers of Christ, Camelot is not the image of the ideal society; our ideal is the kingdom of God. Jesus, as recorded in Mark’s Gospel, announced at the beginning of his ministry, “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand.” For those who heard his words, they were left with questions – the same questions we have today. What is this kingdom? How does one become a part of it? And once in it, what does it mean to be a part of the kingdom? When Jesus spoke of the kingdom, he most often described it in parables. But he made it clear that the kingdom is a place under God’s control and it is a kingdom of peace, justice, grace, and love. Jesus spoke of the kingdom of heaven in both the present and future tense. Jesus’ first coming, his birth, was the inauguration of the kingdom. This means that those who follow Jesus should have some glimpse into, and present experience of, the kingdom of heaven. But we also pray, “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” This prayer only makes sense if the kingdom has not yet fully come. The kingdom will be finally and fully realized with the second coming of Jesus Christ.
As for our place within the kingdom, in the musical Lancelot sings as he approaches Camelot: “Camelot! Camelot! In far-off France, I heard your call. Camelot! Camelot! And here am I to give my all. I know in my soul what you expect of me, and all that and more I shall be.” After that he goes off on how he will be expected to be invincible, infallible, and undefeatable – in other words, he knows that he is expected to be extraordinary and he is prepared to be all these things. The sad thing is that while Lancelot is many of the things he claims, he plays a huge part in the destruction of Arthur’s dream for Camelot. Thank God that our failures don’t have the power to destroy God’s kingdom. That’s not to say that we aren’t called to live extraordinary lives for Christ in loving and serving others. But God doesn’t expect that we will be invincible or infallible or undefeatable. God will bring about God’s kingdom in God’s time – all that is asked of us is that we remain faithful and do our best. And when we mess up, which we will, myself included, God offers grace and forgiveness.
The second lesson in Camelot comes from the song we heard today, “If Ever I Would Leave You.” The song is sung by Lancelot to Guinevere and, honestly, it would have been better for all concerned, particularly for Camelot, if he had left her. Lancelot wonders if he could ever leave her and then sings that he can’t leave her, not in springtime, summer, winter, or fall, ending with the conclusion that he can never leave her at all. In Camelot, this leads to disaster. But for us, these words can remind us of God’s love for us. Twice in Deuteronomy 31:6-8, we are reminded: “Be strong and bold, do not be afraid, because the Lord your God goes with you and he will never fail you or forsake you.” In all the seasons of life, God is with us. From Isaiah 41:10: “Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my right hand.” Isaiah 58:11: “The Lord will guide you continually, giving you water when you are dry and restoring your strength. You will be like a well-watered garden, like an ever-flowing spring.” Psalm 27:14 “Wait for the Lord. Be strong. Let your heart be strong. Yes, wait for the Lord.” 1 Samuel 12:16 “Now stand here and see the great thing the Lord is about to do.” Think in the winters of life God will leave you? Ps. 23:4: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death God is with me.” And from Isaiah 46: Listen to me … all who have been borne by me from your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, even when you turn gray, I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.” We have God’s promise that his love is eternal and faithful and grace-filled; and it’s a love that meets each of us where we are and accepts who we are. God truly says to us, “No, never will I leave you at all.”
The third lesson we can take from Camelot comes from the end of the show. Everything is falling down around Arthur. Once life had such promise. Once Arthur had spoken of his hopes and dreams this way: “This is the time of King Arthur when we shall reach for the stars. When violence is not strength and compassion is not weakness. We are civilized. Resolved: we shall live through this together – you and I – and God have mercy on us all.” In the title song, he sings of the vision of Camelot: “A law was made a distant moon ago here, July and August cannot be too hot. And there’s a legal limit to the snow here... in Camelot. The winter is forbidden till December and exits March the second on the dot. By order summer lingers through September...in Camelot.” The song concludes, “In short, there’s simply not, a more congenial spot for happy ever-aftering than here in Camelot."
Of course, since the garden of Eden, there has never been a place on earth that meets the criteria of Camelot. Camelot is a place of myth that never existed on earth and never will. But a place better than Camelot will one day exist on earth and it’s called heaven. Too often when we think about heaven, our images come from books or movies or handed-down stories from long lost traditions. We are left with vague images of a place “up there” somewhere surrounded by fluffy clouds, harp-playing angels, and St. Peter standing at the gate. As for us, we walk around for all eternity in some kind of white robe moving from cloud to cloud, living some kind of existence that none of us can imagine and, if we’re honest, all seems rather boring. I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine living that way for a week, let alone all eternity! This impression certainly isn’t what the Bible describes.
1 Cor. 15: We will be bodily resurrected, but not with our current weaknesses and mortality. Paul speaks of how our lives are only a seed of what we will be, but we will be raised to a new life. John 14: Christ is coming again and will take us to a place he has prepared for us and we will be present with Christ in that place in a very real sense. But Christ isn’t simply preparing a place for us, Christ is preparing us for that place. Rev. 21 and 22 give us a glimpse: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away (that is what exists now). And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there anymore. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him … And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.”
Randy Alcorn wrote a book entitled simply Heaven. He writes: “What is heaven like? Heaven is a place where God has His way completely. It’s an eternal place of great beauty and glory without any evil, pain, injustice, or death. The Bible teaches that heaven will come down to earth. Heaven is not one long church service and people will do meaningful work. Everyone’s reward will be different. Heaven will not be boring and it’s not an eternal vacation or retirement. People will not be floating around with wings like spirits without bodies. Heaven is not an endless musical production where people sing all day long. These things are not true according to the Bible. These myths and misconceptions are a distraction from the real beauty and power of what the Bible teaches about heaven. These myths cause us to live disconnected from what seems like a completely different world that we will go to after we die.
In short, there is a spot for “happy ever-aftering” – and it is a place not born out of the imagination of any human king, but born from the creation of God our King. It is God’s kingdom and we are called to begin living in it now so that we can be ready to fully live in it when Christ comes again. And in the meantime, we have God’s promise that he is with us and will not fail or forsake us.