by Rev. Joe Connolly
“The answer came: ‘The one they call Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and told me to go to Siloam and wash. When I went and washed I was able to see.’” — John 9:11.
The writers George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart were collaborators and titans of the mid-Twentieth Century theater world. They both died in 1961. Kaufman was a writer, director, humorist and drama critic who wrote comedies, political satire, books for musicals and even wrote for the Marx Brothers.
All that made him a good match with Moss Hart— also multi-talented, who also wrote a broad spectrum of material— comedies, political satire and books for musicals. Writing together they won a Pulitzer Prize for You Can’t Take It with You. Another one of their collaborations was the play Merrily We Roll Along.
One conceit of Merrily is that it tells its story backwards. It happens in reverse time, in reverse order. The first scene happens today.
The time sequence of each of the following scenes informs us as to what happened before that and before that and before that. The characters, therefore, move at the start from being older people who look at the world with some distrust, even cynicism, to an the end of the tale where they are younger and envision a future filled with hope and promise.
Therefore, the play often is performed with a second conceit. Since the characters get younger throughout, often young people— twenty-five and under— are cast in the parts. They, of course, start the play acting old and skeptical. By the end of the play they are young, optimistic.
In 1981 the well known composer Stephen Sondheim wrote a musical version of that play. It was Sondheim’s biggest flop, lasting just sixteen performances.
I saw it and I am, hence, one of the few who saw that original production which— by the way— featured a young Jason Alexander, who later came to fame as George on Seinfeld. I was reminded of all this because I recently saw a new documentary about the Sondheim musical.
Back when the Sondheim show was ready to open ABC had planned a program about the making of a musical and intended to use Merrily. Production on the ABC project stopped when Merrily was not successful.
Some of the film shot for that endeavor was recently rediscovered and is part of this new documentary. The documentary looks back at the original Sondheim show using that old, rediscovered film and then covers a more recent reunion of the original cast who gathered to present a concert version of Merrily.
In the old film actors— all under 25— are interviewed about being chosen to be in a Sondheim show early in their career. The optimism of youth is clear in their responses.
In the present the actors are interviewed again these thirty five years later. They reminisce. While cynicism is not a tune we hear, they do talk about where life might have led them and where life has really led them.
Hence the unifying conceit of the documentary, the musical and original play is each looks back in time from the perspective of knowing what has happened. They all look back on life lived and how life played out.
Thereby, questions arise. “If this is where I am now, how did I get here? Who am I, now? Did I become who I wanted to be?” (Slight pause.)
How did I get here? Who am I now? Did I become who I wanted to be?— poignant questions for each of us. Indeed, I was recently having a conversation with a friend, about 15 years younger than I who, reminiscing about who she was when she was twenty-something said, “I wish I knew then what I know now.”
Well, I suppose that is the real conceit of Merrily in all these versions. If we only knew how we got to where we are today, maybe we would have done things, if not differently, perhaps better. (Slight pause.)
This is what we hear in the Gospel According to the School of John: “The answer came: ‘The one they call Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and told me to go to Siloam and wash. When I went and washed I was able to see.’” (Slight pause.)
Few stories in the New Testament are told as well as the healing of the one born blind. Scenes are smoothly connected; characters unfold before our eyes; above all, crisp dialogue, ironic at almost every point, unveils the satire of someone born blind who comes to see and is enabled to see people who prove themselves blind.
The story is a work of art to be admired. In fact, one commentary I read said the story needs only to be told. One should never preach about it. Why? The story makes its own obvious theological claims.
Well, I like a challenge. So I will try to say something about it. (Slight pause.) Toward the end of this tale the one born blind is cast out of the synagogue, cut off from family, religion, heritage, home.
All anchors, all the things commonly perceived of as linchpins of life are gone. I want to suggest that, while the story makes all that happens sound as if it was inevitable evolution, it is not inevitable evolution. Real life is more scattered than it is inevitable. Let me throw out a concept here. We tend to think that knowledge is binary. Either you know something or you don’t. We see knowledge as a fact or a series of facts. But each of those facts, even in a series, is isolated, separate from other facts.
That leads me to ask ‘what is true knowledge?’ Is knowledge a fact or even a set of facts? Or is it something else? (Slight pause.)
I think knowledge is neither a fact nor is it a series of facts. Rather, true knowledge is an ability to connect facts.
True knowledge connects different aspects of life. True knowledge integrates facts. True knowledge is, therefore, complex, textured, emotionally demanding, random, scattered.
True knowledge is challenging. Or rather true knowledge, real knowledge, deep knowledge— by definition— challenges our ususal way of thinking. That usual way of thinking says knowing facts means we are knowledgeable. I am suggesting what really makes us knowledgeable is integrating facts.
Further, knowledge is not simply about winning or losing, certainly something we hear in many quarters. Knowledge is, therefore, a lot like a life lived, a lot like life. It is something we experience over time— complex, textured, emotionally demanding, random, scattered. (Slight pause.)
That brings me back to Merrily We Roll Along. Yes, we all wish we had 20/20 hindsight. Why? 20/20 hindsight sees things perfectly, or as close to perfect as we might imagine perfect to be.
Of course, that is the final conceit of Merrily, the idea that we might look back with perfect 20/20 hindsight. And we think that if we had 20/20 hindsight, we would have the same vision of the world God has. But real life is a lot more complex, textured, emotionally demanding, random, scattered and imperfect than simply having 20/20 hindsight.
Of course, all this brings me back to the textured story of the one born blind from birth. (Slight pause.) I think this story is an invitation to see the world as God sees the world.
However, counter to the way we think the world works, this story is an invitation to not see things as simply facts, an invitation to not see things isolated from everything else. Please understand everyone in the story except the one born blind sees things, sees the world as an immutable set of facts.
And we tend to see the story that way precisely because, like any story, it looks back. It has 20/20 hindsight. But does God see the world in hindsight or does God see the world with foresight? (Slight pause.)
Well, how does God see the world? Does God see the world from the perspective of one person? Does God see the world from the perspective of one nation? Does God see the world as an immutable set of facts? Does God even see the world in hindsight? (Slight pause.)
My bet is our own way of seeing the world is, by definition, limited. And I want to suggest God sees the world more fully than we do. God does not see facts as isolated, immutable. God does not see the world only in hindsight.
God sees all the aspects of life as connected, integrated, complex, textured. God sees the world as emotionally demanding, challenging. Equally and therefore, God does not see the world as being about winning or losing.
The economy of the world, as God sees it is— I think— a world in which equity, joy, peace, freedom, justice, hope and love reign. The economy of the world, as God sees it is— I think— not a place where distrust and cynicism abound.
This, my friends, is God’s sight, God’s vision, how God sees the world— a world— that world which I’ve just described— in which equity, joy, peace, freedom, justice, hope and love reign. And if anything, I think that is the lesson we need to hear when the story of the one blind from birth is told.
God’s sight invites us to see the world with the eyes of God, see the world not as an immutable fact or set of facts but as a place in which the integrated textures— the integrated textures of equity, joy, peace, freedom, justice, hope and love do reign. Additionally, God invites us to see the world with God’s foresight.
Let us, therefore, commit ourselves to seeing the world as God sees the world. Forgive me for suggesting— God sees with the heart, overwhelming love. Amen.
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I mentioned Jason Alexander of Seinfeld fame was in the Sondheim show. He readily admits he could not have foreseen what happened to him. Equally, in the year 2000 the show finally played on London’s West End, the British equivalent of Broadway. And it won their equivalent of the Tony Award for Best Musical. Life takes strange turns. Life is complex, textured, emotionally demanding, random and scattered, imperfect. None of us foresees fully. But we are called to see how God might see— a place in which equity, joy, peace, freedom, justice, hope and love do reign.”
BENEDICTION: There is but one message in Scripture: God loves us. Let us endeavor to let God’s love shine forth in our lives. For with God’s love and goodness there is power to redeem, power to revive, power to renew, power to resurrect. So, may the love of God the creator which is real, the Peace of Christ which surpasses all understanding and the companionship of the Holy Spirit which is ever present, keep our hearts and minds in the knowledge, love and care of God this day and forever more. Amen.