Several weeks ago my good pal and colleague Rev. Alena Uhamaka and I were chatting, and when I revealed I'd be in Southern California at the end of February, she quickly asked if I would guest preach at her church, located in Monrovia (just east of Pasadena). I said "Sure!"
Alena is a fun person and is known for doing some fun things with her congregation. She was hoping I'd bring "fun" to a new level on the Sunday I was preaching. Never ever one to renege on a request to be goofy (and for sacred purposes), I said "Sure!" to this, too.
When I realized the Sunday she wanted me to preach was the Sunday of the Academy Awards I said "SURE!" in all caps.
After all, Jesus and John Wesley both encouraged Christ-followers to be in the world even if not of it. And when in LA, there's no better opportunity to follow this dictate than through the Academy Awards.
And no better chance to be goofy! I've been to many an Academy Awards viewing party and I know the drill: everyone wears bad thrift store formal wear and brings snacks that somehow nod to the nights' nominees. Such details would be a must in our fun-filled Oscar-themed worship.
And the focus – with our necessarily “be in not of the world” slant - would be, "What Would Jesus Award?"
That's as much as I knew at first. I wasn't sure how everything else would proceed. Would we simply disparage the idea of award-giving, because disciples are not in the business of winning accolades? After all, at Luke 17:10 Jesus reminds the disciples that when they do something for their master they should not look for a word of appreciation. Rather, their response should be, “We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!”
While that’s true, such an approach would make for a dreary Sunday morning. Especially after everyone has made the effort to be donned in finest thrift store glamour.
There was also the current diversity controversy that perhaps could be addressed, although I figured there were enough smart and more qualified voices out there tending to that matter quite well. I would never be able to out-do Chris Rock, even if I chose scripture (funny scripture even!) to quote.
After quite a bit of prayer, deep thinking (and, yes, panic, as time was running out to put the bulletin together), it dawned on me that another approach might very well work. And make for a very upbeat worship of God to boot.
I looked at every aspect of a traditional worship service and asked myself how it might be renamed as an Oscar category. It was amazing how things translated!
My personal favorite was the “Nominee for Best Short Subject” which translated as the “Children’s Sermon.” Last Sunday the message for "short subjects" was about how receiving awards are fun and fine – even a huge trophy for perfect attendance! – however, nothing is finer than the award Jesus gives us all – his empty cross and, hence, his unending love and presence.
Other faves included the nod to “Best Make-Up,” which translated to the time of passing the peace, and “Best Picture,” which comprised the offering. (After all, everything we give to God is for the creation of God’s Best Picture of Reality! Would make for a great sermon theme at stewardship time, too - especially in LA!)
For this Sunday I chose to put my sermon under the “Best Supporting Actor” category. After all, this who we ultimately are as Christ-followers. Supporting the work Jesus did and is doing. Even when, as is true in the movie-making world, those in nominated in this category have surprisingly large roles!
My sermon also pointed to the fact that our actions are to support the messages and stories of our sacred text. Our “screenplays” as it were. I decided to select several "script-ural" examples for which we are called to “act out” for all the right reasons.
Of course, the first suggestions that came to mind were the arguably best known and emphasized stories and commands for successful Christian discipleship, ie Matthew 25:31:46 (feed the hungry, heal the sick); John 13:34-35 (love one another as I have loved you); Matthew 5:44 (love your enemies). Those sorts of very important, oft-repeated things.
However, when it comes to the Oscar Awards, one of the beefs many have (besides the lack of diversity), is that so often the films nominated and awarded are the lesser known and under-patronized, even as they receive the glowing reviews. It’s the work and ideas not normally on the public’s radar that the Academy finds most important to honor.
So, bringing it back to scripture, I thought about what texts – and aspects of discipleship – might bring messages that are less obvious and less emphasized when we think about who Jesus seeks us to be. This made for rich exploration of the text.
I decided upon five such less-acknowledged passages. 1) The Beatitudes (where Jesus says God blesses – awards! – the meek, the empty, the persecuted, the peacemaking even as they may not be experiencing any success in their pursuits whatsoever); 2) Jesus’ call for his followers to embody a spirit of child-likeness -– surprisingly, the sole window into God’s Realm; 3) the Prodigal Son parable, where Jesus suggests that the act of turning/returning to God for whatever reason – whether right or wrong - is all God cares about; 4) the scandalous (and imho true!) message of the all-night wrestling match in Genesis between Jacob and the angel: it is in intense and endless struggle with the Divine we truly become “Israel,” God’s Chosen People; and 5) Paul’s ironic dialogue about awards and honor that comprised my children’s sermon for the day. (You can read more about the humor of the Philippians text, esp as it relates to the Oscars, in my blog entry, "And the Charmin Goes to...." from March 4, 2014).
Approaching award-winning discipleship from this perspective seemed to be very helpful, good news for the congregants present. To get to acknowledge a lot of the "tough stuff" that they experience in their journey is actually proof positive they are well on the Way was comforting and strengthening. Especially because these lesser known aspects are often ones we don't want to admit and get shoved under the rug. Or red carpet, as the theme of the day would suggest.
I also invited congregants to think of someone in their lives who embodied these important if unheralded traits and acknowledge what a gift it was to have their example of "acting" to imitate. Everyone was given a “thank you” card that they could write in and send to – award! - their “winning disciple” (even if they didn’t want to mention in the card the words of appreciation being shared were the upshot of a goofy Oscar-themed worship service...).
The morning ended with an after-party, of course! And “theme snacks.” Of course! We enjoyed angel food and devils’ food cake. Amazingly delicious! Created by some very gifted bakers of the congregation.
All in all, it was a very joy-full morning. Many of the congregants got into the act (pun again intended) by dressing in their thrift-store best. Everyone seemed to enjoy having their picture taken as they walked down the red carpet to their pew while the “paparazzi” got an iPhone shot of their smiling, stylish mug. All in all, the humor dovetailed so nicely with the serious, creating a wonderful dance between both aspects (and masks!) of our experience with God and with one another. It created strong bonds of beloved community and will, I am thinking from the response received, be remembered and cherished by many for a very long time.
As far as I, and "The Comic Lens," are concerned, this is what worshiping God is all about! Even when it’s appropriately serious and solemn, our praise should always be filled with the indomitable life-giving spirit of a “What Would Jesus Award?” Oscar-themed extravaganza.