So, I am three months into my new position working with the congregation in Salmon Arm, and have taken my first week of vacation. Nice job if you can get it.
This time off was negotiated when I interviewed because at that point I already had tickets to the Passion Play in Drumheller, a gift from a lovely congregation near there, for whom I provided occasional pulpit supply.
What a wonderful day. Everyone to whom they gave tickets gathered together with the congregation in the Orkney Community Hall for tea, a time of fellowship, and an opportunity to thank the people for this great opportunity. Then a short drive to the open air theatre.
The setting is incredible. The stage is made to look like ancient middle eastern buildings of the Roman era. The hills of the Badlands carved out to provide sets for the Garden of Gethsemane, the Jordan River, the Sea of Galilee, and Golgotha. In that desert climate it felt as if we were there.
I had attended this play once before, way back in the 90’s and was expecting an extravaganza, and that is what we got. Hundreds of volunteers from parking attendants to actors worked together to produce a truly amazing experience and an intensely meaningful play. The actors may have been volunteers, but everything was so professionally and passionately done. It was awesome.
The whole experience stayed with me for days and now that I am home again, the feelings and the memories are beginning to dim, but the impact remains.
This year the Gospel that the script was based on was Luke. The play began with Peter in despair about the lack of success fishing and his search for finding God in the struggle. Then the Baptism of Jesus by John, and a flashback that explained the nativity.
From that point on it was clear that as the story unfolded it was the struggle of Peter, and the others, to fully comprehend the person of Jesus. And it was a struggle. Jesus often referred to Peter as the Rock, the bedrock of the faith of the church to come, but also the rock-headed and rock-hearted follower, who, it was all too clear, represented all of us.
As Peter struggled to understand who Jesus was there were parables that shaped the journey of faith, doubt and even frustration and anger that Peter knew. I was often reminded of the word of they hymn, Spirit of God, descend upon my heart:
Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh;
Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear.
To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh,
Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer.
The struggle of doubt and rebellion (and the sin of it) was seen in the parable of the Prodigal Son and the Parable of the Lost Sheep which framed many of the acts as the play unfolded.
Peter could not grasp why Jesus would look for other sheep. Jesus pointed out that even Peter was the 1 in 99 that needed rescuing and why should he deny all those other lost sheep. When Peter could not grasp grace the story of the prodigal pointed out how deeply God loved each one even in their sin.
But nowhere were the themes of the Prodigal Son and the Lost Sheep stronger than in the scene of Peter in the courtyard after Jesus had been arrested. Each time he denied knowing Jesus the words “I don’t even know him” were partly a lie to protect himself and partly an expression of the depth of his not knowing or understanding Jesus. I don’t know him, how can a King allow this to happen. I don’t know him doesn’t he know we were counting on him. I don’t know him, what is his purpose here, why won’t he let us fight for him or with him.
The depth of the love and grace of the parables was seen in the freeze frame when Jesus is being led to Pilate’s palace for sentencing; as the actors froze and Jesus sang to Peter, words of love and grace, words of longing that Peter would come home to understanding and faith.
The music, all of it original and written just for this production, was another unifying force. Each character had their own words to each of the songs. The themes and the tune unifying the message. You are my beloved son (God to Jesus) and (Jesus to Peter); you are the lost one I seek. And to hear the echoes of that as Pilate sang during his struggle to know what was the right thing to do.
The depth of awe in the audience was so evident during the crucfixion. It was powerful and painful to hear sound of the nails being pounded echo around the valley. It was deeply saddening to hear the Holy Spirit singing about not being able to help and telling Jesus that he was now alone and on his own. The silence of our communal grief was palpable.
But all of that was eclipsed by the power of the resurrection and above all the final image of the loving father who went out to meet his son, and the shepherd who searched for the 1 in 99, as Jesus sought out Peter, forgave him and called him to become the shepherd who seeks for and feeds the sheep.
Following the performance the actors mingled with the crowd. As they stopped and talked it was evident that, for them, this was a labour of love. Many lived as far away as Calgary or even Edmonton. To take part required long drives, camping nearby, driving home again on Sunday evening and coming back for the performances the next weekend.
The whole event was a reminder that God gave his all for us and that we are called to give without counting the cost in the acts of mercy and grace that God calls forth from us.
I hope that I am blessed to be able to see another performance. The power and the message remain with me; and I pray will flow through all I do.
Powerful God, the depth of your love and grace are surprising and catch us unaware
As often as we fail you and disappoint you, you come seeking for us and welcome us home
Sorrow is overcome with salvation
Sin is forgiven and forgotten
In our hearts God we seek to know you, to understand you and to love you
Open for us the courage to follow where you lead and to grace the world with your love
Now and forevermore. Amen