God’s Kingdom is for Clowns, Comedians, Immigrants and Exiles

Readings for the 11th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Exodus 17:22-24; Psalm 92: 2-3, 13-16; 2nd Corinthians 5: 6-10; Mark 4: 26-34.

Today’s readings put me in mind of two superb films I’ve recently watched, “Joker” and “In the Heights,” both available on HBO.

Each film described a world inhabited by people our culture tends to despise and that empires like ours devalue and vilify. In that sense, both “Joker” and “In the Heights” focus on individuals very like the Hebrews liberated from Egyptian slavery and like Jesus himself and his friends who lived under impoverishing Roman occupation.  

“Joker” showed the dark threatening side of life under an order structured to favor the rich. “In the Heights” was infinitely more positive. However, taken together, they illustrate a theme suggested in today’s liturgical readings. It’s that positively or negatively, the poor represent our future. They are the key factor that will either destroy or save us.

Joker

Begin with “Joker.” It points up the need for a new (divine) order in our collapsing world whose worship of the rich is leading to disaster.

“Joker” is the story of Arthur Fleck, a sign-spinning clown and aspiring comedian who, he admits, has never had a positive thought in his life.

And there’s good reason for Arthur’s depression (ironically underlined by uncontrollable laughing fits). As a child, he was abused by his adoptive mother’s boyfriend. He’s down and out and spends much of his life watching television with his now sick mother. Crucially, he has no other community.

The world in Arthur’s Gotham City is also disintegrating. Garbage litters its streets. Rats are running wild. And rampant crime plagues city streets.

Meanwhile the rich hide behind their gated estates, all the time blaming the poor characterizing them as lazy clowns who need sermonizing from above rather than the dignity of employment at a living wage. Tellingly, at one point the headline of the city’s main paper reads “Kill the Rich!”  

Little wonder then that after Arthur murders three Wall Streeters on the subway following their unprovoked attack on him, alienated poor people throughout the city adopt his clown mask as a sign of rebellion reminiscent of the Guy Fawkes mask in “V for Vendetta.”

Arthur had unwittingly started a class war of poor against rich. He has his community at last, but it is completely hopeless, nihilist and destructive.

In the Heights

Compare that with Latinix life portrayed in Lin Manuel Miranda’s “In the Heights.”  It too unfolds in New York City’s real-life version of comic book Gotham.

True, Washington Heights has problems like Arthur’s context – poverty, prejudice against immigrants and the poor. Nonetheless, “In the Heights” underlines the unmistakable gift-to-America brought by its Latinix citizens with their sense of community and solidarity – not to mention patience and faith. It’s all so hopeful and joyous.

That’s because those living in Miranda’s idealized Washington Heights have community.  As individuals, they are hard workers with lofty aspirations. But in community they share rich cultures with enviable familial unselfishness, joy, music, dance, colorful language, and resourcefulness. They all love their children and grandparents; they care for one another. They scrimp and scrape and give their neighbors hope by sharing their meager resources.

All of that enables them to endure blackouts (recalling months without power in post-Maria Puerto Rico) that render them powerless in more ways than one, but without diminishing their indomitable carnival spirits.

Today’s Readings

In the perspective of today’s liturgy of the word, Miranda’s romanticized barrio contrasts sharply with “Joker’s” more realistic dark and dirty city streets. However, both put faces on abstractions like Jesus’ description of the “Kingdom of God.”

I mean, today’s readings present Jesus in his familiar role as the Great Reverser of values and cultural expectations. He agrees with Miranda in celebrating the poor and insignificant as the very embodiment of the joy and happiness that give life meaning. However, Jesus does so in a way that might confuse those unfamiliar with his peasant context.

Conventional thought in Jesus’ day is reflected in today’s first reading from the Book of Exodus. It estimates that bigger is better. A Cedar of Lebanon celebrated at the beginning of Hebrew history is an obvious image of the kind of national power to which Israel (and all other nations) aspired. To speak of Israel as a huge and powerful cedar — as a kind of Gotham — made common sense.

But more than 1000 years later, Jesus reverses all of that. In a world that (like ours) seems to be falling apart, his “ridiculous” metaphor for national prosperity is a mustard plant – a kind of weed which farmers in his day thought of as a curse.

In the spirit of Small is Beautiful, Jesus nonetheless ascribes to a weed the very same qualities that the author of Exodus accords a giant old-growth tree. He sees it as imposing, fruitful, and providing shelter for birds of all kinds. In short, the pesky and irrepressible shares the same characteristics that the world evaluates as formidable and powerful. Washington Heights is worthier than the rest of NYC.

Moreover, one could argue that the Divine Parent has chosen the poor (not Gotham’s rich Wall Streeters) as the locale of divine revelation, because the poor reveal what’s wrong with our lives and the directions for righting the wrong.

To suggest what I mean, here are my “translations” of today’s readings. Please note their upbeat tone.

Exodus 17:22-24

After their liberation from Egypt
Runaway slaves
Understood the Great Parent
Promising
That they would flourish
Like a giant old-growth cedar
A fruitful and mighty home
For escaped jailbirds like them 
According to the wise plan
Inherent in Life’s Great Force.

Psalm 92: 2-3, 13-16

We thank you, Almighty Parent,
For your kind and faithful care
Showered upon us 
From bright dawns  
Through fearful nights.
Your will is that 
We all flourish like palm trees
And Cedars of Lebanon
In a just New World Order
Where all enjoy vigorous health 
And long productive lives.
Thank you indeed.

2nd Corinthians 5: 6-10

Knowing all of that
Is a source of our great courage
Admittedly based upon  
Unprovable convictions
That we will one day
Live in the just world
Called “God’s Kingdom.”
Yes, we trust in Christ’s judgment
That in following him,
We are advancing towards that end.

Mark 4: 26-34

Trailing the Master
At a confusing distance
We are like farmers
Who sow seeds
Knowing they will grow
But without understanding
Why or how.
It’s that way too
With God’s Kingdom
Which, it turns out,
Is more like a pesky weed
Than Moses’ mighty cedar.
Yet even Jesus’ poor mustard plant
Draws the same odd birds
To flourish in its shade.
(How’s that
For a head-scratching simile?)


Conclusion

So, the choice is up to us. Do we want a powerful world with room for a few to flourish obscenely behind locked gates while the many are forced to exist with rats, garbage, envy, and hatred? That world can pretend to be as mighty as an ancient cedar tree. But too often its apparent might conceals desperate inner rot, nihilism and misery.

Or do we want a simpler powerless world with room for everyone, where people prioritize not money and might, but family, each other, joy, spicy food, party, carnival, and love?

Again, it’s up to us — to follow the example (or not) of those our culture despises and rejects.

We all know how wise spiritual masters from Moses to Jesus and his rebellious Mother Mary have answered our question. It’s what’s suggested in today’s readings.

Whether we live in a culture that seems like a mighty cedar or one that resembles the weedy mustard bush, all of us know the direction we’re called to take.

If we don’t choose it, Arthur Fleck’s gun points towards the destiny that will inevitably be ours.

“In the Heights” Answers the Immigrant Question in Arts-Friendly Westport Connecticut

On Mothers’ Day, the immigrant invasion that Donald Trump has warned us about, finally reached my new hometown of Westport, Connecticut. It came in the form of Lin Manuel Miranda’s sparkling musical, “In the Heights.”  My daughter and son-in-law generously took us to see the play.

At first glance, a performance in Westport might seem literally out-of-place. After all, it’s is one of the most affluent cities in the country. By contrast, Miranda’s play is set in a poor barrio located in Manhattan’s Washington Heights. However, “In the Heights” succeeded in bringing two disparate communities together in a mutual appreciation that should characterize all interactions between “Americans” from the north and those from the south.

Let me explain.

Westport is the home of Wall Street investors, lawyers and insurance brokers.  But the town of 26,000 clearly has a social conscience. At least in part, that’s because in the 1930s it was an artist colony animated by the horizon-widening presence of its venerable “Country Playhouse.”

A converted barn right out of a Rooney and Garland movie, the Playhouse was later adopted by local residents, Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward, who inspired its renovation. Over the years, many famous authors, television personalities and actors from Hollywood and Broadway have been drawn to Westport by the playhouse and its theatrical sprites. The best-known personalities include F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bette Davis, Robert Redford, Ann Hathaway, Keith Richards, Martha Stewart, Jim Nantz, Phil Donahue, and Christopher Walken.

Miranda brought together Westporters proud of such lineage on the one hand and immigrants far from such pedigree on the other. And guess what: there was not even one of President Trump’s frightening rapists or gang members among the latter. Instead, they included a street graffiti artist, a snow-cone vender, a bodega proprietor, the owner of a small taxi service, his dispatcher, a sassy beautician and her staff of three, and a college student from Stanford University. Over a period of 90 minutes we came to know and care about each one of them.

The characters came from Puerto Rico, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic. Yet all of them had lived in New York for years hardly even noticed as somehow out-of-place. Like many of their real-life counterparts, those the Trumpists call “invaders” were marvelous singers and dancers. Each had a story of family idiosyncrasy, love, economic struggle and high aspiration.

Countering Trump’s cheap clap-trap, “In the Heights” underlined the unmistakable gift-to-America brought by its Latinix citizens. They are hard workers with lofty aspirations, and rich cultures with enviable family values, joy, music, dance, colorful language, resourcefulness, patience and faith. They love their children and grandparents. They scrimp and scrape and help each other with their meager resources. With patience and faith, they endure blackouts (recalling months without power in post-Maria Puerto Rico) that render them powerless in more ways than one, without diminishing their indominable carnival spirits.

Capturing all of that, and following the triumph of “Hamilton,” this earlier musical by Lin Manuel Miranda once again displays the author’s unmistakable genius. (Its first draft was written when he was only 19 years of age.) Its main storyline belongs to Nina Rosario, the first in her family to attend college. Her whole barrio is proud of her and her scholarship to Stanford. However, she disappoints herself and her parents when she secretly drops out in March of her first year, because the work necessary just to pay for her books cut so deeply into her study time. (By the way, her bio reminded me of the students I taught over my 40 years of teaching in Appalachia’s Berea College in Kentucky. Its familiarity brought tears to my eyes.)  

Returning home for summer vacation, Nina causes a family crisis, when she finally informs her parents that she has lost her scholarship. Initial parental chagrin and anger soon turns into resolve to sell the family taxi cab business in order to finance their daughter’s college costs.

Meanwhile, Nina falls in love with Benny, an African-American who works for Nina’s father and the only one in the story who does not speak Spanish. Nina’s parents’ own prejudice doesn’t allow them to see Benny as worthy of their daughter. But Benny too has his own aspirations. He wants to learn Spanish. He wants to start his own business. He’s serious – and deeply in love with Nina. Their duet, “Sunrise,” makes that touching point.

But in the end, it’s elderly Claudia, the matriarch recognized as abuela by everyone in the barrio who saves the day.  Before her sudden passing, she wins the lottery and immediately shares it with her grandson, who in turn shares it with others. Her image and spirit rendered permanent by the barrio’s graffiti artist prevents the neighborhood from disintegrating. Her memory successfully overcomes the centrifugal force of poverty, crime, and economic hardship. The strength of such family ties, memories and tradition hung like a bright shadow over the entire performance.

Not surprisingly, and thanks, I’m guessing, to their art-friendly context, Westporters accepted all of that with open arms and a standing ovation. It was as if the audience recognized themselves in these on-stage first- and second-generation immigrants. And of course they did – precisely because that’s what all of our families are or have just recently been.

Too easily we forget that. We’re all immigrants, aren’t we? At the most basic level, our ancestors were absolutely no different in any way from those we Westporters watched on stage. We’re no different from those our “leaders” fear and cage.

Yesterday’s audience thankfully realized that those Mr. Trump calls “invaders” deserve welcome, appreciation, and standing ovations reserved for the local “celebrities” whose families themselves were once immigrants like those now living in Washington Heights.

Everyone deserves the honor now given to Lin Manuel Miranda. Everyone merits the response we all gave the Country Playhouse yesterday afternoon. That’s the lesson my new neighbors taught me on Mothers’ Day in their hallowed theater.