If Someone Wrote a Play


A friend called this week to let me know how much he had appreciated my Easter sermon, and how much–under the present circumstances of his life–he needed it.  And so, with his encouragement, I’m posting it here: a sermon preached at Richmond’s First Baptist Church on March 27, 2016 under the title, “Author of Life.”

For nearly three years, from the fall of 2010 to the spring of 2013, I got into my car at 12:30 on Friday afternoons and drove to Clark Springs Elementary School to spend some time with my “lunch buddy,” Jaylen.  It started with a clergy conference I attended at Richmond Hill, where I learned that the Commonwealth of Virginia estimates the number of prison cells it will build on the number of children who are not reading by fourth grade.  I thought I should do something about that, and so I called Raylene Harton, a member of this church who was working with the Micah Initiative, a partnership with Richmond Public Schools.  I said, “Can you help me find a third grade boy who needs some help with his reading?  If you can, I’ll go and sit with him for an hour each week and see if I can make a difference.”  So, she did; she found Jaylen.  And for nearly three years I did what I could to help.

Jaylen could already read, but I tried to help him read better.  He was kind of a mumbler, so I asked him to read aloud as if he were reading the news on television, and worked with him on his e-nun-ci-a-tion.  I asked him what he was interested in, and when he said “football” I went to a neighborhood bookstore to see if I could find an age-appropriate book.  While I was there the owner told me that what the kids were reading those days was a series called the “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.”  So I bought one of those and took it to Jaylen, and that day we hardly talked at all; he couldn’t stop reading.  The next time I went to see him we talked about writing, and how wonderful it was that someone could dream up all those things and put them in a book.  I said, “Here’s the magical thing about writing: you can write anything you want.  You can put yourself in the story; you can be captain of the football team; you can score the winning touchdown.  “If you want to, you can fly.”   And I wish you could have seen his face in that moment.  That boy—who had been held down by so many things in life—picturing himself flying like a bird, realizing, perhaps for the first time ever, that he was limited only by his imagination.

It’s a secret I’ve known for years.

When I was in elementary school I sometimes got bored, and when I did I would look out the window and daydream.  I dreamed about all sorts of things.  I dreamed about flying, usually with a red cape flapping behind me like Superman.  I dreamed about having a magic wand that really worked.  I dreamed about holding hands with my fourth-grade crush, Bamma Donohue.  As I got older I daydreamed less and less, but I didn’t give it up completely.  One day when I was stuck in traffic in DC I imagined pulling back on the steering wheel and feeling my car rise up into the air, and then stepping on the gas and going wherever I wanted to.

Some of you could write a book about that.

The best writers know that with words you can move not only cars, but people.  Shakespeare (who was considered a pretty fair writer) wrote both comedies and tragedies.  He knew that with words you can move people to tears or make them laugh out loud.  In one of his best known plays, Romeo and Juliet, he tells the heartbreaking story of a young couple who couldn’t live without each other.  When Juliet is told that she will have to marry someone else she drinks a potion that will make her appear to be dead so that Romeo can steal her body out of the tomb and take her away to live with him forever.  But Romeo doesn’t know about that plan; the person who was supposed to tell him is detained.  So, when he learns that Juliet has died he goes to her tomb, weeps over her body, and drinks a vial of poison so he can die by her side.  When she wakes up and finds him dead she kisses him, hoping there will be enough poison left on his lips to kill her, but when that doesn’t work she stabs herself with his dagger, and falls dead on top of his body.  I hope I’m not spoiling the ending for anyone; this play has been around more than 400 years.  But when it’s done well it still makes people gasp, it makes them weep.  They get up from their seats brokenhearted, but believing in true love as never before.

Which brings me to a song I’ve wanted to share with you for years.

It’s a song by David Wilcox, who is not a “Christian musician,” but maybe a musician who is a Christian.  I don’t know.  It’s not something he talks about much.  But when he talks about music he says, “Music is about all the different kinds of feelings we can have—we can be scared, we can be angry, we can be hopeful, we can be sad. We can be all these things and have company in it. Music is sacred ground.”  And so he wrote this song called “Show the Way,” which he once introduced by saying, “It’s a song to help us live in a world like this one.”  I remembered those words last Tuesday, when I heard about the bombing in Brussels, and felt that old sense of hopelessness wash over me.  I thought, “When will this madness ever end?  How many more lives must be lost?” and then I thought of this song.  Listen to the lyrics.

You say you see no hope
You say you see no reason we should dream
That the world would ever change
You’re saying love is foolish to believe

‘Cause there’ll always be some crazy
With an army or a knife
To wake you from your day dream
Put the fear back in your life.

And then Wilcox eases into the next verse:

Look, if someone wrote a play just to glorify
What’s stronger than hate
Would they not arrange the stage
To look as if the hero came too late?

And I want to pause there for a moment, because I think that’s what was going on in those last few days before that first Easter.  “If someone wrote a play just to glorify what’s stronger than hate, would they not arrange the stage to look as if the hero came too late?”  If William Shakespeare wrote Jesus’ story, for example, would he not have him arrested and tried before Pontius Pilate?  Would he not have him nailed to a cross and left there to die?  Would he not let his enemies mock him and deride him?  Would he not go ahead and let it happen—let him die?  Would he not have his dead body taken down from the cross and placed in a borrowed tomb?  Would he not have a heavy stone rolled in front of the opening so that everyone in the audience would say, “It’s over!  Whatever hopes we had have been crushed.  If we thought Jesus was the Messiah we think so no longer.  It’s obvious that he’s dead, he’s gone, Evil has won!”

But the song goes on:

If someone wrote a play just to glorify
What’s stronger than hate
Would they not arrange the stage
To look as if the hero came too late?

He’s almost in defeat
It’s looking like the evil side will win
So on the edge of every seat
From the moment that the whole thing begins, it is

Love who mixed the mortar
And it’s Love who stacked these stones
And it’s Love who made the stage here
Although it looks like we’re alone

In this scene set in shadows
Like the night is here to stay
There is evil cast around us
But it’s Love that wrote the play

For in this darkness Love can show the way.

And there it is, the surprising reversal that leaves you gasping and actually does glorify what’s stronger than hate.  Just when you thought Evil was going to win Love intervenes, rolls back the stone, and raises Jesus from the dead.  Wilcox never comes right out and says so but for those who believe it’s hard not to hear the Easter message in this song.  We know, that even in that moment when it looked as if Evil had won, even as those women were on the way to the tomb, it was Love who mixed the mortar, and it was Love who stacked those stones, and it was Love who made the stage there, though it looked like they were alone.  In that scene set in shadows, like the night was there to stay, there was Evil cast around them, but it was Love who wrote that play, and in that darkness Love showed them the way.”

There is a difference, however, in the author of this play and someone like William Shakespeare.  Shakespeare could write whatever he wanted.  He could have written a play in which Romeo and Juliet lived happily ever after.  He was limited only by his imagination.  God, on the other hand—the Love who wrote this play—is limited by human freedom.  From the earliest chapters of Genesis we learn that he loved us enough to make us free, and sometimes we have used that freedom to do terrible things, to write scenes of unspeakable horror.  Some human being dreamed up that nightmare scenario in Brussels, where dozens of people would die at the moment a suicide bomber worked up the nerve to push a button.  As much as God hates such moments, as much as he turns his eyes away from such carnage, he does not stop it.  He has made us free—free to live and love and laugh, free to hate and hurt and kill.  Free to nail his son to a cross.  Free to toss his body in a borrowed tomb.

But after we have done our worst God is free to do his best, and early on that first Easter Sunday he did.  Think about those women who got up to go to the tomb.  They went like people called in to identify the remains of bomb victims.  They were expecting to see only the worst: the lifeless body of their beloved Lord, stretched out on a cold slab of stone.  Nothing could have prepared them for what they actually saw: the tomb open, two men in dazzling clothes asking them why they were seeking the living among the dead, and then telling them that the one they sought, Jesus of Nazareth, was not there, that he had risen.  Think of how they must have gasped.  Think of how they must have felt the cold, dead body of hope at the center of their chests come to life again.  Shakespeare himself could not have written a play with a more joyful ending, but Shakespeare would know that joy depends upon its opposite: that until you have experienced sorrow you hardly know what joy is.

In an article published late last week, Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York was asked if he planned to change his Easter sermon in light of the Brussels bombings.  He said, “You bet I am.  I’m going to say that it’s Easter Sunday morning but it looks like Good Friday afternoon.   The world seems to be filled with a lot of death, a lot of lies, a lot of evil, a lot of violence. We’re tempted to think that the powers of darkness have the upper hand. We find ourselves stuck on Good Friday afternoon, when the sun was eclipsed, and the world went dark, and the earth trembled out of sorrow.  We don’t have to look outside to the world to think we’re stuck on Good Friday afternoon,” he said.  “We look within our own hearts and we find sin there, we find darkness there, we find evil there; we find reasons to feel discouraged, lonely, isolated. But Easter Sunday is God the father saying life has the last word, goodness trumps evil, truth is victorious over lies and mercy triumphs over violence. We need to hear that.  In light of what happened in Belgium this week that message seems to have a special poignancy.”[i]

Joy looks brighter against the backdrop of sorrow.

All the best writers know this.  David Wilcox knows this.  At one of his live concerts he introduced this song by saying, “So, this is about this perfect world.”  And then he smiled, because everyone knows that it isn’t perfect, but he went on to say, “You couldn’t find a place better to care or to love.  But that’s certainly not the logical decision.  The logical decision would be to bunker down in the fear and just not be very alive at all.”  And then he began to sing: “You say you see no hope, you say you see no reason we should dream, that the world could ever change, you’re saying love is foolish to believe, ‘cause there’ll always be some crazy, with an army or a knife, to wake you from your daydream, and put the fear back in your life.  But look, if someone wrote a play, just to glorify what’s stronger than hate, would they not arrange the stage, to look as if the hero came too late?  He’s almost in defeat, it’s looking like the evil side will win, so on the edge of every seat, from the moment that the whole thing begins, ‘It is Love who mixed the mortar, and it’s Love who stacked these stones, and it’s Love who made the stage here, although it looks like we’re alone.  In this scene set in shadows, like the night is here to stay, there is Evil cast around us, but it’s Love that wrote the play, and in this darkness Love will show the way.'”

I think he is right: I think this song can help us live in a world like this one.  As Shakespeare said, we can see the world as a kind of stage, on which good and evil are acting out their parts.  And when we hear about an act of terrorism in a place like Brussels we can imagine that Evil has just had its moment.  But as soon as Evil walks off the stage Good walks on.  You begin to see people using their human freedom to help and heal.  And in a world like this one we are called to be those people.  It could be something as simple as helping a third grade boy with his reading.  It could be something much more grand.  But we have to do something.  We have to follow the way of Love.  We are Easter people.  We cannot allow ourselves to be entombed by fear.  At the end of his song Wilcox says:

And now the stage is set,
You feel your own heart beating in your chest
This life’s not over yet,
So we get up on our feet and do your best.

We play against the fear,
We play against the reasons not to try
Playing for the tears,
Burning in the happy angel’s eyes

For it’s Love who mixed the mortar
And it’s Love who stacked these stones
And it’s Love who made the stage here
Though it looks like we’re alone

In this scene set in shadows
Like the night is here to stay
There is evil cast around us
But it’s Love that wrote the play

For in this darkness Love will show the way.[ii]

Jim Somerville © 2016





[i] http://www.lohud.com/story/news/religion/2016/03/25/lohud-easter-messages/82158990/
David Wilcox, “Show the Way,” on the Big Horizon album, 1994.

How to Keep on Living the Good and Beautiful Life

blue-morpho-butterfly-habitat-1During the Season of Lent, the members and friends of Richmond’s First Baptist Church studied a book called The Good and Beautiful Life, by James Bryan Smith. Some of them met in homes, some in Sunday school classes, some came to the Journey to the Cross services, and some did all of the above.  It was a powerful community-building exercise, and I think we all learned a great deal.

So, now what?

The original plan was this: that we would spend the Season of Lent learning about the Good and Beautiful Life, that we would spend the Season of Easter living the Good and Beautiful Life, and then spend the Season of Pentecost sharing the Good and Beautiful Life.

Learning, living, sharing.  Got it?

According to that plan we are now in the Great Fifty Days of the Easter season (April 5 through May 23), the season of living the life.  But how do we do that?  Or, rather, how do we keep on doing it?

Here’s one suggestion:

The Good and Beautiful Life is essentially a study of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7.  James Bryan Smith’s premise is that in these chapters Jesus explains what life in God’s kingdom looks like and what it would take to live it.  The life of the kingdom is the good and beautiful life, Smith argues, and if we could learn to do what Jesus says we would know that.

So, try this.

In the remainder of this season, all the way up to May 24, the Day of Pentecost, try reading the Sermon on the Mount as a kind of daily devotion.  If you’re reading this on your computer, you can simply click HERE and go to a page that has the whole sermon waiting for you in the New Revised Standard Version.  Click that same link tomorrow and try reading it in a different version, the Message, or the NIV.  Maybe you could read a different version every day, just to keep it fresh.

My hope is this: that if you saturate yourself in that sermon, if you sink down into its message day after day, you will begin to live the life it describes.  You will trust God more.  You will hate others less.  You will pluck up the seed of sin before it can take root.  You will know that you are blessed.  You will be like the one who built his house on a rock.

Try it!  Live it!  And then get ready to share it.

A life like this will be too good and beautiful to keep to yourself.

Let’s Start a Campaign…


The first Sunday after Easter Sunday is often called “Low Sunday.”  It wasn’t meant to be a reference to attendance, but it might as well be.  Typically, half the people who were in church the week before come back the week after.

Sometimes it’s less than that.

So, let’s start a campaign, using all the social media at our disposal, to turn “Low Sunday” into “Go! Sunday.”  Let’s invite our Facebook friends to join us in church on April 27, let’s tweet on Saturday night, “Going to church tomorrow!” and then tweet again the next morning, “On my way!”  Let’s use Pinterest, and Tumblr, and blog posts, and cardboard signs stuck in the yard: “Go to church on Sunday, April 27!”

If everybody who came last week came back, we’d have overflow crowds this Sunday.  If half those people came back and brought a friend, we would also have overflow crowds.  Ask yourself, “Did Christ NOT rise from the dead?  Did he NOT conquer sin and death?  Should we NOT celebrate for a full fifty days?!”

Let’s do it.  And let’s tell our friends:

If Jesus Christ
Can rise from the dead,

Surely you
Can get out of bed…

and come to church on Sunday!


KOH2RVA: Day 203

Happy Easter, everyone! Here’s one of my favorite sermons, preached on the first Easter after September 11, 2001, and re-recorded in our studios here in Richmond just a few weeks ago.

I’ll be away for the next few days, helping to lead a national retreat for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, but I’ll be back and blogging on Friday, April 5. Until then, keep on bringing the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia, or wherever you are.

Christ is risen!

Rewind the Tape

I just shared my Easter sermon from 2002 with the Wednesday night crowd at church and some of them asked that I post it online.  It was the first Easter after September 11, 2001, and for that reason it seemed all the more important to talk about resurrection.  Enjoy.


Rewind the Tape
First Baptist Church,Washington, DC
March 31, 2002, Easter Sunday
Matthew 28:1-10 

Today is Easter Sunday, a day when we pull out all the organ stops, bring in the trumpets and timpani, and celebrate with everything that is in us.  Although it may appear to those outside the church that our celebration is arbitrary—falling on one day this year and another day next year—it is not arbitrary at all.  We celebrate a specific event in history: we celebrate that day on which Jesus broke the bony back of death and opened up for us the way that leads to life.  Because of what he did death no longer has dominion over us.  Our last and worst enemy has been decisively defeated.  Even if you didn’t feel the need to throw a party it would be a good reason to throw one. 

But sometimes you do feel the need.

My friend Stan Hastey, who read the Gospel lesson for us this morning, remembers a sermon he heard just a few days after Easter, 1968.  He was a student at Southern Seminary inLouisville,Kentucky.  Martin Luther King, Jr., had been assassinated two weeks before.  Race riots had broken out inMemphis, and in this city, and in others.  A dark shadow had fallen across the American landscape.  The students who gathered for chapel on that April day needed to hear an encouraging word.  They looked up hopefully as the Reverend Charles Boddie, an African-American preacher fromNashville,Tennessee, made his way to the pulpit.  They shifted in their pews and then waited, expectantly, for Boddie to speak.  When he did, his voice was little more than a whisper.   Pointing back to the Sunday before he said, “Easter, this year, came just in the nick of time.”

Although it has been more than six months since September 11th I have that same feeling about this year, that Easter has come just in the nick of time.  On that day I was watching the news as that second airplane slammed into theWorldTradeCenter.  I couldn’t believe what I had just seen.  Neither could the anchorman.  He said to the engineer, “Rewind the tape,” and because the engineer was as shocked as we were he forgot to turn off the monitor first, so right there on the screen we saw the image freeze and then begin to do a jerky little dance as it went backward.  We saw that huge orange ball of flame being sucked back into the building.  We saw shattered pieces of concrete, steel, and glass defy gravity, and leap back up to their proper places.  We saw that airplane backing out of the building tail first and the hole it had punched in the side repairing itself until building and plane and passengers were all intact again.  And then the image froze again, and the engineer pushed the “play’ button, and the whole tragic scene unfolded before us once more: the plane smashing into the building; the ball of flame erupting from the other side; the shattered pieces of concrete, steel, and glass falling toward the ground and all those people . . . gone.

What if there were some way to rewind not only the tape, but also time?  Imagine God himself giving the command, and some heavenly engineer pushing the button, and time beginning to flow backward instead of forward.  So that the suicide bombing in the port city of Haifa, Israel, this morning would miraculously undo itself as shrapnel came flying back into the bomb, as chairs and tables, plates and glasses, returned to their usual places, as friends greeted one another in that crowded restaurant, sat down, chatted and smiled.  Last Monday night the destruction caused by an earthquake in Afghanistanwould be reversed.  Ruined houses and buildings would put themselves back together again.  Children who had been crushed by falling debris minutes earlier would resume their peaceful sleep.  Mothers would stroke their hair, kiss their cheeks, and wish them sweet dreams.  And as time continued to flow backward, as September 13th lapsed into September 12th, people from all over the country would begin making their way to New York City, hoping to be as close to Ground Zero as possible on the 11th, when the twin towers of the World Trade Center would heave themselves up out of the rubble to stand tall and proud again.  The crowds would cheer when firefighters and policemen came running out of the buildings unharmed.  They would cheer again when they saw those two airplanes fly backward out of the buildings and back toward the airports.  But their loudest cheers would be reserved for those thousands of people who came out, alive and well and more than a little surprised by all the attention they were getting.

But suppose we didn’t stop there?  Suppose we just kept going?  Suppose we watched Martin Luther King get up off the balcony of thatMemphishotel and adjust his tie?  Suppose John F. Kennedy stepped out of that convertible inDallas, waved to the crowds, and got back on Air Force One?  Imagine Japanese airplanes flying away fromPearl Harborwith their bombs undelivered.  Or the Titanic floating up off the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean and bobbing like a cork on the surface before steaming back toEngland.  Imagine Civil War soldiers—both Union and Confederate—getting up from the battlefield, brushing themselves off, and embracing before heading home.  And then suppose we kept going, back through the centuries, watching one tragedy after another undo itself until we stood with Jesus’ disciples and watched as life came back into that crucified body, as the Roman soldiers lowered the cross and un-hammered the nails, as he staggered back before Pontius Pilate, back before the Sanhedrin, back to the Garden of Gethsemane, back to the table where he and his disciples had shared their last supper.  Wouldn’t they cheer?  Wouldn’t it be good to have Jesus back with them again, safe and sound?   Or would even those dense disciples understand that there is a difference between restoration and resurrection.  Would they recognize that if time kept moving in that direction there would come a time when they hadn’t met Jesus, hadn’t been called, hadn’t begun to follow, and would they recognize that it would have been better to have known him and lost him than never to have known him at all?

In an extraordinary little book called Einstein’s Dreams Alan Lightman imagines all the impossible permutations of time.  In one chapter he describes a world like the one I have been describing to you, in which time flows backward.  A woman who was near death begins to get younger and stronger.  The deep lines disappear from her face.  Her hearing comes back.  Her eyesight comes back.  And then one day her husband is carried back into her house.  “In hours, his cheeks become pink, he stands stooped over, straightens out, speaks to her.  Her house becomes their house.  They eat meals together, tell jokes, laugh.  They travel through the country, visit friends.  Her white hair darkens with brown streaks, her voice resonates with new tones.  She goes to a retirement party at the local high school, begins teaching history.  She loves her students, argues with them after class.  She reads during her lunch hour and at night.  She meets friends and discusses history and current events.  She helps her husband with the accounts at his drugstore, walks with him to the foot of the mountains, makes love to him.  Her skin becomes soft and smooth, her hair long and brown.”[1]

It sounds wonderful, doesn’t it, this reversal of time?  Don’t we wish we could make it so?  Don’t we wish we could reverse the aging process at least, so that our own skin would become younger and smoother, our bodies stronger, our eyesight clearer?  Imagine celebrating your 80th birthday knowing that next year you would be 79.  Imagine making plans to run a marathon 40 years from now, when your body would be in better shape.  It all sounds good up to a point, but only up to a point.  Listen to how Lightman continues his story:  “The woman sees her husband for the first time in the library of the university, returns his glances.  She attends classes.  She graduates from high school with her parents and sister crying tears of happiness.  She lives at home with her parents, spends hours with her mother walking through the woods by their house, helps with the dishes.  She tells stories to her younger sister, is read to at night before bed, grows smaller.  She crawls.  She nurses.”[2]  Lightman stops the story right there but if he had continued you know that this woman who had become a girl who had become a baby would next become a fetus, then an embryo, then an egg, and then nothing at all.  She would disappear completely if time flowed backward. 

Some would say that’s what happens to all of us anyway.  In a world where time flows forward we grow old, we die, we are buried, our bodies decay, and in the end there is nothing but the memory of us left in the world and soon not even that.  And this is where the testimony of the disciples is most helpful.  They saw Jesus die.  They saw him buried.  But they also saw something else.  Three days after his death they saw him alive again.  And this was no studio special effect:  this was real.  In Matthew’s version of the story it is the women, running back from the tomb to tell his disciples the good news, who encounter the risen Jesus on the way.  “Greetings,” he says, and they fall at his feet to worship him, trembling with fear and joy. 

At first they must have thought that he had been brought back to life like Lazarus, that God had caused time to flow backward and Jesus had been restored.  But eventually they came to see that this was not restoration, but resurrection.  Jesus had not retreated from death, but marched forward to meet it, smashed through it, and emerged on the other side alive.  It wasn’t as if someone had rewound the tape of his life, but fast-forwarded to that time when God will raise up all who believe.  If you can forgive the expression it was a “preview of coming attractions,” and it changed everything.  It gave those early Christians a confidence in the resurrection that made it possible for them to live their everyday lives with extraordinary courage.  Death no longer had dominion over them.  They no longer had to be afraid.  Paul who had been knocked off his high horse by the risen Jesus, who had seen the future and lost his fear, could thrust his chin forward and say, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” 

But what about you? 

Push the “pause” button on your life for a moment.  Stop everything right here where you are, on Easter Sunday, 2002, in a pew at FirstBaptistChurch.  If you had the power to reach out and push “rewind” would you do it?  For some of you it would be wonderful to feel life and strength flowing back into tired bodies.  For others there are tragedies that have marked your life that you would love to see undone.  For others there are missed opportunities that you would like to go back and seize.  For others harsh words spoken that you have always wished you could take back.  If you had the power, you might be tempted to push the “rewind” button.  But I believe that God raised Jesus.  And I believe that he will raise me too.  And it is my confidence in the resurrection that gives me the courage to reach out and push “play,” even today, even after September 11th, and weeks of Anthrax threats, and months of war inAfghanistan, on a day when the situation in theMiddle East seems ready to explode.

This year and every year, Easter comes just in the nick of time.


—Jim Somerville, 2002

[1] Alan Lightman, Einstein’s Dreams (New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1993), pp. 103-104.

[2] Ibid., p. 104.