The Revd Margaret Legg
The pantomime is one of those traditions at this time of year that people seem either to love or to detest. I love them and try to go every year. My favourite theatre is the Hackney Empire, a palace of a building, designed by Frank Matcham, who also designed the London Coliseum. Last year they put on Jack and the Beanstalk. It featured an amazing fusion of traditional British culture with the local West Indian culture. So Jack’s mother, the panto dame, was played by a jolly and rotund Jamaican. He did rap and tucked into patties and chicken and rice. But it is a panto in Wimbledon a few years ago that sticks in my mind. We were late – terrible traffic- and the Dame – Windsor Davies – was in full flow when we slipped into the auditorium. It shouldn’t have caused a stir: our seats in the centre of the front row of the stalls were easily accessible. No-one even had to get up. But Windsor Davies spotted us, focussed on us, grinned and pausing just a second, for effect, ad libbed: ’Glad you could make it!’ before cracking on. We and the audience around us laughed and we instantly settled down to enjoy the show!
Today’s readings reminded me of the panto because there’s more to the panto than watching. The audience are invited to join in. In fact it’s an essential ingredient. Without audience participation the show will be a damp squib. And in today’s readings, God invites people to join him and take part in his ministry of establishing God’s kingdom.
Jesus has already called Andrew, Peter and Philip, now Nathaniel comes on board. Altogether Jesus will have a cast of 13 disciples, which will grow and grow and grow. This is global! What draws them? It’s not put into words. ‘Come and see.’ Says Philip. The implication is that you have to experience it for yourself. The panto has to be experienced too. The booing and the hissing; the ‘oh yes he did – oh no he didn’t’, the outrageous costumes and cross dressing all create atmosphere and catch people’s attention. I’m quite a difficult one to draw in – I can sit stony faced and detached. But a good panto catches me, the fun is infectious. And that’s the essence in a way. It is good clean fun, with no hidden agendas or snide remarks, no coercion, but good-humoured banter between audience and cast. When it’s done well, it’s irresistible.
This is how God calls Nathaniel, without coercion and with good humoured banter! Jesus could, perhaps have taken umbrage at Nathaniel’s sceptical response to Philip’s excited pronouncement. ‘Can anything good come out of Nazareth?’ that little backwater in Galilee, Nathaniel asks. It was a genuine question. He was genuinely surprised. I had always thought Nathaniel was relaxing under the fig tree, but I’ve found out that in rabbinic literature the fig tree symbolises the place where one studies the Torah, the first five books of the Old Testament. Nathaniel perhaps was wrestling with a tricky piece of scripture, just as Jacob once wrestled with God and earned the new name Israel. Jesus hardly looked like the Messiah, the anointed king of Israel, the one about whom Moses and the Law and the prophets had written. Jesus recognises the genuineness of Nathaniel’s response and greets him warmly, as a genuine son of Israel, one in whom the deceit of Jacob is absent.
This is how God calls us, the audience, in the theatre of our lives. We may be wrestling with a dilemma, a problem and unexpectedly He calls to us, in love and kindness, often quite unexpectedly. He does so knowing full well what we are thinking and what motivates us – the inside track, so to speak. And he keeps on breaking in to our lives, coaxing a response from us. Jesus, as the Psalmist says, has already searched us out and knows all about us, just as he knew all about Nathaniel.
But what difference does it make, to join in, to follow Jesus? It means the satisfaction of living in a way that deep down feels and is right, just as in the panto the audience calls out against the baddie, it means building people up and offering support when the going gets tough, it means we stand up for what is true and good and just. We respond with generosity and kindness, while not being a doormat and we talk about what motivates us – our faith and our hope as need be. Wherever we find ourselves: not restricted to a theatre or a church building. It’s in the play of our lives.
The hidden audience may not even see each other. The auditorium is pitch black while the panto is being performed which perhaps makes the cast even keener to raise the volume of the audience’s ‘Oh yes he did’! I read an article about taking Facebook into the pulpit the other day! We spend increasingly more of our day on line. Electronic communication applies to study/work and leisure: the relentless emails or the non-stop facebook interaction, tweets and one that’s new to me that I came across the other day: instant messaging. The online world may not be tangible in the sense that you can’t necessarily see the person/people with whom you are communicating, but they are nevertheless real people, with real needs, trying to do real jobs and make real relationships. Just as telephone conversations and letters are. So we avoid deceit, abuse, hectoring. Integrity, good humour, are the order of the day, as much as in face to face encounters. This is how we are to engage with whatever comes our way in life.
It might be at home or in the street or in the shops or in a cafe. It’s about paying attention to each other and noticing when we can step in and help. The panto cast chuck sweets into the audience to keep their attention and the hands go up to catch them; water might get squirted and the audience ducks to avoid it. Life throws all sorts of experiences our way. It’s how we respond that counts. Someone fell into the Paddington Basin last week. It was lunchtime and the area was crowded. The guy wasn’t paying attention and hadn’t noticed how close to the edge he was walking, until one leg got wet. He managed to steady himself so nothing else got soaked. The security man came to see if he was ok. They smiled and exchanged a few words and went on their ways. A rapid response, a kind gesture made all the difference.
The panto is performed not only for our applause, but also for our attention and engagement. Just like following Jesus.
Come and see. Like Nathaniel– you’ll be glad you could make it!