LENT THROUGH THE AGES: THE COTTON PATCH GOSPEL
When I was a young man growing up in Derby, America, each Lenten season the local churches would band together and present what was called the “Derby Passion Scenario”. Each of the participating churches would produce one of the scenes from the last week of Christ’s life. Families would pile in their cars and head off to the first church on the list, Pleasantview Baptist, where the triumphal entry was staged—complete with a real donkey and lots of neighborhood children waving palm fronds. Pleasantview Baptist and the nearby Pentecostal church always got the triumphal entry because they shared a dirt side road and it made for a very realistic setting for the scene. Just imagine the dust and the drama of the procession as the crowd would wave and cheer as Jesus entered Jerusalem—on a real live donkey! Then you’d hop in your cars and drive to the next church for the next scene. This went on for about 2 hours as you worked your way through the entire passion story. And then it all started over again—you had two opportunities each Easter to catch the Scenario.
Since we had been members at three Derby churches while I grew up, I am most familiar with those parts of the Passion scenario. Pleasantview Baptist where we attended for the first 9 or 10 years of my life had, as I mentioned, the palm-waving entry into Jerusalem. And then, briefly in Jr. High, I attended Faith Lutheran Church– whose gothic architecture made a terrific setting for the Trial before Pilate. Each church had an outdoor sound system and there was dramatic music and powerful narration while the church members acted out the parts. I distinctly remember wearing my Roman Centurion garb and roughly ushering the actor playing Jesus to his spot in front of the purple-robed Pilate, and I recall him standing there dejected and droop-shouldered until the final proclamation: “I wash my hands of this judgement” and then I and my fellow Roman guards grabbed Jesus and walked off.
My Senior High school career had me transferring my membership to Woodlawn United Methodist Church. Now this church for years had the distinction of serving as the location for the crucifixion. Even today, when you drive down Woodlawn in Derby, you’ll see the three crosses that were used for many years in their part of the scenario. I recall one of my best friends being chosen our senior year to play Christ and how seriously he took his role and how I watched, this time as just a face in the crowd, as the ladder was placed against the cross and he was escorted up it and put into place—as the guards (different actors because we’re at a different church) mimed hammering nails into his hands and feet. I’ll never forget as my friend did his final, dramatic look to heaven as the narrator said “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last.”– It’s one of those indelible memories that I cherish to this day. What great memories of the late 70’s and early 80’s as the churches of Derby put on this fun, dramatic Easter Scenario. And I have great memories of playing three different roles throughout my youth—a member of the crowd greeting Jesus into Jerusalem, a Roman Centurion and finally another face in the crowd at the crucifixion.
The roots of this type of play or scene-based presentation of the passion are found in the medieval church where they would hold the “Stations of the Cross”. It was used as a teaching tool and church members would go from station to station and pray and see the various scenes acted out. Many churches, both Catholic and Protestant, hold variations on the Stations of the Cross today. I want to make an important note here: Modern theater actually was borne out of these medieval passion plays. We can trace our modern TV and movie entertainments to the medieval church and how they sought to teach their people good morals and Bible stories using Passion plays.
People have been interpreting the Passion story since right after Jesus was on the earth. Interpreting what it meant and what it means. The early church used a verbal telling of the story to vouchsafe the material and keep any documentation from unbeliever’s eyes—and from possibly prosecutors as well. Eventually, though, it had to be written done and we have lots of extant copies of various iterations of the Passion. I’ve included in your bulletins a section of what is called “The Pre-Markan Passion Narrative”. Pre-Markan meaning it precedes the Gospel of Mark. It is dated from 30-60 CE, or roughly immediately after the Christ event to up to 30 years after the event. The story will be extremely familiar as it is believed by scholars that this is the document that the Gospel of Mark derived much of its material. I wanted you to have a snippet of this document, because most consider it the earliest written account of the Passion. It is from this narrative that the others have been created from—this is the seed of the story, if you will, and all others use all or part of it, to tell their version of the Passion.
Through the years it has undergone some interesting changes, up to and including Robin’s topic for last week’s sermon—the epic “Greatest Story Ever Told” where we saw great artistic and historical license being taken to tell this story and to reach as broad an audience as possible. And then we have this week’s chosen artistic interpretation of the Passion—The Cotton patch Gospel. We had to cancel our shared viewing of this delightful little show due to bad weather on Wednesday, but I watched it again (and I have the DVD if anyone would like to check it out). It reminded me so much of our fun little production we did of Cotton Patch right here in the sanctuary in February of 2008. For those of you newer than that to UCC, there was a period of 7 years where our Director of Children and Youth Ministries would put on a musical or a play each year. We did Godspell and Superstar and in 2008, The Cotton Patch Gospel. I played the part of the narrator who basically plays the major roles in the passion story and a bunch of our college students, youth and children played a variety of other characters. The Cotton Patch Gospel is a re-telling of the passion using the vernacular of rural Georgia. The book of the play was written by Tom Key, based on Southern Baptist minister, Clarence Jordan’s colloquial translation of the gospels. Jordan had translated each of the four canonical gospels into this “southern dialect” and he used the vernacular and geographic locations of Georgia as replacements for various location in the passion story. For instance, the opening song “Something’s Brewing in Gainesville” is referring to the birth of a supposed savior for the people, with Gainesville, Georgia standing in for Nazareth. The governor of Georgia is Governor Herod and Mary and Joe Davidson have this baby Jesus. The last name Davidson being used to show Jesus’ direct linage to King David. It is clever bordering on the hokey, but as Key said: “As soon as I read Clarence Jordan’s “Cotton Patch version of Matthew” I knew I had been provided an authentic and fresh way of seeing the story of Christ. The way Jordan respectfully and accurately put the life of Jesus in the context of the American south made what had become safe, familiar, and , most importantly, so of another time and place, suddenly and shockingly relevant with an enormous amount of laughter, moral challenge and wonder”.
Famed song-writer, Harry Chapin, the man who gave us “The Cat’s in the Cradle” contributed the songs for the show, which they completed in June of 1981, just one month before Chapin would be killed in a car accident. Three months later the musical opened off-Broadway and ran for a total of 193 performances closing in April of 1982. It has been performed in numerous venues since, including right here at UCC. The recording we have here at church is of this early 80’s off-Broadway production and it was fascinating to watch the lead actor assume most of the roles in the story. He plays the major characters with the members of the bluegrass band offering smaller roles and commentary on the action. It’s lots of fun and yet has a pretty serious second act that reveals some insights into the plight of Jesus and his betrayal at the hands of a dear friend.
So, “The Cotton Patch Gospel” is just one additional way of interpreting the Passion. And while some have found it hokey and simplistic, it has drawn great praise for being accessible and showing that the passion can be updated, even unto a place like Gainesville, Georgia. Isn’t this like what the churches of Derby were doing with their Easter Passion Scenario? Isn’t this similar to what the churches were doing in the middle-ages? Interpreting the story and making it available for everyone? Isn’t it what we are engaging in any time we share this story? We interpret it’s meaning for today and try to express that meaning in ways that are accessible to our modern audiences.
Colin Harris, a retired professor of religious studies at Mercer University has written extensively on how we interpret the passion, and most importantly, with which character we identify– how this identification can give us some insight into our default religious convictions. He asks us to look at how we relate to the various characters: Do we see ourselves as members of the Sanhedrin? Are we trying to maintain strict adherence to our traditions and our historical interpretation of the Passion? Are we complicit in the plot to dehumanize someone who challenges our perceived “traditions”? Or do we see ourselves as Pilate, or at least sympathetic to Pilate’s plight? So afraid of losing our privileged position that we willingly allow ourselves to become a puppet for other’s causes? Or are we bystanders in the crowd? Ignorant of what’s really happening, but willing to join the schemes of others out of our own fear of being seen as resistant? Of being called a non-conformer? As going against the status-quo? Are we the one who will betray a friend? Of all our daily betrayals of each other—and of our betrayals to ourselves and our beliefs—betraying a friend is the one that stings the most.
Or are we instead one of those on-lookers on the Via Dolorosa, the Way of Tears, the path Jesus walked on his way to his death: ones who feel tremendous sympathy for the Christ, and who remember that whatever happened on the side of that Hill of Skulls on that dark day– that regardless of historicity, or cause, or need for sacrifice, that something profound happened on that day. Something life-changing, world-changing occurred?
When you look in the mirror of history, what role in the Passion story is reflected back to you? Gary Cox wrote in one of his last sermons about the importance of the Bible and Gospel stories, because they show us reflections of ourselves, our shared humanity, echoing through the centuries, to remind us that whether we admit it or not, we are part of the story. What part will you take? Will you be complicit in the defacement of others? Or will you resist against dehumanizing language and action? Are you just a by-stander—not really committed to either side, but witnessing the drama unfold around you?
As you re-tell this story, or enjoy other’s retellings and reinterpretations of it, whether sublime as in “The Greatest Story Ever Told” or somewhat silly as in “The Cotton Patch Gospel”– when you reflect on the story—think about how has it changed you through the years—and more importantly, how will it change you tomorrow? What character are you willing to identify with and say, that’s me–I’m the one who crucified the outsider. That’s me! I’m the one who shared a final meal with a condemned person. I’m the one who collected a dead body and saw to its proper burial. I’m the face in the crowd who failed to resist the debasement of someone different. I’m the one at the trial who demanded the law be satisfied. I’m the one who wept as he passed by me, heading to his place in history. I’m the one who fails to speak up when justice is being denied—when justice is being delayed—when justice is conditional upon selling your soul for a bag of silver. Is it I? Did I stand aside and let someone else suffer? Did I crucify the Christ? Did I kill the dream of a just world—God’s beloved community here on earth. What face is reflected back when you look in the mirror? AMEN