God at the Theater: Big Fish

In the musical “Big Fish,” William Bloom is on a quest to find out what’s real and true about his father Edmund’s stories. We too search for what is real and true in our lives and in the world.

Read Matthew 25:1-13, Psalm 90 here.

Listen here:

One time I was sitting in the theater and noticed what looked like a goat sitting next to me.

“Are you a goat?” I asked.

“Yes.” replied the goat.

“What are you doing at the theater?”

The goat replied, “Well, I really enjoyed the book.”[2]

I’m guessing it took a while to digest.

Whether or not you’ve read the book or seen the movie, I hope you’ve had a chance to go see the musical Big Fish[3] at Sterling College this weekend.  There’s one more chance today at 2 pm.  Even if you haven’t seen it, that’s ok, because although today’s message is inspired by the musical, the greater inspiration is Jesus and his teachings in the Gospels about our awesome God and how much he loves us.

The musical is wonderfully done.  Everyone did a fabulous job.  Most of all, hats off to Will Dutton who was brilliant as the lead character Edward Bloom. I’m going to do my best as I talk about the play not to get us confused between Will Dutton the actor and Will Bloom the character (Edward’s son), played by Micah WatneyCaleb Giorgetti also plays William Bloom in the flashback scenes to when he was a young boy.

In the play, Will, the character, is frustrated by his father’s gregariousness and fondness for telling fantastic stories.  Will sets out to find out what is real and true for himself, and in the process learn more about his father.  It’s a lot of fun for us, the audience to go with him on this journey because it means that we too get to hear the father’s stories and meet all the people that he met along the way, including the witch played by Kalasia Thomas, and the giant played by Bobby Foster. (Who was your favorite character?)

In the play, Edward is known for telling amazing stories.  Jesus also liked to tell stories, and he was known to use some hyperbole as well.  Many of Jesus’ stories were parables.  In our gospel reading for today from Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of the bridesmaids waiting for the bridegroom.

This story is part of the last bit of teaching in Matthew before the story of Jesus’ death, sometimes called the ‘Olivet Discourse’ because it happens on the Mount of Olives.[4]  It begins in chapter 24 with Jesus telling about the future and the end of time.  Then Jesus tells four parables about being prepared for that ending:

  • the story of the faithful servant (24:45ff), the story of the bridesmaids (25:1-13),
  • the story of the talents (25:14ff),
  • and the story of the sheep and the goats (25:31ff).

Each of the stories has its own message. The lessons of story of the bridesmaids fit well with the story of Big Fish, because it teaches us that:

We can’t stand on someone else’s faith.  We have to stand on our own.

Faith is what is represented by the oil for the lamps.  The oil is our relationship with Jesus.  In the parable, the bridesmaids arrive late because they had to go find oil at the last minute, and when they come back and knock on the door to get in, the Lord says, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.” (Matt 25:12)

There are all sorts of ways we can help and encourage one another, but in the end, we will all come to that day when our life here on this earth is done and we will meet Jesus face to face, and in that moment we don’t want to hear Jesus say, “I don’t know you.”

This is also what William Bloom says to his father Edward.  “I don’t know you.”

Edward was a traveling salesman, so he wasn’t around as much as William would have liked.  When Edward was around, he told his son fantastic stories about things he had done and places he had been.  But William didn’t believe the stories, and he decided he needed to find out for himself what really happened, thinking this would be the way to truly know his father.

The reality is that we all have to find out the truth for ourselves.  It’s the most frustrating part of being parents and of being kids.  We want to pass on what we have learned about God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit and life.  We tell the stories from the Bible.  We tell the stories about how God has worked in our lives.  When kids are young they will listen, but as they get older, they don’t want to listen any more and we have to give them the space to figure things out on their own.  We have to trust what it says in Proverbs 22:6:

Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it.

Trusting means we keep on telling our stories, and praying for and encouraging one another, and leave room for each of us to find Jesus on our own terms.

But it is important that we do find Jesus, because…We can’t stand on someone else’s faith.  We have to stand on our own.

There are just some things we can’t do for someone else.  We can offer food, but we can’t eat it for someone else.  They have to eat it themselves to get the nourishment from it.  We can’t exercise for someone else, either.  We can go with them, but they still have to do the work. And we can’t have faith for someone else, or borrow someone else’s faith for ourselves.  We have to have our own faith.[5]

We can’t wait forever.

In the story of the bridesmaids, they are waiting so long that they all fall asleep, and it probably seems to them like they are waiting forever, but eventually the wait is over and the bridegroom comes.  Until then it may not have seemed like it mattered whether they had enough oil, but suddenly it does matter.  It will be the same for us.  We can spend all our lives hanging out with faithful people, being encouraged by faithful words and stories, and talking about Jesus, but at some point we have to be talking to Jesus, asking him to help us and be a part of our lives so that we are prepared when the end comes.

Those four parables in this set of parables tell us how to live as Jesus followers.

  • The parable of the servants encourages us to be good stewards and be good to one another,
  • the parable of the talents encourages us to make good use of the gifts we’ve been given,
  • and the last parable, the parable of the sheep and the goats, tells us to look for Jesus in the people around us. The people ask Jesus,

“‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’  And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:37-40)

When we help the people around us, we are helping Jesus.

But we can’t put this off.  We don’t have forever. We all have a limit on our time.  Our Psalm for today reminds us of this:

The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away. So teach us to count our days that we may gain a wise heart.  (Psalm 90:10,12)

We don’t know how long we have, so we need to use our days wisely, and not put off the important things.  In the musical Big Fish, William realizes that time is running out when he finds out that his dad Edward has cancer and he realizes that he can no longer put off getting to know the real Edward Bloom. William has put off reconciling with his father, just like we often put off reconciling with God and with one another.

43274569_298727907612437_992920907540332544_nOne of my favorite scenes in the musical is when Edward goes back to his hometown of Ashton and finds that the townspeople have chained themselves together in protest to the building of the dam that’s going to flood the town.  Their united front is impressive, but they’ve waited too long.  The dam has already been built and the flood is already on its way.  The townspeople even tell us what their problem is: they refused to change.  They didn’t pay attention to the signs that they needed to move.  They didn’t take the steps to be prepared for the town to be wiped out. Jesus wants us to be prepared, so he says: Keep awake therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. (Matthew 25:13)

We don’t know when our time will be up.  We don’t know when Jesus will show up before us in the form of someone needing help.  So keep awake.

43275637_298727937612434_151376526074445824_nIn Big Fish, Edward is awake, and he begs the townspeople to wake up and see that they need to leave.  Then he shows them a way forward. He helps them find a place to build a new town so they can start over. 43203578_298727934279101_1456498138209583104_n

As amazing as it seems that they would be able to move an entire town, they do, and they get a chance to start over,[6] just like we get a chance to start over when we accept the grace offered to us in Jesus Christ.

So many of Edward’s stories sounded too good to be true, and yet when William went looking for facts he found that there was truth in them.

Sometimes we too struggle with stories about Jesus and about faith.  They sound too good to be true.  Grace sounds too good to be true.  How can God forgive us and love us so much that he would send his only son Jesus to die for us?  But when we take the step of talking to God and accepting his love and forgiveness, we find that truth for ourselves, and we too get a chance to start over.

And then we get to tell our own stories.  That’s what we’ve been talking about for weeks, prompted by that tweet from J. Herbert Nelson II, the stated clerk for the PC(USA), in which he challenged us with the question:

Who have you told about the difference that Jesus is making in your life?

We can’t wait forever to tell our stories, or to make sure that we have stories to tell.  The story begins when we say yes to Jesus, when we make sure that we have a relationship with Jesus of our own, and unfolds as we seek to live out our faith by sharing God’s love with the world around us.

I love that in Big Fish, one of Edward’s stories is about how the witch showed him the end of his story, but Edward refuses to tell anyone what she said.  He says he doesn’t want to spoil the ending.

And in the end his story doesn’t end so much as it continues on in his son William, just as Jesus’ story continues on in us.

Jesus’ story was passed on to us by those who came before us, lives on in us, and will continue in those who come after us.

Our job is to keep watch, keep awake, and keep telling the story.

[1] Preached by Rev. Melissa Krabbe at United Presbyterian Church, Sterling, Kansas on Sunday, October 7, 2018.

[2] I found this joke on a website a few years ago.  The website has since been taken down. The original was told third person about a man sitting in a movie theater.  I adapted it to be more like a story from the musical Big Fish.

[3] Big Fish, The Musical: music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa and a book by John August. Photos are from the performances at Sterling College on October 4-7, 2018, directed by Sasha Hildebrand, music direction by Marisa Callan, technical direction by Stephen English.  The musical is based on Daniel Wallace’s 1998 novel, Big Fish: A Novel of Mythic Proportions, and the 2003 film Big Fish written by August and directed by Tim Burton. https://www.allmusicals.com/b/bigfish.htm  

[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olivet_Discourse

[5] William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: Matthew, vol. 2., p354.

[6] Lyrics here: http://www.themusicallyrics.com/b/299-big-fish-musical/2624-start-over.html

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