By Your Pupils You'll Be Taught
By the time these words are posted, it will have been just over two weeks since the death of Stephen Sondheim, the prolific musical theatre composer and lyricist who revolutionized the art form throughout his 60+-year career. Or said another way, by the time these words are posted, I will be on Day 16 of flipping between two perpetually opened Google Chrome windows: (1) lesson plans, grading, and finals and (2) The Sondheim YouTube Vortex.
Much has already been explored by talented thespians, journalists, and religious folks alike, capturing the incomparable impact of Sondheim’s genius, and I know I am not alone in my shockingly visceral reaction to losing this hero I never met. Sondheim’s deep understanding of humanity—of growing up, of relationships, of love and loss, of change, of art, and of all their both/ands and in-betweens—has been core to my life as a musical theatre kid turned minister. Perhaps someday I will write that story. But as I move through another school year ministering with teenagers like my teachers have done with me, I find myself drawn to Sondheim’s contributions as a mentor.
If you have experienced the new Netflix film tick, tick…BOOM!, you will know that Sondheim offered generous feedback, encouragement, and support to a then-young and unknown composer/lyricist/playwright, Jonathan Larson. Larson went on to create the Pulitzer and Tony Award-winning rock musical Rent before his untimely death in 1996. The film’s director, Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton and In the Heights fame) describes a similar personal relationship with Sondheim. New York Times journalist Laura Collins-Hughes deems Sondheim “Theater’s Encourager-in-Chief” in a recent piece, which outlines a legacy of empowering mentorship.
Lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II (Show Boat, Carousel, The Sound of Music, Oklahoma!), Sondheim’s own mentor and father figure, equipped Sondheim with clear, effective tools and rules necessary to develop characters and their stories. Moreover, Hammerstein challenged Sondheim to grow beyond imitation, even if that meant turning his very rules on their heads. In The King and I, Hammerstein’s Anna sings, “...if you become a teacher, by your pupils you’ll be taught.” Thirty-five years later, in Sunday in the Park with George, Sondheim’s Dot seems to build on this theme: “Anything you do, let it come from you. Then it will be new.”
On this third Sunday of Advent, in today’s Gospel, we encounter one of my favorite Biblical characters, John the Baptist, who seems to have had a similar philosophy of ministry and mentorship. When asked “What should we do?” John is unambiguous in his articulation of the good news, offering specific guidelines to crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers. He clearly critiques the sins of overconsumption, dishonesty, and obsession with wealth, and teaches the people some techniques to address them.
Despite his growing following, John remains more concerned with the gospel message than with his own acclaim. In that spirit, John prepares to step aside to make way for his younger cousin Jesus, providing him tools and encouraging him to grow into his authentic self. As we know, John eventually baptizes Jesus, reminding him of his Belovedness before God. Rather than be threatened by Jesus’ greatness, John delights in it and learns from it. He continues to labor on behalf of the gospel, trusting that there is enough room for everyone to contribute meaningfully.
As I write today, I cannot help but reflect with profound appreciation for the women who came before me—those teachers and mentors who have walked and continue to walk with me through transformative encounters with Jesus, with Sondheim, and with my authentic self. At the same time, I stand in awe of my students past and present, who have blessed me with countless opportunities to teach and to be taught. This Advent, might we look back with gratitude for those who blazed trails for us and look forward with commitment to those for whom we will blaze trails ourselves.