Monday, July 27, 2009
Karin and I like to watch mysteries on television. We watch all kinds of them. As long as they long on plot and short on violence, we pretty much like any mystery you could name. We'll watch mysteries on PBS, the networks, any kind, we like them all. The only difficulty we have is that we sometimes can't tell if we've seen the same story or not. And we'll watch a few minutes and we look at each other and…
"Have we seen this one?" "I don't think so." "No, I remember this scene…" "No, you're thinking of another one, this is all new?" "No, it's not." And we'll watch it for a while longer and frankly, we've been known—on very rare occasions—to watch an entire mystery and only realize that we've seen it before at the very end. Maybe you've had the same experience.
There are aspects of the mystery that are absolutely the same in any series. You always have the sleuth, and usually he or she is a deeply flawed individual who just happens to have an uncanny ability to notice things. The quintessential sleuth, to this day, is Sherlock Holmes, created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and every detective is a footnote to Sherlock. Columbo, Foyle, Monk, Miss Marple, Poirot, Wallander, Morse, Lewis, Rumpole of the Bailey (my personal favourite), all of them…all of them are quirky. And we like them, because they're quirky and they get the job done.
So you see, you can watch the same mystery you've seen before and not really remember it because the loveable sleuths are still forgetting their pencils, or smoking cigars and "Have we seen this one before…?"
In a very real way, that's probably how the original readers of John's Gospel read today's lesson. Jesus has gone to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, the crowd of over five thousand followed him. The Passover was near, Jesus sees the crowds and wonders aloud how they're going to buy food for the people to eat. And then you know the story from here, right? Five loaves and two fish from a small boy in the crowd, and everyone eats, and twelve baskets are left over.
Now, haven't we seen this one before? The plot is very familiar. Anyone? We come across the Sea of Galilee instead of the Red Sea. The nearness of the Passover reminds of the Exodus, as does the large crowd following a single, godly person. It's not Moses this time, it's Jesus. And it's bread and fish, not manna—but the eating is out in the wilderness where there is no other food.
Christians have a tendency to read this story as if it's about food, and since it is partly about food and bread specifically, and the Passover, we want to skip ahead to Holy Communion and start making all sorts of parallels to that. But for John's audience, it's really a reminder of the Exodus, and that Jesus is the new Moses. Or, maybe I should say, the ultimate Moses.
Moses leads the Hebrew people out of their bondage in Egypt; but Jesus leads us spiritually out of the bondage of sin and sickness and death. This story recreates the Exodus, and fulfills it. And the amusing thing of it is…the crowds still don't get it!
They understand the scenario; they might even intuitively understand the symbolism of what Jesus has just done. Moses prayed and God provided. Jesus prayed and God provided. This is the prophet…this is the one we should follow! And they were about to take him by force and make him king, but he withdrew to the mountain by himself. Now, there's the departure from the Exodus story. Whenever something is about to happen and Jesus leaves you know that the people didn't understand.
What didn't they understand? They didn't understand that the feeding of all those people wasn't about doing miracles. It really wasn't. In fact, all the miracles that happen at the hands of Jesus are not about Jesus doing miracles.
I think a lot of Christians misunderstand this—I know I do from time to time. People like miracles because they like the idea that God can interrupt the normal ways that things happen. It's a very attractive notion, especially if you feel as if everything is spiraling out of control, and I have met many people—I'm sure you have, too—who feel as if they have no control in their lives and that they are at the mercy of whatever is happening to them.
The miracle would be something that happens outside our own initiative that makes life more manageable—and we pray for things like that all the time. On the news a couple week ago there was a story of a man who held a husband and wife, both in their eighties, at gunpoint. The man surrendered, but there were prayers being offered throughout the family—prayers for a miracle, something to shake loose that situation.
People go into the hospital praying for miracles all the time. There are very few places where one can feel more out of control than a hospital. Time slows down. An hour can seem like a lifetime. The nurse appears at the door and says that the doctor will be in in a few minutes. That could be a few minutes, or it could be a few hours.
I was visiting someone in the hospital a couple months ago and after I'd arrived the news was that the patient was fine, everything was okay…just waiting for the paperwork to come through for discharge and then it's home again, home again…jiggety jig.
I'm sitting there with the patient and the family. We're all laughing, telling jokes, really feeling great that a bullet has been dodged. And then doctor walks in the door. "We need to do another test, we noticed that blah, blah, blah…" Powerless. Just when you think you got some control…
The medicine works, the procedure is a success, the prayer is answered. Was that a miracle? No. The medicine worked the way the medicine was designed to work. Thanks be to God, of course, but it's not a miracle. A miracle is not what we needed—we just needed to get better, or to get some control back.
See, if you're really bent on the miracle, then you're after the wrong thing, and Jesus walks away. For Jesus, the priority is meeting the need, because the need exists. You might think of it as a miracle, but Jesus just thinks of it as fixing a problem.
He walks away because people misunderstand. They see an interruption in the laws of supply and demand—a little bit of food, a whole lot of people. Jesus sees hungry people who aren't hungry anymore. They want him to become king because of this—Jesus just doesn't want them to be hungry anymore.
A lot of people think that what Jesus did miraculously, he did so he could win friends and have a lot people like him. No. The miracles were just a means to an end. Why do you think he kept saying, "Don't tell anyone about this"? Because Jesus doesn't care how it happened, he only cares that it happened. (Pause.)
Did you ever stop to consider the possibility that God takes far more delight in you than you do? Now, I'm serious here. Have you ever really thought that maybe God is more interested in your well being than even you are? Because this is what I bump into whenever I think of the ministry of Jesus. He didn't do it for himself; he wasn't a show off; he was just getting the job done.
What do you think gave Jesus more pleasure: watching the food multiply, or watching people who were hungry have something to eat? See the understandable response is to become so incredibly grateful that God is willing to do this. And of course that's important. In church we call that kind of gratitude worship. We respond to God with worship for all that God has done and continues to do for us. But God doesn't provide for us or heal us because he's after more praise. He does it, because he loves us.
Have you ever considered that he heals and provides and reconciles and redeems for no greater reason than that he wants us to enjoy life and enjoy him? Or what about this… Have you ever thought that Jesus gets more out of us receiving the Holy Eucharist than we do? Think about it for a moment.
In a few moments you will come up here and stretch out your hands to receive the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation. You will be receiving a miracle. To us, the consecrated bread and wine are a miracle—they contain within themselves the very presence of Jesus Christ. We eat and drink and remember. We do it because Jesus said, "Do this for the remembrance of me." But have you ever considered the possibility that it gives Jesus more pleasure to be present sacramentally inside you than it gives you pleasure to receive him?
I think the entire story of God is one big miracle to us. Jesus, Moses, Abraham and Sarah, miracles everywhere you look. But to God, it's just God doing what God does: leading, feeding, loving, caring. When you start to fixate on how it works, you miss out on the real message—that the hungry are fed, the sick healed, and poor have the good news preached to them.
Back in March, I was driving from St. Andrew's to Emmanuel one day and I was listening to "The Story" on NPR. Dick Gordon, the host, was interviewing a man named Jack Mullowney. Jack Mullowney is in his nineties; he still works as a securities broker, and he was asked to speak because of his many years in business. He's seen the ups and downs, and back in March—you might remember—things seemed much worse than they do now.
The most touching story was about going to school during the Great Depression. Back then schools didn't offer lunch, so as he said, when you went to school and saw what people were carrying, "it didn't take much to know who didn't have lunch."
He talked about kids going to school without anything at all, and if one of you was lucky enough to be sent to school with two sandwiches, it was understood that you'd give one of them away. A milk carton was three cents, so if you had a dime in your pocket you bought three and gave two away. It's just what you did back then. He said it wasn't a miracle, it was just feeding the hungry. To which, I think Jesus might add, "Precisely, Jack. Precisely."
Thursday, July 23, 2009
Maria weeps and sighs no more: Alleluia!
The clouds are scattered far away; Alleluia!
Sweet sunshine glorifies the day: Alleluia!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Where, martyred Mother, all thy pain? Alleluia!
'Tis gone, and cometh not again: Alleluia!
O broken heart, 'tis well with thee; Alleluia!
Thy grief is turned to ecstasy. Alleluia!
Ah Mary, purest maiden, say–Alleluia!
From Jesus hast thou heard today? Alleluia!
It must be so. Such joy divine. Alleluia!
Comes only from that Son of thine: Alleluia!
Five Wounds He suffered for our sake; Alleluia!
From each there flows a joyful lake–Alleluia!
Five seas of joy: and from His Side. Alleluia!
Flows o'er thy heart the blissful tide. Alleluia!
That glorious sea hath ne'er a shore: Alleluia!
Its rising surges whelm thee o'er: Alleluia!
Ah Lady, listen to our prayer; Alleluia!
And in thy plenty let us share: Alleluia!
Monday, July 20, 2009
Hard as it is for me to believe, Maggie's first year is over. She is now a proud one year-old; and of course we are very proud of her. She is standing and will begin walking very soon. She is not yet making obscure literary references, or peppering her conversation with liturgical Latin. But one day I might be able to say to her, "Salve Maggie! Quid est?" And she'll come back with something like, "Ave atque vale," which is a good response for a teenager to make. It means, "Hello, and goodbye."
One year old. Developmentally she has gone through so much; as do all living things when they are very, very young. Did you know that very young creatures, human babies included, experience a lot of growth while they are sleeping? Young parents often notice this and say, "She must've grown two inches in her sleep." Actually, that happens. It might not be a full two inches, but babies and toddlers do literally experience great physical changes while their bodies are at rest.
We typically think of rest being a time when the body just slows down and recouperates from whatever we've been doing. That's true, of course, but there is growth even when we are at rest.
But see, if you try to lift weights two days in a row, they can get damaged by overwork. I am fascinated by this. I was fascinated to learn that after exercise a whole host of good side effects occur. Your resting blood pressure and heart rate go down, your muscles—as I said before—begin to heal. I can't believe how many years I didn't know any of this. I must have been daydreaming in Health class.
I'm talking about this because today we read a part in Mark's Gospel where Jesus and his disciples become overworked, and Jesus tells them, "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." They had been dealing with the needs of the thousands of people who had come to hear Jesus preach, and to receive healing and other ministry—a shoulder to cry on, a little compassion. It's great work, but it can take its toll.
You know, ministry is a wonderful thing. I can't tell you how much I enjoy it. Sometimes it gets a little thorny, but most of the time it is just wonderful. When you've been able to add some warmth to someone's cold world, it is a joy beyond belief. It's like Frederick Beuchner's famous comment, "[Ministry] happens when our deep gladness meets the world's deep need."
I would tell you that nine times in ten, if not ten times in ten, I've come back from talking with one of you, or helping out someone beyond the parish and it's not at all like work. In fact, it often feels as if it has put fresh gas in the tank.
People who don't know what this is like can barely imagine it, but I'm sure you all know what I mean. You go over to someone's house to help them move a piece of furniture or drive someone to a doctor's appointment or whatever…it doesn't feel like being put out. It feels like you've been useful—you've made a difference.
And it can be very seductive in those times to think, "Well, what next?" "Who else needs something?" And if you get in that mentality for very long, the joy can begin to fade. You start booking up little things by and by and if you're not careful, you find that scheduling your own stuff can get tricky, and if you're not careful with that, you can actually get a little resentful of all the good stuff you're doing. And then one day, you might throw up your hands up and say, "I can't do this anymore."
I have seen this with clergy and I have seen it with laity. I have seen priests take on so many services and appointments and serve on committees of the diocese. And you talk to them and sometimes they sound like they're enjoying it; but you listen carefully, and you might hear this little tinge to their voice. They're not really getting enough time with their families. They're not really paying attention to their prayer lives, or their sermons are beginning to suffer. When you talk to them at clergy meetings they're eyelids are heavy; or they're a little testy with chit-chat. (Pause.)
I have seen lay people do so much that they make the gerbils running around their wheels look rested. I remember one incredibly dedicated man in my first parish. He worked all day in some high security clearance job.
He was one of these types whose work is so classified he can't even show you his ID badge. We had a lot of them in Stafford. Men who would be on the schedule to read or administer the chalice and they'd come and say, "I can't read next Sunday; I'll be overseas." I'd say, "Oh, really?! Where are you headed?" And they'd just shake their heads and say, "Overseas."
Anyway this man's name was Glen, and Glen would work all day at his job, and then pull into the church parking lot sometime around 4:45 or later, and he'd work on church stuff. He was the treasurer, but he also did outreach. Sometimes he'd have a day off and he'd show up at church and just work all day. It was amazing. Sometimes I thought he should have my job, and I should be waiting tables.
Glen was the type of parishioner that just blows your mind—he does a million things and then as soon as you point it out, he'll shrug his shoulders and say, "Oh, it didn't take any time at all…my pleasure…you have a good day."
But I worried about Glen, because whenever some new ministry was starting up, his name was always at the top of the list. And I was worried that one day he'd take on so much stuff that he'd throw up his hands and walk away. He never did; but it happens.
"Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while," says Jesus. And the story goes that they got into a boat and started off, and people saw them and ran after them, and Jesus gets out of the boat. Mark says that "he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them…"
A little later on, Jesus gets back in the boat, but when he gets to the other side, again, people bring him the sick. "Jesus, can you heal my arm?" "Jesus, Master, my brother has a fever." "Rabbi, why does it say in one place that we can't do this, but then in another place it says we can?" Ministry, ministry, ministry…
And do you know why ministry is so wonderful AND so draining? Because it matters. If it didn't matter, it wouldn't be wonderful, and it wouldn't be exhausting. In some circles it's called "emotional labor." I don't know if you've ever heard of emotional labor or not; but when you're involved in work that requires not just your intellectual energies, but your emotional energies—typically—those are the high burnout jobs.
Social work, pastoral care, chaplaincies, flight attendants, customer service, teaching…you could probably add some more. If your job requires you to be emotionally stable, upbeat, happy, regardless of how other people behave to you, then you are in a job that requires emotional labor. You get tired of being "on," because no one can be "on" all the time.
You have to have space in your life when you can let yourself experience grumpiness, anger, frustration. You can't just be nice all the time. When you clock out, there has to be space to get out the bad seeds that some have tried to sow.
Jesus knew this. The disciples are Saints with a capital S now, but back then, I'm sure they probably teetered on the verge of burnout. We cannot imagine the pressure.
You see how the crowds are with celebrities; try to imagine what it was like for the disciples trying to follow Jesus whom everyone wanted to see, and listen to, and touch.
And because Jesus couldn't reach everyone, here they've been commissioned to handle the overflow. Now they're doing the ministry of Jesus, and people want to see Peter, and James, Bartholomew, Judas, John, Philip… Some of them—only weeks ago—were merely fishermen. You talk about a dramatic change in liftstyle…
Fishermen would go out in their boats at sundown, and the whole night—while eveyone else was sleeping—they were throwing nets into the water and pulling up fish. There were no people out on the boat asking questions, and wanting you to lay hands on them. They had to learn how to do an entirely different kind of work—a work that required them to be even tempered, compassionate, loving. They had to represent Jesus and the vision Jesus was preaching.
My guess is that they got pretty tired. They got questions from the crowds that left them wanting to ask Jesus for an answer. If they are anything like me, they probably wanted to sit down with a cup of coffee and read the paper for awhile. "Do we have to go out there today, Jesus? Can't we just take a day to catch our breath?" Mark writes that they had "no leisure even to eat." (Pause.)
I am very grateful for two aspects of this text. First, I'm grateful that Jesus himself tells the disciples "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile," because it gives us permission—literally "from on high"—to rest, to care for ourselves. Ministry, emotional labor, is a seductive thing. You have set limits to how much of it you do.
But second, and somewhat paradoxically, I am grateful that Jesus is so compassionate that he doesn't stop. This is kind of hard to express because it really is a mixed message—you need to rest, and you need to care.
One message of this text could be that even Jesus had difficulty drawing aside. He wanted to do the "healthy" thing, but at the same time he wanted to do the "needful" thing.
And so here we are left with the paradox of two competing needs—the needs of healers, and the need for healing. And Jesus does not give us a clear cut answer. How do we pull aside for our own health when we have the power to help others? It's confusing. Rest is important and work is important.
I suppose one answer might be that when we are motivated by compassion, somehow God will give us the strength to keep going. That is, when it isn't our fulfillment we are seeking, but rather the compassion of God reaching out through our hands, then God's own strength will be meeting the need. I like that. It is a mystical understanding of ministry.
I know I've told this story before, but it's my favourite rabbinical story. I can't wait till I'm an old man and can tell the same story over and over and no one will complain. If I can only remember one story, I hope it's this one:
Every sabbath eve the rabbi in a small village would disappear into the woods, "to commune with God in the forest," or so his congregation believed. One week, curiosity overcame them and the deputed one of their cantors to follow the rabbi at a distance to observe the holy encounter.
The cantor followed the rabbi deep into the woods until he came to the cottage of an old, crippled, Gentile woman. While the rabbi was there he cooked for her and cleaned, swept the floor, split her firewood and made her dinner. He kissed the old woman's forehead, promised to come back the next week, and left.
When the cantor returned to the village, everyone wanted to know. "Did our rabbi ascend into heaven, as we thought?" "Oh, no," replied the cantor, "our rabbi went much, much higher than that." And that's ministry: God using human hands to do heavenly things.
Thursday, July 16, 2009
I got out of the car and was walking into the office and there was a man sitting on the steps of the church. He had a long robe and beard and shepherd's crook, and I knew instantly that it was Jesus. The Good Shepherd. He was just sitting there. There was a kind of feeling that he knew I was there (of course!) and that I knew who he was, and there was an awkward silence. It was probably only about thirty seconds, but you know, that can seem like a very long time when you're silently present with someone.
I was waiting for him to say something; and I got the impression that he was waiting for me to say something. His eyes never met mine, it was just...awkward.
I started to think of what he might want me to say. Did he want me to confess my sins? Lord knows...well, he knows them already. Was he waiting for some petition, some act of praise or worship? Did he want me simply to say hello first and then a conversation would naturally follow?
The part that was most confusing is that he was dressed as a shepherd. He might have dressed as a king. He might have dressed as a beggar, or a prince, or a priest, or a rabbi, but no. Shepherd today. He was sitting on the steps leaning forward on the shepherd's crook, which was touching the sidewalk. At one point he seemed to look down a little bit, but then up again and straight out, like he was staring off to a distant horizon, rather than the branch bank across the street.
Well, it was very unsettling, as you might imagine. I still don't know why he was there. I could never work up enough courage to ask, and he never broke the silence. A couple hours later I looked up to the steps and he was gone.
I've been sitting here thinking of what I should have done. Should I have offered him a cup of coffee? Should I have said something...anything? Should I have asked him if he needed a lift or use the bathroom? Should I have asked for help for the people who have commended themselves to my prayers? Should I have asked for something I have long wanted, but been afraid to mention?
I suppose my question is this: If I can just blunder into the same old prayers every morning without getting tongue tied, without really considering that there is a person there who might have something to say to me first, then do I really really believe in Jesus? That's a very uncomfortable thought.
I just checked the stairs again, and there's a woman there now. I think I know who she is, and I think she can help me with this.
Tuesday, July 14, 2009
I am sure that you've heard sermons as I have (I hope I haven't preached one) that turn that question out to the congregation without really leaving them with the tools necessary to answer. It is easy to blithely respond with the "right" answer, "He is the Messiah, the Son of the Living God." Yes, yes, yes... But he is more than that.
At funerals it is popular for clergy to speak of the deceased with similarly easy answers. "Today we lay to rest our dear brother Frank, devoted husband and father, grandfather, member of the Rotary and the Kiwanis clubs..." Yes, yes, yes... But he is more than that.
Do we know who Jesus is? No. I don't think we have much of a clue, really. And that might upset some of you that I would write that and believe that as a priest, but I am speaking here of the ultimate enigma. The Word made flesh. I know him and I don't know him. I cannot envision his face without thinking of artists' renderings. I cannot imagine his tone of voice. I cannot tell you anything about him that is only from my experience, except that I know when I feel his presence moving, brooding, chastening, loving... And even that, I believe, is really the Holy Spirit.
Who is he? It's a question that goes well beyond the narrative of the Four Gospels. As the one who is "eternally begotten of the Father," he transcends all boundaries and all categories. In him is all things, yet his "person hood" remains intact and unconfused. He confounds both believer and unbeliever. He blesses, heals, loves, redeems, giving himself fully to the vision of God: the beatific vision of a world wholly and holy, as God wishes it to become.
I love him, and I don't know him very well. I take, bless, break, and eat, and drink, and little by little I learn.
I learn a tiny bit more, but with that, I also learn how much I still do not know.
Lord Jesus, who are you?
Monday, July 13, 2009
On June 25th, a couple weeks ago, three celebrities died on the same day: Michael Jackson, Ed McMahon, and Farrah Fawcett. If you had tuned in to the news any day immediately following, you would have seen endless coverage—mostly of Michael Jackson's death. If you had come to church on the Sunday following June 25th, which was June 28th, you would not have heard any of those people mentioned in the prayers. And no one came up to me to ask why, or to complain.
Indeed, I would never have thought to include a celebrity in the prayers for the dead, even though, across the world people are mourning the death of these famous people—and even though they are, very truly, people just like you and me. We shared the same skin, the same country, the same foods, the same frailties. It is something that has always…well, what's the word? Interested? No. I suppose intrigued me that when a celebrity dies the media will cover it up one side and down the other—people in church might even talk about it at coffee hour a little—but, shall we include them in the prayers? No, that's all right. We didn't know them.
Except that we did know them. Well, okay, we didn't know them in the sense that we went to the same church or school, or whatever. They weren't part of the local community. We don't know their children. Except that they were part of the community—the larger community of our national and international consciousness.
I have been intrigued by this kind of thing for many years. I recall years ago when Princess Diana died. There were people in church who were stunned silent. For others, it was sad, but there was no emotional response. For others, it was perplexing why anyone would mourn. We didn't know her. Except we did. We don't know her family. Except we do. She was even part of our Anglican Communion. She was laid to rest by the Archbishop of Canterbury, as all English royalty are. She was the daughter-in-law of the Queen who is the head of the Church of England, and therefore—spiritually—a part of our Church.
I don't remember if she was mentioned in the prayers for the dead or not, quite honestly. I was at Emmanuel Church in Harrisonburg—maybe Jim Lincoln can remember—but if she was mentioned in the prayers, I think she was remembered simply as "Diana."
Remember when Diana died and there was an enormous outpouring of grief from the whole world? It was unbelievable. People who had never met her felt a connection to her. Why? Because she was beautiful? Yes, partly. Because she was royalty? Yes, partly. And yet, because of her status and wealth she was so far removed from us. You would never bump into her at Katie's Custard Stand. You would never see her wave from side of an F-150 on her way to Fort Valley. She wasn't really one of us. But she was.
People talked about her in church. But it was a weird sort of talk. You felt a little silly about it. You didn't know her any better than anyone else. You didn't want to seem particularly devoted. The safe ground was talking about the reaction of the world and how amazing it was that so many expressions of love were pouring in. But even that felt a little silly.
Karin served at a church where there was a parishioner who would call in when a celebrity died to make sure they were mentioned in the prayers. I wonder how many people in the parish thought that that was appropriate. When you know someone has a quirk, sometimes people just write it off, you know… "Oh, that's just Anita. She always puts them on the list."
Just a few years ago Pope John Paul II died and there was deep mourning throughout the Roman Catholic Church, and well beyond. I was then the rector of a little church near Charlottesville and I remember writing a note of condolence to the local Roman Catholic parish. I received a lovely letter back from their priest thanking me for my sentiments.
I was very fond of John Paul II, even though I profoundly disagreed with him theologically. I read some of his books, and I appreciated what little I knew of his devotion and courage and personhood. He was a good man. And because he was a baptized Christian just like I am, he was a brother. I felt it was appropriate to mention his name in the prayers for the dead on Sunday.
However, for some reason, I just couldn't mention him as John Paul II. That was his papal name—it was the name he chose when he became the Pope. Now I have a great respect for the Pope and a great respect for all Roman Catholics. We Episcopalians are also Catholics—we're just not Roman Catholics. Anglican Christians represent a middle way between Protestant and Roman traditions. Much of our theology is identical to theirs. But this business about religious names bothers me. It makes it seem to me—and again I mean no disrespect—but it makes it seem like their role obscures or overwhelms their basic human identity—that their baptismal name is not good enough for their status. And that's bad theology, if you ask me.
So on Sunday I just couldn't insert "John Paul the Second" in the prayers for the dead. I decided that I would remember him by his baptismal name Karol Wojtyla. After the service, no one asked me who Karol Wojtyla was. No one asked me why I didn't mention John Paul II. I remember a few people talking about his death at coffee hour; but again…celebrity…we didn't know them. Even though, we did.
This has bothered me, intrigued me, for years. There is nothing in our Church's doctrine about celebrities. Nothing in the Book of Common Prayer says anything about it.
I was thinking about this, and a little voice in my head—I hope it was the Holy Spirit—said, "Oh, Alexander…don't you remember the story of the rich man and Lazarus?"
You remember that story. It's over in Luke 16 (19-31). A rich man lives high off the hog, and the poor man, Lazarus, lives by the gate with nothing to eat. They both die and the rich man goes to hell and Lazarus goes to the bosom of Abraham. Lazarus looks up from hell where he is being tormented and he asks Lazarus for help, and Abraham says to him, "Oh, no…don't you remember that during your lifetime you received good things and Lazarus didn't? You never took care of your brother Lazarus, so now he gets good things and you get bad things."
That's a very rough paraphrase, of course, but it gets at the heart of it. I think we're all rich compared with the world's poor. The poverty line in this country is around $10,000 a year. I would guess that most of us need far more than that to live the way we do. And yet, half the world's population lives on less than two dollars a day. Did you know that? Two dollars a day.
But we look at the celebrities making a million there and million over there and we feel very much like Lazarus begging at the door. It's a false comparison, of course. But it's part of the uneasiness we have. They make so much money; we don't. They are typically physically beautiful in ways that we are not. They are able to fly all over the world and just sort of do whatever they want, and we can't.
And after all, when we get together in church and talk about "the world," don't we kind of have them in that category? You know "the world." Worldly. Movie stars, glitz and glamour. These aren't "church folks"—right? They don't have God in their lives.
Oh…wait a minute. Well, okay. Let's see…Courtney Cox, Sam Waterston, Dan Akroydt, Reese Witherspoon, Tom Hanks, Robin Williams, Jennifer Garner, Katie Couric... Have you ever heard of them? They're Episcopalians. Some of them are very devout Episcopalians.
But still…they live in another world, right? It's like the rich man and Lazarus. We know Lazarus. Poor old Lazarus. He's a good `ole boy—he never did anything to anybody. He drove a truck for years until his legs gave out and now you go down to the tractor pull and you see Lazarus running around in his Rascal electric scooter with a Confederate flag on one handlebar and the American flag on the other. He's got a cammo hat that says Git-R-Done. Everybody likes `ole Lazarus. People give him a big smile and he has a little joke with the kids. People love him.
You get him over by the men and he'll start telling stories about driving. Most of them are partly true. And even if they aren't…well, that's `ole Lazarus, boy…he's just good people. When he's sitting on the corner while the VFW are selling BBQ chicken, people will stop by just to see him, and they'll buy the chicken. He's their best salesman—just sitting there.
Lazarus died a couple weeks ago. You all probably didn't know him, but his real name was Jeff Miller—actually Jeffrey Miller. He was born in Wakeman's Grove, went to Edinburg Christian Church every couple years, "whether he needed it or not," he used to say. Everyone said a little prayer for him when he died. Even in churches where they don't pray for those who have died, people where praying for him.
He was one of ours, you see? We knew him. But the thing is we didn't know him. His leg problem wasn't from trucking—it was from hard duty in Vietnam. He never talked about it. He always said it was trucking, but he had that limp from way back. He always told jokes, made everyone laugh. But Jeff had an alcoholic father who occasionally beat him. He never talked about that, of course, and you always sort of assumed based on his gut that it was a beer belly, but it wasn't. He never drank. When he saw what happened to his dad, he swore he'd never drink.
If he saw a cute young thing at the fair, he would say that she reminded him of his wife, Cindy, who left him. He had stories about her doll collection. She used to send off for those dolls you see advertised in Parade magazine. He said she was obsessed with those dolls because they couldn't have children. He told those stories so much we could imagine every wrinkle in Cindy's face. We thought we knew her.
But there was no Cindy. They were digging through his things to find numbers for people and they found his old beat-up address book in the basket of his scooter. There was no Cindy. No relatives. No friends. The address book was completely blank. And not a scrap of paper had her name on it anywhere in his house.
Jeff was everyone's friend, we really thought we knew him. We didn't know him. He didn't know us. So why do we cry and pray for this man we thought we knew, whom we didn't really know?
And why do we feel we should pray for him, when we don't feel the same tug for the celebrities, whom we also know, but don't really know?
We share the same skin and bones, the same physical design. They are human beings just like us. They had moms and dads, first kisses, acne in high school. They lived with ups and downs and in betweens. Why is it we can pray for Lazarus Miller...but Michael Jackson…? Farrah Fawcett? Princess Diana?
Do we believe that they don't really live in our world? Maybe they don't really go to the same heaven. Do they go to a bigger heaven or a smaller heaven? Is it better decorated, or is it just another type of place altogether—some kind of limbo?
This might seem like a silly topic to you. You might wonder why I'm even talking about it. I suppose I'm just interested with why our big `ole Christian hearts go out to some people, but not to others.
In the lesson from Ephesians we read, "With all wisdom and insight [God] has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth."
I suppose I'm intrigued by this idea that all things in heaven and all things in earth are gathered up in Christ. And when I read "all things," I start wondering what the Church wants to take out.
Do we take out the celebrities? Do we take out the people who make dirty pictures? Do we take out the people who write gossip columns and soap operas? Do we take out the whole city of Las Vegas, or Washington, or New York?
It's an uncomfortable idea that we pray for celebrities—but they are just as well known and loved by God as we are. They are not "less than" or "more than" in God's eyes—but I think they are certainly "less than" or "more than" in ours.
We are very good at throwing things away. Every Sunday one of you bundles up the trash from coffee hour and it gets put out to be taken by the trash men. There are coffee cups, and plates with cookie crumbs, and the residue of fruit or desserts.
Sometimes I look in that trash bag, because I'm afraid I'll find someone in there that one of us decided didn't belong in church. I'm very glad to say that I've never found anyone in there yet, but I worry sometimes.
Where you tempted to throw out Michael Jackson because of his drugs and surgeries and suspicions about his past? Years ago, were you tempted to throw away Rock Hudson or Marilyn Monroe?
I can understand that. It doesn't seem like the church and world should be in the same place does it? But still, God "has made known to us the mystery of his will…to gather up all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth." All things.
I'm not going to rush to put any celebrities in the prayers; but I can't give you a good reason why. They are people like you and me. They are loved by God just as much, even if we don't really want to believe that.
Somehow all of these things come together in Jesus. Somehow he brings together and reconciles all things, all people, all experiences and places. Life and death, rich and poor, light and dark, famous and unknown…they all come together in him. I don't know how.
And I suppose I don't need to know how…but it's the kind of thing that bothers me just enough to make me grateful that God is God—and that all those people I don't know are known and loved by him.