Sunday, May 25, 2008

Popular, but Not Quite as Popular as Me

Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda is Stephen Schwartz's Magical Musical, "Wicked"

What price popularity? Popularity governs and powers any number of aspects of life in a free society--not all, but many. A presidential candidate has to be popular with some of the voters but not the majority of voters; the electoral college system can get a president into office who is not preferred, or even liked, by the majority of American voters. But I digress, and here at the get-go--that’s bad! Let me try to redeem myself.
Many of you have heard me tell the story about my emotional trauma when senior superlatives were elected at Halls High School in Halls Crossroads. Most of us who were seniors awaited this final spring of our senior year when, among other things, senior superlatives would be chosen and announced. The highest tier of those superlatives was reserved for two people only: Mr. and Miss Halls High School. Being something of a geek--not a math geek, and, if you can believe it, there were no personal computers so not a computer geek--I didn’t really expect to be named Mr. Halls High Even so, I told myself lying in bed late at night contemplating my future--I deserved it. After all, I was president of the Student Council and Editor of the yearbook. Still, I probably wouldn’t get that honor--though I deserved it. Did I say that?
Most Likely to Succeed wasn’t a bad title with which to leave Halls High, but a better option in my mind was Most Popular. Most Talented wouldn’t be too bad in a jam.
As the time drew closer and closer for the results of the elections to be announced, without being cocky, I had in my mind that a suitable consolation prize, should I not be named, Mr. Halls High School would be either Most Likely to Succeed or Most Popular. Since there was a female and a male named in each category, I even dared to wonder who I’d be paired up with, and I previewed in my mind the pix of us I’d proudly place in the Superlatives section of the yearbook.
Finally, the morning came when the announcement would be made. There was certainly nothing fancy about how the news was transmitted. The teacher who made announcements simply read the names over the intercom as we sat in our homerooms. One was under EXACTLY the same pressure movie stars are under when they’ve been nominated for an academy award and had to have thought about how they will respond if they get one and, more complicated, how they will look to others if their name is not called.


Oh my god! My name wasn’t called for any of the best spots, and after all the work I’d done for my classmates and my school. How dare they!
The announcements continued. FINALLY, I heard my name: Vickie Bridges, Nancy Coker, and David Farmer, MOST DEPENDABLE. The only one worse than that was SHIEST where some young lady and some young man would be remembered forever for how little they talked throughout high school.
It was time for first period. Out in the hallway in a sea of faces, all sorts of shrieks and congratulations being passed around, some few of them sincere. I would have to congratulate the big winners too, if I saw them...and I did.
“Congratulations on Mr. Halls High [what I so badly wanted to add was: “even though I should have gotten that hands down! If I’d only known that sleeping around yielded these kinds of dividends I’d have changed my ways long ago!”]
“Man, you are truly the Most Popular guy at Halls High School. I’m sure you won it by a landslide [and what I had to bite my tongue to keep from saying: “I guess staying drunk day and night for four years has its rewards.”]
Everyone congratulated and praised those top winners. I don’t think anyone other than a few teachers sincerely congratulated me for being named MOST DEPENDABLE. Oh, there were a few students who tried, but couldn’t hold back the snickers in the midst of their supposed congratulations. “Hey, Farmer. Congrats on [muffled laugh] on being not just dependable, but MOST DEPENDABLE. Isn’t that what they say about laxatives?”
“Yeah, yeah. Good ole laxatives. You know, it’s a crying shame we didn’t have a MOST HUMOROUS. You’d have been a shoe in!”
Almost all of those superlatives, regardless of the names, were awarded to the popular students: cheerleaders, jocks, and majorettes. I shouldn’t be critical of them at all. I wanted every bit of the popularity I could scrape together too.
It’s tough to grow up in this culture and not want popularity although some few are saved or mostly saved from it. Lucky them!
By definition, at least by the standards of our culture, popularity is reserved for only a few. It’s an elitist thing. If everyone could be popular, then many fewer people would want it.
Popularity is determined by a number of factors, all of them externals. Sometimes money alone will settle the issue; the kids whose parents make the most money or the grown ups who now themselves make the most money can be rather automatically popular if they wish.
The “right” kinds of clothing and styles often mark one as a candidate for popularity. Then there are the people with whom a person is connected. Hanging around with other people who are popular enhances one’s own popularity.
Sometimes acting up or acting out in the ways admired by the social group to which you belong or want to will win you popularity. Some cliques will welcome you if you smoke pot or snort cocaine, for example. Rarely, so very sad to say, will good grades, respect for teachers, and moral commendability win a kid popularity. That is really sad.
The quick answer to this growing crisis is that we have to stop allowing how others view us to determine how we view and value ourselves. I know that’s nearly impossible, but there are no other alternatives.
Isn’t electronic harassment one of the worst uses of modern technology that could ever have come along? Various venues are being used by the “popular” to demean, humiliate, and threaten the unpopular. Statistics that are now a few years old shock us, especially as we know that things are probably worse now than they were then:

57% of students surveyed said someone has said hurtful or angry things about them online; 13% of these said it happens frequently.

53% of the students surveyed said they had been the ones posting mean comments about other students; 7% of these said they did so often.

35% of the students said they’d been bullied online, and 20% said they’d actually been threatened.

Oh, by the way, students surveyed were in grades four through eight.
Parents, and I use the word loosely, have been known to join with their children in harassment. We can’t forget the woman named Lori Drew who with her daughter and a work colleague created a fake identity online for the singular purpose of bullying one of her daughter’s former friends. The 13-year-old girl, Megan Meier, committed suicide in response. The dynamics here sound akin to those in the Texas situation a few years ago where a mother so badly wanted her daughter to be a cheerleader that she hired a hit man to kill the daughter’s chief competitor. If some measure of presumed popularity weren’t at stake here, I’d have a hard time believing that things like this could ever happen. Popularity is that much of prize to some, though.

Last week, I introduced you to the stupendous Broadway musical, “Wicked.” I introduced you to Elphaba, the young, green-skinned sorceress who would grow up to become the witch whom most of the residents of Oz believed to be the Wicked Witch of the West. I introduced you to Galinda, who’d become Glinda, the Good Witch of the North. I introduced you to L. Frank Baum, who wrote the first Oz piece--namely The Wonderful Wizard of Oz--in 1900 and Gregory Maguire who wrote a prequel to Baum’s work and titled it Wicked and Stephen Schwartz who adapted Wicked the novel and made it “Wicked” the most popular musical, of all things, on Broadway right now.
We heard Elphaba’s rousing song, “Defying Gravity,” and we talked briefly about the strong friendship that grew between Elphaba and Galinda after a very rocky start. At first, meeting by happenstance at Madame Morrible’s sorcery school, they didn’t like each other at all. There were many reasons for this, but essentially Elphaba was not popular at first, and Galinda was and remained so. That they ended up as roommates, against each young woman's will, made all the tension between them that much more humorous.
The song we’re going to hear in a little while is Galinda’s big song in the show, “Popular.” Galinda decides to take Elphaba under her wing and teach her how to be popular. The song by Stephen Schwartz is a hilarious critique of all of us who have ever desired to be popular above all else or even just popular enough to be noticed. Galinda’s ditzy arrogance makes her the perfect character to sing the song, and as played by Kristin Chenoweth in the original Broadway cast, the audience was in stitches performance after performance.
The whole popularity theme is introduced because Galinda offers to make Elphaba more beautiful to look at and, in concert with a physical makeover, to teach Elphaba how to be popular as well. Elphaba is largely polite about it, but has very little interest in Galinda’s take on beauty or popularity--especially as both of those are Galinda’s all-consuming passions.
In a bit, you’ll hear Krintin Chenoweth as Galinda singing this:

Whenever I see someone less fortunate than I,
And let's face it, who isn't less fortunate than I?
My tender heart tends to start to bleed.
And when someone needs a makeover,
I simply have to take over!
I know, I know exactly what they need!

And even in your case,
Though it's the toughest case I've yet to face,
Don't worry, I'm determined to succeed!
Follow my lead....


Don't be offended by my frank analysis,
Think of it as personality dialysis,
Now that I've chosen to become a
Pal, a sister and advisor,
There's nobody wiser!
Not when it comes to...

I know about popular.
and with an assist from me,
to be who you'll be,
instead of dreary who you were...
well, are.
there's nothing that can stop you,
from becoming popu-ler... lar...


You’ll be popular!
Just not quite as popular as ME!
(words written and copyrighted by Stephen Schwartz)

You’ll have to see the show to find out how all of this plays out, no pun intended. For today, I just borrow the song to help us think about our obsession with popularity--even those of us who are followers of Jesus and parts of the church that has evolved in his name.
There’s not a whole, whole lot in the Bible about appearance and popularity, but I think the passage we heard earlier from Paul to the Corinthian congregation has a parallel. The chauvinism of Paul notwithstanding--the male dominance over women thing--Paul does slip in a bit of a teaching on appearance and popularity.
The context of 1 Corinthians, chapter 11, is Paul’s laying out how prophecy is supposed to be handled in the church there and in all other churches as well, we assume. While setting back women’s rights several paces, Paul, bull in a China shop that he was much of the time, wins some victories for women in the church. He clearly makes provisions for women to be able to prophesy in worship just as men are permitted and encouraged to do if prophecy is a given individual’s gift.
The “rules” reveal double standards and a clear relegating of women to second class status in comparison to men. The men who prophesy are warned not to cover their heads when they speak words of prophecy. Women, in contrast, are told that they MUST have their heads covered when they prophesy. Part of the reason for this is that there should be, in Paul’s reasoning, some essential difference between how a man looks when he prophesies and how a woman should look when she prophesies. The head covering shows the woman’s deference to the prophesying men in the group.

Any man who prays or prophesies with something on his head disgraces his head, but any woman who prays or prophesies with her head unveiled disgraces her head—it is one and the same thing as having her head shaved. For if a woman will not veil herself, then she should cut off her hair; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or to be shaved, she should wear a veil. For a man ought not to have his head veiled, since he is the image and reflection of God; but woman is the reflection of man (1 Cor 11:4-7 NRSV).

Why was it disgraceful for a woman to have her head shaved or her hair cut? Seems like that should be a matter of personal choice.
Well, here’s the thing. For the most part, only the temple prostitutes, the female ones, cut their hair short or shaved their heads. In this very strange context for discussing fashion, Paul explains that women in the churches should never even run the risk of having anyone think for a second that they moonlight as temple prostitutes in the temples of the polytheistic deities in Corinth and throughout Asia Minor. You can’t turn something like that into a fashion statement, Paul said. It won’t work. It can’t work!
At this point, Paul wanders, which is not out of character for Paul at all. Rather suddenly, the talk about the head coverings for prophesying women reminds him of how much he likes long hair on women. He says long hair is her glory, and, just to be clear, men shouldn’t have long hair, which wasn’t an option for him, for what that’s worth. Legend tells us Paul was bald. “Does not nature itself teach you that if a man wears long hair, it is degrading to him, but if a woman has long hair, it is her glory? For her hair is given to her for a covering” (1 Cor 11:14-15 NRSV). I would have to say, “No,” to Paul. “No, Paul, I don’t think nature teaches us anything about hair unless it’s that nobody should cut it.”
Jesus was not popular. There are so many misunderstandings about Jesus that we have to wonder if more than a handful of people have ever had any real clue or insight as to who he really was or what he was about. Trying to be one of those people is a passion of mine. I don’t know how much you can trust me on this, but I think I’m a tad bit more reliable than Mel Gibson or Cecil B. DeMille or those who preach and teach widely but who’ve never figured out that Jesus was a Jew.
One of the lessons the Gospels teach us is that Jesus wasn’t popular and that people who try to live like Jesus will not be popular either. Now, I’m not saying that Jesus failed to attract quite a bit of attention, and I’m not suggesting that he always preached or taught to small groups of people. What know about the “crowds” or the “multitudes,” though, is that Jesus attracted them mostly when they wanted something from him or when they wanted some good entertainment.
Most of those who sought out Jesus were not initially interested in his teachings or his challenges about living for God. They were interested in being healed or getting fed or just watching the magic show. In the end, Jesus had amassed a very small following, and the circumstances of his execution didn’t help the cause of the Jesus Movement. Who wanted to be a part of a religious movement where the main person was executed as a criminal? People have generally wanted heroes and sheroes as their religious leaders, and we can see this in the developing dogma about Jesus as the early church survives and then thrives.

The Jesus who during the whole of his earthly career was a bivocational preacher from Podunk with very little money and a rag tag team of followers gradually became the “King Jesus” and, in some strands of thought, God. Jesus’ humanity alone, though that is clearly the most remarkable trait about him, appeals to very few people. His earthly life wasn’t grand enough to suit them. He simply wasn’t important or high class enough. Bottom line: the true Jesus was (and is!) unpopular. Spin doctors had to recreate him in order to make him acceptable, palatable, to persons at the center, rather than at the edges, of various groups of people where he had ministered and way beyond that Palestinian Judaic setting.
Anybody who thinks that Jesus was concerned about popularity or heading up a popular movement knows nothing about Jesus or his core values. Here is one sobering comment attributed to Jesus by the Gospel of John:

If the world hates you, be aware that it hated me before it hated you. If you belonged to the world, the world would love you as its own. Because you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world—therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, “Servants are not greater than their master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you (John 15:18-20 NRSV).

The world, such as it has existed up to now--at least in most places and times--has been incapable of understanding God’s unconditional love for all people and God’s special concern for the marginalized. How could God love the unloveable? How could God favor the unfavorable? How could God not give God’s endorsement to the political power people? All the world as a whole has been able to do is to try to destroy such an “upside down” philosophy of life and love and its most eloquent spokesperson, Jesus from Nazareth, along with many who have tried to follow him.
Jesus passed on his lack of interest in or concern for popularity to his followers as is clear in this passage from Mark 6:

Then he went about among the villages teaching. He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them” (Mark 6:6b-11 NRSV).

Some Christian scripture scholars have proposed the notion that, at least at one critical juncture early in Jesus’ ministry, he invited rejection and instigated a rebellion in response to what he said. Here’s a part of the episode in question from the Gospel of Luke:

And he said, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.” When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way (Luke 4:24-30 NRSV).

This is scary stuff. The anger the congregation felt toward him had changed from their praise of him moments before.
The congregation was so riled up, they wanted to kill him; and they went so far as drive him to the edge of the cliff where they intended to throw him off. He was too quick for them somehow and managed to pass through the angry mob and escape. Needless to say, Jesus was not the first or the last preacher who enraged a congregation, and the little synagogue group was not the first or the last congregation to want to kill a preacher--its own pastor in most cases. In the literature of the old west of this country, there are stories about towns being angry with their preachers and driving them out of town on rails, sometimes tarred and feathered. (This reference is used for illustrative purposes only and, in no way, is it intended to implant ideas in your heads about responsibilities of the present or future Pastor/Staff Relations Committee.)
Ahead of this angry response, Jesus had owned his impetus for ministry by aligning himself with the beloved prophet, Third Isaiah. The people were nodding their heads with pride and affirmation--one of their own, a carpenter, was going to try to establish himself as a rabbi. As Jesus read from Isaiah, the hearers took themselves to be the good guys being referred to or, at least, the beneficiaries of God’s plan for the hurting.
Jesus suddenly turned the tables on them. Their smiling faces became blank and then angry stares. Why? Well, Jesus appeared to be slamming his own people, the Jews, and they weren’t going to stand for it.
Jesus referred them to the much beloved and some would have said the towering prophet among all of Israel’s prophets, Elijah, and Jesus said, “You all remember how all those Jewish widows were suffering during the ministry of Elijah; well, the only widow Elijah bothered to minister to was a Gentile. He ministered to her while the Jewish widows had to continue to fend for themselves.” That didn’t sound right, but it was true.
Jesus went on. Remember Elijah’s beloved protege, Elisha? There was all sorts of Jews with leprosy during the time of Elisha’s ministry, but, Jesus said to the people, did you ever notice that the only leper he tried to help was a Gentile?
That was that. Truth notwithstanding, they didn’t want to hear their heroes slammed so they decided to kill the person who told such stories even though they were 100% true. Most religious people don’t want to hear the sobering truth; they want their fancies tickled as they wait for guaranteed admission into heaven and/or some more immediate material rewards. Jesus told the unpopular truth, and a religious group tried to kill him. Eventually, another group would succeed; this one didn’t.
Various groups through the ages have tried to gain an understanding of Jesus by looking back to the longings of the ancient Hebrew people for the one whom God would send to cause the world to focus on God. It turns out that the “one” God sent was a suffering servant and was initially not an individual at all, but a nation, the ancient Hebrews--called to be a light to the nations and at the same a suffering servant. Listen again to this:

Who has believed what we have heard? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed? For he grew up before [God] like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by others; a person of suffering and acquainted with infirmity; and as one from whom others hide their faces he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Again, this was not a prophecy about a messiah to come, but rather a description of God’s first-chosen people. What is fascinating, though, is that some theologians of old saw Jesus not as King of Glory, but as successor to the suffering servant I’ve just described. Anything but popular, wouldn’t you say?

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Everyone Deserves a Chance to Fly

Idina Menzel as Elphaba in Stephen Schwartz's "Wicked"

“Wicked” the musical is based on Wicked the novel. The musical carries the subtitle, “The Untold Story of the Witches of Oz.” The novel on which it is based--the novel having been praised by John Updike no less--has the subtitle, “The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West.”
In the background of all of this is, of course, the 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum and the more famous movie version of the original novel, “The Wizard of Oz” starring none other than Judy Garland. Baum’s grand story of Dorothy, Toto, the Scarecrow, the Cowardly Lion, the Tin Man, the Munchkins, Glinda the Good Witch, the Wicked Witch of the West, and, of course, the Wizard.
As many of you already know, I had to watch the movie in bits and pieces for years because the networks always showed it only on Sunday evenings, and my parents required that my sister and I go to church on Sunday evenings with them. (My brother who came along eleven years after I did, didn’t have to go to church on Sunday evenings, just for the record!) Normally, I wanted to go to church; we had a great youth choir and a great youth group, but once a year to see the complete “Wizard of Oz” wasn’t going to send me to hell! Geez. I think I was 18 or so before I got to the see the whole movie.
Growing up and getting to see bits and pieces of “Wizard” about once a year, which was about as often as one of the networks ran it, and even when I saw the whole thing finally, I had no idea Baum was using these fascinating characters symbolically and specifically as political symbols. For example, Dorothy may have represented the goodhearted, well-intentioned American people; although some political interpreter of the novel say that Dorothy is Theodore Roosevelt. “Dorothy” and “Theodore” each has three syllables, and they are the same sounds; each as a “dor/dore” syllable, each has an “o” syllable, and each has a “the/thy” syllable; they are simply reversed: The-o-dore, Dor-o-thy. Clever huh? The Cowardly Lion was likely the author’s way of presenting William Jennings Bryan. The Tin Man was the symbol for our country’s industrial workers, and the Scarecrow the symbol for our farmers. The Wicked Witch of the East was President Grover Cleveland, and the Wicked Witch of the West was President William McKinley; the Wizard was McKinley’s campaign manager, Mark Hanna.
Novelist Maguire took the beloved L. Frank Baum story and wrote what amounts to a prequel; he imaginatively tells us what happened to all of our beloved “Oz” characters before Mr. Baum introduced them to us. This show ranks among the best I've ever seen on Broadway or anywhere else.
Let me throw in a warning here. If you get nostalgic because of today’s and next week’s sermons based on “Wicked.” and decide to go back and revisit “Oz,” you have to be very careful if you rent or purchase a DVD because “Oz” now has an association in the arts world that has nothing to do with the magical land of munchkins; “Oz” was the name of a graphic, very graphic, HBO series set in the Oswald maximum security prison--”Oz” being short for “Oswald.” If you make that mistake, I can guarantee you that you won’t be worrying about any yellow brick road!
Stephen Schwartz, of “Godspell,” “Pippen,” and “The Magic Show” fame, adapted the novel for the stage and wrote the music; the music is astounding. Novelist Maguire takes Baum’s memorable witches, the Wicked Witch of the West and Glinda the Good Witch of the North, strong supporting characters in Baum’s plot, and makes them the central characters in “Wicked.” In “Wicked,” the musical, the Wicked Witch’s name is Elphaba, and the Good Witch’s name is, at first, Galinda--”with a GA,” as she says it; later, she will change it to Glinda as a way of supporting someone whom the political powers are abusing. There will no time in either of these sermons to discuss that interesting twist, but at least you know that much.
Elphaba has green skin as did actor Margaret Hamilton’s Wicked Witch of the West in the 1939 film version of the story; and--as is also the case with Billie Burke’s Glinda in the movie--Galinda is blonde, beautiful, and somewhat out of step. Elphaba is more our focus today, and Galinda will take center stage next week.
By the way, I can’t find any evidence that the religious fundamentalists at the turn of the twentieth century or forty years later when Judy Garland sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to us in such a way that teamsters wept, protested the centrality of witches in children’s literature and films as they did when Harry Potter hit the bookstores and the silver screens. If I’m correct about that, those of us who are progressives should take heart in realizing that religious conservatives haven’t always been and won’t always be in the prominent and coercive place they occupy today in our country.
Elphaba and Galinda, both young sorceresses, meet in their late teen-age years at Madame Morrible’s school. By an odd turn of events, the two young women who couldn’t be more different from each other, end up as dormitory roommates.
Elphaba is very unpopular both because of her green skin and because she is Madame Morrible’s favorite and is accepted into the Headmistress’s elite sorcery seminar. Galinda is popular with everyone at the school except Elphaba although the two grow to become the dearest of friends; that takes quite a while.
Madame Morrible, a great friend and supporter of the Wizard, tells Elphaba that her magical skills are so promising that she has a good chance of having a significant connection to the Wizard of Oz; everyone wants that! Elphaba is very excited about the prospects and makes doing whatever is necessary to meet the Wizard her priority.
The only problem is that few people know or understand the wickedness that the Wizard is behind. When Elphaba finds out how much evil can be traced back to the Wizard, who--by the way--has no magical powers, she changes her mind about wanting to have anything to do with him. This angers Madame Morrible and the Wizard, among others, and Elphaba has to flee in order to preserve her life.
The hit song, “Defying Gravity,” around which my sermon today is based is sung by Elphaba at this critical point in her life when she realizes that despite pressure from all those in her life including her, by now, very close friend, Galinda, she has to be who she is, unable to succumb to the pressure of any others if she is to be happy. It is a pivotal moment, as you can imagine.
In the original Broadway production of “Wicked,” Idina Menzel sang the role of the green-skinned Elphaba who begins her life rejected and hurt but still hopeful about life and love. She is gifted, not just magically speaking, but in terms of her intelligence too. She has a real belter’s voice. Other members of the original Broadway cast included Kristin Chenoweth as Galinda, Joel Grey as the Wizard, and Carole Shelley as Madame Morrible.
We will play the song, “Defying Gravity,” for you in a few minutes, but I want you to know now that the argumentation you hear at the beginning of the selection is Galinda, angry and frustrated, trying to get Elphaba to continue with her plan to establish an association with the “great” Wizard of Oz. Galinda sees how good life can be for those who go along with the directives of those who are in power and how dangerous life can be for those who dare to buck the status quo.
I will say much more about this later in the sermon, but I want you to know now, to help you listen between the lines of this very powerful song, defying gravity is going against the odds and prevailing anyway. Defying gravity means literally flying high for Elphaba, but for those of us who hear Stephen Schwartz’s magnetizing music it means soaring even when no one else in our lives thinks we should or could.

Words from Second Isaiah: “Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth” (Isa 40:28a-b NRSV). This message of hope and encouragement from the Hebrew Bible builds its foundation on the affirmation of God as Creator of everything that exists from one end of this planet to the other. Moreover, this God is eternal; there has never been a time when the God who called our world and human life itself into being did not exist. Surely, you know about this God. Surely you’ve heard about this God, the writer insists. Second Isaiah comes very close to denying the possibility that anyone could have missed out on knowing the basics about God.
The message here in this poetic passage is directed, obviously, to people who need strength to make it through to the other side of some life situation that is holding them back, trying them down. God is their hope; God is OUR hope too, and one of the fundamental realities about God is that God “does not faint or grow weary” (Isa 40:c NRSV). The very human goddesses and gods of polytheism did grow weary, did faint, but not the one and only true God there is. The God who is willing to lift up the discouraged and the fallen, that God, is ever invigorated.
God knows that we humans can’t make that claim; even the most energetic of us, we sometimes do grow weary and maybe faint. The weight of life gets to be too much for us, and we are weary indeed; the load we have to carry over the long haul is way too burdensome. We need to lighten our loads, but, honestly, we don’t know how. God knows all of these basic facts about us as well as all the information that is unknown to and unknowable by humans. “God’s understanding is unsearchable” (Isa 40:28d NRSV).
If we are among the weary and/or the faint, God knows what our needs and struggles are, and God makes a way for us not to be enervated. Of course, there are times when we should be worn out, expended, used up. People who serve God by serving those in need, by challenging the unjust power structures in a society and in the world, by challenging the status quo, by taking on city hall; we’re supposed to be tired from time to time! God “gives power [as in energy] to the faint and strengthens the powerless” (Isa 40:29 NRSV). There’s another kind of power that God gives; this power is given to those whom various groups and cultures render powerless--the people at the edges, the people at the periphery, the poor, the dispossessed, those subject to the political power of despots, and those in democracies whose votes or civil rights are stolen from them. Power and strength. They go together. God doesn’t rest until those who need the gift of strength and/or power have been so blessed. We well know that God doesn’t accomplish this by snapping the divine fingers, as it were. What God accomplishes, God accomplishes through folks like us with limited energy, and because of evil power structures, with limited personal power.
“Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted” (Isa 40:30 NRSV). No one believes this. The young people themselves think of themselves as indefatigable and indestructible, and--guess what!--so do their elders. Youthful energy has its limits; even college students need Sundays to sleep off Saturday night and Sunday wee hours partying. Even our young people whom we deem best suited to war on behalf of our nation’s leaders tire out physically and emotionally at the front.
As we age, especially when we get to the place where we’re finally ready to turn over some of the responsibilities for managing the world into the future, we forget that we had energy limits in our youth; and we forget that the young people on whom we want to depend are not without their energy limits too. That, perhaps, is a good reminder on this day when we will vote on whether or not to accept our Nominating Committee’s recommendations for next church year’s church leaders.
Life is a joyous opportunity and a heavy responsibility. So, yes, sometimes even our youthful hopes for the future, they too become weary with the pressures of life, and they too may even faint. Life has plenty of tasks and pressures to wear us down at all ages and stages.
There comes what I consider to be a fascinating set of affirmations in our passage from Second Isaiah. “But those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isa 40:31 NRSV). This often quoted and frequently attested promise doesn’t apply to every seeker and struggler, even the most faith-inclined. It applies ONLY to those who know how to “wait for the Lord.” That’s the first of the two affirmations that surprise me when I look closely at this snippet of Second Isaiah scripture. The second affirmation that really catches my eye is that passivity isn’t the whole key; at some point we are responsible for reclaiming the strength we have lost. Those who wait for the Lord “SHALL RENEW THEIR STRENGTH.”
I don’t mean to imply that God is out of the picture in that renewal process. Hardly! But the very independence of the young eagle forced from the nest by a thoughtful mother tells us something about the point our writer wishes to make. Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength.
What in the world does waiting for the Lord mean? Well, on the way to answering that, one of the facts I’d like for you to consider is that I’m afraid we progressives have often made God so passive that until we nudge God or take initiative in God’s behalf God does essentially nothing. Like a marionette or a hot air balloon figure or the seemingly fierce Wizard of Oz who in reality is nothing more than a man working electronic controls behind the scenes, the God of progressive theology often does nothing at all unless we initiate the action. No wonder one of the ancient Hebrew writers thought it was important to remind her or his contemporaries that the God of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps!
This is a good place to remind ourselves that God thinks for Godself---or whatever thinking is for a non-human, all-knowing spiritual entity and/or force. God does nudge us toward risks and wholeness and goodness. God does offer us the strengthening gift of God’s presence.
Aside from the fact that God may do or communicate something worth seeing or hearing or experiencing, “waiting for the Lord” means several things. Heavyweight Hebrew scripture scholar, Dr. Walter Brueggemann, says that nine synonyms can be isolated for the word translated as “wait” here in the fortieth chapter of Isaiah: “remain,” “draw near,” “hope,” “persevere,” “hold on steadfastly,” “stay behind beyond an expected point of time,” “maintain a belief or course of action in the face of opposition,” “endure and stand one’s ground.” Wow! Again we see that passivity is not a possibility. Remaining active, staying the course, we actively hope and anticipate God’s movement to help us renew our appropriately-expended energies.
Perhaps, in this instance or that, nothing about our outward circumstances change. I’m not saying God is uninvolved in changing outward circumstances that impact us. What may also change, though, is nothing outward, but everything inward.
The people to whom Second Isaiah wrote were in exile; that didn’t change for a good long while. What the prophet promised them, though, was that waiting on God leads to renewal of energy even in exile; an inner change is possible. The process of waiting for a new sense of God, a new awareness of God at work in us and in our world, energizes us, and with that energy we reconnect to the presence of God within; and we experience renewal, a state and a process in which we have a hand. God can’t renew us unless we will to be renewed.
You heard Elphaba sing!

I'm through accepting limits
‘cause someone says they’re so
Some things I cannot change
But till I try, I’ll never know!

Renewed people, those who have waited on the Lord and rested until they were ready to move forward, they “shall mount up with wings like eagles.” They will soar! They will defy gravity! They will be able to run a stretch longer without being weary, and, until it’s time for some more waiting for God, they “shall walk and not faint.”

There’s another key “eagle” passage in Hebrew scripture that this “Defying Gravity” theme today brings to my mind. This one is from Deuteronomy 32. In this passage, God is clearly the great eagle, the mother eagle, actually. “As an eagle stirs up its nest, and hovers over its young; as it spreads its wings, takes them up, and bears them aloft on its pinions, the Lord alone guided [God’s people of old]” (vv. 11-12a NRSV). The scene the great preacher of Deuteronomy had in mind was a mother eagle ready for her young to fly so she stirs up the nest and takes her young up into the heights, holding them in her pinions until she drops them for their solo flights, ready to swoop under them to rescue them if there are problems.
Like the eagle passage from Isaiah, some activity, some effort on our part is suggested. God isn’t taking us up, fluttering God’s mighty wings, for a joy ride. Having been nurtured in the nest, the mother being sure of our innate strength and capabilities, God, our mother eagle, bears us up with God’s mighty wings, only to drop us so that we may fly on our own, but under God’s penetrating and protective eye. God will not let us fall. We’re intended to fly. Everyone deserves a chance to fly.
Father Michael Joncas had these and perhaps other “eagle and bird passages” from the Hebrew Bible, such as Psalm 91 and Exodus 19, in mind when he wrote the words and the music to the hymn we have just sung, “On Eagle’s Wings.” This song is much loved by persons of faith and was selected by some church music groups as the most popular Christian hymn to appear in the last quarter of the twentieth century. Father Joncas wrote the words and the music in 1979, and you may remember that it was performed at the memorial services for several of the victims of the 9/11 tragedy: “And God will raise you up on eagle’s wings, bear you on the breath of dawn; make you to shine like the sun, and hold you in the palm of God’s hand.”
So how is it you need to defy gravity, all rested up and under God’s watchful eye? Elphaba could have given her power to the Wizard who, undoubtedly, would have seen to it that she had everything she ever dreamed of. Had she done that, though, she would have had to buy into the Wizard’s evil, and her rise to prominence would have been in the power of the Wizard, not in her own power. This means that she would not have tested her own wings--or, in her case, her broom. We can only fly on someone else’s wings or broom so long in life. To be real and whole and fully functional we have to defy gravity on our own. Remember that passivity for us is not in the picture; Mother Eagle may be taking us up high only to drop us into the vast openness in which we must use our own wings.
Remember Elphaba’s words, and maybe leave this place today singing them to yourself. Sing them during the week and in lots of weeks to come. Maguire’s character bursting into song compliments of Stephen Schwartz:

Something has changed within me
Something is not the same
I’m through with playing by the rules
Of someone else’s game
Too late for second-guessing
Too late to go back to sleep
It’s time to trust my instincts
Close my eyes: and leap!

It’s time to try
Defying gravity
I think I’ll try
Defying gravity
And you can't pull me down!


So if you care to find me
Look to the western sky!
As someone told me lately:
“Ev’ryone deserves the chance to fly!”
And if I’m flying solo
At least I'm flying free
To those who'd ground me
Take a message back from me
Tell them how I am
Defying gravity
I’m flying high
Defying gravity
And soon I’ll match them in renown
And nobody in all of Oz
No Wizard that there is or was
Is ever gonna bring me down!
(These and all lyrics from “Defying Gravity” in this sermon are borrowed; they were written and are copyrighted by Stephen Schwartz.)

So again, I ask you, how do you need to defy gravity? I think that’s a question we must continually ask ourselves because life has a way of getting many of us into a rut, and, let’s face it, folks, ruts can be very comfy. I have my ruts that I thoroughly enjoy! They may be boring sometimes and even debilitating to my potential, but I’ve been in them a long time; and I’m so, so at home in them.
I know people who need to defy gravity relationally speaking. Some need to end sorry, destructive relationships. Others need to risk budding relationships even though they’re successfully independent and have proven to themselves and others that they can go it alone just fine, thank you very much. Every new relationship is a risk, and there’s no guarantee on the front end that the relationship--a love relationship, a friendship relationship--will fly, pardon the pun.
I love the retirees in our congregation who keep taking risks, recreating and reinventing themselves after full-time professional careers are in the past. They demonstrate that all the hours and energies invested in performing well professionally didn’t define them as human beings as proud as they may justifiably be of their career contributions. They make sure that they are more than whatever their jobs or their job titles were.
I admire profoundly those people who live in contexts that limit their freedom and have governments that point blank tell them what they can and can’t do, but they risk truth telling anyway. All the limitations imposed upon them are insufficient to keep some of these amazing spirits from defying gravity. Think about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born woman who fled her home country and Islamic fundamentalism to the Netherlands, where she made a place for herself and eventually became a member of Parliament there. Her very public criticisms of radical Islamic views earned her plenty of enemies among fundamentalist Muslims and some Dutch enemies as well. She came to the United States in ‘06, but death threats followed her. They did not silence her, though.
There are those who need to defy gravity spiritually speaking. The structures of their spirituality up to this point in their lives are falling apart as far as they are concerned. There’s nothing happening for them in those old ways of seeking the divine presence. It’s a very tough step to take to admit to oneself, much less to others, that how we’ve worshiped up to this point in our lives and the ways of living out our faith, which used to work for us, at least sort of, and may still work for key people in our lives, like our family members, leaves us cold nowadays and don’t get us connected in any sense to the reality of God. The only way to change that is to step out on faith, if you will, and embrace a new way of thinking about and relating to the benevolent, powerful reality that many of us call God. If you don’t take the risk, though, of flying, there’s only one alternative open to you: dying spiritually on the vine. It’s sink or soar, friends. Sink or soar. Everyone deserves a chance to fly.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Is Jeremiah Wright?

The Reverend Dr. Jeremiah Wright Jr.

We live in this country with the privilege and the burden of freedom of speech. I may despise and be sickened by every word that slithers forth from a Klansman’s mouth (and I say, “Klansman,” on purpose because women cannot be in the Klan itself but may participate in organized racism by joining its auxiliary, Women of the Ku Klux Klan: WKKK), but in this country the Klansman has the right to express his feelings as long as what he says does not threaten or lead to the physical harm of any fellow citizen or her or his property. Any time we might feel that someone who is saying something we don’t like should be silenced, we have to remember that silencing means censorship; and if censorship is in place then eventually the censors may silence us as well. The source of power determines who may or may not speak, and if we fall into disfavor with that power we, too, may lose our privilege to speak.
With that much said, Jeremiah Wright has every right, if you will, to say precisely what he has said. I don’t have to be in agreement with him; I may even be agitated by him. As a citizen of this democracy, he has the right to speak his mind.
I don’t think, however, that he has the right to use his pulpit as a political podium. The separation of church and state principle prohibits a clergyperson from trying to tell her or his congregants the candidate for whom they should vote. The prophetic role of preaching requires preachers to speak out against pronouncements and patterns that violate fundamental principles of justice, but that does not include a preacher’s daring to tell her or his congregants for whom they should vote even though we all know this standard is widely violated.
Some of Reverend Wright’s comments that have drawn the most fire are those related to criticisms of this country. As a preacher, he is entitled to do that, and I must say with much he has said regarding some moral wrongs this country has done I concur. Yes, this country has sown very bad seeds from time to time, and the harvest hurts us greatly. It is completely improper and cowardly for a preacher to keep silent about any form of injustice going on in the country or the world.
I’m not saying the preacher is unentitled to a vote, and I don’t even think the preacher as private citizen needs to be secretive about politics; but the pulpit is no place to push candidacies. In this regard, Jeremiah Wright in ostensibly pushing the cause of one of his own congregants for public office should have lost for his congregation its nonprofit status because from the pulpit he drop-kicked Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Those same comments, belong, if anywhere, in Dr. Wright’s speeches to the NAACP and audiences other than his congregation in Chicago.
Oddly enough, or maybe not ironic at all, the IRS initiated an investigation into the United Church of Christ denomination for possible violations of nonprofit status because they had Obama speak to its national synod last year. Obama is a member of the denomination, and neither he nor the UCC did anything wrong. Wright, in contrast, openly endorsed Obama from the Trinity pulpit, and that is a violation of laws governing nonprofit status. Even so, let me tell you the highlights of what the IRS wrote to the UCC in a letter that has now been published all over the place:

Because a reasonable belief exists that the United Church of Christ ("church") has engaged in political activities that could jeopardize its tax-exempt status as a church..., this letter is notice of the beginning of a church tax inquiry.... Our concerns are based on articles posted on several websites including the church's which state that United States Presidential Candidate Senator Barack Obama addressed nearly 10,000 church members gathered at the United Church of Christ's biennial General Synod at the Hartford Civic Center, on June 23, 2007. In addition, 40 Obama volunteers staffed campaign tables outside the center to promote his campaign. All section 501(c)(3) organizations, including churches, their integrated auxiliaries, conventions or associations of churches, are prohibited from participating in, or intervening in (including the publication or distribution of statements), any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for public office. This is an absolute prohibition, violation of which results in denial or revocation of exempt status and/or the imposition of certain excise taxes, if applicable. The prohibition against political campaign activity does not prevent candidates from being invited to speak at an event of an organization described in section 501(c)(3). If a candidate is invited to speak in his or her capacity as a candidate, then other candidates running for the same office must also be invited to speak and there should be no indication of support for, or opposition to, any candidate by the organization. Also, the prohibition does not prevent an organization's officials from being involved in a political campaign, so long as those officials do not in any way utilize the organization's financial resources, facilities, or personnel and clearly indicate that the actions taken or the statements made are those of the individuals and not of the organization.

Again, I say, the UCC did nothing wrong by inviting one of its own constituents to address the denomination’s synod. I have known many churches that have had political candidates speak in their pulpits and few that invited that candidate’s opponents to speak. Wright, however, violated this standard. More about that later.
Jeremiah Wright Jr. was born right up the road from us, in Philadelphia. He was born in 1941 to the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Sr. and Dr. Mary Henderson Wright. Rev. Wright Sr. was a clergyperson about whom I have been able to find little information, and Dr. Henderson Wright was a highly respected educator--the first African American teacher at the Philadelphia School for Girls at which she was Assistant Principal at the time of her retirement; she earned two master’s degrees and her doctorate from U Penn. Wright once told a reporter or a news writer that his parents had challenged him to balance the intellectual and the spiritual components of life. He, admirably, has done both.
Jeremiah Wright Jr. attended Virginia Union University before transferring to Howard University where he completed his bachelor’s degree and went on to earn his first master’s degree. He earned his second master’s degree from the University of Chicago School of Divinity, and he earned the Doctor of Ministry degree from the United Theological Seminary. Between his studies at Virginia Union and Howard, he served, first, in the Marine Corps and, then, in the Navy.
He and his wife are the parents of five children.
After serving as an interim pastor, an assistant pastor, and a researcher for the Association of Theological Schools, Jeremiah Wright became pastor of the Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago in 1972. The congregation had 87 adult members at the time. Wright recently retired and is on sabbatical until June 1 at which time the retirement will be effective; he leaves the church with 8,000 members.
His congregation loves him enthusiastically. Even though the church’s “motto” is “Unashamedly Black and Unapologetically Christian,” a very few of the 8,000 members are Caucasian including the regional executive minister for the church’s denomination, the United Church of Christ.
While there is great diversity within the ranks of the UCC, it is “generally” regarded as the most liberal of all Protestant denominations. For example, it is the only denomination in this country except for the gay/lesbian-dominated Metropolitan Community Church (MCC) that, by charter, affirms the ordination of gay and lesbian clergy. Naturally, how to handle that issue is left to each local congregation. Beyond that issue, the UCC has an abundance of constituents who are on the progressive end of things as opposed to the end of theological conservatism, which is not to say that conservatives are nonexistent in the UCC.
Senator Obama found his way into the Christian faith because of the influence of Jeremiah Wright. Obama recalls that he has known Wright for twenty years and has been a member of the church, with Wright as his pastor, since 1992; that will be sixteen years come this fall. Wright performed the Obamas’ wedding and baptized both of their daughters. It’s tough to be at odds with such a spiritual mentor, and the senator has done a commendable job trying to clarify for the American public that Wright’s inflammatory rhetoric has not been the consistent message from the Trinity pulpit and that not every parishioner has to agree with the pastor’s perspective in a Protestant congregation. Why, rumor has it that there are those of you in the Silverside membership who have, at one or more points in my eight years here, actually disagreed with me!

Historically speaking, Christian preaching, quite naturally, grows out of preaching in the Jewish tradition. Since Jesus was a Jew and preached in the lineage of ancient Temple priests as well as ancient prophets, that heritage was passed on to Jesus’ followers and remains a part of what Christian preaching will always be.
The priestly part of the preaching in ancient Israel reflected what we might today call pastoral preaching in an institutional context. Many of the psalms reflect themes of corporate worship and show us words that the gathered community spoke and prayed together. Undoubtedly, the priests preached on these themes as well.
The prophets in the ancient Hebrew tradition tended to be more itinerant--not preaching in the Temple or synagogues or to the same people gathering regularly for worship (even if “regularly” meant just on high holy days when someone who lived a distance from Jerusalem was able to get to the great Jerusalem Temple). The prophets preached wherever people would listen, and while many of them had pastoral hearts and attitudes their preaching was not infrequently confrontational, critical, and condemning--and, let me hasten to add, daring.
The most daring prophetic confrontation that I know anything about is the story of the prophet, Nathan, who in a very inductive manner called the greatest of Israel’s kings to accountability. You may remember the whole sordid affair between King David and Mrs. Bathesheba, wife of one of King David’s star warriors, Uriah. The King and Mrs. Bath, they had a thing __ __ _goin’ on!
I’m always interested in the meanings of names in both Hebrew and Christian scripture. The name, “Bathsheba,” means daughter of the oath. The name, “David” means beloved, and who named David isn’t that? Since parents in those ancient times and places tended to name their children names specifically intended to reflect something about the child or, perhaps, the circumstances of her or his birth, it’s intriguing to wonder what oath Bathsheba’s parents had in mind when they chose that name for her.
In that time and place, a woman could have one husband and one husband only, but men could have as many wives and concubines as they could afford. I myself was not able to afford even one wife! (And I thank you in advance for not asking me for any details!!!) We assume that King David, being king and having been noted from his youth for his good looks, had some beautiful wives and concubines in his household; we would further assume that they weren’t merely beautiful but the most beautiful in the land. If beautiful women was what he wanted, surely that is exactly what he had. The book of 2 Samuel has this one sentence summary about the domestic David: “In Jerusalem, after he came from Hebron, David took more concubines and wives; and more sons and daughters were born to David” (2 Sam 5:13 NRSV).
Not even sure he could remember the names of all the women at his disposal, if you will, David still wanted more, or something was missing. That was the problem on his end.
On Bathsheba’s end, she was an exhibitionist. I don’t know that for a fact, but she bathed from a place in her residence from which King David could observe her without a telescope or binoculars. This is what the writer of 2 Samuel tells us:

It happened, late one afternoon, when David rose from his couch and was walking about on the roof of the king’s house, that he saw from the roof a woman bathing; the woman was very beautiful. David sent someone to inquire about the woman. It was reported, “This is Bathsheba daughter of Eliam, the wife of Uriah the Hittite.” So David sent messengers to get her, and she came to him, and he lay with her. (Now she was purifying herself after her period.) Then she returned to her house. The woman conceived; and she sent and told David, “I am pregnant” (2 Sam 11:2-5 NRSV).

King David’s warriors were required to remain celibate while they were actively fighting so when Uriah came back from the battles for a break, he wouldn’t sleep in the house with his beautiful wife, Bathsheba, for fear of...well, you know. This was frustrating for King David because it would have been easy to explain Bathsheba’s pregnancy if Uriah had made love to his wife.
Absent a conjugal visit, David didn’t want to be humiliated nor did he want Bathsheba shamed so he had Uriah (by the way, the name “Uriah” meant something like “My light is God”) sent back to the active fighting and had him put in the most dangerous of locations where his death was virtually certain. David had plotted correctly. Uriah died in battle. Now he and Bathsheba could get married, and they did.
Who knew? Secrets of the rich and famous were hard to keep in those days as in ours. People knew, some of them anyway, even if they dared not discuss it in such a way that David’s protectors could catch wind of their gossip.
The news came to a certain prophet, named Nathan, however; and while confronting the King could have resulted in immediate execution, Nathan felt compelled, felt it his duty and prophetic responsibility, to confront even the mighty King David.
Nathan was not a freelance prophet; he was a court prophet. This is to say, he worked directly for the King and probably lived within the palace compound. The writer of the book of 2 Samuel tells us that David’s deed had displeased God and that God sent Nathan to David to require David to face the unpleasant truth.
As I mentioned earlier, Nathan did this is a very creative, cunning manner--inductively. He told David the parable of two men, a poor man and a rich man. The rich man had more flocks and herds than he could count; the poor man had one little ewe lamb that was not livestock to him, but a pet that had grown up with the man’s children and was spoiled enough to eat and drink with the family. If you are a pet lover as I am, you understand completely the man’s relationship to his lamb.
A traveler came to visit the rich man, and hospitality expectations of the day required the rich man to provide for the traveler’s needs. He decided that this presumably anonymous traveler wasn’t worth giving up one of his own animals to feed so he stole the poor man’s one little ewe lamb in order to serve the traveler a fine mutton meal.
When David heard this from his court prophet, Nathan, he was incensed! He yelled out that the man who had done such a thing deserved to die! If he dies, however, he can’t make restitution so let him live, and he must repay the poor man with four ewe lambs! That doesn’t seem like enough of a return for what the poor man had lost to me, but that’s what the King said. “What a despicable man,” David cried out, to which the courageous prophet, Nathan, replied, “You are that man!”
David was stunned and somewhat confused at first. Nathan reminded him of all he had, all that God has blessed him with, but how, his substantial collection of women notwithstanding, he had finagled marriage to Bathsheba, thinking he’d covered his tracks.
Again, I remind you that David could have had Nathan killed on the spot for displeasing him, regardless of the truth of the prophet’s message, but he didn’t. Instead, and we presume this is one of the several reasons David was remembered as a great king despite his personal failings, he owned his moral faults and repented before God. God would let him live, but the writer of 2 Samuel believed that God had plans to put a curse on David and Bathsheba resulting in the death of the child with whom she was pregnant. That’s exactly what happened. You must decide for yourself if God punishes adulterous couples by killing children they conceive; I myself can never believe that, but I believe that Nathan and David and Bathsheba and the writer of 2 Samuel believed it.
What I wanted you to see in this story is the extraordinary risk Nathan took to be faithful to his God by daring to confront one of the most powerful people in the world and tell him he was dead wrong. Jeremiah Wright has dared in his preaching to call the sins of the United States sins, and faulting him for that I consider unjust. This nation does not have a record of moral perfection. We have not been gifted with leaders who have always done the will of God, and we have not always elected leaders or given our support to leaders who cared about honoring God in their policies and their politics. How can anyone deny that Jeremiah Wright was telling the truth when he called our country to accountability for funding and otherwise participating in terrorism in days gone by and even daring to say that that when terrorism came to our shores it came in part because we had sown seeds of terrorism around the world?
This nation above moral reproach? Please, people! Patriotism doesn’t mean blind approval of everything instigated by this nation’s leaders!

Ask the descendants of the Native Americans who lived here when the Europeans came and told them God had gifted them, the Europeans who became the first leaders of this nation, with this land. Those Natives who resisted were killed in God’s name.

Ask the historians of the Civil War. Both sides could not have been right. Either the pro-slavery proponents were on solid moral ground, or the anti-slavery advocates were; not both. But both sides were U.S. citizens.

This nation has done many great things, and I’m proud to be an American; but this country doesn’t have an ethically flawless record. Jeremiah Wright, prophetically speaking, had a right to say so, I believe that he showed great courage in daring to call this country’s leaders, past and present, to accountability. He might have put his life on the line for daring to challenge the nation that some citizens make their god. Was wishing that God would DAMN America helpful to Wright’s cause? I would have to say, “No.”

Both Jesus and his mentor, John the Baptist, must be seen primarily as prophetic preachers even though Jesus was more pastoral than John; this is not to say that Jesus lacked fire in his sermons or that John lacked compassion altogether.
Jesus dared to confront movers and shakers within his own beloved Judaism--notably the Pharisees and the scribes. Matthew’s Jesus challenged them with words like these:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (Matt 23:27-28 NRSV).

Jesus also dared to confront his people’s religio-political center, though he did so with great sadness. Luke’s Jesus spoke these words of reprimand, undoubtedly with tears in his eyes: “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing” (Luke 13:34 NRSV).
Less overtly, but nonetheless powerfully, he challenged the assumptions of power and perpetuality held by the mighty Roman Empire, to whom Jesus and his people were subjugated. Jesus preached consistently about the ultimate dominance of the Empire of God, which the Empire of Rome hated--an insight that Dr. John Dominic Crossan has shown us through his meticulous research.
John the Baptist lost his head, and I mean that literally, because he dared to challenge the marriage arrangement of one of the Jewish leaders who married a woman still officially married to another man. Obviously, Rome, who alone had the right to pronounce the death penalty (John 18:31), and admittedly this is kind of fuzzy historically, sometimes--not always--turned its eye away from the Jews killing Jews when the persons put to death were those who also irritated Rome.
In any case, one who preaches in the tradition of Jesus--which all Christian preachers should do--must be willing to confront immorality and injustice, and we know that morality and justice are not determined by popular vote or majority practice. The consequences of faithful prophetic preaching are not always so good for the prophets. Both John and Jesus were killed by the political powers whom their prophetic preaching offended, and they weren’t the last to have come to such an end.
Having defended Jeremiah Wright’s freedom of speech and having affirmed his right to preach prophetically but not politically from his pulpit, let me be quick to say that because he may be correct in his rhetoric about some issues doesn’t mean he is correct about everything he says. It would be nice if our being right about some of the things we think and say automatically meant that everything we thought and said were right!
Several years ago, in part to build some bridges of understanding between Caucasians and African Americans, I founded a preaching journal called The African American Pulpit. I sold my idea to Judson Press, the American Baptist publisher, and the journal got underway. I am no longer involved, but it does very well under the leadership of its present owner and lead editor, preacher and attorney, Rev. Martha Simmons.
The only reason any of that matters this morning is that I had a part in recruiting to our Board of Contributing Editors the Reverend Jeremiah Wright Jr. I thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated his sermons. The editor in me has been known to classify the people in the world in two categories: those who meet deadlines and those who don’t. Jeremiah Wright always met his deadlines. His manuscripts were well-written and required very little editing. Wright is a very smart and a very gifted person--not to mention creative and engaging.
If I remember correctly, the first sermon of Jeremiah Wright’s that we published was in the second issue, in the spring of 1998. The title was “The Church Is Under Attack!” Primarily, Rev. Wright had in mind that the Black Church was under attack, and to those who have criticized some of his most recent remarks, he has reiterated that charge, “The Black Church is under attack.” That may be true; it is also true that all other facets of the church are or have been under attack as well. It’s not just the Black Church, and not everyone who disagreed with his words and/or his ways recently were, by any stretch of the imagination, attacking either his congregation or all of the Black persons and congregations in Christendom. Not all Black churches are in agreement with Wright's method or message though he, generally, tends to portray all Black churches as one big unified whole.
In this sermon, and by the way there’s a copy of it--one to a family unit as you leave this morning; in this sermon, Jeremiah Wright is justifiably proud of the survivability of and the compassion of the Black Church. I learned a lot from reading that moving sermon. He preached:

When the storms of life were raging, the black church has been the one place where we could go for refuge. When racists would beat us up, the black church would fix us up. There was something we could get in the black church that we could not get any place else.

I have no doubt that every word of that snippet is absolutely true and unexaggerated. Parts of the White power culture left African Americans no other place in all of society to celebrate their unique heritage and their astounding gifts, gifts to an often unthankful majority culture. It is also true that even the most sympathetic White person has no clue as to the multiple ways racism caused and still causes persons of color to suffer.
I think it was a year later when another of Jeremiah Wright’s sermons appeared in print in The African American Pulpit. The title of that sermon was “Praising God’s Name.” Not a single word in that sermon had anything to do with specifically African American issues or concerns. It was a sermon that could have inspired any group, and it inspired me. Here’s a little taste of that fine sermon:

When you meditate on God and consider all that the Lord has done, you will praise the Lord. Meditation leads to praising the Lord; contemplation leads to praising the Lord! You can’t contemplate all that God has done for you and keep your peace!

When the out-of-context sermon clips were spliced together and played on newscasts and podcasts and all over the internet, I was incensed. I was incensed because being taken out of context is an unfair and a dangerous thing. I didn’t like Rev. Wright’s politicizing from his pulpit, but aside from that I was certain that if we had heard those sermons in toto, the anti-Hillary and the anti-McCain showboating nonsense notwithstanding, Wright would have been completely exonerated.
The preaching elective I taught at Palmer Seminary this term was called “Preaching in Personal and Social Crisis,” and in one class session we listened to the out-of-context clips of Wright’s sermons and pretty much agreed in a class about equally divided between African Americans and Caucasians, a very smart group of master’s students, that whoever put those clips together did so specifically to hurt Wright if not his congregant, Senator Obama.
This is where the sad part came for me. I listened to the whole of Rev. Wright’s speech to the NAACP, and I thought I heard racism in it. If I had been listening to a Caucasian preacher who dared to say anything about ALL African Americans; all Black people do this or all Black people do that (or Asian or Hispanic or Middle Eastern) I’d have excused myself from that sermon and let the preacher know later on that I interpreted her or his comments as racist.
In the NAACP speech, Rev. Wright, who is way too intelligent to make this assumption, defended Ebonics by putting that pattern of speaking on par with regional dialects that have inhabitants or natives pronouncing words differently from people in other regions of the country. This is not the same as poor grammar, and Black people from Massachusetts or Black people from Texas generally pronounce regionalisms the same way White people from Massachusetts and White people from Texas pronounce the words. Defenders of proper grammar don’t just single out Ebonics for criticism, but any pattern of speaking by any group of people regardless of race that favors incorrect grammar over correct grammar.
With all due respect to someone whom I have greatly admired I have to say that I heard racism in Jeremiah Wright’s rhetoric that night, and it made me wonder, in retrospect, if racism may have been present all along. I don’t know the answer to that, and I can’t say. I can tell you this, though. This is one time when I’d LOVE to be proven wrong.
I don’t understand everything he says. I don’t agree with some of what I hear and think I do understand. Even if he is a racist, he has the right to express his views, but as I said in a thus far unanswered e-note to him, not in the pulpit and not while carrying the title “Pastor.” None of us who preach has the right to use the pulpit to lift up anything other than God’s unconditional love for all people in the human family and the equality of each person in the human race--no race inferior, no race superior.
Is Jeremiah Wright? Right about many things yes. If he’s a racist, though, about that, no. No racists are right, and I’m still waiting and hoping to be shown that there was no racism in what I heard Jeremiah Wright say to the NAACP gathering that night. That would give me delight.

Sunday, May 04, 2008

The Beautiful People

The Reverend Dr. Gardner C. Taylor

I rarely depart from announced sermon topics, but this week I have. I’m still focusing on the great preacher, Gardner Taylor, but the sermon of his to which I want to respond today, in this closing sermon for this series, changed from what I’d intended and announced several months ago. I ran across one of his sermons I’d edited in late 1999, six or so months before I became pastor of this church. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed and appreciated that sermon until I flipped, on Monday morning, through the pages of the journal in which it was published. He called the sermon, “The Beautiful People,” and what timing! In the middle of the week People magazine made its annual announcement of its list of the 100 most beautiful people in the world. We have to wait for this issue each year so that we’ll know who is beautiful and who isn’t.
This year I’m happy to announce to you that Kate Hudson is number one! The young actor who is the daughter of Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell has been named the most beautiful person in the world. Last year, it was George W. Bush. No wait! He was Time magazine’s person of the year in 2004. Nearly the same thing.
I know you can’t wait to get to Happy Harry’s to get your copy of People or to get home to your internet to look up the whole list. I’ll give you the top twelve: Kate Hudson, Salma Heyek, Mary J. Blige, Rumer Willis, Sarah Silverman, Christina Applegate, Eva Longoria and Tony Parker (as a couple sharing the number seven spot), Isla Fisher, Amanda Beard, the cast of “Gossip Girl,” Julienne Moore, and Jason Taylor. I don’t even know most of these top twelve most beautiful people in the world. I looked at their pictures--in preparation for this sermon, of course--and, well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder STILL.
My mother at the age of 75 isn’t on the list, but I think she’s lovely. Neither of my sons is on the list, which proves that the list is utterly bogus. Hillary, John, and Barak have been summarily omitted--not to mention Ed Rendell and Ruth Ann Minner.
They may appear way down the list or just as “honorable mention” types, but I saw something about Susan Sarandon, sexy and 60, on there along with Michelle Pheiffer, 50 and fabulous. I didn’t see any middle aged or older gentlemen who even made it as footnotes.
Beauty is one of those slippery subjects. No journal can legitimately compile a list of the most beautiful people; no one can tell anyone else who is beautiful. I’ve met people in my day, and I’m almost sure you have as well, who, just to look at them initially, had me thinking they were beautiful UNTIL they spoke. When they spoke, and I found out something about their real essence, suddenly they weren’t beautiful in my eyes at all. Conversely, haven’t you also gotten to know someone whom you really didn’t regard as beautiful at first, and then as the acquaintance built she or he suddenly became breathtakingly beautiful in your eyes?
I routinely exasperate my “Human World Views” students at Wilmington University by asking a simple true or false quiz question about Cleopatra after they have read a chapter on Rome that includes a brief discussion of the great Egyptian Queen by the historian Plutarch. My question, and you’d think this would get around campus as much as students talk about their professors, is this: Plutarch considered Cleopatra the most beautiful woman in the world. True or False.
This is what they have read about her in preparation for the quiz. These are words of Plutarch from his work, Life of Antony:

For her actual beauty, it is said, was not in itself so remarkable that none could be compared with her, or that no one could see her without being struck by it, but the contact of her presence, if you lived with her, was irresistible; the attraction of her person, joining with the charm of her conversation, and the character that attended all she said or did, was something bewitching. It was a pleasure merely to hear the sound of her voice, with which, like an instrument of many strings, she could pass from one language to another; so that there were few of the barbarian nations that she answered by an interpreter; to most of them she spoke herself.

The correct answer to my quiz question is “False.” Plutarch did not regard Cleopatra as having been the most beautiful woman in the world; I’m sure many people did including, in all probability, Mark Antony. Plutarch, though, says very clearly: “...her actual beauty was not so remarkable that none could be compared with her....” I usually get whines and hisses and boos when I announce that I will not accept “True” as a correct answer.
Back in late 2000, the print version of the BBC News ran an article entitled, “Beautiful People `Ruin’ Lives.” The opening paragraph of the article proclaimed:

Beautiful people are ruining others’ chances of happiness. At least, that is the conclusion of mathematicians....

Mathematicians?!? Well, yes. Let’s go on.

Unrealistic expectations of finding a partner with film star good looks are creating an unhappy society, believe the researchers. Instead of fantasizing about George Clooney or Jennifer Lopez, people would be better off picking a partner according to random personal preferences.

Evidently, going back to the 1960s, some University of California researchers, and I have no idea from which campus they hailed, concluded that if people were ranked randomly for attractiveness, then everyone should end up with a reasonably suitable partner. This from California, of all places! And who wants a “reasonably suitable partner”? Certainly, not everyone can have a movie star significant other, and not everyone wants one of those. This business of a “reasonably suitable partner,” though, sounds like someone just settled on which pasta, with all the options on the shelves, sounds good for dinner tonight. People who “settle” in love relationships, at least in our day, will probably be separating or divorcing.
Let’s get back to the European mathematicians, however. They said the California researchers seemed to assume that person A would mostly find person B attractive if she or he was at about person A’s same level of attractiveness in which case a good match should be made about 70 percent of the time. Our mathematicians knew that there are some people, to mess up that 70 percent probability, who are rather widely regarded as “intrinsically” attractive by a rather broad spectrum of fellow humans. When what they called “Vogue factor” was put into the equation, where an “averagely attractive” person knew about the beautiful people, she or he--this “averagely attractive” person--probably would have to “make do” with someone who ranked at about 900 on her or his list of attractive people. Imagine telling the person you’re supposed to love and find attractive in a way few others notice, “My darling, you’re the 900th most attractive person in the world to me!” There was nothing in the report about how attractive the mathematicians were or how happy they were with the attractiveness of their partners.
Here I am quoting Country Music lyrics again! Can’t help it today. Tim McGraw sings a song called “Beautiful People.” Here’s the first stanza and the chorus:

Paul’s got a brand new haircut
must have been the girl's first date
baby blue front quarterpanel
on his old dark green Chevrolet

Probably never make the pages
of People magazine,
but you ought to see those sick kids’ faces
when he shows up on Christmas Eve

Dressed like old St. Nick
that missing tooth don’t matter a bit
there’s a lot like him around
in every town

They’re just family friends and neighbors
doin’ what they’ve always done
loving fathers, loving daughters,
loving mothers, loving sons
they gather ‘round old glory
‘round the tables and the steeples
the beautiful people
the beautiful people.

Gardner Taylor has been called the dean of Black preachers in the United States. He has also been called, simply, the dean of American preachers. Indeed, his influence extends far beyond the African American church and the African American community.
Wyatt Tee Walker was pastor of Harlem’s Canaan Baptist Church when he introduced Gardner Taylor to his congregation as the “greatest preacher living, dead, or unborn.” The former mayor of New York City, David Dinkins, described Gardner’s preaching as “good and better.”
Dr. Taylor spent the bulk of his career as pastor of the Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, New York. His ministry there, preaching and otherwise, was massively successful. The membership grew to some 14,000 members while he was the pastor officially retiring from that position in 1990. Under his leadership, that very community-minded congregation built a home for the elderly. They established a fully accredited grade school that was headed for thirty years by Gardner’s first wife, the late Laura Scott Taylor. Concord Church also established what they called “the Christ Fund,” which was a million-dollar endowment fund established exclusively for investing in Brooklyn.
Gardner was born in south Louisiana in 1918. His father was a pastor, and his mother was a teacher. His father died before Gardner’s thirteenth birthday, but he remembers his dad as the most influential preacher whom he ever met. He said that his parents had “a natural feel for the essential music of the English language wedded to an intimate and emotional affection for the great transactions of the scriptures.” Interestingly, these are the very traits for which Gardner is praised to this day--his masterful use of language and his creative and insightful interpretation of scripture. I don’t know who first called him the “poet laureate of the pulpit,” but that title of honor has stuck.
Gardner was actively involved in the Civil Rights Movement, and his dear friend, Matin Luther King Jr., once referred to him as one of his preaching idols. Many preachers, Black, White, and Other, could and have said the same thing.
There’s a wild story dating back to 1960 when the nation’s then third largest Protestant denomination, the National Baptist Convention, USA, a largely Black denomination, had to elect a president. The incumbent, Rev. J. H. Jackson, was on a leadership ego ride and wouldn’t give up his position even though he had remained in the position longer than the organization’s constitution allowed. Gardner agreed to run against him. At the convention, verbal and eventually physical fighting broke out, and one of Jackson’s ardent supporters was accidentally killed. Gardner was defeated when his supporters were changed with being hate-mongers and murderers.
The next year, Dr. Taylor, Dr. King, and other leading Black clergypersons founded the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which has grown to more than two million members and is now the second largest Protestant denomination in the United States, behind only the huge Southern Baptist Convention.
So Gardner is nearly 90 years old by now, and if he’s slowing down it doesn’t show. The only hint has been that he and his wife have moved into a retirement setting, and he has begun giving away some of the books in his massive personal library.
I lucked into personally knowing this pivotal preacher when I was pastor of the St. Charles Avenue Baptist Church in New Orleans. My predecessor there had retired but stayed actively involved in the church. He and Gardner had had a long friendship, and through him--“him” being Dr. G. Avery Lee--we were able to get Gardner to come as a guest preacher.
Up to that point, I had read much that Gardner had written, and I’d heard him lecture while I was in grad school. I was more than in awe as I anticipated meeting him in person, and I remained in awe once he arrived. I’m still in awe of Gardner Taylor.
The first time I met Gardner, in New Orleans, the first Mrs. Taylor was with him, Laura. She was a lovely and charming and brilliant person. I think Gardner would say and has said that his greatest personal tragedy was Laura’s death in February of 1995. The way she died made it all the more difficult. She was simply out for a walk or an errand in their beloved Brooklyn when a truck, a garbage truck I’m thinking, ran over her. She was 79 years old.
I did not learn of her death in the news. Instead, I noticed one Saturday in the Baltimore newspaper that Gardner was going to be the guest speaker at some other congregation’s anniversary. I couldn’t miss my service, but I thought I could catch him for a quick hello at an after-church reception.
As soon as I finished shaking hands, I dashed from University Church over to where Gardner was that day. When I poked my head into the church’s social hall, I saw Gardner immediately, and he looked awful. It had been several years since I’d seen him in New Orleans, and he had been kind enough to continue contacts with me. Even so, he looked awful. After we greeted each other, I told him he looked like he didn’t feel well. That’s when he told me what had happened. I was too sad for words.
Three or so years after that, we were able to get on Gardner’s schedule, and he came to us at University Church as our guest preacher, a great day for us. By then he had remarried, and the second Mrs. Taylor, which is probably a terrible way to refer to her, accompanied him. Her name is Phillis, and she is a retired school teacher from the New York public school system. Wonderfully charming, one could see that she had been able to hold her own in some tough schools.
As much as I loved having Gardner in my church and loving his sermon that day and being deeply touched by some kind words he had about me for my congregation, the most moving part of that visit was Phillis’s conversation with my younger son, Carson. He was in his first year of high school, and his learning difference, dyslexia, was hampering his academic success not to mention the self-esteem issue that is tough for a huge percentage of early high school kids including those who are traditional learners. Phillis asked him about school and immediately picked up on his struggle; she zoned in directly on conversation with Carson while Gardner and I talked shop, and in a few minutes she, as an educator and a very caring human being, had given Carson more hope and confidence than most of his teachers had given him in whole academic years.
Most recently I heard Gardner and got to chat with him and Phillis ever so briefly after he preached to the seminarians up at Palmer Seminary where, as most of you know, I teach preaching. Their charm simply doesn’t wane, and Gardner’s power in the pulpit is completely unaffected by his age.
In the late summer of 2000, President Bill Clinton presented Gardner Taylor with the Presidential Medal of Freedom. You may or may not know that this is the highest civilian award that any president may bestow upon an American citizen. The Clintons have high regard for Gardner. Gardner was one of a handful of key leaders who spoke at a near-midnight prayer gathering for Baptist pastors the night before Baptist President Clinton and Baptist Vice-president Gore stepped officially into their leadership roles to which they had been rightfully elected by the American people. Gardner, Barbara Jordan, Bill Moyers spoke to those of us who could be crammed into DC’s First Baptist Church. It was an unforgettable evening.
Four years later, Gardner Taylor prayed the closing prayer at the second Clinton inaugural. This is a part of what he prayed:

We hold before thee this nation so richly endowed, so grandly blessed, and yet imperiled apparently often by the very richness of its diversity. Deliver us from pettiness of thought, from harshness of speech, from violence of action. Make us worthy of our history, of patriot sacrifice, of martyrs’ blood. Give us ever greater dedication to the great defining words of our democracy--liberty, justice, equality, opportunity.


Gardner Taylor’s sermon, “The Beautiful People,” took as its text John 17:22, which, in King James English, reads: “And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them, that they may be one, even as we are one.” This is from a prayer that Jesus prayed near the end of his earthly life, and scholars often refer to the prayer as a whole as “Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer.” Before we consider the biblical foundation for his message, I want you to hear what Gardner said about the “Beautiful People.”
He believed the designation itself, “beautiful people,” was

originated by society columnists and other watchers of the idle rich who follow the sun from Manhattan to Palm Beach to Monte Carlo and to the French Rivera and the southern coasts of Italy and Spain. They are the people who show up at places where they can be seen to advantage, wearing the latest fashion creations of Gucci, Bill Blass, and Pierre Cardin. They are supposed to be style-setters, pace-makers for what is smart and “in,” as they say. The rest of us are likely to envy them, their good fortune and big fortunes, and to wish that we cold scamper hither and yon as latter day sun-worshippers.

Something isn’t quite right about that picture, that image of the “beautiful people,” Gardner thought.

If you look behind the sparkle and paint you are likely to discover something not so beautiful. Many of these people with nothing to hold on to except their appearance are likely to be in a constant, desperate, losing battle against the bulge in the wrong place, the unwelcome wrinkle, the drying skin, the crows’ feet under the eyes, the middle-age paunch in the men. One begins to wonder how beautiful are these people....

Yes, indeed, and if we look at the tabloids as we stand in line at the grocery store--perish the thought, any of us should have an actual subscription to “The National Enquirer”--we see pictures of the beautiful people not so beautiful out of makeup and out of the spotlight.
The paparazzi love to get those shots of beautiful women without their makeup or maybe without their hair combed--as if they’d slipped out for a quick run to a convenience store hoping no one would notice them. The vigilant paparazzi caught them, though; even with a telephoto lens if necessary. These photographers also love to get shots to share of those performers who gained a few pounds, or lots, since their last films or the cancellations of their once popular television shows. According to my quick visual scans of tabloid headlines as I wait to overpay for my groceries, Kirstie Alley must be the latest favorite to display when she has extra pounds. Politicians are not exempt either. For a while, Ted Kennedy was singled out for the extra-pounds ridicule; more recently, it’s been one of the great leaders for good in our world, Al Gore.
We are doing a tragic disservice to children in our culture these days by allowing them to buy into the notion that the only really beautiful people are on stage or screen or runway or sports venue. Little girls especially, though little boys are not exempt by any means, are led to believe, overtly and subliminally, that beauty is the sole possession of the ultra thin; thus, we have children, especially girls as I’ve said, suffering severely from anorexia and bulimia all because much of society says, confirmed by fame and fortune, that only ultra thin is beautiful. Some of our children are dying while trying to become “beautiful” by this definition; others may not die while starving their bodies one way or another, but they establish the foundation for lifelong ill health because of food deprivation and/or constantly gagging themselves.
There’s another bunch of us who equate wealth with beauty. Anyone who is rich much also be beautiful, we assume. Thus, a television show like “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous” could be born and could be popular. It’s been a while since that show has come and gone, and I date myself by mentioning it; but the show was huge for a while. We worship wealth in our culture, and the have nots act as if the haves, the wealthy, are not only rich and beautiful, but also automatically wise. What is it Tevye sings in his song, “If I Were a Rich Man,” from Fiddler on the Roof?

The most important men in town will come to fawn on me.
They will ask me to advise them like Solomon the Wise:
“If you please Reb Tevye... Pardon me, Reb Tevye,”
Poising problems that would cross a Rabbi's eyes.
And it won’t make one bit of difference
If I answer right or wrong.
When you're rich they think you really know.

So where was Gardner going with this sermon theme? Here is where he was working to:

The beautiful people, truly beautiful, are those who have been led by Jesus to live in God, to dwell in God. This is our glory....Life can be beautiful, its succeeding stages and ages a glory, if we live in God. Stay close to God in sunshine and storm. Beneath the shadow of God’s throne, God’s saints forever dwell secure. Thus close to God, the beauty of the glory of the Lord our God will be upon us.

Back to the biblical passage from which Gardner made his sermon’s main point.
This so-called “High Priestly Prayer” of Jesus in John 17 is a mildly complicated scriptural segment mainly because Jesus is trying to establish the interconnectivity between and among God, the people whom Jesus had served and served with, and Jesus himself. The prayer affirms that Jesus and God are one; this is, one in purpose, goal, and mission. To the best of his ability to understand, Jesus had devoted himself entirely to what he came to believe God was about. Jesus never once pulled in his own direction, away from what he sensed was God’s will.
In this prayer, Jesus also affirmed the unity between him and his followers; as he and God were one in purpose, goal, and mission so also those who served with him, some of them anyway, were doing their best to be about exactly the same business Jesus had been about. Jesus also longed for there to be such unity among those who followed him, and such strength of unity, that their unity would be their key strength, next only to God’s ongoing presence with them, after Jesus was gone from this earth.
Words attributed to Jesus:

The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me (John 17:22-23 NRSV).

This is the basis of true human beauty--the glory of God lit within each human being who allows it. “Glory” initiates in God Godself. This glory came to Jesus because of the degree to which he opened himself up to the presence and reality of God within himself, and then Jesus in his ministry attempted to bring that glory to others like us. True human beauty can be seen in those who know the reality of God’s presence within themselves and open themselves up to its power.
Gospel of John scholar, Dr. Gail O’Day of Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, says this about the glory of God that, once we open ourselves to it makes us shine with true beauty: “...the character and identity of God are made known through Jesus’ love for God.” I think it is fair to say that we humans are not all we can be or could be, we are not fully ourselves, not fully human, really, until we embrace that deeper reality or that higher power that is God. That power is love, unconditional love, and when we have been embraced by unconditional love at our core so that we feel it and dare to live by its rule, we are aglow, and we become beautiful people though never in a way that will get us a photo shoot or listed on any journal’s compilation of the world’s most beautiful people. In fact, when we are filled with a sense of God’s love and open to God’s loving presence within us, those kinds of lists and designations are the least of our concerns. What matters to us then is sharing and living out that love.