Sunday, March 28, 2010




I.
Miriam was the older sister of Aaron and Moses.  Some sources suggest that Miriam was seven years older than Moses; other sources indicate that there was a greater age difference between them than that.
She is the first woman referred to as a prophet in Hebrew scripture as it now ordered.  Her story is one of many stories that make it absolutely clear the prophecy and preaching were never intended to be exclusively male domains.  Jewish tradition taught that Miriam had a yen for prophecy that showed up when she was still quite young; for example, before Moses’ birth Miriam prophesied to her parents that the child about to be born into their family would grow up to be the one to lead the Hebrews out of Egyptian bondage.
Despite the Pharaoh’s pronouncement of death to Hebrew children, which sent chills through the Hebrew population in Egypt (even though the midwives defied the Pharaoh’s order), Moses’ life was spared.  His mother put him during daylight hours in a little ark that floated among the bulrushes along the banks of the Nile; this was so that he couldn’t be found if the Egyptians searched their home.  Smart lady!  And this is the foundation of one of the beloved Bible stories appropriately told to children in Sunday School and Religious Education classes.
Miriam watched the little ark from dry land each day to make certain her baby brother was safe.  When the Pharaoh’s daughter spotted Moses in his ark while she was at the Nile bathing, it was Miriam who encouraged her to adopt “the abandoned child” and to employ as his nurse and nanny—unknown to the Pharaoh’s daughter—Miriam’s mother, Yocheved.  That’s exactly what happened, and, as a result, Moses was reared in the palace of the Pharaoh as a privileged Egyptian.
Many years later, after the Egyptians had made the Hebrews their enemies and their slaves rather than their friends, Moses led the Hebrews out of Egypt on a run for their lives.  When the waters of the Red (or Reed) Sea swallowed the Egyptian soldiers who were, by order of the Pharaoh, in pursuit of the escaping Hebrews, Miriam led the Hebrew women in songs and dances of celebration.  Clearly, there was much more to her prophetic career and role than that she led the Hebrew women to sing and dance in celebrating their liberation, but her song is an important part of Hebrew history and one of the bits of information we have about how music influenced the lives of God’s people.
Incidentally, there is no reason to assume that Miriam’s prophetic skills were used only among women.  We know that she felt no hesitation in advising both of her younger brothers, Aaron and Moses.  That could be said, though, about many a “big sister.”
At one point, she with Aaron gave too much advice and criticism to Moses in regard to his marriage to a Cushite woman.  It’s not clear whether she was unhappy that the woman was a non-Hebrew or that Moses was marrying a second wife, but it likely was the former.
The God of the book of Exodus punishes Miriam, but not Aaron; both were guilty so this seems quite unfair.  In any case, however, the God of Exodus afflicts Miriam with leprosy.  Until Aaron pleads for her healing, she is ill with the disease and, by law, forced to live outside the encampments apart from the “healthy” Hebrews.  It’s very important to note that Miriam was so highly respected, though, the Hebrews would not move on, on their journey until Miriam was well and could go with them.  
She is said to be the ancestor of Bezalel, the architect of the portable sanctuary used in the wilderness, and of King David.  According to tradition, as a result of Miriam’s righteousness, a well followed the people through the Hebrews’ wilderness wanderings and remained with them until she died.
Like Moses and Aaron, Miriam never entered the so-called “Promised Land”; she died before the Hebrews entered their destination.  Even so, Miriam is remembered by many Jewish groups, particularly Reform Jewish groups, as their annual Seder commemorations, which are parts of the larger celebration of the Feast of Passover.  Jesus was on his way to Jerusalem for the celebration of the Passover when the events many Christians recall on Palm Sunday took place.  At this time of year, it’s proper for even liberal Christians to remember Jesus’ last days on earth and why they were his last days.  Back to Miriam for now, though.
“Miriam's Cup” is a newer ritual for the traditional Passover seder.  A “seder” is a Jewish home or community service including a ceremonial dinner held on the first or first and second evenings of the Passover in commemoration of the Hebrew exodus from Egypt where they had been enslaved.  Its purpose is to honor the role of Miriam the Prophet in the Exodus and to highlight the contributions of women to Jewish culture, past and present.
An empty glass is filled, and the celebrant says something like this:  “A Midrash teaches us that a miraculous well accompanied the Hebrews throughout their journey in the desert, providing them with water. This well was given by G-d to Miriam, the prophetess, to honor her bravery and devotion to the Jewish people. Both Miriam and her well were spiritual oases in the desert, sources of sustenance and healing. Her words of comfort gave the Hebrews the faith and confidence to overcome the hardships of the Exodus.  We fill Miriam's cup with water to honor her role in ensuring the survival of the Jewish people. Like Miriam, Jewish women in all generations have been essential for the continuity of our people.  As keepers of traditions in the home, women passed down songs and stories, rituals and recipes, from mother to daughter, from generation to generation. Let us each fill the cup of Miriam with water from our own glasses, so that our daughters may continue to draw from the strength and wisdom of our heritage.”
When Miriam's cup is filled, goblets are raised, and the celebrant says: “We place Miriam's cup on our seder table to honor the important role of Jewish women in our tradition and history, whose stories have been too sparingly told.”
Rabbi Susan Schnur has written a prayer that many groups use to close the segment of the Seder devoted to Miriam:  “You abound in blessings, G-d, creator of the universe, who sustains us with living water. May we, like the children of Israel leaving Egypt, be guarded and nurtured and kept alive in the wilderness, and may You give us wisdom to understand that the journey itself holds the promise of redemption. AMEN.”



II.
The Song of Miriam was a lot like many songs sung in worship settings today.  God gets praised alright, but only as God is seen as blessing a nation, her nation and our nation, over against others that, presumably, God likes less than God likes her nation or our nation.

God bless America, land that I love.
Stand beside her, and guide her
Through the night with the light from above.
Then there’s:
My Native Country, Thee,
Land of the noble free
Thy name I love.
I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills; 
My heart with rapture thrills, like that above.
Our fathers' God, to thee, 
Author of liberty, to thee we sing; 
Long may our land be bright 
With freedom's holy light; 
Protect us by thy might, great God, our King.
And for Canada and Britain:
God save our gracious Queen,
Long live our noble Queen,
God save the Queen:
Send her victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us:
God save the Queen.
O Lord, our God, arise,
Scatter her enemies,
And make them fall.
Confound their politics,
Frustrate their knavish tricks,
On Thee our hopes we fix,
God save us all.
If we were to take nationalism out of American religion, most Americans would have no religion at all, and I’m sure that’s probably true in many nations where Christianity isn’t the most chosen religion.  Nonetheless, it’s powerfully the case here.
In preparation for last year’s end of school program, a third grade teacher in Florida taught her students the words to a country song by the group Diamond Rio, which the students, obviously, were supposed to sing at the concert.  I want to remind you that third graders are about nine years old at the end of their third grade studies.
Problems arose when one of the kids happened to go home and tell his parents about the song he was going to be singing at the end of year program.  The title of the song was “In God We Still Trust,” and did I mention that the school is a public school?  One journalist has called the song a new national anthem for Christians in the United States:

You place your hand on His Bible, when you swear to tell the Truth
His name is on our greatest Monuments, and all our money too,
And when we Pledge allegiance, there's no doubt where we stand,
There is no separation, we're one Nation under Him.
Now there are those among us, who want to push Him out,
And erase His name from everything, this country's all about,
From the Schoolhouse to the Courthouse, they're Silencing His Word,
Now it's time for all Believers, to make our Voices heard.
In God We Still Trust,
Here in America
He's the one we turn to every time
The goin' gets rough
He is the source of all our Strength
The One who watches over us
Here in America
In God We Still Trust

The parents of the kid who told pitched a fit; they are a non-religious family.  The parents threatened to file a lawsuit; actually, they did file it, but before all of that became clear the teacher told the kids they didn’t have to sing that song, that they were perfectly free to stay at home and not participate in the program at all.  The Superintendent of Schools stepped in and yanked the song from the program, but not before the lawsuit hit the courts.
Too late, really.  A federal judge had already banned even the practicing of the song as a part of school activities.  
Michelle Goldberg in her 2006 book, Kingdom Coming:  The Rise of Christian Nationalism, explained and warned:

Christian nationalists believe in a revisionist history, which holds that the founders were devout Christians who never intended to create a secular republic; separation of church and state, according to this history, is a fraud perpetrated by God-hating subversives. One of the foremost Christian revisionist historians is David Barton, who, in addition to running an organization called Wallbuilders that disseminates Christian nationalist books, tracts and videos, is also the vice-chairman of the Texas Republican Party. The goal of Christian nationalist politics is the restoration of the imagined Christian nation. As George Grant, former executive director of D. James Kennedy’s influential Coral Ridge Ministries, wrote in his book The Changing of the Guard:
“Christians have an obligation, a mandate, a commission, a holy responsibility to reclaim the land for Jesus Christ--to have dominion in civil structures, just as in every other aspect of life and godliness.
But it is dominion we are after. Not just a voice.
It is dominion we are after. Not just influence.
It is dominion we are after. Not just equal time.
It is dominion we are after.
World conquest. That’s what Christ has commissioned us to accomplish.”
Is that clear enough for us?  They claim to be led of God and empowered by God to rule this nation and, ultimately, the world.  Even though no form of democracy was known during the time any part of the Bible was written, these modern-day Christian nationalists believe that Christian democracy must prevail as the one and only form of government everywhere in the world.  
Dr. Mel Seesholtz calls Christian nationalism “the darkest side of religion.”  
God has been tied to politics from the beginning of a human awareness of God.  Yahweh was the Canaanite deity of metallurgy before the Hebrews adopted him and made him their one and only--deity, that is.  We don’t know what Yahweh had to say about any of this; for all we know Yahweh was perfectly happy being Lord over the Canaanite--you can substitute “Palestinian” if you wish--metal and ore workers.  Like it or not, though, the Hebrews took Yahweh, and when they were done with polytheism, they tossed the other deities they’d picked up along the way and kept Yahweh alone.
So identified were the Hebrews with their one and only God, then, meant that to take on the Hebrews was, in their minds, to take on their God.  Words from one of the psalmists:

Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the King of glory may come in.  Who is the King of glory? The Lord, strong and mighty, the Lord, mighty in battle.  Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the King of glory may come in.  Who is this King of glory? The Lord of hosts, he is the King of glory.
General Douglas MacArthur has been credited with saying that the two greatest symbols in American society are he cross and the flag.  Too bad for our American Jewish friends, huh?



III.
Here are some facts about the story of Miriam’s song that I think are worth nothing.  I hope they are meaningful to you as you embrace the story for your own inspiration.
Miriam had once been a slave too.  The stories of slavery weren’t just old tales told by her parents and grandparents to which she was unable to relate.  From the sounds of things, she was not separated from her family as were many of the Hebrew slaves and, by the way, as were many of the Africans who were sold and enslaved on land that we now call North America.
Given her plight, she was, indeed, delighted to have escaped her captors, and even if the forty years of wilderness wandering was more of a symbol of a really long time rather than an exact time count, still Miriam remembered what slavery had tasted like and had the right to celebrate having escaped it.
Hitler’s accomplices who were only doing what they were ordered to do when they put Jews to death during the Holocaust have still, many years later, been held accountable for their actions by various national and world courts.  I say this to say that while Miriam’s delight in the drowning of the Pharaoh’s armies ordered to retrieve the escaping Hebrews doesn’t sound like the high road in ethics and morality I dare you to find anyone today or in history who was nonchalant or neutral about death of someone or some group on the way to bring them harm.  
Miriam led the women in singing a song giving thanks to God that those sent by the Pharaoh to retrieve and return the Hebrews to Egypt and the oppression of slavery were drowned by what they took to be a direct act of God.  The women were singing nothing that the men hadn’t sung before them in terms of content, anyway.
The legend in song said that God opened up the Red Sea or the Sea of Reeds so that the escaping Hebrews could get to the other side unscathed and as dry as the desert itself.  It was quite poetic, really.

I will sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; horse and rider he has thrown into the sea. The Lord is my strength and my might, and he has become my salvation; this is my God, and I will praise him, my father’s God, and I will exalt him. The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name. “Pharaoh’s chariots and his army he cast into the sea; his picked officers were sunk in the Red Sea. The floods covered them; they went down into the depths like a stone. Your right hand, O Lord, glorious in power— your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy. In the greatness of your majesty you overthrew your adversaries; you sent out your fury, it consumed them like stubble. At the blast of your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea. The enemy said, “I will pursue, I will overtake, I will divide the spoil, my desire shall have its fill of them. I will draw my sword, my hand shall destroy them.” You blew with your wind, the sea covered them; they sank like lead in the mighty waters.
When the Hebrews got to the other side, the same God, they said, who had protected them closed the waters back up until the waters swallowed the soldiers along with their horses and chariots--even though most of those soldiers had nothing personal against the Hebrews; they were just doing what their Commander in Chief ordered them to do.  
By the way, the Egyptian army was a don’t ask/don’t tell force, but since all the soldiers wore mini-togas it was really impossible to tell which ones wanted to be their brothers’ keepers!  Since they rarely had opportunities to bathe, fraternizing was rare.
It’s noteworthy that while the men and the women were together singing the Song of Moses, which was a longer version of the Song of Miriam, there was no dancing and no instrumental accompaniment, at least none of mentioned.  When Miriam and the women only separated themselves from the men to praise God in their own way, they danced and punctuated the rhythm of their bring song with tambourines.  
There’s nothing unusual about the fact that the women danced and punctuated their rhythms with tambourines, which were also called frame drums and timbrels, by the way.  Today, we mean something quite different when we speak of timbrels.  What is ironic to me is that tambourines were also often sounded while soldiers were marching into battle.
Musicologists have proposed that the tambourines or timbrels used in the time of Miriam and Moses would have been quite a bit larger than the tambourines we use today.  They have had considerably more or considerably less jinglers.  The animal skin membrane stretched over the frame would almost certainly have been painted with a scene of import or a symbol.  
Frame drums such as the tambourine are among the most ancient percussion instruments to have ever been identified by archaeologists. They originated in the ancient Middle East, not in Egypt, and ultimately reached medieval Europe so when Miriam played her tambourine, it wasn’t a souvenir she’d picked up at a tourist trap in the land of the pyramids. 
Once in Europe, the tambourine began appearing in operas, ballets, and productions ever more frequently throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Used as an accompaniment to other musical instruments or dancers rather than as a solo instrument, the tambourine has developed a huge following for use in spiritual or ritual activities in our own time.
There are those who theorize that the tambourine began as an instrument of everyday people, but that in time the priests adapted it as an instrument of worship.  When that happened, everyday folk were discouraged from using tambourines.  Did Miriam the Prophet’s use of the tambourine to accompany the singing and dancing of what amounted to a war win lead to increased use of the tambourine in conventional worship, such as in the Temple--when there finally was one?
One wonders why the tambourine isn’t mentioned in Christian scripture.  Was dancing minimized as Hebrew worship turned into Christian worship?  That seems to have been the case. 
Vanessa L. Ochs wrote an article in 2005 called “Waiting for the Messiah, a Tambourine in Her Hand” for Nashim: A Journal of Jewish Women's Studies & Gender Issues.  It’s a fascinating article in which she recounts her experiences between March and July of 1994, the period just before and after the death of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneersohn.  “Rebbe” is the Yiddish rendering of the Hebrew “Rabbi.”  Lubavitcher Jews are a mystical sect established in Russia in the late eighteenth century and scattered across the world by tragedy and necessity.  The closest group to us, as far as I know, ended up in Morristown, New Jersey, where they founded the Lubavitch Rabbinical College.  
Vanessa Ochs was doing fieldwork among Lubavitch women as Rebbe Schneersohn appeared to be dying.  Many of the faithful Jews in the sect, including the women whom Ochs encountered, did not want him to die, and some believed he was the messiah who instead of dying would rise up as the deliverer long hoped for in mainstream Judaism.   
While attending their study sessions and prayer gatherings and visiting them in their homes, Ms. Ochs reports that she inadvertently discovered that a new ritual object emerging in the women's community:  the return of “Miriam's tambourine.”   Speaking broadly, Ochs said that she I observed that the tambourine enabled the creation of strong bonds between the women.  The rhythm of the tambourines channeled their anxiety about the possible death of their beloved spiritual leader, but the percussive sounds of the ancient instrument also expressed a longing for hope and deliverance, a longing for messiah.  
Whether in the strong hand of Miriam, once afflicted with leprosy but healed in time, or in the hands of the New Jersey women who wondered in modern times if messiah was a human being or the symbol for a God-infused world, the tambourine gave sound to the process of hearts opening in anticipation of possibility.
Amen.

Sunday, March 14, 2010





I.
The very last thing I would want to do in this sermon or in general conversation is to suggest in any way that a weakness is not really a weakness, that all weakness can be overcome by those who are strong enough or spiritual enough or smart enough, or that weakness is nothing more than a frame of mind.  “Weakness” is such a broad word that we need to be careful to define what we mean when we use it, and when we do that we may well be forced to say that there is a sense in which “weakness” is in the eye of the beholder--meaning, not everyone would agree that this affliction or that behavioral leaning is the opposite of strength.  
Poor ole Tiger Woods has been in treatment for sexual addiction because many people believe that having multiple affairs and sexual partners reveals moral and/or emotional weakness.  On the other hand, there are plenty of folks--probably mostly men admittedly--who are saying in response to his many “conquests” with deep admiration in their voices, “You go, mister!” 
I’ve heard people with physically limiting conditions refuse to take their challenge as a basis for or a sign of their weakness.  They know that others around them are feeling sorry for them and thinking of their condition as a weakness, but the person herself or himself absolutely does not.  
Then there are people who must contend with an undisputed weakness, but they find strength in other areas of their lives that helps them to deal with and/or compensate for the weakness with which they must live.  
A member of my church in Baltimore, Betty Lou Driver, insisted that her physical handicap was not a handicap, but a blessing.  With limitations walking and speaking, she nonetheless had a full career as a physical therapist.  
Here, Martha Brown is a four-time cancer survivor, and, yet, that is no impairment in any way to her full functioning.  She’s one of the most energetic, go-for-the-gusto people I’ve ever known.  
Some of the strongest people I know are those who do not give up in the face of health challenges.  Their bodies may weaken at times or for good, but their spirits never do.  Those of us who love someone going through a struggle of weakness may feel more weak than our loved because we are helpless to do anything concrete to relieve struggle or suffering.  I doubt that there’s anyone here today who hasn’t felt exactly what I’m describing.
While not in any way minimizing weakness in human experience, I want to say boldly today that weakness rarely does us in unless it weakens our body or our spirit to the extent that we are left without any real means to fight back.  Until that happens, weakness doesn’t have to be the main word, much less the last word, about us.  
One of Hemmingway’s characters in A Farewell to Arms says:  “The world breaks us all. Afterward, some are stronger at the broken places.”  The character didn’t say that when the pieces get put back together again the broken places are stronger because of the cement used to reshape.  The statement is that some are stronger at the very places that are broken and may remain broken.
Myron Madden was a gifted and much sought out pastoral counselor in New Orleans, a former pastor of my church, and an active member during my years down there.  So many people went to Myron for counseling and had such great success in therapy with him that I thought he could fix anything.  Once I referred a person to him who was depressed, and this was back when antidepressants generally caused one just to zone out so the person didn’t want medicines.  I assumed Myron would work his magic, and all would be well.
At church the next week he said, “Listen, try not to refer depressed people to me.  I don’t think I do a good with them because I’ve never been depressed.  The best therapists for depressives are those who themselves have worked thorough it or maybe who continue to battle it from time to time.”
Why do you suppose when you get involved in AA you are immediately assigned a sponsor who herself or himself has fought the battle of alcoholism?  In that twelve-step program you are never regarded as having been cured of alcoholism; even if you’ve been sober for 10 years you still identify yourself as an alcoholic.  The point, though, is that the best person to understand your weakness, your illness, is someone who is also afflicted by it.  At least, that sponsor has won a few battles with the disease.
Joe Stack who crashed his plane into the Austin, Texas, IRS building, leaving behind a scathing suicide note, from all indications let his anger build up inside him until it became out-of-control rage.  Ironically, no one who knew him, so most of the stories go, had any clue that a thing in the world was bothering him.  
Angela Ponivas is Executive Director of the Lincoln Lighthouse Counseling and Family Center in Lincoln, California.  After the Stack incident, she wrote of dangers to those who have problems but who do not seek help for them.  She writes in her article that asking for help is not a sign of weakness but rather a sign of strength.  She encourages people in her area of the country to take advantage of the free services they offer those who need help.  Then, she reports, and I really liked seeing this, that 1712 STRONG people came to her center in 2009 seeking help.  
Lois McMaster Bujold has one of her characters in A Civil Campaign ask the question, “If power was an illusion, wasn’t weakness necessarily one also?”  It’s an important question because there are various kinds of strength and weakness and because rarely in life is one in a position to have all strength and no weakness or, conversely, to be completely weak with no options for expressing strength.  King Saul, the first king among the ancient Hebrews, had power to the brim and everything under his control except some of the very things that make us all weak, those conditions or circumstances over which we have absolutely no control.  King Saul had a serious problem with debilitating depression, and the only solace to his soul was the harp music of a shepherd boy.  The mighty King was dependent on what a lowly shepherd could do for any relief from his recurring weakness.
Mary Magdalene, before she became the leader of Jesus’ women’s group from which she would move up to be the disciple whom Jesus trusted most, was very ill.  In her time and place in history, the cause of her illness was attributed to demon possession.  She might have had a mental or emotional disturbance; she might have suffered from epilepsy.  We don’t know, but we do know that she had the strength to seek Jesus out for healing, and he was, in fact, able to be the catalyst through which God healed Mary.  She became one of the strongest and most effective among all the first followers of Jesus.
I’m blown away by athletes who play basketball in their wheelchairs or runners who race with one artificial leg.  The blindness of Ray Charles never kept him from excelling as a pianist, a singer, and a beloved performer.  Beethovan, as you know, gradually lost his hearing until he had no hearing at all; yet he composed and played masterfully.
The prayer of a Chippewa native:

O Creator, whose voice I hear in the woods and whose breath gives life to all the world, hear me. I am a human before you, one of your many children. I am small and weak. I need your strength and wisdom. Let me walk in beauty, and make my eyes ever behold the red and purple sunsets. Make my hands respect the things you have made, my ears sharp to hear your voice. Make me wise so that I may know the things you have taught my people, the lessons you have hid in every leaf and rock. I seek strength, Creator--not to be superior to my brothers and sisters, but--to be able to fight my greatest enemy, myself. Make me ever ready to come to you with clean hands and a straight eye, so that when life fades like a fading sunset, my spirit may come to you without shame.
II.
Thorwald Lorenzen was the systematic theology professor at the Baptist Seminary in Switzerland when I when there to teach as a young barely experienced homiletician.  The warm reception I received from the whole faculty there was a great career moment, but Thorwald took more interest in my well-being and the well-being of my family than anyone else.  My boys were 1 and 3 when we arrived, and there were lots of adjustments for them and their parents.  Thowald and his wife, Jill, showed consistent concern about our successful settling in.
Thorwald is one of the most highly regarded scholars in the Baptist world and beyond.  In his teaching years, not only was he the much beloved Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics and on occasion Acting President of the Seminary in Rueschlikon, but also he was on the Human Rights Commission of the Baptist World Alliance.  He has traveled much of the world lecturing, preaching, and promoting human rights.  
When the Baptist fundamentalists were getting rid of all moderates and liberals in their colleges and seminaries around the world, Thowald like many others with no stomach for their witch hunts told them to kiss off.  He moved to his wife’s, Jill’s, home country of Australia and took up pastoral work.  He served for many years as the pastor of Canberra Baptist Church, in Australia’s capital city and in the shadow of the Australian Parliament building. 
He continued to take stands for human rights as he preached from his pulpit and lectured in several settings in that beautiful country.  He built a wonderfully progressive church there and retired along about the age of 70, not long ago.  His students, friends, and colleagues honored him with the festschrift, a book to recognize his contributions, and I was profoundly touched to have been asked to contribute a chapter to the book, that was released a few months ago.  The title of the book is Resurrection and Responsibility.  Thorwald continues to lecture regularly in his so-called retirement.
The Apostle Paul had a weakness for many years--maybe for most or all of his life.  He referred to it as his “thorn in the flesh.”  The speculation about exactly what his weakness was has been ongoing for centuries, and no one knows for sure what the weakness was.  Considering the material now available to us, we can’t know.  Hopefully, archaeologists will uncover a few more of Paul’s letters one of these days, and in one of them he will have given more details so we can know for sure what was up.
It was terribly painful for him, whatever the thorn in the flesh was.  One of the pastors of my childhood insisted that the thorn in the flesh was Paul’s mother-in-law, proving that Paul was married at some point in his life.  That is not a widely held view, and we know that Paul was not married when he began his ministry; if that ever changed, there’s no indication of it.
Unmarried or at least never married people were rare in the time of Paul and of Jesus, for that matter.  The strong implication that Paul never married mixed with this painful struggle that never left him has led Bishop John Shelby Spong to propose that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was his homosexuality, which Paul did not take as acceptable.  While Paul never did condemn homosexuality in general but rather homosexual improprieties such as pedophilia and men dressing like and otherwise acting like women, it was something he wouldn’t have wanted for himself.  He condemned promiscuity by either gender and by either sexual orientation.  By the way, since Paul wrote, we know that most pedophiles are not gay nor are most cross dressers!  The possibility that Paul might have been gay didn’t originate with Spong, but he has certainly been the voice of that possibility in our time.  
Another proposal is that Paul’s thorn in the flesh was his blindness.  If you know that story of Paul’s conversion to the God revealed by Jesus and the early Jesus movement, you know that Paul had a dramatic encounter as he rode his horse on a mission to persecute more Christians.  As a zealous Jew, that is what he did.  He was struck or nearly struck by lightening on this mission, and that lightening left him with, at best, very poor eyesight the rest of his life.  Paul was a very well educated person.  He had done a great deal of reading and study in his life, and while he would not have chosen to stop that, after the lightening incident he couldn’t read for himself; nor could he write except to be able to sign his name in large letters. 
Still another option, and I doubt it’s original even though I’ve never heard anyone else articulate it, is that the guilt he felt for having persecuted the early followers of Jesus, some of his witch hunts leading to deaths, ate at him all the time.  He constantly had to acknowledge to those who found out about his past that, yes, he had grievously wronged the followers of Jesus.  His regrets and apologies weren’t enough for some of the people he tried to serve, though.  They would have nothing to do with him.  They didn’t trust him.  How could you be a Jesus-hater one day, and a cheerleader for Jesus the next?  What do we say about people who appear to have completely changed their behavioral patterns?  We are suspicious of them.  We say, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”  “A leopard can’t change its spots.”  And with their own suspicions and proverbial sayings, they said the same thing.  
I wonder, then, if Paul’s thorn was his inability to let go of his past.  I wonder if Paul was ever able to forgive himself.  Guilt and self-condemnation can be extraordinarily painful and destructive.  Lady Macbeth couldn’t get over her role in a murder, and she eventually began to rub her hands together all the time as if washing them.  She could see blood stains on her hands that weren’t physically there.  “Out damned spot. Out I say!” she cried, but in her mind the stains never left.
Whatever the thorn in the flesh was, it was the number one drain on his positive energy flow.  It impaired his functioning at an emotional and perhaps a physical level.  He fretted over it much of the time, and he no doubt did everything he possibly could do to make it go away.  He was entirely unsuccessful.  The thorn, the weakness, never went away.  He lived, and, as far as we know, he died with the malady.
The way the gospel is preached in many parts of our country and world today, an unresolved personal crisis is something that could only plague those who don’t have their lives right with God and/or those who don’t pray effectively or properly about their plight.  Having not moved even a baby step ahead of where Jesus’ own uninformed or misinformed disciples were, though challenged by Jesus himself to change their views, there are those today who view a lingering illness, physical or mental, as some kind of punishment from God.  If you want to know what true heresy is, my friends, that is it.  It’s not your view of the Bible or your view of how Jesus is related to God whatever your view happens to be; it’s attributing tragedy to the God of love.  That is utter heresy. 
Some few strands in the Christian movement have a gospel for chronic crisis--the kind that isn’t going away from all indications.  Most of modern Christianity has bought into a deliverance gospel that goes hand in hand with prosperity gospel.  The bold claims of such groups are that with proper prayer and attitudes, lingering illness and poverty are left only for those who are not in good with God.  Said another way, anything that comes along in life that is disruptive or destructive will only hang around in the lives of those who fail properly to ask God to take away their challenge.  
I was once hired to be an associate pastor for a year in order to work with a pastor whose wife had what appeared to be terminal cancer.  He wasn’t able to keep up with all the work that needed to be done so I was added, just after college, to the staff.  
A small group of fundamentalists--some of them members of the church I served and some of their friends--managed to get through the “No Visiting” warnings and into her hospital room.  Her name was Jeannie Cullum, the sister in law of the Broadway star, John Cullum.  They told Jeannie that her cancer would not go away because there was some unforgiven sin in her life and that if she would find that sin, name it, and beg God to forgive her she would be healed.  
That lovely woman left this world with that heresy ringing in her consciousness.  If she had only been able to find that sin and ask forgiveness for it she wouldn’t be dying the intruders had told her, and in her weakened condition she was too weak to resist their brainwashing exercise.   
III.
Dr. E. Glenn Hinson, who gave me the sermon topic a couple of weeks back, had a thorn in the flesh.  As a rather young seminary professor he began to lose his hearing, and then some malady attacked his vocal mechanism.  He was not able to make the clear vocal sounds he’d been accustomed to making.  So there he was.  Teaching was clearly his calling, but how could he function in the classroom if he couldn’t hear his students’ questions and if they had to struggle to understand him speak?  It was a huge shake up for him, and the fear of what might become rattled Glenn in his depths.  
He did not go deaf, but he has very little hearing.  With his hearing aids and his lip-reading skills he gets by wonderfully.  His vocal problems improved to make him able to speak functionally, though not with the voice that was there before the attack.  He has forged on with his amazing career, in part, because he refused to give up. But did it ever become easy to have to operate without optimal hearing and speaking capabilities?  No, it did not.
In the middle of coming to grips with these losses, Glenn said that he prayed just as the Apostle Paul prayed to have his torn in the flesh removed.  He has a sermon on this subject; I’ve heard him preach it several times.  I shed tears every time I hear it.  He calls the sermon, “The Answer to Unanswered Prayer.”
Paul could not solve his dilemma himself so he made it a matter of fervent prayer.  He begged and pled with God to heal it or take it away, but those prayers were never answered; or if they were, God had to have been saying something like, “I regret your pain, but this is something I can’t reverse for you.”
Paul, though once an enemy of the Jesus Movement, had left behind his anger and resentment toward Christians and become one of them.  Talk about great reversals!
Once he was an insider in the Jesus Movement, he quickly moved up the leadership ladder and in the minds of some became one of the exemplary Christians of his time.  Paul himself wouldn’t really have disagreed with such an assessment of himself.  He made it clear when he needed to that he had bragging rights based on how he’d turned his life around, embraced Jesus’ take on God, and gave himself completely to advanced spirituality.  
He could tell about having either a vision or an actual out of body experience where he entered the very abode of God.  Who could top that?  No one, really.  So if Paul wanted to pull rank in a leadership issue or a theological discussion, he wasn’t above reminding people that experience, which generally shut up detractors on the spot.
The corollary of that spiritual high, if you will, is that he deserved a little more on his spiritual journey than someone who’d never had such a profound spiritual experience.  So there was a disconnect, a painfully dissonant feeling within himself trying to deal with his life-changing spiritual experience and the fact that his thorn in the flesh wouldn’t go away.  It was supposed to go away because he was so devoted to God.  You see how he thought, don’t you, and many after him including many today think along exactly the same lines.
Things absolutely don’t work out that way, friends, and anybody--liberal or conservative--eventually has to sit down, look at life, and say, “Well, bad things do, in fact, happen to good people, God’s people, too.”  You’ll notice that when you get registered for hospital admission, the clerk never, ever asks you, “So what did you do to PO God and get yourself landed in here?”
Higher ups tend not to see themselves as having to beg and plead about anything.  An order or a simple request is supposed to get things done for them.  President Obama doesn’t have to get down on his hands and knees to have somebody take pity on him and bring him some breakfast or an extra strength Tylenol.  I have heard that the only time Obama begs is when he’s trying to get Vice President Biden to think before he speaks.
Paul saw himself as one of God’ elite.  Simple prayers for healing or relief didn’t work.  Gradually those prayers intensified, and Paul was out and out begging for God to make whatever troubled him go away.  In addition to whatever was bothering him incessantly his self-image took a beating.  He felt humiliated that he of all people had a physical or emotional weakness that wouldn’t go away.
It’s like the faith healer, Leroy Jenkins, who as far as I know is still kicking.  Jenkins has a lisp.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with having a lisp, and making fun of someone who does is a low thing to do.  But don’t you think that a faith healer should get healed of a lisp before taking to the microphones and the airways?
Paul, too, had bought into the notion, at least to some degree, that being right with God, more or less, meant an escape from the trials and tribulations common to the rest of us non-elites.  Sad for Paul that he not only did not know Jesus personally, but had never read a single completed Gospel written about Jesus--except for the very, very remote possibility that Paul had read the Gospel of Mark, the only one of the four passed down to us that might have been available for Paul to have read to him before Rome executed him in 62 or 63.  
Had Paul known more about Jesus and about how Jesus operated and what he taught, Paul would have known that Jesus vigorously refuted the notion that conditions of suffering are caused by the sin of an individual or, in the case of infants and small children, by the sins of their parents or further-back ancestors.  
In looking back on the thorn that never left him, Paul decided that he had been too arrogant, and the thorn had been given to him by God to keep him humble.  That’s also a bunch of hooey.  
What Paul in his pleading prayers finally heard from God is what Dr. Hinson called the answer to unanswered prayers.  “My grace is sufficient for you, for power or strength is made perfect in weakness.”  Some ancient manuscripts make it clear that God is saying here that it is God’s power that is made perfect in human weakness, not human power made perfect in weakness.  That’s a mind blower, what it means is not that God gets stronger when God attends to human weakness, but rather than this is how God sees the proper use of God’s power; that’s what it’s for.  Helping hold us up when we cannot hold up ourselves. 
Going through some horrendous experience that leaves me weak for life doesn’t make me strong though I may well show signs of strength as I wrestle with and struggle with the residuals that never leave me. When, then, Paul concludes this message by saying, “When I am weak I am strong,” he doesn’t mean his weakness morphs to strength though we’d all have to admit that having to deal with something we’d rather not have to cope with often makes us stronger. 
What Paul means is that God’s power, God’s strength, embraces him in his weakness, and that is what makes him strong.  The strength of God on which he leans is what makes him strong. The twist is that unless we are strong enough to admit our weakness, and I’d throw in done all within our power to fix it, we will not benefit from God’s underlying strength because nothing from or about God is ever forced upon us.  
To all of you who feel weak today, at any level and whether your weakness is related to something within yourself or related to the helplessness you feel to lift up someone dear to you struggling with her or his own weakness, our inherent strength is not insignificant, but only goes so far.  In the colossal upsets of life, our only hope of strength is to fall into God’s own strength.
Martin Luther asked in the words to his most famous hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” “Did we in our own strength confide?”  And he answers, “Our striving would be losing.” 
Saying or singing the words to another old hymn is not a sign of weakness:  

I need Thee; O, I need Thee!
Every hour I need Thee.
O bless me now my Savior.
I come to Thee.
Amen.

Sunday, March 07, 2010




I.
My older son’s partner, Joseph Faura, heard about my sermon topic for today, and he sent me an article, “Addicted to Nonsense,” by Chris Hedges.  It was absolutely on target.  So, Chris Hodges:

Celebrity worship has banished the real from public discourse. And the adulation of celebrity is pervasive. The frenzy around political messiahs, or the devotion of millions of viewers to Oprah, is all part of the yearning to see ourselves in those we worship. We seek to be like them. We seek to make them like us. If Jesus and The Purpose Driven Life won’t make us a celebrity, then Tony Robbins or positive psychologists or reality television will. We are waiting for our cue to walk onstage and be admired and envied, to become known and celebrated. Nothing else in life counts.
Celebrity worship we can’t deny, but most of us hadn’t paused long enough to realize, as Hodges has, that part of the lure of celebrity worship is to keep us from facing reality.  Maybe some of that isn’t so bad, but when we decide that we want to be one of those celebrities more than anything in the world, then Hodges has hit it head on:  nothing else in life counts.  
About three years ago, the Pew Research Center released the results of a study it had done of 18 to 25 year olds in our country.  Among the findings, there were these:  “Eighty-one percent...said getting rich is their generation’s most important or second-most-important life goal; 51% said the same about being famous.”  Most of these young people want to be rich and famous; half of them are happy to be rich without the fame.  
An interesting thing about being a celebrity, while it lasts, is that rarely does everybody like you.  There are fans, and there are detractors.  Beloved actors may well get harpooned by a movie or a theatre review. There are book reviews that seem to have set out to ruin many a writer in the public’s eye, and athletes showing signs of wear and tear get put down on the spot by sports commentators--some of whom may have once played the sport being watched, but most of whom never played the sport except maybe in someone’s back yard years ago.
We are so engrossed with celebrities in this culture that every little fact we can glean about our favorites we savor.  Hollywood gossip shows fill the just-prior-to-primetime slots, and National Enquirer continues to sell like hotcakes in a time when most other print publications are losing ground, at least in their print editions.  The National Enquirer specializes in producing information embarrassing to celebrities.  Its investigators aren’t above digging through celebrity trash hoping to uncover some deep dark secret, and its photographers will go anywhere including to the places where anyone needs absolute privacy--to hospitals and to cemeteries and funeral homes for a glimpse of how celebrities grieve.
Having arrived at celebrity in our culture, maintaining it isn’t all fun and games; nor is keeping it, assured by any means.  How quickly it can be lost.  Few people can get there and stay there just on the strength of a name.  Most have to keep proving themselves to a rather fickle public.  If your athletic prowess made your name a household word, you have to keep performing to stay in the good graces of the crowds; once you start losing it, even a little bit, most of your fans turn on you or, at least, forget about you in pursuit of someone else to faun over or worship.  Your second book had better be as good or almost as good as your first if you want to ride the waves of adulation, sell lots of books, and keep the publisher treating you as if you’re somebody.  If your pretty face got you your fame, you have to keep that face pretty; thus, you are likely these days to have a happy relationship with a plastic surgeon.  Male and female, plastic surgery is no respecter of gender!  
Kenny Rogers has had so many plastic surgeries all over his body that he calls himself “the bionic man.”  According to a recent article in Yahoo News, Kenny regrets being plastic in so many places.
Joan Rivers, on the other hand, has no regrets about any one of her nine plastic surgeries.  As a matter of fact, she spills the details in her latest book, pardon the crassness of the title:  Men Are Stupid... and They Like Big Boobs: A Woman's Guide to Beauty Through Plastic Surgery.   There are chapters on various types of plastic surgery about which Joan has first hand information.  There’s a Botox chapter, a plump lips chapter, and a chapter on wrinkles called, “Filler Up.”  By the way, if you think I actually own this book, we need to have a chat during coffee hour.  I paroused it at Borders!
There’s a kind of sad progression of the typical movie star’s career since very few stars have a long-term opportunities on the big screen.  So, the progression goes something like this:  movie star, TV star, absence from the spot light for a while, game show regular, annual visitor to the TV Land reunion, maybe a tour with a  theatre company that hits the smaller cities and towns in the land, and, finally, a tell-all book.  
I saw something that I found really sad a few years ago.  The once wildly popular singer and actor, Robert Goulet, winner of an Oscar and an Emmy and a Grammy, lost ground as he aged in terms of his celebrity.  I think the last role he played was on some television show I can’t now recall, and his character was a washed up show business personality.   
Aging doesn’t always mean a loss of fans and fading celebrity status.  Betty White is an older actress now, and she may be more popular now than ever.  A fairly young crowd makes up the Saturday Night Live audience, and there’s been a push for some time, maybe even a petition, to have her invited to be the guest host of a Saturday Night Live episode.  I rarely watch Saturday Night Live because I like to turn in kind of early on Saturday evenings for obvious reasons, but if I heard that Betty White was going to be on, I’d lose the sleep to see her!
Celebrities these days must be willing to have crazed fans constantly prying into their personal lives in every way possible.  They have to be careful about the people with whom they’re seen, about being seen in public without makeup, about weight gain, or even about dressing in such a way as to make the wrong fashion statement.  The loss of one’s true privacy is a huge price to pay, but plenty are willing to give it up to be in the spotlight for as long as possible.  
Most of you have heard Andy Warholl’s statement from 1968:  “In the future, everyone will be world-famous for 15 minutes.”   We hear frequently today of someone’s fifteen minutes of fame.  Now, often this fame comes for a reason that most of us and most others as well wouldn’t want to be known for.  A murderer in our culture gets lots of media attention and, thus, becomes a famous person; many achieve celebrity status and are given book deals to write their gruesome stories for big publishers.  
I believe that unless a serious criminal is being released or has escaped from prison, we shouldn’t have their names and faces pictured all over televisions and newspapers.  This is the sick payback many of them wanted.  Capital crimes should be reported without giving the names or the pictures of the criminals who committed them.  
In 2006, Time magazine ran an article titled, “How to Get Famous in 30 Seconds.”  The answer?  In brief, post a wild video on the internet; if web surfers like it then you become famous.  You remain famous until interest wanes, and it’s nearly impossible to keep that from happening.
Jesus said, “...whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10 43-44 NRSV).  Oops!  Definitely not the kind of celebrity lifestyle we have in mind!  
Jesus said, “For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11 NRSV).  See, Jesus will never find a place on “American Idol,” either among the contestants or on the panel of judges!
II.
John Killinger is one of the great preachers and one of the great writers on religious themes in our time.  Many of you know that I love John for lots of reasons, most importantly for his signature; it was his signature that confirmed final approval of my doctoral dissertation.  Our school required that someone with an advanced degree but not on our faculty had to approve the dissertation along with the three resident faculty members who made up the committee of instruction.  That’s a very selfish reason to hold the man in such high esteem, isn’t it?  There’s much more.
John became kind of mentor to me after that, and then over the years a friendship developed.  Those of you who were here when I first came will remember that John came to preach and teach at Silverside as our first Visiting Scholar.  He was enthusiastically received.
Dr. John Killinger is now officially retired from any institution to which he might be obligated--having been a pastor and a professor at several places across the country.  He did come out of this faux retirement a few years ago to serve as Executive Minister and Theologian in Residence at the Marble Collegiate Church, where Norman Vincent Peale served so long.
He’s busy with writing and speaking all over these days.  I think he has written sixty books so far, and more are in the offing.  His most recent book as far as I know is The Other Preacher in Lynchburg:  My Life Across Town from Jerry Falwell.  Killinger was pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, for several years.  He sparred heavily with his neighbor, Falwell.
He stirred a lot of Baptists up last year when he was a guest speaker at one big Baptist-wanna-be-moderate gathering, and he told the crowd that the modern church needed to stop preaching that Jesus was God incarnate.  Wow!
John is one of those super smart people with two earned doctorates--one in theology and one in literature.  I had the privilege recently to write a letter of recommendation on his behalf to the University of Kentucky, from where he earned his second doctorate, which is now considering the possibility of awarding John an honorary doctoral degree.  
Was Jesus a celebrity?  I’d say, “Yes,” but probably not for the reasons that traditionalists want to advance.
Even though Jesus was dwarfed in his lifetime by the powerful political luminaries, he still achieved celebrity status as I see it, and that was no easy feat for someone living in a world of political stars who tried to hog all the fame there was.  Thankfully, in our country all of our politicians are in their jobs because they want to serve the citizens without any thought of personal recognition.
The major world personality in Jesus’ day was the emperor or caesar of Rome.  Everyone else’s power and renown faded in comparison to his.  The Roman emperor during Jesus’ adult life was Tiberius, Tiberius Caesar.  He called all the shots for everyone prominent and everyone powerless living anywhere in the mighty, expanding Roman Empire.  Tiberius was quite the powerful personality.  
Tiberius was a busy guy so he had to send emissaries to represent him, his interests and his power in places a distance from  where he lived in Rome.  Pertaining to the Jews, that meant Pontius Pilate was the face of the Emperor and Roman power.  Like his Emperor, Pilate was also a powerful personality.
Within Judaism, Jesus’ chosen religion, Jesus’ celebrity was dwarfed by Herod Antipas, one of the tetrarchs appointed by Rome to govern in specifically Jewish matters--Jews ruling over Jews; and Caiphas, the High Priest, the head person in regard to Jewish religion; he also was appointed by Rome.  If allegiance to Rome was in question for either of these men, they’d be gone in a heartbeat, but while they were puppets to Rome in many respects they still wielded considerable power among the Jews themselves, Jesus included.  Prominent politicians in Jesus’ day took center stage in the realm of the rich and famous.  Politicians can be  overwhelmingly popular.  In the modern world, they can actually hire people whose job it is to keep them popular.
There are professionals called publicists whose jobs are to keep the media focused favorably on their clients, and politicians hire these people too, as I mentioned.  When working for politicians they’re called handlers or spin doctors.  In case of a botch up, the publicist attempts to present information to the media so that a really bad choice can look like it was actually a solid decision.
Think about how hard Tiger Woods’s publicists worked to keep him looking like a fresh-faced, innocent, all American lad.  That kinda sorta worked as long as the mistresses could be counted on only one hand.  
Poor ole Governor David Paterson is in a heap of trouble, and his publicists are jumping ship.  His main handler, Peter Kaufmann, has turned away too.  His words as he resigned were rather damning to Paterson:

I have been honored to serve the people of New York during a difficult time in our state’s history.  As a former officer in the United States Navy, integrity and commitment to public service are values I take seriously.  Unfortunately, as recent developments have come to light, I cannot in good conscience continue in my current position.  I have notified the Governor that I am resigning as Director of Communications.

Ouch!  In the end the message, I suppose, is that fame will no longer keep one from public scrutiny.  There was a day when that was not the case; no more and never again.
Jesus became a celebrity when and where the field was too crowded by the four politicians I’ve already mentioned whose images were guarded and polished vigorously.  The reasons Jesus became a celebrity are related to the roles he performed.  Jesus was a faith healer and a miracle worker.  He was an alternative preacher and a rabble rouser.  He was a friend to the excluded, and he was, subtly, a dissident.  
Jesus was indeed a faith healer and a miracle worker; these gifts more than any others he had, made him a celebrity.  In several serious situations, he was able to make sick people well, and according to the stories passed around about him he also multiplied food for the masses and calmed waves at sea.  What he did, not only gave hope to sick and fearful people and kept the crowds coming in larger and larger groups but also what he did was excellent entertainment.  He was not the only faith healer and miracle worker in his day, but he was one of the most noted and sought after.
In a post-resurrection appearance to the inner circle, Doubting Thomas finally comes around and confesses his belief in the God he had seen in Jesus’ life and in the God who had brought Jesus through the experience of death.  The Gospel of John’s Jesus responds to Thomas’ faith statements with a bit of a challenge to Thomas and for all of those who overhear the scene in subsequent generations.  “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”  
“Seeing is believing,” Thomas had said.  Jesus turned that around and said, “Actually, Thomas, believing is seeing.”
Jesus longed to have his message accepted on the basis of his person and his message’s power, but he knew that most of the people who heard him and indicated that they believed in him, in what he had been about, believed because he had performed miracles.  When he stopped that, the crowds paid him no mind.  
I also said that he was an alternative preacher and a dissident.  An “alternative preacher” is someone who doesn’t preach the approved message from the points of view of the tradition holders.  She or he breaks with tradition when a new insight comes upon her or him regardless of what has been believed and taught about that subject in the past.  Someone willing to do that is very often accused of being a dissident, a rebel, a trouble maker; and she or he often is.  Even so, those who don’t preach the status quo and who are accused by traditionalists of missing the mark will get a following; they too can become celebrities for bucking the system.  
Jesus was a bit of a rabble rouser though he never encouraged his followers to do anything other than to obey Roman laws.  There were ways to keep the laws and still make the Romans look inept, though, and he definitely encouraged this.  There are those who like speakers who encourage hearers not just to sit back and take abuse, and it is precisely these folks who make a rabble rouser a celebrity.  
Jesus was also a celebrity because he was a friend to the excluded.  Most cultures find a way to admire those who give their all serving the down and out; this is proof that one doesn’t have to be rich to be famous.  In fact, one can be very poor and famous, very poor and highly influential IF she or he calls the attention of others to the plight of the suffering.  This is why Mother Teresa was so publicized in her later years.  She gave her life, literally, serving the poor.  Jesus did the same.  No one, Jesus proclaimed  going against popular theological understanding among the Jews of his day, is beyond the reach of God’s love.  Those who are suffering poverty and physical impairments are not being punished by God.  Jesus taught the people at the periphery that they counted too--to him and to God.  Not only that, but also in God’s Empire the outcasts would be prominent citizens.  Those who were excluded from mainstream life because of biases and prejudices of the power people loved Jesus for preaching that message, and this added to his celebrity.







III.
Jesus was a celebrity, but he was also a real person; and that’s exactly why many of us are still drawn to him.  He was one of us except that he was able to stay intensely focused on God.  His celebrity status didn’t make him snooty or arrogant.  He preferred the company, as a matter of fact, of the common folk.
In this era of celebrity worship, how can one be a real person, whether or not one is a celebrity?  The foundational answer to that important question is that real people are who they actually are, not who they pretend to be.  Pretense is the sign, the red flag, that the person we have encountered is not a real person.  Oscar Wilde who paid heavily for being himself said in his very biting but on target way:  “Most people are other people.  Their thoughts are someone else's opinions, their lives a mimicry, their passions a quotation.” 
Many of you know the wonderful story, The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams.  If you don’t know, the Velveteen Rabbit finds himself in the unenviable position of being put away in the toy closet when newer, flashier toys are added to the little boy’s toy collection.  He is chosen for play less often than before.

The Skin Horse had lived longer in the nursery than any of the others. He was so old that his brown coat was bald in patches and showed the seams underneath, and most of the hairs in his tail had been pulled out to string bead necklaces. He was wise, for he had seen a long succession of mechanical toys arrive to boast and swagger, and by-and-by break their mainsprings and pass away, and he knew that they were only toys, and would never turn into anything else. For nursery magic is very strange and wonderful, and only those playthings that are old and wise and experienced like the Skin Horse understand all about it.
“What is REAL?” asked the Rabbit one day....”Does it mean having things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”
“Real isn't how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It's a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.”
“Does it hurt?” asked the Rabbit.
“Sometimes,” said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. “When you are Real you don't mind being hurt.”
“Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,” he asked, “or bit by bit?”
“It doesn't happen all at once,” said the Skin Horse. “You become. It takes a long time. That's why it doesn't happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don't matter at all, because once you are Real you can't be ugly, except to people who don't understand.”
There are those who say that until we risk becoming real we can never be truly free, which makes perfect sense because if we are bound to live by the perceptions and expectations of others we can lose ourselves entirely.  Real people have nothing to hide and nothing to defend, in the words of Gini Grey.  This is one of several reasons that gays and lesbians in the military want to get rid of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” rule.  Lots of situations in the military are about as raw as life can get--being in a combat situation, for example. Who wants to have to pretend when life is on the line?  
Even in every day life, who wants to have to pretend to be something she or he isn’t?  I’m sure there may be a few who enjoy that, but most people don’t want it and can’t stand it, which is why many who do try crack.
Being real today takes more courage than any other way of living any of us can commit to.  The reason is that celebrity status prevails at lesser levels too.  Not to adopt the perspectives and the ways of those getting the most admiration, such as the most popular kids at school or the professional colleague with whom the boss is utterly enamored, is to risk alienation if not rejection.  There are those in religious communities who pretend to believe what they can’t believe and pretend to have had spiritual experiences that they haven’t really had so they won’t be branded an outsider in a group they, for whatever reason, want to be a part of.  Thus, lots of people aren’t real at all in their lives away from home, if there.  “To be nobody but yourself,” wrote e. e. cummings, “in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight; and never stop fighting.”
Healthy religious and spiritual teachings and practices help us first and foremost to be real.  We find our way into the love of God not by pretending to be someone we aren’t, but precisely by being real warts and all.  The truth, Jesus said, will make you free.  
 Amen.