Friday, July 6, 2012

Super Stars

NOTE: These weekly musings are prepared as sermons for the blessed remnant at North Baptist Church in Port Chester, N.Y. -- a small but gracious group of folks who indulgently tolerate most anything they hear. May their tribe increase. P.E.J.

Celebrity and charisma.

These are two of the more overworked words in our modern lexicon, and both are difficult to define.

The words come to mind because the Revised Common Lectionary for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost offers two interesting variations on biblical charisma.

The first, from 2 Samuel 5, takes us to King David’s salad days when he was heroic and popular and exuding contagious optimism in his first days as undisputed monarch. The second, from Mark 6, returns us to an awkward moment in Jesus’ ministry when the people who knew him best – his family and friends – couldn’t believe he was special. Quite the opposite. When they saw him acting all Messiah like on the street, they were appalled and contemptuous.

What can we learn about celebrity and charisma from these distinctly polar episodes?

When I was a reporter for the Pottstown, Pa., Mercury, covering an occasional trial at the Montgomery County Courthouse in Norristown, one of the regular journalists was Jay Lloyd, the suburban bureau chief for KYW News Radio.

KYW, like 1010 WINS in New York, had millions of listeners so Jay’s voice was immediately recognizable throughout the Philadelphia area.

Physically, Jay is unremarkable. He’s short with a prominent schnoz and a mop of thinning white hair. When I knew him his hair was steel gray and he wore it like a furry lampshade covering his ears. He wore a suit and tie – unusual for a radio personality – and if you saw him in the courthouse hallway you might think he was a jury clerk. You probably wouldn’t give him a second look.

A few years before I worked for the Mercury I was director of communication for American Baptist Churches in Valley Forge. One steamy summer the Ku Klux Klan decided to hold a rally in Valley Forge National Park adjacent to the Baptist offices. The Baptists issued a press release to say the Klan was evil, ignorant, racist, and repugnant, but entitled to meet in the park under the protection of the First Amendment. Many editors and producers thought that was an unusual stance and they sent their reporters to our offices to cover the story.

One afternoon a short, shaggy-haired guy with a double-knit sports jacket and beige shoes wandered through our door. He stood in front of the receptionist’s desk and waited patiently while the woman talked on the phone. Sleepily, she looked up at him and saw no reason to hurry her conversation.

A minute later she put down the phone and stifled a yawn.

“Can I help you?” she asked.


The little guy’s stentorian voice filled the room and the woman recognized it immediately.

“Aren’t you – aren’t you …?


The woman, who was nearly 6 feet tall, arose giddily as all vestiges of sleepiness vanished. Jay craned his neck upwards to maintain eye contact.

“Jay Lloyd!” she cooed. “I listen to you all the time!”


“I love your voice!”


The woman began sorting through papers on her desk. She produced a pink message pad and held it out to Jay.

“Would you sign this please?”

Jay beamed. Radio news guys don’t often get that question. He scribbled happily on the pad.

I assume Jay got to speak to the general secretary or some other Baptist spokesperson, but all I remember is his brief encounter with the office receptionist. It illustrates how difficult it is to define celebrity and charisma. One moment he was an annoying interruption to a receptionist’s day. The next he was a famous media guy and the receptionist would spend the rest of the afternoon telephoning her friends to tell them, “I met Jay Lloyd!”

Possibly, celebrity and charisma are not qualities you have as much as attributes people project on to you. If you don’t know someone is famous, you may not notice that person’s exceptional qualities.

Years ago in New York I boarded an El Al 747 to Tel Aviv. As I fastened my seatbelt I noticed the flight attendants were staring deferentially at a middle-aged man dragging his suitcase down the aisle. As the unassuming man trudged past succeeding rows of seats, the passengers would stop talking and gape at him.

He was a pleasant enough looking chap but I couldn’t place him. Perhaps he was a notorious Israeli counterfeiter or Golda Meir’s illegitimate son.

I gestured to one of the stewards. “What’s going on?” I asked.

She leaned down so she wouldn’t have to shout. “That’s so-and-so,” she said, uttering a name I had never heard and don’t remember. I shook my head quizzically, and she added emphatically: “He’s the Elvis Presley of Israel!”

As I turned back to look for him, some of the passengers applauded quietly as he passed.

I’m not sure how to interpret the comparison of an Israeli singer to Elvis. If this had been a domestic flight and the real Elvis walked down the aisle (he was still alive at the time), I am sure the passengers would have been more effusive in their greeting, probably screaming and shouting greetings to the King. But fame and charisma – and our response to fame and charisma – defy explanation.

It’s also true, I think, that our response to a famous person depends on our familiarity with them; the more familiar we are, the less excited we will get. Former President Harry Truman was virtually ignored by his neighbors in Independence, Mo., when he took his morning walks because to them he wasn’t the erstwhile leader of the free world: he was just Harry.

One might even assert that familiarity may breed contempt. “No man is a hero,” goes the old saw, “to his wife.” (Variations on that bit of dubious wisdom include, “No man is a hero … to his valet … to his domestic partner … to his wife’s psychiatrist … to his sled dogs …” Of course you can switch the gender for clarity. “No woman is a hero to her pubescent daughter … teenage son … Brazilian waxer ...”)

In the passages offered by the lectionary, these principles appear to apply to two of the bible’s most charismatic figures.

King David is one of the Bible’s unabashed super heroes. Even before he was anointed king, he had slain the giant Goliath with a primitive sling shot, commanded armies that produced many victories over the Philistines, and eluded plots by King Saul to eliminate him, all while forming a band of merry men and assuming a Robin Hood role to bring justice to the poor and oppressed. When David’s nemesis King Saul and his comrade and possible domestic partner Jonathan were killed in battle at Mt. Gilboa, he had little time to mourn. David was the obvious heir to the throne, and the people loved him. He was charismatic and he made their hearts beat faster.

Then all the tribes of Israel came to David at Hebron, and said, “Look, we are your bone and flesh. For some time, while Saul was king over us, it was you who led out Israel and brought it in. The LORD said to you: It is you who shall be shepherd of my people Israel, you who shall be ruler over Israel.”
So all the elders of Israel came to the king at Hebron; and King David made a covenant with them at Hebron before the LORD, and they anointed David king over Israel.
David was thirty years old when he began to reign, and he reigned forty years.
At Hebron he reigned over Judah seven years and six months; and at Jerusalem he reigned over all Israel and
Judah thirty-three years.
David occupied the stronghold, and named it the city of David. David built the city all around from the Millo inward.
And David became greater and greater, for the LORD, the God of hosts, was with him. (2 Samuel 5:1-5; 9-10)

What a shame the story doesn’t end there. David was a towering figure, an undisputed celebrity, the single most charismatic leader of the Hebrew bible, a legendary figure whose renown and seed helped define Jesus and whose fame is more widely spread today than when he lived circa 970 BCE.

But the story of David also illustrates two modern axioms: power is an aphrodisiac, and power corrupts.

Davis lusted for the beautiful Bathsheba, wife of Uriah the Hittite, and when she became pregnant he sent Uriah into battle to be killed.

It was a dastardly deed and God dealt severely with David, taking the life of his son by Bathsheba.

Later, David’s son Absalom rebelled against his father and their armies confronted one another at Ephraim Wood. In a tragi-comic scene, Absalom’s long hair  got tangled in the branch of an oak tree and David’s general Joab killed him as he dangled. David’s agonized lament, Lear-like in its intensity, has sounded across many ages and many cultures:

“O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I have died instead of you, Absalom, my son, my son!” (2 Samuel 18:33).

 In his old age, the king faced another insurrection by his son Adonijah who sought to usurp the throne prematurely. Fearing that Adonijah would murder his beloved wife Bathsheba, David hastily handed his power to Solomon, his son by Bathsheba. And he died.

Looking at the whole of David’s life, it becomes obvious that charisma and celebrity are not palliatives to self aggrandizement and stupidity. They didn’t protect David from a life of tragedy and despair. David’s gifts and his virtues are well known, but so is his ruthless pursuit of power and his deadly adultery.  History, like the prophet Nathan, is prone to point its finger at David as it utters its verdict of weakness and sin: “Thou art the man.” He was a great man who loved God and understood God’s commandments: but David’s weaknesses were as monumental as his strengths.

Perhaps it is this very human combination of strength and weakness that exudes charisma. In our era, we have seen it often: good and even great men and women who become irresistible to us when they succumb to temptation and their own human frailty. Jack Kennedy. Martin Luther King. Bill Clinton. And, very possibly, even the relatively non-charismatic person we see in our mirrors every morning.

But if it takes character flaws to be interesting, how do we explain the crowd’s reaction to Jesus in Mark 6?

On the sabbath Jesus began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, "Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Then Jesus said to them, “Prophets are not without honor, except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.” And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them.  And he was amazed at their unbelief. Mark 6:2-6.

No one is saying Jesus had no charisma. The most casual reader of the New Testament will sense the overwhelming power of his personality. People followed him wherever he went; crowds formed when he stopped walking and surrounded him, hanging on every word; rich young rulers and centurions and Pharisees and blind men and tax collectors and prostitutes sought him out. A single word or a glance from him changed lives forever. A tug at his cloak sent healing power surging through the bodies of persons who brushed against him. There is no record of anyone encountering him, however briefly, who ever forgot him. No one who met him ever doubted that he was something very special, an unprecedented phenomenon of God.

No one, that is, but those who grew up around him and saw him every day.

To these unfortunate folks, Jesus was merely Joseph the Carpenter’s boy. He bore an obvious resemblance to his bushy browed brothers James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and to all his brown-skinned sisters with their modest scarves and calloused fingers; and everyone knew there was nothing special about any of them. No wonder the neighbors were asking, where did he get all this, what made him think he was all that?

A little too much familiarity with their carpenter neighbor from Nazareth was breeding contempt. And you can hardly blame the neighbors. Imagine, if you will, your nephew Josh who you watched tug at his mother’s breast, take his first steps, learn how to hold a saw, and cobble wood pieces into stools so crude they rocked in the dirt. So far as you could tell, Josh is a perfectly pleasant but obviously ordinary young man. And suddenly there he is: teaching in the synagogue like he knows what he’s talking about and curing headaches and abdominal pains and other maladies with a casual gesture and intimating a special relationship to God – a relationship you don’t have.

No wonder they took offense. They didn’t understand him and what people don’t understand makes them mad.

Jesus didn’t like their attitude, but he understood it. “Prophets are not without honor,” he said, “except in their hometown, and among their own kin, and in their own house.”

Of course he was entitled to be amazed at their lack of belief.

It’s too bad Jesus’ hometown crowd was at such a disadvantage. Everywhere else, Jesus was followed by admiring and growing crowds of enthusiastic believers. Ironically, those who knew him best knew him least.

The two passages before us – one from the Hebrew Scriptures, one from the Gospel of Mark – suggest very different lessons to us.

In the case of King David, I think the lesson is this: do not be overwhelmed or overly impressed by charisma and celebrity. It’s likely we are projecting those attributes on the persons who impress us than, and in many cases the imagined charisma may be obscuring important aspects of their personalities. There was more to the king than met the eye – some of it good, some of it bad – and all of it was an important part of the story. David was a super star but he was just a man. And we won’t fully appreciate God’s love and intentions for him if we don’t understand that.

Jesus, on the other hand, is both a super star and God’s anointed son. That’s interesting. But for those of us who grew up with his story, heard it repeated ad infinitum in church and Sunday school, memorized his parables and recited his sermons, he’s becoming a little too familiar. We’ve been with him so long we no longer sense his power. For many of us, he’s just Joe the Carpenter’s kid. And we’re asking ourselves, “where did this man get all this?” Too often, we have formed the hometown that fails to honor the prophet.

In telling that story, Mark is reminding each of us: don’t get too used to Jesus. Don’t let him get so close we stifle his charismatic power.

Mark’s message is this: Jesus is in the house. And when he touches us with his hands and his robe brushes against us, we are being re-introduced to the infinite love and unbounded power of the creator of all that exists.

And it is from the loving God, Mark reminds us, that this man gets all this.

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