This Sunday the Revised Common Lectionary urges us to meditate on the death of John the Baptist, one of history’s best-known second bananas.
It has occurred to me that if Ted Sorensen had not been a Unitarian, he would certainly have embraced John as his patron saint.
Sorensen, who was President John F. Kennedy’s speech writer and unofficial chief of staff, was paid to pave the way for JFK and make him look good. He was the actual author of most of President Kennedy’s best remembered speeches and he was certainly – although he denied it – the actual writer of Profiles in Courage.
Sorensen was content to fade into the background while historians recognized JFK as a beloved figure in whom they were well pleased.
I loved President Kennedy, but in the years after his death I took comfort in the fact that JFK’s best impulses and stirring eloquence still survived in the law firm of Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison in Manhattan, where Ted Sorensen was counsel until his death in 2010.
I had a brief email exchange with Sorensen a year before he died when he and I and dozens more were addressed in a spamming email from an eccentric blogger who believed an extrapolation of the statistics of the World Series would reveal the timing of the end of the world. I had been ignoring this man’s emails for years, but this time Ted Sorensen replied to all on the list to ask, “Who is this man?”
I responded immediately to Sorensen and explained the man used to stand outside the Interchurch Center in Manhattan to pass out mimeographed copies of his eschatological calculations and in recent years he had upgraded to emails. I then subdued my blushes to tell Sorensen he had been my idol for years because I was also called to write speeches and press releases for public figures, namely church and ecumenical leaders. His response, which employed his famous rule of never using a big word when a small one would do, was simple: “Thank you for your lifetime of service.”
Naturally I treasured that response and reminded myself that being a second banana was also a service.
John the Baptist was not only a second banana, he was history’s greatest deacon providing support and diaconal service to history’s greatest figure.
I’ve meditated frequently over the years about John and the service he provided, and also about the consequences he suffered. Looking back on some earlier reflections, I offer them again to all who will be thinking about John during Sunday services July 15.
John the Baptist: Second Bananas and Comical Sidekicks.
If there was ever a religious or political leader qualified to think of himself as number one, it was John the Baptist. He is one of a small handful of bible characters who appear in extra-biblical accounts. He is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus and he plays a prophetic role in the Qur’an. According to the Encyclopedia of Islam, Yahya ibn Zakkariya, Sufi Muslims hold John in high regard because of the Qur’an’s account of his astute wisdom, unfailing kindness, and sexual purity.
John the Baptist: Getting A Head
And, most significant of all, it was John who came prepared to turn his back on fame and influence as soon as his cousin, Jesus, arrived on the scene. That’s not a common attitude. It’s like Steve Jobs telling everyone, “but even more important than me is Tim Cook, who must increase as I decrease.” Not bloody likely.
And finally, my favorite because it involves the singular insights of Oscar Wilde: Salomé of the Dance
No one knows what Salomé looked like or what her dance actually involved. If it really involved seven veils, as latter day pundits suggest, you’d think a dancer entwined in so much cloth would wilt in Palestinian sweat. Renaissance and Pre-Raphaelite artists (bless their hearts) imagine Salomé discarding every stitch of veil early in the dance, although more conservative Victorians prefer to dress her in billowy bloomers modeled after Ali Baba’s winter wardrobe.John the Baptist played Second Fiddle with an exquisite loveliness neither Ted Sorensen nor I could have managed, nor would we have chosen his ultimate fate.
But he remains history’s ultimate model of deaconship, and it’s right and meet to honor him this week with gratitude and devotion.