From Jailbird to Freebird: The Prison of Popularity

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost:

Has not one God created us? (Malachi 1:14-2:10)
They do not practice what they preach… (Matthew 23:1-12)

Our first song this morning comes from country and rockabilly singer Steve Earle. He began his career in Nashville in 1975 when he met Guy Clark and started singing and acting in movies. Today’s song comes from Earle’s latest album “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.” The song is called “Lonely Are the Free.”

Lonely are the free
‘Cause there ain’t that many of them
They don’t walk like you and me
They just tumble in the breeze
Lighter than a feather
All together, separately

That’s how it’s s’posed to be,
No matter where they wander
From post to in between,
From here to over yonder,
There’s no place for them to land,
Lonely are the free

“And now, O priests, this command is for you. If you will not listen, if you will not lay it to heart to give glory to my name, says the Lord of hosts, then I will send the curse on you and I will curse your blessings; indeed I have already cursed them, because you do not lay it to heart. I will rebuke your offspring, and spread dung on your faces, the dung of your offerings, and I will put you out of my presence.”

The prophet Malachi knew how to get attention, didn’t he? There’s nothing like threatening to spread a little dung around to really get the ears around you to perk up. As a prophet, Malachi was not a popular person. The role of the prophet was exactly to be unpopular – mainly because this is how all of them talked – warning people that their current behaviors, or current beliefs were out of whack with what the Holy expected from them.

Malachi was probably not a frequent dinner guest at the banquets held by the rich rulers – or by the priests. He was probably not hanging out in the popular gathering spots around the city cutting up with the stone masons, the blacksmiths and the leather workers. He was probably not accompanied by a great number of followers and fans.

In fact, I can bet that anyone who saw old Malachi coming around the bend made themselves scarce pretty quickly. I think it’s fair to say that Malachi was not an inmate in the prison of popularity. I wonder though, if some days, Malachi wandered the city and envied those who didn’t bear the burden of speaking the truth to power. I wonder if some days he really just wanted to hang out with some friends, talk about the weather, the farming forecast, or the latest gossip about town. I wonder if some days he longed for the safety of the prison of popularity.

I identify a bit with Malachi and all those other prophets, because I have never been in the prison of popularity. Not that I didn’t long to be there – I certainly did. In high school I was never part of the “in” crowd – even though I longed to be at the lunch table with popular kids. I did make entrée into that world for a short period of time, but what I discovered is that the “in” crowd was simply not as interesting as those who lived on the fringes of high school society. After getting a taste of that prison of popularity, I realized it was a place I could never live comfortably. While the walls were sturdy and provided some security – the fellow inmates there were pretty treacherous. You could be on the outs with in crowd pretty fast, for the least infraction. The mean girls could make your life a living hell if you crossed them. Honestly, it was just easier to be outside that prison of popularity – because on the inside, it’s a cutthroat culture.

The free may be lonely – but honestly, in some ways, they live longer – and healthier – lives.

The silent are the strong,
Not so much as a whisper
Tells you anything is wrong,
You’ve known all along,
But you can’t help but listen,
And now the moment’s gone.
It keeps you hanging on,
Until the stillness signaling,
The breaking of the dawn,
Is shattered by the sirens,
Singing sacrificial songs,
The silent are the strong.

The story is a familiar one in our society. Someone comes on the scene, whether in entertainment or politics and they have a meteoric rise to fame. They are wildly popular – every nook and cranny of their lives is covered in the media. We can’t seem to get enough of them – and suddenly – we’ve had enough and that person plummets to the bottom of the popularity heap. Whether it’s a Lindsey Lohan, or a Sarah Palin, or Mel Gibson, or Charlie Sheen. They all had the world in the palm of their hand – they were rich, popular, and could do no wrong.

But, popularity is a fickle taskmaster. One wrong move and you’re no longer sitting at the lunch table with the rest of the popular kids. Instead, you’re outside in the smoking area with the rest of the losers. Even with all those cautionary tales, though, more and more people clamor to get into that prison of popularity. Cells in this prison don’t stay empty for long – there’s a line waiting to get into this prison, because people can’t seem to get enough popularity.

What drives this population explosion in the prison of popularity? Fear. There is an overriding fear that perhaps our lives won’t mean anything on this planet unless some people – and perhaps a large number of some people – notice us. We can also be driven by the fear that unless people notice us and validate us that somehow it’s proof that we’re not good enough, or smart enough. The world tells us that those who are the best are the ones with all the adoring fans. Those whose lives matter are the ones that draw the most crowds or draw the most money or draw the most worldly success. So, if you’re not drawing crowds, money or worldly success, that makes you a loser.

But, the meteoric rise and horrific swan song of so many famous people reminds us of the true price of popularity – and that is often backstabbing, treachery, lying, gossip and the ultimate downfall of the popular person. Malachi warns of these kinds of things when tells the priests of his day that God will curse their blessings. We so often believe that fame, fortune, and popularity are blessings – but they can quickly become curses.

Instead, Malachi says, “the lips of the priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of Hosts.”

We can certainly come up with plenty of fallen preachers who have turned away from this awesome, if unpopular, responsibility. Too often, the preachers of our day are too busy dispensing the wisdom of this world – a prosperity gospel where we make a deal with God that if we do this or that – God will bless us with worldly riches – with wealth and popularity.

One such popular preacher is Houston mega-church pastor Joel Osteen. On a bored night of channel surfing I stopped on his program long enough to get an earful of the kind of preaching Malachi abhors. Osteen was talking about doing good – which in and of itself is a wonderful topic, and one any preacher would urge their congregation to do. We must do good to others, Osteen told his followers, because who knows – they may one day turn out to be people who can help us. He told of one man who filled the tank of another driver at the gas station and years ago he ran into a man who owned a car dealership who recognized him. The dealership owner had witnessed the man’s kindness and told him he would do anything for him – fix his car, give him a great deal on a new car, anything he needed the man could have.

There were other examples of how people, at some point down the road, had been rewarded for their act of kindness. Which begs the question – is this the only reason we can think of to do good? If we do good today, hoping for some reward tomorrow, does that not equal cursing our blessings? If we do something today, hoping for reward and popularity tomorrow, doesn’t it taint our actions today? Instead of cursing our blessings – the Holy blesses those blessings only when they are given without the thought of a return on that investment. We invest in other people because God commands us to love – not because God commands us to love with the promise of reward.

This is the kind of living that springs us from the prison of popularity. We cannot do anything in this world with the thought of what it will earn us, either in popularity, wealth, or future fortunes.

That’s what makes this freedom from the prison of popularity so lonely. When we stop doing things for others in this world to get a reward – we become the minority. No one seems to understand why you would help someone just to help them. Where’s the payoff in that? This is what the world asks. Those who are truly free know the answer.

Breathe deeply.

That’s all they used to see,
A violent shadow passing ‘cross
The sun so fleetingly,
That if you have to ask you miss it
Anyway you see, lonely are the free,
Lonely are the free

The Google is always one of my best resources for stories in sermons. But, when I went to try to find stories about why it may not be the best idea to be popular, out of all of the millions upon millions of sites and stories on the Internet, I could find just one story – because apparently it’s not popular to bash being popular.

The story is of a man who bought a house in a wooded area only to find it was overrun by mice. So, he bought a few boxes of rat poison and put them around the house. In the night, he heard the mice feasting on the sweet poison. Every box was licked clean, so he bought more – and the mice feasted again. He bought another round, but found that night his house was quiet.

The moral of the story is: just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s good for you. But, so often we are tempted by the sweet treats of popularity – the delicious poison that is the accolades and admiration of this world.

Breathe deeply.

Country singer Johnny Lee grew up on a dairy farm in Alta Loma, Texas and formed a rock band in his high school years. It wasn’t until he hooked up with Mickey Gilley – owner of Gilley’s Club in Pasadena, Texas that he found fame. This morning’s second song was Lee’s first number one hit and it was made famous as part of the movie Urban Cowboy starring John Travolta. “Lookin’ for Love” went to number one in 1980. Let’s try it.

Verse 1: I spent a lifetime lookin for you
single bars and good time lovers were never true
playing a fool’s game, hopin’ to win
tellin those sweet lies and losin’ again

Chorus I was lookin for love in all the wrong places
lookin’ for love in too many faces
searchin her eyes lookin’ for traces
of what I’m dreamin of
Hoping to find a friend and a lover
I’ll bless the day I discover, another heart, lookin’ for love

In our Jesus story, we find our guy teaching to the crowds and his disciples about popularity. He tells them all about the priests and rabbis around them that walk around in their ornate clothing. They walk around with their piety literally tied around their arms in the form of phylacteries, which are leather boxes that contain passages of scripture. They expect deference on the part of those around them who will give them the best seats at the banquet and the best seats in the synagogue. These are the rewards of popularity – like the bar in Cheers – everybody knows their names – and people are always glad they came because their presence at their banquet meant they were popular, too.

These Pharisees are still around today – the Joel Osteens of the world who flaunt their religion on TV, radio, and the Internet. They smile wide, build big churches and win the world’s accolades and build up their bank accounts here on earth. They are puffed with pride – even as they teach their followers to take up their heavy burdens – and they’ll get rich too! They like to be popular.

But, seeking the world’s popularity is just like looking for love in all the wrong places. The world is a fickle place, and its adoration of you doesn’t last forever – and sometimes not that long at all. Remember all those fallen popular preachers like Jim Bakker or Jimmy Swaggart? They crashed hard after the world’s popularity was yanked from them. Popularity was delicious – but it wasn’t good for them.

Is this to say that any church that draws a big crowd – that is popular – is wrong? Are all churches supposed be small and unpopular? That’s not what Jesus, or even Malachi, is saying. Instead, both prophets are making the point that if we want to be leaders in this world – if we truly want to take on the lonely role of being a prophet – we must be true teachers – true people of the Holy wisdom that brings peace and equity into this world.

When I think of a good, popular church, my first thought is of Jubilee in Asheville – the church that we took our name and model of celebration from.

Led by Howard Hanger, that church is standing room only every single Sunday – both morning worship services are packed. There is no doubt that Jubilee! is a popular church.

But, what makes it popular is what makes all the difference. It’s not popular because it gives its community easy answers. In fact, Howard’s sermons are some of the most challenging and life-changing that I have ever heard. He’s not the guy to turn to for easy, smiling answers like Rev. Osteen. Instead, he challenges his community to stretch themselves – to learn and to grow. He introduces different faith traditions into the service – reading from the Koran or the Tao Te Ching in addition to the Hebrew and Christian scriptures. He also invites his congregation to stretch themselves as human messengers of God’s love – to get involved in ministries that help the homeless, the hungry, the poor, and the outcast that live all throughout their area. Jubilants in Asheville are using their popularity to reach out into the community and make a difference.

If you talk to Howard, he’s a bit bewildered by his popularity. According to him, he’s just an old bald guy in a dress who gives sermons every Sunday – but to those who hear him, he’s much more than that. It is not his flashiness – but his simplicity that thrills. It is not his eloquence, but his goofiness and playfulness that thrills. It is not his intention to get rich, but to enrich the lives of those around him.

The irony is that makes him popular, because it makes him different than what the world considers popular. But, it makes him popular with those lonely people who have broken free of their prisons of popularity. It’s not the popularity of Jubilee that draws them – but the very real community of other lonely free people that they find there.

Howard isn’t flaunting his role or asking for the best seat at the table – he’s merely working to see that everyone gets a seat at the table. It is this utter humility that makes him popular in the only way that matters. As Jesus said: “The greatest among you will be your servant. All who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Breathe deeply.

Verse 2: I was alone then, no love in sight
I did everything I could to get me through the night
Don’t know where it started or where it might end
I turned to a stranger just like a friend

Chorus I was lookin for love in all the wrong places
lookin’ for love in too many faces
searchin her eyes lookin’ for traces
of what I’m dreamin of
Hoping to find a friend and a lover
I’ll bless the day I discover, another heart, lookin’ for love

It’s easy to read the two passages from this morning and begin to feel a little superior. Both Jesus and Malachi are pretty rough on church and temple leaders – as well they should be. The leaders of any congregation have a weighty responsibility and should be doing everything they can to lead their community to live in the world as the Holy would have them live. But, their criticisms are not reserved for just the priests and rabbis.

Malachi especially has a word for those in his time who cheated on their sacrifices to the temple. Instead of giving their best male animal, they would bring one with a blemish to the altar. Thankfully, we don’t do animal sacrifice in the churches anymore – but that doesn’t excuse us from not bringing our best to our communities of faith.

How often do we cheat our spiritual communities of not just money – but of our time and our commitment? How often do we shirk our responsibilities to each other in community? It’s not just the priests who want to be seen for their piety, but often we parade our piety around and try to show how much good we’ve done when in reality, we are holding back – doing things only for show, and not for substance.

So, today’s harsh words from Jesus and Malachi are not just for the leaders in faith communities – but for all of us. We don’t serve the Holy and other people in this world for a reward or for show – we do it because that is what the Holy expects. We do it because we want to connect with the Holy and we only do that when live our lives in service to others. We only do that when we step outside the comfort of popularity – and become the truth tellers in this world.

Unlike the other prophets we meet in the Bible – Malachi is not really the proper name of any prophet. Instead, the name means “messenger” – and what this messenger, Jesus, and the Holy call us to do is take up that name for ourselves – to become modern day Malachis calling people out of their prisons of popularity.

We are called to take our place among the long line of truth tellers in this world. History will record the Lohans and the Palins of this world as odd footnotes – but it is those servants, those humble leaders, who will be exalted long after they are gone. People like Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandis Gandhi, the Buddha, Mohammed, Jesus, Malachi and all their prophetic friends. None of them were very popular with the powers that be in their day – and those who truly understand their message of freedom still find themselves on a lonely mission of truth telling in this world that loves to be lied to.

We are called, Jubilants, to be Malachis – to tell the truth relentlessly – to look for love in all the right places. There we’ll find other hearts also looking for that love Jesus and all the other prophets talk about. It will be unpopular to the world – but there will be those that hear and understand. There will be a community that gathers to listen to this message that God has created us all equal – no matter what category the world likes to divide us in to. This humble message of justice, peace, and equity has a popularity all its own – and those who have the ears to hear, and the hearts to feel, and the minds to understand will get it – and exalt it – and flock to it.

As Malachis we are committed to always speaking the truth of the Holy – that truth of love, peace, and doing good for no other reason than doing good. As Malachis we’re not afraid to call dung when we see it – and point out a better way of life – one that is fair and equitable. We are the Malachis – the messengers – that can bring about a new Jerusalem – that alternative way of living that means we know how to find – and spread – love in all the right places – which is to say – everywhere.

You came a knockin’ on my heart’s door
| you’re everything I’ve been lookin’ for

Chorus: no more lookin’ for love in all the wrong places
lookin’ for love in too many faces
searchin her eyes lookin’ for traces
of what I’m dreamin of
Now that I found a friend and a lover
I bless the day I discover you, oh you, lookin’ for love

Oh, Yeah!