Via Negativa: The Hunger Games / Hunger for Fame

Jubilee! Circle, Columbia, S.C.
Readings for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost:

The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous. (Isaiah 53:4-12)
Whoever wishes to become great … must be your servant. (Mark 10:35-45)
Learn from the lame goat… (Rumi)

Our first song is a contemporary hymn written by New Zealand hymnist Richard Gillard. The Servant Song was written in 1977 after Gillard found the third verse on a piece of paper in his guitar case. He had written it down on a trip and had forgotten it until he found that paper. Let’s try it.

Brother, Sister let me serve you,
let me be as Christ to you
Pray that I might have the grace to let you be my servant too.

When I was in high school, I spent a lot of time trying to attract attention to myself. I desperately wanted to be recognized for something. I was never going to be a jock, and certainly never the quarterback of the football team. I would not win any beauty pageants or homecoming queen titles. I was also never going to be valedictorian, or even salutatorian, so that end of school, knock-their-socks-off speech was never going to happen. So, I had to do something else to get attention.

So, I danced.

I know. You’re shocked. The woman whose nickname is “Can’t-Dance” actually danced? Well, it’s probably too generous to call the writhing and twisting that I did “dancing.” I’m sure that’s an insult to people like Alvin Ailey or Michael Jackson.

My dancing debut began at the tedious and mind-numbing pep rallies we were forced to attend before each football game.

At the end of the day on Friday, they would corral us into the auditorium to watch the cheerleaders do their thing and put the football players up on display. All that recognition – all that fame going to those chiseled handsome men and perfectly proportioned and peppy cheerleaders just made me seethe. So, I stole some glory from them.

I got up in the aisle and danced. I was the only one. Everyone seemed comatose at these pep rallies, even though our team won state championship titles a few times – which I’m surprised I even know or remember, being such a big sports fan and all. But, I wriggled and writhed and jumped and hooted and hollered … and people laughed. And I was hooked.

After that day, I’d do just about anything for a laugh and my reputation as class clown grew. I got recognized. I was seen as unique, funny and mildly cool to be seen with.

That was certainly a little triumph in my crusade to be recognized. I wasn’t quite famous, but I had managed to garner a bit of infamy at my old high school. Oh, but how I daydreamed in classes. I would dream about speaking in front of big crowds at gay pride parades. I would make them cheer. I would make them laugh. I would make them think. I would make them understand.

My other dream was to go back to my high school as a rock star. I wanted to stand up on that auditorium stage, strap on my electric guitar and blow them all away. “I’ll show them, ” I would tell myself. “I’ll show them that I’m not a loser. I’m somebody.”

I wanted to be recognized. I wanted to be unique, a role model, someone everyone wanted to emulate. In short, I was just like everyone else. We all have that hunger for recognition – that hunger not just to be accepted, but to be exalted and celebrated – to be singled out as special.

Ah, but you may be saying, “I didn’t do that in high school. All I wanted to do was go unnoticed.” There are many of us like that – the ones who hang back, who avoid the spotlight, who prefer to work behind the scenes. I’ve got news for you, though – you got noticed. Even those of us who think we fly under the radar are seeking attention in some way – by being the shy kid, the quiet one, the mystery, the enigma, the one everyone wonders about.

“He was such a quiet kid,” everyone says about you after you pull that big bank heist. Okay, maybe it doesn’t get that extreme, but not seeking recognition really can be a way to seek recognition – to be seen as the contrarian who doesn’t want fame – but secretly, deeply hungers for it.

We are pilgrims on a journey.
We are sisters on the road
We are here to help each other
walk the mile and bear the load

I really enjoyed my newfound notoriety as the dancing fool at the pep rallies, but, y’know what? It didn’t really change my popularity stats by all that much. Some people who hated me perhaps hated me a little less, but they still hated me.

This is the problem with popularity – it’s fickle. It comes and goes. One day you’re on the A-list, the next day you’re persona non grata – you don’t even exist. Keeping your popularity can be a full time, exhausting job. In the end, you may be famous for awhile, but, in reality, it’s easy, and often quite fun, to hate on the famous and popular folks.

We make fun of all sorts of celebrities in our day – the Kardashians, the Snookies, the Honey Boo Boo’s of the world who are famous simply for being famous may secretly have our envy, but openly they have our scorn.

Back in the days of the ancient Hebrews, the ones who became famous were the prophets – those speakers of truth and doom. Their position within society made them famous, sure – but the words they spoke didn’t make them exactly popular with those in power. Instead of enjoying the good life with groupies, mansions and mountains of money, the Hebrew prophets faced much suffering for their fame.

“He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By a perversion of justice he was taken away.

Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people. They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich, although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.”

Who would want to be famous if this is the price you have to pay – but often this is the price of fame even today. Celebrities face death threats – some like former Beatle John Lennon get gunned down on the street. Fame is a cruel mistress and along with accolades can come some fierce hatred and violence.

What makes the difference for the Hebrew prophet is this – they understood that the real advantage of fame is not that you get the glory – but that you get the chance to be a servant. It’s true that we can all serve from right where we are without fame or fortune – but when you do have fame, when you have that larger platform and can affect many lives with one or two words or actions on your part – then you have a greater responsibility to act in ways that benefit everyone, not just yourself.

There are plenty of celebrities who do this kind of work. Bono’s One Foundation is fighting against poverty around the world. Microsoft founder Bill Gates spends millions of his own money every year to improve health conditions around the world and help end hunger. Actor Matt Damon founded that works to ensure healthy drinking water around the world. Actress Charlize Theron is working in Africa to reduce the incidents of HIV/AIDS in that region.

Perhaps these modern day famous prophets have not personally suffered for their causes – but they understand that their position of fame is not just one of personal enrichment, but at its heart, the true calling of fame is to be of service to others. They may not have sought fame to become servants, but when they arrived at the land of plenty, it became clear to them that their true jobs were not to sing or act or lead big companies. Instead, their true jobs were to serve, to give back, to clear the path for others to come along behind them into a better, healthier life.

If we are to strive for fame and recognition at all, then the prophets make it clear we are to strive for it not to just alleviate our own suffering – but to alleviate the suffering of the world.

Breathe deeply.

I will weep when you are weeping.
When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you.
I will share your joys and sorrow
’till we’ve seen this journey through.

Buddhist monk Ajan Chah tells the story of a young monk who was desperate to be recognized as a famous, enlightened monk. He spent three years secluded on a small island meditating and studying. His only contact with his teacher, the abbot at the local monastery, was a messenger who came to his island by boat each week.

One week, the young monk was certain he had reached his goal of enlightenment and asked that the messenger bring him fine parchment paper and a pen so that he could prove his enlightenment to the abbot.

On that fine paper he wrote these lines:

“The conscientious young monk, meditating three years alone, can no longer be moved, by the four worldly winds.”

The messenger took the scroll to the abbot and returned it to the young monk the next week. The monk was so excited to receive the scroll. He had been imagining all the praise and recognition he would receive from the abbot for his clever lines and his proof of enlightenment.

He unfurled the scroll and began to read and he quickly became enraged.

There, on his beautifully written parchment, the abbot had scribbled, in red ink, a single word next to his first line: “Fart.” On the second line was another ugly red word: “Fart.” The third line also had an irreverent “Fart!” scrawled over it as did the fourth.

The monk demanded that the messenger take him back across the water to the abbot so he could confront him. He stormed into the abbot’s office and demanded an explanation for his outrageous comments.

The abbot picked up the parchment, cleared his throat and read the poem:

“The conscientious young monk, meditating three years alone, can no longer be moved, by the four worldly winds.”

He put it down and said, “So, you are no longer moved by the four worldly winds, but it only took four little farts to blow you right across the lake!”

That’s how it is when we seek fame and recognition. Just when we think we’ve attained everything we’re looking for, it can take only the smallest criticism – or perhaps just four little farts – to bring our world crashing down. Fame is fragile as well as fickle.

The poet Rumi has a different take on fame and recognition. Instead of becoming a pious, self-righteous monk, Rumi says, learn from the lame goat. The poor lame goat brings up the rear as the herd goes to drink water – but when they return – it is the lame goat that leads them home. As Jesus has said: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” It is the lame goat that has learned this true paradox of fame – it’s best to be famous for how you serve, instead of how you perform.

Breathe deeply.

Our second song comes from the New Jersey rock band Dr. Hook. They debuted in 1971 and in 1972, they put out this song that went to #6 on the Billboard charts. It’s called “Cover of the Rolling Stone” and the song was such a hit, that they did get on the cover of the Rolling Stone later that year. Let’s try it.

Well we are big rock singers we’ve got golden fingers
and we’re loved everywhere we go,
we sing about beauty and we sing about truth
at ten thousand dollars a show;

we take all kind of pills to give us all kind of thrills,
but the thrill we’ve never known,
is the thrill that’ll get you when you get your picture
on the cover of the Rolling Stone

[Chorus]Rolling Stone, wanna see my picture on the cover
wanna buy five copies for my mother
wanna see my smilin’ face on the cover of the Rolling Stone

In our Jesus story, we find our guy approached by two of his disciples, James and John. They’ve got a request for their boss. “Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”

You can almost hear Jesus sigh in exasperation in this passage before he gives them both barrels: “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” They replied, “We are able.” Then Jesus said to them, “The cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized; but to sit at my right hand or at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared.”

When the rest of the disciples hear this, they get mad at James and John – but not because they had the audacity to ask Jesus for places of fame in his ministry – but because they didn’t think of it first!

You see, these disciples had very different ideas of what life would be like as part of Jesus’ ministry. They had stars in their eyes when they left their fishing boats and followed this enigmatic teacher and prophet. They truly believed that Jesus was the Messiah that their scriptures predicted would overthrow the Roman empire and lead the Hebrew people to their ultimate goal – that new Jerusalem where God’s peace and justice would rule.

They saw themselves as holy warriors – the men who would ride at the head of God’s great revolution on earth. If there had been a Hebrew version of Rolling Stone magazine, these guys would have fervently coveted the cover. They wanted fame and fortune as Jesus’ right – and left-hand men – the guys who would be remembered for helping the Messiah bring eternal peace and justice to the world! Now, that’s some fame and glory worth striving for, they thought.

What they got must have disappointed them. Day after day, slogging through the hot, dusty streets of whatever backwater town Jesus had picked that day or week to walk through. Meeting the dregs of society – the lepers, the prostitutes, the sick, the lame, the deaf. All those needy, dirty people clawing at them, seeking them out. This was not what they had bargained for. They weren’t surrounded by beautiful groupies or loved by everyone they met – they were spending time with the hated outcasts, and being hated for their efforts.

James and John decided to do something about it. If they could get Jesus to appoint them as his generals, perhaps they could get this real revolution going. Poor Jesus. To be so deeply misunderstood by the people closest to him must have been painful. To have to teach these men that it’s not fame and fortune that they signed up for but for rejection and death must have been difficult for him.

But, it was difficult for the disciples, too, and it continues to be difficult for us. There are plenty of men and women who have become very rich superstars using Jesus’ name in this world – but the ones we truly remember – and the ones we truly revere are the ones who suffered for their fame. Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, the Buddha, Muhammed – all the great famous prophets are the ones who used their fame to serve the interest of others – not the just their own interests.

Don’t be known for getting your face on the cover of the Rolling Stone, Jesus says, instead, be known for how you serve.

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them,” Jesus tells his hapless disciples.

“But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”

Don’t seek fame and recognition so you can enrich yourself, seek it so you may enrich the world. Don’t be the pious monk, Jesus tells us. Instead, lead from behind – be the lame goat.

Breathe deeply.

I’ve got a freaky old lady named a’ Cocaine Katy
who embroiders on my jeans,
I’ve got my poor old gray-haired Daddy,
drivin’ my limousine

Now it’s all designed to blow our minds
but our minds won’t really be blown,
like the blow that’ll get you when you get your picture
on the cover of the Rolling Stone

[Chorus] Rolling Stone, wanna see my picture on the cover
wanna buy five copies for my mother
wanna see my smilin’ face on the cover of the Rolling Stone

Malala Yousafzai was born in Pakistan in 1997.

Now 15-years-old, she became famous at the age of 11 when she started a blog for the BBC, talking about how life is for girls under the Taliban.

She has made numerous television appearances advocating for the right of girls to receive an education – something the Taliban has tried to ban for girls. On October 9, Malala was shot in the head and neck by Taliban assassins who confronted her on a school bus. She’s currently hospitalized in the U.K. in critical condition.

Malala is the kind of person Jesus would have loved to have as a disciple. She is someone who instinctively knows that fame is a double-edged sword. On one hand, you can use your fame to get on TV, on radio and in newspapers, which can be flattering and ego inflating. On the other hand, you can use that fame to serve – to spread a message of peace and justice.

The first kind of fame is self-serving – being on the cover of the Rolling Stone because it’s a huge ego stroke. The second kind of fame goes deeper – and it can get you killed. When any of us steps up, whether we are a prophet or just an average person, and speaks the truth in the service of others to the powerful in this world – we can become targets.

My fantasy of holding the crowd’s attention at gay pride rally didn’t include the hatred that would be directed at me from people shouting insults and condemning me to hell from the sidelines or in my email inbox. My fantasy of speaking the truth about the lives of LGBT people didn’t include the death threats I’ve received or the very real threat of violence that could come to me, or anyone who fights for the rights of unpopular groups or ideas.

This is what Jesus was trying to tell his disciples. Doing the work that the Holy calls us to in this world may get you some accolades and attention – but if you do it right – it can get you killed. Even famous people like Bob Dylan recognize this. Dylan once said, “Being noticed can be a burden. Jesus got himself crucified because he got himself noticed. So I disappear a lot.”

But, the Holy doesn’t want us to disappear. Instead, the Holy calls each of us to step up – to be of service – because if we do, we might actually get famous for it. And, if we do it right, we might actually get attacked for it.

You want to be recognized in this world? You can do lots of things – dance, speak, write frilly poetry to prove your enlightenment, get your face on the cover of the Rolling Stone – or you can be the lame goat, lagging behind the crowd, but in the end, leading everyone back home to the Holy.

This is how Jesus used his fame – he told us all about our responsibility to one another. He showed us how to be that lame goat, that wounded healer who uses their own pain and their own passion to alleviate the pain of others. You want recognition? Serve. You want fame? Serve. You want the world to notice you? Serve. Because it is the suffering servant that keeps this world from falling apart. It is the suffering servant who moves this world closer to peace and justice.

It’s not a glamorous kind of fame, but when you serve, Jubilants, you satisfy both your hunger – and the world’s.

We got a lot of little teenage, blue-eyed groupies
who do anything we say, we got a genuine Indian guru,
who’s teachin’ us a better way,
we got all the friends that money can buy,
so we never have to be alone,
and we keep gettin’ richer
but we can’t get our picture
on the cover of the Rolling Stone

[Chorus] Rolling Stone, wanna see my picture on the cover
wanna buy five copies for my mother
wanna see my smilin’ face on the cover of the Rolling Stone

Oh, Yeah!