Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Sermon: "Remembrance Sunday 2008" (Delivered 1-6-08)

[This is the 200th Sermon I've ever delivered]

Each year we gather for a time to remember lives that have ended in the past year. In your order of service you will find a list full of names recognizable and foreign, individuals who transcended the particularities of their communities and families and were deemed notable for some wider influence. The list is dominated by names known for artistic or athletic feats, political service, intellectual achievement, or the ability to simply attract media attention. Some of these lives blessed the world with their contributions to human knowledge, to beauty, to peace, to human equality. Other lives are remarkable for how they were squandered.

Each year there are a few names that rise up and are of particular interest to Unitarian Universalists and the demographics commonly represented in this congregation. But, I also like to point out those names we are likely to miss. If you ever drink Gatorade, you may think to note Robert Cade who died this past year, the inventor of the original sports-energy drink and the reason we have two and a half drink coolers in every Quick Trip stocked with fluorescent energy beverages. If you ever ate Rice-a-Roni, the San Francisco treat, you have Vincent DeDomenico to thank. He died this year at age 92. Next time you drive by a Bob Evans restaurant or a Les Schwab tire center, you may recall that both men are no longer of this world.

In the world of sports, this year saw the deaths of a plethora of young athletes – Josh Hancock, Sean Taylor, Damien Nash, Darrent Williams – the victims too often of youthful bad decision making. And it was certainly a bad year for professional wrestlers, if it can be said that there is ever a good year for professional wrestlers.

It was also a bad year for televangelists, most notably Jerry Falwell, but also James Kennedy, the founder of Coral Ridge ministries in Florida, and Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth.

While Falwell garnered the most attention, three religious figures passed with much less fanfare. One was the Anglican priest Chad Varah who founded the Samaritans suicide-prevention hot-line. The second was Father Robert Drinan, a Catholic priest whose religious views about the Vietnam War led him to become the first Catholic Priest to serve in Congress. Drinan ran on an anti-war platform and tried unsuccessfully to add military action in Cambodia to the list of charges for which President Nixon was impeached. And the third is Bruce Metzger, an academic and ordained Presbyterian minister, who was among the world’s greatest authorities on the Bible. In fact, Metzger headed the translation committee that produced the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, the version most accepted by scholars and theologians. If your name appears on the cover page of the Bible, you are certainly worth mentioning!

There are people on the list who you might imagine I would mention at great length. I know a number of you adored Art Buchwald and a number of you adored Kurt Vonnegut and I know for many of you the name Molly Ivins stands above all others. But I would like to take this opportunity to lift up the lives of a couple of people it might be tempting to skip over.

The first person I want to explore is Tammy Faye Bakker Messner. In 1942, Tammy Faye was born in rural Minnesota and into an unstable family environment. Her parents divorced shortly after she was born and she found refuge from her tumultuous family life in the steadiness and security of a Pentecostal church. She thrived in this environment that offered her certainties and absolutes and she was encouraged to pursue training for the ministry. Attending a Bible College, she met Jim Bakker; they moved South; and their ministry soon grew into a television empire worth millions of dollars. Corruption, scandal, and fraud soon followed. Jim had an affair with his 21-year old secretary, Jessica Hahn, and spent nearly $300,000 in church donations to attempt to buy her silence. This was just the tip of the iceberg, as financial details about PTL came to light, including information on the Bakker’s opulent lifestyle with lavish properties, private jets, and even (rumor has it) a doghouse with central air.

Tammy Faye divorced Jim Bakker while he served time in jail and went on to marry Roe Messner, a religious architect who had designed buildings for the Bakkers. Messner’s local roots would eventually see the family relocate to the greater Kansas City area. Messner would also go on to serve time in jail for his financial mis-deeds.

In 1996 Tammy Faye was diagnosed with colon cancer and would spend the last decade of her life battling and eventually succumbing to cancer. It was also in these last years of her life that she would find redemption. It is ironic that as she declined physically, she was healed spiritually. As her body was eaten away, her soul expanded.

This growth is hard to understand. In fact it is multi-faceted. One aspect has to do with her relationship with parts of the gay community. On account of her extravagant make-up, fake eyelashes, and one-of-a-kind approach to fashion, Tammy Faye became somewhat of an ironic cult-hero and icon among some segments of the gay community, especially among drag-queens and cross-dressers. They identified with her on a superficial level, but also on a deeper level. Who was the real Tammy Faye Bakker?

In a most surreal way, Tammy Faye’s theology changed when she was featured on a reality TV show called The Surreal Life in which eccentric B-, C-, and D-list celebrities are filmed living in a house together. At first, Tammy Faye was prepared to decline the offer to appear on the show because she didn’t want to mix with “sinners.” Then, she had a kind of awakening, realizing that God’s love should lead us to meet people where they are. Her theology morphed into one that was far less judgmental, more accepting, and one in which she had something to offer and something to learn from those “sinners.” I’ve never watched it, but it is said that on this show she came across as practically saintly, or at least mature. Her interactions with the other people on the show were humane, compassionate, caring, and understanding.

A colleague of mine, a Unitarian Universalist minister, went to hear her preach in Tulsa, Oklahoma in a few years ago. Theologically, she was still very much a Christian. She had a personal relationship with Jesus. She now responded to her faith by living non-judgmentally, by seeing those around her as children of God, and by having a special compassion and message of hope and encouragement to those wracked with disease.

Tammy Faye went from being the object of ridicule and a punch line to many an off-color joke to an inspired, courageous, and whole person.

The second person I want to focus on is far more obscure and unlikely than Tammy Faye Bakker Messner. I’d wager that most of you have never heard of him unless you happen to be a baseball fan, and even then. The man I am speaking of is a relief pitcher named Rod Beck. He played thirteen seasons in the majors with the San Francisco Giants, Chicago Cubs, Boston Red Sox, and San Diego Padres. He was a 3-time All Star, racked up 286 saves (good for 23rd all time) and earned a cool 26 million dollars during his playing career. By 2004 at age 35, injuries and wear and tear had taken their toll on his body and he was washed up and out of the major leagues for a second time.

The other thing worth saying about Rod Beck is that he was one of the more colorful players in the game. He was a big dude with a big gut. He wore his hair in a mullet and was perhaps most recognized for his Fu Manchu moustache. His nickname “Shooter” was a nickname that fit him. In fact, he seemed more likely to be a member of a Harley Davidson motorcycle gang than a baseball player.

For those of you who are thinking to yourselves that I am abusing my ministerial privilege a bit here by going on and on about a good, but by no means great, baseball player, I want to switch up the focus a little bit. I want to talk about the time after he washed out of the major leagues the first time. It is not a happy story, or a heroic story. A remarkable article describes Beck’s days after he washed out of the Major Leagues for the first time.

He wouldn’t give up the dream. After the first time he washed out of the majors, he accepted a position on the roster of the Cubs minor league team in Des Moines and bought an RV that he parked behind the wall in centerfield. His walk to work was about 100 steps. There he entertained his teammates, curious fans, anybody who wanted to come and hang out. Dozens of strangers every night just made themselves at home in his camper, hanging out and talking baseball as Beck waited for a major league team that would be willing to take a chance on him.

That chance came but his comeback was cut short and he retired for good. As far as I can tell, he didn’t donate his millions to an orphanage or to cancer research. This is not one of those types of stories. Rod Beck was not a healthy guy. He drank a lot more than he should have, smoked, and several articles on his death implied that he also abused harder, illicit drugs. He was found dead at his home in Arizona at age 38.

So, why do I bring up Rod Beck, of all the worthy souls I might have focused upon? He didn’t exemplify Unitarian Universalist values in some exemplary way. He was not some great humanitarian. He was a tragic figure, with quite a bit of self-destructiveness thrown in. But, his life calls to mind certain lessons. While living in his RV behind the center field wall of the minor league baseball stadium in Des Moines, someone asked Beck about his desire to continue playing. He replied, “If plumbing was a sport, all those guys would be on TV and I’d be working 9 to 5 playing baseball. And it wouldn’t mean a difference to me at all?”

Have you ever felt that way about what you do? How many of us have ever had to leave what we loved the most? How many of us, having discovered that one thing that the universe intended for us to do and blessed us with the ability to do well have ever had to stop doing that thing? I speak not only of work, of professions and vocations. The idea of retirement, whether you are a 33 year-old ballplayer or you are in your sixties or seventies, is a scary notion for many people. But it happens in other ways. A great singer loses her voice. A cycling enthusiast is diagnosed with degenerative arthritis. A reader loses her eyesight. A world traveler becomes too frail to travel.

This is the reason I selected Beck’s life. It is not that he was a colorful ballplayer. It is that he was an example of human living, one who struggled with transition, with letting go, with moving on. We can learn something from his story.

We can learn something from TV evangelist, fallen from grace, who in the face of her own mortality discovers a faith worthy of life.

We can learn something from the ballplayer who strained and strained to reach the summits of competitive achievement just one more time.

We can learn something from all these stories. These poets and artists. These musicians and actors. These athletes and inventors. These politicians and professors. These lives. These lives among so many worthy lives deserving of our remembering.

Closing Words
When Kurt Vonnegut passed away in April 2007, one of my favorite websites, The Onion AV Club, ran a memorial tribute to him. One of their features is a weekly list, and on April 24, 2007 they posted an article called “Fifteen things Kurt Vonnegut said better than anyone else ever has or will.” I leave you this day with a few of those fifteen things:

On conflict, he wrote: "There are plenty of good reasons for fighting, but no good reason ever to hate without reservation, [or] to imagine that God Almighty Himself hates with you, too."

On Theology, he wrote: "She was a fool, and so am I, and so is anyone who thinks he sees what God is doing."

On Gratitude, he wrote, "I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, 'If this isn't nice, I don't know what is.'"

On Relationships, he wrote, "There's only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you've got to be kind."

And finally, on Perseverance and Perspective, Vonnegut offered these three immortal words, “So it goes.” So it goes, indeed. Life and death, days and years. How blessed we are. Amen.

[The following list of Notable People Who Died in 2007 was included in the Order of Service. A feature on Wikipedia was immensely helpful in assembling this list.]

Notable People Who Died in 2007
Brooke Astor (105) American philanthropist, novelist, and socialite
Jean Baudrillard (77) French post-modernist philosopher and sociologist
Rod Beck (38) Colorful relief pitcher for Giants, Cubs, and Red Sox
Chris Benoit (40) Professional wrestler, steroid abuser, and murderer
Ingmar Bergman (89) Swedish film director and 3 time Oscar winner
Benazir Bhutto (54) Twice Pakistani Prime Minister. Assassinated while running for office
Scott “Bam Bam” Bigelow (45) Professional wrestler known for tattooed head
Joey Bishop (89) Comedian and last-surviving member of Sinatra’s Rat Pack
Philip Booth (81) Accomplished poet and professor
Art Buchwald (81) Pulitzer winning humorist and political satirist
Bobby Byrd (73) Funk/soul singer was side-man for James Brown
Robert Cade (80) Inventor of Gatorade sports-energy drink
Sri Chinmoy (76) Indian guru/philosopher known for feats of strength
Liz Claiborne (78) Fashion designer and entrepreneur
Jo Ann Davis (57) US Rep. from Virginia since 2001; died from breast cancer
Brad Delp (55) Lead singer of 70’s rock band “Boston”
Vincent DeDomenico (92) Inventor of “Rice-a-Roni”
Mary Douglas (86) Brilliant British social anthropologist; author of “Purity and Danger”
Robert Drinan (86) First Catholic Priest to serve in US Congress. Called for impeachment of Nixon
Kevin DuBrow (52) Lead singer for rock-metal band “Quiet Riot”
Thomas Eagleton (77) 3-term Senator from Missouri; kicked off ticket as McGovern’s running mate in the 1972 Presidential election.
Lillian Ellison (84) Pioneering female professional wrestler the “Fabulous Moolah”
Bob Evans (89) Founder of eponymous restaurant chain
Jerry Falwell (73) Fundamentalist minister and co-founder of “Moral Majority”
Dan Fogelberg (56) Folk singer-songwriter
Robert Goulet (73) Actor and singer; caught break playing Sir Lancelot in “Camelot”
Ruth Graham (87) Wife of evangelist Billy Graham
Merv Griffin (83) Television personality and creator of Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune
David Halberstam (73) Pulizter winning journalist and author. Wrote 21 books about Vietnam, politics, economics, history, culture and sports
Josh Hancock (29) Baseball pitcher for St. Louis Cardinals. Died while drunk driving
Johnny Hart (76) American cartoonist best known for “B.C.” comic-strip
Lee Hazlewood (78) Country recording artist and songwriter. Nancy Sinatra collaborator
Leona Helmsley (87) Flamboyant and ruthless real-estate/hotel billionaire and tax evader
Joe Herzenberg (66) North Carolina politician and gay rights activist
Don Ho (76) Hawaiian musician and entertainer known for song “Tiny Bubbles”
Henry Hyde (83) Conservative congressman from Illinois served from 1975-2007
Molly Ivins (62) Populist newspaper columnist and best-selling author from Texas
Richard Jewell (44) Security guard suspected then vindicated of ’96 Olympic bombing
Lady Bird Johnson (94) First Lady and wife of LBJ
Robert Jordan (58) Renowned fantasy author of “Wheel of Time” series
Bruce Kennedy (68) For 12 years the CEO of Alaska Airlines (1979-1991)
James Kennedy (76) Televangelist and founder of Coral Ridge Ministries
Yolanda King (51) Eldest child of MLK, Jr.; actress; activist for gay rights and peace
Evel Knievel (69) Stuntman known for daring motorcycle jumps
Hilly Kristal (75) Owner of famous New York punk/rock club CBGB
Madeleine L’Engle (88) Author of young adult fiction; most know for A Wrinkle in Time
Richard Leigh (64) Co-author of Holy Blood and Holy Grail. Unsuccessful in plagiarism lawsuit against Da Vinci Code author Dan Brown
Ira Levin (78) Author of Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives
Charles Lindberg (86) Last surviving US Marine who helped raise flag at Battle of Iwo Jima
Peter Lipton (53) Brilliant philosopher most known for his work on scientific theory
Norman Mailer (84) Macho author and Pulitzer winning journalist; wrote “The Naked and the Dead”
Marcel Marceau (84) World-famous French mime
Tammy Faye (Bakker) Messner (65) Televangelist wife of Jim Bakker and felon in the PTL scandal. Known for outrageous make-up. Later became theologically liberal
Bruce Metzger (93) Princeton Biblical scholar who chaired translation of NSRV Bible
Richard Musgrave (96) Influential economist in 1950s and 1960s
Ralph Myers (90) Local architect who designed Chiefs/Royals sports complex
Grace Paley (84) Short story author, poet, and activist for nuclear non-proliferation
Luciano Pavarotti (71) Italian opera singer was one of The Three Tenors
Phil Rizzuto (89) NY Yankees Hall of Fame shortstop and later sports announcer
Max Roach (83) Jazz drummer for Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker and many more
Richard Rorty (75) Prolific philosopher of pragmatism, liberalism, etc.
Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr. (89) Historian, social critic, and speechwriter for JFK
Les Schwab (89) Businessman founded eponymous chain of tire stores
Joy Simonson (88) Washington D.C. based advocate for women’s rights
Anna Nicole Smith (39) Tabloid celebrity was sex-symbol, model, and actress
Kelsey Smith (18) Overland Park teenager and murder victim
William Sturtevant (80) American Smithsonian Institution curator
Sean Taylor (24) Football star for Washington Redskins. Murder victim
Hank Thompson (82) Country / Honky-Tonk recording artist for six decades
Paul Tibbets (92) Pilot of the Enola Gay in WWII; dropped Atomic bomb on Hiroshima
Ike Turner (76) With Tina an influential blues, soul, and funk musician and producer. Musical legacy tarnished by history of domestic violence and legal trouble
Chad Varah (95) Anglican priest; founded the Samaritans suicide prevention hotline
Kurt Vonnegut (84) Prolific and distinctive author; works included Cat’s Cradle, Slaughterhouse 5, Breakfast of Champions, and Man Without a Country
Mike Wieringo (44) Comic artist worked on “Flash” and “Fantastic Four” comics
Bill Walsh (75) NFL coach won 3 Super Bowls with San Francisco 49ers
Donda West (58) Mother of hip-hop artist Kanye West; English prof. at U of Chicago
John Woodruff (92) Gold-medalist for US track & field team at 1936 Berlin Olympics
Jane Wyman (90) Oscar-winner and soap opera actress; first wife of Ronald Reagan
Boris Yeltsin (76) Two-term President of Russia (1991-1999)
Robert Young (83) 5-term U.S. Congressman (1977-1987) from Missouri

SMUUCh Members:
Betty Friauf
George R. Young

US Military Deaths
921 in Iraq
116 in Afghanistan