A sermon by Rev. Brian Dixon
October 30, 2011
Tomorrow is Halloween. The spookiest day of the year. It of course has all sorts of evil connotations. There is always the move amongst the most fervent of evangelicals to ban halloween. Often growing up my church would host not a halloween party but a fall carnival where all the kids dressed up in costumes and got candy. Sounds a lot like a halloween to me. And there is the Mexican tradition of day of the dead where friends and families gather together on November 1 to remember those who have died. It coincides with the Christian celebration of All Saints Day. So today we are going to spend a little bit of time acknowledging all saints day since we won't be together on Tuesday.
I really love All Saints Sunday. What I always do feels a little bit like the in memoriam section of awards shows. You know the portion of the program where all those who have died in the last year are remembered. Their pictures are displayed to varying degrees of applause. The really big ones receive thunderous applause and other less so. And I always respond at least once, "oh, that guy died?!"--The character actor that no really knows but everyone recognizes. But each one gets their due.
In the same vein I like to focus on famous folks who have died since the last time we celebrated All Saints Day. We of course acknowledge that folks of much less fame or notoriety died this year, those known only to us, and those known to no one. And we'll have time to acknowledge all the folks who we remember on this day in just a little bit. But right now I'd like to talk about three legends who died this last year. They aren't necessarily the classiest or easiest to be around folks, but I think they and their lives have something to say to us. And let's be honest many of those Biblical saints weren't so saintly were they? Moses was a killer and Paul persecuted many. So at least the folks I'll name aren't murderers or at least not that I know of.
First, Elizabeth Taylor died this year. She was a screen legend,a child actress who became a successful adult actress. She won two academy awards. She was hauntingly beautiful with deep blue eyes that appeared violet and a genetic anomaly that produced double eyelashes which someone said with eyelashes like that she was born to be in the movies. Her life was not easy though. Her mother manipulated and pressured her to continue acting even when she didn't want to, saying that she owed it to her country and to the world to continue acting. She had numerous medical issues including back problems that resulted from a fall off a horse when she was making National Velvet early in her career. And of course she was married 8 times to 7 different men. When asked why she married so often, she replied, "I don't know, honey. It sure beats the hell out of me," but also said that, "I was taught by my parents that if you fall in love, if you want to have a love affair, you get married. I guess I'm very old-fashioned." But she also was a pioneer in early fundraising for HIV/AIDS. She was speaking out about the illness long before many others were, especially in Hollywood. She raised more than $270 million dollars for the cause. Her foundation provided critically needed support services to those with the disease. When she died Bill Clinton said "Elizabeth's legacy will live on in many people around the world whose lives will be longer and better because of her work and the ongoing efforts of those she inspired." (BBC News report) She treated everyone with respect--electricians and studio crews in the same way she would treat a Rothschild or a Getty. Those that knew her said she was a "star without airs." But what I found particularly interesting and important for us today was the way she understood herself and her faith. She was deeply connected to her faith-- converting from Christian Science to Judaism after the death of her husband Mike Todd. She didn't necessarily attend synagogue with regularity because she said "I'm one of those people who think you can be close to God anywhere, not just in a place designed for worship . . . "
During an interview when she was 55, she described how her inner sense of identity, when a child actress, kept her from giving in to many of the studio's demands, especially with regard to altering her appearance to fit in:
God forbid you do anything individual or go against the fad. But I did. I figured this looks absurd. And I agreed with my dad: God must have had some reason for giving me bushy eyebrows and black hair. I guess I must have been pretty sure of my sense of identity. It was me. I accepted it all my life and I can't explain it. Because I've always been very aware of the inner me that has nothing to do with the physical me.
She added that she began to recognize her "inner being" during her adulthood "Eventually the inner you shapes the outer you, especially when you reach a certain age, and you have been given the same features as everybody else, God has arranged them in a certain way. But around 40 the inner you actually chisels your features. . . Life is to be embraced and enveloped. Surgeons and knives have nothing to do with it. It has to do with a connection with nature, God, your inner being—whatever you want to call it—it's being in contact with yourself and allowing yourself, allowing God, to mold you" (Rolling Stone, 2011)
Then the Palo Alto Pioneer Steve Jobs died this year. Really only a few weeks ago. Steve Jobs who founded Apple Computer with his friend Steve Wozniak in his parents garage. I typed this sermon on an apple computer while waiting for a call from a friend on my iPhone. We'll play a song later on my iPod. I covet an iPad. Steve Jobs changed the way the world communicates. He changed the way we listen to music and watch movies. And he did it all in a way that was visually stunning. He was only as good as his developers and those who worked for him, but I don't think anyone can deny that he was a marketing and corporate genius. He had a way of creating buzz about a product that made everyone want that product. Just by having an iPhone you were cool. He wasn't the philanthropist of Bill Gates or at least not that we know of. Many people say he had a temper and in general wasn't always the nicest person. But I didn't know him and I'm sure to his wife and children he was a loving husband and father. He was an innovator. The day after he died Talk of the Nation on NPR reran the Stanford commencement speech that he gave in 2005. For all I know some of you may have been there on that day when he told three stories from his life. The story of how he dropped out of college only to remain a drop-in for the next 18 months to continue to take courses that he was really interested in. Including one on calligraphy that he had no idea how he would ever use. But 10 years later when they were developing the Macintosh the fonts were beautiful and proportionately spaced. All because he took that class that he just thought was interesting.
He lived life doing what he loved. He remarked "If you live everyday like it is your last, eventually you will be right." But he tried to live life in that way. Doing what he loved and what he was passionate about. Even when he got fired from Apple, the company he started, he took that as an opportunity to start over and in doing that he founded Pixar. Pixar which tells beautiful stories in beautiful ways. With his diagnosis of cancer in 2004 he realized just how close death was. He wanted to make everyday count. During that commencement speech he said this, "Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of others' opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary." The way I might say it is, or the way we might read it in our holy text is "fear not."
Finally, Steve Jobs death on October 5 overshadowed another pioneer, the death of Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth. If you don't know who Shuttlesworth is you should. He was a contemporary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He helped start the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. He helped organized the Birmingham bus boycott and helped organize the freedom rides. He was arrested countless times. He was nearly killed at least twice. Once sticks of dynamite were ignited outside his bedroom window and he and his family narrowly escaped. To be sure he was more headstrong and antagonistic than King. After he was beaten with brass knuckles he remarked to the doctor who was treating him, "well the Lord knew I lived in a hard town, so he gave me a hard head." But he also said to his family and his children after being attacked when he tried to enroll his children in a white school, that they were to forgive. He was instrumental in getting the civil rights act passed, he helped sway public opinion when images of Bull Conner attacking children with dogs and hoses and sticks were broadcast for all to see. It was those images that shocked a nation. He convinced Dr. King to come to Birmingham. He believed Birmingham could make a difference. He was right. He didn't give up. Even when his church wanted him to spend more time on weddings and funerals and other such church activities he didn't give up. He had faith that he was on the side of justice and what was right. He believed that his God would be on his side. And he also knew that even if he died the movement that he was a part of wouldn't. He preferred to die for what he knew was right than to live a life less than true.
These three pioneers led lives of authenticity and courage. Had it not been for Fred Shuttlesworth there would be no President Barak Obama. He was the stepping stone by which all of us moved forward toward justice and peace. Today we celebrate these three legends. But as I said there are numerous people who are legends to just us. There are those who are stepping stones in our lives. Who gave birth to us, or taught us, gave us our first jobs, showed us who we truly are. They are the ones who have gone before us. Today let us all name those who are legends and pioneers to us. Our personal stepping stones.