Sermon: “Your Hour Upon the Stage” July 31, 2016

Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“Your Hour upon the Stage” (Ecclesiastes 1:14)
July 31, 2016
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In this sermon I will try and show you the gospel connection in today’s lessons from Ecclesiastes and Luke to Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, and hopefully your life as well.  A couple weeks ago I visited Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, the iconic recording studio where Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash and many others including Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Jerry Lee Lewis got their start.  Our tour guide led us into the very room where these legends recorded.

There is a literal “x” on the floor where Elvis stood on July 5, 1954 when he recorded “That’s All Right,” which is considered by many the very first rock ‘n roll record.  Many years later when Bob Dylan visited Sun Studios he knelt down and kissed that spot.  Not only could all of us tourists take turns standing on that spot, we were also allowed to hold the same microphone into which Elvis and Johnny and the other legends sang—how cool is that?  It was also at Sun Studios on April 2, 1956 that Johnny Cash recorded these familiar lyrics:

I keep a close watch on this heart of mine
I keep my eyes wide open all the time
I keep the ends out for the tie that binds
Because you’re mine I walk the line

In the scripture lessons appointed for today both the writer of Ecclesiastes and Jesus call us to “keep a close watch” on our hearts, to “walk the line” as we go through our lives.

The writer of Ecclesiastes is considered by many to be King Solomon, whose wisdom and riches far exceeded all the other kings of Israel.  He writes, “I saw all the deeds that are done under the sun; and see, all is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1:14).  This idea is reflected in one of Shakespeare’s most famous soliloquys as Macbeth, whose ambition to gain the throne of Scotland resulted in much deceit and bloodshed, had this to say about his efforts:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death.  Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more.  It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing (The Tragedy of Macbeth, V.v.19-28).

Macbeth’s lust for power knew no end, and meant the elimination of anyone, even children, who got in the way.  A contemporary example of this is Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright’s chilling portrayal as Francis and Claire Underwood in the dark Netflix series House of Cards.  And yet, like King Solomon, Macbeth ultimately considered his efforts “a chasing after wind.”

And even if you are not as darkly ambitious as Macbeth or the Underwood’s, have you ever found yourself wondering what your “hour upon the stage” is all about?  Years of pastoral ministry have shown me that many of us have certainly learned to pack in a lot of strutting and fretting into that hour.  This can even happen at meals, as comedian Jim Gaffigan shares:

My wife likes to pause before the meals with our kids and say grace.  While I think this is a great opportunity for our children to learn to appreciate the gifts that God has given them, I view grace as kind of the “On yor our children to learn to appreciate the gifts that God has given them, I view grace as kind of the “runity ay.  A more conteour mark, get set…” and the “Amen” as the “Go!”  I am pretty sure that’s the way God intended it (Food: A Love Story 19-10, 2014).

In today’s gospel lesson Jesus is accosted by someone in a crowd who wants what he thinks his brother owes him, “Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me.”  Jesus gently responds, “Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?”  Then Jesus warns him and the whole crowd, “Take care!  Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:13-15).  Again, “life does not consist in the abundance of possessions”—ouch.

I remember years ago seeing a bumper sticker that read, “The one who dies with the most toys wins.”  Some of you may remember that.  For many people it actually comes down to that—acquiring more and more, because enough is never enough.  It is no secret that our culture is marked by pathological materialism, consumerism and entitlement.  Just like the gentleman in the gospel lesson, we want what we think people owe us.  And yet, even if “The one who dies with the most toys wins,” the one who dies with the most toys is still dead—so there’s that.

Several years ago in Virginia I was visiting a parishioner in a nursing home.  I had to wait in the hall for a few minutes outside her door and I did so I glanced into the room next to hers.  The walls were covered with awards and degrees and plaques revealing a highly accomplished life, and photos of what appeared to be an estate—no photographs of any family or friends.  A distinguished looking gentleman, oblivious to me and dressed to the nines, was sitting in the room, all alone, staring out the window, as his high definition television blared the gameshow The Price is Right.  “Come on down!” host Drew Carey proclaimed as ecstatic contestants leaped toward the stage for their opportunity to guess the prices of various prizes.  Enough is never enough.

What is your “hour upon the stage” all about?  What are you chasing after?  What do you think people owe you?

Johnny Cash went on to record many albums and win an unbelievable number of awards.  And yet, the last music video he made in 2002, a year before his death, was for his cover of a song called “Hurt” on his album American IV: The Man Comes Around.  This sobering video includes an evocative montage of footage of his “hour upon the stage,” with images from the House of Cash Museum, which at the time was closed, of his many plaques, and trophies scattered, broken, dusty—images of stacks of awards and photographs strewn about, a gold record on the floor in a shattered frame.  Over this montage Johnny sings:

What have I become, my sweetest friend?
Everyone I know goes away in the end
And you could have it all, my empire of dirt
I will let you down
I will make you hurt

And yet, near the end of this video there are images of something else interwoven into the montage—images of the Jesus’ passion and death, images of the definitive act of unconditional love of Jesus as he walked the line to the cross.

At the end of Ecclesiastes King Solomon, after elaborating about how “all is vanity and chasing after wind” concludes: “The end of the matter…Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone” (Ecclesiastes 12:13)—nothing about fulfilling one’s ambitions or acquiring more possessions.  And of course, as you know, Jesus summed up all the commandments this way: “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:37, 39).

In other words, ultimately our “hour upon the stage” is to be about love.

Jesus’ “hour upon the stage” was certainly about love.  While we spent time “chasing after wind” Jesus spent time chasing after us, because as he said, “The Son of Man came to seek out and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).  As we strutted and fretted about the stage, preoccupied about what we think people owed us, Jesus walked “the way to dusty death” on cross at the very spot of Calvary.  And while skeptics may dismiss Jesus’ death as “signifying nothing” the good news of the gospel is that it actually signifies everything: the eternal and unconditional love of God for you.

After I visited Sun Studios I went to Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley, because if you are a tourist in Memphis, you have to go to Graceland, right?  It was fascinating to see the family room complete with mirrored walls and a custom-made fifteen-foot sofa, to see the ornate bedroom for his parents, to see the fabled “jungle room” complete with green shag carpet on the floor and ceiling.

And of course Graceland includes “The Hall of Gold,” nearly eighty feet long, lined from floor to ceiling with Elvis’ gold records, gold albums, and other awards.  Although Elvis had forty top ten hits, eighteen of which went to number one, he never won a Grammy for any of them.  Instead, Elvis won three Grammy’s for his covers of inspirational songs, one for “He Touched Me” and the other two for “How Great Thou Art.”  In fact, that hymn was the very last song he ever performed live on stage, so that the final words Elvis sang as his “hour upon the stage” was to unexpectedly end a few short weeks later were these:

When Christ shall come with shout of acclamation
And lead me home, what joy shall fill my heart
Then I shall bow in humble adoration
And then proclaim, my God, how great Thou art

Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art
Then sings my soul, my Savior God, to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art

The moving epitaph on Elvis’ tombstone was written by his father, Vernon and on behalf of his then nine-year old daughter, Lisa Marie:

He was a precious gift from God we cherished and loved dearly.  He had a God-given talent that he shared with the world.  And without a doubt, he became most widely acclaimed; capturing the hearts of young and old alike.  He was admired not only as an entertainer, but as the great humanitarian that he was; for his generosity, and his kind feelings for his fellow man.  He revolutionized the field of music and received its highest awards.  He became a living legend in his own time, earning the respect and love of millions.  God saw that he needed some rest and called him home to be with Him.  We miss you, Son and Daddy.  I thank God that He gave us you as our son.

You see the love of God got through to Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash.  In the midst of all their ambitions and accomplishments, all of their fame and possessions, all of the things that made them fret and strut during their “hour upon the stage” including their various improprieties and addictions, the love of God ultimately reached their hearts and gave them hope—and their music continues to move many of us.

May this same love of God reach your heart, mark the rest of your “hour upon the stage” and enable you to “walk the line” until God calls you home.

Amen.