Movie stars and moral stars – J. Barry Vaughn – Feb. 9, 2020

February 9, 2020

Movie stars and moral stars – J. Barry Vaughn – Feb. 9, 2020

Tonight, the Academy Awards will be broadcast. Someone once called the Academy Awards the “gay Super Bowl.” I don’t think that’s exactly right. I’ve never been much of a football fan and have always preferred the Oscars to the Super Bowl, but I have plenty of gay and lesbian friends who are huge football fans.


One of the most enjoyable parts of the Academy Awards takes place before the show begins. It’s the red carpet, the time when Hollywood stars and their escorts walk down the red carpet and pause for photos and short chats with reporters. It’s a chance to see who’s wearing what, a time for the stars of stage and screen to shine.


It strikes me as a little odd that we call actors and actresses “stars.” When did that start and why do we do it?


I guess we do it because these people seem larger than life, or at least they did in the days of the grand movie palaces of days gone by when we would sit in darkened theatres looking up at the enormous images on the silver screen.


Even today people such as Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett, and so on really do seem to have a glow about them.


Of course, unlike the stars in the night sky that really do glow and bestow their light on us, Tom and Meryl and Cate and the rest only glow because we allow them to do so. We attribute qualities to them that they may not really possess.


In today’s gospel reading Jesus says, “You are the light of the world,” but he’s not talking to movie stars; he’s talking to you and me.


We are the light of the world? Do beams of light really emanate from us? Well, that’s what Jesus says.


Let’s see if we can figure out why he says it.


Well, first of all, we are not the light of the world because we were born that way.


Poet William Wordsworth said that children are born “trailing clouds of glory.” (From his poem “Ode on intimations of immortality.”) Well, maybe, but children are also born trailing dirty diapers and spilled milk and sleepless nights for their parents.


The light that Jesus talks about is a gift; it’s not something that’s inherent in us. We are the light of the world because of Jesus in us.


We are like old fashioned kerosene lamps. We can only shed light on the world, if we are filled with oil, and that oil is the grace of God bestowed on the world in the person of Jesus. We need Jesus in our hearts if we are going to shine.


When my friend Dale was expecting her second child, she was bathing her first child when the little girl said, “Mommy is the baby in your tummy?” to which Dale said yes. Then the little girl looked puzzled and said, “And you’ve got Jesus in your heart?”


But if we really do have Jesus in our hearts, then we will do all kinds of strange things, such as love our enemies, return good for evil, pray for those who persecute us. When someone strikes us on the left side of our face, then we will offer them the right side of our face to strike, too.


One of our annual national events took place last week, the National Prayer Breakfast, and the theme of the prayer breakfast was “Love your enemies.” The principal speaker was conservative thinker Arthur Brooks, former president of the American Enterprise Institute. Brooks based his remarks on a terrific book he wrote, appropriately entitled, Love Your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save American from the Culture of Contempt. At the prayer breakfast, Brooks said, “To start us on a path of new thinking to our cultural crisis, I want to turn to the words of [Jesus] the ultimate original thinker, history’s greatest social entrepreneur… Love your enemies! Now that is thinking differently. It changed the world starting 2,000 years ago, and it is as subversive and counterintuitive today as it was then. But the devil’s in the details. How do we do it in a country and world roiled by political hatred and differences that we can’t seem to bridge?”


By the way, I’ve started reading Brooks’ book, and it’s terrific. I recommend it. Reading it for Lent would be a great idea.


Brooks says that the biggest problem facing us as individuals and as a country is contempt. He defines contempt as the “unsullied conviction of the worthlessness of the other.”


Brooks went on to say that, “Contempt is a habit, and it’s tearing our society apart. How do we break the habit of contempt? Even more, how do we turn the contempt people show us into an opportunity to follow the teachings of Jesus, to love our enemies?”


By the way, contempt and anger are different things. Anger is just a feeling, and it has its place. In his book, Brooks says that “Whether anger is the right strategy or not, we get angry because we recognize that things are not as they should be, we want to set them right, and we think we can.” (Love your Enemies: How Decent People Can Save America from the Culture of Contempt (Broadside Books, 2019))


Brooks gave his audience at the National Prayer Breakfast three assignments. I want to share them, and I guarantee that if you do them, you will shine with a million kilowatts.


First, he said, “Ask God to give you the strength to… go against human nature, to follow Jesus’ teaching and love your enemies.”


We live in a time when many people are a part of the “cult of the natural.” We eat natural food; we wear natural fibers. If a thing is natural, we assume that it’s good and unnatural is bad. Did you ever stop to think that literacy is unnatural?


Natural and unnatural are not moral categories. And just about the most unnatural thing we can do is to love our enemies. Yet that is what Jesus commands us to do.


When he said, “Love your enemies” Jesus didn’t mean have nice, warm feelings toward them. He meant for us to behave toward them in loving ways, to will their good and to behave in a loving way toward them.


Secondly, Brooks said, “Make a commitment to another person to reject contempt. Of course, you will disagree with others… But commit to doing it without contempt and ask someone to hold you accountable to love your enemies.”


And thirdly, “Go out looking for contempt, so you have the opportunity to answer it with love.” [*]


The third point is by far the most difficult, but I think it may also be the most Christ-like. I believe it’s what Jesus did. Jesus constantly confronted his enemies with love, not contempt.


I guarantee you that if you follow Brooks’ three step plan, you will shine brighter than any star in the sky; you will be more luminous any of the stars on the red carpet at the Academy Awards.


Actually, imagine a world in which there were annual awards for people who really tried to live out Jesus’ words in the Sermon on the Mount. Imagine Mother Teresa and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Gandhi and the Dalai Lama walking the red carpet and getting interviewed by reporters.

“Dr. King, tell us how you felt when they turned German shepherds and fire hoses on your supporters in Birmingham?”


“Mother Teresa, how were you able to love and serve the lepers on the streets of Calcutta?”


Your Holiness, what is the source of your inner peace in the face of China’s continued occupation of your homeland?”


I promise you that they would save a lot of money on the electric bill, because these people would shine so brightly that there would be no need to turn on the lights!


Who is in your personal pantheon of heroes? Who would you put on the red carpet for loving their enemies and praying for their persecutors?


Wouldn’t the world be a great place if instead of aspiring to be movie stars, we all aspired to be moral stars? Amen.



[*] Quotations from Brooks’ National Prayer Breakfast address from “America’s Crisis of Contempt” in The Washington Post, Feb. 7, 2020. For complete article, go here.

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