One of the reasons the gospels have endured as scriptures that give shape and meaning to our lives is that they consistently speak directly to our cultural moment.
In every era since they were written, the gathered faithful have found signposts of wisdom that speak to the controversies and struggles of their time. The same is true for us.
Today we read in our gospel about Jesus and fame.
Celebrity is the currency of choice in our culture. Even money and power fade before the respect given to the famous.
There are a number of rungs on the celebrity ladder of status.
It starts with metrics as small and simple as Facebook likes or Instagram and Twitter followers.
Then it progresses to a ratio: how minute of a level of trivia about your life can you get multiple news outlets to cover?
Amateur celebrities can only get network news to cover them when they win Nobel prizes or maybe die.
Professional celebrities can get wall-to-wall 24-hour cable news and online coverage for which tie they wear or bag they carry to an event.
There is the special class of celebrity that has attained the right to go by only one name, like Beyonce, Madonna, Bono, or Pele.
And then you have the absolute monarchy of celebrity culture: people who have not actually done anything noteworthy, they are simply famous for being famous.
But what’s the real harm in celebrity culture? It’s just fun, right?
It gives us a break from our problems to leaf through a magazine or sit for an hour in front of the TV keeping up with the Kardashians.
Well, it turns out that our culture’s glorification of celebrity has a dark side.
As a millennial, I tend to get impatient with the constant parade of scare articles insisting that my generation is morally bankrupt, devoid of ambition or work ethic, and destined to be losers forever living in our parents’ basements subsisting entirely on avocado toast and smugness.
But I do have concerns about the research showing the relationship of millennials to fame, and I don’t believe for a minute that our generation is the only one affected.
According to one recent study, more than a quarter of millennials would quit their job to become famous.
One in ten would rather be famous than go to college or obtain a degree.
One in fourteen would break up with their significant other in order to become famous, and one in twelve millennials would completely detach themselves from their family for a chance at fame.
Celebrity culture has penetrated our society on both the micro and the macro levels.
Those of you who are parents of young children have probably been shocked at how early social media likes and follows have started to dominate their perceived status among peers.
And where Americans used to require that public servants and candidates for office had some education, experience, and expertise in governance, that is no longer necessary.
In fact, celebrity starpower is preferred to competence.
Knowledge, tact, wisdom, and integrity are actually detrimental to a person’s chances of being elected.
Be loud and outrageous. Be a celebrity.
That is who we value, and at our peril, that is who we trust.
But for all the gloom and doom of a “kids these days” sermon like this, we actually find that the lure of celebrity culture existed back in Jesus’ time.
In our story from Mark today, we read that Jesus and the disciples are besieged by the crowds.
The constant press of people wears them out and Jesus takes them away to pray. Three times they try to escape, but the crowd hunts them down like a pack of paparazzi and they’re surrounded again.
“For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat to a deserted place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them…When they got out of the boat, people at once recognized him, and rushed about that whole region and began to bring the sick on mats to wherever they heard he was.”
Jesus was famous. He was a celebrity.
Everyone wanted a piece of him. Everyone wanted to get something from him. Everyone wanted to see the spectacle.
The healings, the miracles, the teaching, the casting out of demons—it was the best show in town.
Where we start to get some guidance for our own faith life is when we compare how Jesus handled his fame to how the famous leaders in our Jeremiah text handled it.
“Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the Lord. Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them,” Jeremiah says.
When we look to the celebrities and famous people of our own time, both religious and non-religious, we can see who is gathering and caring for the flock, and who is scattering it.
Celebrity culture does not reward humility, selflessness, or love. Celebrity culture goes hand in hand with greed, lust for power, and self-isolation.
Jesus never sought fame.
It arose because of the miraculous deeds and life-changing teaching he brought to the people.
And remarkably, he never grew impatient with fame.
He sought time apart to pray by himself and with his inner circle, but time and time again as the crowds hunted him down and individuals demanded his attention, he responded with compassion.
He cared for the whole flock, and he cared for each individual sheep.
Fame was immaterial to Jesus. Only his mission mattered.
Jesus had no marketing plan. He had no image consultants. He didn’t measure his success by opinion polls.
Jesus is perhaps the most famous person who ever lived, and yet we can observe that his fame did not corrupt him.
What is the difference between fame as a hollow and bankrupt illusion of love used to dominate others and isolate oneself, as it so often is in our society, and the fame that allowed the gospel message to travel around the world and reach us two thousand years after it was first proclaimed?
Jesus understood what really lies behind celebrity culture, both the desire to become famous and the desire to be in contact with someone famous.
There is nothing magical about having one’s face or name recognized by thousands of people. That is not inherently fulfilling.
When we want to be famous or be around famous people, what we really want is to be seen.
We want to be known.
We want someone to peer past our appearance and our social status, be it high or low, and encounter our souls.
That is the deep desire of our hearts that drives our entire lives.
We long for intimacy, for encounter, to be cherished and valued and loved to our core, by God, and by our fellow humans.
Jesus knew that. That was why he became so famous.
Every person who came in contact with him came away certain to their bones that he knew them, and knowing them, he loved them.
Whether that encounter was a laying on of hands and healing, or simply feeling his gaze across a crowd as he taught, he reached out and gave of himself freely, soul touching soul.
And the word spread like wildfire.
People couldn’t not tell others what it was like to be in this man’s presence.
But his was not a charisma of exploitation.
It was not a cult of personality.
It was not a drive for power or money or more fame.
Jesus’ use of fame was holy for two simple reasons: he did not need it or desire it, and it was the result of his complete self-emptying for others.
We as the church should hear an urgent call to ministry in studies like the one I cited.
Our young people are starving for identity.
They are taught by everything around them that fame is the only measure of self-worth.
And unless we, as their spiritual community, provide not just an alternative message but an alternative reality, their hunger for fame will drive them to the extremes of self-centered bigotry and fear we see at the highest levels of our celebrity-dominated government-entertainment complex.
How do we teach our young people that they are inherently valuable, that they are beloved of God and beloved of us, that they are cherished completely apart from how many likes they get or whether they ever end up on TV?
First, we tell them.
I challenge you, whether you are a parent yourself or not, to take on the spiritual discipline of communicating to young people in this congregation that they are valued, valued for their weaknesses and failures as much as their successes and triumphs.
We have a God who loves us for who we are, not what we do.
Can we not do the same for one another?
And in order to communicate to others their identity as the Beloved, the knowledge that God’s love for them is a deeper part of who they are than even their DNA, we have to know it ourselves.
You don’t need to be famous.
You don’t even need to be admired or esteemed or respected.
Because you are already famous to the person who matters most in the world.
God is your number one fan and follower.
God gets up every morning and says, “I can’t wait to see what she’ll do today. I hope she lives today knowing she’s loved.”
It is holy and sacred work to push back against the toxic celebrity culture that tries to paper over the ache at the center of our hearts with ever louder and brighter noise.
If you can help someone else know today that they are beloved, you are helping change the world.
And if you can hear that truth for yourself, the price that Jesus paid for his fame will be worth it.
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