Good Morning Christians, Seekers, and Friends!
Good mornin’ and Howdy! Are you prepared for our big fast on the 29, 30th an 31st of February? Ha ha! Sorry, feeling a little extra joyful today as I’ve been thinking a lot about last week’s Have a Heart and what a wonderful night we had with you—even if it was on zoom—and how much fun it is to talk with you all regardless of the venue. I know I’ve said this before, but there is nowhere else I would rather be stuck in a pandemic, than with you all. Your generosity in both service and giving is amazing… And on a drive over here last week I heard something on the Dolly….Parton—did you think I was gonna say something else? Now I know our gospel today doesn’t immediately bring Dolly Parton to the minds of many. But maybe it should. Because Dolly Parton, too, has spent her life in the ‘spotlight’ with her lovely voice raised in song with a smile and laugh on her face as she works hard as a songwriter, a singer, an actress a business woman, and a Christian philanthropist who while refusing to get involved in politics has never hid her faith. She also has never failed to help others in need.
And that is really what Christianity is about. You see, today’s story, taken out of context, can make it seem like a major part of Jesus’ life and ministry and that of his disciples is to suffer and die. But that is simply not true. Yes, Jesus will suffer and die. He knew that from the beginning and he never promised anything else to his disciples. BUT coming as it does after Jesus’ affirmation of Peter’s assertion that he is the Messiah…. Coming as it does after Jesus’ feeding of the four thousand and the five thousand…. Coming as it does after Jesus has given speech to the deaf and sight to the blind and healing so many from illness and demons, the folks around Jesus knew that suffering and death wasn’t what Jesus’ life and ministry was about. His disciples also knew by the work God was doing through their hands, too, that it was not so. And they were right. Jesus came to bring more abundant LIFE to God’s children–to include the excluded and to save those disenfranchised and unprotected by the cultural powers that be. What the disciples didn’t know or couldn’t foresee is just how unflinching Jesus was and would be in his work of love and justice. And as we know even today, that work of love and justice usually puts us at odds with our human culture and its proscriptions and restrictions on what is ‘possible’ and what is ‘impossible’ for us to do. So what Jesus is clearly telling his disciples is that while the Kingdom of God is glorious indeed, and there they will find themselves held in high esteem and treated as heirs to the throne, the road to get there will be treacherous. Because the very things that make God’s kingdom so wonderful also puts it on a collision course with empire. You see, if God’s Kingdom offers honor and freedom to all those who enter therein. If God’s Kingdom treats every single human being as a part of the royal family—the kingdom belonging equally to all those who love and serve the Lord, who does the grunt work then? Who do rulers rule? And how does anyone get ahead, let alone, win?
Jesus knew that his very being—his desire for love and justice for all—threatened the stability and structure of the empire. And empires don’t back down. Fortunately for us, our God of love never backs down either. Being true to the good news necessarily would lead Jesus to the cross. Something that he didn’t seek to avoid. Something he did with full knowledge and absolute willingness because he loved us and knew and trusted in the love of God. So while today, we Christians hear that our pilgrimage along God’s path, may, indeed be difficult and may even ask us to give up our earthly desires for glory and praise, we need to recall that it is also the way we walk towards freedom.
You see walking towards God’s Kingdom isn’t supposed to be all gloomy and gray—some kind of film noir universe consistently filled with ominous shadows and creepy music. There will be times we suffer and times we grieve but there is also a whole lot of laughter and joy — and excitement too— because we know, if we listen to our hearts, that God’s Kingdom is not just a promised land but the land where promises are kept. Today when I first mentioned the Dolly Parton—maybe you all thought I was gonna talk about the Dalai Lama. I think I have shared before how much I admire the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu. To me, these two men are spiritual greats. You know what I love most about these two holy men? I love their joy and their self-deprecating humor. I love that, while both of these men spent their lives working against the power and real evil of empire, the times that I have been in their presence they have spent a whole lot of time laughing and smiling. It is not for nothing that the book written about them is called The Book of Joy. And this is something that Tutu, 89, and the Dalai Lama, 85, share with Dolly Parton who just turned 75 in January.
I remember the first time I was in the audience with the Dalai Lama. At one of the first conferences which, at his behest, brought the great spiritual leader together with neuro-scientists and researchers to discuss the way prayer and meditation changes our nervous systems and our brains, the stage lights were shining off of his glasses so he couldn’t see the crowd without squinting. So he asked his translator and friend,Thupten Jinpa, to apologize to us and I think to help him do something about it. Soon someone stepped forward and offered him this big bright neon visor which he happily put on his head with great aplomb—even though it was in sharp contrast to his monk’s robes—and beamed out at all of us present.
In a similar way I remember the first time I saw Dolly Parton too. It might have been on Hee Haw or something – as we weren’t really a country music family…but anyway, I remember liking her right away because she was funny and had such a beautiful and genuine smile even as she talked about how much money she spent to, as she would say “look so cheap.” Her big blonde wigs have, of course, become a part of her signature look and, if the nineties were any measure, many of us followed her Steel Magnolias lead believing, too, that the ‘bigger the hair, the closer to God.”
Anyway, the other day on the way to Epiphany, I was listening to the news which reported that the Dolly Parton had refused yet another accolade – which she seems to do quite frequently for someone who has bedazzled almost every article of clothing she’s ever worn with rhinestones and sequins. You might have heard that in her home state of Tennessee a call has been made to rid its capital of a bust of Nathan Bedford Forrest; a Confederate general and a founder of the KKK with the likeness of an icon many feel represents the opposite of hatred and oppression: Dolly Parton. In an America deeply divided, Dolly Parton brings folks together. A statue of Dolly is something both Democrats and Republicans in Nashville agreed on. A bill put forward by Rep. Jeremy Faison was passed in committee last week. But Parton asked the Tennessee General Assembly to the pull the bill saying,“Given all that is going on in the world, I don’t think putting me on a pedestal is appropriate at this time.” Her refusal and her two previous refusals of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, make fans believe she deserves it even more.
For me, a fan of this funny lady since I was a child, I find myself wanting to be more and more like Dolly. She doesn’t do politics but she has supported LGBTQI + folks and Black Lives Matter. She doesn’t accept statues and medals but she does give a million dollars for research that led to the Moderna vaccine. And she does accept and rejoice in the person Good made her to be – using her own childhood poverty and struggles– to inspire her to do so much good for other human beings in Tennessee and throughout the world.
For me, someone whose hair since childhood has often been a subject of folks’ conversation and consternation, I feel thankful to Dolly from the tip of my big curly dyed blonde big head to my small town Montana girl toes. The woman I am now doesn’t want to tame my curls but wants them to be as big and curly as God intended them to be…. While undoubtedly some folks still see my curls as unprofessional and ‘messy,’ I just think, “The bigger the hair, the closer to Jesus”…. And in these difficult times, that’s where I want to be.