Hearts on Fire
I have a friend who is a huge Pittsburgh Steelers fan, and he is mighty disappointed that he is not going to be watching his team compete today in the Super Bowl. When they were in the final four, he was convinced that they would prevail over the Falcons and the Packers to face the mighty Patriots and their star Tom Brady. If you spent just a little time with my friend, maybe a ½ hour, you would hear about the Steelers, and he would convince you that they would win the Super Bowl, guaranteed.
It doesn’t make sense that he is a Pittsburgh fan—he grew up in New Jersey---but I know his father hated almost all New York teams. My friend drank the Steelers Kool-Aid since he was a baby, and the identity defines him. He can recite every major player on the team over the last 50 years, he has all kinds of Steelers stuff in his house, and he even has a New Jersey vanity license plate that refers to the team. For years I’ve been kidding him about his obsession, and he recently sent me a picture of a headstone for his grave like the one he wants. Of course I told him it was ridiculous.
I suspect that there are people you know who have similar obsessions with the Jets or the Giants. I mean, I know quite a few such fans who live around here, and they too are not thrilled with today’s game participants, particularly the Boston team.
The Oxford dictionary and other sources define "fan" as a shortened version of the word fanatic. The word’s origin comes from the Latin word “fanum”, meaning temple, and someone who hung around a temple was a “fanaticus”: a zealous, mad person marked by excessive enthusiasm and often intense, uncritical devotion. Winston Churchill famously said that a fanatic was “someone who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject”.
I was reading an article about people with fanatical passions. It listed some of their characteristics: 1) They start their days early, and almost always think positively. 2) They get more excited in general than the average person, and can’t help but talk about their passion because it is always on their minds. 3) They devote much of their time and energy to their passionate dreams. 4) They are willing to risk more and put more on the line for the sake of their passion. 5) They are not always great at balancing their lives, and sometimes run out of steam. 6) Their passion gives them meaning, and more importantly, it gives them happiness and delight: in other words, it gives them joy.
I generally like people who are totally into interesting things. I have a friend who is into belly-dancing. She practices it regularly, and has become an expert at it. have another friend who does extreme martial arts and goes to the gym almost every day to practice for meets. A couple I know make serious pilgrimages around the country to ride wild roller coasters. I know a priest who is a civil war re-enactor, and his character is of course a minister on the battlefield. He travels very far to be part of civil war battle reenactments. And we all know people who are really into other self-defining things like weightlifting or yoga or snapchatting or gardening or painting or skateboarding or woodworking or videogaming or cooking or mountain biking or politic-ing on the internet, or motorcycling or being huge fans of sports teams.
People with such passions or fanatic obsessions are often more colorful and noisier, they stand out from the crowd, make us look at the world with a different perspective, help us see the richness all around us. They also sometimes feel more ‘alive’, more engaged with life: their passions give them a purpose for life, make their lives more meaningful. It gives them a clear identity—which can be a good thing, but not always.
Sammy Davis Jr., the popular singer of another generation, had a signature song called “I Gotta Be Me”. The first lyrics of the song are:
Whether I'm right or whether I'm wrong
Whether I find a place in this world or never belong
I gotta be me, I've gotta be me
What else can I be but what I am
I gotta be free, I've gotta be free
Daring to try, to do it or die
I've gotta be me
The song has a similar theme to Frank Sinatra’s familiar “My Way”:
And now, the end is near;
And so I face the final curtain.
My friend, I'll say it clear,
I'll state my case, of which I'm certain
.To think I did all that;
And may I say - not in a shy way,
"Oh no, oh no not me,
I did it my way".
Both songs allude to men of passion, men who stood out and took some risks in their lives to do what they had to do. Both songs can sound a little egotistical and perhaps a bit self-pitying.
I read that Frank Sinatra actually sometimes hated singing that song which had done so much for his later career. According to Shirley MacLaine and other friends of “Ol’ Blue Eyes” it was difficult for Sinatra to sing a pretentious anthem in celebration of himself. His friends insist that Sinatra was a genuinely humble man who never took his own success for granted.
When Jesus began his ministry, he gathered followers to his side, and explained to them how different the world could be. That was last week’s Beatitudes. Blessed are the poor, the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful, the pure of heart. It was a very radical way of looking at the world (and by the way, it still is.) But it set the hearts of his followers on fire, it gave them a new passion for living, it gave new meaning to their lives. But how could they possibly spread this message? How could they possibly effect it a world that--like our own--says much the opposite? Well, Jesus, said, you can’t be shy about it, you have to sing it out. And for it to be authentic, you have to be you, you’ve got to do it your way. You have to be passionate, and perhaps a bit of a fanatic, but without ego or narcissism. It requires the humility of someone who knows the real source of their joy---a God who loves you from life to death. You have to be like salt that humbly brings the flavor out of the meat, like light, that humbly reveals the truth that is right before our eyes.
Salt and light. You know, when Jesus was walking this earth, salt was one of those universals—everything was better to eat with a little more salt, tasteless without, but more importantly, nothing could be preserved without salt. Just a little pinch of salt kept things from spoiling, rotting, corrupting. Salt even purified.
And as with salt, so too with light. In Jesus' time, there was no Con Edison, no switches to turn light on and off like water. They just had these oil lamps which gave off only a little light—but which made the night less frightening, the dark more friendly, and enabled men and women to finish more of the things their hard lives required of them after the sun went down.
There was never enough light and never enough salt, and both were precious and indispensable to the lives of people when Jesus walked the earth. So when Jesus told his disciples, "You are the salt of the earth", and "You are the light of the world", he was talking about something very precious and very important, in service of life itself. It was the mission of all missions for fanatics who were zealous to bring the world real joy. Be yourselves, he said, be colorful and noisy in your joy, be unafraid to shed light on the world, show the world a different perspective, help everyone to see God’s love all around us.
But it wasn’t just for those early disciples. It is meant to be our passion as well. You and I, through the gift of His love, are like salt: meant to improve the quality of human living, change what we touch, preserve from devastation this God-shaped, dreadfully scarred earth. And we are like light: the gift of love we have from Him is meant to stand out like a lamp on a stand, shine on like the light of the silvery moon, reveal oppression and hunger and the face of the afflicted so that justice can be accomplished. Our task, as Jesus' disciples, is to be an overabundance of salt and light, to bring a fresh flavor to the world in which we live and breathe, to shine like Bethlehem's star for our brothers and sisters who are searching for something—someone—that makes life more human, that makes each day a day worth living.
In Isaiah's words: "share your bread with the hungry, shelter the oppressed and the homeless, clothe the naked when you see them, do not turn your back on your own, remove from your midst oppression, and satisfied the afflicted".
Be, in other words, in Jesus' words, salt and light for your brothers and sisters, for those sitting beside you, those back home in your families, those with whom you work and play, for the stranger you meet wherever you go. Be a fanatic for Christ. How much more wonderful could that be for the world than for the Steelers or the Patriots or the Jets or the Giants? Be zealous and excessive with God’s love. And when the end is near and you face the final curtain, how much more wonderful will we all be that you did it… His way?