For the past few weeks, over the course of Lent and Holy Week, you’ve heard me preach about a number of important and serious topics. I’ve talked about forgiveness, the cross, healing, living simply, speaking and acting prophetically, the true identity of Jesus Christ, and what the Risen Christ is doing out in the world. Now as we gather one week after Easter Sunday, it feels like a good time for a more whimsical sermon. Something a little less intense. In the words of the old Lite beer commercial, I’m hoping this sermon tastes great but is a little less filling.
I was born in the mid 1960’s and I grew up listening primarily to classic rock music. I loved Led Zeppelin and Aerosmith and Jimi Hendrix and Van Halen, to name a few. Almost every time I came home from school or some other activity, I would head up to my room, put on a pair of headphones and let my favorite music help me forget about all my stress and troubles.
As much as I loved and still love classic rock, however, I don’t think I will ever match the fanaticism, the undying loyalty, the sheer, unshakeable allegiance many people in the generation just before me have for Elvis Presley. All over the world there are active Elvis Presley fan clubs. People well into their adult years still dress up like Elvis as a way of paying tribute to their idol. For millions of people, Elvis was and is and always will be “The King.”
Noted preacher and comedian Rev. Susan Sparks describes in one of her sermons a trip she took to the holy land. Not the capital “H”, capital “L” Holy Land of Israel. But rather the small “h”, small “l” holy land of Memphis, Tennessee. The land of succulent barbecued ribs, the land of proud Bible Belt Christians, and the land where Elvis Presley made his home.
On the day Susan Sparks made her way to Graceland, she was greeted by a twenty-five foot high sign with Elvis saying “Welcome to the Blingdom!” Soon thereafter, Susan Sparks joined the long line of people waiting for tickets. At one point, Rev. Sparks turned to one of the tour guides and asked what she figured was a relatively innocent question, “so how long did Elvis actually live here?”
Whereupon the tour guide turned to her with a look of shock and disdain and whispered, “We don’t use the past tense here.” And then she proceeded to point to her own t-shirt which read, “Graceland, where Elvis LIVES.”
Never mind the fact that the tour guide had never seen Elvis herself. Not to mention the fact that Elvis Presley officially died in 1977, nearly forty years ago. For many Elvis fans none of those details matter. In the end, the most avid fans can’t be bothered with things like facts. All they know is that Elvis lives, baby. The King is still alive. For them it’s almost as if Elvis Presley has reached holy status.
Come to think of it, there have been actual studies which have identified the parallels between Jesus and Elvis. And in one of his stand-up routines, none other than Adam Sandler identified a few of the similarities…
According to Sandler, in the Bible Jesus said, “love your neighbor.” In one of his more famous songs Elvis sang,”don’t be cruel.” Jesus was part of the Trinity. The first band Elvis was ever a part of was a trio. Jesus is often referred to as the Lord’s shepherd. Elvis once dated Cybil Sheppard…
Without trying to sound irreverent, I find myself wondering whether all of us as Jesus fans have something to learn from all the people who are Elvis fans. Especially when it comes our post-Easter faith, most of us tend to be a lot more like the disciple Thomas than the tour guide down at Graceland.
This morning’s Scripture lesson tells the familiar story of doubting Thomas. After the crucifixion, Thomas and the other disciples were holed up behind closed doors. Until Jesus came and stood among them. When they saw Jesus, the disciples rejoiced. But Thomas was not present at that precise moment. Thomas heard the news later, second hand from one of the disciples who witnessed it.
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in his side, I will not believe.” Thomas was adamant in his response. But not more than a week later, Thomas was with his disciple friends and the Risen Christ appeared again.
Knowing his doubts, the Risen Christ allowed Thomas to touch the holes in his hands and in his side. And when he did, Thomas confessed his faith aloud. “My Lord and my God.” Prompting Jesus to respond, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe.”
You and I have likely heard the story before and more importantly, we have lived the story. How many times in our lives have we been skeptical and asked God to show us a sign or give us some proof? Times when the pain was more than we could bear, the loneliness was more than we could comprehend, the self-doubt was more than we could cope with. And when we tried to reach out to God with a plea for God’s presence and God’s understanding, all we heard in return was silence.
Unless we see it with our own eyes, we won’t believe it. Not much has changed over the course of two thousand years. We still live in a world where trying to prove something trumps the idea of having faith in something. And why not? In 2016, there are microphones and video cameras and cell phones and high tech surveillance equipment available for any purpose at any time. Who needs faith when a few clicks of a button will provide all the evidence necessary…?
On the other hand, if only we could have the same kind of faith that fans of Elvis Presley have. A faith not driven by empirical truth, a faith not driven by our need to see our touch or hear, but rather a faith driven by what we trust in our hearts. Finding and feeling that kind of faith could change our lives. Because when you believe something with all your heart, you start to act accordingly.
Elvis fans don’t just believe Elvis lives. They act like he lives. They are constantly on the lookout for Elvis. And sometimes, they find Elvis…or so they claim. They find him at the nearby Burger King. Or they find him at a spa. Or they see his image in a taco shell…really I’m not making that up…
Wouldn’t it be great it Christians put some of the same passion and energy towards looking for the Risen Christ. Seeing him the face of a small child or a homeless stranger. Seeing him in the face of someone who has a different skin color or someone who practices a different faith. Seeing him in the face of someone who is supposed to be an enemy but someone Jesus urged us to love anyway.
If you and I really believed Jesus lives, we’d act as though he was alive. If we just spent some time looking for the Risen Christ, there’s a good chance we’d find him…
And here’s another thing about Elvis Presley fans. Because they believe Elvis is alive, the look for others who believe the same thing. As a result, they’ve created an entire network, an entire community of people who are loyal to each other and who care about each other because they share a common devotion to Elvis.
It sounds a lot like Christian community at its best. Inside the church and outside the church, you and I seek out others who believe the same thing we do. We search for community. And over time we build a network of friends and fellow disciples who care about each other because we share a common devotion to Jesus Christ.
One more thing about Elvis fans. Because his rabid supporters believe Elvis lives they go out into the world and share his message. They play Elvis’ music as often as they can. They dress up in Elvis costumes and go to Elvis conventions. They decorate their homes with all kinds of Elvis memorabilia. Through their words and their music and their actions and their prized Elvis collectibles, Elvis fans proudly and loudly preach the message of the King.
In truth, Elvis fans do exactly the opposite of what the disciples did. After the cross, the disciples went into hiding. They kept to themselves and avoided going out and seeking the solace of other followers. They stopped preaching and teaching. Instead they locked their doors and hoped no one would disturb them because they didn’t believe what Jesus told them…namely that he would, in fact, rise from the dead.
Instead of closing the doors and locking up our hearts and asking for proof, we might choose to take the advice of Elvis Presley himself. Early on in his career, Elvis said, “Music and religion are similar—because both should make you wanna move.”
Are you looking for a religion that makes you wanna move? Do you want the kind of Savior who would be thrilled if you put on a sequin jumpsuit and a pair of dark glasses and started singing? Do you believe that Jesus lives?
I’m pretty sure that’s the kind of Savior I want. Never mind touching the nail holes, I want a Risen Christ who lives and moves. Long live the King, baby. Amen.
NOTE: The story told by the Rev. Susan Sparks, pastor of the Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City, can be found in her sermon titled “Trust Jesus and Elvis.” The sermon was broadcast on April 11, 2010, on the DAYOne Radio Program.