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Photo by Andrew Stutesman on Unsplash

As I’m sure you all know, Easter falls dreadfully early this year—the very last day of March—which means that Ash Wednesday will come to pass on Valentine’s Day. This presents those in the tender stage of love with a dilemma. Will you go out for a romantic dinner with your beloved? Or will you trot yourself to church to hear a sermon about how you are certain to die? You risk either disappointing your true love or disappointing God one way or the other.

The early-ness of Lent also means, tragically, that a bunch of the “esima” Sundays have gone by without my noticing. Today must be (I’m not good at maths) Sexagesima, which would make next Sunday Quinquagesima. I’m probably wrong on this point though, so please don’t go full Anglican on me until later in the day when I can’t remember what I was talking about and have amassed a fuller measure of plausible deniability. The new Lectionary calls this World Mission Sunday and apportions the Great Commission as the Gospel reading, though a lot of churches (mine included) might stick with the Epiphany 5 lections. So anyway, I hope you haven’t fallen asleep because all this ecclesiastical minutia is so deadly boring. I happened upon, as I was pondering the texts for today, something much more fun and ridiculous. Check out this fantastic tweet of Michael Jackson visibly cringing as he endures other famous singers participating in his popular (at the time) musical effort “We Are the World.”

I have a vague memory—it might not be real—of polishing off an American hamburger in an airconditioned restaurant in a big city and seeing that song go by on a television. I must have been around ten or eleven years old, somewhere in Mali or Ivory Coast, amazed that there were apparently people starving somewhere nearby (geography was never my strong suit either). The air conditioning, the hamburger, and the television were a sort of Western trinity of unfamiliar delights that lodged themselves in my mind, though the song did not interest me very much, even then. According to the internet, it was released in 1985, which must have been the moment that enthralled taxi and van/shuttle drivers took the opportunity to affix large stickers of Michael Jackson and Madonna to the back windows of their vehicles. Last time I was there, the stickers persisted, though tattered and faded.

The song was written by Michael Jackson himself, with the help of Lionel Richie. This short article explains that it was recorded in one night and that on the door was a sign imploring the singers to “Check your egos at the door,” because there were so many celebrities and most had been promised a solo, a nigh impossible feat in the interminable 7 minutes of the song. In 2010 a lot of celebrities recorded it again to raise money for Haiti and made some slight rap alterations to this astonishing—if by that one might mean ‘sentimental’ and ‘pedestrian’—poetical undertaking.

Because Lent is just around the corner and it’s important not to be lulled into complacency by something like beautiful music, and so that you might begin to steel yourself for the forthcoming remembrance of a difficult sojourn in the wilderness, here is the song:

They meant well, poor things. They didn’t know they could have just sung “Imagine” like the lazy celebrities of today. They thought they would write their own anthem, their own choral expression of that which is the highest and the best about humanity. If you are middle-aged, like me, you must remember that time of optimism, of money being enough to solve almost every problem. Now, of course, at this evening empire stage of unfettered and decadent individualism, we know that money often makes things worse and that good intentions amount to a heap of dust in the world of philanthropy. But back then there was still a sense that the human family, stretching all around the globe, had the power to accomplish great things if it would only “came together” as a “great big family.” The singers even utter the word “God” though they quickly chase that dread name with the cursed though beloved thought that continues to plague all our lives, that “Love is all we need.”

Several lines, I think, pair quite nicely with both the instructions Jesus gives his disciples about how they are to live in the world and the glorious vision of the end of the Age, the very hope this song so tritely attempts to grasp. In order to prepare ourselves for the dark Lenten days to come, I thought we might go through bits of it together.

First, we have a lovely sentiment of identification and solidarity with people on the other side of the world. We can’t just worry about ourselves, because that would be so selfish, and ultimately hurt us, though how it hurts us is not explained:

We are the world
We are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day, so let’s start giving
There’s a choice we’re making
We’re saving our own lives
It’s true we’ll make a better day, just you and me

Right away, then, we see a crucial acknowledgment that life is something that needs saving. Not only because of famine, earthquakes, and war, but because every person who ever lives will also die. The problem, unhappily, is that one can’t save one’s own life, not into the life to come, not even by giving money to other people. Worse still, the effort to “make a better day” with “just you and me” was never going to work out. Lots of people knew this at the time Michael Jackson wrote this lyric, most especially the mission community in my part of Africa. In fact, in any time in history, in any place around the world, the person who insists you make a “choice” of “making a better day” doesn’t know what they’re talking about. We carry on:

There comes a time when we heed a certain call
When the world must come together as one
There are people dying
Oh, when it’s time to lend a hand to life
The greatest gift of all

Gosh, remember when people valued life? Those were good times, even if super cringe.

We can’t go on pretending day by day
That someone somewhere will soon make a change
We’re all a part of God’s great big family
And the truth, you know
Love is all we need
We are the world
We are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day
So, let’s start giving
There’s a choice we’re making
We’re saving our own lives
It’s true we’ll make a better day
Just you and me

Sorry, I promise not to repeat the chorus anymore. It’s just so catchy.

Well, send them your heart so they’ll know that someone cares
And their lives will be stronger and free
As God has shown us by turning stone to bread
And so we all must lend a helping hand

This is my favorite part of the song. I hope you have read your Bible enough to see the glaring error. This is like when an Episcopalian bishop, a long time ago, tried to preach a whole sermon on verse two of “Come Labor On” not realizing that the person “slumbering not” was actually Satan and not Jesus. Or when Kathrine Jefferts Schori tried to explain that Saint Paul had a lot to learn from that demon-possessed girl in whatever town—was it Philippi? It is hard, if you haven’t read the Bible at all, to figure out who the good guys and the bad guys are. In this case, God didn’t turn stone into bread. It was Satan who invited Jesus, in his dreaded moment of temptation, to make bread out of stone—a sort of funny irony, because Jesus is likened to both the rock out of which water flows, and the bread that comes down from heaven. Jesus, you might remember, did not succumb to this specious invitation, but informed Satan, who knows the Bible better than Michael Jackson did, but not as well as the Word made flesh, that “man does not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” which is a direct quote from somewhere in Deuteronomy.

I feel like this is all relevant because the thing that all the people and children of the world always want is bread. But they want the bread on their own terms. They either want to get it themselves, or they agree to get it from Satan, instead of trusting God for everything. A lot of well-meaning Christians and philanthropists fall into confusion on this point. They go abroad and they encounter such enormous material need that they are overwhelmed. They don’t know where to start. And because the physical deprivations are so obvious they gradually begin to forget about the pressing life of the spirit, they look around at the stones and try to make them into bread thinking that will satisfy both the body and the soul.

And yet, even the singers know that bread is not the only need a person has:

When you’re down and out
And there seems no hope at all
But if you just believe
There’s no way we can fall
Well, well, well
Let’s realize, oh, that a change can only come
When we stand together as one

Well, well, well indeed. I guess we just didn’t try standing together as one hard enough, we should try it even harder. Oh blow it, just one more time on the chorus:

[Repeat with ad-libs until the end:]
We are the world
We are the children
We are the ones who make a brighter day
So, let’s start giving
There’s a choice we’re making
We’re saving our own lives
It’s true we’ll make a better day
Just you and me

I wonder if that’s how the disciples felt looking at Jesus going up into heaven. Crud, they might have said, it’s “just you and me” and we’ve got to make it a brighter day. The promise of Jesus that he would be with them always might have seemed small comfort, like the rock rolling around after the people in the wilderness providing them water and never leaving them alone even when they took their staffs out to beat it.

The instructions that the Lord gives to his disciples are frustratingly clear. First, rather than going into a sound studio and wailing into a microphone you have to “go into all the world.” Of course that doesn’t mean that you have to go to Africa, but you do have to go somewhere. You have to go to work or to the store or even online, I suppose, for that is where the people of the world gather. Then you have to “make disciples of all nations.” This is the tricky bit, for, of course, you can’t do that. Only Jesus has the power to save, through the Spirit, who blows where he wishes and though you hear the sound you do not know where he is going. You are stuck in an impossible helpless situation of having to work on making all those disciples whom you have no power to make.

It might seem just as vague and useless as “making the world a better place.” Except that it is the opposite, because the end result is so glorious. It’s not just alleviating world hunger. It’s not merely making sure people have tin rooves for their slum houses. It’s not even deep anxiety for all the people whose whole neighborhood burned down in Kenya because someone decided not to follow the law about not storing gas bottles in a residential area. While it might include some of those things, the most essential thing is that the people whom God calls to be in his own family, who are plunged into the waters of baptism to die and rise again, being cleansed of all their sins, are, by faith, incorporated into Jesus himself. They are bound to him while you stand by in astonishment and wonder.

John, who had seen Jesus disappear in a cloud of glory, so many years later got to see our end—the end of every person who doesn’t succumb to all the paltry and sentimental choices of the world:

After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.”

Having not saved yourself, but having been saved, having saved no one, and yet labored step by step, word by word, breath by breath for the salvation of others, what better sight is there than the Savior himself, in his rightful place, in the most fitting and true seat, ruling over the cosmos and each heart for the pure and perfect happiness of each.

What song might we sing about them? What poetry describes their bliss?

“Therefore they are before the throne of God,
    and serve him day and night in his temple;
    and he who sits on the throne will shelter them with his presence.
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore;
    the sun shall not strike them,
    nor any scorching heat.
For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd,
    and he will guide them to springs of living water,
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”

It’s sort of wonderful to watch the faces of all the celebrities sawing away in “We Are the World,” each so well known for their distinctive voices, yet swallowed up in the greater sound of the choir. Some of them, for a brief, fleeting moment appear to forget about themselves. They are caught up in the fleeting joy of being altogether, which is, strangely, the substance of their song. They sing of something they long for but can never buy, even with all the money in the world.

You don’t have to time travel back to the eighties or the aughts, or even binge YouTube to search out this kind of harmony. Strangely enough, the very Lamb in the midst of the great, true heavenly congregation will be there to greet you, though, exasperatingly, in the hidden way of the Spirit, if you hobble your way into church this morning. Perhaps you are hungry, or thirstry, or caught between two difficult decisions, or not sure how to talk to your neighbors who are so busily trying to make the world better by means of their Love is Love signs. Maybe you are hot and tired and long for some cool air and something more exotic than bread to eat. Maybe your soul requires a soothing melody. Maybe you would do well with a good cry. No matter your lack, your sense of starvation, your helplessness and hopelessness, if you go to the Lamb you will discover that he is your Shepherd, and that he is with you, even until the end of the age.

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