I so very much wish I could claim today’s sermon title as my own, but I can’t. I’m taking it from Lewis Grizzard’s 1989 book, which he entitled Elvis is Dead and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself.1 And, in fact, Lewis Grizzard wasn’t feeling so well himself when he wrote this book. He was having some serious heart valve problems that would lead to his death just a few years after this book came out.
In this collection of essays, Lewis Grizzard tells of the day in August, 1977, he and some buddies were relaxing at the beach when the report comes over the radio: Elvis Presley is dead. They can’t believe it. Elvis Presley can’t be dead; how can Elvis be dead? The King is only 42 years old. But, there it was: Elvis was dead.
For Lewis Grizzard, Elvis stood for everything good in his own coming of age and early manhood. Elvis was greased-back duck-tailed hairdos; Elvis was the wild gyrating exuberant dance of life; Elvis was the exploding expanse of America that was the first wave of the Babyboomers.
The Babyboomer Generation started with the children born in 1946, which was the year Grizzard was born. So, for Grizzard, growing up through the 1950s and into the early 1960s, those were his prime years of discovering the world and himself in the world. Those were the prime Elvis years, when he was the King of rock n’ roll, and nothing could stop him or anybody else of that age.
Those also happened to be the great, seemingly unstoppable years in white American Protestantism, from 1946 on through the 1950s and into the early 1960s. We Baptists had our own version of Elvis, didn’t we? We had Billy Graham!
Oh my goodness, I remember as a child, when Billy Graham did a quick swing through Martinsville, where we lived at the time. It wasn’t a revival crusade. Billy Graham was just passing through the area. It was more of a preacher news conference. Some local pastors had organized it out on the parking lot of one of the car dealerships heading out of town over towards Collinsville. It was like Elvis had shown up among us Baptists! What a glorious day, when Billy Graham came through town.
It was a glorious couple of decades. Eisenhower was President, the interstate highway system was getting built. Levitt and Sons were putting up that tract housing that would turn into the modern suburb. Willie Nelson didn’t have a pony-tail or an earring yet. Elvis was king of rock n’ roll.
Then, November, 1963, it all started going sideways, didn’t it? Oswald assassinated President Kennedy; four months later, in February, 1964, Ed Sullivan introduced the country to the Beatles; new President Johnson decided to up the ante in Vietnam; Elvis Presley began making really tacky movies and gaining weight. And, finally, one fine August day in 1977, Lewis Grizzard and his buddies were at the beach and heard the news: Elvis Presley is dead. From Grizzard’s perspective, his life began a downward slide, until his own death in 1994, at the age of 47.
We’re going to come back to this chronology of events in the 1950s and early 1960s. But, for the moment, I’d like us just to think about this notion, “Elvis is dead and I don’t feel so good myself.” For you grammarians, I know, Grizzard should have written, “I don’t feel so WELL myself”, but after all he was a Georgia Bulldog, so, we’ll let it slide for now.
‘Elvis is dead and I don’t feel so good myself.’ You ever resonate with that sentiment? I’m pretty sure that old Abraham and Sarah resonated with that sentiment, frequently. Genesis chapters 12 through chapters 25 are all about Abraham and Sarah struggling mightily with certain physical limitations, and I not talking about Abraham’s hearing or Sarah’s eyesight.
So, at this point in the sermon, let me suggest to our teenagers, you just may want to tune out for the next few minutes. If you’ve got your earbuds with you, this might be a good time to stick them in your ears.
Because, to talk honestly about today’s Scripture lesson, I’ve got to talk about procreation among folks the age of your grandparents and maybe even your great grandparents, if you have those. And, I’m just not sure your tender, young psyches are ready to consider this possibility. I’ll let you know when it’s safe to come out again.
Genesis chapters 12 through 25—the heart of the Book of Genesis—these chapters in a nutshell are all about Abram and Sarai and the journey they take up and down and back and forth across the land of Canaan, because God called them out to do that. God’s call to Abram and Sarai, as we saw last Sunday, was based on this single promise from God found in Genesis 12, verses 1 and 2: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you…[Canaan]. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing…[to]…all the families of the earth.”
So, this whole journey is based on this one premise, that this couple, Abram and Sarai, who are presently childless, will procreate! Their baby, in turn, will be the first of countless descendants, descendants numbering as many as the stars in the night sky, God tells Abram at one point. That, basically, is Genesis chapters 12 through 25: two old people traipsing through the wilderness, often trying but without success, to make a baby.
Genesis 12 tells us that Abram was already 75 years old when he hears God make this promise. Now, he must have been a very vigorous old man to hear that and think to himself, “Yeah, I can see how that would work…come on, Sarai, let’s go!” Sarai, we will learn later, is 10 years younger than Abram, so she’s 65 years old, and she says, “Sure, why not? I’m only 65…let’s get ‘er done!” And, off they go.
If AARP had been around back then, then Abram and Sarai surely would have made the front cover of AARP Magazine: “Two Seniors with Get-Up-and-Go!”
Abram’s wife is 10 years younger than he is. As I read that, I couldn’t help but think about those pharmaceutical ads on t.v. You know the ones, where the couple inevitably end up sitting in his and hers bathtubs, out in the back yard, watching the sun set?
Is it just me, or does it always seem like the woman is about 10 years younger than the man? Well, whatever, the pharmaceutical folks promise us older guys that there can be a bathtub awaiting us.
So, Abram and Sarai’s journey of faith, in practical terms, meant having lots of bathtub moments, trusting that at least one of these times, God would honor the promise of blessing them with an heir. But, no doing.
Years go by. Till finally, one night, Abram says to God, in Genesis chapter 17, verse 17, “You know, God, Sarai is half-way dead and I’m not feeling so good myself.” And, Sarai, at one point says to herself, though I’m sure she was looking over her shoulder at God when she says it, “Good grief! Abram’s got one foot in the grave and I don’t feel so good myself!” That’s in Genesis chapter 18, verses 11 and 12.
When people, even people of profound faith, get to the point where it seems like everything around them is dying, and all hope is starting to circle the drain, they panic. And, when people, even people of great faith, get panicky, well, then they start casting about for any and every remedy they can imagine. That’s what Sarai and Abram do, isn’t it? We read the first five verses of chapter 16.
But, already, in the chapter before, in chapter 15, verses 1 – 6, Abram had come to God and said, “God, what’s up? No child yet, God. How about this: we take my man-slave, Eliezer—good boy, strong stock—how about I adopt Eliezer as my own son?” God says, no, “This man shall not be your heir; your own son shall be your heir.”
That’s when God takes Abram out under the stars and says, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them….So shall your descendants be.” Then, says chapter 15, verse 6, “And [Abram] believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
But, then, comes chapter 16, and now it’s Sarai’s turn. Sarai is so, so frustrated and so disheartened. Finally, she decides: “If it is to be, it’s up to me!” She will convince Abram to employ what was an accepted practice for couples in their situation. Sarai has an Egyptian maid named Hagar. So, Sarai decides Abram must sire a son through her maid, Hagar, and then Sarah and Abram will claim the child as their own.
Now, remember, Abram had just had this great encounter with God; in fact, that encounter will become pivotal in defining the early Christian faith, And Abram believed the Lord; and Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness. But, Abram doesn’t protest. Sarai wants this; it seems reasonable given everything else, so why not. Abram takes Hagar as a second wife, and lo and behold, he impregnates Hagar.
Hagar, for her part, sees this as her chance to turn the table on Sarai. According to verse 4, now that she, Hagar, is about to provide Abram a descendent, she thinks Abram might make her Wife #1, and move Sarai off to the side. Verses 4 and 5 give us just a hint of the heartbreak and the hostility that now descends upon this Bedouin family.
Hagar bears Abram their son, Ishmael, and then thirteen more years go by with Sarai continuing unable to bear children. Every day for thirteen years, Sarah’s got wife number 2, Hagar, and Hagar’s little boy, Ishmael, there tempting Abram to turn his affections away from Sarai.
It is said, that if you play a country song backwards, your wife will forgive you, your dog will come home, and you’ll get your old job back at the mill. By chapter 21, how Sarai and Abram must have wished they could play their own country song backwards. Because, finally, after thirteen years, chapter 21 describes how Sarai herself becomes pregnant. Yes, 90-year old Sarai gives birth to Isaac, the child of the promise, to 100-year old Abram.
All the while, over in the shadows, sits the worst decision Sarai ever made: Hagar, her maid, and Ishmael, whom Abram loves because Ishmael is his son. Until, this day, when Isaac is born and then circumcised, and, then another three years go by, and Sarai weens Isaac. “Enough!” says Sarai. “Cast out this slave woman with her son; for the son of this slave woman shall not be heir with my son Isaac.”
It had seemed like such a good move, hadn’t it? It had seemed in keeping with God’s promise even though God appeared to be letting everything slide to where, if somebody didn’t do something, all hope would be lost. Abram and Sarai would be dead, and God’s promise would die out with them.
By the way, teenagers, it’s safe to re-engage with us now. No more talk about old folks and their procreating antics.
Fast forward many thousands of years later to 1977. All that Lewis Grizzard meant when he bemoaned the passing of the King of rock n’ roll. The 1950s and all of American life that got made in the 1950s that cruised so easily over into the early ‘60s and then these United States started hitting some rough going through the later ‘60s and into the ‘70s and ‘80s and in 1989 Lewis Grizzard realizes, “Elvis is dead and I don’t feel so good myself.”
Elvis is dead and the kind of white American Protestantism that came of age in the 1950s and ‘60s is not feeling so good either, here in the second decade of the 2000s.
When I came out of seminary in 1985, evangelical churches were just starting to catch on that something was changing in protestant church life. By the time I became a senior pastor in 1990, the panic was starting to stir. By the time I became a pastor across town, here in Charlottesville in 1995, desperation had taken hold.
Pressure started coming down hard on local pastors from every denominational and nondenominational source you can imagine, from the right and the left and right down the center, the experts warned us—“Your churches are dying, and you better find some way to birth new life or game over.”
They pretty much implied and some said it outright: “Even if you have to abandon your old folks,” they said, “those dear old saints who traveled this journey of faith lo this many years—yes, we know they’re sweet, and they can bake a good casserole…but you better dump them and find yourselves a new spouse quick and make it work!”
Find for yourselves, in effect, a Hagar, a younger crowd with whom to make a new kind of church family.
What a bunch of panicky nonsense! If God’s people can’t figure out how to live the Gospel together without jettisoning their old folks by the wayside, then we need to re-read the Gospel and the Book of Acts and all the rest of it, and figure it out. But, that is the ecclesiastical wasteland of ideas that has dogged pastors for at least the past three decades.
Whomever you call as your next pastor, I want you to know: she or he will come to you already knowing this tremendous pressure to do something! Do something, do something! Or there will not be a next generation of believers; there will be no heir to keep it alive. It’ll all end up going down into the grave with us!
You will not need to tell your next Senior Minister that the mission of the Church has gotten harder. You will not need to tell your Senior Minister that UBC is finding it harder like everyone else. It certainly is no harder for us Christians in 2016 than it was when the first Christians held their first potluck supper in the year 30 or so.
You tell your next Senior Minister, “We’re an inter-generational church of old people and young people and somewhere-in-the-middle people, and we’re ready to do our part together, and we know that God will do God’s part, so come on! Let’s see what God’s up to!”
There is not one thing you or I or anyone can do, to do what only God can do. No more than that 100 year old man and that 90 year old woman could sire a child. All they could do and all any of us can do, is to be convinced that God has called us to walk the journey with God, to keep on walking, walking, walking.
We have to learn the hard lessons of Scripture, along with the joyful lessons those ancient mothers and fathers of our faith seek to teach us. Abram and Sarai themselves would tell us, “Avoid the foolishness such as what which our panic gave birth to; instead, keep to the journey of keeping faith with God, trusting in the promise to which God alone can give life.”
Now, despite the wishes of more than a few fans, Elvis really, really, has left the building, and he ain’t coming back no more. But that’s o.k. We can still listen to Elvis and reminisce. I mean, when Elvis starts singing, “Kentucky Rain”, you’ve gotta get at least a little choked up. But, I got to tell you, there’s a lot a great young musicians out there putting out some good tunes.
There’s a lot of hope and life and what we might called “pre-faithed” folks all around us. We just need to figure out how to talk to them of the God who created them and who loves them and who welcomes them to delight in God as God delights in them.
We’ve got the perfect example in Jesus of Nazareth. Go find your next Senior Minister who will help you figure that out…how to talk to people about Jesus, who will lead them to God. Such a simple thing to do, with faith in God, who calls us out on that simple path of obedience.
1Lewis Grizzard, Elvis Is Dead, and I Don’t Feel So Good Myself, Atlanta: Peachtree Publishing, Ltd., 1984.