Andy Warhol said we each get fifteen minutes of fame. I do not believe it, but I did have my fifteen seconds of fame on the Second Sunday of Advent in, I think, 1990. I was the associate rector of St. John’s Church on Lafayette Square in Washington, and it was my turn to preside at the 8:00 a.m. eucharist. It was always a relatively brief service with only the priest and the chalice-bearer vested, but it was often attended by the President of the United States.
The gospel lesson then, as now, was about John the Baptist. In my homily I spoke about how John’s message of repentance was often dismissed by people who mocked his strange dress of a camel’s hair cloak (not from Brooks Brothers) and his diet of locusts and wild honey. How could one pay attention to someone so peculiar, so jarring? Rejecting John’s dress and diet was an excuse for rejecting his challenging message.
I then went on to compare John to Jesse Jackson, the civil rights leader whose message of equality and justice was often delivered in strident terms. “He is so arrogant,” people would say, “and he is so angry,” why would we listen to him? Others accused him of being a “womanizer,” thus lacking any moral authority. Rejecting Jackson’s tone and his personal behavior was an excuse for rejecting his challenging message.
Paying attention to both of them is what I charged the congregation with doing, repenting of our sins, our destructive behaviors, and embracing the movement for justice and equality.
After communion, as they were leaving the service, Mrs. Bush said to me, “That was very interesting, Mr. Holmes.” The president wished me a good day.
Alas, there were also reporters there. The news of my remarks spread around the country, even to Baton Rouge, where my Republican mother was chagrined. I got a couple of “how dare you?” notes, but the issue never gained traction and soon faded. The Bushes were back in church the next Sunday, and they even invited Tim and me to a White House Christmas party the next year.
This all came back to mind on the occasion of President Bush’s death last week. The messages of repentance, of embracing justice and equality, are ones I have repeated many times since then, including here at Emmanuel. I believe, in fact, that they were virtues held by George H.W. Bush as well.
Requiescas in pace, Mr. President.