Matthew 5: 13 – 16, Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN – Today is an Elton John Sunday! Why? For several reasons. For one, today is Father’s Day, and Elton John became a father for the very first time at the age of 63! He and his husband, David, have two children. That inspires me because I became a mother for the first time at age 45 and he was nearly two decades older than me when he entered parenthood. Let’s face it. It takes a lot of energy to raise children and the older we are the less energy we have. I am inspired by Elton’s decision to become a father at 63. Happy Father’s Day, Elton and David
A second reason why Elton John is inspirational is because of his meaningful work in the LGBT+ community. The month of June is Pride month. This Pride month is particularly significant. It is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall rising which launched the LGBT+ movement to promote principles of equality and liberty. Because of the 50th anniversary, the city of Redlands made its first Pride Month Proclamation in a few weeks ago (some of you were at that particular city council meeting). On July 21st, Redlands will host its first Pride in the Park. I don’t underestimate Elton John’s prominent role in increasing the visibility of the LGBT+ community. Elton John first discussed his sexuality in Rolling Stone in 1976, describing himself as “bisexual to a certain degree.” He experienced a backlash and radio stations would not play his songs. In 1988, Elton John finally told Rolling Stone that he was “comfortable being gay.” A superstar who was openly gay! Elton John also founded the Elton John AIDS Foundation in 1992 as a charity to fund programs for HIV/AIDS prevention, for the elimination of prejudice and discrimination against HIV/AIDS, and for providing services to people living with or at risk of contracting HIV/AIDS. He raised large amounts of money by using his public profile to raise awareness of the disease. Moreover, Elton John was knighted as Sir Elton John by Queen Elizabeth II, the first openly gay musician to receive such an honor. Internationally, Elton John flew out to Russia to discuss gay rights, HIV and AIDS with Vladimir Putin – but unfortunately, that meeting had to be postponed. But what courage Elton John has.
And let’s face it – Elton John’s flamboyancy has liberated others to be creative too. Look at some of Elton John’s unapologetic costumes (share pictures):
Rooster Elton, Mardi Gras Elton; Punk Mohawk Elton, Spikey Elton, Bouffant Elton, Bumble Bee Elton.
Yes, I am inspired by Elton John’s decision to become a father at the age of 63. I am grateful for Elton John’s invaluable service to the LGBT+ community. And Elton John is one of those rare musical figures who can span the generations. On the count of three, name an Elton John song. There are three of them in the service today. Elton John is a cultural touchstone, providing meaningful, clean entertainment that spans the generations from older adults to even children. After all, he even sings for “The Lion King.” He speaks to closeted and the struggling as well as to hos who are mainstream.
It is for these reasons that I thought Rocketman would be a particularly fitting movie for today. Until I watched the movie, however, I did not fully understand what a superstar Elton John truly is. He endured much suffering in his life. In the opening scene, Elton John rushes out of a big concert and bursts into a rehab meeting. He confesses, “I’m Elton John and I’m an alcoholic, cocaine addict, sex addict, bulimic, shopaholic” and so the list goes on. The AA meeting is where the film kicks off, where it ends, and how it’s anchored. The movie moves between pivotal life moment and then back to the AA meeting, giving us insight into how childhood and early life trauma can lead to addiction.
He enters the AA meeting wearing the Devil outfit which is really about love. Heart shapes are everywhere from the ruby sunglasses to the full-on devil’s wings. He sheds his outfit throughout the movie which corresponds to how he is unlayers his childhood trauma.
In particular, I think about the movie’s title, Rocketman. The song is about an astronaut who leaves everything behind to go to the moon. But I wonder if there is a double meaning here for Elton. On the one hand, his career took off – like a rocket and yet, he struggles with being “high as a kite” – a reference possibly to his drug abuse. “I miss the earth so much, I miss my life. It’s lonely out in space.” Elton John masks his loneliness with his addictions.
Childhood trauma is the template for addiction – any addiction. And Elton John certainly experienced his fair share of childhood trauma. Hi dad is abusive, and Elton John is subjected to gender policing by his dad, “Stop looking at that, you’re not a girl,” when he finds John reading his mom’s fashion magazine. “Don’t be soft,” he tells him at another moment. His relationship with his mother is not much better. After nearly hyperventilating before coming out to his mom that he’s a “poofter, queer” she reacts with a blasé tone: “Oh, for God’s sake, I know that, I’ve known for years.” And then she adds, “I just hope you realize you’re choosing a life of being alone forever; you’ll never be loved properly.” His relationship with both parents is distant and cold as is their relationship with one another – for they divorce while Elton is young.
Elton John struggles with childhood trauma and he struggles with his demons. And in a final scene where is once again in an AA meeting, we see Elton John loving and accepting his younger self – one of the first steps toward recovery. Elton John has now been clean and sober for over 30 years although he confesses to still being a shopaholic.
I believe, however, that his journey ultimately led him to be more compassionate. I hear this in his song, “Candle in the Wind.” The song is originally about Marilyn Monroe. The famous opening line, “Goodbye Norma Jeane,” refers to her birth name. Elton John looked past her fame, fortunate, and sex appeal and honed in on her light. Elton John sought to humanize someone who had been objectified. He sees her light — the light that burned out before its time. “Your candle burned out long before your legend ever did.”
In 1997, after Princess Diana died, he sang the song again at Princess Diana’s funeral with different lyrics, changing the opening line from “Goodbye Norma Jeane” to “Goodbye England’s Rose.” Diana was friends with Elton John and a big fan – she identified with the sentiment in “Candle in the Wind.” She knew the pressure from constant media attention. “Candle in the Wind” sung at Princess Diana’s funeral was the fastest selling single of all time and Elton John said that he would never sing it again unless requested by her sons, Princes William and Harry.
Although both Marilyn Monroe and Princess Diana were candles in the wind – both very vulnerable, Elton John honed in on their inner light, their inner radiance. And that is what Jesus does in our scripture passage this morning. “You are the light, bringing out the God colors of the world!”
Too often we are reluctant to say, “I am the light of the world” and more often like to confess, “I am an alcoholic, drug addict, co-dependent, over-achiever” and so forth. And while these names may be accurate in some particular way and important in the healing journey, tracing the legacy to early trauma, they did not give the full picture.
In psychiatry the goal is to name what’s wrong with the patient. “According to the DSM5, you are depressed or neurotic” and that may be very true, but in addition, let us not forget that Matthew 5 says, “You are the light of the world!” Jesus does not say, “You are the light of the world – if you grew up in a loving, supportive, 2 parent biological family and had no sorrow in your life.”
Regardless of whatever you have faced in life, Jesus says, “You are the light of the world.”
The Tibetans have a wonderful example of this. They say that if you take a glass of water and put a teaspoon of salt in it, the water tastes salty. But if you put the same teaspoon of salt into a large, crystal blue lake and reach down and take a sip of the water, you can’t even taste the salt. The problem is not in the salt; it’s in the size of the container. The problem is not that we have problems; it’s the way we limit and define ourselves by our problems. We are so much more than our limitations, our shortcomings and our past. This is what Elton John discovers as he learns to love and accept his younger self in the movie, Rocketman.
In the midst of whatever challenges, sorrow, struggles we face this day, may we affirm Jesus’ words, “You are the light, bringing out the God colors of the world.” Inspired by the life of Elton John, may we too be bold and shine bright! We may even have to wear sunglasses in the midst of such radiant light! Amen.