One of the most popular recent movies was “A Star Is Born,” with Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper. It’s amazing to think that this is the fourth time this story has been brought to the screen. I don’t think that’s a record—“Dracula” has certainly been done more than four times. Still, it shows that this is an enduring story.
Another tale that has landed on the screen four times is the 1922 story “The Day of Atonement” by Samson Raphaelson. If you don’t recognize the title, that’s because the four movies used the title of the stage play that Raphaelson turned his story into: “The Jazz Singer.”
The story is that of Jakie Rabinowitz, alias Jack Robin, a Jewish cantor’s son who is drawn toward popular music rather than Hebrew liturgical chant. For 10 generations his ancestors had served as cantors—but he sees the stage and the theater, not the synagogue, as the appropriate venue for his singing talent. This causes a rift with his father, who disowns Jack. (The rift is deepened when Jack gets involved with a Gentile woman). After years of alienation, Jack’s father ends up on his deathbed, unable to sing the “Kol Nidre” in the Yom Kippur service. Jack gives up a career-making opening night on Broadway to fill in for his father in the Day of Atonement service.
The four films spawned by this story have starred Al Jolson, Jerry Lewis, Danny Thomas and Neil Diamond. There are many variations—in the original story, the father dies before the Yom Kippur service; in others he dies during the Yom Kippur service. In the Neil Diamond version, the dad survives and attends one of his son’s secular concerts! Interestingly, in the original story, the crowds that would have been at Jack’s Broadway opening pack the synagogue instead—a clergyman’s dream, I must say!
It dawned on me recently how similar this story is to a real-life situation that happened in our own church body, The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod. In our circles, in the early 20th century, there also was a young man who seemingly forsook the sacred for the secular.
It was not the theater that lured this young man away from a holy calling—it was the baseball diamond. The young man was the son of a prominent pastor. His dad, the Rev. Philip Wambsganss, laid the cornerstone for the Lutheran Hospital in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and founded the Lutheran Deaconess Association. And his son Bill was all set to follow in his father’s footsteps and enter the Holy Ministry. Bill enrolled at Concordia Seminary in St. Louis to prepare. But Bill had an awesome talent for baseball. The Cleveland Indians offered him a contract to play the game professionally.
Bill was torn. If he accepted the offer from the Indians, would he be forsaking his God? If he traded the sanctuary for the baseball diamond, would he be sinning against Christ? Bill talked with his father. And here’s where the story of Bill Wambsganns diverged from that of the fictional Jack Robin: his father said he would support any decision that Bill made. He would not disown him if he chose baseball over ordained ministry. All good, honest work is work done for God. It was God who gave Bill the talent to play baseball. How could it dishonor God if Bill used that talent?
This is a basic Lutheran principle that is usually called “vocation.” Every worthwhile calling is Godly. One can serve God in any honest profession. “Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might,” the Scriptures tell us (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Being a pastor is not inherently better than driving a truck, waiting on tables—or playing second base. All work, at a job or even at home, is done for God, and glorifies God. (Think of this the next time you take out the garbage or wash the dishes!) Certainly we need the church to bring to us the forgiveness of sins that Jesus purchased on the Cross, to give us strength for our daily lives, to enable us to be hopeful, loving people. The pastor’s work is sacred. But we also need the farmer, the auto mechanic, the plumber, the teacher, the police officer, the mail carrier, the lawn caretaker...to help us with other important aspects of our lives. All honest work is sacred.
What happened to Bill Wambsganss, who left the seminary to pursue professional baseball with the Cleveland Indians? You probably know if you’re a baseball fan…or if you’ve ever played Trivial Pursuit. (He is the answer to a question.) Wambsganss holds a record that will likely never be broken. In the fifth game of the 1920 World Series against the Brooklyn Robins (later renamed the Dodgers), Wambsganns executed the only unassisted triple play in World Series history. Playing second base, he caught a batted ball in the air for one out, stepped on second base for a second out, and tagged the runner coming in from first for the third out. (Game five in 1920 was a very special game! Along with the triple play, there were two other firsts--the first grand slam, and the first home run ever hit by a pitcher, in a World Series game).
Wambsganss may have turned away from ordained ministry, but did not turn away from God. He remained involved in church throughout his life.
Christian musicians like U-2 and Bob Dylan are criticized for not performing enough religious music. I think of another Missouri Synod Lutheran, Lyle Lovett, who also doesn’t sing much religious music (but he does have a wonderful recording of Blessed Martin Luther’s “Lord, Keep Us Steadfast in Thy Word”). I suspect that they might cite something like the Lutheran concept of vocation in their defense. Actually, even Jack Robin seemed to express this concept when, in one of the “Jazz Singer” films, he said: “Music sung in a theater is as honorable as music sung in a synagogue!”
honest work is done for God. Our
church’s namesake, St. Paul, supported himself as a tentmaker. He honored God just
as much with a well-made tent as he did in his preaching.
“Whatever your hand finds to do,
do it with all your might”!
God loves you and so do I!
Pastor David W. Anglin