Second Sunday of Advent – A
John the Baptist is featured in today’s Gospel according to Matthew.
And he was calling people to come out to the silence of the desert so they could find God and then find themselves. John the Baptist says: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
Now, if I were to summarize this message in a line that you are familiar with, it might be this one: “Let go and let God.” You all know that one, right? The problem is that we say it but we don’t always do it. So I would like to work today with this Advent theme: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” So “let go and let God.” And I was looking for a way to do this with a story that would sound very contemporary, and would get your attention. I found one and, of all places, it was in the book, How Starbucks Saved My Life, by a man named Michael Gill.
Michael Gill was born into wealth and privilege. If you have read New Yorker magazine over the years, you will recognize the name of Brendan Gill. He was Michael’s dad. They were a well-to-do society family and, like many families of that stature, Michael went to school at Yale.
When Michael finished at Yale, he got a job with a top advertising company in New York City. As Michael admitted, it was not so much because of his grades, but more because of his family name and connections.
Working for this advertising agency, he made tons and tons of money. He traveled all over the world. He had every creature comfort imaginable.
But Michael Gill was not a terribly admirable man. He had been unfaithful to his wife. He had disgraced their four children. He had an affair with a female psychiatrist. Together they had a baby boy. Then she got tired of Michael and dumped him.
The advertising company was taken over by a hot-shot younger man, who thought that the agency ought to reflect more youthful views. And so Michael Gill, at the age of 64, was fired. Eventually he ran out of money, and he lived in a one-room flat in New York City.
Now what was Michael Gill going to do? He had been forced into the desert. What he did not yet know was that he needed to “repent, because the kingdom of heaven was at hand.” He needed to “let go and let God.” And so this is how the story continues.
One day in New York City, at 78th Street and Lexington, Michael Gill walked into a Starbucks. They were having a hiring week for new employees. He was greeted by the manager, a 28-year-old African-American woman by the name of Crystal. She offered him a job – and he thought, why not? So he was hired at Starbucks.
Now, here is Michael Gill, who in his whole life had never bowed down to anybody. He had never served anything to his subordinates in corporate life, not even a cup of coffee. Here he was, no longer in his tailor-made three-piece suit, but now in black pants and shirt, a green apron and a Starbucks hat.
At 64 years of age, from a blue-blood family, he was now working for a 28-year-old African-American lady. What was he doing? Serving ordinary people their coffee and pastries as they came into Starbucks in New York City.
Michael learned a new way of life there. He soon realized, working at Starbucks, that life was not all about Michael. Life was about serving other people.
He bought into the Starbucks philosophy, where a customer is not called a customer, but a guest, and treated with dignity and respect; where fellow employees were not called fellow employees, but were called partners, and they needed to cooperate with one another. This was brand new to Michael Gill.
He began living a new way of life. He began learning peoples’ names: those of the guests, and those of the partners. They started calling him “Mike.” He discovered community – that was brand new to him too.
Michael found out that respect and recognition were so important; that when a guest came in he needed to connect with that person – make eye contact and engage that guest in conversation. He realized that he needed to recognize strengths and achievements in his fellow partners as they did for him regularly. It was a major lifestyle change for him.
Michael reflected upon the life that he had left in the corporate world of advertising – how one of his former bosses used to say that “fear is a great motivator, and great fear is an even greater motivator.” Where there were winners and losers, and winners were the people that brought in the most accounts. Losers were those who didn’t.
He contrasted that with Starbucks, where there was respect and dignity and recognition. How Starbucks Saved My Life is his book. These are a few lines from Michael Gill himself. He writes:
“I was struck with the incongruity of my life – ten years earlier as a busy executive at 5:00 in the morning, I might have been riding the red-eye back from a trip to Los Angeles. Most summer mornings I would have been sleeping peacefully in our big old New England farm house, looking forward to a day of swimming and golf with my contemporaries who were already comfortably retired.
“Now I was standing in the dangerous dark of a sweaty New York City, waiting for my 28-year-old boss and scared that I might not be able to do good enough. My former entitled and arrogant self would have been appalled.”
And then he writes about his spiritual transformation: “My boss, Crystal, and my partners at Starbucks had given me a chance to work and live and see things in a new way. I had been a control freak. I had loved ordering people to work overtime, or change a headline, or even bring me a cup of coffee. I’d been a real bad boss. It was time to be a real good partner. I traded my pin-striped suit for a green apron. I traded a Master of the Universe costume for something that said I was there to serve and not to rule.”
Does that sound something like being a disciple of Jesus? It does to me. I don’t think that any of us would argue about any of the principles Michael writes about in terms of being a good servant.
What happened to Michael Gill? Well, eventually he was reconciled with his four adult children. They thought he was a little strange – their blue-blood dad working at Starbucks, pouring coffee and serving pastries. But they did notice that he had changed. He began serving other people, and helping other people to be happier. And they were astounded by his happiness.
Now, am I suggesting to you today that we should all just quit the Church, forget about being disciples of Jesus Christ, and all get jobs at Starbucks?
No – I am not. In fact, I am suggesting just the opposite: getting even more involved in the life of the Church and, with God’s grace, becoming even better disciples of Jesus Christ.
We recognize that everything in life is not all about me. We are not superiors over each other but partners. Everyone deserves recognition and respect. God has placed us on this earth to serve others, and not to be served. As disciples of Jesus Christ, we are to follow His example.
What do we see happen in the life of Michael Gill? Well, it is a secular story, but it is still all about Advent. In his own desert experience, Michael learned to “let go and let God,” to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”
I think that John the Baptist would have approved.