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Good Friday, 03/21/2008

Sermon on Isaiah 52:13; 53, V. 8, by David Hoster

See, my servant shall prosper;
he shall be exalted and lifted up,
and shall be very high.

Just as there were many who were astonished at him
--so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals--

so he shall startle many nations;
kings shall shut their mouths because of him;

for that which had not been told them they shall see,
and that which they had not heard they shall contemplate.

Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;

he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.

He was despised and rejected by others;
a man of suffering and acquainted with infirmity;

and as one from whom others hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him of no account.

Surely he has borne our infirmities
and carried our diseases;

yet we accounted him stricken,
struck down by God, and afflicted.

But he was wounded for our transgressions,
crushed for our iniquities;

upon him was the punishment that made us whole,
and by his bruises we are healed.

All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have all turned to our own way,

and the LORD has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he did not open his mouth;

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he did not open his mouth.

By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?

For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.

They made his grave with the wicked
and his tomb with the rich,

although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him with pain.

When you make his life an offering for sin,
he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;

through him the will of the LORD shall prosper.
Out of his anguish he shall see light. (NRSV)


A few weeks ago, Rolling Stone magazine printed a cover story on Britney Spears, the 26-year-old pop singer on the disastrously wrong side of her meteoric career (see www.rollingstone.com/news/story/18310562/cover_story_the_tragedy_of_britney_spears).  During the last year, even the mainstream news media have positively gloated over the public trainwreck that Britney's life has become.  The article describes an incident in which she screamed at a fan who, in all innocence, had asked for a photo with her. 

"I don't know who you think I am," she bellowed, "but I'm not that person!"   

That's a bit of a surprise.  Nearly an entire nation thinks they know exactly what sort of person Britney is.  She's spoiled, narcissistic, self-destructive, and no longer talented enough to be a true star even in the circle of her admirers, few as they might be now.  We're pretty sure of all that.

But what if, on this one point, Britney is right?  What if she really isn't the person we think she is?  What if everything we know about her-factually true and accurately judgmental though it might be-misses the point?  If so, that opens the door to another question:

What if Britney Spears is Jesus?

Now I know what you're thinking, so I'll ask you to take a deep breath and put down the pen you just took out to write the Bishop about my latest heresy.  Yes, I know that if Britney wore one of those bracelets we've all heard about it would sport the letters WWJND...What Would Jesus Not Do.   I know the court doesn't allow her unsupervised custody of her own children, that she abuses drugs, baits the paparazzi, cuts off half her hair and won't stay in rehab.

I know all that.  It's factually true, but it's beside the point.

The point came to me one late one night a month ago as I surfed the cable channels and fell onto yet one more appalling report on Britney's utterly self-indulgent self-destructiveness.  As I watched, a thought struck me with the force of a thunderbolt.  This girl might commit suicide tonight.  On any given day, it is more rather than less likely that we will wake up in the morning to scenes of her body on a medical examiner's gurney being wheeled out of her expensive Beverly Hills mansion to the accompaniment of flashbulbs popping. 

What would happen to our glee then?  For most people, nothing, I admit.  No doubt, that vast TV audience would check her off and move on.  Burned through one celebrity.  On to the next.  Who will grieve for Britney?  Very possibly, nobody. 

How unspeakably sad is that?  This is a human being we're talking about.  She has feelings, dreams, potential and a soul.  Somebody should feel something about the tragedy her life has become.

Something begins to happen, though, when we allow ourselves feelings about her.  Suddenly, her death is no longer isolated from those around her.  As that awareness sinks in, I think the truth of people's complicity in her death could well dawn on us.  

Britney Spears is a perfectly made tool, form-fitted to meet the needs and desires of her culture.  Back when she was 17 and still able to perform, she was the perfect mix of seeming innocence and sexual voracity that so many people in our culture seem to want so badly.  Later, after her career fell apart, she became a tool of a wider audience that needs to feel better about themselves by having somebody wealthy and powerful to look down on and despise.  With her active help, we made her into those things.

Britney is not allowed to be a human being.  She plays to a culture that wants a plaything and not a person, so she's never had a chance.  Not from the time her mother started her on the makeup that made her look older then her ten years, right down to today when people will be seriously disappointed if Britney actually starts to act like a human being.  Her death, however, ups the ante.  Dismissed as it would be by the many, it just might awaken a few to the consciousness that by wanting her to be a plaything and not a person they have made themselves inhuman. 

Oh my.  The more seriously we take the tragedy of Britney's life and possible death, the less compelling her bad behavior becomes and the more like Jesus she seems.  Walk through this with me.


Jesus was a celebrity too, form-fitted to the needs and desires of his culture.  People needed a particular kind of messiah and his own disciples pushed him into that role.  He would be the one to rally the people and drive out the hated Romans at the head of an army of angels.  Adoring crowds cheered when he came to the capital.  Then even more powerful people scourged him down to the level of a late night TV spectacle. 

Love him or despise him, it hardly mattered.  Everybody had their needs and nobody wanted Jesus to be a human being with a mind of his own.  Even at his trial Jesus stood silent, fully prepared to let the cross speak for itself.

And so he dies. 

The vast majority of people walk away, ready to move on to the next celebrity Messiah.  But a few people, those closest to Jesus, find themselves slapped awake by his death.  They realize how they had taken for granted that he would always be their cash cow Messiah.  They realize how that need makes them complicit in his death.  Then the truth dawns that, even now, taking him seriously as a human being makes him a human being in their eyes.  And as he becomes human to them, they can think of themselves as human beings rather than the sum of their needs.

And so they wake up.

Such awakening is one of the most critical transformations of human existence.  Do we not indulge in treating others as objects and not as people?  Who has not been slapped awake by the realization that treating someone as a thing and not a person effectively squeezes the life out of the relationship for both of you?  Is not this awakening to our complicity in such a spiritual death the very transformation that brings us alive to God?


Many years ago, one of my children simply would not go to sleep at night.  He was around three years old at the time.  Put him to bed and he'd trundle back out twenty or thirty minutes later and be completely surprised when you were upset and insisted he go back to bed again.  For those of us introverts who value the late night hours as a time to recharge our batteries after a day full of people, he became a problem, not a person.

I remember one night in particular I lost it.  With increasing impatience, I had put him to bed three or four times and finally, sometime after midnight, I heard a thud against the wall.  I discovered that he had taken every toy he possessed, piled them in the middle of his room and was sitting on the pile playing energetically.

I lost it.  I spanked him.  I spanked him a lot harder than I should have.

Then I sat there on the floor, extremely upset holding him as he cried bitterly.  What had I done, I remember thinking.  Who am I, I thought.  How can I treat this child this way, because he was, in that moment of awakening, a child and no longer a problem.  I promised him from the heart that I would never do that to him again, and I haven't.  I never spanked any of my children again after that.

Whether looking at Jesus on the cross, imagining Britney wheeled out on a gurney, or repenting of spanking my child too hard, I am doing what Jesus gave his life to get me to do.  I am waking up from the way I stifle other people by making them conform to the roles I need of them-whether parishioner of one sort or another, politician, bishop, friend or enemy.  I am waking up from the way I stifle my own life by conceiving of myself as no more than the sum of my needs.  Faced with the ultimate seriousness of death, I allow others their humanity as I regain my own.

To paraphrase Britney, I don't know who you think Jesus is, but he's probably not that person.  He's the person who came to slap you awake.  His cross stands at the center of your transformation into a soul fully alive and open to the divine.

Out of his anguish, you shall see light.

David Hoster

E-Mail: david,w,hoster@gmail.com