The Presbyterian Pulpit

A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger

SUPERSTAR

Delivered 7/19/09
Text: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56
To read endnotes, click on the the note number, then click on the to return to your place in the text.

Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson. There. That is for all of you who were in danger of going into withdrawal from not hearing Michael's name enough this week. Right! I was saddened to hear of his death several weeks ago, but not inordinately so. I confess that I was amazed at the incredible outpouring of grief from around the world. I knew Michael was a big star, but I also knew he was a little weird, so I was taken aback at the attention his death was getting and the adulation being poured out. Constant!

Some numbers. In the period immediately following the announcement of Michael's death, AT&T reported the sending of 65,000 text messages per second. Who could guess how many millions got home that afternoon and immediately put one of Michael's albums in the sound system and starting blasting away? His recordings were always good sellers, and his Thriller album is the biggest seller of all time, bigger than any from Elvis, bigger than any from the Beatles. In recent years the sales had not been so robust, but following his death, people started grabbing them up in a frenzy. The nine top-selling albums suddenly were all done by Michael Jackson.

When it came time for his memorial service, the family announced that some 17,000 free tickets for seating in the Staples Center would be available by a lottery. One-point-six million requests came in. Regardless of available seating, fans flocked to Los Angeles for the event. British Airways reported a surge of bookings as soon as the arrangements were announced. Virgin Airway's trans-Atlantic flights to San Francisco, Las Vegas and Los Angeles were all packed with fans and VIPs.

Meanwhile, poor LA - literally, "poor" LA, with their horrendous budget problems - was contemplating an outlay of between 1.5 and 4-million dollars to provide security for the event covering the cost of the extra 4,000 police officers, sanitation workers, etc. needed for the detail. Fortunately, the crowds on the streets were not nearly so large as had been feared so lots of the those workers did not have to put in the amount of overtime that might have been necessary. Still, the citizens of Los Angeles were on the hook for a bundle.

In what can only be described as an ironically fitting piece de resistance, the Memorial service was preceded by a parade of elephants. You see, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey started a run at Staples Center the next day, a booking set long in advance. So, as is the custom, in the hours before Jackson's memorial, the elephants walked their way from the train station to the arena, the only ones to get in without a ticket.

I would have thought that, by now, we would be over all the hoopla. Silly me. In the paper yesterday was an article that told of the collection and subsequent burial of the photos, stuffed animals and other items that people had left in the star's memory outside of the Motown museum in Detroit. It said, "Police led a small funeral procession that included two hearses packed with items from the museum to the cemetery where there were two donated plots, vaults and a granite headstone engraved with a tribute to Jackson." (1) They buried toys. Amazing.

And you KNOW that the media, for its part, plans to continue talking about Michael Jackson. The practice of churning out stories about a deceased celebrity for as long as possible is an old tradition. It used to be known as the "John Garfield Still Dead" syndrome, after the extensive post-funeral coverage of a movie star who had a fatal heart attack in 1952 in the bed of a woman other than his wife. (2)

What brings all this to mind this morning is the account we have in our gospel lesson. Jesus was trying to sit down with his disciples for a little R&R, but the people would not let him alone. No matter where he went, people clamored for his attention, and in particular, his healing touch. A 1st century superstar. An early edition Michael Jackson without the weirdness.

These days, calling Jesus Christ a "Superstar" is not particularly startling, but those of us who were around in 1970, when the rock opera of that name came out, remember that it was a jarring choice of words and caused quite a stir. Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber had put together a two-act musical that largely followed the biblical accounts of the last weeks of Jesus' life, with certain artistic license, of course. Contemporary attitudes and sensibilities as well as modern slang pervaded the lyrics, and ironic allusions to modern life were scattered throughout. It was very cleverly done.

So saying, when the show first opened, it met with a firestorm of protest from some Christian groups. The objection was that by showing Jesus as a man but not God (as Rice explicitly said was the intention) and by omitting the resurrection, "Superstar" was sacrilegious. They also found the character of Judas too sympathetic and some of his criticisms of Jesus offensive. At the same time, some Jews said that it bolstered the anti-Semitic claim that the Jews are responsible for Jesus' death by showing most of the villains as Jewish and showing the crowd in Jerusalem calling for the crucifixion. There were pickets outside the theater when it opened on Broadway.

To be sure, some of the complaints were legitimate - the play did not tell the Jesus story as do Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. It embellishes here and omits there which is probably to be expected anytime a literary work is adapted for the stage or screen. The difference, of course, is that the gospel story, in the mind of the faithful, is not just some "literary work" - it is the very Word of God, and one must not mess with the Word of God.

If you have seen it, you remember that Act I opens with Judas beginning to worry about Jesus. He does not believe that Jesus is the son of God as many others now seem to think, and he is afraid that if Jesus starts getting too loud, he will draw the attention of the Romans, who will then crush their little band. That Friday night in Bethany, the Twelve pester Jesus about his plans for the future while Mary Magdalene seeks to comfort him by rubbing his feet with oil. Judas arrives and asks Jesus what is doing with a woman of Mary Magdalene's questionable reputation, but Jesus says to leave her alone and not to throw stones unless you yourself have a clean slate. Mary Magdalene tries to calm Jesus down singing gently that Everything's Alright and telling him not to worry. Judas, meanwhile, is asking Jesus why good money was used on that expensive oil instead of using it to help the poor. Jesus replies that it can't be helped and alludes to his death.

The scene changes to Palm Sunday. When Jesus arrives in Jerusalem, the crowd is ecstatic, and, as expected, sings "Hosanna." Simon the Zealot tries to convince Jesus that he can lead Jerusalem to arm against Rome, Jesus responds that no one understands what true power or glory is, and that to conquer death, one must die. Meanwhile, Caiaphas, the High Priest, is with the other Jewish leaders, discussing what to do about Jesus, and they conclude that he must die.

The next scene. It is the next day and Pontius Pilate has a dream about Jesus, including his role in his death, while Jesus is arriving at the Temple to find it a haven for merchants and moneychangers. As we all remember, he chases them out in anger. He is then surrounded by lepers and the poor, begging to be healed. Jesus testily tells them to heal themselves. Mary Magdalene tries to comfort him again, then, after Jesus is asleep, she tries to deal with her love for him and sings "I Don't Know How To Love Him." Remember that? It was a big hit. On Tuesday, Judas goes to talk with Caiaphas and friends and tells them where to find Jesus on Thursday night. A distant choir tells Judas, "Well done" as the curtain comes down.

Now it is Act II. The curtain opens on Thursday night as Jesus hosts the Last Supper. He announces that Peter will deny him and another of the twelve will betray him. Judas confronts him, telling Jesus that he knows very well that Judas is the one that will be the betrayer. Judas leaves and the other apostles go to sleep. Jesus stays awake and prays. He wants to know why he must die, why he must go through with his Father's plan.

Judas returns and betrays Jesus with a kiss, and what follows is pretty much as the gospels have it. There is some fun as King Herod asks Jesus to perform miracles to prove that he is the Son of God; if he does, Herod will let him go free: "Prove to me that you're divine; Change my water into wine." We know the rest. Crucifixion. Burial. Curtain.

Yes, the faithful complain about leaving the story there, just as when they saw Mel Gibson's 2004 movie, "The Passion of the Christ." If this were touted as an evangelistic tool, the complaint would be legitimate, but it is not - this is a secular production that seeks to entertain. And it does.

Some of the music is wonderful and, as we have already noted, found great success in record sales. My particular favorite is "King Herod's Song" done up in Vaudeville style with banjo accompaniment: "Prove to me that you're no fool; Walk across my swimming pool." Hilarious.


But by the turn of the century, the furor over the play had died down so greatly that it is now often performed by church groups. It has become appreciated simply as an established secular production concerning Jesus set to music.

So saying, remember the source for the story. There was indeed a day when the crowds would not let him alone. Truly, it was "Jesus Christ, Superstar."

If our sermon were to end here, we would only have celebrated the parallels between modern celebrity and the impact of the public ministry of Jesus and his disciples. We could wonder what happened to all those adoring crowds. If you and I are the body of Christ in the world today, we could wonder about being ignored. Are we following through on our task of, as has been eloquently suggested, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable? Why aren't folks beating down the church doors, anxious to get in?

Perhaps the answer is as simple as seeing the difference in the way Jesus responded to people and the way the church is seen as responding. The lesson says it with powerful simplicity: he saw a great crowd, and he had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Is that the way the world sees the church responding to people? Or is the church best known as that bunch who tried to stop the performance of "Jesus Christ, Superstar," or who were offended by Michael Jackson, among other things?

There is good news in this story, beloved. Not that Jesus was a 1st century superstar, and certainly not that we who say we are his people are not. The good news is not that people were interested in Jesus. The good news is that Jesus was interested in them! (3)

Yes, the good news is that Jesus came into our world to announce the nearness of a better world, the kingdom of God, and to declare the opportunity to escape the power of sin and death. The celebrity that was offered him did not flatter him. He was not interested popularity or the attention that others were willing to give him. No photographs on the society pages of the Jerusalem Times or interviews with Entertainment Tonight, Palestine edition. He was simply Jesus, the lover of our souls.

Our model for mission comes from this superstar. He saw human need and he met it with compassion. As the lesson has it, "And wherever he went, into villages or cities or farms, they laid the sick in the marketplaces, and begged him that they might touch even the fringe of his cloak; and all who touched it were healed." That is our mission. To all who need comfort, to all who need friendship, to all who need healing, to all who are lonely and need companionship, to all who want sheltering love, to all who sin and need a Savior, and whosoever will, we open wide our doors in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ... Superstar...and say WELCOME!

Amen!

1. "Jackson mementos buried," Hilton Head Island Packet, 7/18,09, p. 3C

2. Gail Collins, "Michael, a Foreign Affair," New York Times, 7/10/09

3. Harvard Stephens, Jr, sermon, "Christ and His Celebrity," http://day1.org/672-christ_and_his_celebrity

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