This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church on April 14, 2017, is built on the readings assigned for Good Friday in the Revised Common Lectionary.
You can find those readings here.
If this sermon sounds familiar to you that is probably because it is the sermon, with a few tweaks and a little fine tuning, that I offered on Good Friday last year.
Many of you know that I am a musician. As a musician, I know that the same riff, or melodic figure, can sound very different when played against a different chord. The harmonic context against which a melody is heard has a huge impact on the way that we hear, receive and interpret that melody. I thought that this sermon worked last year. But based on the feedback I received today I believe that this sermon works even better in our current “harmonic context.” Oh how I wish that were not the case….
“What is truth?” I wonder how Pilate spoke those words? Was he sincere? Did he utter them with a plaintive longing in his voice? Was it merely a rhetorical question? Or…. Did he ask it with a derisive sneer?
The story would seem to indicate that, at least at first, Pilate was trying to discern the truth. He goes out to meet the crowd that is clamoring for Jesus’s death and asks, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” He comes back inside to question Jesus and asks, “Are you the King of the Jews?” “What have you done?”
He goes back outside and tells the crowd that He can find no case against him and offers to release him, but the crowd continues to insist that Jesus be put to death.
So, seeking to placate the crowd, Pilate has Jesus flogged, and, understanding Jesus to be innocent, and trying to honor the truth as he understood it, again tries to release him.
But the crowd roars for Jesus’ death and tells Pilate that Jesus has claimed to be the Son of God.
Pilate returns to Jesus and continues to ask him questions, still trying to understand, still seeking the truth, almost begging Jesus to respond and spare himself the fate the crowd demands.
Pilate is frightened. The crowd’s charge, Jesus’ responses have him beginning to recognize that there is something going on here that is beyond him, something that he doesn’t understand… and he continues to work the crowd trying to find a way to have Jesus released…
And then something devastating happens…
The crowd finds a way to turn their threats against Pilate…
“If you release this man, you are no friend of the emperor. Everyone who claims to be a king sets himself against the emperor.”
Pontius Pilate was a mid level bureaucrat, a career military man and politician whose position rested on his ability to curry favor with those above him, especially with the Emperor.
If word got back to Rome that he had released someone who was undermining Cesar’s claims to divinity, Cesar’s claim to divine kingship, if he released someone who was seeking to usurp the basis of the Emperor’s power… Pilate’s career, maybe even his life, would be over.
The fear that Pilate felt as he began to approach the truth about Jesus was suddenly supplanted by fear for his own career, fear for his status and rank in society, fear for his position in the only hierarchy he knew and understood.
So in this moment of crisis, Pilate turns his back on truth and condemns an innocent man.
He turns his back on truth…
Jesus told Pilate, “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”
Apparently Pilate wasn’t listening.
Jesus told us that we are all, all of us, beloved of God. This truth that Jesus proclaimed has the power to break down the walls that divide us, to heal the instinctual tribalism that causes us to see the world as “us” and “them,” to reconcile us one to another and to God.
Jesus told us that we are all, all of us, children of the same God and that we are called to care for the weak and the poor, the disenfranchised, those on the margins, the alien in our midst, even those who have harmed or wronged us!
The truth that Jesus proclaimed has the power to bring our border conflicts, our police actions, our wars to an end.
Jesus said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.”
And he taught us that the way to true life, a life that is shaped by and infused with the eternal, comes through loving God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength, and through loving our neighbor as ourselves.
When push came to shove, and the harsh political realities of believing and living by the truth to which Jesus testified became clear… Pilate stopped listening to the truth and, instead, bought into the false promises of demagoguery and empire…
Demagoguery and Empire cannot abide this truth and so, when it is confronted by The Truth, it seeks to destroy it…
It seeks to destroy The Truth…
Here’s the thing….
Jesus didn’t just give voice to truth… he himself is The Truth.
Jesus, Emanuel, God among us. Jesus, The Truth, manifest in our midst, trying to help us to grasp the reality, that we, all of us, with all of our scars, imperfections and flaws, are beloved of God, have value in God’s sight, and are worthy of dignity, respect, of love.
Jesus’s words, his testimony, his teaching countered the claims and lies of empire.
Jesus, The Truth’s very presence among us, represents a challenge to the fear, competition, scapegoating, and the tribalism that fuels and undergirds empire… so empire had him killed.
Rome killed The Truth to suppress its voice and oppress a people.
Pilate killed The Truth to suppress its voice and protect his own position, status, and power.
The temple authorities killed The Truth to suppress its voice and protect a way of life, their traditions, their religion, their heritage… all of which supported their power and their privileged place in society.
Today, standing at the foot of the cross we look upon the work of empire and we are called to acknowledge and confess
The evil we have done
The evil that enslaves us
And the evil done on our behalf
Whenever we fail to care for the poor, the hungry, the naked, or the prisoner, we are here, standing at the foot of the cross.
Whenever we diminish, degrade, or dehumanize another in order to maintain our power, status or privilege… we are here, standing at the foot of the cross.
Whenever we scapegoat a person, or a people, in order to justify their oppression and our own acts of aggression… we are here, standing at the foot of the cross.
Whenever we deny our connection to, and responsibility for one another, whenever we deny a child of God the dignity and respect that, by virtue of our common origins, belong to all of us… we are here standing at the foot of the cross.
We are here standing at the foot of the cross…
So why is it that when we sing, we ask, “Where you there when they crucified my Lord?”
I think that we want to hear that song as filled with pathos and shared grief. We sing those words in search of others who share our pain and dismay at the spectacle of The Truth, dead, nailed to a tree, its side pierced, its breath stolen away. We sing that hymn as observers of an event that happened long ago in a land far, far away…
But the truth is that we, we are standing right here, at the foot of the cross… and right now, around the world, and here at home, the voice of demagoguery and empire is ringing out, telling its lies, looking for people to devour in its insatiable appetite for destruction and death.
The question isn’t so much “Where you there?
Against this backdrop of fear mongering, of incitement, of tribalism; against empire’s howl of rage and confusion at the threat to its power and privilege, we must hear the words of this hymn as a call to action.
The question this hymn is truly asking is “will we be there?”
Will we be there when they try, again and again, to crucify our Lord?
Will we be there to raise The Voice of Truth in protest?
Will we be there, risking the wrath of empire and proclaiming the kingship of The Truth?
Will we be there beginning to heal the wounds inflicted on the Body of Christ…. by following his commandment and loving one another as he has loved us…
Or will God’s people someday look back at us and ask,
“Where were they, when they crucified our Lord?”