Mark 15: 1-15, NRSV
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. 2Pilate asked him, ‘Are you the King of the Jews?’ He answered him, ‘You say so.’ 3Then the chief priests accused him of many things. 4Pilate asked him again, ‘Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you.’ 5But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.
6 Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. 7Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. 8So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom.9Then he answered them, ‘Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?’ 10For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. 11But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. 12Pilate spoke to them again, ‘Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?’ 13They shouted back, ‘Crucify him!’ 14Pilate asked them, ‘Why, what evil has he done?’ But they shouted all the more, ‘Crucify him!’ 15So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
16 Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort.17And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. 18And they began saluting him, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ 19They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. 20After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
Preached Sunday, May 27, 2018 (Memorial Day Weekend) at Westfield Church by the Rev. Jonathan Chapman
I never know who to be angry at when we get to this part of the story. It’s a brief turn of events in the Gospel of Mark—just fifteen verses. Yet those fifteen verses fill me with such confusion and dread that I sometimes just don’t know what to do with it. You see, whenever we get to the part with Pilate, I just don’t know who to be mad at. Should I be angry with Pilate—the Roman governor and representative of the Emperor who tosses aside fairness and any judicial process whatsoever and allows his decision to be swayed solely by mob mentality? Should I be mad at the chief priests who are inciting such a mob mentality in the first place? What about the mob itself? How was no one there willing to stand up against such a shoddy trial and verdict? And what about Jesus who, after an entire gospel of kicking butt and taking names came to this critical moment—a final effort to change this outcome—and answers Pilate’s question, “Are you the King of the Jews?” with a terse and childish “You say so.” Then remains silent.
It’s maddening—all of it. And it happens in a whirlwind. Have you ever set a glass of, let’s say Milk, on the counter and turned your attention for a hot second to something else, only to turn back just in time to realize that you didn’t set that glass entirely on the counter, just kind of on the counter? I don’t care how fast you are, there’s no way you’re gonna catch that glass before it falls to the floor and drenches the tile with milk. It happens in an instant yet, when it’s falling, and yet it’s like time stands still. That’s what these fifteen verses are—an instant and a lifetime—like it’s nothing at all and the whole story turns on it— and the weeping that’s comes out of it is over a lot more than spilt milk.
Of everything in this passage that stirs a deep and persistent anger in me, the part that really gets me is Barabbas. Barabbas was a criminal—particularly in the eyes of Rome. You see, he’d been part of a rebellion, an insurrection against Rome. When Pilate releases him instead of Jesus at the request of the crowd, Jesus’ already lessened significance in the eyes of the Empire and in the eyes of the dominant religion are lessened all the more. There’s a reason Jesus is crucified between two criminals—it’s because he wasn’t thought of as anything more than just that: a criminal.
The injustice of it all is about more than I can bear. I mean, this is the man we’ve named ourselves after—the one we’ve committed our lives to follow. And even he didn’t see the point in mounting an argument against what he knew was coming.
Tomorrow is Memorial Day. It’s always been difficult for me—finding the right balance between appropriate patriotism and faithful—well, faith on this particular Sunday of all Sundays. You see, it our society today, there’s a group of folks who conflate the two—who’d say to be good “Americans” you need to be Christian, and to be Christian in America means supporting the government in its totality. This group is fond of absolutes—of painting others with broad strokes and insisting that their way is the absolute right way. But here’s the thing: the only one able to speak in absolutes is Jesus—and when Jesus does—not just in his words, but in his actions—he speaks absolutely for love. Not of love for the self or political ideology, but love of the other. In the eyes of the Church, we’re not called to be American Christians. We’re called to be Christian Americans. That is, we are called to put God above all else. Tomorrow we will remember our fallen soldiers, those who gave the ultimate sacrifice to protect our freedom. It’s a good thing for us to do. It’s an important thing for us to do. It’s a holy thing for us to do. But a single day recalling their sacrifice doesn’t quite seem enough. Instead, I think we honor them every day by fulling honoring the freedoms they died for.
We could spend hours going through what that might mean, so let’s just pick one as we begin to wonder what it means to be both Christian and American. Today, as we ponder what it means to die for what you believe in, let’s talk about freedom of speech, since, in a way, speech seems to be the culprit in today’s scripture—the use of it and the lack of it. More and more in our society, it seems like freedom of speech is interpreted as freedom to a bully pulpit—that is some feel they have the freedom to speak without obliging it’s partner—the responsibility to listen.
And you know, I see it more and more. From online debates about gun control to people arguing about NFL protests—we’re not listening to each other. People will scream about Freedom of Speech, but won’t uphold the holy work of listening that accompanies it. And the funny thing is, it’s always the other guy who does it. Isn’t it? It’s never me who’s the stubborn one. The truth is I bet each of us has an image of who it is that talks a lot but won’t listen.
But let me tell you something: you don’t protest unless you’ve got something to protest about. Because sometimes, it feels like protesting, like voicing a dissenting opinion, is fruitless. Just take a look a at Jesus’ tepid “You say so” from his time with Pilate. What difference would it make to those already mobbed up? So taking the time, putting for the effort, to make such a statement—a statement of protest—compels us to ask why such action is being taken in the first place. Protest comes from a place of pain and hurt, and while it might not be a pain or hurt that we’ve personally encountered, it is is our holy obligation as Christians and our joyful responsibility as Americans, to try to understand—to remember the we are part of something bigger than this.
Here’s the thing: people didn’t die for you to have an opinion. Having opinions isn’t anything new. They died for you and me and all of us to have a safe place to have that opinion—a place where each opinion could be heard and respected so that we could move ahead together. So, rather than getting angry when someone has an opinion different from yours, make room to hear them out. Don’t be like the crowd that condemned Jesus. Think for yourself. Don’t be like Pilate, and give in to injustice because it’s easier and demands less of us. Demand more. And certainly don’t be like the chief priests and lead the way for others to condemn. When you’re faced with impossible situations, stand up and speak the truth—even when you don’t think it’ll make a bit of difference. Don’t just hear people; listen to them. Then be like Jesus—and be faithful to the end. Amen.