View print-optimized version | View pdf of bulletin
Sunday, March 26, 2017 | 4:00 p.m.
Lenten Sermon Series:
Following Jesus through the Gospel of John
The Hope Lying in Front of Us
About four years ago, I was working as an assistant in a young adult ministry office within a larger mission agency. Our all-300ish member staff meeting was coming up, and the deputy executive director of the organization asked me to lead an energizer—a childish dance to help people wake up—during the meeting. I don’t really like leading those. They’re patronizing, and it’s hard for adults to take young adults seriously when the only work they’re seeing us do is a little goofy dance. So I talked with some of my other young adult colleagues, and we decided to organize a flash mob instead. If you don’t know what a flash mob is, it’s when a public song interrupts some kind of event. One person starts dancing, and then more and more people gradually join in until you have a bunch of people dancing and it’s now the center of the event.
So we started organizing this flash mob. We would sneak around the building a couple of weeks prior to the staff meeting, inviting people from across the agency to learn the dance. We had director level people, associate level, administrative assistants, all across the various offices. People who normally don’t interact much on the same playing field were learning a dance beside each other secretly across the building.
After we were midway into the organizing of this, we went back to the deputy director and told him our new idea, and he nervously agreed to it. When it came to the day of the meeting, a couple of hours into our time together, when the deputy director was ending a speech, our song came on: David Guetta’s Without You. I jumped up and started dancing. Then with each movement of the song, groups of people started joining in. The room erupted. People who weren’t even in the dance joined in—including the executive director of the agency. For the rest of the day, people’s spirits were high, which I expected to last that day, but it continued on for months. For a place that experiences regular anxiety over budget cuts and layoffs, this was a dramatic difference in spirits.
Sometimes we’re given an opportunity to share a glimpse of God’s glory in our realm of influence, and taking that opportunity might play a role in changing our world. Today’s scripture is about someone who missed a big opportunity.
Today we’re focusing on the story of Jesus brought before Pilate. The biblical character Pilate is most famous for Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Instead of just leaving his story at that though, I want to better understand who he was and why he responded to Jesus by eventually crucifying him. Pilate was a Roman prefect over Judea. Judea was the region Jerusalem was in, and a prefect was essentially a Roman military leader over a “less important” Roman province. This means that Pilate was of lower nobility; he didn’t have the power to govern but was a tool for the Roman empire. This is significant, because it means that he wasn’t important enough to Caesar to rule in provinces Caesar found more important. Pilate must have found more power and nobility by working for the empire than compared with the power the empire could gain from him, due to his lower nobility identity. So Pilate needed the empire for resources; he needed the empire for his reputation; and he needed the empire for status growth. Maybe he needed the empire even for survival. We don’t know about his family and situation, but although minimal, he at least had some power and privilege that he wanted to maintain. It’s interesting to consider that Jesus never confronted Caesar directly but instead faced the middlemen, the gatekeepers to the empire Jesus was confronting and challenging, the gatekeepers who are complicit and stuck in the system, who do the dirty work of maintaining the structures.
The setting of this week’s scripture takes place in the first moment Pilate and Jesus meet. The Jewish religious authorities bring Jesus to Pilate. Historically speaking, it’s safe to assume that the Jewish religious authorities must have tried Jesus themselves already if they’re bringing Jesus to Pilate. Yet if this is the case, then they would have come to Pilate just for a license to prosecute the sentence. However, Pilate asks what their accusation against Jesus is and instead moves to try Jesus himself. This could have been an easy case with a previous sentence; he wouldn’t have had to look Jesus in the eye. But Pilate talks to Jesus. He asks him questions. He wonders why the religious authorities want Jesus killed. Is Pilate uncomfortable with their decision?
The Gospel of John, more than any of the other Gospels, portrays Pilate as concerned about killing Jesus. This Gospel places most of the blame on the Jews. However, that is not a fair judgment. Pilate could have stopped Jesus’ death, but he didn’t. He experienced some kind of pressure, and he acted on it. He was complicit. He served the empire by killing God’s revolutionary—Jesus.
Historically, we remember that Pilate did evil actions, but in John, he’s portrayed as open, as confused, as not wanting to make a decision on whether or not to crucify Jesus. He asks, “What is truth?” Jesus won’t simply answer it. As readers we’re thinking, “Just say it, Jesus! Convince him! Convert him!” But Jesus never makes things simple. He briefly shares that he’s from a kingdom different from this world and that he came to “testify to the truth.” Pilate doesn’t get what that truth is, and instead of exploring further, he takes the safe route and goes along with his business-as-usual-procedures—doing what other authorities want him to do. Jesus leaves an open door; Jesus makes space for an opportunity, but Pilate doesn’t take it.
It takes work to follow Jesus. It takes some exploration to pursue this good news. Pilate wasn’t willing to take that extra step. It was risky for him to let Jesus go when Jesus was already sentenced to death by the religious authorities. It was risky to allow a peasant rabbi to enter your heart and walk away free. It was risky for Pilate to even consider that the world could be different than what he saw before him. Instead of a power struggle within the empire, threatening people and instigating violence, Pilate could have been a part of bringing God’s kingdom on earth that promotes healing and wholeness, love and connectedness, justice and peace. But he turned away when that uncomfortable, yet intriguing sense of mystery came before him. And there were huge ramifications because he missed this opportunity.
It’s not just Pilate who makes such a choice in a split second, though. We often can relate to Pilate’s character. Many of us can relate to the experience of being a gatekeeper in an institution in which we work or for a set of cultural values in which our faith conflicts. We’re always making fast choices of who to include in our work, decisions that impact others, access to resources that we have an ability to share and control. Gatekeepers have some but minimal power.
The role is complicated because towing the line means a paycheck, one that we need. Following policies and procedures in expected ways means job security, means feeding our family, and because a gatekeeper does have some power, it means the possibility of a comfortable life in this world. These are all legitimate desires, especially if it was harder to even get that job because of the barriers set before you due to your racial, gender, sexual, class, and ability identity. Yet when we see an injustice in our institution, when we’re not treated fairly, or when particular clients are put at a disadvantage, or if the whole mission of your institution conflicts with your faith values, well, breaking those cultural norms, resisting procedures and policies, can threaten our jobs, can threaten our community, can threaten our goals. But going along with harmful policies and practices continues to put Jesus on trial. It’s the gatekeeper bind where we turn to Jesus and ask, “What is the truth? What have you done Jesus and what can I do?”It’s a bind where we have to ask ourselves, What are we willing to risk, and what do we need?
Former acting attorney general Sally Yates was fired after refusing to enforce an unjust executive order that discriminated against Muslims. Of course it was likely she would be fired anyways, and I doubt it’s hard for her to find another job. But in her realm of influence, she spoke truth to power.
I’ve been hearing stories of federal employees, especially those at the Environmental Protection Agency who have spent their career developing and implementing policies to combat the effects of climate change, concerned about their jobs and the direction of the agency. They’ve been using encryption apps to communicate. Apps like signal and whatsapp, because they’re encrypted, are much harder to hack into and read and listen to the messages. It’s a safer way to organize and resist.
These are stories that are more public, but I’m sure we all could share stories of how we organized or acted a little more as our authentic, faithful self in our realm of influence, building an environment that’s more inclusive towards others, standing up for yourself when your boss dismisses you, pursuing an idea you feel passionate and excited about. Our faith calls us to creatively respond to the binds we’re in—how to bring in aspects of God’s kingdom in the midst of our worlds here. There are real impacts to just going along with what’s expected of you, without critically thinking about the impact it’s having—especially in marginalized communities. That’s why Jesus calls us to discern what we’re willing to risk compared with what we need to go for an opportunity God gives us.
It’s overwhelming to consider how Jesus walked to the cross in freedom, clear about the distinctions between God’s kingdom and the world, opening doors and opportunities for people to join him. It’s relatable to imagine that Pilate wasn’t willing to step outside of his comfort zone and imagine a different kingdom, God’s kingdom, where he didn’t have to be afraid. He didn’t have to put up such a violent and tough-guy front. There before him was a man braver than he and more hopeful. Hebrews 6:18 reads “Jesus did this so that we, who have taken refuge in him, can be encouraged to grasp the hope that is lying in front of us.”Pilate couldn’t grasp onto that hope lying in front of him. He was clinging too hard to the Roman Empire.
How can we grasp onto the hope lying in front of us?
With Jesus, we have an opportunity to hear his testimony to the truth, of God’s kingdom that doesn’t look like this world. We, like Pilate, miss many opportunities too, but with God’s grace and a complicated world filled with glimpses of God’s world we get to act creatively with the Holy Spirit and keep experimenting, keep trying again, keep persisting, keep being brave, keep dancing.
I won’t pretend that organizing a flash mob at work was some huge risk that transformed the institution and the ways decisions were made. But with the power some of my colleagues and I had there as assistants, and an opportunity we were given to loosen people up a bit, what was a simple and fun idea, turned into something way larger than expected. Who knew that a surprise dance could help people have fun in their job, could help people work together and connect across differences throughout the agency, who knew that dancing (without the pressure of dancing well), could poke holes in a cloud hanging over the institution. It was a small taste of God’s disorderly kingdom, and it was beautiful.
Last week after Hardy’s sermon we meditated on an opportunity before us after some kind of mistake we’ve made, where we missed standing up for someone. Now we’re going to meditate for a few minutes again on an opportunity set before us in our realm of influence.
In your job, in your institutions, in the world in which you interact daily, what is the hope lying in front of you? How can we keep Jesus from being handed over with an opportunity where Jesus is inviting you to bring in part of God’s kingdom?