The Sunday sermon after Thanksgiving Day should be a no-brainer. We have much for which to be thankful, and so we count our blessings, be they family and friends, health and a roof over our heads, our cups overflow with blessings, and so shall our tables groan, and our stomachs stretch, till we feel like we may truly burst with gratitude. Dana and I did our best to preserve the spirit of Thanksgiving in our music, singing traditional hymns like “Now Thank We All Our God.” Thanksgiving should last the whole weekend, after all the leftovers are still in the fridge.
But while I was still recovering from my bout of gratitude, the nation had moved on to a new holiday called Black Friday. How odd that after being so grateful for the things in life that truly matter, we would then spend the very next day buying stuff that truly does not matter. How can our grasp on gratitude slip slow quickly. One day we have all we need, and the next day we need all we do not have. Perhaps I’m baffled because I don’t really know anyone who gets into Black Friday, and camps out to stampede Walmart at the stroke of midnight. Oh wait, make that 9 PM on Thursday night. If my friends are near Walmart it must be because they are protesting labor violations or human rights infringements. If someone proposed to me that we should go to the mall and camp out in the cold to get a good place in line, so we can elbow a few million other people to get a good deal on the latest electronics, I would look at them like they had just joined a strange mind-controlling cult and invited me to their religious holiday.
Consumerism really is a religious cult, you know. It has been the dominant American religion for decades, even if the Gallup Poll has not noticed, but of course, Gallup still thinks Mitt Romney is the next President. The consumer cult has its theology of supply and demand, a rosy cheeked saint in a red suit who will teach our children their confirmation classes, and prayers that occur every 10 minutes during our favorite shows and pop up on our computer screens thanks to Google, who watches over us from heavenly clouds above and tracks us to make sure all of our preferences are duly noted and catered. Search engine hear my prayer! Iphone therefore I am! A Starbucks shines in the East, giving us the strength of a latte so we can find a babe in a manger, a manger which also adapts to a car seat, or a stroller, a baby SUV. Yes, Black Friday, the high holy day named for the moment when Quicken moves from red to black, a holiday of accounting miracles, bringing a twinkle to the eye of Ebeneezer Scrouge.
What great irony that our lectionary Gospel reading today comes from, yes, Black Friday. The only other day we read from the 18th chapter of John is on what Christians call Good Friday, or Black Friday, the day that Jesus is crucified, because he has angered the Chief Priest for chasing the money changers out of the temple, among other things. What is truth, indeed, Pontius Pilate? What are we to do with the man Jesus, this King whose Kingdom is not of this world? The lectionary is sliding just a little glimpse of Lent into our awareness, before we move into Advent next week. Before we move to the season of celebrating a light shining in the darkness, we are reminded what darkness is really like, and why we need the light in the first place. Of course the majority of Christians in the world are not celebrating the American holiday of Thanksgiving. This is rather, Reign of Christ or Christ the King Sunday.
The Gospel reading throws us right into the middle of a noisy argument that we are not prepared for in any way. The very first line is transitional, telling us that Pilate is again entering his headquarters. Let me set the scene for you as staged by the author of John. Our short five verses are actually scene two of seven at Pilate’s praetorium. Jesus has already been arrested in the Garden of Gethsamane, and been condemned by Caiaphas, the Chief Priest, and Peter has already denied Jesus twice. We can have some sympathy for Pilate, a Roman who probably wants to be in Jerusalem about us much as I want to be in West Bumpjump, Texas. He is awakened to find a group of clergy with torches and a prisoner, wailing about justice regarding some religious matter that is rather unclear. Pilate invites them in, but apparently they cannot come in because the Passover is happening tomorrow and they would be ritually defiled and not able to eat at the Thanksgiving…wait I mean Passover feast.
“Right,” thinks Pilate, “these yokels wake me up before the rosy-fingered dawn to judge some religious matter, and they think they will be defiled by entering my fine house.” No wonder he says, “Go judge him by your own law.”
The clergy shout back, “But we don’t have the death penalty, and it is almost time for Thanksgiving Dinner.”
Well, what has he done, Pilate asks.
Would we have brought him to you if he wasn’t a criminal?
This is where our lesson today picks up, with Pilate going back inside to speak with Jesus and engage in a little shuttle diplomacy to defuse the situation. He speaks with Jesus to find out his version of the events, and says, “Look, I’m not one of you, what is this all about?” All he gets is that Jesus sees himself as some kind of king, but not of this world. Jesus says that he is telling the truth and anyone who wants to know the truth should listen to his voice. At this point, Pilate scoffs his most famous words, “What is truth?”
Pilate goes back and forth between Jesus and the mob, trying to resolve this without bloodshed. He travels back and forth seven times. First, he has Jesus beaten and tells the mob, “Look, I had my guards rough him up. See his black eye. I think he learned his lesson. Let’s just call it a night.” He tries to pardon Jesus and release him, pardoning him like the Thanksgiving turkey, but the crowd won’t have it. They want a crucifixion and nothing less before their big feast. So Pilate washes his hand of the whole deal, and says that Jesus’s blood is on their hands.
I have every sympathy with Pilate. While the stakes of my choices do not appear to be quite so high, I go back and forth between the church and the outside world about seven times every day, trying to negotiate the strange and incomprehensible challenges of modern life. I live in the world, but not always of it, yet never completely out of it either. I call Jesus my Savior, and vote my conscience. I value much that is modern, being trained in psychology, valuing scientific advances, and I may even get a new IPhone. But why does someone in China working for Foxcon have to be ground into dust for me to get my phone? The values of my faith in Jesus do not synchronize with the surrounding culture. Crass consumerism, blinded to the exploitation of much of the people of the world and planet, does not square with the Jesus who said, “Love your neighbor” and “Blessed are the poor and woe to the rich.” The narcissistic obsession with the self has little room for the deeper awareness of a human soul. Greed is good and selfishness helps the economy, while believing in the common good and sacrificing for each other is decried as socialist authoritarianism. I reject narrow religion, those who use Jesus to reinforce their bigotry against everyone different from them. At times I am very comfortable with friends and family who I can warmly call secular humanists, who mirror many of my values, without the need of God. Yet there is a coolness at the core of that world without faith, nothing that lets me sing “Amazing Grace, How Sweet the Sound,” or “Joyful, Joyful We Adore Thee.”
Like Pilate I navigate seven times a day between church and world, and sometimes wearily ask, “What is truth?” But better that for me than to be with Peter swearing, “I do not know that man, Jesus!” I cannot objectively say what truth is. I can only say with John Wesley that I was strangly-warmed within and knew it was Jesus. I can only say I am blessed by the love of God, called out of the waters of baptism to serve, challenged and broken-hearted at the injustice of the world’s crosses that still crucify the innocent, filled with the hope of resurrection. Advent comes upon us next week, with the promise of new birth and a light shining in the darkness.