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John 18:33-37 "Black Friday - The One Before Advent"

Black friday 2   Ivan-glazunov-crucify-him


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.  

Response To Douthat's "The Liberal Gloat" -

Ross Douthat said in Sunday' NY Times:

WINNING an election doesn’t just offer the chance to govern the country. It offers a chance to feel morally and intellectually superior to the party you’ve just beaten. This is an inescapable aspect of democratic culture: no matter what reason tells us about the vagaries of politics, something in the American subconscious assumes that the voice of the people really is the voice of God, and that being part of a winning coalition must be a sign that you’re His chosen one as well.

Bloomingcactus responds:

Mr. Douthat’s views are just “kinder, gentler Randism.” But it is still a dark Ayn Rand view of the world, just without pejorative words like moochers and takers. He reduces liberalism to a vision of transfer payments, rather than the essential American values of fairness, equality and opportunity. While I think it is dangerous to gloat, many of us do hope that this election signals the value of science, women’s equality and freedom of choice, and opportunities for new immigrants to become citizens just like our ancestors did.
Furthermore, while liberalism is a secular governing philosophy, it is not anti-religious, but rather affirms pluralism. Obama was right to not give in to the demands of the Catholic Church on contraception, over an issue that the vast majority of Catholics disagree with the bishops. Many of us who are liberal and Christian don’t think people should be told how to vote from the pulpit based on a few hot button issues. The problems of the Roman Catholic Church are not from a secular onslaught, but rather the Church has been a major cause of secularization through its enormous institutional failures.
While gloating is annoying, so is sour grapes. Move on, Mr. Douthat. As Desmond Tutu counsels, when you lose an argument, don’t just shout louder, improve your argument.

Mark 13:1-8 "Not a Stone Left"

Temple(I wrote this three years ago, and it seems more relevant today, especially with this week's announcement that Andover Newton Theological School, my alma mater, is selling its physical campus and moving.)




This week I was trying to get a feel for what the disciples were thinking and seeing as they walked through the great Temple in Jerusalem.  Through the power of the web I was able to find out a great deal about the size and layout of the Second Temple, which had been renovated by Herod during Jesus’ lifetime.  The Temple complex, which is considered most holy ground by Jews, Muslims and Christians today, contains the Western Wailing Wall, and the Al Aksa Mosque.  It all sits on a leveled out mountaintop that Solomon had built up with stone to make room for the first great Temple destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BC.  Herod built great walls surrounding this area and in Jesus day the walls enclosed an area about 36 acres, which is the size of seven high school football complexes with quarter mile tracks surrounding them (about 5 acres each), laid out side by side.  The Wailing Wall is what remains of Herod’s walls and it is about 187 feet high.  For perspective, that is about the height of Giant Stadium in New Jersey or the height of a 12 to 15 story building.  So this was a huge open air complex that would have swallowed Giant stadium.   For historical comparison, this is larger than the Coliseum in Rome, which ironically was built in 70 AD, the year the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed. 


So this truly was one of the wonders of the ancient world and the disciples were justifiably in awe walking into the outer courts.  So in the presence of such grandeur on holy ground which is revered and fought over by three great religions of the world, why is Jesus so unimpressed?  For clue number one let’s start with who built it-Herod.  If you remember your Christmas stories, Jesus had reason to not hold Herod in high esteem, since his family had to flee to Egypt to escape Herod and the slaughter of the innocents.  So Jesus may have a few left over issues with any landmarks of Herod’s grandeur.  Where others gaze in wonder, Jesus sees blood money, taxes pilfered from people who can’t afford it, national wealth spent on Herod’s glory while people suffered in poverty.


Think for a minute when this episode takes place in Jesus’ ministry.  This is the day or so after the cleansing of the Temple, when Jesus took a whip and drove out the moneychangers and turned over their tables.  Are you surprised they let him back in?  If you did that at Walmart or Rockefeller Center, you would probably be banned.  But the Chief Priests feared the crowds, who were enthralled with Jesus at this point.  So Jesus is now back at the Temple, warily eyed by moneychangers ready to defend their piles of shekels, and probably a few bouncers at the ready.  I like Mark’s Gospel better for this episode, where one of the disciples blurts out, “Teacher, look at these buildings and huge stones.”  The wiser and more sophisticated of Jesus disciples were probably thinking, “What a moron!  Were you paying attention yesterday?  Jesus does not like the Temple or the Priests, because they want to kill him.  They are the bad guys.  Try to keep up, OK?”  Mark’s Gospel is much more anti-Temple than Luke, and I’ll say more about why in a minute.  In Luke, the scene is more like a huge offering time, where lots of people are putting in gifts to the Treasury, and apparently many wealthy people are making a great show of their lavish gifts to the Temple.  Jesus makes note to his disciples that a poor widow drops in two copper coins, perhaps her last ones, and says to his disciples, “She has put in more than all of them, for others gave of their abundance, but she gave all out of her poverty.” 


Then someone notes all the great memorial gifts to Temple, all the beautiful stones and gifts that adorn the Temple walls, and Jesus has had enough of the opulence of the Temple.  He says, “The day will come when all of this will be thrown down and not one stone will be left upon another.” 


Now Jesus is getting everyone’s attention.  He really likes to poke the hornet’s nest. “When will this come about?  Look around Jesus, this is a big place.  Those stones are humongous.  This will be here forever, like the Great Pyramids of Giza (which we had a hand in by the way).  What has God revealed to you about the future?”   Jesus then has to calm everyone down, before one of the Chief Priests listening in has an aneurism on the spot.  Jesus then delivers this warning:


“Beware that no one leads you astray. 6Many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. 7When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. 8For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birthpangs.


 Here is my paraphrase of what Jesus would say today, “Everyone needs to relax.  Quite a few terrible things happen in life.  I know it is scary, but you should see the opportunity to serve others.  Don’t be led astray by leaders who offer easy and simplistic answer and blame other people for our problems.  Pull together in the hard times, that is how you get through.  I’ll be with you too, and I will show you the way.  Things will get difficult, but stick together and remember what is important in life – to love one another.”


I also want to say a few words about the context of the first readers of the Gospel.  They read this episode after the Temple had been destroyed by Roman armies in 70 AD, just a generation after Jesus had said these words.  I read the account by Josephus, the Jewish historian who was present at the destruction of the Temple and sack of Jerusalem.  The Roman soldiers were so frustrated by the tenacious defenders of the Temple, that when they finally gained the upper hand, the troops went wild and killed everyone, raping and pillaging, much to the embarrassment of Titus, the commanding general.  Josephus said Titus tried to restrain the slaughter and the burning of the Temple, but he was too late to stop the atrocity.  The world was probably appalled, much like we were when we heard stories My Lai coming out of the Vietnam War. When Titus was offered the traditional wreath of victory by the Roman Senate, he reportedly refused it and said, “There is no glory in destroying a people whose God has forsaken them.”


I believe Mark’s Gospel was written right after this terrible atrocity, so it is no wonder that he has the sharpest contrast between Jesus and the Temple Priests.  Mark is making clear that Christians had nothing to do the Jewish rebellion that lead to the destruction of the Temple.  In fact, they were oppressed by the Temple aristocracy as well.  Jesus warned them and see what they did to him.  Mark is saying to Rome, “We aren’t them, so don’t kill us too.”  Luke is writing later and is more circumspect.  His message is to not lose heart or be lead astray during terrible times, for Jesus will guide you through.  Don’t be impressed by wealth or grandeur because it does not last, but also don’t be overwhelmed by tragedy, because that will not last either.


This is an important message in our uncertain times.  I said to Jeanne this week that these days feel like my youth during the farm crisis.  I watched a way of life end in bankrupcy for many friends.  I wonder if today a way of life for the suburban American middle class in ending as well.  The days of working for IBM your whole life and comfortably retiring are over here in the Hudson Valley.  Ever increasing prosperity and the American Dream of owning your own home are under threat.  I think we need to find a way between the doom and gloom of expecting the next Great Depression and thinking that everything is going to return to normal.  Life as we know it in America may be completely altered, but maybe it is a chance for new dreams, a vision of life that is more sustainable and not as harsh on our planet and natural resources, a way of life that is less materialistic and more oriented to community.  As Jesus reminds us, tough times can be an opportunity for the church.  Don’t cringe in fear at all the change and financial uncertainty.  The world has need of us.  Remember Jesus was more impressed with the widows two coins than the grandeur of the Temple, so let us not diminish what we too can give our world.