Everyone’s Got a Game

A sermon on the conclusion of the trial scene before Pilate in John19.1-16 preached at Wine Before Breakfast on April 8, 2014.

Everyone’s got a game.

Even if it’s a little one – we all play with something. We do what we gotta do to get by.

Pilate had a good game. The local boss – he had his boys to keep the people in line … so what, if he had to break some heads, so what if he had to throw a few (or a lot of) Jewish troublemakers up on crosses? After all, they were a sort of people that weren’t exactly greatly esteemed in the Empire. And there was money to be made. It’s good business, running an outpost of the Empire. Good business, as long as the boat doesn’t get upset too much – and as long as there’s people willing to deal….

Caiaphas was willing to play the game. I suspect he was a pretty good politician, a bit of a survivor, who knew that you didn’t piss off the big boys on the block. Indeed, it seems like he followed in the family business and probably picked up a few tips from his father-in-law, Annas, about how to work with the Romans.

“You work with them, and you keep things going, right? As long as Temple and Torah (those symbols that define us) remain central to our life as community, things hold together and we live. It certainly doesn’t hurt that we occupy a position of some privilege within ‘the way things are’… does it?”

How will they define our generation
In the coming decades
Who will tell the story
And what will they say?

I’m thinking of the way that we fit into the systems that keep things going … it’s a funny old world, one with its complexities, its ambiguities. Sometimes it isn’t very clear what’s good – and sometimes what we think is good, winds up being deeply flawed – even complicit in those ways that deny life. We all make our accommodations – because, well, you know … we have to pay the bills. We have to carve out a little space for ourselves. We have to get by. Sometimes, we’re a lot closer to Pilate and Caiaphas than we are comfortable with. Maybe we aren’t the ones pulling the levers – maybe we are. Maybe we will be. Maybe we’re just pulling the hundreds of little levers that we manipulate in the flow of our own lives.

The thing is – Jesus had a pretty good line on the games that Pilate and the temple establishment were playing. He pushed them into a corner, and they had to declare their position, they had to declare their allegiance. Whether to money, to power, to stability, whatever it is … there’s no way out. At some point we have to stop dancing around and stand on a spot. And that spot has blood. Not blood that gives life, but blood that betrays that life was, and is, taken away.

I know that we have a marvelous faculty for self-justification. We figure out how we fit into the picture and we work with it. We take a stand on the easy things and leave the tough ones to someone else. And those tough ones seem to be different for each of us. But, as we walk through this passage, Jesus doesn’t let us do the usual … if we really listen, we find that we’re caught in the same web, the same system, the same way of doing things, as Pilate and his uneasy collaborators. They thought that they were about to judge Jesus, to reinforce their hegemony – but in the process, had it demonstrated that they were being judged. Something bigger than they thought possible, was moving in the wind – just beyond the range of normal sight.

“You won’t talk? Don’t you know that I have the authority to pardon you, and the authority to – crucify you?”

Jesus said, “You haven’t a shred of authority over me except what had been given you from heaven. That’s why the one who betrayed me to you has committed a far greater fault.”

There’s a different play here – we’ve got Pilate, cynical in his power and probably laughing under his breath at those foreigners and their attempts to hold their own house together (when really they were utterly dependant on him) – and the temple establishment, wanting to make sure that the Romans dealt with the Messiah problem that they had. Over it all, the beaten and bloodied prisoner establishes what’s really going on. There’s a power much bigger than what they expected, and a judgement that’s being leveled on the ways that we exist, organize, and move in this world.

There are too few who open both eyes
We sit back in our easy chairs
And we try to sympathize
Whether from the point of a needle or the edge of our beds
We too, like too many others, could be dead

Our actions will define us before a single definition can be said
Yeah, so what if God is testing us
What if that’s true
What are you going to do
What is the answer to you?

The actions of Pilate as both representative of the Empire and as someone most likely trying to make a few bucks on the side – are certainly familiar to anyone who watches those who either work themselves into a position of power (pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps), or find a bit of luck (family, gender, ethnicity, class, or otherwise) … and then are determined to take advantage of the situation. I’m sure we can think of more than a few people in our lives, or our communities, or our cities that fit that definition. I’m sure that we can think of moments when we fit that definition.

The actions of the temple establishment certainly play themselves out, again and again in our own world.

We have our institutions that represent a certain kind of homecoming for us, individually and collectively – and the symbols that define them.

We declare allegiance to those symbols, either explicitly or implicitly, and we make sacrifices on their behalf.

Maybe that sacrifice isn’t the Messiah of Israel… or maybe that sacrifice is.

Maybe it’s the money that keeps things going (the making or the spending), maybe it’s the person or relationship that doesn’t quite fit in, maybe it’s that articulated point of view that might exclude us from where we want to be, maybe it’s something that only you (or I) can think of ….

How often do you wonder about life on the other side?
On the other side of sorrow
On the other side of rage
On the other side of ok

We’ve journeyed through the story in this Gospel – this season – with moments of beautiful, life-giving hope, despite the sense of foreboding as the establishment decides that Jesus is a threat and must be dealt with.

It’s interesting, in that Jesus wasn’t a threat … at least in the conventional sense (no slipping the knife into the ribcage of the occupiers, no theft of the Imperial treasury, no denial of the God of his fathers) – but at the same time he was a major threat. The way that he played with the notions of what the community was supposed to centre itself around (the House of God and the life lived in and through Torah) demonstrated the need for a different homecoming than what was expected. This was a real problem. A problem that both the overarching power of the Empire (and its local incarnation), and the gatekeepers of the present social world – determined must be finished.

It’s painful to think that one who healed the blind man, who is the Good Shepherd laying his life down for the sheep, and who raised Lazarus from the dead – is judged to be worthy of death.

Jah come to break downpression – rule equality!
Wipe away transgression – set the captives free!

This is supposed to be Exodus.
This is supposed to be a movement of the people!

Well, leaving Babylon is not so easy. There’s a price.

Don’t tell me it’s gonna be alright.
You can’t sell me on your optimism tonight.

This is where it all leads.
This is where the stories, our stories, and The Story, goes.
This is the path to death, to the cross.
Through the journey, we’ve ached for new life, for a new way to be human,
for a new way to be community, for a homecoming
… but we’re so bound up in the brokenness of it all
that we wind up back in the deathly grip of Babylon and Egypt
– systems that themselves, are destined for death.

Don’t tell me it’s gonna be alright.
You can’t sell me on your optimism tonight.

The verdict is in. The decision has been made.
But really, Jesus knew it all along.
And so we walk with him towards the horrible culmination of a life lived
in a dusty corner of the Empire.

Don’t tell me it’s gonna be alright.
You can’t sell me on your optimism tonight.

We have no king except Caesar.
And he was turned over to the soldiers to be crucified.

David Krause

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