Those of you who were here about five years ago will remember our seminarian Drew Rindfleisch, who graduated from LSTC earlier this year and is now serving San Lucas UCC just a half mile from here on the north side of Humboldt Park. Drew has been heavily involved in the #MoralMondaysIL movement this year, and has become its unofficial chant leader, leading the crowds with protest songs and chants culled from the past and reimagined in light of our present, on-going, state budget crisis. Standing in the center of the growing crowds with a megaphone in hand, Drew begins to sing, “Whose side are you on, oh, whose side are you on?” And as this refrain takes hold among the people, he names the names: Whose side are you on, Governor Rauner? Whose side are you on, Mayor Emanuel? Whose side are you on?
We’re getting used to seeing people in the streets here in Chicago, and across the country in places like Raleigh, like Ferguson, like Minneapolis; in places around the world like Paris, like Beirut, like Baghdad. People are in the streets crying for the dead, fighting for the living, calling for a nation, for a world where power is not organized against the people but by the people, for the people. We are tired of praying the names of those who have died by homicide in our great city. We are sick to death of the sight of children gunned down in the streets. There is nothing we want more this coming Christmas than the promise that next year will be different. That human lives will finally take precedence over corporate profits. That neighbors will turn toward one another in hope and begin to rebuild the trust that is missing as we walk past each other on the streets. That the world will finally be new again.
We call out our elected leaders’ names because we want to know if the people we, together, have chosen to represent us have chosen us as well. We want to believe that those we choose to follow will lead with our best interests in mind. So we cry out, “whose side are you on, oh, whose side are you on?”
It’s a curious scene when Jesus meets Pilate on the eve of his execution; as Pilate, the representative of the Roman Empire, asks Jesus, the emissary of God’s gracious reign, a very similar question: “Are you the King of the Jews?” Whose side are you on, Jesus? You are ethnically Jewish, part of an occupied people, do we need to be concerned that you’re trying to start a revolution? Do you represent a challenge to the power of empire?
The answer has got to be yes, doesn’t it? I mean, obviously Jesus represents a challenge to the empire, doesn’t he? The empire taxes and takes more and more from the people living with the least, so that they worry where their next meal will come from; but Jesus feeds the multitudes with real food — loaves and fishes for their bodies, and teaching to liberate their hearts and minds. The empire threatens that those who cause trouble will be hung on a cross to serve as an example for others, but Jesus takes his place on the cross transforming it into a throne and inviting us all into a new kind of kingdom where power is not maintained by fear.
Jesus does not answer Pilate’s question so quickly. Instead he trades one question for another, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
I think, for most of my life, I’ve heard this exchange between Jesus and Pilate as a kind of cagy debate, the representatives of two very different ways of being in the world coming face to face: the power of violence meets the power of love. Jesus refusing to give an inch, not even agreeing to the terms of the debate with his evasive, “You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”
But this first question, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” Today I hear that as a question to us, to me, as a sincere question. As Jesus stands before the prefect of Rome on trial, he sees more than an agent of empire, he sees a human being, and he asks, “did others tell you about me?”
Two weeks ago tomorrow, about two hundred people gathered across the street from City Hall to call attention to the on-going obscenity of public housing units at Lathrop Homes sitting vacant and boarded up while thousands of Chicagoans languish in a waiting line for housing assistance. After marching around City Hall like Joshua marching around the walled city of Jericho, blowing our horn, we entered the building and took the elevator to the fifth floor to stand outside the mayor’s office where we asked for a meeting to air our grievances and work toward a real partnership in which the needs of the poor would not be trumped by the desires of the developers.
Though we’d asked to speak with the mayor, or his chief of staff, they sent a secretary out to face the crowd of hundreds. We thanked her for her service, but asked her to convey our message once again, that we were there to speak to the mayor, or his chief of staff, and as she withdrew we began to pray for Mayor Emanuel, recalling his moral duty as reflected in our shared scriptures, to defend the needy poor and to care for those in his charge, even out to the margins. We were not there to fight with the mayor, or to shame the mayor, but to call him and his administration back into the circle of community within which compassion takes the form of a just distribution of the things God’s has made readily available.
You see, I think Jesus’ question to Pilate, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?” is actually directed at us, the readers, the hearers of this gospel. When I read this passage, I have the sense that Jesus turns his gaze from the Pilate of history out, through the pages of the Bible, to us — to ask us if we have made our testimony to the powers and the principalities of our day. If we have met the forces of violence with the power of love, or if we have just taken hold of the fearful rhetoric of us verses them and turned it back on those who oppose us. Have we offered our own testimony in the public spaces of our lives to the power of God’s non-violent, peace-making, debt-cancelling, sin-forgetting, boundary-crossing, future-making love?
Fear has the effect of constricting our sense of self. When we are living in an open-hearted space, we imagine that we all part of a greater whole, that we are all in this together. We share what we have with confidence, trusting that it will come back to us in our own time of need. But when we are living out of our fear, we imagine that the world is always being divided into us and them. We close our borders, and call it wisdom as we abandon those in the greatest danger with the deepest needs to figure it out on their own.
When you read the books of Daniel or Revelation, you get the sense of people so overwhelmed by the terrors of the present moment that the only way they can hold on to hope is to imagine a future in which the Creator of the universe is universally acknowledged as the only power worthy of our worship and praise. Daniel envisions God on the throne and a human figure acting as God’s agent in the world. Revelation attaches that hope to the person of Jesus, saying that God’s future has already broken into our present. That we only arrive at the end we seek by believing it is already here. That the alpha and the omega are the same.
So we gather this morning at the end of one year in the church and the beginning of another, hoping that this will finally be the moment when God’s deliverance will save us from the never ending litany of prayers for all the bruised and broken corners of creation. As we lift up to the heavens the names of the people and places crying out for healing and liberation we wonder, “whose side are you on, Lord, whose side are you on?”
But God has already lifted up God’s answer. Jesus has already transformed the shaming tactics of empire into the claiming tactics of God. On the cross we have seen evidence, proof, that God chooses us. God chooses all of us. God chooses Peter out in the courtyard denying Christ, and Paul out on the road persecuting the early church, and Pilate in the halls of power using the tactics of war to create a peace that can never last. God chooses you, as unlikely as you are for all the reasons that only you know, and puts the question to you again this morning, “did others tell you about me?”
Like loaves and fishes, this story only succeeds when it is shared. You are God’s emissaries, God’s agents, God’s ambassadors. You are God’s chosen, God’s saints, God’s elect. You are God’s people, God’s priests, God’s prophets. You are God’s body, God’s hands and God’s feet. You are the heralds of God’s word, God’s voice, God’s truth.
God is on your side, our side, all of our sides. There is no other side. The reign of God has already begun, has always been, is on the way.