“What More Do You Need?
The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture Reference: Mark 14.53-65
They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest; and he was sitting with the guards, warming himself at the fire. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree. Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, “We heard him say, ‘I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.’” But even on this point their testimony did not agree. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, “Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?” But he was silent and did not answer. Again, the high priest asked him, “Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?” Jesus said, “I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’”
Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, “Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?” All of them condemned him as deserving death. Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, “Prophesy!” The guards also took him over and beat him.
I have started to buy travel insurance. We stayed in a hotel recently and Expedia asked me if I wanted to pay $4 for insurance, if I need to cancel. I said, “Yes.”
The hotel reservation was for one night, a modest price. It would not upend our travels or ruin us financially if for some reason we could not make the reservation, but you never know. Or, maybe the truth is, I do know. I know how fickle the lesser gods of travel can be. “There are no guarantees” is a good mantra for travel.
There was a great Seinfeld episode about this. Jerry gets to a reservation desk only to find that the car he reserved was not there. Again and again he asked the company representative, “Isn’t the whole point of a reservation that you hold the car for me until I arrive? You reserve it for me. You don’t give it away.” Obviously, Jerry did not yet know the travel mantra also applies to reservations as well as expectations.
Recently I needed to reserve a car in Ireland. I did some online research and it was really a good thing. The cost of renting the car in Ireland is ridiculously cheap, like $10-15 a day. The cost of full insurance is about $25-30 a day. Blogger after blogger wrote, “Get the full insurance.” It turns out that 90% of all cars rented in Ireland are returned with some damage. After a mile on the tiny, narrow roads with the sheep and the farmers and people driving on the wrong side, I was deeply glad for the insurance. Worth every penny.
I asked the fellow at the Dublin car rental if he knew the origin of insurance. He said he didn’t but wanted to hear it. “Ships,” I said. “When ships were being sent out around the globe in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the risk was very high. So ship captains and sailing companies bet against themselves. They bet a certain amount of money that they would not return, the ship would sink, everyone would die of malaria.” Now I had his attention. “Insurance was born of betting houses.”
This is pretty much still true. Fire Insurance: a wager that your house will burn down. If it doesn’t, the insurance company keeps the money. Life Insurance: a bet you will die. On and on it goes. Our wagers may not be as dramatic or extreme as a small boat heading into the Atlantic, but we make the same wager. I bet bad things will happen; and they can happen to you.
You would think that with all of our ambiguities and uncertainties, you would think that we would learn from this. We bet against ourselves, assuming the worst. Perhaps we would become humble, cautious, even a bit hesitant in how we live. You would think, but one of the great certainties of life is how certain we can be in spite of how unpredictable life is.
We give absolute guarantees. We put our word on it. Consider how many times we have said, “Yes, I am sure. I am 100% sure.”
There was a great scene in the show Friends. The character Phoebe was going through the things she does not believe in. Crop circles, the Bermuda triangle, evolution. Her friend Ross, the paleontologist gasps at this confession. “Wait, you don’t believe in evolution?” he asks with shock. “No. How?”
“Well, it’s too easy,” Phoebe says. “Monkeys, Darwin, evolution. It’s nice story, but it’s all too easy.”
Ross continues to argue with her but realizes the debate will not help. He needs facts, evidence. He needs fossils. So, Ross runs to the museum where he works and removes a brief case full of ancient fossils (most likely breaking a number of laws). He brings them home and shows them to Phoebe explaining the process, how you can see life changing and evolving in these fossils, proving evolution.
Finally, Phoebe says, “Wait a minute. Not that long ago didn’t the brightest minds believe the world was flat? Wasn’t it just fifty years ago that you science people all believed the atom was the smallest part of life, and then you busted it open and bunch of stuff came out? Are you telling me, are you so completely arrogant to believe that in 50 years from now someone will not come up with a better theory than evolution? Is that even remotely possible?”
Ross ponders this and then he says, “Maybe.” Now it is Phoebe’s turn to be aghast. “I can’t believe it; I can’t believe you caved. You just threw away your entire belief system. I have no respect for you.”
You would think that given how much of our life and culture and science continues to change, to become radically different, you would think that we would be less likely to be so sure.
I am not sure why we are ever ready to be so sure. But we are. Someone speaks poorly, speaks out of turn and we are convinced the person is terrible, horrible. Our politics, our opinions, our ideals: what was a divide has become opposing surety beyond measure. Differences of opinion are now differences of character. And about this we are sure.
Our reading today from Mark is the only time in this gospel that Jesus offers a sure word about who he is. Three time he would say with surety that he would suffer and rise again. He even gave a place to meet him after the resurrection. “I will meet you in Galilee.” Yet, in the entire gospel of Mark this is the only time Jesus speaks of himself, saying, “I am the messiah.”
And to provide balance, there is another claim of surety, certainty. The chief priest says, “We need no other witness.” What more do we need to hear? In other words, we know his offence, his crime, his character with complete confidence. We are sure. We are sure he must die.
In his next trial or interrogation, this confidence will not be so great. Pilate will say, “I don’t see it.” In other words, there is no crime worthy of death here. Let me flog him and release him.
Yet, with the religious, the words of Jesus are worthy of death.
I grew up immersed in religious certainty. Breathing the air of evangelical fundamentalism, it was clear who were really Christians and who were phonies. All of Catholicism- idol worshipers. Liberal Christians are those who confuse philosophy with theology. People who got into trouble were backsliders or not true believers.
Judgment like this was clear from the pulpit, but it was also clear in the earnest desire to “save” the false Christians. People of other religions, people of no religion, they were heathen. In a twist of fate, Jews were gentiles. It was all very clear.
The path to heaven was clear. You needed to pray the sinner’s prayer, make a public confession, and keep to the path. If you hadn’t prayed the sinner’s prayer and received a “believer’s baptism”, then your soul was in mortal jeopardy.
You would hear this in the moment at the end of the service when the altar call was at its peak. Are you sure? Are you sure you have been saved? Do you know for sure? If you have doubts bring them here. Come here and find the great assurance of salvation. Have you been living the life worthy of the gospel? Have you given in to temptation? Don’t die an unrepentant sinner. If the Lord takes you today, you can be sure you are right with him? Just come here and be sure.
I am not sure when this surety left me. I know a significant crack was to watch my home church schism. Righteous people acted very unrighteous in the name of the Lord. The journey had many steps. And it wasn’t easy. Learning to love the bible without idolizing the bible made a great deal of difference. Living beyond the suburban bubble where minute degrees of sin were treated as categorical verdicts of shame, living in the brokenness of life gave me great strength to resist the easy answers of an all-too-certain faith.
Our reading today is hard for me because I know the sound of the voices of the chief priest, elders, and scribes. I know the zeal which is beyond question, the power of being true when others are false. I know the passion that wants to ferret out heresy and false doctrine, the need for consistent confession and the adherence to a strict standard.
By the time the Gospel of Mark was written, I believe, the church knew the sound of this voice too. Only it wasn’t the chief priests, elders, and scribe; it was their own voice. We know it was only a decade after Jesus that factions emerged; sides were taken. The letters of Paul are filled with accusations of false faith and speeches delivered defending true doctrine. Written to the generation after Paul, Mark reflects the need of the church to hear its own false confidence. It does not take long for the outcast to become the judge who decides the fate of the next outcast.
This is hard for me to hear; it brings up memories I would rather keep buried. But it is important to remember this. The church seems always ready to cast aside humility for absolute certainty even at the cost of the dignity of others.
This is a hard lesson, yet, what is really difficult for me to hear is when this religious tradition of purity and zealotry and absolute certainty, when the religious tests and demands for adherence of doctrine, what is really hard to hear is how much this religious failure is working into our daily lives.
There is today in political speaking and ideals not only an arrogance beyond measure, there is also a verdict brought upon the less than arrogant. Again and again I am bombarded with messages of hate and judgment that are then followed by this claim: if you fail to speak in this way, then you are part of the problem, or you are a coward, or you are not a real American.
My concern is this. To the zealot’s demand and the holier than holy judgment, we have the Gospel of Mark, this living example of faith. We have the parables of Jesus. We have the Sermon on the Mount. Those are mighty forces to subdue our lesser angels. In our tradition and faith we have the strength to combat the absolute certainty of the all too righteous. For the one who pounds the bible, we have the great leverage: read it instead. Find the life of Jesus. My concern is that I am not sure if there is such an antidote in our politics. There seems to be only fear to match fear, arrogance to meet arrogance.
In our reading today we have this great contrast. Jesus speaks the truth but is treated as a liar; the religious leaders shout lies they are convinced are truth.
If you listen to people speak today, you can hear such a perilous zealotry. There is a demand for a side, a demand for proof, a demand for anger. None of these were part of the life of Jesus. He called one man to give his possessions to the poor; he bid his disciples to feed the hungry crowd; he warned a would-be follower that the path of discipleship is uncomfortable. Moreover, he knew their faults and yet gathered them to the table. Peter and Judas were with him at the Last Supper hours before one would betray him and the other deny him. He knew they would all flee.
I know there are those who will see this sermon as cowardice or a lack of will or a failure to speak prophetically. To this all I can say is resist the temptation to be so sure. Resist the voices that call you to hate, to shame, to deride. Resist the temptation to put aside, unfriend, disown the one who disagrees with you.
When we cast our opposition aside, when we put the wrong in their place, we feel so right. But in doing so we are far from Jesus who did not discard people. If you need to choose a side, stand on the side of humility and compassion; if must have absolute certainty, find it in grace and forgiveness. This is the gospel, forgiveness. This is our best witness in such a toxic world. Amen.
- Isaiah 66:1 - 4
- Mark 14:53 - 65