“A Cohort of a Different Sort”
By The Rev. Dr. Fred G. Garry
Scripture Reference: Mark 15.16-20
Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor’s headquarters); and they called together the whole cohort. And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him. And they began saluting him, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him. After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
September has taken on a new meaning for me these last ten years. It used to be simply school starting, but now it has become a time of huge change. What was a seasonal change is now a life change. The hard start of getting back into the routine of dropping the kids off at school has now become taking them to college, grad school.
The biggest change for me is the end of vigilance. Parents today are hyper vigilant. Gone are the days of kids roaming, leaving for the day on a bike. Today we hover, we watch, keep kids in the yard within eyesight if not arm’s length. We do this for 18 years; we know where they are; we set curfews; we demand they check in. We even have apps that will track them to verify if their phone is where they said they were going to be. We do this and then we drop them off at college.
All of sudden we don’t know where they are; they don’t check in or have a curfew. All those years of demanding a helmet and you go out in the garage and you find your kid didn’t take their helmet to college. This is tough. The transition can be a bit rough.
I will never forget dropping our daughter, Laura, off at college. Laura is a rock; she was more mature at five than I am now. We drove her and all her stuff to St. Lawrence University about this time a dozen years ago. SLU is a wonderful college, small, liberal-arts, pricey. Lugging all her stuff to the dorm, we began our college ritual: Kathy unpacked, we took our kid to lunch, Kathy made the bed, we hugged goodbye, the two of us got in the car and shed a few tears and tried to breathe.
This all went well Laura’s freshmen year, until I got a call two days later. Laura called me, a bit out of order as I am not usually seen as a source of parental support. She was upset, crying, trying to breathe and not panic. When I asked what was going on I held my breath. She said, “this is all wrong; I think I made the wrong choice; I don’t fit; it doesn’t feel right. I think I need to come home.”
I exhaled. “Sure, sweetheart. Mistakes are made. Not everything is the right thing. No problem.” I let her slow down a little before I said, “Just a thought though. Maybe, maybe there are other freshmen feeling just like you do right now. And, maybe you are not the first freshman to feel like this. And, perhaps, just a thought, but perhaps the university has hired people, developed programs, and scheduled events with this in mind. If you try a few, maybe it will help. Try it for a few days more. If it is no good, then I will drive up immediately.”
A week passed before Laura called. It was great to hear her voice, full of confidence and maturity. “So, it turns out,” she began, “it turns out there were a number of other students like me, feeling overwhelmed. It turns out, we were not the first to experience this. And, wouldn’t you know the university had arranged events and programs and hired staff just for this reason. Turns out it really helped.”
With our reading today and the trauma involved in it, I remembered Laura’s experience. In the remembering though I had an epiphany. I always remembered this moment as one of the few times I was a helpful parent. Reveling in the memory of being a capable guide, I remembered why I was so capable at that moment. Shortly before we took Laura to college I went through trauma training. I was trained to help people go from crisis to calm. So I wasn’t really a helpful parent, I was just a good student who was trained to recalibrate the fight-flight-freeze instinct of the amygdala by helping people find their breath, tap into the natural rhythm of resiliency.
This training has proven very helpful through the years as so often the moments I encounter people in hospitals, in grief, in birth, in graduation, wedding and divorce, when I encounter people there is a crisis and with the crisis a level of trauma.
We all experience trauma and we all cope with and overcome trauma. Sometimes, some folks don’t. The deep instinct to fight to flee to freeze gets stuck. Like a computer gets frozen and you have to reboot it. I was trained to help soldiers mostly; people who were coming home from combat but were not decompressing from hyper vigilance. They were living in persistent crisis and not able to come back to ordinary life.
It is not only soldiers though. We all get stuck here, feel unable to let go, move on, get back to our normally scheduled life. The crisis has passed but we are still in the storm. Trauma can come to anyone, anywhere. The tsunamis in life happen, as does the persistent trauma of poverty, chronic illness, abuse, and so on. We all experience this in some way.
The training was part Buddhist breathing practice and part somatic grounding to let the body and the brain heal itself. Works very well. Since being trained in this I never have had any problem falling asleep. The method puts me right out. I can also endure the most tedious of function or event. This can annoy my wife. She doesn’t believe family functions warrant the practice of dealing with trauma. Often, she has found me calmly gazing and smiling. To this she says, “Hey, don’t go Buddha on me.”
Our reading today from Mark is traumatic. Jesus is beat and tortured, taunted and mocked. This is enough terrible to warrant the category traumatic, but there is more. A small detail in this story changed how I look at it, read it. It says, “the whole cohort was there.” The story, in my mind, was always five or six Roman soldiers beating up Jesus. Terrible. But that is not what is happening here. This is somewhere between 100-200 soldiers. So a large crowd, but not just a crowd. A large crowd of highly trained killing machines, extremely violent men who were bound together by oath and experience. They worked as a unit. A unit, once combined, of incredible force and ferocity.
A Roman soldier was trained in trauma. They were trained to decompress and find calm after battle. But a Roman soldier was also trained to cause trauma, to inflict the maximum amount of fear and panic. And, they were also trained to control their fight, flight, and freeze. What is a wild instinct in us became a skill, an ability, a focus and guided force in them. Into the whole cohort Jesus was cast.
The most common theory for this is a theological one. Jesus was caused to suffer the most profound trauma so to match our misdeed. The time had to match the crime; his time of suffering needed to match our crime of sin and misdeed. Theologically, this is to say, his atoning sacrifice needed to match the level of our depravity. And this has a very neat corollary with cultic practice. If you needed to atone for a small sin, you made a small sacrifice, a turtle dove; if you needed to atone for a great crime, then a bull, a lamb without spot or blemish.
Although there is nothing wrong with this theory, I am not sure it helps the story. I like a more anthropological theory. The cohort is an image of our violence, who we are. This is our instinct taken to a high level, an apex. We all have this fight-flight-freeze instinct in us and we often guide, shape, train this instinct for violence, for greed, for power. In this instance the trauma of Jesus is to show an alternative, a different way. He never strays from the path of peace. His spirit does not respond with violence or disconnect or flight.
It is really hard to imagine the swirl of violent power that was the cohort crushing him, mocking him, and cursing him. It’s hard to imagine this moment for him, but it is not hard to imagine the violence. We are so immersed in persistent reports of terrible violence, this is not hard to imagine. No one would read this story and say, “No, a group of Roman soldiers would not do such a thing to a peasant sentenced to die. They would never be so violent.” We understand this; we all have this instinct in us.
I was so happy when I saw this reading as falling on Rally Day. Nothing says Rally Day more than a violent, cohort of Roman soldiers. No. I was excited because everything we do here, from the children’s message to the college mission trip, all the programs from VBS to Habitat, all the Sunday school classes, the confirmation, Famine, adult ed, trip to Israel, all of it comes down to learning a new path, finding a new way where we overcome the impulse of hate, the trust of violence, the focus of greed. Everything we do here is to learn a new path, for the soul to be born anew. It is as if we are rebooting the amygdala, rewiring the impulse of fight, flight, and freeze.
We are learning peace; we are finding the strength to trust mercy; we are discovering there is another impulse in us, a greater impulse than to survive. We are discovering the impulse to sacrifice, to give our life away in order to keep it. Mostly, here, together, we are discovering the power of a different kind of cohort, a cohort of justice and compassion, love and hope. What Justin likes to call the Kingdom of God.
It turns out that we are not alone. There are many who are trying to find this path, many who are looking for faith transcending fear. We are not the only freshmen who feel out of place, lost in a sea of chaos. It turns out we are not the first ones to feel this way. Indeed every generation is lost and looking for hope. Each generation must discover the power of being born anew. And, it turns out there is a path of worship, and devotion, and mission all set up for us, all laid out for us if we are willing to wade in, to stay the course, to live out what we believe.
Rally Day is the moment where we need to see this course, this path and realize it is not in understanding, it is in practice that we are changed, trained, remade. The ancient fears that surface in us, the fresh wounds that ache in us, the demons that whisper, “You are no good,” all of these are greater than we can endure alone without guidance, without friends. That is why, we are in this together, you and me. We are living unto hope, living the life where captives are freed; we are finding the breath of joy and the patience fostering a love enduring all things.
What was fight is now the courage of compassion; what was flight is now an abiding justice; what was the freeze of disconnect is now the power of union.
This is why we need to be persistent in worship, continuous in prayer, daily in devotion. This doesn’t happen because we understand God loves us. This happens because we are devoted to a great end, to build a community of faith that welcomes the outcast, lifts the fallen, and feeds the hungry in body and soul. God loves us, true. But the love of God must become a new cohort of sacrifice where we live the life of Jesus, practice his teachings. We this new cohort we become ever vigilant in hope. Amen.
- Isaiah 50:4 - 9
- Mark 15:16 - 20