- Parish House
Sermon for Palm Sunday – Mark 15:1-47
The Rev. Dr. Kate Alexander
Remember the good old days when there was news and entertainment, and they weren’t the same thing? You could sit down to watch the evening news and then a sitcom, and it was really clear which was which. We turned to the news to find out what’s going on in the world. We trusted people like Walter Cronkite to be unbiased and to tell us the truth. With the exception of the National Enquirer, we trusted newspapers, too. I think it all changed with the advent of so-called reality TV, which blurred the line between fact and fiction. I’ll never forget the first show I saw, called “Alaskan Bride.” Picture a woman in a sleeveless wedding dress standing on top of a glacier. She hoped the bachelor would arrive by a single engine biplane and propose to her, I guess before she froze to death. Hardly real life, or true love for that matter. But reality shows fed our desire to be entertained, and now, it seems, we want that from our news, too. I don’t know exactly whose fault it is, maybe it’s Facebook or the Russians, cable or network news, just some people making money, or our own appetites, but we seem to be gobbling up so-called “fake news” at a furious pace.
Fake stories compel us to click on them, and spread like wildfire over social media. They are seductive, and seem legit at first glance. They now receive the same credibility as real reports. Even stories that are obviously satire get shared as real news these days. And before we pat ourselves on the back for being able to tell the difference between real and fake news, a recent study at Stanford University found that adults couldn’t do much better than, say, middle schoolers. It’s not that readers are stupid, it’s that the news format is easy to imitate. Which means that our social and political passions are getting played for profit. If we see a headline that we agree with, we think it must be true. I don’t think any of us is completely immune. But that’s just part of the problem. As we get used to news that entertains and confirms our positions, we stop searching for more nuanced and complicated truths. And what’s worse, we might stop caring about the difference.
Fake news is not a new problem. Technology has changed, but the human heart hasn’t. Our sacred story is filled with people choosing stuff that plays quickly to their passions over truth, from the moment God said go and Adam ate the apple. One crowd danced around a golden calf when Moses took too long talking to God. Another tried to toss Jesus off the cliff after he spoke truth they didn’t like in the synagogue. It seems that crowds have short attention spans for truth. And the age-old tragedy is that it often turns violent.
Consider the passion story, which has its own fake news moment. It was the custom to show mercy at the Passover and release a prisoner. Pilate offered to release Jesus, because he figured out that the chief priests had handed over an innocent man out of jealousy. The crowd, a mob really, chose Barabbas, a known murderer. Already worked up, they didn’t want facts. Perhaps they could no longer distinguish the guilty person from the innocent. And what’s worse, it seems they stopped caring to try. In John’s telling of the passion story, Pilate asks the pressing question, “What is truth?” A question that a frenzied crowd could not answer, once the lure of the violent spectacle took hold. Crucifying an innocent man would be far easier and more entertaining than dealing with the truth of all that Jesus stood for.
On the one hand, this is ancient history. But it’s also quite pressing now. We know that we each get hooked by things that play to our passions, making us quick to judge, and even quick to hate. It’s no surprise how divided we have become. The problem, of course, gets larger in crowds swayed by hate. Just think of those angry, young, white men marching with tiki torches in Virginia last year, hungry to crucify any threat to their dangerous ideology. Or, think of our not-so-distant past here in Arkansas. White mobs lynched black victims, while vendors stood by and actually sold post-cards and souvenirs of the spectacle (James Cone). Crucifixion of the innocent was not a one- time mistake in Jerusalem. It persists, along with the misdirected love of violence blurred with a dark entertainment.
Crowds can be swayed by love, too. Take yesterday’s marches to end gun violence, for example. Love is powerful. The ancient crowd yelling, “Crucify him!” lost sight of that truth, but Jesus didn’t. He stood in silent witness to the crowd that day – to its frenzy, to its susceptibility to fake news, to its misfiring passions. And he took it all with him to the cross. Where, three days later, the love of God would find a way to redeem us from the power of that sin.
Until then, notice a bit of hope in the text. Some women who were followers of Jesus looked on from a distance. And Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the council that had turned Jesus in, paid for a proper burial. These represent a bit of light on the horizon against a darkened sky. They stand on the sidelines for now, to remind us that our intemperate love of sin and violence will not have the last word. They remind us that truth and goodness remain, even when we’re distracted by spectacles.
I think of that shivering bride on the glacier from time to time. I wonder what ever happened to her. I hope she found true love, and maybe a jacket. I think of all of us watching TV that night, seeing that silly stunt, enjoying fiction sold as reality. In a world trying to bait us with spectacles and fake news, Pilate’s question seems as relevant as ever. What is truth? The passion story presents the answer, as relevant today as it was then. Truth is in the person of Jesus, God’s own love in the flesh. Truth is in the one who not only witnessed the angry crowd, but who loved them. Truth is in the one who showed us how to love for real. He died and rose again to redeem that misdirected crowd. That’s real life and true love. And since we find ourselves in that crowd from time to time, this is best kind of news.