Note: I preached a version of this sermon at Messiah Lutheran Church on Good Friday, 2014
One Art, by Elizabeth Bishop
The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.
I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.
I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.
—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
Today we see Jesus losing everything. He loses his disciples, and then he loses his freedom. He loses his good name and his standing in his community. He loses his city and his people and his future, he loses his safety, he loses his mother, he loses the breath in his lungs and in the end he loses his life. I think the poet has her tongue firmly in her cheek when she says that the art of losing isn’t hard to master, but in today’s story it is an art that Jesus had to master very quickly.
And in the middle of this parade of loss, something unusual happens. Jesus is being interviewed by the governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, the cruelest man in the province. And Pilate asks him if Jesus believes, or says, that he is a king. And Jesus tells him, “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. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Pilate asks him, “What is truth?”
In this horrible day, this day of mastering all kinds of loss, in this hot and stuffy room surrounded by brutal wicked men, the wickedest man of them all opens a door to Jesus. Those who belong to the truth listen to your voice, do they, Rabbi? Well, tell me, what is truth?
A way out is suddenly there for the grasping. Beyond this question lies the return of lost disciples. Beyond this question lies a warm bed for a man who hasn’t slept and a hearty meal for a man who hasn’t eaten. Beyond this question is another chance, another day, the opportunity to piece together some of what has been lost, if only you can satisfy this sophisticated and vicious man’s curiosity, if only you can give him what he asks for, if only you can become more valuable to him as a living guru than as a dead rebel. If only you can be a successful philosopher instead of a failed prophet.
And the answer Jesus gives in his moment of direst need is—nothing.
Now we may imagine that Pilate asks his question with a cynical sneer. And we may imagine that Jesus refuses to answer because as he preached to his followers you should not give what is holy to dogs, and you should not cast your pearls before swine. We may even imagine that Jesus was the one testing Pilate, and not Pilate testing Jesus.
But in any event, Jesus sees this door open, and then he lets it close. The art of losing is not too hard to master.
And thank God. If Jesus had answered Pilate in this moment, all would truly be lost. Jesus has lived and breathed and eaten and walked truth up until now and if he had turned that truth into mere words—if he had summed up the deep truth of God for Pilate—it might have won him back the day or the year or the lifetime. But he would have lost the truth. Because every truth spoken in words turns stale. It gets picked at and criticized and debunked. It becomes a cliché. It is made to sound foolish. Answering Pilate’s question may get you out of that room, but after you are all gone and the room is no more and Pilate is dust, your truth will grow old too. Words grow old. Words die. And in the middle of a tempest of death and destruction, Christ refuses to make truth a victim. He refuses to add truth to the sacrifice. He offers instead his silence, his nothing. If you are willing to imagine it, he offers his failure. His losing.
It has been a season of losing in our community. Funeral upon funeral lately, prayer after prayer, card after card, tear after tear. My church mouse even died. I used to hear him behind my wall. We were companions—unwilling ones, it is true. But for a moment in this life, we were two conscious bits of the universe sharing some space, breathing the same air. And then the mouse died. Everything dies. Every presence becomes an absence. Pilate was here, and now Pilate is gone. Pilate’s fortress was there, and now it is no more.
And there are a million half-true and well-meant things you can say to this flood of loss. There are words that offer the illusion of an escape, a way out of the room. But they aren’t the truth. They are not words of life.
Because the truth that Pilate sought was not in words, but in the Jewish teacher before him. It was not a secret to be divulged. It was hidden in plain sight. It was in his faithfulness, his steadfastness, his giving of himself. It was in his willingness to lose, his willingness to be lost so that the world might somehow be won that the truth was laid bare. It was in his willingness to be silent and truthful and to go to his death, rather than to betray the truth with words and live. And this is a truth that can be crucified, it can be murdered, but it cannot be buried forever. It’s a truth that cannot be spoken, but that speaks for itself. It’s a truth that we are forever losing, but that finds us in turn.