November 25, 2018

Series: November 2018

Category: Faith

Speaker: Rob McClellan

John 18:33-37

33Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" 34Jesus answered, "Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?" 35Pilate replied, "I am not a Jew, am I? Your own nation and the chief priests have handed you over to me. What have you done?" 36Jesus answered, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from being handed over to the Jews. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here." 37Pilate asked him, "So you are a king?" Jesus answered, "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."  THIS IS HOLY WISDOM, HOLY WORD.  THANKS BE TO GOD.


          I invite you to take a moment and call to mind a particularly peaceful place.  Close your eyes if that helps.  It might be a place from your childhood.  It may well be a place in nature.  It’s somewhere you want for nothing, you’re totally relaxed.  Some would say God feels near.  Hold that image in your mind’s eye…

The Celts referred to these as “thin places,” where the boundary between heaven and earth becomes but a tiny membrane.  Thin places can be important places literally to visit or to visit in your mind’s eye during prayer.  See yourself there.  Visualize meeting Jesus or God there.  Don’t overthink it or script it.  Allow whatever happens to unfold.  This can be a good practice particularly when you are somewhere you don’t want to be, whether it’s the dentist’s or penned in your house when this place we love is so ravaged by the fire and smoke. 

The stories of heroes in the midst of these fires are mounting as they do – the school bus driver who drove students to safety when their families couldn’t get to their kids in time, the garbageman who rescued a woman in her 90s, the firefighter walking a neighborhood with a cat perched happily on his shoulder glad to be off the charred ground.  I saw one clip of young man standing in a cul de sac in front of where his house had burned.  He was holding what looked like a picture.  He was so grateful, he said, that when then firefighters went in to see what they could salvage from the house as it burned, they noticed his pregnant wife’s ultrasound on the refrigerator and thought to grab it for the couple.  What an expression of kindness.

          Somehow, this time no number of these stories or the generosity shown the victims will erase for me the bigger questions raised by this new normal we seem to be inheriting and inhabiting.  It’s not enough to rebuild.  It’s time to rethink how we live, and I wrote this originally before the Trump administration’s rather dire climate report was released on Friday.  We won’t answer that question comprehensively today.  The question for us is what is the relevant word from the church in times such as these.  Thoughts and prayers, a refrain that’s now cynically received, just doesn’t do it.  Paradise was not doomed by a lack of prayer.  What is the relevant word from the church on a Sunday such as this?

          Well, if you turn to the church calendar it is Christ the King Sunday.  Hmm, could anything feel less relevant?  That’s simply not language with which many of us resonate.  I can relate to wanting something like a king, an all-powerful figure to come in and make everything right.  If you know Scripture or history, you’ll know that when the people clamor for a king and are granted one, it usually turns out poorly for the people.  Inevitably, it seems, the people learn the hard way that the king doesn’t have their interests at the heart of his aspirations.  As a result, I was tempted to skip Christ the King Sunday.  I have before and I’m not sure anybody has noticed. 

Then I read N.T. Wright’s succinct statement about Jesus at the outset of his book, Simply Jesus: “He was not the king they expected.”  My interest was piqued.  “He wasn’t like the monarchs of old,” Wright continues, “who sat on their jeweled and ivory thrones, dispensing their justice and wisdom.  Nor was he the great warrior-king some had wanted.  He didn’t raise an army and ride into battle at its head.  He was riding on a donkey.  And he was weeping, weeping for the dream that had to die, weeping for the sword that would pierce his supporters to the soul.  Weeping for the kingdom that wasn’t coming as well as for the kingdom that was.”[1]

          Weeping for what was and what wasn’t, now there is someone to whom I can profoundly relate.  Have you not had occasion for heartbreak over a feeling that this was not how it was supposed to be, whatever the “this” is?  I attended one of the Marin Interfaith Council events a couple years ago.  One of the Buddhist teachers reminded us that one of the primary tasks in life is to recognize and inhabit the world that is rather than the world that we wish was.  Otherwise, and this is my language, we’ll find ourselves navigating the world using a map that bears no resemblance to the landscape.  We are left lost and frustrated. 

          Jesus wept for the distance between the world that was and the world that God desired.  He meets us in our weeping there.  Notice, Jesus, the crier, does not declare himself king.  It’s Pilate who asks him, presumably picking up on the talk, or accusations, of his people.  “Are you the King…” he asks.  Jesus answers, “You say that I am a King” (Jn. 18:37).  Jesus doesn’t appear interested in the title and why would he be?  The kingdom, the reign, in which he is interested looks nothing like those typically seen on earth.  Jesus understands his vocation differently.  “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” (v. 37).

          Jesus doesn’t identify as a king.  Jesus identifies as a witness.  What a shift.  Jesus’ primary interest is not power; it’s truth.  He is not seeking to be what only one can be; he is after what anyone with truly open eyes can be, a witness to and for the truth, to and for another way of being in the world.  It takes no special status to be a witness.  Witnesses are merely those who see and those who speak. 

          Witnessing has three important layers of meaning.   First, the witness has to have eyes open to what is really going on, to go and see it.  Second, the witness has to have a clear vision of how it could be otherwise—more just and more compassionate.  Third, the witness has to bear witness to, articulate, the distance between how it is and how it could be.  This responsibility, which falls to all people of faith, has particular implications for people of privilege.  A pastor friend of mine told me a powerful story not long ago.  His father had been a pastor too and grandfather, and he took a couple weeks and selected sermons of those they had written and read them in worship. 

          When it came time for the pastor to read his father’s sermon, he chose one written during the civil rights movement and some of his work in the South (perhaps even to Selma).  My friend decided not to alter his father’s sermon as he read it, simply to read it as it was originally written.  As he delivered it, he felt increasingly uncomfortable because he noticed the one African American in his congregation who attended regularly but not frequently happened to be there that day.  It was uncomfortable because the sermon used different words for those we now call African Americans.  It was uncomfortable because he started to wonder how this African American man, of some age himself, would receive these words and reflections of a white man about a time and set of circumstances that was so systematically devastating to African American men, women, and children.  Would it be received as patronizing or self-congratulatory?

          When it came time for communion the man whispered in the pastor’s ear that he’d like to address the congregation.  During announcements at the end, he was given the floor.  He proceeded to offer great gratitude for the pastor’s father through tears.  Quite the contrary to the fear that he would express offense at the words of a white pastor, the man said that when a white man spoke up in those days it was like 1,000 African Americans did.  It was not the way it should have been, but it was the way the world was.  Those who held elevated positions in society had a responsibility to go and lay their eyes on what was going on, and to lend their voice to a movement to change it, to witness and bear witness.  There are some who can be heard in a way others will not.  It was not about speaking over the voice of those who were suffering or to speak for them, but to speak about what was happening so their voices could be heard. 

          Jesus chooses the vocation of witness knowing that we can too.  Jesus goes right to the ugliest and most unjust of circumstances and lays his eyes upon them before he lays his hands upon them.  He also spends ample time in prayer and study to be clear about the other world that he is committed to bringing about.  He speaks about this other kingdom, this other realm or way of being all the time.  Through parables and stories, through his sermon on the mount, through his embodied words when he heals, he points us the way from one kingdom to another.  His kingdom is not contained in the usual power structures of the day.  It is set loose in his being and in the collective being of those who would likewise choose to see.

          It’s fine for the church to call Christ king, for the way it reminds us where our ultimate allegiance and authority lies, for how it gives us a place to hang our hopes when we are hanging on by a thread, provided it remembers how Jesus redefines the role of king.  This king does not ride in on a white horse to save or subdue or exploit the people.  He saves them by enlisting their participation in bringing about the kingdom of God from the bottom up.  As Pope Francis has said, “The future of humankind isn't exclusively in the hands of politicians, of great leaders, of big companies.  Yes, they do hold an enormous responsibility. But the future is, most of all, in the hands of those people who recognize the other as a "you" and themselves as part of an ‘us.’ ”[2]  His talk was entitled, “Why the only future worth building,” –notice the collaborative language – “includes everyone.”[3]  The Catholic church is an example of an institution struggling mightily against the dangers of power concentrated at the top, to turn that power structure upside down which is to say right side up. 

          As N.T. Wright puts it, the disciples become the living Temple, the dwelling place for God, a vessel and channel for Spirit, the very body of Christ at work in the world.  Just as Jesus transformed the space around him, redefining what was considered holy and what was considered profane, those who catch the vision he has also have the ability to transform the world around them by bringing the heavenly sensibilities to bear on this world.  Wright says of the early disciples who follow after his death, “Where they are, heaven and earth are joined together.  Jesus is with them, his life is at work in and through them…”[4] In other words, the vocation of the Christian community is to become a living thin place, rubbing thing the barrier between heaven and earth.  Isn’t that an image, that we could become the kind of place you drew to mind at the outset of this sermon, that the way we are with one another and with others is of such a character that it feels like that place you imagined feels like, a place of peace, where you want nothing, where it feels as though God is near.  Picture that.  Now open your eyes and keep them open.  Amen.

[1] N.T. Wright, A New Vision of Who He Was, What He Did, and Why He Matters (New York:  HarperOne, 2011), 1.


[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 215.