Monday, November 26, 2012

Sermon: "I'm King of the World!"

Rev. Maureen Frescott
Congregational Church of Amherst
November 25, 2012
John 18:33-37

“I’m King of the World!”

My Kingdom is not from this world.

Today is Christ the King Sunday, the day where we ponder what it means for us to say to Jesus, “You are our King”, and what it meant for Jesus to say to us, “My Kingdom is not from this world.”

Christ the King Sunday is essentially New Years Eve on the Christian church calendar. This is the LAST Sunday in the liturgical year, as we move out of the season of Pentecost, the season that celebrates the ministry of Jesus, and begin the year anew with the season of Advent next Sunday.

For those of you who pay attention to such things, (other than the deacons whose job it is to change the paraments on the pulpit and lectern to match the color of the liturgical season) you may have noticed that typically we move from Pentecost green right to Advent blue, but today the color is white. This year is one of those rare years where we have an extra Sunday in between Thanksgiving and the first Sunday of Advent…because Thanksgiving fell so early this year. So, on this Sunday, we celebrate Christ the King.

The truth is, Christ the King Sunday is celebrated on the Christian calendar every year but typically it shares the date with Thanksgiving Sunday. But other than appearing at the top of the bulletin as “Thanksgiving/Christ the King Sunday”, it usually gets no further mention, as we instead spend our worship time focusing on gratitude and the spirit of Thanksgiving.
But this year is different.
This year we have a whole Sunday devoted to Christ the King.
Aren’t you glad you came?!

If we think about, it’s easy to understand why the Christ the King theme often plays second fiddle to the Thanksgiving theme.
The concept of Thanksgiving is something we all know and understand.
Gratitude and the need to name the blessings in our lives are virtues we want to lift up and celebrate.
And in the world outside these church walls, Thanksgiving is part of our collective culture. It’s the day where our nation as a whole hits the pause button and gathers together as family, friends, and neighbors to express thanks for all that we have.

Christ the King Sunday is none of these things.
It’s not celebrated in the secular world, it’s not a concept we can easily understand or explain, even to our fellow Christians, and for some, describing Jesus using “kingly” language – with all the baggage that such language has in regards to hierarchal power, paternal power, and abuse of power – doesn’t quite fit with our image of Jesus as a humble and suffering servant.

Taking about Jesus in terms of kingship and kingdoms can seem archaic and irrelevant to our modern sensibilities.
When we think of kings and kingdoms we may think of the Crusades, Disney fairytales, Renaissance fairs, or the celebrity of the modern-day British monarchy.
Historically, we inherited this language of Kingdom not just from the Hebrew Bible’s tradition of telling the stories of earthly kings, like David and Solomon, but also from the history of Kingdom that grew out of medieval England and influenced the King James version of our Bible.

I admit that when I think of kings and kingdoms I can’t help but think of the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, where King Arthur and the Knights of the Roundtable bumble their way through medieval England in search of the cup of Christ.    But there is a scene in that movie that I believe perfectly captures our modern distaste for Kings and Kingdoms.

In this scene, King Arthur approaches a group of lowly peasants working in a field and gets embroiled in a heated discussion over whether the peasants live in an “autonomous collective” run by the people, or a “dictatorship that represses the masses.”
When King Arthur orders the peasants to stop arguing and be quiet, one woman laughs and says, “He’s ordering us? Who does he think he is?”  Arthur replies, “I am your King”, to which she responds, “Well, I didn’t vote for you!

The iconic image of Jesus wearing a crown and sitting on a throne ruling over his kingdom is derived from the limitations of our cultural experience and our language.
We may attempt to move beyond these limitations by interpreting Christ the King to mean that we accept Jesus as our savior and redeemer, and thus allow his teachings to rule and guide our lives – but truth be told, when we’re forced to make the choice between celebrating Thanksgiving Sunday and celebrating Christ the King Sunday, Thanksgiving usually wins out.

Perhaps this goes much deeper than our desire to move beyond archaic images.
I wonder if our discomfort with the image of Christ as ruler of our lives arises from the feeling of uncertainty we experience when we move from the world in here to the world out there.

As Christians we often stand hesitantly in two very different worlds.
One world where we’re told to love our neighbor, forgive our enemy, and care for the least among us.
And one world where we’re told to mistrust our neighbor, fear our enemy, and to care for only ourselves, our family, or our country, and leave everyone else to fend for themselves.

In one world we’re encouraged to live as a collective, to reach consensus, and to make sure every voice is heard and every need is met.
And in the other world we’re encouraged to live as individuals, to seek out what is best for us, and to silence or reprimand those who try to take power from us or who take more than their fair share.

It’s no wonder why many of us stagger in here on Sunday mornings, seeking respite and peace.
We have these conflicting messages playing in our heads all week long and we come here hoping to make some sense of it all.
But talking about Jesus as King, and ruler of our lives may NOT be something that we imagine will bring us peace, instead we may fear that it will cause even more conflict to arise within us.

Living as a Christian in the context of a Christian community is difficult, but at least we’re all trying to do it together, and we do our best to forgive each other when we fail.
But living as a Christian in the world outside of the church some would say is darn near impossible.
To say that Jesus and his teachings rule our lives is to invite constant conflict as we navigate in that world, because almost every word and action of consequence presents us with a point of decision, and conflicting choices.

Do we store up treasures on earth, by putting away money for retirement, or do we store up treasures in heaven by giving all that we have to the poor?
Do we stand up against evil and injustice, using violent force if necessary, or do we turn the other cheek and rely on non-violent protest to enact change in our world?
Do we punish those who do wrong and seek retribution, or do we leave the judging to God and offer forgiveness to those who trespass against us?

These are not easy choices to make, and as Christians very few of us agree on which are the correct choices. Some would say these choices as presented are overly simplistic and open to interpretation, and the real choice - the truth of God’s will - lies somewhere in between.

But we can’t deny that the constant wrestling that takes place within us when we’re confronted with these choices can be downright tiring.
Trying to rectify the pull of these two different worlds is like trying to straddle two trains that are moving in different directions. We can do it, but it takes a lot of hopping between the two to stay upright.

In our gospel reading today, we get a glimpse of the dueling worlds inhabited by Pontius Pilate.  
Pilate served and derived his power from the world of the Roman Empire, but as a ruler in the Roman province of Judea he also inhabited the world of the descendents of Abraham, who prayed to a God he didn’t recognize and followed a law that he couldn’t comprehend. 
The province of Judea sat at the edge of the Roman Empire, where uprisings could quickly gain momentum and spiral out of control, and Pilate had orders to keep the peace at all costs.  Which he did. Pilate had the blood of many on his hands, but he also understood that playing the part of politician in two worlds sometimes required him to bend to the will of others.
Thus, with one foot in each world, it worked in Pilate’s favor to appease the Jewish leaders and keep uprisings from occurring.  

So we can imagine what Pilate must have felt when he encountered Jesus, who was dragged before him in the middle of the night and threatened to upset the balancing act that Pilate had taken such great care to achieve.

Jesus was accused of claiming to be a king.
This was a claim that neither Rome nor Pilate would tolerate.
But it was also this claim that got Jesus on the Most Wanted list of the Jewish Sanhedrin.
They wanted him killed, but if Pilate did so it would surely upset Jesus’ followers and would threaten the peace during the busy Passover season in Jerusalem.  All eyes were upon Pilate, and the two worlds he inhabited were suddenly careening in two different directions.

All he had to do was to get Jesus to admit that he was not a king.
This would satisfy Pilate and his superiors, it would hopefully appease the Jewish leaders, and it would allow Pilate to release Jesus to his followers, thus keeping the peace for everyone involved.

It must have been obvious to Pilate that Jesus was NOT a king.
He had no wealth, he had no army, he had no land, and he had no power by anyone’s standards, except those of his low ranking followers.
Even the claim that Jesus was “King of the Jews” was suspect because the Jewish leaders themselves insisted that he was not.

With his life on the line, surely Jesus would admit that he was not a king, and this impromptu middle of the night trial would be over before it started.

But Pilot was falling victim to his limited vision in the same way that we do when we try to rectify our image of God’s world with the world we know out there.    
Pilate heard the word “King” and he pictured an earthly king, one who would steal power from him and threaten the world in which he existed.
But as Jesus told Pilate, and as Jesus tells us, his Kingdom is not from this world.

The Kingdom of God that Jesus promises us in the gospels is a world where all God’s children will share equally in the abundance of God’s creation.
A world where war, disease, injustice, poverty, and death will be no more.
A world where we will all gather at God’s table and eat freely of the bread of life.

In many ways Jesus’ Kingdom bears little resemblance to the world that we know.
Our world is broken and imperfect.
Our world is full of inequities and injustice.
Our world is full of pain and suffering and heartache.

But in some ways, this world offers us glimpses of the Kingdom to come.
Our world is full of beauty, new life, growth, and healing.
Our world is full of compassionate people working for equality and justice.
Our world is full of joy and hope and individual points of light shining together into the darkness.

This is the world that we know.
This is a world that contains both good and evil.
And as much as we try to tell ourselves that the world in here is different from the world out there, it’s not.
Crosses and steeples and Bibles in the pews don’t prevent that world from coming in here.
But they help us to imagine the ways in which our world could be different, and they inspire us to work together to be the change we want to see in our world.  

The Kingdom that Jesus promises us is an ideal.
It’s like one of those fairy tale kingdoms we read about as children and dream about being whisked away to as adults.

Some of us can’t help but look at Jesus’ world and look at our world and become discouraged because we feel like we’re never going to get there.
We can see by the dwindling attendance in many of our churches that some people have found the disparity between the world we talk about in here and the world that exists out there to be too much to handle.

Like Pontius Pilate, we often lack the vision to see beyond the limitations of our human experience.
We feel like we’re straddling two worlds because we’re trying to overlay the image of God’s Kingdom with the image of our human Kingdom, and as Jesus tells us, his Kingdom is not from this world.

The choices we wrestle with in this world will not exist in God’s world.
Should we keep a portion of our money for ourselves or give it to the poor?
In God’s world all will share equally in God’s abundance.
Imbalances of resources will not exist.
Should we use force or peaceful measures to counteract injustice?
In God’s world all will share equally in God’s abundance.
Imbalances of power will not exist.
Should we punish those who do wrong or leave it up to God?
In God’s world all will share equally in God’s abundance.
Imbalances of love and mercy will not exist.

The truth is that we cannot create the Kingdom of God here on earth,
only God has the power to do that.
But what we can do is latch onto those glimpses we have God’s Kingdom and do what we can move our world closer to God’s world.

And as we get ready to enter the season of Advent and anticipate the light of Christ entering into our lives all over again, let us celebrate this Sabbath day, this Christ the King Sunday, by celebrating Jesus’ ministry as an example we’re all meant to follow.
Jesus’ Kingdom is not from this world. But we are.
Let’s make the best of it while we’re here.


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