Posted by secondchurch on December - 2 - 2018

A Funny Kind of King

John 18:33-38
November 25, 2018
Carla J. Bailey, Pastor

In the Christian liturgical year, today is the last day, the end of the year.  Next Sunday, the first Sunday of Advent, we begin the church year all over again, reading the texts of warning and foreboding, looking and waiting for a Messiah, lighting candles whose increasing light will represent the light that was coming into the world – but that’s next week.  Today is a Sunday that is sometimes called Christ the King Sunday, or Reign of Christ Sunday.  In the churches where I grew up, and even through my seminary years, I didn’t pay much attention to the liturgical year and since this Reign of Christ Sunday often coincided with Thanksgiving Sunday, which is a more significant celebration to Congregationalists, it was easy to ignore.  Theologically, Christ the King is not a theme with which I connect comfortably.  I actually think the coronation of Jesus has caused more problems for Christians than it has solved, so crowning Jesus King over all does not rest easily on my mind.  And while I think it is a fool’s game to guess what was in the mind of Jesus himself, still, the gospels give us strong indications that Jesus would have preferred to avoid the whole monarchy thing.  Of course, one can never control events after one’s death.

When Robert Kennedy was assassinated, my family was in Wisconsin, gathered around a radio at our lake-side cabin.  Though I was only 14 at the time, I remember listening to the funeral service, particularly the eulogy delivered by Ted Kennedy.  “My brother need not be idealized or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life but remembered simply as a good and decent man who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it.”  I remember thinking, even at my young age, this was a most perfect expression of sorrow tempered by perspective, and that we were hearing a rare sentiment.  There is a nearly universal drive to enlarge the qualities of a person after death.  She was stubborn becomes she knew her own mind.  He was a tight-fisted old Scrooge becomes he was a meticulous financial manager.  That’s what Ted Kennedy was trying to avoid in describing his brother Bobby.  It’s not something Christians have tried to do in describing Jesus.  No, we seem to need Jesus to be bigger than life – to be “King of Kings and Lord of Lords”, reigning over all heaven and earth.  But when we do that, I fear, we push Jesus out of reach, and when Jesus is beyond our reach, well, isn’t it a little easier to avoid living the life of radical love he asks his disciples to live?

Still, here we are on Christ the King Sunday, so let’s look at it more closely.  Jesus was a funny kind of king.  To begin with, he was an impoverished rabbi, and he depended on the contributions of other impoverished outcasts just to survive.  He despised what he could plainly see were the results of the oppression of his people, the Jews, yet he did not plot to overthrow Rome, the oppressors in any traditionally political or military way.  No, he actually went after his own religious leaders, teaching how his fellow Jews were to live and criticizing the way many of them had chosen to live under Roman rule – by acquiescing to get by under Rome’s radar.  He did speak often and passionately about the reign of God, a monarchy not of this world but in which there will be justice and dignity.  The first shall be last, the mighty brought down from their thrones, the selfish will be judged harshly and those who refuse to care for others will be condemned to eternal hell.  Nothing in God’s reign will look like things as they are in this realm.  The oppressed will sit at the right hand of the throne of God.  The oppressors – not so much.

On this “Reign of Christ” Sunday, the lectionary passages are somewhat peculiar.  From Second Samuel we hear what were supposedly the last words of the mighty King David, reminding his people that God had made an everlasting covenant with David and David’s kingdom. And then there is the Gospel of John and the strange conversation between Pilate, Ruler of Rome, and Jesus, a conversation, we are told, that took place just days before Jesus’ crucifixion.  And here’s another peculiar thing – the common lectionary, a three-year schedule of scripture readings, which was revised in 1994, and before that in 1983, and before that in 1974, and before that in 1969 and before that, well, you get the idea.  Anyway, in the Revised Common Lectionary which we tend to follow in our worship here at Second Church, the gospel reading ends before Pilate’s question of Jesus, “what is truth?”  I added it back in to the reading you just heard, because I believe it was the critical point of the exchange between Jesus and Pilate, and, I believe, is a critical point in our exchange with Jesus, whatever exchange we may have.

Let’s look at John’s gospel more closely.  In his version of events in Jesus’ life, John portrayed Jesus as a kind of stage manager in a mystic drama.  In John’s gospel we have those odd words while Jesus was praying that basically say to God, “I know you know this already – I’m just saying this so these obtuse disciples will understand what I’m talking about”.  It is John’s gospel that brings us those powerful and familiar images of God’s creative power through eternity – “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God”.  And today, this last Gospel reading of the Christian year, we hear Jesus say “For this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.”  And Pilate, representing the culture, the empire, the secular, the powerful asks in return, “What is truth?”

And there’s the question.  What is truth?  And here it is being asked on this last Sunday of the year when truth is in as short supply as it has ever been and the life of Christian discipleship is as distorted and twisted into acquiescence to a dangerous, greedy, vulgar and violent world as it has ever been.

One of the ongoing and important steps in the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous and other corresponding recovery programs is this, “we continue to take a fearless and moral inventory and when we are wrong, promptly admit it”.  It is the step that requires constant and rigorous self-examination – of one’s self only – not of any one else, tempting as that may be.  It is the work of looking at ourselves, each of us into our own hearts and minds, examining our own motivations, our own attitudes, our own judgments. 

I can’t do your moral inventory, so let me just ask a few leading questions for you to ponder and you can do your own inventory on this last Sunday of the Christian year.

Let’s begin with the easy ones: Are you happy?  Are you serene?  Do you believe that with God, all things are possible? 

And then there is the moral inventory we might should be taking related to the church – not the Church with a capital “C”, but rather, this church, our church, here.  We should ask how we are doing here in our own Second Church of West Newton.  Overall, pretty well, but the hours speed by every week without our having engaged in good, solid study of Scripture that leads us to action, and there are a few parishioners who are angry over one decision or another and so Second Church has fallen down on their list of priorities of things to do with their time. Money is always tight to do the things we think a church should be doing, to be responsible property owners, to be activists for justice.  And I wonder, don’t you? When and how we’re going to really grapple with our privilege.  I know I’d rather not bring up the things that I suspect will make people mad. 

In yesterday’s wonderful UCC Still Speaking Daily Devotion, Kaji Dousa wrote:

Wikipedia claims that the UCC is “liberal-leaning.”  I wonder what this means.  Some would say that it implies a certain party affiliation on the blue/red divide.  But I wonder if the Wikipedia contributor has visited many of the UCC churches I’ve served, where the community learns how to dance carefully around divisive political terminology so that certain things just aren’t mentioned. I wonder if they’ve seen just how practiced, how cautious so many of our communities are in ensuring not to alienate one another because we know that there are people in the room who disagree with us politically. Is this what it means to “lean” liberal?  We live in a world that requires transformation. That transformation will come not dancing around, but rather, dancing with—when we can.

Which brings me to the more difficult prompting questions for our moral inventories. How is your Christian walk going?  Are you more courageous this year than you were a year ago?  Have you taken greater risks for the sake of others?  What qualities do you think are important for a truly good person to possess?  Do you have them?  Are good people generous? Not only of their wealth but in spirit?  Are you?  Do good people refrain from saying things aloud that bring no light to a conversation?  Do you?  Do good people dismantle barriers rather than build them?  Do you?  Do good people recognize their limitations, live comfortably within them but never cease trying to stretch them to learn more, understand more, wonder more?  Do you?  Do good people pray for others more often than they pray for themselves?  Do you? 

These are the kinds of questions that make up a fearless moral inventory.   These are the kinds of questions that beg truthful responses. These are the kind of questions I imagine Jesus asking me, when I am in prayer, or when I am out of touch with myself, or, I imagine, when I stand before the throne myself on the day of judgment, whenever that may be.  I don’t expect to be crowned.  But I’d like to be remembered as someone who was a “good and decent person, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it”.  That’s not the stuff of royalty.  It is the stuff of faithful discipleship.

Oh, I am ready for Advent to begin, for the chance to start over.  I am ready to face the darkness in anticipation of the light of Christ’s Word of hope and strength and God’s presence with us.  I am ready for this year to come to a close and a new year to begin with all its promise.  I am not afraid of Pilate’s question, “what is truth”, and neither should you be.  It is for God to work out the particulars of a Reign of justice, dignity, and love.  For me, I just want to work on the things I can. The things I believe Jesus worked on.  And I want to work on them with you.  Amen.


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