Sermon preached November 22, 2009
Texts: John 18:33-37
I’m gonna be a mighty king, so enemies beware
Lion: The Wizard of Oz
If I were King of the Forest, Not queen, not duke, not prince.
My regal robes of the forest, would be satin, not cotton, not chintz.
I'd command each thing, be it fish or fowl.
With a woof and a woof and a royal growl - woof.
As I'd click my heel, all the trees would kneel.
And the mountains bow and the bulls kowtow.
And the sparrow would take wing - If I - If I - were King!
Each rabbit would show respect to me. The chipmunks genuflect to me.
Though my tail would lash, I would show compash
For every underling!
If I - If I - were King!
Monarch of all I survey -- Mo--na-a-a--a-arch Of all I survey
The King and I
The king is pleased…
He’s pleased with me
My lord and master
He’s pleased with me
I Just Can’t Wait to Be King
I’m gonna be a mighty king
So enemies beward…
No one saying do this
No one saying be there
No one saying stop that…
Free to do it all my way
So that’s what being a king is all about, at least as it is defined in popular culture – free to do whatever one likes, being the recipient of scraping and bowing, wealth and power. In this instances, we might trust these particular kings – the Lion, Yul Brennar, Simba. But history is filled with examples of “kings” who exercised their power more ruthlessly.
By a wonderful coincidence, this past week our confirmation class read and discussed the story of Moses, and you cannot talk about Moses without talking about Egypt and Pharaoh. The Pharaoh in Egypt came to be considered a god in a society that was deeply religious. One person described the rule of Pharaoh this way: “justice is what Pharaoh loves, evil is what Pharaoh hates” (Roberts, A History of the World, 68). And Pharaoh used that power to punish enemies, to send soldiers off to way, to enslave others, to keep himself wealthy. But isn’t that what it means to be king – no one saying do this, no one saying be there, no one saying stop that… free to do it all your way. Wouldn’t it be nice to be king?
There is such a king in today’s gospel reading, at least in the background. That king would have been the emperor of Rome. His representative in the story is Pilate. But there is another figure in the story who is also labeled a king, but he seems a strange figure for a king, doesn’t seem to fit the pattern.
Pilate, questioning Jesus about why he is in trouble, asks about his claim to being a king. Jesus responds: “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. But as it is, my kingdom is not from here.” Cryptic, elusive, mysterious. Pilate: “So you are a king?” Jesus: “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 final Sunday before the beginning of the Advent season in the Christian Church is known as “Christ the King Sunday.” We call Jesus “King.” Especially in Revelation that gets translated as Jesus being a better king than the kings of the world who rule unjustly and often murderously. Jesus is portrayed as a just king. In other places he is portrayed as a good and kind, as well as a just king. I suggest to you today that this new kind of king idea does not do justice to today’s story. It is not radical enough. Rather, I think we can only call Jesus Christ “king” if we understand that he shatters the idea of kingship. Jesus is king not in order to rule, but in order to reveal. “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Jesus wants to reveal the truth about our lives, about our world - - - the messy, complicated, wildly rich, sometimes ugly, always beautiful, truth about our lives and the world.
Jesus is a king after Emily Dickinson’s heart. “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant” (1129) she writes. The rich, varied, complicated truth about our lives needs to be told slant, offered in various ways, because it is sometimes a difficult truth, and Jesus tells it with power.
Jesus is a king after the heart of psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott, who in one of a series of talks given on the BBC, and later published, said, “the dictator… wields power through offering a life free from doubt. How dull!” (The Child, the Family and the Outside World, 204) Kings define reality for their subjects. Justice is what Pharaoh loves, evil what Pharaoh hates. Jesus is a king whose truth-telling can lead to doubt before it settles down again. The truth about our lives surprises us sometimes, and following that truth about our lives and the world is never dull.
For the writer of The Gospel According to John, truth is what frees us (“you will know the truth and the truth will make you free” 8:32); and truth and freedom are qualities of abundant life. The same Jesus who tells Pilate “For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth,” also says, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (10:10). To claim Jesus as king, to proclaim him as king is not to bow down but to open up, open up to truth, to life, to love.
This past Thursday I was at a workshop at St. Mary’s Hospital. It was the fifth event in what the hospital calls the “Spiritual Companion Series.” Linda Wiig and Linda Peterson were also there. The topic was “Voices of Suffering in the Psalms,” but the presenter, Dr. Frederick Gaiser, went in many directions, including sharing with us some ideas of the kinds of truths about our lives that Jesus reveals. To acknowledge Jesus as king is to open ourselves to these truths about our lives and our world.
The world is worse than it has to be. We bemoan natural disasters – floods, fires, hurricanes, treacherous winter storms. They seem just a part of the way the world is. But the world is worse than that. Humanity compounds the hurts and horrors of the world. Crops are destroyed by natural forces, but then the human community exacerbates the problems through inequitable distribution, or by the refusal of a totalitarian government to allow aid to be given. Floods destroy homes, but human beings continue to build in flood plains, or divert rivers making the possibility for flooding worse. Beyond that, there are disasters in the world which are solely the product of human imagination and ingenuity: technologies of torture, weapons of mass destructions, cruelties inflicted one person on another. The world is worse than it has to be, and we find ourselves participating in some of the harm and cruelty. In the series of BBC talks already mentioned, D. W. Winnicott also said, “however much we try to see evil, beastliness, and bad influence as something outside ourselves, or impinging on us from without, in the end we find that whatever things people do and whatever influences actuate them, these are in human nature itself, in fact, in ourselves” (The Child, the Family and the Outside World, 199).
Another truth about our lives and world that comes from Jesus and that I heard articulated on Thursday was this: the birds sing more than Darwinism requires. Yes, the world is worse than it has to be, and we are sometimes a part of that. The world is also more wonderful, more beautiful, more full of grace and joy and delight than we often imagine. In one of her poems, Denise Levertov writes of being tired and hungry late in the day, but feeling the need to wander outside in search of something to quell the emptiness inside, something that will reconnect her to God and world. She walks and waits and listens, nothing touches her soul deeply, but just as she is about to go inside, she turns once more to the north. (“A Reward”)
And was rewarded:
the heron, unseen for weeks, came flying
widewinged toward me, settled
just off shore on his post,
took up his vigil.
If you asked
why this cleared a fog from my spirit,
I have no answer.
The truth is that the birds sing more than Darwinism requires. There is beauty in the world wholly gratuitous.
One final truth about our lives and the world which comes through Jesus is that there is a love in the world which does not end, which cannot be defeated by even the most powerful empires. Jesus is king not because he wields royal power, but because his life was animated by the love that cannot be defeated in the end, his life incarnated a love which will not die, a love which challenges all the harms and injustices of the world, a love which continues to inspire a restlessness in us to make the world a better place.
How there is beauty and ugliness in our lives and in the world, tendencies toward cruelty and hatred and well as energies for goodness and love – this is all rich and mysterious and complex. Jesus as king shines a light into our lives. Jesus as king gives us power to work with the love inside and resist evil, injustice and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. Jesus as king reveals more than rules, and to proclaim Jesus as king is to open up to truth, to freedom, to life, to love.
A man walks in the forest and spies a fox that has lost its legs and wondered how it could live. Then he saw a tiger come in with game in its mouth. The tiger had its fill and left the rest of the meat for the fox. The next day God fed the fox by means of the same tiger. The man began to wonder at God’s greatness and said to himself, “I too shall just rest in a corner with full trust in the Lord and he will provide me with all that I need.” He did this for many days but nothing happened, and he was almost at death’s door when he heard a voice say, “O you who are in the path of error, open your eyes to the truth! Follow the example of the tiger and stop imitating the damaged fox.”(Soul Food, 54)
“For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.” Jesus is a king who reveals more than rules, reveals the truth of our lives so we might live more freely, more fully, more lovingly. To claim and proclaim Jesus as king is to open up to truth, to freedom, to life, to love. It is to open up to the truth that sometimes we want to be the damaged fox, denying our power, when God has given us the strength and energy to be the tiger. It is to open up to the truth that sometimes we are the damaged fox in need of help from others, though we are afraid to admit it. It is to open up to the truth that there is a love in the world which never dies, which persistently and patiently works in our lives and in the world, and to seek to live in that love is to work for the only kind of kingdom that is of interest to Jesus the king. Amen.