Friday, November 30, 2012

If I Were King

Sermon preached November 25, 2012
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

Texts: John 18:33-37

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!
Just King!
Monarch of all I survey -- Mo--na-a-a--a-arch Of all I survey!

If I Were King

One of the rites of passage growing up when I did was an annual viewing of The Wizard of Oz. This was the days before cable, when movies were re-run once a year. For me, for many years, it was before color television. I only heard that the movie changed to color in the land of Oz.
A more recent movie about a lion king is The Lion King. A young Simba imagines what it will be like when he is king. I’m gonna be a mighty king, so enemies beware. I’m gonna be the mane event, like no king was before. I’m brushing up on looking down, I’m working on my roar…. No one saying do this. No one saying be there. No one saying stop that. No one saying see here.
Kings, lion or otherwise, are seen as those who do what they want, at least much of the time. They do what they want, and they get others to help, sometimes commanding others to help. Our picture of being king is of someone who has tremendous resources, and tremendous capacity to increase those resources. Our picture of being king is of someone with power, and power is doing what one wants. We seem enamored with power. How else can one explain popular television shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Keeping Up With the Kardashians, or The Apprentice.
Kings are powerful and have resources. That’s our picture, and it affected even a poor kid who grew up to be called, “The King.” When friends of Elvis Presley, policemen, approached him in 1976 about what they viewed as a substance abuse problem, The King responded, “You don’t think I can handle it, do you? You don’t think I’m strong enough. I know what I’m doing. I can get off of this stuff anytime I want.” At the time, as Presley biographer Peter Guralnick noted, Presley had some other issues as well – financial issues. He owed hundreds of thousands of dollars “for cars, planes, gifts, guns, jewelry, and clothing, anything in fact on which his eye might alight” (Guralnick, Careless Love, 597)
Flashback to an earlier time, to a place representative of power as we think of it - kingly power, imperial power. Jesus stands in the court of Pilate, governor of Judea under the reign of Tiberius Julius Caesar Augustus, second emperor of Rome. Pilate was Caesar’s man in Jerusalem and Palestine. Emperor’s and kings don’t take kindly to others who lay claim to their power and prestige. Pilate has before him a Jesus, accused of arguing that he is king of the Jewish people. “Are you the king of the Jews?” “My kingdom is not from this world…. My kingdom is not from here.”
Some have argued that Jesus’ words mean that the focus of his life, work and ministry is spiritual, by which they mean other-worldly and focused on the after-life. Yes, Jesus is focused on the spiritual, but it is not a spirituality focused exclusively on what happens after we die. I think some other translations of Jesus’ words, “my kingdom is not from here” capture that more adequately. “My kingdom is not founded on all this” (Phillips). “I’m not that kind of king, not the world’s kind of king” (The Message). A Jesus spirituality is not other-worldly in the sense of focusing on another life. It is other-worldly in the sense of thinking differently about what is most important and most powerful even in this world.
In the liturgical year of the church, the final Sunday before Advent is known as Christ the King Sunday. Christ the King Sunday is a Sunday for renewed commitment to Jesus and commitment to Jesus is commitment to a different kind of world, to a broader understanding of power. What is powerful in Jesus is, in the words of one theologian, “his capacity to enter into relation with those around him – to influence and be influenced by others” (Bernard Loomer, quoted in The Size of God, 11). For Jesus power has something to do with openness, responsiveness, love.
The encounter between Pilate and Jesus is an encounter between the typical view of power in human thinking and the Jesus’ view of power. For Rome, peace rested on strength and threat and intimidation. Things were peaceful because to rock the boat could get you into trouble. Jesus is in big trouble because he is accused of being a king beside Caesar, perhaps challenging Caesar. And in a way, he does. Caesar’s power if based on fear, and it works, for a while. We would be foolish to think that in the area of international relations, there is not a place for strength and power, as we usually think of it. But that kind of power breeds, in reaction, a search for a superior power, and in the long run that does not make for peace. If you have peace only to the extent that you have superior power, you are constantly suspicious, wondering where the next challenge will come from.
For Jesus, power rests in one’s relationship to God and in one’s openness and responsiveness to others. Peace comes from knowing that one’s life rests in God. For Jesus power is creative, responsive, and persuasive love. Power creates beauty, kindness, caring, love. To call Jesus king is to seek to live differently. Our way is not always the way of the world.
We live differently because of Jesus. We give differently because of Jesus. We are wrapping up our financial stewardship campaign. One way to work with this part of our life is to say here’s how much money we need to keep doing what we are doing, and what are you going to contribute. There is value in that approach, and we should always be giving you good financial information. The deeper reason we give, though, is because we really believe God is up to something here. Jesus Spirit is active in our life together and in our lives and we want to participate in that. One of the ways we participate is through our financial giving. It is an important way we participate, but it is not the only way, and the important thing is not simply making our budget - though that matters. The important thing is keeping the Spirit moving in our lives and in our life together.
Christ the King Sunday is a Sunday for renewed commitment to Jesus, and commitment to Jesus is commitment to a different kind of world, to a broader understanding of power. For Jesus power has something to do with openness, responsiveness, love.
Benjamin was raped at age 9, lost his mother to cancer at age 12, and had a father who was often drunk. His siblings were either dead of in jail. After the death of his mother, Benjamin was adopted by an Episcopal priest named Martha Overall. Rev. Overall was the priest at St. Ann’s Church in the South Bronx, a church with an excellent after-school program. Overall worked hard to help Benjamin along, but seemingly without success. He ran away from school, joined a gang, took drugs, and stole from stores and even from his adopted mom. He eventually ended up in jail where Martha Overall bailed him out and the judge sentenced him to probation. Then, Benjamin decided to join a drug recovery program. He’s now clean and is counseling other addicts.
What helped Benjamin turn around? He remembers a time when his adopted mother, Rev. Martha Overall came to St. Ann’s Church. Many in the community and congregation were loyal to her predecessor, a Hispanic person who had been removed from the parish for corruption. Benjamin remembers a time, before Overall adopted him, when she arrived at the church to find protesters waving signs saying “No White Woman Wanted Here.” She went about her work “and the example of her persistence, conscientiousness, self-confidence, and grit… sent a message to Benjamin” (The Nation, December 3, 2012, p. 35). Benjamin has said that his adopted mother’s “determined benevolence and… her fierce faith – in herself, her greater mission and in him, personally "helped me find the strength inside of me I didn’t know I had" (The Nation).
Love is powerful - a persistent, persuasive, powerful presence. Love is the power of the kingdom of God, the power of king Jesus. It is a power that helps others find their inner strength, not a power afraid of the power of others.
Christ the King Sunday is a Sunday for renewed commitment to Jesus, and commitment to Jesus is commitment to a different kind of world, to a broader understanding of power. For Jesus power has something to do with openness, responsiveness, love.
If I were king, and even if I am just myself, this is the kind of power I want working in my life, working on my life, and working in the world. Amen.

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