Your Kingdom Home
A Sermon Preached at the Larchmont Avenue Church
November 28, 2012
Text: John 18:33-37
Then Pilate entered the headquarters again, summoned Jesus, and asked him, “Are you the King of the Jews?”
Jesus answered, “Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”
Pilate 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?”
Jesus 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.”
Pilate 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.”
Holy God, who was and is and is to come, be in this moment, be with us here and now, that my words come only from you, that our understanding come only from you, that our hearts be yours, here in this moment, and always. Amen.
So there I was – in full camouflage jumpsuit, donning protective eye gear and a helmet, holding a five-pound gun, and leading 8 teenagers and one adult, from our church, into battle. I was totally unprepared, frankly, for the experience of paintball. It was not the first time I have done something crazy in the name of youth ministry, but this might have been a bit further over the edge than previous excursions.
Our group joined about thirty others on the “Red Team,” and headed out to a field that looked, in many respects, like a war zone. There were small concrete structures that looked like small houses, scattered about the field. In fact, they looked somewhat like the houses I and others who were with me have built in Nicaragua. These structures were to offer protective cover as we hid behind them, trying not to get shot with the small pellets of paint that were coming at us, constantly, at a very fast speed.
As I said, I was completely unprepared, so it should not surprise you that I was shot within the first 60 seconds of the game, and was relegated to the sidelines to watch. There were a variety of folks on the field: people skilled and experienced, novices like most of our group, people in between. There were folks with their own gear and those with rented gear. There were mostly men, a handful of women. The folks on the course were mostly caucasian, although there were a small minority of non-white folks out on the course as well. There was a lot of adrenaline, a lot of testosterone, and more than a little bit of fear.
It took a few rounds for me to get the hang of it, and to not get shot in the first few minutes of the game. The power dynamics were fascinating to experience: the skilled players barking orders at the others, trying to help and give tips, pointing out folks on the other team, trying to protect their own. And in many ways these dynamics were not unlike the power dynamics in real life: where the folks with the best gear and the most experience seem to have a leg up, and the novices and newbies are scrambling to keep up.
I could see how folks could love it, get addicted to the adrenaline rush and the excitement of it. The energy and intensity was palpable. But I could also feel the harrowing toll that power struggles and fear can take on you, what it might be like to be shot at regularly, to live in a community where shelling and gunshot is a somewhat normal part of one’s life.
It’s one thing we can be grateful for, on this weekend that celebrates gratitude, that we are blessed to live in a community of peace and relative security. It’s a stark contrast: one accentuated on the cover of our newspapers as we see pictures of Black Friday shoppers alongside pictures of Gaza or Syria. But both those sets of images are connected to power; both show the chasm between the haves and the have nots, the vulnerable and the protected.
Our scripture lesson for this morning unfurls this same contrast, on this last Sunday of our church year. It’s Christ the King Sunday, a feast day originally created by Pope Pius the XI in the year 1925. The day was created as a response to increasing dictatorships in Europe, the end of World War I, and the church’s loss of power. It was a response: a question really… To whom do you pledge your allegiance? To whom do you belong?
The lectionary texts chosen for this day each emphasize the authority and kingship of Christ – the One called the Alpha and the Omega in the Revelation of John, the Lord of Zion in the Psalm, the King of the Jews in the gospel of John. Each calling to mind the strength and might of our God who saves and protects us.
It is this last story that draws our attention, this dialogue between Jesus and the powerful Roman Prefect Pontious Pilate. The power dynamic between the two men is palpable – Pilate seemingly has it all, Jesus none. The disciples have fled, Jesus’s own people have betrayed him and fallen into their own bloodlust. He is alone and lost.
Pilate holds all the cards, the ability to condemn Jesus to death or to release him. He has come into Jerusalem to lord his political power over the Jewish people during the passover holiday, and so here he is acting as lord and judge over them through Jesus… Pilate the strong, Jesus the vulnerable and weak…
It’s probably true that one of the most challenging parts for me in our paintball experience was my own lack of power. With no skill and not much prep – it was easy to feel vulnerable and fearful. It was very hard to ask for help, to admit when I got hit, to let someone else lead me, protect me, even order me around. I’m sure I’m not alone in rebelling against that feeling of vulnerability. It’s in our nature – each of us has felt that way at one point or another, and most of us don’t much like it. It is the definition of shame: to experience the fear of disconnection, the excruciating vulnerability, the deep weight of powerlessness.
In fact, most of us will go through our lives trying to avoid that feeling at all. Most of us will move through our lives naturally and intuitively making sure at all costs that we will never feel that way again. What is surprising, and counter-intuitive, is that our natural inclination to avoid vulnerability actually prevents us from fulfilling our deepest desires of connection and love.
Social scientist and author Dr. Brené Brown spent over 6 years researching the connections between people: what makes them joyful, loving and what does not. As she began to gather stories of connection, she found that instead people often told her stories of disconnection, heartbreak, exclusion, shame. Brown’s admitted goal (like most people) was to learn how to avoid that pain, and so, through thousands of interviews and testimonies, she began to focus on what she calls “whole-hearted people.” These are people whom she describes as courageous, compassionate, and connected. They are people who somehow experience shame and vulnerability and live to tell the tale, rather than to be shattered and broken as a result of the pain they have experienced.
What surprised her in her research was that she found the people who felt most connected, who were able to practice joy and gratitude in the face of a world of suffering and shame had two things in common. These whole-hearted people were people who believed themselves to be worthy of love, joy and belonging and who embraced their own vulnerability. She says they believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. Because of that belief, their willingness to be vulnerable actually gave them power in the face of shame or suffering, exclusion or heartbreak.
When Pilate asks Jesus whether he is the King of the Jews, Jesus answers with what amounts to another parable. “My kingdom is not of this world,” he says. Pilate is confused. Pilate’s kingdom is of this world – it a kingdom in which power and coercion are one and the same, it is a kingdom built on political expediency and financial weight. It is a kingdom where the haves get more and the have nots are left behind. It is a kingdom like the world we live in.
But, Jesus’ authority as king originates not from this world but from God; It is a kingdom that has to do with truth – about ourselves and our world. His kingdom has to do with the power of belonging. His kingdom has to do with reconciling grace. His kingdom has to do with the reign of love.
In this moment with Pilate, we are shown that Christ is a king that embraces shame and suffering, vulnerability and pain and transforms it into love and belonging, compassion and worthiness. Christ is a king born homeless in a manger. He is a king who eats with sinners and heals the most wretched of society, who loves the unloveable and welcomes the outcast. Christ is a king who speaks truth, who lives truth, even when that truth brings his death. Christ is a king who goes, quietly, humbly to the cross as an act of deepest love for us. This is the king we follow, this is the king we claim.
Each and every Sunday, when we come together in communal prayer, we join in speaking the words and embrace Christ as our king, asking that his kingdom come. This is the kingdom we ask for, the kingdom we long for: a kingdom of vulnerability and love.
A kingdom that is based on the belief that every person is a beloved child of God, worthy of love and belonging. A kingdom that finds it’s home among the powerless and pain-filled. A kingdom that beckons our whole-hearted participation, to feed the hungry and welcome the lonely. A kingdom that looks shame in the eye and responds with love, love, love.
So I ask you:
Do you know the king to whom you pledge your allegiance?
Do you know the kingdom to which you belong?
Thy kingdom come. Thy kingdom come.
For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory. Forever.