Read Sermons Author: The Rev. Sandra Curtis

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Christ the King

November 22, 2015

This week, a highly anticipated package arrived at my house.  I don’t want to give you the wrong impression, I couldn't care less about what was in that box, but my husband Randall and my daughter Olivia have been waiting for weeks for the arrival of a new PS4 game console so they can play Star Wars battlefront and other Star Wars Games.   I may not be a big Star Wars fan but the prevalence of Star Wars promotion in our culture is astonishingly hard to ignore, especially where I live.   There seems to be a Star Wars themed just about everything, clothes, and toys.   Star Wars characters were the most popular costume for Halloween at my school.  I’ve seen star wars fine jewelry and even a line of Star Wars themed Cover girl makeup.   It’s everywhere.  I have to admit that even I will be at the movie theater on open night of the new Star Wars Installment.

The Star Wars characters and the drama of the light versus the dark side fills the imagination of the students at my school and my family.  It colors in our ideas of heroes and villains.   I was informed by a 4 year old student as he added star wars troopers  to a picture of the disciples with Jesus, that Jesus’ lightsaber would definitely be green not red.  In a Star Wars’ world that makes perfect sense, Jesus would definitely be a Jedi with a green lightsaber.

So given our modern expanded fantasies about the universe when we get to a passage like today’s gospel from John, I wonder how much we hear the edge to Jesus’s replies to Pilate.

“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’” (John 18:36).

"My kingdom is not from this world,” says Jesus. No kidding. That seems pretty obvious.   We've got the sensibilities of centuries of Christian belief to inform us that Jesus’s identity belongs to the kingdom of heaven, God’s kingdom.

I wonder, was Jesus trying with these words to distance his connection to this worldly kingdom of which both Pilate and Jesus’ own accusers are a part?  Is Jesus, asserting his independence, that this world and its powers ultimately cannot determine his fate, which would echo  his words in John 10: 18 “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it up again”.  We might hear Jesus saying that if this conflict were happening in his kingdom, then indeed his followers would fight, but since it was happening in this other kingdom, a kingdom that cannot keep hold of him, his followers do not get involved.

But I think we are on the wrong track if we hear Jesus claim to be from another place as simply placing his authority and power in another part of the universe.   I know sometimes Jesus claim to be from another kingdom is heard as a deferred claim that if Jesus really wanted to he could at any time pull out his mind blowing Jedi Skills and thrown down all those people who oppose him, angel armies and all.

But I’ve come to believe that is not what Jesus was saying at all.   When I reflect upon the tragedies unfolding in a world around us, tragedies and fear that are grounding in the claim that violence can be justified as a tool of God.  I have come to see another understanding of Jesus’s kingship as a central part of Jesus’s words,  What Jesus might be saying, is that if he and his followers of this world, then naturally they would use the primary tool this world provides for establishing and keeping power: violence. But Jesus is not of this world and so Jesus will not defend himself through violence. Jesus will not establish his claims by violence. Jesus will not usher in God’s kingdom by violence. Jesus will make no followers by violence or coercion.

Rather, Jesus has come to witness to the truth, the truth that God is love (John 3:16).  But because we have not seen God and have such a hard time imagining God, all too often our imaginations are dominated by our experience or our cultural voices. So rather than imagining that God is love, we imagine God to be violent because we live in a world of violence. Rather than recognize the cross as a symbol of sacrificial love, we assume it’s the legal mechanism of punishing Jesus in our place because we have way too much experience with punitive relationships. Rather than believe that God’s grace and acceptance are absolutely unconditional, we assume God offers love, power, and status only on the condition that we fear, obey, and praise God – and despise those who don’t – because so much of our life is lived out of habit of fear and suspicion and defensiveness.

But Jesus is not of this world. And therefore his followers will not fight for him because to bring the kingdom about by violence is to violate the very principles of this kingdom.

The truth standing in front of Pilate is that Jesus comes embodying a kingdom that he simply cannot imagine as viable in his world,  this kingdom that will not take up arms to retaliate, that is a new way of being right in the middle of a violent, corrupt world.   This king claims no land, or coercive power instead he stands in front of Pilate with a divine authority of love not law, with the truth of radically embracing relationship with a God a unlimited mercy and grace, not brutal force.

When my heart is heavy with stories of brutal and senseless violence, I can feel the pull of Pilate’s dilemma. He is caught between two opposite narratives of power.  He cannot overcome his entanglement with fear, to face the truth about himself or the limits of his power.

But Jesus’s words also confront us, they are not simply an historical account of Pilate’s encounter with Jesus.    As we face the narratives of violence and hatred in our world we must also seek  to listen deeply to the truth of Jesus’s life and death.    It is a truth that calls us to reject the temptation to react from fear and hatred rather than faith and love in God’s abiding presence and work.

In our Christian tradition there are many different understandings of the place of force, from non- violence to just war. But regardless of where you or I may fall on that spectrum, as followers of Christ, a very different kind of king, we need  to witness that there are limits to the reach and outcome of force.  I honestly believe that even in a Star Wars Universe that Jesus would not carry a light saber at all.    Why?

Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote,

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it. Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth. Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate. In fact, violence merely increases hate. So it goes. Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. [1]

What does this mean for us this Sunday? I wish I had a definitive answer. But I know that we gather this Sunday to pray and to witness. To pray that God will comfort those who mourn, strengthen those who seek to thwart terrorists and bring  justice to all, change the hearts of those who can see no other way forward but through violence and fear, and equip all of us to work for a peace born of equity, justice and compassion.

And after our praying, we are called to witness:
to witness to the One who demonstrated power through weakness,
who manifested strength through vulnerability,
who established justice through mercy,
and who built the kingdom of God by embracing a confused, chaotic, and violent world, taking its pain into his own body, dying the death it sought, and rising again to remind us that light is stronger than darkness, and  love is stronger than hate.

As we witness, in our action and our speech, we are called to reject the self-destructive isolating narratives of not only of open faced hatred, but also of deep suspicion of the very people we are called in compassion to love, neighbor near and far alike.  In a world that perpetuates and idolizes narrative of fear, revenge, and self preservation, we can as followers of Christ live out of habits of love.  So in the face of violence, fear, and hatred we pray:

Lord, make us instruments of your peace.
Where there is hatred, let us sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
 where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.  Amen. [2]

And as you go into the world in peace, “May the force be with you.”


[1] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Where Do We Go From Here?” as published in Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?  (1967), p. 62.

[2] A Prayer of St. Francis, Book of Common Prayer, p. 833.

King David’s appetite got the better of him. What he wanted was good, but not for him.

In the Summa Theologiae, Thomas Aquinas affirms that love was God’s reason for the making of the world and that his goodness permeates creation—but in pieces, disassembled like a jigsaw puzzle. He writes: “The perfect goodness that exists one and unbroken in God can exist in creatures only in a multitude of fragmented ways.”  

So David was drawn to a fragmentary good. His desire was one that we instinctively appreciate, because without it none of us would be here, but the wrongness of his acting on it was severe. Our appetites cause trouble when we are heedless of the good of others, and the puzzle as a whole.

What is love? “Willing the good” of another person, according to Aquinas. David’s motive wouldn’t count as love. He wanted Bathsheba for himself. Perhaps her feelings were reciprocal, but David left her husband’s good, his kingdom’s good, and other puzzle pieces, neglected on the floor. Inconveniently, a pregnancy occurred. Plan A was to give Uriah, the husband, grounds to believe he was the father. When that plan failed the king successfully arranged to have him killed in battle.

Evil, according to Aquinas, is a corruption of the good. “Power tends to corrupt,” as Lord Acton warned, and in this story we see why. Only a king could be tempted to sin like David did, because it would take a king to pull it off. David’s failure is common to men in high places, shadowing the lives and times of several of our recent presidents and even Martin Luther King. Like kings and presidents, prophets are susceptible.

When I started SUMMA, the high school theological debate camp, I named it partly for the Summa Theologiae––“the Summa,” for short. SUMMA, the camp, highlights faith’s intellectual dimension. According to the Summa, the book, our intellect is like an appetite. As David’s eye was attracted to the beauty of Bathsheba, our mind’s eye is drawn to truth. We call this attraction “reason.” Aquinas writes; “As the good denotes that towards which the appetite tends, so the true denotes that towards which the intellect tends.”

If truth is the sun, sometimes our sight of it is fogged by other appetites. David had broken three of the ten commandments (the sixth, seventh, and tenth, if you are keeping score) but he was oblivious. Nathan the prophet found a way to lift the fog. Lawyer-like, he caught the king’s attention with the case of a poor, honest sharecropper and his beloved lamb. David’s first job had been tending sheep, so he could relate. A selfish plantation owner took the poor man’s lamb to feed his party guests. The king was livid. “Is this for real?” “For real.” David’s appetite for justice burned. “That Simon Legree will pay!” he swore. Coming from a king that was a verdict, not an empty threat. Nathan had him. He drew out his mirror and held it to the king’s face. Look close, he said. You are that man. “The moment of truth.”

“We must no longer be children,” Paul writes to the Ephesians. “We must grow up,” he says, by “speaking the truth in love.” At SUMMA, the camp, the highest honor, “the SUMMA Prize,” is awarded to the camper who best shows us how that’s done. The prize is one thousand dollars. That is one way to make our point that truth and love are intertwined.

Often, finding truth takes expertise: science, logic, math. Aquinas’s expertise was logic and it took him years to learn. Not everyone would have the skill even if they afford the time. By God’s design, love requires no expertise. Everyone can understand and anyone can do it if they will. “It is evident,” Aquinas writes, “that not all are able to labor at learning and for that reason Christ has given a short law. Everyone can know this law and no one may be excused from observing it based on ignorance. This is the law of divine love.”

For a counterpoint, Franklin Roosevelt once compared our nation’s moral progress to our scientific progress unfavorably, which might suggest that finding truth is easier than loving. According to Jon Meacham, Roosevelt had drafted a speech to give on Thomas Jefferson’s birthday, April 13. This was 1945. The speech was discovered on Roosevelt’s desk in Warm Springs, Georgia, April 12, the day he died. This is FDR:

Today, science has brought all the different quarters of the globe so close together that it is impossible to isolate them one from another . . . Today we are faced with the preeminent fact that, if civilization is to survive, we must cultivate the science of human relationships—the ability of all peoples, of all kinds, to live together and work together in the same world, at peace. . . . Let us move forward with strong and active faith.

That’s from Meacham’s book The Soul of America: The Battle for our Better Angels. From 1776 to now, the book tracks our national ups and downs in answering to what what Lincoln called “the better angels of our nature.” Meacham wrote the book because he thinks we need to listen much more closely to those better angels now. Who could disagree?

Aquinas and Roosevelt were both right. Aquinas, because only an Isaac Newton could discover calculus; and Roosevelt because, once discovered, truth is ours to keep. Libraries are full of it. Love is more like breakfast—we have to make it every morning. Aquinas called theology the “Queen of Sciences” because it's the science that has to reckon with both the library and the kitchen.

SUMMA, the camp, is a crash course in truth detection. I tell the students: “I didn’t bring you here to tell you what to think, but to show you how.” They learn the three parts of an argument: claim, evidence, and warrant. Claim: ‘What are you trying to get me to believe?’ Evidence: ‘What are you giving me to go on?’ Warrant: ‘How does the evidence support the claim?’

For example, claim: I say “Tomorrow it will rain.” Evidence: You ask “Why should I believe that?” I answer: “Open the window and take a whiff.” You open the window. “Oh,” you say, “the paper mill.”  Warrant: By what logic does this smell support my claim? It’s called an “inference from sign.” Does the Pine Bluff Paper Mill cause rain? No, but it lets us know the wind is from the south, and southern winds bring moisture from the Gulf of Mexico. Summer heat means afternoon convection: hot air rising from the earth. Add moisture and boom! Summer thunderstorms.

In one sentence in our gospel reading, Jesus makes two claims: (1) God sent me.  (2) Faith in me is a sign of God’s activity in the heart and mind of the believer. “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent,” he says. Again: “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” Smartly, people ask Jesus for evidence to support these claims. Moses gave us evidence, they remind him, out there in the wilderness. Our ancestors were hungry and thirsty. Miraculously, he gave them manna for bread and water from a boulder. So show us. “What sign are you going to give us that we may see it and believe in you?”

For John, the gospel writer, this question is like a student’s who had dozed off in class. It is summer school, the air conditioning is out and the windows are open. The air is hot, moist, and heavy with that familiar smell. The boy wakes up and asks the teacher to answer something she had just explained in detail: “So why should we believe that it will rain tomorrow?”

Jesus’ questioners had been dozing. In John’s gospel, signs followed everywhere he went. In Cana, he turned water into wine. In Capernaum, he healed a dying child; in Jerusalem, it was a sick old man too weak to walk. The latest sign had been the most spectacular so far, and these people who were asking for a sign had either seen or heard about it. From five loaves and two fish, five thousand hungry appetites were satisfied. In a fog, these interrogators fail to draw the inference from sign.

Jesus backs up and tries another tack. With Moses still in mind, he offers an analogy. Analogies are warrants that work by comparison. “This is like that.” You know what its like to hungry and be given bread? They nod, still digesting loaves that he had given. I am like that he says. “Those who come to me will never hunger and those who believe in me will never thirst,” he promises. He isn’t talking now about digestion, but about that activity of God in human hearts and minds––also called the Holy Spirit.

By this, he puts us on watch for good that answers to a longing deeper than hunger even, and more thrilling even than that dizzy dancing feeling that draws us to each other sometimes. Powerful and necessary though they are, these appetites, they point to only fragments of the good we need as human beings. We are made for more.

We don’t need faith to know this. Aristotle knew it. Reason, he taught, is like an appetite for good things greater than our emotional enjoyment and even our physical survival.

We do not live by bread alone. Reason shows us that much. Faith, hope, love—the activity of God in the minds and hearts of all believers––now show us more: eternal truth, everlasting goodness, and transcendent beauty. They are like coffee, eggs, and bacon cooking in the kitchen early in the morning, smells wafting up the stairs into the bedroom as we’re dressing, getting ready for the day.