November 25, 2018
Reign of Christ, Pastor Bradley E. Schmeling
I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio. Just like St. Paul, it’s an old city with established neighborhoods. Each neighborhood had its own character and its own reputation. Some were distinctively Appalachian; some were historically German; some African American. There was an east side and a west side. People on the east side were glad that they didn’t live on the West side, and people on the West side were glad they were not as pretentious as the people on the east side.
In Cincinnati, when someone asked you were you were from, they meant what neighborhood did you grew up in. If they really wanted to identify you, they would ask, “What high school did you go to?” Your answer would map you: your possible ethnic heritage, likely your race, your socio-economic status, even your education.
This is, of course, exactly what Pilate wants to know about Jesus: where does he come from. If he really is a king of the Judeans, then he is clearly a threat to Rome’s power, someone who needs to be eliminated, or, better yet, humiliated. Or maybe he’s just a religious nut, an opportunity to toy with the religious leadership.
Pilate knows exactly where he’s from: Rome. Pilate locates his authority in Rome’s imperial power to dominate and belittle, his authority to send troops, his authority to humiliate and silence. The wonderful irony in John is that the harder Pilate tries to demonstrate his own power, the more he points to Jesus. “You say that I’m a king,” Jesus says. In the end, Pilate will be the one who labels Jesus as a king on a sign above the cross: Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Judeans. Which is, of course, the truth. Pilate thinks he’s making the joke, but as it turns out, he’s not even in on it.
Pilate is an unwitting pawn in God’s plan to move the whole world into love. Not even a Pilate; nor the soldiers at the foot of the cross, tossing dice for his clothes; nor the religious leaders shouting for his crucifixion; nor the Roman police–can avoid being used by God in the salvation of the world. Think about that for a minute. Even people who actively stand in the way of the reign of God, who attempt to silence it, will, in the end, be used by God to move it forward. There’s a sense in John’s gospel that the reign of God–the power of love, if you will–is on an unstoppable march into the future. Even when the moment of death comes, Jesus simply states what he knows is obvious, “It is accomplished.” It is finished. History turns toward love.
This morning, we come to the end of the church year. Next Sunday is the First Sunday of Advent, our New Year’s Day, when we start telling the story of Jesus all over again. Unless you’re a church nerd, it hardly makes a difference in what’s going on around us. If it’s anything, today is wedged between Black Friday or Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. Where are we located? In the shopping season! Who are we? Bargain Hunters!
It makes a dramatic point. Which kingdom locates us? Which set of assumptions about life shape the places where we live? Our relationships? Our choices? Our spending? Our politics?
Which day quenches our thirst?
I saw an editorial cartoon on Facebook. In one scene, shoppers in a packed store are being offered sample sips of self-awareness. In the next scene, they are transformed, “Whoa. Other people exist!” “Oops. I’m blocking the aisle.” “I should move my cart.”
Reign of Christ Sunday invites us to consider which kingdom we’re going to claim as our own. One with awareness, openness, love? Or the world that is dominated by the Pilates of our generation?
Maybe you saw the article in the New York Times. “America is suffering an epidemic of loneliness. According to a recent large-scale survey from the health care provider Cigna, most Americans suffer from strong feelings of loneliness and a lack of significance in their relationships. Nearly half say they sometimes or always feel alone or “left out.” Thirteen percent of Americans say that zero people know them well. The survey, which charts social isolation, the Loneliness Scale, shows that loneliness is getting worse in each successive generation.
Republican Senator from Nebraska, Ben Sasse, wrote a book called “Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal.” He says that we’re living from our loneliness. Our sense of isolation and emptiness has become our experience of reality. He faults the “rage industrial complex” for profiting from our alienation. We locate our sense of “us” based in our fear and in a generated “disgust” of “them.” Mr. Sasse, himself, says he gets a sense of location from having a burial plot in his hometown, where he knows he belongs; where he has community.
When questioned about what happens to those of us who don’t have idyllic hometowns or warm experiences to go back to, he says, being a member of a community isn’t about whether you have a Fremont (the place where Sasse has a burial plot). It isn’t about how you feel about any place you have lived, nor about your fear of isolation in a new city. It is about the neighbor, “I choose to be in the community I wind up calling my home.”
Jesus would say, “My kingdom is not of this world.”
But he doesn’t mean that it’s a far-off world. It’s one that’s in us and accessible to us right now.
On this strange Sunday sandwiched between shopping days, we pledge our allegiance to this same beloved community, a kingdom above the nations, a throne above any flag, a set of values that are grounded in sacrificial love, neighborly compassion, and dedicated service. We locate in the commonwealth of Jesus. We draw from it, as if it were our home, our truth.
Maybe all we can do, in the midst of all we live through, is to set up a table, pass out sips of this new reality, or little bites of the truth. Trusting that maybe they’ll transform us to be more aware, more open, more loving, more just and peaceful. Maybe it gives us the answer to the question, “Where are you from?”
I’m from the water; a child of the promise.
I’m a citizen of heaven, God’s beloved family.
I’m from Christ, crucified and risen,
Dying, but fully alive.