Sermon delivered by the Rev. Cristina Rathbone
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.”
The Servant King
Perhaps it’s just because I was raised in London, but a king to me seems primarily to be a wielder of power. I mean, a king says a thing, and that thing, whatever it is, becomes law. Worse, a king desires a thing and that thing, whatever it is – another country, even – becomes his, or thousands will die trying to make it so. A King, in other words, controls the destiny of his subjects. If he is a good king and you go along with his program, you may well benefit. But even if he is a good king and you happen to belong to another, your life is unlikely to flourish. That’s the point of a King, right? There can only be one of them at any particular time. There is something inherently militant about the role. Something necessarily exclusive and superior.
I mention all this today, of course, because I worry a bit about us doing something similar with this feast day too. Whether or not it’s our intention, a feast day named ‘Christ the King’ sounds to many ears just a little alarming, and I worry it sends a message to our non-Christian brothers and sisters – and to some Christians also, I’m ashamed to say — that is pretty far removed from the truth Jesus himself lived and died and rose again to bring us.
In our reading today, after all, it is Pilate who calls Jesus of Nazareth a King, not Jesus himself. And it is Pilate (the judge), not Christ (the convicted one), who had the words “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” inscribed on his cross. The fact is that Jesus himself was not much concerned with his own kingship. Other people were, of course. James and John were very concerned about it, as we heard a couple of weeks ago, as were the religious leaders of the time, and Pilate of course, and Herod and – not to put too fine a point on it – the devil himself:
“Again,” the Gospel of Matthew tells us, “the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor and he said to him “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” To which Jesus, of course, responds, “Away with you Satan!”
I’m not trying to suggest that Christ ever denied his own power – far from it. Jesus emerged from that desert experience ready to take up its mantle and follow its truth to the end. It’s just that he used his power, only and always, in the service of others. His entire earthly life, in fact, was one long exercise not in amassing power in the way of good and wily kings, but in shedding it: first in his becoming human, then in his insistence on standing with those people who were ignored and cast out by the people he lived among, and finally through his death on a cross.
And the paradoxical thing is that all of this – the whole process of self-giving, power-shedding love — was itself a gift to us, a gift for us. Because, through it, we become able to trace a path to the kingdom that he does in fact claim – a kingdom very real, but not, as he says in today’s gospel, “of this world.”
Which brings me to an image I came across in the office last week – a painting showing Jesus washing his disciples’ feet the night before he was taken by the authorities to be killed. In it, Christ is kneeling on the floor, bent over the naked and dusty feet of Peter as though in prayer. And it struck me, looking at this image, that Jesus came as close as he ever did to claiming his kingship that night, in that room, after having acted not as king, but as servant. “You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am,” Jesus told his disciples. And then he goes on: “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. (John 13:12b-16)
Here then is our king — not in triumph, or strength, or grandeur, but in quiet, personal, servitude, that night, as always in his life, and his death as well. Christ the Servant King. Perhaps this gets closer to the truth of the gospel. Because however much we may sometimes want it – however dire the situation and desperate our need for a fiery and powerful avenger – our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was not ever, and is not now, a king of righteous vengeance, or good political order, or victory in war – even for the sake of what is just. He is not a king of worldly might at all, in fact, but of generosity, and love, and openness, and humility, and connection, and peace – elements all of a kingdom which, as the reading from Daniel tells us, is truly “everlasting.”
So, a story: For many years now, I’ve been privileged to know a wonderful man named Harold. He is a loving husband, a wonderful father and grandfather, a good neighbor and a faithful church-goer. He lives in Brookline as he has done most of his life, and despite being many years past the age of retirement, he continues to teach in one of the universities nearby, because he loves it. On his walk to and from his work, Harold passes through an area packed with people who are forced to live on the street because they have no homes to call their own. For years this put Harold in a terrible mood. He resented it when men and women asked him for money. Sometimes it even enraged him. ‘Why can’t they get a job?’ he’d think to himself. ‘Why do they expect me to help them?’ But then, one day, “wearied” as he says by these “negative experiences”, he resolved to try another tack. On his way out of the office he stuffed his pockets full of change and set out for home, determined to give it away to the first person who asked.
The first man he saw recognized him, but, perhaps because he knew Harold was a man who never gave, he didn’t bother to ask for anything. But it was cold, and Harold couldn’t help noticing that the man was shivering and so he found himself stopping anyway, and offering what he had to the stranger. And just like that everything changed. A relationship was born. A friendship which sustained and surprised both men, I think.
That was many years ago now, and ever since then Harold has been stopping for a while each day to talk with and listen to his brothers and sisters on the street. They have become a vital part of his life. A source of joy and inspiration. A community he belongs to – professor or no – and which belongs to him too. He even started writing poems about it all, (Harold, an economics teacher, writing poems!) and in part because I was a kind of partner in his evolving relationship with the people he used to walk by, he continues to sends me them every now and then, for which I am grateful.
The last one he sent is called Semper Fi and he gave me permission to share it with you, so here it is:
He was a marine
“Semper Fi,” he said to me
He had served in ‘Nam
While I stayed home.
I owe him big time
And I think about this
From time to time
On my way home.
I saw him last night
We chatted a bit
I gave him some change
And was about to leave
Then he said to me
“If you have some old gloves”
He had a warm coat
But his hands were cold.
I said I would look
And started to leave
Then turned around
And said “Try these.”
He put them on slowly
First one and then the other
So as to fully absorb
The supple soft black leather
They were a perfect fit
And from the warmth of his smile
I knew that my hands
Would never be cold again.
It was a small gesture
I still owe him big time
But they were my favorites
And now more than ever.
As someone struggling to become a Christian worthy of the name, it feels especially important today to remember that the story this poem tells is a faithful expression of the truth and vibrancy and power of Christ’s Kingdom. Please understand, I am not saying that Christ is the only way into this kingdom. Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and dedicated people of no particular faith all have their own narrow pathways to the source of love. But for Harold, and for me, and for most of you too, it is Christ who is the king of this meeting of love, because it is he who has shown us the way there. “ I am the gate,” (John 10:9) he says. And again: “I am the way and the truth and the life.” (John 14:6) How different these words sound coming out of the mouth of one who entered a palace only when arrested and bound and then dragged there, instead of from someone who makes their home within its walls.
Christ the Servant King, ruler of the kingdom entered by Harold and his veteran friend on the cold streets of Brookline recently, as commuters walked right past them without noticing a thing. This is the one we choose to try to follow each day. The Lord who allowed himself even to be executed rather than turn from what he knew was the truth: that we are, each and every one of us, heirs to and bearers of the kingdom of God, and that it is only by reaching to one another in love and welcome and mercy that we are able to enter it – and so be transformed. All of us united through love in the indestructible power of the One who is and was and is to come – The Alpha and the Omega – now and always. AMEN