Date: November 22, 2015 Christ the King Sunday, Thanksgiving Sunday
Scripture: John 18:33-37
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
This Sunday is traditionally celebrated as Christ the King Sunday. It is the last Sunday of the church year. The year ends with a final declaration that Christ is King. Next week a new church year begins with the First Sunday of Advent. For a host of reasons, I don’t embrace the image of Jesus as a monarch but there is value to the idea that the gospel given to us by Jesus is worthy of our highest commitment and loyalty. It is a way of life for ourselves as individuals and for the church as a community, which is intended for the good of all people, including those who are on other spiritual paths, and the good of all creation. Thus the way of Jesus deserves our whole-hearted devotion.
This morning we heard the scripture lesson assigned for Christ the King Sunday. It is a story of a conversation between Pilate and Jesus specifically about the concept of kingship. Claiming to be a king was considered treason. It was a direct assault on the authority of Caesar, the true Emperor, the Divine King. And this crime was punishable by death. The religious authorities were threatened by Jesus because he was challenging their dictates. He was defying their rules and conventions. They wanted to get rid of him. So, they accuse him of claiming to be a king so that the Romans will see him as a threat and convict him of treason and put him to death by capital punishment. Thus the religious leaders will get the job done without getting their hands dirty.
The story we heard today tells of Jesus’ vision of his role. “My realm is not of this world.” His values, vision, and concept of power is so far removed from the hierarchy and tyranny of the leaders of his day, both Roman and religious, that he is by no means intending to take over their positions and put himself in office. No. He is revealing an entirely different reality in which the precious notions to which they cling have no place whatsoever.
From this short passage we glean at least two important points. We are surrounded by people, institutions, and values vying for our loyalty. When we are called to be Christians, the God shown to us by Jesus becomes the primary authority for our lives. Jesus’ teaching, his values, his worldview becomes preeminent for us. This is a big change from the surrounding culture in his day and as well as today. That’s one message here. Another message in the story of this brief encounter with Pilate is that following Jesus can put us at odds with the institutions and authorities around us in ways that are difficult, if not deadly.
The symbolic meaning of Christ the King Sunday is that Christ is our king. Our highest authority. The sovereign of our lives. The one we obey. Above all others. And there is that beautiful line at the end of the conversation between Jesus and Pilate: “. . . for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” [John 18:37] As Christians, we get our truth from Jesus.
This week we will celebrate Thanksgiving. With the celebration of the quintessential American holiday ahead, let’s take a look at some of America’s history with the eyes of Jesus’ truth. This week, we will remember the iconic image of the Pilgrims and the Native American Indians feasting together. Yes, it is factual that the Pilgrims and the Indians had a feast together. The Indians saved the Pilgrims from perishing during their first winter in New England; something they very well may have come to regret. Now the Pilgrims knew what it was to be unwelcome and treated in a hostile manner from their experiences in England and Holland. They knew what it was like to have their religion and culture treated disrespectfully. Then they came over here and did virtually the same thing to the indigenous people, as did others who followed them from Europe, and the subjugation of the indigenous people continues to this day. Yes, the Pilgrims came to these shores to worship God in a Christian manner, seeking the freedom to practice their faith and create a community based on Christian principles. But what resulted was actually a far cry from way of Jesus that we are given in the New Testament. So on Christ the King Sunday, we open ourselves to seeing the truth as Jesus would, and not just the idolized fantasy of American lore.
Seeing the truth as Jesus sees it also deconstructs our mythologized version of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. For most of American history, Columbus has been seen as a hero. He has his own holiday complete with parades, sales, and no mail. When Columbus came to this continent, he came in the name of the Catholic monarchs of Spain. The idea was to spread Christianity for the salvation of the people as well as to explore, find new markets, and identify new sources of raw materials. It all seemed legit. The proper exercise of power. But the way we know the story today, we know that the result was devastation not salvation including eradication of the locals, stealing of land and raw materials, and the decimation of indigenous religion and culture. With the eyes of the truth as Jesus shows it, Columbus Day may be better commemorated as a day of somber repentance.
On this Christ the King Sunday, we also revisit the national narrative that the United States is a Christian country. Actually, it was specifically founded as a nation of religious freedom. The government was not to foster the establishment of religion in any way. People are to have complete freedom of religious expression with nothing forced upon them in the public square. So, the US is not and never has been a Christian nation. Christianity has been the majority religion but that is by personal choice not dictate from the government. That is the truth despite the many other narratives that are perpetrated about the US being a Christian country.
In the spirit of truth telling on this Christ the King Sunday, while discussion of immigration swirls around us, it may do us well to remember the truth about the US when it comes to immigration. Yes, this is a nation of immigrants unless you are of Native American Indian descent. Yes, people have come here from all over the world seeking homes, jobs, and freedom. People have come to help populate this vast continent and supply labor for the growing economy, industry, and agriculture. But the idea that the US has welcomed the tired, poor, and huddled masses is stretching it. I am of Italian descent. And growing up, I heard stories of the discrimination and hostility that my forbears experienced coming to this country. Jewish immigrants have experienced discrimination here. Irish immigrants have experience hostility. The US interred its Japanese citizens during World War 2. Evidently this was done out of fear that they were terrorists or spies. That’s hardly hospitable. Those are just a few examples and there are many others shattering of the image of America as a country that welcomes immigrants with open arms.
And then there are all the people of African descent who were forced to make this land their home. Those inhabitants did not come here willingly. And they were not free. Slavery was the most hostile and inhospitable system imaginable. This is hardly a welcoming nation as far as the slaves were concerned and while things have improved vastly there is still a LONG way to go.
Yes, the US is a nation of immigrants, but. . .
The week has been filled with conversation about the refugees fleeing their war torn lives in Syria; fleeing the regime the US does not support, fleeing the system of rule that we do not endorse. Why are we not taking these people in? There were communist terrorists during the Cold War. We still took in the Communist defectors. So why not take in the Syrians? Is it because they are brown? Or because they are Muslim? We seem afraid they will do to us what the European settlers did to the indigenous population – terrorize the natives.
Most of these Syrian people are just like the rest of us. They want a safe place to live. They want to have food for their families. They want to work in jobs that are meaningful and make a contribution to society. They want their kids to do well in school. They want to be able to play and pray. And we hear them talked about as if they are hostile invaders, coming here to infiltrate, to plunder, to terrorize. They want to leave all of that behind. That is what has driven them from their homes. They are looking for stability, freedom, and opportunity.
Now Obama may say that to refuse these people entrance into the US is un American. We must add to that that it is also unChristian. In story after story of Jesus, Jesus chooses to reach out to those that his society, his religion even, treated with hostility. We are told of Jesus having encounters with women. This was forbidden. We are told of his interactions with Gentiles, even helping Gentiles. This, too, was forbidden. We are told of Jesus going out of his way to engage foreigners, those who were “other” and taking heat for it from the leaders of his day. We hear of Jesus talking with those considered “enemy.” And he treats them with respect and compassion. He offers them the grace of God. We are given these stories of Jesus specifically to show us how he extends the grace of God to all. He goes beyond the bounds of social acceptability in his context. He violates the social dictates about who is and isn’t in God’s favor.
Jesus took seriously the scriptures of his tradition which dictate that welcoming the stranger, helping the alien, showing hospitality to a refugee, is required by God. No if’s, and’s, or but’s. That is a basic fundamental of Judaism and of Christianity.
This week I was asked by a colleague, a clergy person, what I think about taking in the Syrians. I said that we, Christians, pastors, don’t really have a choice about what to think. The Bible makes it clear how Christians are to treat those who are foreigners, immigrants, refugees, and aliens. So, as Christians, we really don’t have a choice. Our faith compels us to take these people in.
On this Christ the King Sunday, we are reminded that there are those who will sing and pray and preach about how Jesus is the ruler of their lives. He is the King. He is worthy. He is to be praised. People will extol their devotion to Jesus. But let’s remember that Jesus did not ask people to praise him. He did not ask people to honor him. He did not ask people worship him. We are told that Jesus asked people to follow him. And because we live in a country where we have freedom of religion and separation of church and state, there is nothing standing in our way as followers of Jesus. We are free to live according to his dictates; embracing the foreigner and the stranger, dismantling the social constructs that constrain people and diminish their dignity and freedom. A true Christian, a follower of Jesus, one who honors the authority of Christ, would be sure to invite an immigrant Syrian family to Thanksgiving dinner. Amen.