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Sermon Last Sunday of Pentecost - Matt Stewart

For better and for worse, the American holiday season is upon us once more. I long ago gave up on talking much about consumerism or the Santa Clausification of the world that happens at this time of year. It feels to me almost too obvious to complain about it… you know, “If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.”  But I will say that when I got up from my family’s Thanksgiving Day meal on Thursday and headed into the living room… and the kids were watching the newest Netflix Santa movie it did cause me to have a little bit of nervous twitch.  I am absolutely not ready this year mentally for Christmas or any of the myriad Advent and Christmas preparations that need to happen both in my personal life and also here in the church. I used to be, in late November, beginning to switch gears. I even used to be one of those annoying folks who got all the Christmas shopping done before December.  But I am not even close to any of that this year. 

For this reason, I appreciate that this one of those anomalous years where the church calendar doesn’t switch us into Advent immediately the Sunday after Thanksgiving. Most years it is that way. We begin Advent, that season of longing for the coming of God and God’s way, four days after Thanksgiving most of the time. But this year, with Thanksgiving being on the early side, we get one week before Advent starts. This Sunday we are celebrating the church feast that is traditionally known as Christ the King Sunday… and here, in our desire to move away from needlessly masculine and therefore exclusive language, we are now calling it the Feast of the Reign of Christ. 

And, to even more shift us out more of holiday thinking, the Gospel reading assigned for this particular year is one that we usually hear on Good Friday, Christian Black Friday. The conversation that we heard today between Pilate and Jesus; it comes immediately before Jesus is tortured and executed on a cross. It’s not exactly the part of the Jesus story that fits into the “Ho ho ho” and twinkling light vibe that is beginning to emerge around us. 

Pilate says, “Are you the King of the Jews?”  Jesus says, “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 says, “So you are a king?” Jesus responds, “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.”

I like the fact that we’ve changed the name of this day from Christ the King to the Reign of Christ not just because I think it’s a helpful step in trying to be less patriarchal and sexist in our language but also because Jesus doesn’t seem all that interested in being called a king. Rather he invites Pilate and those that are listening into a deeper brand of reflection. “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.”

Jesus cares about truth and belonging to the truth moreso than being labeled as a King. I wonder honestly if this whole Christ the King Sunday is a good thing. You know it’s pretty modern invention. It started in the Roman Catholic church in the 1920’s as a sort of a response against challenges the church was experiencing vis a vis modernity. Call Jesus a king to assert authority when the authority of the church was starting to come under attack. Protestant denominations including ours fell into step with this throughout the 20th century. But, given how Jesus responded to Pilate, I don’t know that he’d be all that thrilled with our relatively modern innovation of Christ the King Sunday. “You say that I am a king. For this I was born and came into the world, to testify to the truth.”  It harkens back to the moment in the Hebrew Scripture when the Hebrew people were a clamoring for the stability of a king. Prior to this they had a looser and more egalitarian form of government with Judges. But they want to feel like the other bigger nations around them that had kings. And God gives them a king: first Saul, then David. But God is not all that thrilled with it. God wants them in a more egalitarian, more countercultural way of being in community for the people. A way of living where they would trust more deeply in God and in each other, rather than a structured, traditional hierarchy that would inevitably fall into oppression, social stratification, and violence. But the Hebrew settle for the broken ways that human power typically operates. 

Jesus absolutely does not want us to settle for any kind of king that oppresses, any kind of king that exercises authority through manipulation or violence, any kind of king that fails to be always inviting us into a new consideration of truth. “For this reason, I came into the world to testify to the world- to testify to the truth.”

But, of course, the question then is, and it is what Pontius Pilate ask Jesus right after this, “What is truth?”

It’s a question that people of faith are always asking in every age but today, in this era of “fake news,” in this era where all forms of media including social media deluge us with so much information such that we are paralyzed by our oversaturation, in this era where the helpful insights of postmodernity have been corrupted and the genuine realities of injustice and suffering in our world are obscured and ignored. In this world where not only Presidents and other tyrants but also WE evade hard truths in the interests of protecting our own worldview and ego.

To us who have made a choice in way or another to let Jesus show the way to live, he says, “Belong to the truth and listen to my voice.” But Jesus doesn’t define truth as a particular set of principles or creeds. He doesn’t define truth, as many of us might want in our political climate, as being rooted in facts. He doesn’t even define truth as something static and or something we can claim intellectually and feel the comfort of mastery or completion.       

The truth for Jesus is elusive. He communicates it in parable and image rather than didactic assertion or explicit teaching.

Now it’s not that we can’t know some things about truth. For Jesus, truth is also wrapped in loving relationship, with God and each other. For Jesus, truth never benefits some at the expense of others. For Jesus, truth is always bringing to the center those from margins. For Jesus, truth always leads us to know that we are enough and that we have enough. And that we can always be even more.

For Jesus, truth sets us free. But it doesn’t sit idle, truth is found in that wild Spirit of God which ebbs and flows, which dashes and dances amidst our lives and amidst our world. Being a follower of the truth doesn’t really give many answers, it just carries us ever deeper into the mystery of love.

The mystery of love is probably my best stab at describing what that reign of Christ, too, what that kingdom of God is.

You know every Sunday we start off our worship with the priest saying something like, “Blessed be God, Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer.” And the gathered community responds, “And blessed be God’s kingdom, now and forever.” It’s one of those lines that most of us don’t think about much. But to say “Blessed be God’s kingdom” is in some sense to proclaim that the wonderful life-changing live-affirming inclusive mystery-laden love of God is still the fabric of our lives and is still the fabric of the world even when it seems like everything is falling apart or everything is already broken. To say “Blessed be God’s kingdom” is our radically countercultural way of saying yes to God and God’s love in the face of world that says no to that love. Blessed be God’s kingdom now and forever. Amen.