oceans rise, empires fall

Sermon 11-25-18

John 18

Christ the King Sunday

This week, I had the supreme joy of seeing the musical HAMILTON here in Durham, and how could a preacher see that incredible show and not immediately turn around and preach about it? For the common good, I should say that there are still tickets available through DPAC AND you can also enter a lottery for one of the 80 $10 tickets reserved for every performance – through December 2.

The play, if you don’t know it, is the story of the creation of America, told through the life of founding father, Alexander Hamilton. Oh, and it’s told through hip-hop, jazz, blues and rap music.

I grew up in Virginia and even went to college on a campus surrounded by a re-creation of Colonial America, and still some of the history of our nation’s founding that I learned from Hamilton was completely new to me.

For instance: did you know that Thomas Jefferson was conveniently away in France during the entire Revolutionary War? I went to the same college as TJ, and I did not know that.

One of the best parts of seeing the production – as opposed to listening to the soundtrack on repeat, which I have done for the last few years – is seeing the character of King George show up on stage.

King George is, in this version of the story, fussy, prissy, self-involved and huffy about losing his colonies.

https://giphy.com/embed/3ov9jNzt9SRTaH06SA

via GIPHY

 

Every time he shows up on stage, the rest of the cast vacates it – no small feat for this fast-paced, crowded, mile-a-minute show. The King shows up in full regalia, crown jewels catching the stage lights and glittering across the audience. He sings a fairly creepy song that implies some imperial emotional abuse:

Remember, despite our estrangement, I’m your man
You’ll be back, soon you’ll see
You’ll remember you belong to me
You’ll be back, time will tell
You’ll remember that I served you well
Oceans rise, empires fall
We have seen each other through it all
And when push comes to shove
I will send a fully armed battalion to remind you of my love!

The King shows up several more times, at opportune moments. He is clearly meant to be a laughable character, comic relief, old, irrelevant and petty. The revolution is destroying his reign – who needs a King anymore?!

The best scene for King George, though, is when the first President, George Washington, decides to vacate the office peaceably, to facilitate a non-violent transition of power, to allow a new leader to simply…take over. King George cannot believe it: you can just…do that?, he asks. This time, when the King takes the stage, he pulls up a chair – stage left – and sits down, trembling in anticipation: OH, this is gonna be GOOD, he says, waiting for the inevitable drama, violence and war that’s about to tear the new nation apart.

And the King is not disappointed. The battle is bitter. Aaron Burr outright campaigns in the streets, clearly a breach of etiquette, if not law. Jefferson and his posse from Virginia are snarky and sneaky. Things get bad. The King watches in delight.

But things do work out. Sort of. John Adams assumes the presidency (though King George sniggers that such a short, boring man could make any kind of effective leader). Democracy survives. The King is irrelevant…or is he?

//

In the text for today, Jesus is in the midst of his arrest, trial and sentencing. It’s an odd text for us to read today, just on the cusp of Advent, when we get all excited about the baby Jesus, the tiny, helpless, newborn human godchild. But here we are: Jesus is headed toward crucifixion. He has already stood before the high priests and is now in the chambers of Pilate, the imperial governor. “Are you,” Pilate asks, “King of the Jews?”

Pilate is not a King, exactly, but he is in the service of the Roman Emperor and he knows from power. He knows what kings do and what they’re for. The Jews have been whispering about this guy being their king or some such thing, and Pilate is not about to let his Emperor’s reign be threatened or disturbed.

Jesus is non-committal:

“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, determined to protect his power, asked him, “So you are a king?”

And 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.”

And Pilate asked him, “What is truth?”

Pilate, protecting the power structures that preserve him, sentences Jesus to death. But not just that: he has him flogged, mocked, dressed and crowned with thorns. The soldiers bring Jesus out before the people and Pilate declares: “Okay, Here is your king!” And the priests, who are forced to declare their loyalty right here, right now

  • to the God who created, sustained, called, protected and loves them, the God who promises to love and protect them in both this life and the next
  • or to the threatening, violent, punitive Emperor who holds the fate of their bodies and the safety of their people in his hand,
  • they respond, obediently, “We have no king but the emperor!”

//

On this particular day in the church calendar, when we are already looking forward to a tiny baby being born in a dirty stable and also looking ahead to that same child’s eventual death by the power of the state, we, too, are asked to declare our own loyalties.

Delores Williams, womanist theologian, says that this juxtaposition: “King of Kings!” on the one hand, as if sung by a resplendent choir; and “poor little Mary’s boy” on the other, as if whispered by an elderly woman standing alone” is the crux of who Jesus is and what following him is all about. “These two songs, Williams contends, sung back and forth in call and response, is “the Black church doing theology.” Each song needs the other for the truth to shine through.”1

Jesus, in this text, refuses to identify himself as an earthly King. He doesn’t say, exactly, that he’s NOT a king, but he refuses to assent to Pilate’s understanding of what that means. Jesus is supreme ruler of the universe, but he does not and will not reign in the way of earthly kings.

If I were an earthly king, Jesus tells Pilate, you’d expect my subjects to be here with swords and war, defending their king. But that’s not how my reign works. I am here to testify to the truth, not to amass power and riches and devotion. My kingdom doesn’t work by the same rules of yours. My kingdom is not of this world.

And here, Jesus invites us to become subjects of this kingdom that crosses the boundaries of heaven and earth, that pairs a tiny, vulnerable baby with a powerful king, that refuses to defend itself with violence but insists on including the last, the lost and the least.

“Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice,” Jesus says.

//

I find it supremely interesting that Jesus did not say to Pilate: NO, I’m not a King! Haven’t you ever heard of representative democracy? Don’t you know that the very idea of aristocracy will soon crumble? Jesus didn’t say “no, Kings are bad!” Jesus didn’t say (like Alexander Hamilton cries in the musical) “just you wait!”

just-you-wait

Jesus refused to identify with human power structures altogether. My kingdom is not of this world, he said. I don’t operate the way you do.

Sometimes, American preachers tend to identify our system of government with Jesus’ refusal to identify with aristocracy. We revolted against systems of concentrated power, they say, and so our form of Democracy is particularly Christian, particularly suited to following Jesus.

And I admit that my own formation in American exceptionalism makes that kind of explanation push my own satisfaction buttons. I DO think that American representative democracy is fundamentally a better way of governance than paternalistic, class-driven aristocracy. I loved Hamilton, and the story of the scrappy revolutionists who fought their way out from under King George’s thumb.

But Jesus wasn’t refusing Pilate’s categorization because he had representative democracy in mind. He was refusing Pilate’s category of kingship because the way power works in Jesus is of an entirely different order than the way power works in ANY human system. And we are still learning what that means.

//

Part of the reason that Hamilton is such a revelation is that Lin-Manuel Miranda, who wrote the play, imagined the entire story of American revolution as if all the key players were people of color. The people who had been enslaved, the women who had been silenced, the immigrants who had been cast out: these people become the central characters in Miranda’s telling.

Miranda has re-imagined the story with all new power dynamics. The only white people in the cast are King George and Samuel Seabury, an opponent of revolution. Miranda emphasizes Hamilton’s partnership with statesmen who died fighting to end slavery, saying that “we will never be free until we end slavery.” Hamilton’s sister-in-law, Alexandra Schuyler, reads Thomas Paine and sings about how “when I meet Thomas Jefferson, I’m ‘a compel him to include women in the sequel.”

We are still working to include all kinds of people in the American sequel. I do not think that if Jesus showed up here in America, today, he’d declare “YES! This is the kind of kingdom I recognize!”

Jesus is always confounding our ideas of what power is and how power works. To declare that Christ is King or that Jesus is Lord is to declare that we strive and seek to live in ways that confound oppressive human power structures, wherever we encounter them.

To declare that Jesus is Lord and Christ is King is to say that we do not live by the law or the expectations of any human kingdom. It is to say that when we make choices about how to live, we consider first and foremost the life and instruction of Jesus.

//

In an article titled “Saying Jesus is Lord in the Age of Trump,” theologian David Fitch says it this way:

“To confess “Jesus is Lord” is therefore to resist the powers when they deny the sovereignty, reign, character and purposes of God whom we worship, serve and submit ourselves to as King. We know for a fact that this confession set Christians at odds with the Roman government in the first century, and the Roman government viewed it as a threat. Why, I ask, would it be any different today?”2

Confessing Jesus as Lord means that we choose the way of Jesus over and against the ways of Empire, nationalism, and the politics of power-over.

It means that when our government demands that we build walls against people seeking safety and asylum, when we throw tear gas across walls at children,

we refuse to participate

and insist on obeying Jesus’ commands to welcome the stranger, offering sanctuary, befriending refugees, and working for the health and wholeness of our own undocumented neighbors.

It means that when the President insults and assaults women,

we refuse to participate

and insist on following Jesus’ example of respecting, loving and lifting up the women in our midst.

It means that when the economy demands that we spend more, buy more, shore up a structure that keeps some poor and others rich,

we refuse to participate

and insist on obeying Jesus’ instruction to give generously and trust God instead of money.

It means that when the rest of the world demands that the only answer to conflict is war and violence,

we refuse to participate

and insist on obeying Jesus’ command to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.

Confessing Jesus as Lord has immediate, daily, bodily consequences. It means orienting our lives around Jesus – not a human King, not a particular political platform, not money, not social media cache. Confessing Jesus as Lord means that our lives are subject to the way of Christ. We live by the rules of God’s Kingdom, not any human one.

And that will make people – especially the people who enjoy power in these kingdoms of this world – mad. Like King George in the play, they will yell and scream and pound their scepters into the ground and sing songs of imperial emotional abuse. They will threaten armed battalions and all-out war to keep us compliant and loyal to the kingdoms of this world.

[It’s funny when it’s silly King George in the play – it is not funny when one of our neighbors is body-slammed and taken into ICE custody during a scheduled biometrics appointment at USCIS.]

But there is something that we know that the King Georges of the world do not. It’s the same question Pilate struggled with in the text – it is the truth of the gospel, the promise of a kingdom not of this world, the reality that Jesus has already inaugurated that alternative reality. “I have come to testify to the truth,” Jesus says, as he resists and refuses and up-ends the oppressive power structures of human creation. “Everyone who belongs to the truth hears my voice,” he says, and we listen.

May we be bold in our declaration:

Christ is King and Jesus is Lord.

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