I did not preach this Sunday, but if I had, I would have preached something like this.
Lectionary 34 / Christ the King Sunday (Year B)
- Daniel 7:9–10, 13–14
- Psalm 93
- Revelation 1:4b–8
- John 18:33–37
28 Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the governor’s headquarters. It was early morning. They themselves did not enter the governor’s headquarters, so that they would not be defiled, but could eat the Passover. 29 So Pilate went outside to them and said, “What accusation do you bring against this man?” 30 They answered him, “If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.” 31 Pilate said to them, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law.” The Jews said to him, “It is not lawful for us to put anyone to death.” 32 This was to fulfill the word that Jesus had spoken to show by what kind of death he was going to die.
33 So Pilate entered his headquarters again and called Jesus and said to him, “Are you the King of the Jews?” 34 Jesus answered, “Do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about me?” 35 Pilate answered, “Am I a Jew? Your own nation and the chief priests have delivered you over to me. What have you done?” 36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” 37 Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world— to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” 38 Pilate said to him, “What is truth?”
After he had said this, he went back outside to the Jews and told them, “I find no guilt in him. 39 But you have a custom that I should release one man for you at the Passover. So do you want me to release to you the King of the Jews?” 40 They cried out again, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a robber. (John 18:28–40 ESV)
A couple of weeks ago, I introduced you to Bethany, an extraordinary young woman who has been through some of the worst that our foster care system — I’m not sure the word care has any meaning in that phrase — has to offer.
I told you how Bethany and her brother Andrew ran away from a horrifically abusive foster home, and how she single-handedly arranged for another home — a safe one. Something no child or teenager should ever have to do.
I wish I could tell you more about her, but I can’t yet. Then you would know just what a staggeringly impressive young person she really is. When I speak of her, and some of the other kids I am involved with, I will be vague about details. Because these kids’ safety and lives may still be at risk. Because they deserve some privacy. And, after a long time of almost unspeakable abuse, they deserve a chance to just be kids.
Which is why I truly admire Eric and Debbie, the couple who took Bethany and Andrew in and decided to adopt them. That took a lot of courage, to basically embrace two kids who literally showed up on their doorstep (Bethany knew who they were) one day and said, “will you take care of us?” Eric and Debbie took a leap of faith, acted on compassion, did a kind and decent thing by giving these orphans, Bethany and Andrew, a home. Something they hadn’t had in a long, long time.
But I suspect there have been moments when Eric and Debbie have looked at each other and thought: what on earth were we thinking?
Because — and I need to be a little blunt here — adopting these two kids has brought a lot of trouble into Eric and Debbie’s lives. More than they could have bargained for, I suspect.
Don’t get me wrong. I love Bethany and Andrew more than I can say. They are both very smart, sensitive, and charming. Andrew is amazingly self-possessed and self-aware for a young man of 16, and Bethany is wise far beyond her 15 years. But they are troubled too. By nightmares, by panic attacks, by sadness that sometimes paralyzes them both. Andrew has been plagued by mysterious health problems that have ended up with the entire family in one or another emergency rooms wondering — and not ever knowing — what is wrong.
Trouble has also followed Bethany like a dark cloud. You see, the people who held these kids before, who used and abused and exploited them, are not happy they absconded. And several times, they’ve tried to teach Bethany a lesson — there is no running away, no place safe enough, no sanctuary secure enough, that she can’t be found.
I’m being vague, I know. I want you to imagine the worst. Because you won’t be far wrong.
So, I suspect that Eric and Debbie, the last time Bethany was found and returned home, were both grateful and exceedingly releived. I know I was. But also I suspect that, in the back of their minds, was that question Pontius Pilate asks of Jesus today:
“What have you done?”
Because that, sisters and brothers, is how the kingdom of this world works. Almost no one standing in front of a magistrate, or a judge, or answering the questions of a police officer, or staring at the possibility yet again of horrific violence, gets there without at least partly earning it. Or deserving it. That’s what we think. That’s how we work. If you’ve been charged with a crime, chances are, you are guilty. If you’ve been beaten senseless, cast off, abducted and raped, followed by misfortune and trouble, well, that’s all on you. You’re the wrong kind of person. You have it coming. Maybe all of it.
Because good, decent, innocent, well-behaved people don’t find themselves in front of judges pleading to charges, facing time in prison, or having to field the questions of angry police officers with their weapons drawn. Good girls aren’t kidnapped. People who make wise choices don’t make mistakes, don’t experience misfortune, don’t fail, and certainly don’t sin.
John relates this in his Gospel. I’ve added a bit to the lectionary reading. When Jesus is taken to the governor’s palace, Pilate wants to know exactly what the accusation is. They — it’s not specified here who “they” are, but I’m guessing from context we’re dealing with Annas and Caiaphas and the other high priests — don’t really answer. But their response is a perfect statement of how the world really works:
If this man were not doing evil, we would not have delivered him over to you.
That’s the kingdom of this world. The justice of this world. The deeply felt prejudices of this world. If Andrew and Bethany really were good and decent kids, well, they wouldn’t have health problems and face the threat of kidnapping. They wouldn’t have ended up in foster care in the first place. If Jesus really was innocent, he wouldn’t be standing before the Roman governor in the first place.
It’s not an answer. But it is a very deeply held human sensibility. Troublesome people have earned and deserved their troubles. And whatever consequences we dish out to them. Jesus clearly has it coming, merely because we’ve said so. Because we brought him before power and said, “he’s trouble.”
Notice Jesus doesn’t answer Pilate’s question, “What have you done?” He speaks instead of his kingdom, and how it is not of this world.
What is it Jesus has done? If we take John’s gospel as a guide, he’s been proclaimed lamb of God by John the Baptist, he called disciples to follow, was called “King of Israel” by Nathaniel, changed water into wine at the wedding at Cana, tossed the money changers out of the temple, confused everyone by telling them they must be born again, spent time at a well with a woman in Samaria, healed a few people, fed a mess of other people, walked on water, said he was the bread of life, forgave the sins of a woman caught in adultery, claimed to be the light of the world, said he was older than Abraham, that he and the Father were one, raised Lazarus from the dead, proclaimed himself the resurrection and the life, wept over the city, entered Jerusalem, washed his disciples’ feet, told everyone to love each other as he loves them, and said he is the way, the truth and the life. There’s some other stuff Jesus did, but I think you get the picture.
Is this troublesome behavior? The kind of thing you put someone to death for? The Jewish leaders — the high priests and the pharisees — certainly thought so. A dark cloud followed Jesus around, and it was clear to some that Jesus was nothing but trouble. “If we let him go on like this,” the high priests told themselves, “everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.” (John 11:48) Jesus is trouble, more than they can handle, the leader of a coming revolt that threatens to destroy everything.
“It is better … that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish,” says the high priest Caiaphas, not quite knowing just how much truth he’s speaking. (John 11:50)
Jesus never answers Pilate’s question, anymore than his accusers did. They offered as evidence the accusation — we wouldn’t be bringing him to you if he weren’t guilty. Jesus tells Pilate he has a kingdom (though he doesn’t explicitly say he’s a king), but it’s not of or from this world, otherwise his followers would be fighting to save him. Or to free him.
And they aren’t. We aren’t.
And yet … Jesus is our king. To him belongs the glory and the dominion, forever and ever. He is the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler over all the kings of the earth. Kingdom is a word John hardly uses in his gospel, but Jesus is clearly a king. He has done the deeds of a king, and more — things no mere monarch or potentate or president or prime minister could ever do.
He has also done troubling things. He raised the dead. He walked on the water. He fed the multitude. He washed his disciples’ feet and then told us if we don’t let him, and then do as he has done, we have no share in him. He said God loves the whole entire world, but added that no one gets to God except through him. He commanded us to love each other as he loves us, and told us people will know we are his because we love as he loved.
Yes, our King and our Lord is trouble. He lived a troublesome life and caused no end of problems, especially for those with power and authority. That he is our king means we are caught up in and commanded to embrace the trouble he causes — this dead-raising, crowd-feeding, sheep-tending, foot-washing, table-tossing trouble. And make it our own. Because this kingdom of risen life and love is troubling to a frightened world that deals death to feel safe and secure, to maintain a good and stable and untroubled order.
I suspect every morning, Eric and Debbie wake up, think of Andrew and Bethany, and sometimes wonder — “what fresh hell will today bring?” Because it’s hard to embrace the trouble when it throws such costly and traumatic chaos into our lives. And no doubt their neighbors and others shake their heads. A disorderly and chaotic life — a troubled life — is surely a sign something is really wrong. What does it say about someone when they so willingly accept that trouble?
Especially when that trouble came to them and pleaded: “Will you love me?”
Brothers and sisters, we have no choice but to lead troubled and troublesome lives. We have been called by Jesus, who reached out to us — some he called softly and tenderly, and some he struck blind in a devastating act of terror — and made our trouble his. And his trouble ours. That’s what his love for us — for the whole world — does.
“Do you love me?” our king asks each and every one us.
I have only one answer. “You know I love you Lord. Trouble and all.
Trouble and all.”